Despite their heavy losses, the enemy fighters weren’t finished; they launched another round of fierce attacks early the next day. April 7 went much the same as its predecessor, only this time it was second platoon, not third, that was pinned down inside the city, and the enemy seemed less widespread but more focused, more deliberate. There were fewer local volunteer fighters, but the professionals had worked straight through the hours of darkness to set up more fortified ambush positions. Fortunately, most of us had been able to rest during the night of April 6, so we went into the day’s fighting at least somewhat refreshed, even if we were somewhat casualty-debilitated by the previous day’s battles. By the time April 7 was over, Golf Company had returned back inside the gates of the Outpost sometime in the early evening, but two more Marines had lost their lives, among them one of Quist’s men.
To take the initiative away from our enemies and preempt yet another round of casualties and citywide battles, 2/4’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy, decided to launch a massive battalion-wide surge through the Farouq area on April 8. Titled “Operation County Fair” after a similar mission in Vietnam, the operation called for all three of the battalion’s infantry companies to search house to house in predesignated sectors of Farouq while Weapons Company, along with bits and pieces of an Army brigade, provided a mobile cordon to prevent fleeing insurgents from escaping the hunt. The battalion expected the fighting to last for twenty-four to thirty-six hours, so everyone was told to take extra food and water.
Joker One and I had spent most of April 7 guarding the Combat Outpost and skirmishing in its immediate environs, so we were the best-rested and least casualty-debilitated unit in Golf Company. After all, we hadn’t had any wounded, and we had slept for three or four hours on the evening of April 6. Therefore, Captain Bronzi tasked us to infiltrate the city a few hours before the rest of the company left the Outpost. Under cover of darkness, we were to move quietly through the alleyways and backstreets until we reached a series of tall houses on the western edge of Farouq. There we would set up rooftop positions, acting as a backstop for the rest of our company as it swept through the area from the east to the west. With any luck, we would be able to spot enemy ambushers as they set up their attack positions and put them between a rock and a hard place as they fled the platoons sweeping in our direction.
Thus, 4 AM on April 8, 2004, found Joker One praying, accompanied by a few attachments: a sniper team called Headhunter Two, which had been sent to us to assist in our efforts to shoot our enemies from a distance. I was happy to have them. The sniper platoon worked for 2/4, and my friend Nate Scott commanded it, so I knew all of the Marines, and I knew that they were extremely tough, competent, and professional. Additionally, Headhunter Two came complete with one long-range M-40A3 sniper rifle and, equally important, one long-range, PRC 119 radio. Once our prayer was over, I reminded my Marines and the newcomers to push water and to eat something every now and again to keep their electrolytes up for the lengthy fighting ahead of us. Final advice dispensed, the three squads dispersed and headed out of the firmbase on foot, moving as silently as possible through the sleeping city, each squad taking a different, predetermined route to its final objective. I walked with Leza and second.
The patrol into the city for once went smoothly. All squads made it to their objectives within a half hour and announced that they were proceeding to occupy their respective fighting positions. Bowen and his third squad were the farthest north, on a seven-or eight-story building just across Michigan from the cemetery that marked the center of Ramadi, the same one where Hes and part of third platoon had holed up two days earlier. The snipers moved with Bowen—since third squad would be on top of the tallest building with the best view of our zone, I wanted them to have the high-powered rifle and the high-powered optics of the Headhunters. A few blocks south of them were Leza and me with second, in the middle of the platoon sector, and two blocks south of us were Noriel and first.
We wanted to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible, so, rather than move into a house, wake up the family, and use up a whole fire team guarding them, we had decided to try to climb the outside of the buildings. Squinting up at the second story of our tan, nondescript housing compound and its long, flat roof some twenty feet above us, Sergeant Leza sighed and turned to me.
“We gotta play Spider-Man again, huh, sir?” he whispered.
“Looks like it.”
Leza nodded and spat on the ground, then ordered Raymond to scale the housing compound’s outer wall while Leza, I, and another Marine braced the corporal from below. In anticipation of the all-day battle, everyone had loaded themselves up with excess ammo and water, so hoisting the muscular Raymond and his sixty extra pounds even a few feet off the ground was a task, to say the least. I have no idea how he managed to pull his way up to the top of the roof after we let go of him—all the weight lifting he did finally came in handy, I suppose—but somehow he did, and he hopped from that wall onto the flat roof of an offshoot of the house itself. The next thing I knew, Raymond was hauling me bodily up the compound’s outer wall. Together we made our way across the narrow roof of the house outcropping, scaled another small wall, clambered across the red-tiled roof of a pigeon coop, and dropped onto the roof proper.
I heaved a sigh of relief, and just as I did so, I heard a crashing sound and a loud thump. I whirled around. One of our SAW gunners had been crawling across the pigeon coop when the tiles beneath him collapsed under the weight of a combat-loaded Marine and his machine gun. Pigeons flew everywhere, and an embarrassed, cursing lance corporal fought his way out of the cage’s wire mesh. I flinched at the noise, but I couldn’t help suppressing a small smile. Whoever the owner of the house was, he was certainly going to get a surprise later on that day when he came to the roof and found that his pigeons had been replaced by twelve heavily armed Marines.
After about fifteen minutes of graceless, sweaty climbing, the whole twelve-man squad finally made the building’s top. I radioed Noriel. He and Bowen were both set up on the roofs of their respective buildings. Hearing that, I knelt down behind the waist-high parapet that ran along the edge of our roof and waited for the sun to rise and the day’s action to begin. About an hour and a half later, the standard early morning calls to prayer rang through the city, and the Farouq search kicked off in earnest as the last chants faded away. We waited, keyed up for the first sounds of gunfire that would indicate the fight was beginning, but nothing happened. An hour later, the city was still deadly silent, and I started to wonder where the insurgents had gone and if we would see any action at all that day. Suddenly, Bowen called me over the 119.
“One-Actual, we’ve got a man out here with an AK. It looks like he’s trying to hide it under his jacket. Over.”
“Roger, One-Three. Where is he?”
“He’s on Michigan, on the southern side, on the sidewalk. He’s just standing there. Over.”
“Is he wearing all black, or does he look like he’s communicating with someone? Does it look like he’s getting ready to attack? Over.”
“Negative on the all black. Can’t tell whether he’s communicating. Other than that he’s just standing there. Break. The Headhunters tell me they can take him out. What do you want us to do, One-Actual? Over.”
I pondered the question for a bit. We had just come through two days of fierce fighting during which we had been attacked from all sides by enemies disguised as civilians and civilians volunteering as enemies. Nothing had happened just yet, but that didn’t necessarily mean that nothing was planned or that attacks wouldn’t break out soon enough. It was early, maybe the enemy was still staging; after all, the fighting of the previous two days had not begun until well after 9 AM on each, and the time was just now approaching 8. Maybe this man was a scout, or some sort of first mover. Maybe he was simply waiting, unaware of us watching him, for Marines to come around the corner so that he could unleash on them with his AK before hopping into a car and speeding away. If I hesitated to take action until the man opened fire and perhaps killed or wounded some of our comrades, then their blood would be squarely on my head.
But maybe the man was simply a local government official’s bodyguard who was illegally carrying his AK-47 openly, or an off-duty police officer carrying his weapon out of uniform, something they had all been told repeatedly not to do but something that they routinely did anyway. Maybe he was just an unthinking civilian. There was some sort of punishment in place for carrying an AK-47 when one shouldn’t, but, as far as I knew, that punishment wasn’t death. This train of thought, or some jumbled, blurred version of it anyway, ran through my head for about thirty seconds. Then I made my decision.
“Kill him,” I said into the radio handset.
No reply came, but less than a minute later I heard the long, low boom of
the sniper rifle followed by three high, quick pops from an M-16. Then the report came back.
“One-Actual, this is One-Three. Be advised, Headhunters say that target is dead. I say again, target is dead. Break. He was hit low, through the liver, so we had to finish him with the 16. Break. Some civilians are loading the body into a car now. Over.”
“Roger, One-Three. Tell the Headhunters good work. Out.”
Nothing else happened that day. The predicted attacks never materialized, and the battalion found a few minor weapons caches but nothing other than that—no insurgents, no terror cells, and no key civilian organizers. The only violence on April 8 was that which we had inflicted on the anonymous AK-wielding Iraqi, and I spent much of the rest of the day’s downtime on the roof wondering if I had ordered the death of a potential attacker or an off-duty police officer.
A few months later, the battalion intelligence officer, Captain Towle, stopped by our base for a meeting with the CO. Afterward, he spotted me and came over to chat, and we talked for a bit, one intel officer to another, about recent events in Ramadi and elsewhere. The conversation was winding down when, out of nowhere, Towle said, “Oh, by the way, you remember that guy you had the snipers take out?”
“Yes,” I replied hesitantly. It wasn’t something that I thought about all that often, probably because I didn’t particularly like to think about it.
“Well, we later figured out who he was. Turns out, he was the bodyguard of a notorious thug sheik with suspected ties to organized crime and terrorism. After you guys killed the bodyguard, the sheik got scared and left Ramadi. We haven’t heard from him since.” He nodded his approval as the words trailed off.
I nodded back but didn’t bother to reply. It’s one thing to shoot an insurgent who’s trying to annihilate your men with a machine gun or a rocket, but it’s something else altogether to order an unsuspecting man’s death from two hundred yards away and then to follow the results dealt out in real time. Right then I didn’t know how to tell the captain that the decision to kill that Iraqi didn’t feel either right or wrong when I made it. It just felt hard either way, and the understanding now that the man was a known bad character still didn’t really change my choice, its weight, or my feelings about it. It seemed a waste of time to try to explain that sometimes, on the front lines, there are no great options, just bad ones and worse ones, so you do what you can in the knowledge that you’re dealing life and death no matter which way the decision swings. Then you live with the results and shut up about the whole thing.