My joy didn’t last.
On May 13, Niles was shot in the arm. After an all-night mission, second squad had left one of our breach kits—backpacks full of specialized, hard-to-replace tools—at their observation post, located in the middle of the city. We hadn’t noticed the kit’s absence until we returned to the Outpost, and, when we did, I was furious with Leza and determined to punish his squad. I sent them back into the city to retrieve the missing kit. On the way there, a group of armed men sprayed AK fire at the lone foot-mobile squad. Niles was shot right through the top of his M-16, which deflected the bullet away from his chest and across his arm. It wasn’t much more than a flesh wound, and he was shaking the docs off him when I showed up with the medevac, but I was still upset with my men and myself. Our first wound, caused because we were forgetful and because I sent one squad into the city when I should have sent the platoon.
Five days later, the platoon was out on Michigan again, but this time we weren’t protecting the road and hunting IEDs or their makers. Instead, we were executing Operation Devil Siphon, another of the many Coalition Provisional Authority–driven tasks that probably made sense to the twenty-six-year-old political appointee who drafted it in the safety of the Green Zone but that seemed completely illogical to those of us tasked with its execution. The theory behind Devil Siphon was fairly straightforward: The legitimacy of the provincial government was being undermined by a robust black market that had sprung up to distribute gasoline, so coalition forces needed to dismantle said market because the Iraqi police were incapable of doing it themselves. In Ramadi, control of all official fuel stations seemed to be firmly in the hands of the government, and the twin levers of fuel supply and gasoline prices were potent ones indeed. Anything that diminished the power of those levers or that made the appointed government look incompetent probably seemed to be a threat worth eliminating in the eyes of our overseers in Baghdad.
However, like everything else in Iraq, sweat-soaked, blood-soaked reality was more complex than disconnected theory composed neatly in air-conditioned rooms. The vast majority of downtown Ramadi was supplied by a single gas station with restricted hours, and whenever we patrolled past it, lines of cars stretched for hundreds of meters along Michigan, waiting for hours with their engines turned off for just a brief chance at the pump. In response to the overwhelming demand and sharply restricted supply, dozens of local entrepreneurs had set up shop along the highway, selling gasoline (cut with varying amounts of water) out of plastic jerry cans, empty glass Pepsi bottles, and any other container they could scavenge. Though the sales were technically illegal, these newly minted businessmen were serving a serious need, and, it could be argued, helping to keep the overall level of popular resentment down. To those of us routinely subjected to the glares of stranded motorists, the rationale behind eliminating what seemed a fairly robust safety valve was suspect, to say the least, and threatened to alienate the locals further. Besides, for every jerry can we slashed, five more took its place immediately. Nevertheless, we had our orders (and they weren’t immoral or illegal, just illogical), so we were constantly trying to disrupt the operations of anyone selling substantial quantities of black-market gasoline.
On May 22, we spotted a particularly egregious offender. At the time, the whole platoon was rumbling east down Michigan after having inspected the one official fuel station in the heart of the souk. As the Ox was in charge of contracting and other inspection work for the company, he had come along with us, bringing with him George and a radio operator. Now the Ox was traveling in our second vehicle, along with Leza and Raymond. As the convoy neared the Saddam mosque, Leza called over the PRR.
“Sir, we just spotted a guy selling a lot of gas right in that little field next to the mosque. Do you want us to get him?”
“Yeah, have Raymond jump out and take care of business.” Our Devil Siphon plan called for Raymond and his team to leap out of our vehicles, hustle over to whatever target we had spotted, and quickly slit or otherwise irreparably damage the fuel containers. The rest of us would wait near the Humvees—the idea was to be maximally time-efficient so that our stationary convoy didn’t present too much of a target and so that the truly important missions, like patrolling, could continue with a minimum of Devil Siphon–imposed interruption.
The whole convoy screeched to a halt in a nearly five-hundred-meter-long line along the south side of Michigan, and Raymond’s team launched themselves out of the back of their Humvee without bothering to wait for it to come to a halt. Unbeknownst to me, the Ox also decided to launch himself on the quick fuel-spill mission. As the convoy ground to a complete halt, Raymond’s team, augmented by the Ox and his radio operator, sprinted as fast as possible across Michigan. Quickly, they closed the distance on the fuel salesman and his assistant, a male relative who appeared to be in his early teens, perhaps a son or a cousin. It didn’t take long for both of them to catch sight of the six armed Marines charging across the busy four-lane highway, and it took even less time for the salesman to realize that he was the intended target. As Raymond’s team jumped the concrete median divider, the salesman bolted for a nearby yellow-and-orange taxi that was parked near his enterprise, leaving the teenage male to fend for himself.
By the time the Ox and Raymond made it completely across the street, the salesman had already revved up his car. As the Marines closed, he suddenly bolted with it, nearly running them over as the taxi fishtailed out onto Michigan. However, the street was jam-packed with cars, and the fleeing salesman ground to a halt before traveling even one block. Raymond’s team pursued on foot, so the salesman pulled his car up onto the sidewalk and started driving crazily along it at what must have been well over thirty miles per hour. Shouting civilians frantically dived left and right as the vehicle upended a few tea tables that had been set up on the sidewalk. The taxi may even have hit a few of the pedestrians, and as the vehicle continued its crazy course down the sidewalk, the driver gained at least a block of distance between himself and Raymond’s team.
As the gap widened, the Ox yelled out an order, the substance of which we will never know. He (and his radio operator) claimed that he screamed out “Stop him!” to get the Marines at the back end of our convoy to take action, but, in all the confusion—the madly honking horns, the screaming citizens, the helmets flopping back and forth across the Marines’ heads, the fogged glasses—Raymond and the other three Marines heard “Shoot him!” from their superior officer.
So they knelt and began firing at the rear window of the vehicle, imploding it. The car continued driving, and as it passed the last two vehicles of our convoy, the Marines there opened fire as well. They hadn’t heard the order, but as soon as Raymond’s gunshots rang out, they had reasonably assumed that this taxi, like so many other taxis in recent days, had just performed a drive-by shooting on our convoy. Staff Sergeant put three well-aimed rounds through the driver’s side window as the car hurtled past him on the sidewalk. Others hammered the door with their SAWs. Just after it passed our final Humvee, the taxi veered off the sidewalk, cut across two lanes of traffic, and slammed head-on into the concrete median divider, where it came to an immediate, jarring halt. The driver’s side window was spiderwebbed and spattered with darkness.
Nearly four hundred meters away, at the front of the column, I saw none of this. Instead, I heard a few quick M-16 pops, then the swelling roar of fully automatic weapons fire. Immediately, I assumed that our stationary convoy had just been ambushed—Flowers and fourth platoon had been hit at this exact same spot yesterday by roughly ten men armed with rockets and small arms. I started running along the convoy toward the sound of the fire, and I mentally braced myself for the horrible double explosions of armed RPGs.
They never came. Instead, silence descended as all the horns shut off and most of the pedestrians disappeared from the sidewalk. Bewildered, I arrived at the crash site to find the salesman dangling upside down out of the open driver’s side door. Docs Smith and Camacho were tugging at him, trying to pull him out of the vehicle to provide first aid. The man’s eyes were closed and his tongue hung out of the side of his mouth, clenched firmly between his teeth. Seeing him, my first thought was that the cabdriver looked just like the deer that we used to shoot back home. My next thought was, “What have we just done?”
At the time, I knew nothing of the Ox’s order, and I had no idea why the platoon had opened fire. All I knew was that an apparently unarmed Iraqi was now hanging out of the door of his car, breathing shallowly with ropy streams of mucus, spittle, and blood dangling from his mouth and nose.
The docs wrestled the unconscious man out of the car and went to work, but he was bleeding pretty heavily from the midsection, and a dark pool quickly formed on the pavement beneath him. Meanwhile, I set the squad leaders, all of whom were as confused as I, to assembling a 360-degree cordon around the area. The pedestrians were returning, and they were eagerly gathering in large numbers around the macabre scene. As soon as the cordon was set, I moved back to the docs, and this time it was Smith who looked up at me and shook his head. I nodded back at him and instructed both docs to keep working nonetheless, to try keep the man alive until an ambulance showed up. We weren’t allowed to medevac Iraqis ourselves—scarce American medical resources had to be husbanded carefully for American use—but Iraqi emergency care vehicles, we had learned, usually showed up quickly at the scene of any shooting.
I was still confused about what had caused us to open fire, so I started walking the platoon’s perimeter to find Raymond and his team. Halfway through the circuit, an agitated Ox approached me and said something roughly approximating the following:
“Hey, One, I never told them to open fire. Someone gave an order to start shooting, but it wasn’t me. You’ve gotta believe me. I have no idea why they started shooting. I never told them anything. It was someone else. Someone else told them to open fire.”
I stared at the Ox uncomprehendingly. I still didn’t know of his impromptu foray out with Raymond, and I had no idea why the company XO would have been ordering my men to be doing anything, let alone opening fire, from the back of the Humvee where I assumed he had been. Why was the Ox so vehemently defending himself? Puzzled, I blinked at him and moved on. He was interrupting me; I wanted to begin my investigation of the sequence of events with Raymond, not the Ox.
Just a little bit farther down, I found the Marine I was looking for and asked pointedly why he had started shooting. Taken aback, Raymond stared placidly at me for a second, then said simply, “Sir, Joker Five ordered us to.”
“What? Why in the hell was Joker Five with you guys?”
“I don’t know, sir. He just jumped out with us and started running. When the guy started getting away in that car, he told us to shoot him.”
“Joker Five did?” I was incredulous. Now the Ox’s bizarrely preemptive self-defense was starting to make some sense.
I interviewed the other three Marines, and they all gave the same story. Joker Five told us to shoot, sir, so we did. You sure you heard right? Oh yes, sir, it was unmistakable. That’s why we started shooting, sir. We wouldn’t have otherwise, but he told us to.
Furious, I made a beeline back for the Ox, but my assault was checked in midstream by an outbreak of sharp, agonized wailing. The teenage relative had arrived on scene. Taking one look at the bloody mess that had been the fuel salesman, he started crying violently, and when I approached, the kid was trying to shoulder his way through the crowd and through our cordon. Seeing him, my anger at the Ox died, and in its place was born deep sadness with the whole messy situation. George managed to calm the kid enough to talk with him, and when they had finished up George informed me that the young man was the fuel salesman’s son. We let him through our lines. Right at that time, the Iraqi ambulance finally arrived, and two stretcher bearers ran over to take our grisly cargo. Glad to quit the scene, I ordered the man transferred to them and the platoon to mount the Humvees. We headed back to the Outpost, silent.
I’ll never know for certain what the Ox said during that one frantic moment, but I do know that ever thereafter, my Marines despised him with everything they had. For his part, the Ox began to treat me and my platoon with a bit more deference. Maybe it was because he knew that I knew that the first thing he had thought of after the shooting was absolving himself of any responsibility, a cardinal sin in our world. Or maybe it was because he really had issued the order to fire. Or maybe it was because he felt as bad as I did that Joker One had shot someone who almost certainly didn’t deserve the death penalty for whatever crime he had committed. And at the end of the day, no matter who said what and no matter what orders were or were not given, it was my platoon that had shot, and thus my responsibility for the outcome. As a former platoon commander himself, the Ox understood this basic truth, and though I can’t say for certain, I believe that a part of him knew that, like it or not, I had assumed responsibility for his decision.
I took two sedatives that evening, but sleep still came only fitfully.
A subsequent investigation cleared both my platoon and the Ox of any willful wrongdoing. My men testified truthfully as to the order they thought they had heard, and the Ox and his radio operator testified truthfully as to the order they thought he had given. In the end, the investigators concluded that no one had failed due to negligence, laziness, or malice. The Devil Siphon incident was just another of the tragedies that inevitably occur during the fog and the chaos of war, tragedies that affect anonymous individuals on all sides of the conflict.
Their stories are usually crushed out by the larger narrative of nations, and history doesn’t even record their names. Their children still cry, though.