MY ATTITUDE IN DECEMBER was proof of the human ability to rationalize away pain. Congress had voted for war. The president had stated publicly that he would fight alone if necessary. Recon battalion had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in specialized equipment for a desert fight in Iraq. Troops were being sent to the region. But still I doubted that the war would happen. The very idea of American tanks in Baghdad, of U.S. troops in an Arab capital, was too far removed from any point of reference in my life. That I would be among those troops was simply unthinkable. I could intellectualize my way through how the war would unfold, but I couldn’t feel it. It wasn’t real.
I spent the holidays at home in Baltimore. Four days before Christmas, the president announced the deployment of troops to the Middle East in response to Saddam Hussein’s noncompliance with U.N. resolutions. Recon would surely be among the first to go.
At our traditional Christmas dinner, my grandmother took me aside and said, “Nathaniel, I want you to have this. Now seems like a good time.” She handed me a small box.
Opening it, I found an aluminum horseshoe less than two inches wide. I read the inscription. “Sakashima — Kamikaze — June 7, 1945.” I remembered seeing it years before.
“Your grandfather had it made from the shrapnel that hit him. He always considered himself lucky. Maybe some of it will rub off on you.”
The next morning, I made a necklace out of the horseshoe by stringing parachute cord through it. I put it around my neck and pledged not to take it off until I returned home again.
On the last day of January, I left the office early and drove home to enjoy what I expected would be my final weekend in San Diego. We had been told to be ready to deploy within a week. After changing, I jogged down the street and headed west for the beach. The tide was low, the air was warm, and the setting sun reddened as it sank toward the ocean. I ran south through Carlsbad to the rock jetty that marked my normal turnaround point. But the evening was so beautiful that I kept going south and stretched the run into a ninety-minute workout. Racing home in the fading light, I felt content and invigorated.
The blinking red light on my answering machine shattered the illusion. Four messages. Without even dialing, I knew what it meant. My commanding officer and Gunny Wynn both had the same news: be at the battalion by ten P.M. Our summons had come.
VJ and I went to dinner at Jay’s, our favorite Italian restaurant. He was already assigned to an upcoming MEU, so he’d be sitting this war out. Waiting for our food to arrive, the realization slowly formed in my mind: I was being sent to war. It was different from Afghanistan. Then, we were already gone. Now, I was leaving this quiet seaside town, with its pasta, Barbaresco, and palm trees, and going to war. To war. There was nothing I could do about it except go to prison if I refused.
I looked around at the other tables. There were people my age on dates, whispering and smiling. Older couples, comfortable and relaxed. Waitresses brushed against tables, steam rose from entrées, and I was going to war. These people looked forward to Saturday, and Sunday, and the coming months and years of their lives. Mine felt as if it had ended. I didn’t have a future. Trying to conjure up a mental image of myself after Iraq, I found that I couldn’t. Iraq loomed like a black hole into which all the thoughts and acts and hopes and dreams of twenty-five years were being sucked. I couldn’t imagine what might come out the other side. We walked out of Jay’s, where I had eaten dinner on my first night in California, and I wondered whether I would ever be back.
The battalion was in total disarray. Under floodlights, Marines staged and restaged packs on the parade deck. First by company, then by platoon, then by company again. Wives and kids stood by, watching the circus, surely wondering how they could trust this organization to bring their loved ones back safely. It was cold for California, which seemed somehow fitting. Wynn and I counted heads and sat down on our packs to wait for the buses. Orion shone directly overhead. In the coming months, I would often think back to that moment as I gazed up at the constellation on very different nights in very different places.
Midnight passed, the night grew colder, and family members began to leave. Still we waited. Finally, around two A.M., the headlights of the white school buses slowly approached the camp. Marines tossed packs and seabags aboard two tractor-trailers and, with much counting and re-counting, climbed onto the buses like so many third graders. Armed sentries, called “Guardian Angels,” were posted on each bus in case Saddam or al Qaeda decided to keep us off their turf by launching an attack along I-15 between San Diego and March Air Reserve Base near Riverside. This precaution proved unnecessary, and we rolled onto the base just before dawn.
We lined up our bags for loading aboard the Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo plane that would be carrying us to the Middle East, then claimed patches of space on the acres of concrete hangar floor. The Red Cross provided coffee, hamburgers, and a large television tuned to CNN. We watched as NASA lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia and, as the morning progressed, smoldering pieces were collected from fields across Texas.
“Fuck,” Sergeant Espera said. “We couldn’t read a worse omen if we spilled a goat’s entrails right here on the floor.” Espera had come to recon with Captain Whitmer and me. Now he was Sergeant Colbert’s assistant team leader.
In true military fashion, our flight was delayed, and then delayed again. We passed a precious Saturday stewing on the floor, watching cars whiz past on the highway just a few hundred yards away. I pretended to read. There was too much time to think. I watched my Marines talking and sleeping, and thought about their wives, children, and parents. Each of their lives touched so many other lives. Each of those lives relied, at least a little, on my doing my job well. Our generation was often portrayed as one without consequences, without responsibility. Now, I thought, we were making up for it.
I drifted to sleep on the hangar floor with boots on and a rifle by my side, the first of many such nights. At three A.M., I woke to the rustle of Marines rising, stretching, and throwing on gear. Our flight had been called. Out on the tarmac, the slate-gray C-5 was nearly invisible in the darkness. A white light on its tail was so high that it seemed to blend with the starry sky. We shuffled across the ramp, weighed down with flak jackets, helmets, weapons, and packs. Our Humvees had already been loaded — twelve of them in two rows stretching the length of the immense cargo bay. Chained in the glare of the fluorescent lights, they looked like animals in a zoo, out of place and forlorn.
Passengers in a C-5 sit in rows of airline-style seats perched high above the cargo bay. We climbed a spiral ladder to this passenger capsule and wedged ourselves into place among the piles of gear. The flight attendant, a grizzled Air Force technical sergeant, gave a quick brief. Flying time to Morón, Spain, would be twelve hours, with midair refueling over Greenland. In-flight meals were MREs, and there wouldn’t be a movie. The plane had no windows, so I relied on my imagination as we rumbled down the runway and climbed smoothly to cross the country, above my sleeping family, and out over the Atlantic.
I passed time writing in my journal before being jolted awake as the wheels touched down in Spain. It was midnight, and we hurried to board buses and eat a meal before catching our next flight. Base rules required us to put our weapons in the armory before heading to the chow hall. Why Marines en route to a war couldn’t be trusted to carry their unloaded weapons around a military base was a mystery to us. So we stood in line for an hour at the armory, shivering in the cold. Finally, we arrived for what we expected would be our last real meal. I felt the stares of the Spanish employees behind the serving counters. Our desert camouflage gave away our destination.
I sat at a table with the other platoon commanders and platoon sergeants. Talk turned to the last Gulf War and the memories of the Marines who had been there twelve years before.
“I remember the artillery,” one Marine recalled. “You’d try to bury yourself in the sand as rounds shrieked in over your head. There was always a second or two between first hearing it and knowing where it was going to hit. That was the worst part — that second or two of not knowing, thinking maybe your number was up.”
General reminiscing began. “I remember the fires. The whole damn country was on fire. You couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, never knew what was going to pop out at you from a cloud of smoke.”
“What about all the POWs? Remember them? Pitiful little fuckers. Walking around holding hands. What a worthless fucking adversary.”
“Yeah, but Saddam’s got a lot of weapons. Doesn’t take a stud to push the button on a Scud, and it’ll kill you just as dead.”
The battalion commander stood to leave, and the conversation trailed off. We rose to follow him, dumping our trash with a last wistful glance at the dessert case.
We left Morón in darkness, flying east. The big C-5 carried us across Europe and the Mediterranean before dropping quickly into Kuwait City International Airport. As we screamed down to land, I lurched forward, held in place only by a taut seat belt, floating two inches above the seat. My ears popped, and the wind whistled past the fuselage. The combat descent was our first hint that we’d arrived in a different world.
We sat in the plane for an hour, waiting for it to park on the crowded ramp. A long line of aircraft disgorged pallets and people. Another line of planes waited to take off in a cloud of shimmering exhaust. Trucks raced back and forth, honking at disoriented newcomers looking for a sign, a guide, anything. A group of soldiers in a pickup truck finally met us. They scanned our military ID cards with a handheld computer, recording our arrival for Central Command’s nightly news briefing about the size of the force opposing Saddam. The soldiers herded us aboard a bus, and we pressed our faces to the windows as we rolled past the terminal toward a gate. Sandbagged bunkers sat at every corner, manned by soldiers with machine guns. Roving patrols of Humvees cruised slowly along the airport’s access roads, weaving among the Jersey barriers in front of checkpoints protected by razor wire. Beyond the fence, a gravel plain stretched into the distance, broken by a highway and piles of whitewashed buildings.
Outside the airport, we had to draw the curtains on the bus. Angry Kuwaitis, seeing armed Americans flooding into their country, might have been tempted to spray us with rifle fire. It had already happened twice to other groups. Through cracks in the drapes, I tracked our progress, noting that we picked up armored Humvee escorts that took positions around the bus. We traveled west through the suburb of Jahra before turning north. Our destination was Commando Camp, the temporary headquarters of the First Marine Expeditionary Force. It sat about twenty miles north of Kuwait City, at the base of Mutla Ridge, the only significant topographical feature in Kuwait. Commando had been a Kuwaiti military camp and was now teeming with Americans. Rumors promised showers, hot food, and tents with bunks. Even if these were true, we knew that the pleasures would be short-lived. Commando was home to rear-echelon pogues, support troops whose derisive name came from the acronym for “persons other than grunts.” Combat forces were slated to move into Spartan camps in the northern Kuwaiti desert, where we could train, shoot, and flex our muscles along the Iraqi border.
We beat our jet lag at Commando with long runs every afternoon, around and around the inside of the camp’s fence. The rules required us to carry gas masks everywhere in case of an Iraqi attack. It was a pointless regulation because without chemical protection suits and gloves, the gas would simply seep through our skin and kill us anyway. But we dutifully ran with the masks chafing against our hips.
On our second, blistering afternoon at Commando, I went out with three of the platoon’s hard-core athletes: Sergeant Rudy Reyes, now serving as Sergeant Patrick’s assistant team leader in Team Two; Corporal Anthony Jacks, Team Two’s heavy machine gunner; and Corporal Mike Stinetorf (“Stine”), Team Three’s heavy machine gunner. Because of the military’s hierarchy, I spent most of my time with Gunny Wynn and the Marines one step above or below me in the chain of command — my CO and the team leaders. I was glad of this chance to get out and talk with other guys in the platoon.
By our second lap, there wasn’t much talking. Reyes was in the lead. Stine, powerfully built, followed close behind. Jacks and I worked to keep up, shoes pounding rhythmically on the pavement. As we turned a corner in the farthest part of the compound, a mechanical whine slowly built to a shriek. The gas attack alarm. Incoming missile. We stopped and pulled our gas masks from their canvas carrying cases. I was still breathing heavily as I slipped it over my head, and the sweat on my face steamed the eyepieces. Under the best circumstances, wearing a gas mask is like breathing through a straw. I felt ready to collapse.
Rudy started off again at a trot. We fell in behind him as a voice over the camp loudspeaker announced that the alarm had been only a test. But wearing the masks had become a test, and we kept them on. By the next day, the whole platoon was running in gas masks. It forced the Marines to get comfortable with them. Iraq’s chemical threat was our biggest concern, but those runs convinced us that we could fight through a chemical attack. We could survive. We could, in fact, win.
After dinner on our third night at Commando, Colonel Ferrando gathered the team leaders, platoon sergeants, and platoon commanders for a brief on the Iraqis’ order of battle and the First Marine Division’s scheme of maneuver. The order of battle was what units and equipment the enemy had and where, and the scheme of maneuver was how we planned to defeat them. It was our first glimpse at the official plan for the war.
The brief was held in the officers’ tent. Sentries patrolled outside to keep eavesdroppers away from the thin canvas. The battalion’s intelligence officer hung maps from the walls, lit by bare bulbs high in the tent’s peak. Marines crowded around, seated on MRE boxes, ammo crates, and campstools. I sat with Gunny Wynn and our team leaders, Sergeants Colbert, Patrick, and Lovell. We shared a Michelin map of Iraq I had bought at Barnes & Noble before leaving San Diego.
The intel officer started with an overview of the forces we would face. Southern Iraq was guarded by the Iraqi army’s Third Corps, composed of three divisions: the Fifty-first Mechanized, near Basra; the Sixth Armored, north of Basra; and the Eleventh Infantry, strung along the Euphrates River east of Nasiriyah. Together, this force included more than thirty thousand men and three hundred tanks. It had faced the First Marine Expeditionary Force before, in 1991, and likely remembered its brutal whipping. The morale of Iraq’s Third Corps was assessed as low, and an intense psychological campaign was under way to persuade its soldiers not to fight. The message was “Surrender — and live to be part of the new Iraq.” The bottom line was that we could expect no serious military resistance before reaching Republican Guard-controlled territory much farther north. “These poor guys don’t even have enough food, let alone bullets, trained leaders, or the will to fight,” the intel officer concluded.
He offered one huge caveat to this assessment: weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was thought to have chemical and biological weapons, and the means to hit our forces with them. They would be fired in missiles, mainly the notorious Scuds and lesser-known Frog 7s, and in artillery shells. The United States believed that there were “trigger lines” in place for Saddam to use chemical weapons. Unfortunately, no one knew what the triggers were. We saw ourselves as a vise with the White House turning the crank to tighten it. Sending us here was a turn of the screw. Crossing the border would be another. Crossing the Euphrates. Engaging the Republican Guard. Right up to kicking down the door of a presidential palace and cutting Saddam’s throat. Each step put mounting pressure on him. When would he make a last stand? Artillery and missiles were the first targeting priority for coalition aircraft. All we could do was trust in our gas masks and chemical suits, move quickly on the ground, and stay unpredictable.
Colonel Ferrando followed the enemy update with an overview of how the Americans planned to start the campaign. Ideally, there would be three fronts: the Army’s Fifth Corps from the southwest, the First Marine Expeditionary Force from the southeast, and the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division from the north, through Turkey. The Turks were still balking, though, and Ferrando warned that all the forces might have to come through Kuwait. Within the Marines’ zone, Regimental Combat Team 7 (RCT-7), built around the Seventh Marine Regiment, would be farthest east. They would isolate Basra and destroy the Fifty-first Mechanized Infantry Division. Just to their west, RCT-5, composed of the Fifth Marine Regiment with reinforcements, would seize the Rumaila oil fields to prevent their destruction by Iraqi forces. This not only would prevent an environmental catastrophe but also would guarantee the economic vitality of postwar Iraq. The First Marine Regiment, known as RCT-1, and Task Force Tarawa, a force of six thousand men built around the Second Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, would pass Rumaila to the west and secure bridges across the Euphrates.
Ferrando paused to let the rush of information sink in. A team leader in the back stood up and asked about First Recon’s role in all this. The colonel admitted that our mission was still evolving but suggested that it might include forward reconnaissance for the division, screening missions along the flanks of larger units, controlling air strikes to destroy enemy armored formations, and finding alternative crossing points on the Euphrates in case the Iraqis blew up the major highway bridges.
“You’ll be killing something, gents,” he said. “That’s the only thing I know for sure.”