TWO DAYS LATER, we left Commando. Our Humvees had arrived from the airport, so we were spared the caged indignity of the closed-curtain buses. Starting north on Highway 80, we climbed the Mutla Ridge, where, in 1991, the Second Marine Division caught up with the Republican Guard as it fled from Kuwait. This was the infamous “Highway of Death,” where American jets had destroyed hundreds of Iraqi vehicles. Columns of power lines marched to the horizon over a modern highway of new asphalt, but I thought only about black acres of smoldering trucks. The CNN images had been seared into my memory in the eighth grade. I was surprised no trace remained.
We joined a procession of other convoys rumbling north. British “Desert Rats,” their faces wrapped in cloaks, steered tanks under flapping Union Jacks. They looked surprised to be driving toward the Iraqi border. U.S. Army convoys hauled past in the fast lanes, knowing what was over the next rise. After thirteen years here, this land was practically theirs.
We traveled in the slow lane at a sedate fifty miles per hour. Every few minutes, a cruise ship-size Mercedes with shimmering hubcaps flashed past, giving us a fleeting glimpse of the driver — always male, always robed in white, and always disdainful of more than the difference in speed. Twice our progress slowed to allow camel herds to clear the pavement. Boys with sticks walked behind them, slapping their flanks. We passed a fluorescent green sign that read, GOD BLESS U.S. TROOPS — certainly the only one of its kind in the Arab world.
All along the desert that stretches fifty miles from the Mutla Ridge to the Iraqi border, dirt trails led off the highway. Military convoys peeled east and west on these innocuous-looking tracks, passing behind privacy berms and entering whole cities hidden in the sand. Kuwait’s government had declared the northern third of the country a military exclusion zone and relocated the local populace, mainly Bedouin tribes, to grazing land farther south until the end of the hostilities.
We turned left off Highway 80 and passed through a checkpoint rimmed with razor wire. The road snaked two kilometers into the desert before twisting around a rock outcropping and leading straight into the center of a new metropolis: Camp Matilda. The reference was to the Australian song “Waltzing Matilda,” which became associated with the First Marine Division when it moved to Australia following the retaking of Guadalcanal in 1943. Despite its charming name, Matilda was a bleak, unfinished camp. Dozens of white tents stood in rows. No electricity, no hot food, and no showers for at least another week. We stood outside the tents, bemoaning our loss of Commando’s comforts, when an F-16 fighter jet screamed overhead waggling its wings. The jet was returning from a patrol over Iraq’s southern no-fly zone, and the pilot decided to motivate us. It worked. We started carving out a place for ourselves at Matilda and planning our training for the coming weeks.
I woke up early one morning a week later, enjoying the silence in the tent. The platoon lived together in its own tent, while Gunny Wynn lived separately with the other staff NCOs, and I lived with the junior officers. My sleeping bag was in the corner, a coveted spot that gave me a tad more privacy than those in the middle. A slight breeze blew cool air through the tent flap near my feet. I reached over and tuned my shortwave radio to the BBC, hoping to catch the hourly news.
“It’s two o’clock GMT and this is the BBC World Service from London. Holes have been reported in the fence on the Iraqi border with Kuwait, and armed men in the DMZ identified themselves as U.S. Marines. More on this story now from Kuwait City.”
Forty miles from the border in a camp full of Marines, I got my local news from London. The radio had been a gift from my parents, and it was one of my most prized possessions. I listened for another ten minutes before slipping out of my bag and getting dressed. I ducked through the tent flap with my toothbrush and a bottle of water to scrub and spit on the sand beneath the pink sky. Two tents down, another figure was doing the same thing. After brushing his teeth, he poured water onto his hair and began to slap his face and shake his head. I recognized Gunny Wynn’s distinctive morning ritual and called out to him. “Hey, Gunny, want to go to breakfast when you’re done primping?”
“Mornin’. Yeah, give me two more minutes.” The shaking and scrubbing continued.
As we walked across the camp to the chow tent, Wynn and I returned to the topic that occupied most of our idle planning time — tweaking our roster to maximize efficiency and combat power. We were that rare thing, a fully staffed Marine platoon. Twenty-one Marines, from private first class to gunnery sergeant, one Navy medical corpsman, and one officer. Ordinarily, these twenty-three men would be divided into three recon teams of six men apiece, each led by a sergeant, and a headquarters section of five: platoon commander, platoon sergeant, corpsman, communications specialist, and a designated “special equipment NCO” to care for the parachutes and diving rigs we had not brought to Kuwait.
That arrangement worked well for traditional reconnaissance missions, where foot-mobile teams moved independently and the headquarters stayed mainly out of the fight. Tradition had not been consulted in drafting our role in the upcoming war. After a lot of walks across the camp for morning and evening meals, we settled on a modified plan. Sergeant Colbert’s Team One would be divided into Team One Alpha and Team One Bravo, each in its own Humvee. Sergeant Espera would control Team One Bravo, operating effectively as a fourth team within the platoon. Colbert’s armored Humvee would carry four Marines. Espera would have five Marines riding in his open Humvee. Sergeant Patrick’s team, trimmed by one, would consist of five men in a vehicle. Sergeant Lovell’s arrangement was the same. Navy HM2 “Doc” Tim Bryan, our corpsman, was one of Lovell’s five. Wynn and I would ride in the only Humvee without a heavy machine gun. For protection, we relied on Corporal Evan Stafford, nominally the platoon communicator, and Private First Class John Christeson, our nineteen-year-old special equipment NCO, who was not an NCO and had no special equipment. They would stand in the back with rifles while Wynn and I focused on the navigation, coordination, and communication that went into running a platoon.
Our goals were redundancy and mutual support. Team One Alpha and Team One Bravo would fight together as a pair, while Teams Two and Three did the same. The weapons mix was supportive as well — One Alpha’s Mark-19 paired with One Bravo’s .50-caliber gun, and Two’s Mark-19 paired with Three’s .50-caliber. The fifties excel at drilling one-ounce bullets into and through nearly anything, but they travel in a straight line and are easy to avoid by hiding behind a solid object. The Mark-19 lacks some of the .50-caliber’s raw stopping power, but its grenades can be lobbed. Skilled gunners elevate the gun to drop grenades behind walls and even into fighting holes. Alone, each has a weakness; together, they’re a destructive duo, a perfect example of General Mattis’s order to fight in combined-arms teams. Most of our movement would be in a column, with Colbert and Espera at the front, Wynn and me in the middle for ease of control, and Patrick and Lovell behind. The team leaders concurred with this arrangement, and we began long days of training, first at Matilda and then out in the desert.
A typical early morning at Matilda found Second Platoon rolling sleeping bags and sweeping the sand that dusted us each night. The twenty-one Marines lived in a section of tent thirty feet by twenty feet. Poncho liners hanging from a piece of parachute cord separated their area from another platoon’s space. The tent canvas, white on the outside, was yellow inside, lending an incongruous cheery glow to the cramped, plywood-floored room.
Gunny Wynn and I ducked through the tent flap, pushing past a cardboard sign that read BRAVO COMPANY, SECOND PLATOON beneath a black Recon Jack. This is recon’s unofficial symbol, a stylized collage of parachute wings and a scuba diver, with a crossed knife and a paddle behind it. With us were Spool and Mish, the morning’s instructors. Spool was a Huey pilot whose real name was Mike, but his squadron-mates had long ago given him the nickname because of his tightly wound enthusiasm. Mish, a Kuwaiti civilian, had volunteered to put his hatred of Iraq to positive use by helping us as a translator. He claimed that the Republican Guard had executed his cousin during the Gulf War and then forced his family to pay for the bullet. Mish always looked as if he wanted to sell me a joint.
The platoon split in two, forming semicircles on opposite sides of the tent. They wore green PT gear, filmy shorts, and too-small T-shirts. The stagnant air reeked of body odor, farts, and yesterday’s workout clothes. Spool reviewed close air support procedures with one group, while Mish practiced basic Arabic phrases with the other, and then they switched.
“aaGuf Lo iR-Meek. Stop, or I will shoot.”
In unison: “aaGuf Lo iR-Meek. Stop, or I will shoot.”
“iH-Nah iH-Nah HuT-Tai NSaa’ a-Dek. We are here to help you.”
“iH-Nah iH-Nah HuT-Ta iNSaa’ a-Dek. We are here to help you.”
I expected the Marines to lose interest. These phrases were too alien, too detached from all prior experience, to resonate with them. But the Marines listened, and they learned. In the coming days, I heard Christeson speaking more Arabic than English.
Spool wasted no words: “We’re dividing the Garden of Eden into kill boxes.” Each kill box measured thirty square kilometers and provided a set of shared reference points for aircraft and ground units. The Third Marine Air Wing would fly in support of the division from two airfields farther south in Kuwait. As we advanced north, they would move forward and fly from captured Iraqi airfields and straight stretches of highway.
He laid a map on the floor and ran through mock air missions with the Marines. “OK, you’re driving along, come over a rise, and bam! Iraqi tank in the road. What do you do?”
Colbert recited the air procedures. Run the pilot in from a pre-planned point in each kill box. Give him a heading and distance to the target. Describe the target and give him a good grid location. Mark the target — laser is best. At night, illuminate it with an infrared pointer. In either case, be ready to talk the pilot onto the target using landmarks recognizable from fifteen thousand feet up. Warn him about friendlies in the area and then give him instructions for coming off the target to try to keep him over ground held by Americans.
“Fine,” Spool said with a nod. “OK, now let’s assume the unthinkable. Sergeant Colbert fucked up the grid, didn’t kill the tank, and it pumped a main gun round into your Humvee. Fingers and toes are everywhere. Colbert’s head’s a fucking smashed watermelon.” He pointed at the youngest member of Colbert’s team, a nineteen-year-old lance corporal named Harold Trombley. “Now you need a casevac bird. How do you call it?”
When the classes ended, I went for a run. High clouds dimmed the sun, and a wall of darker sky rose above the western horizon. Sandstorm. These storms blew in around Matilda like August thunderstorms in Maryland — sudden and ferocious. I hoped to cram in at least a few miles before the blast hit. Exercise was one of my few reprieves from the frustrations of life in the camp. We had early mornings, late nights, no privacy, and no escape from the grind of preparing for war. Talking about war. Thinking about war. War equipment. War maps. War plans. For fifty minutes on the gravel road around Matilda, I was somewhere else. Pushing myself to make each lap faster than the last, I enjoyed the effort, enjoyed the slow release of tension. I stopped my watch after six laps and walked a seventh to cool down and take in the far corners of the camp in more detail.
A long line of Marines stood outside the chow tent. NCOs hovered near the end of the line, turning some people away. I walked over. Apparently, the field kitchens had been spread too thin, and there was food for only about a third of the men in the camp. In Marine Corps fashion, that food would go not to the first Marines to arrive and not to the senior Marines who could pull rank, but to the most junior Marines at Matilda. The NCOs were allowing only privates and lance corporals to get in line for dinner. I remembered a story I’d heard from General Jones, the commandant who’d eaten dinner with us on the Peleliu. He’d quoted a former Marine officer who went on to be a Fortune 500 CEO. When asked for his guiding principle, the CEO replied, “Officers eat last.” The philosophy is simple, and it goes a long way.
The sand on the Udairi Range stretches to the four horizons like an earthen sea. Navigating there is more like steering a Zodiac on the Pacific than walking a patrol across Camp Pendleton. The platoon went to Udairi for two days in late February to start using the skills we had worked on at Matilda. It was a five-hour drive to the west, out toward the Saudi border. Also, incidentally, toward the Iraqi border. I wanted the teams to feel the realism of training next door to hostile territory. I wanted them to see the fence and maybe even an Iraqi border guard in the light of his tower at night.
We started with contact drills — how we’d respond if we were driving along and someone started shooting at us.
“Contact front! Two hundred meters. Small arms.” I made the radio call as we drove in column across the desert. Immediately, Espera pulled next to Colbert, and Lovell slid abreast of Patrick. Four guns could now pour fire ahead of us, instead of the one we had been able to marshal only a few seconds before.
“Assault through!” I gave the order to continue forward. We rushed into the mock ambush and then circled up to debrief.
Winning a firefight requires quick action by leaders. The key is to make decisions about your enemy and act on them faster than he is acting on decisions made about you. In training, I was taught the OODA loop, a four-stage decision-making process described by Air Force fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd: observe, orient, decide, act. That’s all we did in the Humvee contact drills — observed the enemy threat, oriented on it, decided what to do, and did it. We practiced enemy contact to the front and rear, left and right, in daylight and darkness. We repeated the drills again and again, so that in a crisis our reactions would be instinctive. When we were exhausted, we did more. The drills were simple, but they taught us how to turn an ambush back on the ambushers, and that skill would save our lives in the coming weeks.
Infantrymen are Luddites by nature, knowing that research labs and testing centers usually can’t account for the heat, cold, wet, dust, and bumps of the real world. Infantry Marines live only and forever in the real world. Every war has its innovations — the machine gun in World War I, the jet fighter near the end of World War II, the GPS-guided bomb in Afghanistan. An overweight civilian contractor had looked me in the eye at Matilda and sworn that our innovation would be the Blue Force Tracker.
This was a computer screen tied to a GPS receiver in front of the passenger seat in Colbert’s Humvee. It looked like the setup in a state trooper’s car. The computer was loaded with maps of Kuwait and Iraq. Our location on the map showed up as a tiny blue icon. What made the Blue Force Tracker so special was its network: every other vehicle equipped with the system also showed up on the map. We could click on their icons and send text messages directly to them. We, and every other user, also could upload reports of enemy locations, which then showed up on the map in red. The result was unprecedented situational awareness for individual Marines across the battlefield. On the drive back to Matilda, I shoved my maps under the seat and let Colbert guide us right to the platoon’s tent using only the Tracker.
On a hazy Sunday afternoon in early March, the commanding general of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, Lieutenant General James Conway, visited Matilda to speak with his officers. He had been the one-star commander of Marine officer training at Quantico when I was a student there, and then the two-star commander of the division when I was with 1/1. Although he never knew my name, I felt that he and I shared a little history. Conway looked like a general should: tall, tanned, and white-haired, with a deep voice that was both soothing and authoritative. Whenever he spoke, I thought of the radio announcer Paul Harvey. General Conway commanded instinctive respect.
The general stood on top of an amtrac, backed by the U.S. and Marine Corps flags. His voice boomed through a microphone to the hundred or so men standing beneath him. The theme was rules of engagement, and he wanted to make four points very clear. First, commanders had an inherent obligation — not merely a right, but a legal and ethical obligation — to defend their Marines. Second, when the enemy used human shields or put legitimate targets next to mosques and hospitals, he, not we, endangered those innocents. Third, a commander would be held responsible not for the facts as they emerged from an investigation, but for the facts as they appeared to him in good faith at the time — at night, in a sandstorm, with bullets in the air. His fourth and final point distilled the rules of engagement to their essence. He called it Wilhelm’s Law, a tribute to General Charles Wilhelm: if the enemy started the shooting, our concern should be proportionality — responding with adequate, but not excessive, force. If we started the shooting, the concern should be collateral damage.
I took notes as he spoke, thinking that this guidance was pure gold to be passed on to my troops. The rules of engagement harked back to my college classes on Saint Augustine and “just war” theory. I couldn’t control the justice of the declaration of war, but I could control the justice of its conduct within my tiny sphere of influence. Doing right, I thought, wasn’t only a moral imperative but also the most expedient way to lead the platoon. The rules of engagement would be for the Marines’ minds what armor was for their bodies. I made a note to include all this in the formal operations order I would issue a few days later. But I kept the general’s last statement to myself: “Officers,” he said, “please don’t get yourselves killed. It’s very bad for unit morale.”