BY THE MIDDLE OF MARCH, war sounded less likely. The BBC reported that Iraq was destroying its al Samoud missiles a key step toward compliance with the U.N. resolutions — and cheif weapons inspector Hans Blix claimed that overall cooperation was accelerating. There were rumors at Matilda that maybe we would pack up and go home. That sounded too extreme. High-ranking officers speculated that we might cross the border in something less than combat mode, perhaps as part of a U.N.-sanctioned multinational force to ensure Iraq’s compliance. I knew these speculations were bogus when the media showed up.
A bus groaned into Matilda and disgorged two dozen hard-bitten war correspondents. They wore beige vests and cargo pants. Most of them were male and bearded; they looked a lot like us. We had, after all, come of age in the same parts of the world. The press wasn’t there to cover anything less than a full-blown attack.
“So who are you guys with?” Gunny Wynn and I stood in line for dinner, still more than a hundred yards from the lit triangle of the chow tent door. I turned in the darkness to look at the speaker. A foot shorter than me, he squinted up at us through thick-rimmed glasses. He held his tape recorder high, like an offering. “C’mon, what unit you with? Hometown? Name? Anything? I’m so excited to be here.”
I would have ignored him but for the discomfort of standing together for another twenty minutes.
“First Reconnaissance Battalion,” I said.
“Oooh. Recon. You guys are special, right?”
“Only to our mothers.”
“So I just got up here from Commando. I’m riding with some wrench-turners. What’s your mission?”
Sure enough. Thirty seconds and the guy was pumping us for information we couldn’t share. “To support the division in any way we can,” Gunny Wynn said slowly, enunciating every syllable.
“C’mon. That’s not very exciting.”
Wynn and I parried with the reporter until we reached the head of the line. After grabbing our trays, we slid into two empty seats at an otherwise full table and smiled as he looked expectantly for the seat we hadn’t saved for him.
After dinner, we picked our way through Porta-Johns and tent stakes back to the battalion. A staff meeting had just broken up, and the company commanders drifted slowly toward their tents, finishing hurried conversations in the dark. My CO saw me and called out.
He briefed me on a few updates for the next couple of days and then pointed to a figure standing in the dark nearby. “This is Evan Wright. He’s a reporter from Rolling Stone. He’ll be embedded with the battalion.”
Wright smiled disarmingly. I pegged him with all the traits of my earlier assailant: a clueless opportunist chasing a Pulitzer Prize on the backs of men he wouldn’t speak to on the street at home. As a citizen, I supported the Pentagon’s much-touted embedded media campaign as a way to give Americans an uncensored look at the war and the warriors. As an officer, I dreaded dealing with the information leaks, distraction to my Marines, and constant moral oversight of people who knew little about our culture and the demands of combat decision making.
The next evening, I ducked into Gunny Wynn’s tent at dinnertime, but he was still running. I started out across the camp alone.
I turned and saw Wright. Filthy khaki trousers hung on his frame. He wore a brown Superfly T-shirt and a chunky gold chain that glimmered in the fading sunlight. Not a Marine. Quietly, even formally, he asked if he could join me. I said yes but felt self-conscious as we passed groups of Marines on our way to the chow tent.
We talked about our backgrounds. Wright had studied medieval history at Vassar, and he was amused to learn I was a former classics major. People like you are supposed to be in the other corps, he said, the Peace Corps. He was soft-spoken and gave the impression of being exceedingly gentle. Having patrolled in Afghanistan with an Army platoon and cruised the Persian Gulf aboard Navy ships, Wright wasn’t a complete newcomer to the military. But this was his first time with the Marines. As we picked at our mashed gray chicken, I asked about his first impression of the Corps.
“Well, I live in the tent with the senior officers. They work a lot, and read, and sleep.”
Sticking with the officers was a big mistake, I told Wright. To report on the Marines, he had to spend time with Marines, not staff NCOs and certainly not senior officers. Sergeants and below. The young, crazy, honest men who pulled triggers for a living. When we walked back across the camp, I pointed out my platoon’s tent and invited him to speak with my men anytime. He wanted to meet them immediately. We pushed through the flap and into the platoon’s living area. Colbert was reading. Reyes was doing pushups on his knuckles. Two corporals, Garza and Chaffin, were flicking each other with the tips of their eight-inch dive knives, just enough to draw blood. I walked away, feeling as if I had thrown a rabbit to the greyhounds.
When I issued my operations order to the platoon a few days later, Wright was there. We had reached a basic agreement — I would let him ride along with Sergeant Colbert’s team, and he would stay out of the way and not reveal our plans. I had written hundreds of orders in training, and a few real ones in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but this was the longest. We had the luxury of time to plan, and it would have been negligent to have ignored any contingency we could think of. At ten A.M., I walked into the tent and hung my map on the wall. The men gathered close on MRE boxes and rolled sleeping bags, quiet for once.
“Most of this won’t be new to you. Gunny Wynn and I, along with Doc and the team leaders, have tried to anticipate problems and questions and to answer them in the text of the order. Take good notes but treat them carefully, since they’ll be classified. And get comfortable — this is going to take about two hours.”
I started with the big-picture political and strategic decisions that had put us in Kuwait. Slowly, I worked my way down through the layers of Iraqi divisions and American regiments. That took about five minutes. Then I turned to the roles of the twenty-three men in that tent, individually and collectively.
I led the platoon from their seats at Matilda to the border, from the border up into the marshes of south-central Iraq. The Euphrates River flows generally west to east across Iraq, acting as a natural obstacle between our staging area in Kuwait and Baghdad. The First Marine Division had been training to cross the Euphrates for years by holding an exercise each summer on the Colorado River. We assumed that the Iraqi military would blow up the highway bridges in Nasiriyah, and so the division would have to find another place to cross. Each recon platoon was assigned a bridge to investigate and secure. Ours was in a sleepy town called Chibayish.
We talked about calling in air strikes, handing out food, capturing prisoners, and finding fuel as we made our way to Chibayish. We memorized radio frequencies, unit call signs, and sunset tables. We studied the map, passed around photos, and pushed toy cars across the tent’s wooden floor, rehearsing formations and what we would do when the enemy attacked. Two hours turned into three and then four. By the time we captured the bridge at Chibayish, we had missed lunch, and I was going hoarse.
That night, I plugged a set of coordinates into the GPS and saw that my sleeping bag was 99.1 miles from the Euphrates River bridge at Chibayish. I fell asleep wondering what those hundred miles would hold.
Our intelligence changed constantly. Nearly every day, I checked with the intel officer for updates. On March 17, the night the U.N. arms inspectors evacuated Iraq and President Bush issued a forty-eight-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons, the intel officer told me that new overhead imagery was available for Chibayish. Gunny Wynn and the team leaders and I walked over to the division’s intelligence tent to look at the latest pictures.
Situated in the infield of Matilda’s ring road, the tent was surrounded by a field of antennas. We tripped and cursed our way through the guy wires to the tent’s entrance. Pulling back one layer of heavy black rubber, we entered a small antechamber and closed the flap behind us before shouldering through the next flap and into the brightly lit room. Coffee was brewing. It was like a suburban office, with everyone working in a hum of cooperation and good humor.
I grabbed an imagery analyst. “We’re the recon platoon going to the bridge at Chibayish. Can you get the latest U-2 film?” The pictures had been taken by a U-2 spy plane a couple of days before.
We pulled up two folding chairs and two MRE boxes and waited for the sergeant to return with the pictures. He lent us a ten-power magnifier, and we slid it over the film to get a closer look at our area of operations. The resolution was incredible. Individual people, goats, and bushes were visible. Colbert had a natural eye for reading the film. “OK, here’s where we release from the battalion,” he said, pointing at the tiny black-and-white rendition of a road intersection we’d been reading about and envisioning for days. “So then we drive up this way,” he said, dragging a finger along the spool and turning the crank with his other hand to scroll the picture in the direction of our movement, “and enter our platoon zone by scooting through this gap in the dikes.”
We were looking for three things: trafficability, the condition of the Euphrates River bridge, and signs of the enemy. Based on tire tracks and vehicles in the photographs, the whole area looked trafficable. This was the Hawr al Hammar, the Iraqi marshes where people had lived a life apart until Saddam Hussein pumped the water away in retribution for the Shia uprisings of the 1990s. Their tragedy was to our benefit: what would have been incredibly difficult ground to traverse now appeared hard and dry. The bridge itself also looked promising. It was a simple concrete span of two lanes, about a hundred meters long and studded with streetlights. There were no signs of anything amiss. People and cars were seen crossing the river, and fishing skiffs slid under the bridge. No tanks, no guns, no minefields. Nothing at all to suggest that the people of Chibayish knew anything of our interest in their remote town.
We bent over the film late into the night. It was our opportunity to answer questions in the safety of the camp so that we could make better decisions faster in Iraq. By the time we left the tent, we had a solid grasp of what Sergeant Colbert called “the recon mission of a lifetime.”
I woke up the next morning to the bellowing of Major Benelli. The division, he said, would be conducting a “mobility rehearsal” that afternoon, and we had to be staged on the gravel road at noon, ready to leave. A tired voice in the corner asked how long the rehearsal would take.
“Six months, maybe a year.”
So this was it. The morning we had been waiting for. We spent the next six hours loading all our gear into the Humvees. Fuel, water, food, and ammunition were already portioned out, so it was a simple matter of arranging. But knowing this was for real, we packed and repacked. I agonized over the placement of every item. Everything had to be safe, accessible, and distributed among enough Humvees to keep the destruction of one vehicle from robbing us of a capability or a needed supply. By noon, the battalion’s eight platoons and their Humvees were loaded and ready.
Our platoon’s vehicles groaned over every bump leaving Matilda. They sagged beneath ten tons of provisions. Even so, I worried that we were forgetting something. When we stopped at the camp’s edge for a radio check, Gunny Wynn and I raided an abandoned tent, piling cases of water and MREs into the back of our gorged Humvee. I thought of the patrol at Bridgeport and the lesson that recon teams never have enough food or water.
We passed a series of U.S. Army camps named for the battlefields of 9/11 — New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Bradley fighting vehicles and Army tanker trucks joined the convoys of Marine vehicles snaking north toward the border. Military planners had tried valiantly to build roads that could support a mass mobilization. It surprised me to see slabs of concrete peeking from beneath the drifting sand. But the desert always won. The roads were sand with patches of pavement, not the other way around. Rooster tails of dust rose from each pair of tires. Drivers wore goggles and bandannas. Everyone hacked and cursed and blew wads of sandy snot through open windows.
On that drive north from Matilda to the Iraqi border, I felt no fear, no apprehension. I felt relief. I’d realized that war was inevitable for some time. I had nursed illusions about a diplomatic solution, but I knew we wouldn’t be home until a war had been fought and won. We were ready. The platoon was physically and psychologically primed. Being ready and staying ready are, however, two different challenges. Another month of waiting in the desert would dull us. The poor diet, lack of sleep, spotty exercise, stress of separation, and uncertainty would take a measurable toll. We weren’t a gun to be cocked and put on the table. More like a slingshot. Load a stone, pull it back, and wait. Wait too long and the elastic goes slack, leaving you standing there with only a rock.
The sun set and the moon rose as we crept along. A full moon, washing the desert with a silvery glow. I winced as I watched Humvees moving many kilometers off our flanks. One of the U.S. military’s greatest advantages is its night-fighting ability, and we had hoped to launch our first attack on the Iraqis under only 20 or 30 percent illumination. This was closer to 100 percent. We swallowed our regrets. So be it. If ordered, we would attack under a full moon.
Our dispersal area near the border was recognizable only to the GPS. We circled the battalion on a patch of desert no different from the miles of sand and gravel around it. I had studied the range rings for Iraq’s artillery and missiles. We now sat well within a few of them. We received orders to put on our bulky, charcoal-lined chemical protection suits, known as MOPP gear. Until further notice, we would wear the suits twenty-four hours a day and always keep our gas masks and rubber gloves with us. We dug sleeping holes, called “ranger graves,” and crawled inside. Sweating in my chemical suit, I stared up at Orion high overhead.