EIGHT MILES FROM the Iraqi border, I learned about the start of the war from the BBC. Tomahawks and stealth fighters kicked it off a day early in an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. Around us, the desert was quiet. A breeze blew thin clouds across the sky, birds still flew, and nothing moved all the way to the horizon. We seemed to be alone. I didn’t even see another American unit. Somehow I had expected more drama at this moment.
Minutes later, shouts of “Gas, gas, gas! Inbound Scud!” erupted in the camp. I donned and cleared my gas mask, pulled on rubber gloves and boots, grabbed a radio, and trudged over to my shallow hole. Lying on my back with the handset near my ear, I was convinced that the missile would land directly on me. I struggled to calm down, knowing I would probably pass out if I started hyperventilating inside my gas mask.
We repeated this drill three times during the morning of Thursday, March 20. Twice they were false alarms, but once we heard a rocket whoosh over our heads. Finally, in exasperation, Sergeant Colbert said, “We’ve kicked the hornets’ nest, and instead of standing around, we’d goddamn well better start killing hornets.”
With the war already under way, we still had no idea whether our movement on the ground would be preceded by aerial bombardment. This had been a subject of debate for the previous month. In the first Gulf War, the air campaign started thirty-eight days before the ground war began. But our desert camps in Kuwait were vulnerable, and planners feared that air strikes would provoke Saddam into attacking us there, possibly with chemical weapons. We heard only three or four jets pass overhead all day. Gunny Wynn and I scrounged around the battalion for information, but everyone was just as lost as we were. The only thing we knew for certain was that once the order to go was received, we would be rolling immediately. It might be weeks before we again had the luxury of speaking with the whole platoon at one time.
I radioed the teams and asked every Marine to come to the headquarters vehicle. Our sister platoons to the left and right agreed to keep watch over our sector for a few minutes. Wynn and I watched the Marines approach through blowing sand, looking like sci-fi space travelers in chemical suits and goggles. When everyone had gathered, I read General Mattis’s “Message to All Hands,” a single sheet of paper passed down to platoon commanders the day before.
For decades, Saddam Hussein has tortured, imprisoned, raped and murdered the Iraqi people; invaded neighboring countries without provocation; and threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction. The time has come to end his reign of terror. On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.
When I give you the word, together we will cross the Line of Departure, close with those forces that choose to fight, and destroy them. Our fight is not with the Iraqi people, nor is it with members of the Iraqi army who choose to surrender. While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression.
Chemical attack, treachery, and use of the innocent as human shields can be expected, as can other unethical tactics. Take it all in stride. Be the hunter, not the hunted: never allow your unit to be caught with its guard down. Use good judgment and act in the best interests of our Nation.
You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure. Keep faith in your comrades on your left and right and Marine Air overhead. Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit.
For the mission’s sake, our country’s sake, and the sake of the men who carried the Division’s colors in past battles — who fought for life and never lost their nerve — carry out your mission and keep your honor clean. Demonstrate to the world that there is “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” than a U.S. Marine.
From the silence I gathered that the war was beginning to feel real to the platoon. It certainly was to me. There wasn’t much else to say, so Gunny Wynn and I dismissed the men to return to the lines. Hitman Two was ready to go.
We sat there all day cleaning and recleaning weapons, checking and re-checking maps, saying and resaying prayers. At six P.M., as predicted, a rushed radio call warned us to be ready to move in fifteen minutes. We tore down camouflage nets and did final radio checks. Vehicles were started and warmed, rumbling and humming as Marines added oil and cinched hoses with extra zip ties. Every maintenance problem that had been on our “maybe” list for days was fixed in those fifteen minutes.
Sergeant Colbert pulled me aside. “Sir, can you please tell me what our company commander has done to his Humvee?” He nodded toward the CO’s headquarters vehicle, which had black duct tape covering all the windows except the windshield.
Earlier in the day, I had asked the captain the same question. He said he wanted to be able to read his maps by flashlight at night and not have the light visible outside the vehicle. When I pointed out to him that he wouldn’t be able to see outside the Humvee, he shrugged it off, as if situational awareness was what he had recon teams for.
“Sergeant Colbert, you know better than to ask me a question like that.”
Colbert smiled. “Roger that.”
Behind him, Corporal Person sat in the driver’s seat of Colbert’s Humvee. He drummed his fingers on the armor door, singing a Tupac song about dying in a gunfight. Person caught me watching him and explained, “Moto music, sir. Brings out my inner psycho.”
The last thing I did was tie down a pink air panel on the hood and mount a firefly high on the Humvee’s whip antenna. During daylight, the air panels would identify us as Americans to pilots overhead. Fireflies were small, flashing infrared lights that ran on a nine-volt battery. They were invisible to the naked eye but showed up like so many real fireflies when viewed through night vision goggles. In Iraq, they would be our primary means of recognizing friendly vehicles in the dark. Looking around through my goggles, I saw little lights winking reassuringly from each team’s Humvee.
The battalion stretched into a line and slowly started out across the desert. As the sky darkened, I saw columns of winking lights on every horizon, all converging on the same two points. Marine engineers would blow two breaches in the fence and berms along the Iraqi border. Our orders sent us to the western breach. Farther to the west, I knew the Army’s Third Infantry Division was flowing toward its own breach near the border with Saudi Arabia. To our east, I saw flashes as Marine artillery pounded Safwan Hill, the only high ground along the border. Another Marine platoon would soon drop onto Safwan to kill any survivors at the Iraqi observation post there.
I passed radio reports on to the teams: change of plans — we would use the eastern breach; change again — back to the western breach; Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers spotted near the border; Iraqi soldiers near the border laying mines; trenches of oil ignited to decrease our visibility. We drove this way for five hours. Stop and go, fifty trucks and Humvees bumping through the dark across an uneven desert, our only reference points the infrared flashes on the vehicles we followed. I was disoriented, trusting the map and GPS but unable to get a good intuitive feel for what they told me. I knew the lieutenant whose platoon was in the lead. He would be on point for the battalion all the way up to the bridges. I had watched him labor over the route for weeks at Camp Matilda. While other officers had watched movies and written letters, he had huddled over his maps and laptop, plotting and replotting, memorizing every turn and landmark on the route. I trusted him and relaxed a bit.
We approached the breach around midnight and stopped to wait our turn in the flow through the narrow channel. To our right, an artillery battery blasted volley after volley northward. The howitzers belched huge fireballs into the night, illuminating the faces around me as if we were sitting by a campfire. In the distance, across the Iraqi border, a fire burned. We cocked our heads, listening for jets overhead — our surest salvation — but heard nothing. Some Marines took advantage of the pause to stretch out on the ground and sleep for a few minutes. I wandered among the platoon, trying to read the Marines and looking for vehicle problems.
Major Whitmer ran past me, on his way to the rear of the column. He stopped to say there were reports of Iraqi tanks moving just ahead of us. Laughing, he said he hoped my platoon’s AT4s were within easy reach. I laughed also, and felt for a few seconds the irrational excitement of heading into battle. We hugged each other awkwardly, slapping backs and clanking weapons together. The good cheer faded when Major Whitmer disappeared into the darkness. Tanks.
I sat down on the hood of my Humvee. Artillery still rattled my teeth every couple of minutes, but between shots the night was quiet. That feeling I’d had during my last dinner at Jay’s was back. I stood at the brink of something unknown and unknowable. Throughout my life, I’d always had some sense of what was coming next. People build continuity into their lives — places, friends, goals. We go to work on Monday with plans for Friday night, enroll as freshmen intending to be seniors, and save money for retirement. We try to control what comes next and shape it to meet our will. This was too big for me to shape. I was absolved of responsibility for my future. It was replaced with responsibility for twenty-two other futures. Nothing in my history seemed to matter beyond that line on the map. I didn’t know what to expect, could not even imagine what might come next. Strangely, I tried to conjure up images of what I might see and how I might react, but all was blank. I hoped this was only the effect of standing at the crease. I told myself that once we crossed the border, I would again be able to guess at my future.
As dawn approached, we linked up with a light-armored reconnaissance company and moved toward the breach. The LAVs would escort us through the berm before breaking off to do their own mission. Their extra firepower was especially welcome here, at the one point where the Iraqis knew we would be. Gunny Wynn drove as we spun toward the breach through deep sand. We had driven along the border at night during previous weeks, but I had never seen it up close. On the Kuwaiti side, a chainlink fence ran to the eastern and western horizons. Bulldozers or tanks had punched a gap in it a hundred yards wide. The next obstruction was a tall sand berm, followed by a ditch, then a road on which the United Nations had patrolled, followed by another fence, another berm, and a final ditch. When we climbed up out of the second ditch, we were in Iraq. It was five o’clock in the morning, Friday, March 21. H-hour. D-day.
According to my compass, we advanced due north. After twisting through scrubby plants and past rusting tanks, reminders of the war twelve years before, we started across a flat, sandy plain. I deployed the platoon in a wedge formation, with Colbert and Espera at the front and Lovell and Patrick at either flank. This maximized our firepower to the front by allowing each team to shoot forward, rather than being masked behind one another. I was struck by the sight of Sergeant Lovell’s team racing through the desert a few hundred meters to my left, their Humvee throwing a tail of dust into the sky behind it. It was a scene of pure aggression.
We passed desolate homes, where families eked out a living with goats and emaciated cattle. Our first Iraqis. We trained binoculars and machine guns on them, but they only waved. We waved back, thankful for their welcome, and continued pushing north at forty miles per hour. According to our intelligence, this was Iraq’s empty quarter, a vast and sparsely populated desert. By noon, we’d seen more people than I had seen in all my time in Afghanistan. It was our first clue that the civilian population of Iraq would be a major factor in the war.
With vehicles shimmering in the midday sun, we drove across a gravel sea. Some high power lines allowed me to pinpoint our location on the map. It showed a cluster of buildings to our front. As I strained to see them, antennas rose on the horizon, and we stopped a few kilometers south of a walled compound. Through my scope, I saw black human dots at the gate. The battalion called for Cobra attack helicopters, which clattered up from the south a few minutes later. They flew low over the buildings, dropping their noses menacingly at the men loafing outside. Under cover of the Cobras’ cannons, we sent a translator toward the compound. The Iraqis told him that they had been ordered to guard this communications site against the Americans, but all they wanted to do was go home. We bypassed them as the guards smiled and waved.
Minutes later, Marines in the lead Humvee spotted three land mines poking up from the rocky soil. Either they were old and had been exposed by the constant wind, or they had been lazily buried. While Colbert marked them on the Blue Force Tracker, we shifted our formation to single file, and each driver steered carefully to stay in the tracks of the Humvee in front. I was sweating in the tenth vehicle and could only sympathize with the guys up front. Soon we climbed up onto a paved road and raced along it for several miles before turning north across a trackless waste of gravelly desert.
As sunset approached, we slowed. Highway 8 cut across our path a few kilometers ahead. It was a modern highway — six lanes with guardrails and a wide median — running from Basra to Nasiriyah and then on to Baghdad. No American forces had yet crossed north of it. In recon terms, a road like this was a linear danger area — an obstacle to be dealt with most carefully. We would be exposed while crossing the highway and couldn’t know whether Iraqi tanks lurked nearby. American airpower was superb, but with so many ground units moving, we couldn’t expect complete coverage all the time. I knew only what I could see.
We crept up to the highway, planning to send vehicles down it to the east and west to guard the flanks of the crossing point. Just as we left the comparative safety of the desert and committed ourselves to crossing, two trucks came up over a rise to the east, traveling quickly toward us on the pavement. I raised my binoculars. They looked like Toyota Land Cruisers, painted desert brown and filled with people. Classic Iraqi military. A few days later, those trucks would have disappeared in a fireball anywhere within a mile of us, but this was the first day of the war. Killing and destroying had not yet become routine. Reconnaissance units train to collect information and report it back to combat commanders, who generally oversee most of the destruction. So when the trucks drove over the hill, the teams fell back on their training: instead of firing, they reported what they saw. I listened to meticulous descriptions of the trucks on the radio and wondered why no one at the front was shooting.
By the time we processed that the Iraqi military was “declared hostile” and could be engaged without provocation, the trucks had stopped, and uniformed men stood next to them with their hands in the air. Half of the battalion was already across the highway, so each passing Humvee simply trained its guns on the bewildered Iraqis and continued north into the desert beyond the road. After all the tough talk, all the doubt, fear, and wonder, our first encounter with Saddam’s army ended with us pretending we hadn’t seen them. I was grateful that we had scraped by without anyone on either side being dumb enough to fire.
We saw plumes of smoke to the east and turned to our best source of information to find out what they were. The BBC suggested that the Army was already nearing Nasiriyah, in the desert to our west, that Marines were working to secure the port city of Umm Qasr to our south, and that a few oil fires were burning in the Rumaila oil fields — the probable source of the smoke around us. They also reported Central Command’s claim that a thousand Tomahawk missiles and a thousand air sorties had been launched the night before. Wynn and I looked at each other and smiled. The more the jets destroyed, the less there would be to oppose us. We continued driving as the desert turned pink and the long shadows cast by our Humvees faded into gray.
Nightfall found us parked along the raised tracks of the Baghdad- Basra railroad. Gunny Wynn and I refueled the teams from our spare fuel cans and then drove a few kilometers back to battalion headquarters to refuel ourselves from a tanker truck. By the time we dug our ranger graves and began a radio watch rotation, rain was falling. It rained through the night, turning the dirt beneath my head into sticky clay. I steamed inside my MOPP suit as my body heated the moisture. When it dried, I wrapped myself with a crinkling space blanket in a futile attempt to keep warm. By morning, I was stiff, tired, and caked with reddish mud. It was H+24, one full day since the start of the invasion.