Chapter 23

OUR MISSION KEPT CHANGING. Eventually, I expected to move north through the marshes to recon the bridge at Chibayish, but for now our only guidance was to “screen the flank of RCT-1.” The Regimental Combat Team was moving toward Nasiriyah on Highway 8, so presumably we were there to give early warning of a massed Iraqi assault on their northern flank. The only Iraqis we saw, though, were in no shape to attack anything.

Sunrise revealed bands of men moving in the distance. They walked toward us along the elevated railroad tracks, streaming slowly from east to west. Through binoculars, I saw they wore a motley assortment of army uniforms, Western clothes, and traditional robes. Some carried AK-47s. Others lugged duffel bags and what looked like antifreeze bottles full of drinking water. Most limped, and none moved quickly.

The sight of Iraqis, especially soldiers, was still novel, and we moved forward to intercept them. The men in the lead saw us and dropped their weapons. Behind them, the gesture trickled down the line until soon the ground was littered to the horizon with discarded weapons and stripped uniforms. Grown men stood in their underwear, waving and crying. Through Mish, we learned that they were from the Fifty-first Mechanized Infantry Division, based around Basra. Their unit had surrendered and collapsed almost without firing a shot, and now they were walking to their home villages along the Euphrates near Nasiriyah, another hundred kilometers or more across barren desert. They were nearly out of water. One man cried and clutched at me, telling through his sobs of regime-controlled death squads of fedayeen executing soldiers for surrendering or abandoning their posts.

The last thing I wanted to do was get bogged down processing prisoners. Recon was the eyes and ears of the invasion force. We were in a constant race for relevance. If we fell behind the main body of the division, we fell out of the fight. Searching surrendering Iraqis was a job for the military police or another rear-echelon unit; our job was to attack north and keep attacking all the way to Baghdad. In the absence of orders, however, we had to stay there, and we couldn’t stay without at least taking a cursory interest in the hundreds of armed men flooding our position.

“Toss him a humrat,” I said.

“Humrat” was Marine slang for a humanitarian ration, a yellow plastic bag of food about the size of a small-town telephone book. In Afghanistan, the Air Force had dropped hundreds of thousands of humrats across the country, but the infantry had never gotten any. So we’d passed out regular MREs to curry favor and make deals. The hungry Afghans had torn into the meals with little regard for the contents and felt duped after eating non-halal entrées such as pork chow mein. Some people had even eaten the water-triggered chemical heaters, with predictably ugly results. In Iraq, then, each vehicle carried a case of humanitarian rations. They contained crackers, jelly, and simple dishes such as red beans and rice — no pork and no heaters.

The Iraqi soldier crouched on his haunches and watched with wide eyes as Reyes sliced open the yellow bag and held it out to him. It seemed logical that the humrats were a bright and recognizable color so that people could spot them more easily. Unfortunately, certain bombs also were painted yellow — to warn innocent people to stay away from them. Iraqis later told us stories of children confusing the two. But the soldier happily munched a Tootsie Roll, oblivious to the history and controversy surrounding his meal.

Until midafternoon, we repeated the same ritual dozens of times. Approaching Iraqis saw us and got scared. They altered course and tried to move around us. Since we wanted to prevent masses of armed men from converging on the RCT near Nasiriyah, we dispatched Humvees all over the desert, herding the Iraqi soldiers as sheepdogs do sheep. Many men waved American propaganda leaflets above their heads, as if those were guarantees of safe passage. They said that aircraft had dropped millions of leaflets all over their barracks and bases outside Basra. The leaflets promised that American forces would bypass any Iraqi who surrendered but would kill any who chose to fight. Enough of the soldiers remembered the first Gulf War to take the threat seriously. By late afternoon, we had spoken with members of three Iraqi divisions — the Fifty-first Mechanized, Sixth Armored, and Eleventh Infantry — and all told the same story. The psychological campaign in southern Iraq appeared to have been a success.

When we had a large group cornered, we would disarm them, search for anything of intelligence value, pass out humanitarian rations, and refill their water. Many men sobbed when they realized we were feeding them instead of shooting them. A young boy, dressed in military trousers and a T-shirt from the Janesville, Wisconsin, YMCA, laughed and smiled, shouting, “I make love George Bush.”

Many of the men carried gas masks. After trekking across the desert, they had discarded all they could do without, but they clung to their rifles, their water, and their gas masks. I noticed one man standing quietly to the side. He was clean-shaven and wore a dress shirt. His head turned to follow conversations as if he understood English. I introduced myself, and we shook hands. He was a battalion commander, a colonel, and most of these were his men. He thanked me for our kindness, and I replied that we, as soldiers, had more in common with each other than we did with many people in our own societies. I asked about the gas masks and whether he thought the Americans were going to use chemical weapons against Iraq.

“No,” he replied. “We think Saddam will use them against you and we will be caught in the middle.”

By midafternoon, we had searched dozens of Iraqis, and hundreds more were visible in the distance. They were mainly enlisted conscripts from the regular army. Most were Shia, and none would shed a tear at the death of the Hussein regime. This wasn’t our enemy. The Marines were getting impatient. Finally, around three o’clock, we got the order to move. Our instructions were to drive west and resume our reconnaissance to the north into the marshes toward Chibayish.

We hurtled across the desert at over sixty miles per hour. I bounced all over my seat and watched artillery pieces being hauled by trucks on the highway south of us. A race for relevance. We were already too far to the rear. Soon we curved to the right, and the highway fell out of sight. We were alone again. In the dusk, we wended our way through a ravine of sandstone bluffs. A narrow gravel road clung to the hillside, which fell off below to a canal. The dappled water flowed slowly and reflected what little light remained in the sky. I squinted at my map to find the waterway’s name: the Mother of All Battles Canal.

Ahead of us, I watched the lead Humvee bump uncertainly up onto the Ar Ratawi railroad bridge and creep out over the canal. The driver seemed to lose his nerve midspan, because the Humvee accelerated suddenly and dropped off on the far side to set up security for those of us behind. When Gunny Wynn pulled us out onto the bridge, with our wheels straddling the train tracks, I leaned sideways from my seat and looked straight down to the water below. Perhaps six inches of bridge extended on either side of our tires.

Reassuring darkness enveloped us on the other side as we stopped along the banks of the Saddam Canal and set up for the night. Our mission was simply to look north across the canal and give early warning of any Iraqi movement against RCT-1 to our south and west. After looking with satisfaction at the winking fireflies up and down the riverbank, I swung my entrenching tool to dig a ranger grave in the soft ground. Sitting with Sergeant Reyes by the radios, we watched bursts of antiaircraft fire climb into the dark sky north of us. Nearly every string of bobbing tracers was followed by a flash as the jet overhead responded with a bomb. Our heads moved left and right to follow the fire, and we cheered in hushed voices as if it were a tennis match. The night passed quietly on the canal, and when the sun rose, I dumped all our captured AK-47s into the water and watched them bubble down out of sight.

Our mission changed completely on March 23. During planning in Kuwait, and during the first few days of the war, we repeatedly made the same mistake: assuming that the Iraqi military would do what we would have done in their situation. If a foreign army were attacking Washington from the south, any American officer in any hypothetical war game would recommend blowing the bridges over the Potomac, thus turning the river into a natural obstacle between the enemy and his objective. We thought the Iraqis would do the same with the Euphrates. This expectation that the major highway bridges in Nasiriyah would be blown up is what launched First Recon on its mission through the marshes to investigate other, smaller bridges at more remote points on the river. On that Sunday morning, we learned that the bridges in Nasiriyah were intact. We backtracked to the south, happy at our good fortune and never suspecting, at least at my level, that the Iraqis might actually want us to use the bridges in Nasiriyah.

At dawn, we recrossed the Mother of All Battles Canal and merged into the westward-flowing stream of war machines on Highway 8. Marine tanks and amtracs mixed with boxy British trucks and the Polish army’s Soviet-made armored vehicles. The Poles always startled us because the Iraqi army used the same equipment. The traffic jam rolled along at thirty or forty miles per hour, making Highway 8 look something like the Santa Monica Freeway at Armageddon. Gunny Wynn and I were amused to see traveler rest areas every few miles — picnic tables with multicolored umbrellas and big plastic highway maps of Iraq. Farmers and their families lined the pavement, sometimes waving but mostly begging for food. Piles of MREs bespoke the generosity of those who had passed before us. Twice, children darted into the road to retrieve poorly thrown pieces of candy and were nearly smashed beneath the wheels of our Humvees. I passed an order over the radio forbidding any more handouts. Besides, we might need that food ourselves in the days to come.

Three hours later, the whole column slowed to a halt about thirty kilometers south of Nasiriyah. Stopped traffic stretched ahead and behind as far as I could see. We sat in the yard of a few small huts, with no idea how long we would be stopped. For the first hour, the Marines stayed in their seats, ready to move again. Slowly, they migrated into clumps near the vehicles, then sat on the roadside, and finally formed a defensive perimeter with coffeepots boiling and weapons torn apart for cleaning. I heard firing to our front. Artillery. Sitting on a roadside, heading toward the sound of guns, reminded me of stories about World War I. I recalled that those stories usually turned ugly once the narrator reached the source of the firing.

Throughout the afternoon, helicopters ferried overhead. Marine CH- 46s and Army Black Hawks flew north and then disappeared back to the south before flying north again. Back and forth. Back and forth. Through the afternoon, dusk, and darkness, the helicopters never stopped. We knew what they were doing. The Marine helicopters were painted an anonymous slate gray, but each Black Hawk bore large red crosses on its nose and sides. Casevac. They were casualty evacuation aircraft, flying dead and wounded Marines from the battlefield back to aid stations in the rear. Marines just like me were on those helicopters, and I was moving inexorably toward the place that put them there, just another cog in the machine. It was a helpless feeling, a powerless feeling, but not a self-pitying feeling. Just the opposite. I began to see a quiet resolve in the Marines around me, and I felt it myself. The platoon recleaned weapons and rechecked maps. Each passing helicopter bled energy into the Marines beneath it. We prided ourselves on being professionals, on thinking clearly with the world evaporating before our eyes. We could turn the violence on and off. But emotion began to creep in. I was angry. I wanted revenge. For the first time, my blood was up.

We spent the night there on the roadside, under the stars and the crisscrossing helicopters. The intel officer passed out aerial photographs of Nasiriyah for each platoon, paper blankets four feet wide that showed each alley and house in clear detail. The town sprawled about five kilometers square, bounded on the south by the Euphrates River and on the north by a canal. Highway 7 stretched northward on the western side of town, and Highway 8 paralleled it to the east. South of the Euphrates, Nasiriyah’s outskirts gave way gradually to palm groves and farmland — our current location. The Marines had decided to use Highway 8, calling it Route Moe, but already it was known simply as “Ambush Alley.”

I gathered the team leaders under my Humvee’s tarp, and together we studied the picture. The battalion’s mission on Monday would be to drive into Nasiriyah and join Second Battalion, Eighth Marines on the south side of the eastern bridge over the Euphrates, the southern end of Ambush Alley. We knew little about what had already happened in Nasiriyah. The BBC reported dozens of American casualties but offered few details. We heard vague reports that an Army maintenance unit had mistakenly entered the town on Sunday and been ambushed by fedayeen. Task Force Tarawa entered the town to rescue survivors and open the bridges for RCT-1 to pass over on its blitz to Baghdad. Now it looked as though the Marines were stopped and engaged in heavy fighting. We were about to join them.

We started north slowly on Monday, March 24, driving through fields next to the road in order to bypass all the supply trucks waiting for Nasiriyah to be secured. The casevac helicopters continued their morbid rounds. We passed the head of the traffic jam and continued alone. I jumped in my seat as a well-camouflaged Marine artillery battery fired a salvo from its howitzers just as we drew abreast of them. Fields gave way to concrete block buildings and metal warehouses. Men stood along the sides of the road, some jeering, some watching impassively, all menacing. To our right, an oil storage tank burned, throwing flames and a black plume high into the sky. We crossed a bridge over railroad tracks and looked down on the burned hulks of Iraqi tanks still sitting in their revetments.

Over the past four days, we had seen dozens of wrecked Iraqi vehicles. Tanks hit by American jets, trucks and antiaircraft guns blown up on the roadsides. Now we saw more wreckage in the southbound lanes. But something was different. I stared.

“Holy shit, Gunny. Those are Humvees.”

Bloody hands had pawed at the doors, leaving plaintive prints. Bullet holes frosted the windshields. Congealed blood, more blood than I thought a human body could hold, pooled around the flattened front tires. These were the sad remnants of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, which had blundered into Nasiriyah after making a wrong turn and was all but wiped out by fedayeen militiamen. At least nine soldiers had been killed and six captured, including Private First Class Jessica Lynch. All we knew that afternoon, though, was that Americans had been in those Humvees, and it looked like those Americans had died.

We were only three kilometers south of the bridge. Every tree, every wall, and every building looked hostile. I was afraid for the first time in Iraq. Against the white noise of the blood rushing through my head, I heard my feet tapping involuntarily on the Humvee floor. My knees stitched up and down like a sewing machine. My mouth felt dry and gummy. Everything seemed to pass in a blur. I thought of war stories that talked about hyperclarity in combat, seeing every blade of grass and feeling colors more intensely than ever before. But for me, whole city blocks faded into a gray fuzz. I feared I was processing information too slowly, seeing only one of every ten things I should. I felt short-changed. I wanted hyperclarity, too.

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