MACHINE GUNS RATTLED somewhere to our front. Mortar rounds thumped into fields off the sides of the road, leaving brown columns of dust hanging in the air. Wreckage blocked half the highway. We sped up, careening over the curbed median to drive north in the southbound lanes.
“How’d we go from quiet fields to this in half an hour?” Wynn asked, steering with his left hand while aiming a rifle out the open door with his right.
I’d been asking myself the same question. “Southernmost city on the way to Baghdad. We’re right where they want us.”
Radio reports of gunshots and suspicious activity stopped as we entered a maelstrom of shooting and moving. There was too much to call in. Forward of the artillery batteries and support troops, but still behind the infantry units up at the bridges, we took small-arms fire from palm groves along the road, which meant the grunts ahead were surrounded. Finally, we passed Marine vehicles herringboned on the highway and saw infantrymen strung out in the fields in shallow holes. At the southern end of the bridge leading to Ambush Alley, we swung to the left and pulled into the defilade of a small dirt lot surrounded by palm trees.
My first reaction was to laugh. We had stumbled onto the set of a Vietnam War movie. Dense green palms encircled us, and a fence of dried fronds lined the side of the clearing. Gunfire echoed everywhere, and Marines darted back and forth, hunched low. Cobras thumped overhead, launching rockets into buildings along the far side of the river. I half-expected the notes of “Fortunate Son” to come drifting through the trees.
An artillery round crashed into the field across the road. It sliced through power lines, which sprung back and whipped through the air like angry snakes, spitting sparks. Wounded Marines fell, and calls of “Corpsman!” rose above the fire.
Alpha and Charlie companies moved forward to the riverbank, and we listened to a deafening roar of outgoing fire as they lit into enemy positions on the far banks. Bravo Company remained in the lot, waiting for instructions. I jogged over to the palm frond fence and slipped through it to talk with Marines dug in on the far side. They were facing south and west, guarding our flanks. A water buffalo rotted on its side in front of them, a victim of the crossfire. I found their platoon commander hunkered down in a hole with a rifle and a radio. He said the platoon was from Fox Company 2/8. They had been under fire all day, and he warned me about walking around like I was.
“They’re in the trees, man. They’re fucking everywhere, and the fuckers can shoot, too.”
I went back to the lot and got orders to strip all nonessential equipment from my Humvees. When Task Force Tarawa attacked across the bridge into Nasiriyah, my platoon would race in after them to evacuate casualties. There were too many RPGs in the air for helicopters to fly over the city, so all casevac would be on the ground. It was morbid, planning to evacuate Marines who were now walking around, talking with their buddies, and preparing for the attack. While we worked to dump excess fuel and add extra stretchers and medical supplies to the Humvees, mortars exploded into the dirt across the road, showering the pavement with clods of clay and clattering pebbles. I stood talking with Sergeant Patrick when a metal object sailed over the guardrail and clanged into the back of his Humvee, bouncing through the bed.
“Grenade!” The call went out, and we dove to the ground, waiting for the blast. Waiting and waiting. Finally, Patrick and I stood and peeked into the back of the vehicle. A jagged piece of shrapnel sat inside, not quite harmless, but no grenade either. We laughed. Combat slides emotions so far up the scale that amusing events become hilarious. Sometimes, in mid-firefight, I would see Marines laughing maniacally.
Helicopters continued strafing the city blocks across the river. Marines cheered as a Huey did a slow pass, raking the riverfront with its door-mounted Gatling gun. Chunks of masonry fell from buildings. Cobras swooped in fast, rockets streaking from their pods, before pulling off at crazy angles and rushing back toward ground held by the Marines. An F/A-18 Hornet thundered low over the river, all intimidation. I saw the pilot’s head in the cockpit as the gray dart slashed past. He pulled up in a rolling turn, followed by smoke puffs and strings of tracers. So much for intimidation.
Dusk settled over Nasiriyah. For us, that meant only that the tracers were easier to see. The promised attack across the bridge hadn’t happened, and we prepared to spend the night there at the bridgehead. I divided the platoon in half to provide security and dig fighting holes. No sooner had we begun to dig than word trickled down to drive three kilometers south and join RCT-1 for a nighttime mad dash through Ambush Alley.
We drove back the way we had come. Smoldering fires along the road lit our windshield with flickering light. South. I couldn’t believe we were giving up ground, even if only to regroup and rush north again. We had been told for months that most Iraqis wouldn’t fight, that any resistance this far south would be sporadic and ineffective. But we heard reports that the Saddam Fedayeen, Saddam’s “Men of Sacrifice,” were assembling for a fight in Nasiriyah. Before the war, the fedayeen had specialized in torture and executions. It looked as if they had two Marine regiments stopped in their tracks.
Hundreds of vehicles were stacked along both sides of the road. Tanks, amtracs, Humvees, and support trucks idled in the darkness. We found our place in line — right atop the railroad bridge, where we were fully backlit by an oil tank burning in a field east of the road. Any twelve-year-old with a hunting rifle could have hit the silhouettes we made in the fiery glow. I jogged up the road to the company commander’s Humvee and asked to move a hundred meters forward or backward to a better position.
“I can’t give you permission,” he replied, “without checking with the battalion.”
“So check with the battalion.”
“Bothering the battalion about something this minor will make us look bad.” He said it with exaggerated patience. “Besides, we’ll be moving soon.”
Six hours later, after alternately dozing under the Humvee, listening to radio chatter, and counting the artillery salvos sailing north into Nasiriyah, we still hadn’t moved.
I passed some of the time pacing in the road and ran into a classmate from Quantico. He looked exhausted, with dark eyes sunken in a face glowing white in the reflected firelight. I asked how he was doing.
“Hell of a day. We had some Iraqis surrendering earlier. Marines walked up to them, and the hajis dropped their white flag and pulled AKs out from under their robes. Ten minutes later, some fucker was shooting at us with a rifle in one hand and a little girl in the other. My guys are trying to do the right thing, but I don’t want to get them fucking killed in the process. There’s a bunch of dead Marines on the road in town. You’ll see ’em when we roll through.”
“Depends who you ask. RPG ambush. Friendly fire from an A-10. Hell if I know.”
We had spent the day making veterans. Most of the Marine Corps had gone ten years without a real fight. I hoped we were up the steep part of the learning curve already. General Mattis had told us to survive the first five days in combat, the most dangerous days. That left four more. Just a day before, Marines talked about this being a repeat of the hundred-hour war. The greatest fear was that it might end without us firing a shot. Surrounded by fires, I sat on the hood of the Humvee and watched the horizon flash as artillery shells crashed into Nasiriyah. Near dawn, we started the engines.
By the time we reached the southern bridge, we had opened gaps between vehicles for maneuvering room. Gas pedals were on the floor. I watched Corporal Garza standing at the machine gun in Espera’s Humvee. He was swaying, holding on with both hands to keep from falling into the street. According to the map, there were three and a half kilometers between Nasiriyah’s southern and northern bridges. Less than four minutes. We passed the bridgehead where we’d stopped the day before and began to climb the span across the Euphrates. I felt the anticipation of ratcheting up a roller coaster. We crested it and looked up the length of Ambush Alley. It was the pause at the top of the hill, just before the plunge. We hurtled down into town, speeding past cinderblock buildings and wrecked cars. Whole blocks were in rubble, and stray dogs yelped as we passed.
An infantry battalion manned a picket line in the city, lining Route Moe with amtracs and dismounted infantrymen. I didn’t envy their job, sitting in a hostile city with thousands of nervous, trigger-happy Marines rolling past. Small-arms fire chirped to our front and rear, but I saw nothing to shoot at. Long cross streets stretched into the distance, lined with telephone poles. I expected to see figures darting between alleys, shooting from the hip, but the streets were empty. Fighting holes pocked the ground, and I waited for a scarf-wrapped head to pop up and shoulder an RPG. None did.
What we saw was the detritus of earlier combat. An amtrac sat in the road with its roof peeled back like a sardine can. Packs and sleeping bags littered the ground, and I saw lumps covered with ponchos. Dead Marines. It must have been bad for the dead to be lying where they fell the day before. I drove past knowing that each Marine in my platoon was seeing his fallen comrades. We saw Iraqis, too. A truck full of antiaircraft guns sat in the southbound lanes, with the driver’s bullet-riddled corpse hanging from the cab by his feet. His head nearly touched the ground. Another man lay in the street, where dozens of tracked vehicles had smashed him nearly flat. His torso spread across the pavement in a red smear. The Marines referred to him afterward as “tomato crate man.”
At the northern end of Ambush Alley, we crossed another bridge and turned left at an intersection. LAVs lurched through the fields next to the road, blasting away at assailants unseen. I was grateful for their covering fire and kept our speed up. A right turn put us on Highway 7, which we would follow all the way north to Al Kut, on the Tigris River.
The two-hundred-kilometer stretch of highway between Nasiriyah and Al Kut would take us ten days to travel. While the Third Infantry Division, RCT-5, and RCT-7 swung wide to the west through open desert, RCT-1 and First Recon battled through every town on Highway 7 in the ancient “land between the two rivers.” Our mission was to engage Iraqi units and keep them from falling back to defend Baghdad. The Army and the other RCTs would pay their dues farther north when they led the charge into the capital, but for the next ten days, much of the fighting would take place along this highway.
We started north from Nasiriyah trying to figure out if we were the lead American unit on the highway. Two battalions had crossed the Euphrates bridge ahead of us, but they were garrisoned along Ambush Alley and at the intersection. That put us at the front. Our conclusion was confirmed by reports of an Iraqi BM-21 rocket launcher in the road just ahead. We stopped while a jet rolled in and blew it up.
I knelt next to the Humvee while we halted. Stopped vehicles are magnets for RPGs, and I, like every infantryman, always felt better with my boots in the dirt. Looking around, I saw an industrial slum of junk-yards, machine shops, and trash piles. Green and black flags drooped from buildings in the morning heat, and yellow-eyed dogs stared at the invaders. We scanned the alleys and windows for human movement but saw nothing. Stopping like this invited trouble. I didn’t yet appreciate the awesome firepower of a Marine platoon in a tight circle.
Shadowy human forms danced in my peripheral vision. I never turned in time to see them fully. A man in a window. Another dodging from one building to the next. A third peeking over a distant berm. After Nasiriyah, I kept an earplug in my right ear, my shooting ear. It amplified the sound of the blood whooshing through my head. I wanted to blaze away with the machine guns and level everything around us. Clear fields of fire would make us safe. But we couldn’t do that. We could only sit and wait and watch with flickering eyes.
The highway passed into a flat and featureless countryside. It was elevated a few feet above the surrounding fields. Dikes and ditches crisscrossed them, but there wasn’t any cultivation. The wind blew across barren squares of brown mud. Walled houses lined the road at broad intervals. The image of harmless, depressed farm country broke down when we began to pass fighting holes, blown-up trucks, and bodies. Marine aircraft had swept the road clear ahead of our advance, and the remains burned along both shoulders. Piles of RPGs, pickup truck “technicals” with antiaircraft guns mounted in the back, tanks blackened and flipped on their sides. We didn’t see a single live soldier.
After three hours of driving, the battalion pulled off the highway in a herringbone formation so we could shoot to our flanks and cover one another. Marines climbed down and walked in front of their vehicles for security. I waded into neck-high scrub, silencing each step as I looked left and right over my rifle barrel. Branches screeched along my trousers, and each broken twig sounded like a rifle shot. I climbed slowly over a small berm and stopped. Below me was a fighting hole. Blankets lined it, and a kettle still hung over a fire. Untouched food was neatly dished onto two plates. Footprints in the dust disappeared into the brush.
“Christeson, Stafford, get over here.”
The two Marines came running and began walking a double helix along the footprints, cutting back and forth like dogs on a scent. But the hole’s occupants were gone. I imagined two guys, probably my age, told to sit in their hole and shoot at the Americans when they came. They would be protecting their village, their mothers and sisters, from the infidels. Even if they died, they would enter heaven as martyrs to live in eternity with their ninety-nine virgins. It probably sounded like a pretty good plan until they saw a column of Marines stop in front of them.
We had halted so the commanders could plan our next move. I was called forward to receive an operations order for the rest of the day. Spreading my map on a Humvee hood, I listened and scribbled notes. RCT-1 would be advancing on Highway 7, and First Recon would move east of the highway to patrol through the farmland five to ten kilometers from the road. Our mission was to screen the RCT’s flank and provide early warning of attacks from that direction. With a blue marker, I traced our proposed route along dirt roads and irrigation dikes. Bravo Company would lead the battalion, with my platoon leading Bravo.
Screening was a good reconnaissance mission, and this task was simple, with a clear purpose. Best of all, as Sergeant Lovell pointed out, “We’ll be in the countryside, where we can fight, instead of in the towns, where we just have to bend over and take it.”
We started driving again, with Sergeant Colbert’s Humvee on point. Sergeant Espera followed him, then Gunny and me, and behind us Patrick and Lovell. We left the pavement near a small village called Jahar and bumped slowly east on a narrow, dusty track. A body sprawled in a ditch at the turn, torn apart, it seemed, by helicopter fire.
The road twisted through fields broken by dry ditches. We wound between palms and stands of reeds, farther and farther from the highway and into greener and greener country. Mud huts lined the irrigation canals, lush and cool in the shade of the sheltering trees. The roads were built for donkey carts and foot traffic, not for three-ton Humvees. Dirt slid from under the tires into the ditches, the sides threatening to collapse and throw us down into the stagnant water. We inched across a narrow bridge and found ourselves in a yard without exit. I stopped and called a warning back to the company. Our sister platoon, Hitman Three, turned away from the bridge and took the lead for the battalion. We watched as the rest of the column inched past, then we fell in at the rear. Now we were the last vehicles in the battalion column. Patrick and Lovell swung their machine guns around to cover our backs.
Word of mouth outpaced our tortuous progress, and soon people lined the trail as we approached. Most were friendly, smiling and cheering, but it registered that they knew where we would be before we arrived. There was only one passable route through the canals. The road turned gradually north, paralleling Highway 7 beyond sight to our left. I enjoyed the shade and the greenery, the water and crops and glimpse of survival in the fabled southern marshes. This Shia way of life was vanishing, and I wished we could enjoy it without the taint of war.
Two little girls came sprinting from a house, yellow dresses flapping. They skidded down a steep ditch between us and their home, then hopped daintily across the water, causing two basking turtles to duck under. The girls clawed and clambered up the near side of the canal and ran into the road directly in front of my Humvee, smiling and waving to the Marines in Espera’s team. The Humvee stopped. Garza elevated the machine gun away from the girls and leaned down with two humrats in his gloved hand. Tenderly, he placed them in the girls’ outstretched arms. I fumbled for my camera but missed the moment. The girls, shrieking in glee, tumbled back down across the ditch and ran home, where their father took the rations and waved solemnly to us.
Slowly but perceptibly, the atmosphere changed. Our path angled slightly back toward the highway, toward a small town we planned to approach before veering east again on another trail to continue our screen. I never acquired a sixth sense in combat, but my original five became more finely tuned. We began to notice danger signs. People watched impassively as we passed. I made eye contact with a man my father’s age. He drew his finger slowly across his throat. Farther on, women with wrapped bundles on their backs walked south, opposite the direction we drove. They clutched their children and stole glances at us. One man chugged along in a tractor dragging a trailer filled with kids and household goods. This couldn’t be normal. They were fleeing from something.
“Hitman Two, we’re about to get hit. Lots of civilians around. Shoot only discrete targets.”
My warning was unnecessary. The Marines could read the signs as well as I could. They knew our contact drills and rules of engagement. But it made me feel better. I had formally cocked the pistol. Now we just pointed it around and waited for someone to make us pull the trigger.
As if on cue, gunfire cracked to the front, and the column halted. Instinctively, we knelt in the dirt next to the vehicles, hating to be caged inside.
“Alpha Company’s in contact. Stand by.” Alpha was leading the formation.
Just as we stopped, the wind picked up. Swirling dust cut our visibility to a few hundred yards. It stung my eyes, forcing me to drop goggles across my face, further blocking my sight. These shamals, or sand-storms, blew in without warning. They filled everything with sand — Humvee air filters, machine gun chambers, mouths and eyes. We sat in a small depression, which gave us a little protection from the wind and enemy fire. On the radio, I learned that Alpha was calling in artillery to break up whatever resistance they had run into. We heard the occasional staccato of small arms, punctuated by the deeper roar of a machine gun. With the distance and the wind, I couldn’t tell whether the fire was ours or theirs.
We waited tensely for fifteen minutes. The Marines scanned the fields and trees around us, looking for anything to shoot at. All we saw were villagers continuing their frightened exodus. Gunny Wynn and I lay on our stomachs on the side of a berm. He scanned a tree line through the scope of his sniper rifle while I kept my ear to the radio.
“It’s that town up ahead,” he said. “Every time we get near a town, they’ll hit us. Luckily, it looks like we’re just skirting this one, and then we’ll be back out in open country. At least we’re learning.”
I agreed with him. The last thing I wanted to do was repeat Nasiriyah, and I suspected our commanders felt the same way. Then the radio beeped.
“Hitman Two, stand by to move. The screening mission is over. We’ll be proceeding west to the highway through the center of this town.”