COLBERT ACCELERATED AHEAD of me, turning hard to the left at the entrance to the town. Espera, faithful teammate, followed close behind him. The teams’ gunners stood in their turrets, fully exposed. Wynn floored the gas pedal, and I clung to the windshield strut to keep from being thrown sideways out the door as we made the turn. To the right, a row of three-story buildings fronted the street. The dark recesses of doors and windows hid behind wrought iron balconies and cracked shutters. Sparkling muzzle flashes blinked in each black rectangle.
Sensory overload paralyzed me. I saw mud buildings set many meters back from the road. Beyond the turn, the buildings were concrete and seemed to tower above the road on both sides, trapping us in an urban canyon. Flashes of incoming fire surrounded us, but I didn’t hear it, and I couldn’t tell whether my platoon was shooting back. There was no fear, but no bravado either. I felt nothing. I was a passive observer watching this ambush unfold on a movie screen.
When Gunny Wynn yanked the wheel straight, I snapped back to the present. My hearing returned all at once: roaring machine guns, Humvee engine shrieking. I saw the street, the fedayeen positions, and my platoon in a fight. Fire poured from the buildings on both sides. Wisps of smoke swirled in the wake of each bullet. We drag-raced down the street, but it felt like a crawl. I lifted off my seat as we crashed through potholes and over missing slabs of pavement. Colbert darted left around a wrecked car smoking in the middle of the road. Wynn followed, and we jumped the median, swerved past a light pole, and picked up speed. Muddy water and sewage sprayed in rooster tails from the Humvees’ tires.
“This is Hitman Two, in contact. Taking small arms, left and right. We’re engaging.” I couldn’t even see the rest of the battalion ahead of us.
“Roger, Two,” headquarters replied. “We took some on our way through, too. Just keep pushing.”
Survival and command tugged me in different directions. A normal human survival reaction would be to curl up on the Humvee floorboards and close my eyes. This is precisely the reaction Marine Corps training is designed to overcome. And it worked. After the initial shock of the ambush, I felt calm and completely self-possessed. The Marines looked the same. They were aiming their shots, calling out targets, and moving as one.
For a platoon commander, the job was simple. Haul balls through town, shoot enough to keep the bad guys from aiming, and hope to get everybody out the other side. My biggest fear was that a driver would be shot or a Humvee blown up and we’d have to stop to pick up survivors. Stopping meant dying, and I stayed on the radio with Team Three at the back of our column, just to make sure they were still there.
“Two-Three, how you doin’ back there?”
“Two-Three’s up. Runnin’ and gunnin’.”
My best concession to the survival instinct, at this point, was to shoot. The first lesson every young infantry officer learns at Quantico is that your job when being shot at is to shoot back. “Gain and maintain fire superiority” is how the Marine Corps describes it. There were only twenty-three of us, so every gun counted. There was no artillery to call, no updates to give my commander. I was just another shooter. I leaned into my M-16 and began firing into windows and doors. The rifle’s sharp reports were deafening inside the Humvee. With the radio handset pressed to my left ear, my right ear rang from the gunshots. I realized my earplug had fallen out, and I irrationally reached down to find it. I needed both hands on the rifle, though, in the bouncing Humvee.
My magazine held all tracer rounds to mark targets for the platoon, and I could see that I wasn’t hitting anything. All the jarring made it hard to aim. My rifle had an M203 grenade launcher slung beneath the barrel. Close is good enough with grenades, so I reached into a bag of 203 rounds hanging from the roof of the cab. Pumping the breach of the grenade launcher, I fired as fast as I could reload.
Aside from insects and plants, I’d killed one living thing in my life. While mowing my parents’ lawn as a teenager, I’d accidentally wounded a chipmunk with the mower blade. Gritting my teeth, I’d cut off its head with a shovel. Even this mercy killing had bothered me. I’d never been hunting and had no desire to go. Now, shooting grenades at strangers in an unnamed town, I was kind of enjoying myself.
The long-sought hyperclarity had kicked in. I saw a young man crouching in an alley. He wore dark trousers and a blue shirt. His silver belt buckle gleamed. He bent forward on one knee, bracing his upper body against the wall of a building. He held an AK-47 and sighted down its barrel as he fired at us. The rifle jumped in his hands, and little spurts of flame flashed from the muzzle. He seemed very small to me, although he could not have been more than thirty meters away. I lobbed a grenade at him and the round exploded against the wall just above his head. I watched him fall over the rifle. We flashed past the alley, and I reloaded, firing more grenades into windows and open doors.
My chest slammed against the dashboard as Wynn stood on the brakes. Ahead of us, the Iraqis dropped an overhead power line onto Colbert’s vehicle, knocking Corporal Walt Hasser from the turret. He sprawled backward across the roof. I watched a pair of hands reach up and pull him upright. For an eternity of two or three seconds, we sat almost motionless. In the lull, I heard a Mark-19 roaring behind me as Corporal Jacks tore a building in half. He was bellowing as he fired, yelling at us not to stop moving. When enemy fire erupted from a mud-brick building to our left, Jacks stitched it with dozens of grenades, collapsing three stories into two and silencing the fedayeen guns. When Hasser sat up, we jumped forward again.
Colbert’s team made a forty-five-degree turn at high speed, and I saw the Humvee’s outer wheels unweight themselves and threaten to leave the road. Corporal Person corrected, and they kept barreling east. Espera and Wynn followed through the turn, and I was briefly aware of a turquoise-domed mosque surrounded by a masonry wall. Shots rained down from the minaret. I thought, absurdly, that this was against the rules. We were in the home stretch now, approaching the edge of town. On the radio, Team Three assured me they were behind us, following Team Two. I still couldn’t see anyone else from the battalion ahead.
Finally, we flashed through a walled gate. We hit the T intersection with Highway 7 still doing over fifty miles per hour. To the south, herringboned off the road, sat the tanks of RCT-1. Rows of dismounted Marines crouched behind berms, watching in disbelief as our Humvees rocketed out of the town. Colbert was moving too fast to make the turn onto the highway and rumbled down an embankment on the far side. With bullets still whizzing from behind us, we all followed, trying to put some dirt between us and the town.
Colbert turned south on the hard-baked dirt at the bottom of the embankment. There was a hazy tree line a mile away across the open field. Tactically, this was still pretty easy — shoot, move, communicate. Team Three halted behind us, in partial defilade behind the berm so their machine gun could fire back into the town to take some pressure off us. Stinetorf hunched forward with dark goggles over his eyes, blazing away. We had escaped. Then everything went to hell.
With a sickening crunch, Colbert’s heavy-armored Humvee cracked through the field’s dirt crust and sank to its frame in tar. The field was sobka — a huge crème brûlée, baked hard on top but deep and soft underneath. We’d all been briefed on Iraq’s sobka fields but had yet to see one. Now we were mired in one and still under fire.
Colbert’s team piled out as we set up a hasty defensive perimeter. Team Three continued to cover our rear, and I sent Espera ahead to give us some visibility across the berm to our front. At that point, my worst nightmare was a wave of angry fedayeen seeing us helpless and streaming across the road to finish the fight. The wind had picked up, and blowing sand turned the sky orange and cut our visibility to a few hundred meters. Patrick crept forward to the edge of the sobka and hooked a winch to the rear of Colbert’s Humvee. Rudy threw the vehicle into reverse, whining, straining, not moving an inch. It was futile. We needed something with more torque and more horsepower.
I called the battalion on the radio and requested Goodwrench, the mechanical support team. The motor transport guys are not recon Marines, and the younger team operators sometimes deride them as pogues. I never heard these disparagements from the older Marines in the platoon. That afternoon, I learned why.
Five minutes after my call for help, Staff Sergeant Brinks came chugging up the highway in his hand-me-down five-ton Army truck, oblivious to the bullets snapping past. He eased down the embankment, where Stinetorf continued to unleash bursts on our assailants. Hopping down from the cab with a grin, Brinks said, “Howdy, sir. What’s up?” I was so strung-out on adrenaline I could hardly speak, and I wasn’t sure if his cheeriness was heroism or folly. In time I would learn it’s simply the best way to get the job done.
Brinks sized up the Humvee with a professional eye and barked some orders to his Marines in the truck. They piled out and quickly attached a chain. With a tug and a pop, Colbert’s Humvee jumped from the sobka, and we were ready to move. We trained our guns on the town to cover Goodwrench’s departure and then followed him in single file. Colbert’s Humvee crabbed along on bent rims, clumps of tar seeming to double the width of its frame. After half a kilometer, we climbed back up onto the highway and accelerated past RCT-1’s dozens of armored vehicles. Why had we, in little more than dune buggies, just charged through a hostile town while tanks and LAVs sat here with their crews dozing in the dirt?
We saw the battalion circled in a field off the highway, and I led the platoon into our place along the perimeter. When halted in open terrain, the three companies formed a big circle, with each one taking a third of the clock — ten o’clock to two o’clock, two to six, and six to ten, with twelve being north. Bravo Company had six to ten, so we faced west across a mile of open field to a distant line of palm trees. Squeezing into a gap in the lines, the whole platoon covered only a hundred meters of frontage. After we pulled to a stop and Gunny Wynn shut off the engine, neither of us got out. For a few minutes, we sat quietly before turning toward each other. Wynn cracked a smile, and we both began to laugh. The laughs were forced, and I noticed he looked pale, the skin of his face drawn tighter than usual across his skull.
When he spoke, Wynn sounded hoarse. “Holy shit, huh? That was crazy.”
“We almost got hosed.” I looked at the map. “Al Gharraf. The name of the town is Al Gharraf.”
I left the platoon to set up our defense and went in search of company headquarters. Stumbling across the uneven field under the weight of my gear and MOPP suit, I saw a cluster of Marines around a figure on the ground. I walked up and heard bits of a story, surely being retold now for the tenth time.
“So Darnold’s driving through that fucking town, rounds zinging in from everywhere, and all of a sudden his arm slams sideways off the steering wheel. He says, ‘I’m hit!’ and Sergeant Kocher leans over to look. Sure enough, Darnold’s bleeding from a hole in his forearm. Well, Kocher, real cool, wraps a tourniquet around it and says, ‘You’re fine. Keep driving.’ Darnold shut up and drove, and we ended up here with everyone else. Goddamn.”
I stared for a moment at First Recon Battalion’s first combat casualty. Darnold looked fine. There was a small red hole in his forearm where the bullet had entered and lodged.
At company headquarters, the captain had no further instructions for me — just settle in for the night and be ready to move in the morning — so I returned to the platoon. By now, the Marines had hacked sleeping holes from the soft dirt and had begun the daily routine of security, cleaning weapons, eating, cleaning feet, and sleeping.
And storytelling. Every fight is refought afterward. Sometimes quietly, sometimes boisterously; sometimes with laughs, sometimes with tears. The telling and retelling are important. Platoons have institutional memory. They learn, and they change. Most of that learning happens after a firefight. Some officers squelched the stories, considering them unprofessional and distracting. I encouraged them, as psychological unburdening and as improvised classrooms where we sharpened our blades for the next fight.
But something about the retelling unnerved me, too. Faith in our senses is what anchors us to sanity. Once, in college, I went cross-country skiing during a snowstorm. As I crossed an open meadow, the blanket of snow on the ground merged with the snow falling from the sky. With no horizon and no depth perception, I got vertigo. A twig poking through the snow near my feet looked the same as another skier hundreds of yards away. My head spun, and I had to sit down.
Combat is a form of vertigo. I was trained to thrive on chaos, but nothing prepared me for the fear of doubting my own senses. Frequently, I found that my memory of a firefight was just that — mine. Afterward, five Marines told five different stories. I remembered turning left off the dirt road onto a paved street running west through Al Gharraf. I saw fire coming from buildings to the right and remembered a drag race of four or five kilometers out to the highway. That was my memory, my accepted truth of what had happened.
But the map showed the distance was only about fifteen hundred meters, less than half of what I’d estimated. Some in the platoon remembered armed men standing to our left as we made the turn; I never saw them. The domed mosque was burned into my memory, but only Colbert and Wright could remember seeing it as I described it. Person was adamant that we had driven across a bridge during our sprint to the highway. Not one other person in the platoon remembered a bridge, but there it was on the map.
Marines manned three of the four machine guns in the late afternoon. They searched the horizon with binoculars, calling out points of interest to one another. The fourth gun lay in pieces across a Humvee hood. Over it, Corporal Jacks labored intently. I watched his big dirty hands cleaning each small part with tenderness, even love. He reassembled the gun and then began to wipe down each individual grenade in the linked belts of Mark-19 ammunition. Watching Jacks clean his gun before eating, sleeping, or cleaning himself, I saw a bit of the essence of the Marine Corps, the spirit that has sustained young Marines in bad places for more than two hundred years. This was no idle patriotic reverie on my part, though. It was the kernel of a growing unwillingness to watch these Marines mistreated or wrongly employed by those with more power than experience. I cautioned myself not to pass judgment too quickly. As a platoon commander, I saw only a tiny piece of the puzzle. But every tactical fiber in my body said driving through Al Gharraf had been a mistake. We had gotten lucky, and it would be dangerous if someone mistook that luck for skill.
The sandstorm shrouded what was left of the daylight, and I hurried to finish preparing for a night on the line. I squinted through my compass to give left and right lateral limits to each machine gunner. The gunners marked these limits on their guns’ traversing bars so that in case we were attacked in the dark, the guns’ sectors would all overlap but wouldn’t include any other friendly positions. This was routine procedure, essentially unchanged since World War I. Battlefield success came from timely creativity atop a firm foundation of grunt work. Recon’s reputation was built on creativity and individual improvisation, but woe to the young lieutenant who failed to heed the unglamorous basics. Upon them, all else rested.
And so I went down the line, sighting, calculating, and drawing lines on my map. As I worked, Gunny Wynn also visited each team, looking for injuries and equipment damage and checking our ammunition. Through the whole engagement, the platoon had fired only about a thousand rounds, and we carried enough extra ammo in the back of my Humvee to top everyone off. At the end of the line, members of Lovell’s team were counting bullet holes in their Humvee and marveling at holes in the rest of their gear. Stinetorf showed me a long gash through the canvas of his North Face backpack where an AK-47 round had carved its path only inches from where he’d been standing.
“I’m guessing their warranty won’t cover this,” he said, fingering the rip.
Colbert’s Humvee had also been shot up. There were twenty-two bullet holes in it, including six in the door next to Evan Wright’s seat. When I walked up, he was studying them with a kind of awe.
“How you feeling, Evan?” I half-expected him to say he had enough information for his story and wanted to leave on the next resupply helicopter.
“Embedded,” he replied. “More embedded than I ever thought I’d be.”
Espera put an arm around his shoulders. “But he’s staying with us. Dude’s got balls.”
Gusts of wind swept across the field, blowing dust through little knots of Marines still reliving the day’s drive. I dropped my pack on the downwind side of the Humvee and stripped out of my flak jacket and helmet, feeling light and free under the breezy overcast. I swung a pickax into the earth, carving out my bed. Far from a chore, I found digging therapeutic as the day’s tension flowed from my arms through the handle to dissipate in the ground. While I dug, I thought about the relativity of safety. My friends and family at home were surely worried about me at that very moment. For them, Iraq was a dangerous place. For me, some towns were dangerous, and some were safe. Within the dangerous towns, some blocks were dangerous and some safe. On a dangerous block, one side of the street could be dangerous and the other safe. I finished digging the hole before I could work out whether that meant I was always safe or always in danger.
Darkness fell, and the wind picked up. Thunder mixed with the rumbling of distant explosions, and lightning blended with the flash of artillery rounds shooting overhead. Gunny Wynn and I sought refuge in the cab, where we monitored the radio and tore into our first MRE of the day. I realized that I was ravenous. Wynn gnawed on a Tootsie Roll as I watched his face reflected in the windshield by the dim green radio lights.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked.
“After Nasiriyah and this last place, it’s pretty clear to me what the Iraqi strategy is. They won’t touch us out here in open country because we’ll blast the shit out of them. They’ll wait till we’re in the towns, and then they’ll attrit us. When we fight back and wound civilians, they’ll get paraded all over TV and make us look like thugs.”
I looked at the map, tracing my finger up Highway 7 from Nasiriyah to Al Gharraf. Then I continued tracing north along our proposed route. An Nasr, Ash Shatrah, Ar Rifa, Qalat Sukkar, Al Hayy, Al Kut — a string of towns stretching all the way to the Tigris. And north of the Tigris lay Baghdad, the biggest town of all.
“Well, it doesn’t look like it’ll get better anytime soon,” I said.
We traded radio watch back and forth for the rest of the night. Sometime before dawn, as I lay in my hole, it started to rain.