THE MORNING OF MARCH 26 cleared, as if the rain had washed all the dirt from the air. Sunrise revealed Marines caked in a muddy crust, stretching sore limbs and beginning the daily ritual of brewing coffee. Austere living intensified our appreciation of life’s simple pleasures. At the top of that list was a hot mug of coffee, the thicker the better. Next to each Humvee, battered canteen cups perched atop flaming pieces of C-4 plastic explosive. Brews were passed around and shared communally; to drink an entire cup yourself was poor form.
Having slept in my MOPP gear and boots, all I had to do after waking was stand up. I rolled up my sleeping bag and stuffed the wet, misshapen lump in the back of the Humvee. Despite the discomfort, this lifestyle hummed with efficiency. No shaving, showering, or ironing clothes. No blow dryers, breakfast, newspaper, or e-mail. Just wake up and live.
A radio call summoned me to company headquarters, where the same morning routine was under way. The captain briefed the day’s plan: get on the highway in thirty minutes and attack north. No Americans were currently farther north than Al Gharraf, and we’d be leapfrogging up the highway with other elements of the RCT. Changes would be briefed on the fly, he said, so be sure to keep the radios up and running. Oh, yeah, and watch out for RPG ambushes and car bombs.
Gunny Wynn and the team leaders waited around the hood of our Humvee. I grabbed my map and joined them.
“Everybody’s favorite mission: movement to contact,” I said. “We’re driving north on Highway 7, and we’re attached to RCT-1.” The team leaders took notes, studying their own maps. “We’ll be leapfrogging and strong-pointing as we go. All friendlies are on the road, so if anything off to the flanks worries you, it’s probably enemy. Cobras will be on and off. Any questions?”
“Sir, do you think Hooters girls would look better in white shorts than orange?” I grinned, and the others laughed. These guys were blessed with perfect timing.
We continued through a few serious concerns and contingencies before breaking up for the team leaders to brief their men. Gunny Wynn and I cleaned our rifles, rubbed pencil erasers on all the radio connections to scour off corrosion from the night’s rain, and started the engine. Ten minutes later, in fits and starts, the battalion snaked out of the field and up onto the single ribbon of Highway 7.
Like many bad days, this one started out well. We hummed north, passing the massed combat power of RCT-1 spread out along the highway. They were still stopped near the road intersection where we’d shot through Al Gharraf and landed in the sobka field. The town sat three hundred meters east of the highway, shuttered and menacing. As the sky continued to clear, sunlight dappled rich fields and green trees. Cooking fires smoked in chimneys. Young shepherds waved as we passed, while their sisters, dressed in robes of red and deep purple, peeked shyly from behind gates.
We halted at the southern end of An Nasr, pulling off the pavement in a herringbone. I walked to each vehicle, checking on the Marines and telling them we’d be holding for a few minutes while part of the RCT passed us to enter the town. The three snipers uncased their rifles and scanned our flanks, watching for Iraqi shooters.
In many cases, the Iraqis seemed almost completely indifferent to violence. We could be locked in a raging gunfight, with mortars exploding and jets screaming overhead, only to see three women saunter past with buckets on their heads, strolling to the town well. This made our obligation to spare civilians even harder. Snipers are the ultimate smart weapon because they hit only what they mean to kill.
As we talked, a company of tanks rumbled past. Some were painted green and some desert tan. All had names such as “Peacemaker” and “Avenger” stenciled on their barrels. The crews stood in their hatches, looking robotic beneath goggles, armor, and helmets. I noticed that once they’d passed us, they closed the hatches and proceeded toward An Nasr buttoned up tight. A company of LAVs followed them, also buttoned up, with their turrets alternating to the left and right. The highway rose south of An Nasr on a graceful, modern span of concrete, crossing low green fields and a small river before dropping back to disappear into the cluster of buildings. The tanks clanked over the bridge and out of sight. Overhead, four Cobra gunships raced north, splitting into two pairs and turning low circles over the center of town. Finally, it seemed, we were entering a town properly.
The word came to move out, and we began to climb the bridge. An Nasr’s streets were deserted, gates closed and shutters latched. Nothing moved. Tanks sat at all the cross streets, turrets leveled along the roads to discourage anyone from approaching. We passed block after block, and I started to relax. Maybe the fedayeen weren’t here, or maybe our firepower had intimidated them. As my shoulders loosened and my breathing slowed, a long burst of automatic-weapons fire roared over my right shoulder.
Tight shoulders, shallow breaths. “Hitman Two, taking fire from the east.” I tried to keep my voice steady and measured as I passed the warning.
The Humvee wove back and forth as Wynn fumbled with his rifle and the steering wheel. “Goddamn it. I don’t see anything.”
Another burst of fire ripped overhead with a series of sonic cracks.
“Where are the shooters?” I swiveled my head, looking for the source of the fire. We couldn’t shoot back indiscriminately, but I didn’t want our attackers to think they had us running scared. Our mission was clear: get to Baghdad. We choked down our rage and continued north, never firing back because we saw nothing to shoot at. Within minutes, we passed once more into open fields and groves of trees.
Bravo Company led the battalion, and Second Platoon led Bravo. Ahead of us was only LAR, and it sounded as if they were in a fight. I heard the hammering of chain guns and the whooshing of 25 mm cannons. Smoke curled into the sky ahead, and I saw flaming trucks through my binoculars. We pressed forward. I found that instinct took over in firefights, and fear was replaced by the countless small tasks of living, leading, and fighting. The anticipation was worse. As we drove toward the guns, I unconsciously pulled my arms and legs inward, trying to tuck inside my body armor. My doorless Humvee, which south of An Nasr had satisfied me as a pleasant way to enjoy the beautiful countryside, now felt ridiculously exposed. In my mind, every tree, rooftop, and berm hid a fighter with an RPG, and that RPG was surely going to hit me square in the chest. At first, I stayed off the radio for fear that my voice would sound funny. But when I made a call, I was surprised to hear it steady and calm.
LAR left the fedayeen few options but to flee, surrender, or die. We passed a minibus that had recently exploded. Its occupants were charred lumps, some hanging from the shattered windows. Only the driver was alive, and he waved feebly, still seated behind the steering wheel and burned nearly black. On the sides of the road, dead gunmen sprawled from fighting holes. We drove gingerly past one still clutching his RPG launcher. Rocket-propelled grenades littered the ground around his corpse.
Four pickup trucks burned along the shoulder. Each had been mounted with an antiaircraft machine gun and parked facing north, so the guns could be fired south as we advanced up the highway. Now the guns were blackened and bent, and their skeletal crews smoldered in the dust. Container trucks and tankers burned farther off the road, sending clouds of greasy smoke into the sky. I turned to focus on a flash of color in my peripheral vision and saw a dead girl in a blue dress sprawled in the road. She looked to be about six years old. Next to her, crouched on his haunches with his hands atop his head in surrender, a uniformed soldier hissed at us as we passed. Reaching back to four years in a Jesuit high school, I found myself mouthing the Twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .”
We sprinted through the town of Ash Shatrah with every available gun hanging out our windows. We didn’t know it at the time, but Ash Shatrah would later take on symbolic importance in the war. A supply convoy would be ambushed on this same road, and a Marine sergeant would be captured and mutilated, some said crucified. (Our battalion’s Alpha Company was sent to work with the CIA and the Free Iraqi Forces to recover the Marine’s body and teach the people of Ash Shatrah a lesson about desecrating Marines. Just before the operation, however, the Marines realized that most of their Iraqi allies had fled in the night.)
The next town on the map was Ar Rifa. Battalion headquarters called to say that we would reverse the An Nasr plan — recon would enter the town first and strong-point it for the RCT to move through. My platoon would lead the battalion into Ar Rifa, peeling off the road at the first major intersection to set up a strongpoint. The rest of Bravo Company would continue a kilometer farther north and do the same. Then Alpha and Charlie would pass by us to establish their strongpoints in the central and northern parts of town. Once we were all in place, RCT- 1 would thunder through to continue the push north. By the time we entered the town, it was early afternoon, but we expected the whole process to take less than an hour.
Ar Rifa stank. The town sprawled west of the highway, stopping at a wall just fifty meters from the road. Sewage flowed through drainage ditches, and trash piles dotted the roadside. An electrical substation stood just east of the highway. It was on fire; the bluish white blaze smelled like fried wiring. Three hundred meters past it were a smattering of mud huts, a row of palm trees, and a few berms. South of the power station, a small road joined the highway from the east. This is where I led the platoon to set up our strongpoint.
We parked our five Humvees in the shallow defilade of a drainage ditch and posted security in all directions. The snipers peered through their scopes at walls, gates, and rooftops. Machine gunners trained their guns on likely targets, one north, one south, one east, and one west. Gunny Wynn and I studied the map and plotted targets for on-call artillery to speed up the response time in case we needed help fast. As we worked, the rest of the battalion roared past, smiling and waving, clearly happy not to be stopping at our sorry excuse for a strongpoint.
“I’ve got armed men moving in the trees!” Christeson shouted, then pointed as three or four men darted through the tree line, carrying RPGs and looking our way.
I talked Wynn onto them, and he rested his M40 sniper rifle on the hood of the Humvee. Patiently, he stared through the scope, ignoring the noise and confusion swirling around him. His finger tightened on the trigger, then slackened again, waiting for the perfect shot. I was turning to answer the radio when his rifle cracked.
“Don’t know if I hit ’em, but that’ll make ’em think twice.”
Two of the men ran out from behind a berm. Christeson opened up with a light machine gun, spitting 5.56 mm rounds at them in bursts of eight or ten. I saw through my binoculars that he was aiming high. Tracers arced over their heads as they ran.
“Lower, Christeson. You’re shooting too high.” My voice sounded calm, almost like a coach on the rifle range. Again, this surprised me. I was learning that leadership under fire is part theater. There must be competence to back it up, but appearances go a long way toward setting the tone for the whole platoon. Christeson dropped his rounds, and the men fell. “Keep an eye out, Christeson, and kill anyone else who comes at us from that direction.”
Only a football field away in the other direction were the walls of Ar Rifa. Like most Iraqi towns, this one blended the East African and Soviet brands of despair. The houses were some combination of mud, cinderblocks, and unfinished wood. Water cisterns perched on flat roofs, and makeshift television antennas crawled from upper-story windows like steel ivy. Dark windows, many without glass, broke the thick walls. The buildings sat close together, separated only by narrow alleys closed off with wrought iron gates. Government buildings, generally made of stone or poured concrete, stood out among the houses. Their spare, symmetrical forms oozed authoritarianism. Often their only ornamentation was an Iraqi crest over the door, and sometimes a tattered green-and-black flag flying in front. In my military judgment, Ar Rifa was a densely concentrated natural fortress of thick walls and tall gates, and we sat far too close to it.
Our sporadic gunfire died out, and no one moved in the fields around us. The Marines settled into a tense wait, eyeing their watches and damning RCT-1 for being so slow. I stood next to Christeson as he scanned the tree line. As far as I knew, the earlier shooting had been his first at close human targets, and I wanted to feel him out a bit.
“That was good shooting, Christeson.”
He looked surprised that I was addressing him. “Thanks, sir.” Christeson was the youngest member of the platoon. Normally, in a recon unit full of senior Marines, a private first class would be fresh meat. But Christeson could hold his own. He had received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy to become an officer but had turned it down after 9/11 to enlist as a Marine grunt. I respected him for that.
From the south, artillery boomed. They were shots, not impacts, and Wynn glanced at me with a raised eyebrow. I shook my head. Don’t know. The rounds rustled overhead and exploded into the northern end of Ar Rifa. Someone was controlling the fire mission, and the only Americans up there were recon’s other companies. I got on the radio. Alpha Company was shooting at the Ba’ath Party headquarters. We wondered about the wisdom of dropping high-explosive artillery shells into a crowded town, regardless of the target’s legitimacy. More questionable news followed: our company commander was on his way to our position to work up a mission to deter those gunmen moving in the trees to our east.
I met the captain when his Humvee pulled into our small circle. “Sir, we took some shots at them, and they seem to have gotten the idea,” I said. “We’re glassing the area but haven’t seen anyone moving.”
“Yeah, but Alpha Company’s up there calling for fire, and I want to call a mission, too.”
I couldn’t believe it. We were going to fire artillery to keep up with Alpha Company. “Sir, I’d rather go on doing what we’re doing. We’ve got things under control.”
“You just keep tabs on your platoon, Lieutenant Fick, and let me work up the mission.” Three minutes later, I listened as he made a botched call for fire to the battalion. I sat on my hands until he called in a target location only two hundred meters from where we stood. Anything inside six hundred meters was considered “danger close” — requiring special care due to its proximity to friendly troops. In this open ground, we’d be showered with shrapnel from our own rounds. I started to intervene.
“Sir, that’s way inside danger close. Cancel the mission,” Gunny Wynn said with growing alarm.
“We’re shooting it. Keep quiet,” he replied.
“It’s an empty field!” I shouted. “We’re watching it. You’re going to hit us with the rounds, and probably RCT-1, too, since we don’t know when they’ll be coming up the road. Cancel the fucking mission.” I reached to take the radio handset from him.
I later found out that Major Whitmer was on the other end of the radio, and he was even angrier than I was. He threw the handset down in disgust, screaming about “that fucking idiot,” whom the battalion staff secretly called “Shitman.” His candor earned him a disapproving look from Colonel Ferrando, since the division chief of staff was within earshot. But he rejected the mission and put a limit on the damage wrought by the captain’s ineptitude. The CO drove off after threatening me for challenging his authority.
In keeping with our tradition of a crisis a minute, Sergeant Espera ran up, crouching low behind the Humvees to thwart any snipers watching us. “Sir, I’ve got a flat tire. We need to change it now so we’re ready to move.”
I considered this, using the framework my Quantico instructors referred to as “turning the map around” — looking at the options from the enemy’s perspective. What would I do, as a fedayeen commander, if I saw a Marine Humvee up on a jack with men frantically changing a flat tire? I’d capitalize on their weakness and attack. At worst, I’d catch them immobile and inflict casualties. At best, I’d force them to withdraw, leaving the Humvee for me to burn as a trophy of American impotence.
“Espera, I can’t let you do that here,” I said. “You have to take your team and drive up to Goodwrench’s position. They have more people and can help you change the tire faster. Sorry. Get your boys together and go now. We could be moving any minute.”
He shot me a glance, half-trusting and half-doubting. Another second’s consideration and Espera nodded, seeing the logic. “Roger that, sir. I’ll call you when we’re en route back here.”
Espera’s open-back Humvee crept out from the drainage ditch and raced up the highway, bumping unevenly on its rim. Watching them go, I felt another pang of responsibility, and of respect.
Three hours after stopping, we still hadn’t seen a single Marine from RCT-1. Watching the sun slide down the sky, I was more and more uncomfortable about sitting in one place. Tactical catastrophes are rarely the outcome of a single poor decision. Small compromises incrementally close off options until a commander is forced into actions he would never choose freely. I didn’t want to become the subject of a case study taught at Quantico, and I certainly didn’t want to be pictured in Dr. Death’s killology slide show.
Although Ar Rifa’s gates and shutters had been closed when we arrived, curious townspeople gradually began to venture outside the walls, peering at us. Some waved, while others drew their fingers across their throats. Up the road, dozens of Iraqis scoured the pavement, scavenging spent brass bullet casings from the earlier shooting. I called battalion headquarters to request a translator. Ten minutes later, a Humvee roared down the road and deposited Mish in the mud next to me.
Mish, a Kuwaiti, despised the Iraqis, who had overrun his country only a decade before. He weighed more than 250 pounds, and he kept his long hair coiled in a pile beneath an American-issue helmet. Even after the Marine Corps concluded that weapons of mass destruction were no longer a threat and allowed us to remove our MOPP suits, Mish could never be found without his chemical suit, gloves, and cumbersome rubber boots. Now he eyed the growing crowd with distaste before ambling across the road to talk.
I watched as the residents shook their fists and spat in Arabic at Mish. He shrugged and listened with heavy-lidded eyes. Three men from Ar Rifa pointed at us, their voices raised and their feet stamping angrily. I told Lovell’s Marines to keep an eye on me and walked out to join Mish.
“What are they saying?”
Mish paused, savoring his importance. “They say they are happy the Marines are here, and they’re grateful to be liberated.”
“Goddammit, Mish, cut the bullshit.”
“They wonder why you are sitting here and are afraid you will attack the town and kill them. They say the fedayeen are at the other end of town, in the old headquarters of the Ba’ath Party. They want to help us kill the bad guys.”
Now we were making progress. “OK, ask them if they can do something for us.” I handed Mish a fistful of infrared chem lights. “Tell them to wait until after dark, then crack these chem lights and put them on the roofs of the buildings where the fedayeen are holed up. American helicopters will be able to see the lights and may destroy the buildings.”
This was a plan we’d been briefed on earlier. I had my doubts about it, given what I’d already seen of Iraqi tribalism. Most of these lights, I expected, would end up on the roofs of people to whom these men owed money. Still, it might work if we could corroborate the identity of the buildings with another source. The men thanked me profusely for the lights as Mish extorted cigarettes from them. Dusk had deepened over Ar Rifa, and we jogged back across no man’s land to the relative safety of the Humvees.
The battalion repeated instructions to stand by and wait for RCT-1, so we settled in for an uneasy night. The Marines attached batteries to our fireflies, and soon the little infrared lights winked comfortingly from each Humvee when viewed through night vision goggles. A few Marines dozed on the ground while their teammates scanned the fields and town for movement. I checked our perimeter security again and stopped at Colbert’s Humvee to use the AN/PAS-13. This black plastic sight was about the size of a tissue box and enabled us to see heat. Traditional night optics amplify ambient light, hence the nickname “star-light scopes.” Thermal optics like the AN/PAS-13 see heat differentials and paint any heat source, such as a human being, as a bright white blob moving against a dark background. Satisfied that we were alone, I walked back to my Humvee to monitor the radio and choke down a cold MRE. A call from headquarters interrupted me.
“Be advised we have a friendly logistics convoy approaching from the south.”
I raised the handset to reply as machine gun fire shattered the night. Red tracers streamed east and west from the highway as trucks rumbled closer. I looked in vain for incoming fire.
“Get down! Everybody down!”
The platoon was already diving from turrets and hoods onto the dirt. I dropped behind the engine block with the side of my head pressed into the mud. Yelling “Cease fire” into the handset, I watched the convoy of trucks racing toward us, still pumping rounds into the trees and buildings along the highway. Not a single tracer round traveled toward them from the darkness. For a moment, I fixed on the irony of waiting to be shot by fellow Marines. Rage followed cynicism as I thought indignantly of how we had spent the entire day sitting in this dangerous spot, making it safe for their passage, and now these pogues were blasting through at fifty miles per hour, shooting everything in sight. My neural tangent circled back to how good it would feel to return fire, knowing we could waste the careless bastards. By then, though, the trucks were nearly abreast of us, and I pushed deeper into the dirt, watching beneath the Humvee as seven-ton trucks and tractor-trailers roared past, spewing tracers in wild streams far above our heads. Thank God they couldn’t aim. I called a warning north to the other platoons before sitting up and leaning back against the tire. Mud caked the side of my face.
Colbert shouted from the darkness, “Fuckers thought our fireflies were muzzle flashes.” Another voice volunteered that support troops should carry clubs instead of guns.
Near midnight, the battalion called to tell us we’d be linking up as a battalion on the north side of Ar Rifa before beginning a long drive north to an airfield near Qalat Sukkar. Gunny Wynn and I huddled beneath a poncho, shining a red-lens flashlight on our maps and trying to figure out how to get there. Qalat Sukkar was the next town north on Highway 7, about twenty miles away. The airfield, though, was east of the town on a road labeled Highway 17. It looked like forty or fifty miles of nighttime driving, without headlights, through enemy territory far forward of any American positions.
Wynn turned to me with a resigned look and said, “Being in this battalion is like winning the lottery every fucking day.”