A FLASH OF LIGHT burned through my closed eyelids and snapped me from my first deep sleep in days. I poked my head from the sleeping bag and squinted as columns of sparks rolled into the dark sky. Concussions shook me as more blasts rocked the ground beneath my back. Purple and orange flames lit the platoon, now a mass of supine sleeping bags scooting like inchworms behind and under Humvees. Incoming artillery rounds hit so quickly that I thought they must be from an MLRS. No conventional Iraqi cannons could mass firepower so well. March 30 was our eleventh night in Iraq and the first night we had not dug ranger graves to sleep in. I rolled under the Humvee, cursing the predictability of my impending death: if the surest way to get rained on is to forget your umbrella, the surest way to come under artillery barrage is to neglect to dig holes.
We had departed Qalat Sukkar that morning after a three-day stay. While welcoming the break as a chance to rest and resupply, we were concerned by the need for it. Rumors spread of the Army requesting a thirty-day pause for the Third Infantry Division to consolidate its supply lines. Even to tired Marines starved for real news, this sounded unlikely. Waking up more than once in the same place was real enough, though, and fueled the rumors. I tried to think of each day at Qalat Sukkar as another day of American airpower pounding Iraqi forces, and I was content to use the time to rest and prepare for the inevitable call ordering us forward once more. When that order finally came, it sent us only a few miles west to the intersection of Highways 7 and 17, where we joined the headquarters of RCT-1. The morning was bright and cool, and I was excited to be on the move again.
After so much time alone, the regimental command post looked like a metropolis. Hundreds of tanks, amtracs, trucks, and Humvees stretched down both sides of the highway. Cobra and Huey helicopters squatted in the dust next to their fuel tankers. Thousands of Marines wandered past tents and antenna fields. We drove into this makeshift city and parked in the defilade of a tall sand berm, feeling content within the outer security cordon of infantry Marines and satisfied that holes were unnecessary that night.
An hour later, I ducked into the battalion headquarters tent for a brief on the next morning’s mission. Colonel Ferrando stood at the center, with his staff and officers arrayed around him on MRE boxes, ammo crates, and the ground. Before turning to the mission, he spoke briefly about combat and our execution over the past ten days.
“Gents, a bad attitude spreads like a yeast infection. I need you to set the tone. You are the ones who set the example, who lead by your example. We just had a short reprieve, but we’ll be moving again tomorrow, and there will be more fights. Luck is not a method, and neither is hope. Hard work is.”
The mission called for First Recon to attack north up the highway before crossing a small bridge over the Al Gharraf River and screening to the west of the road as the RCT advanced. We’d be on our own, moving through the countryside and small villages, protecting the flank of the larger force. Our goal was to reach the town of Al Hayy by nightfall, a distance of about fifty kilometers. We would have no tanks and only limited airpower. In military jargon, it was a “movement to contact.” When I returned to brief the platoon, their interpretation was more direct: “So, sir, we’re gonna drive until we get shot at.”
Shortly after midnight, the artillery hit. We had finished the brief and looked forward to a full night’s sleep before stepping off. In a show of true combat jadedness, heads came up to watch the explosions, but not a single Marine chose to leave the warmth of his sleeping bag. After all, we couldn’t fight against a distant missile launcher. The artillery battery next to us used its radar to locate the source of the enemy barrage and lobbed volley upon volley of counterbattery fire. I slipped back to sleep beneath a comfortable blanket of outgoing death and destruction.
Our march north started uneventfully. The battalion attacked up the highway and crossed the bridge as planned. We entered a bucolic world of farms, rivers, and trees. Farmers drove their cattle, and kids waved as we passed. “Go America! Go George Bush! Give me money!” I fought the temptation to see the day as too beautiful to be dangerous. We moved slowly along dirt roads, keeping Highway 7 in sight across the river to our east. Trees lined the riverbank, and freshly dug fighting positions were hidden beneath them, providing clear shots at the American forces moving on the highway. All the new bunkers and holes made us wonder what had happened to their occupants.
“Mish, go talk to those guys and see what you can learn,” I said, sending the translator to a group of Iraqi men on the roadside. He grumbled and grunted at them while they shifted from foot to foot. They began to speak, but Mish ignored them and returned to my Humvee.
“They say they’re farmers, but they’re lying.” I already knew that. Iraqi farmers wear sandals and traditional robes. These guys wore leather shoes and were dressed in natty Western-style shirts and trousers. Their hands were soft and uncallused.
“Regular army or fedayeen?”
“Regular army, I think. Local guys — like your National Guard — who saw us coming and took off their uniforms. They don’t have that radical militant look.”
Ahead of us, Third Platoon’s commander made a radio call. “We have eyes on a dozen men throwing bags in the river. They’re running from us. Moving forward to investigate.”
We accelerated into the dust clouds thrown up by Third Platoon’s vehicles. They could probably handle this on their own, but we fell back on the golden rule of the infantry: guns are good, and more are better.
The Iraqis stopped and stared sullenly at the machine guns surrounding them. I joined the Marines fishing burlap sacks out of the river. Cutting them open, we found bales of Iraqi currency, dinars bearing Saddam Hussein’s portrait.
“Well, goddamn. Look at this.” A Marine held up a green military uniform, its underarms still wet with sweat. “National Guard, my ass. These fuckers are Republican Guard.” He pointed to a red triangular patch on the shoulder, the symbol of Saddam’s elite force.
“Cuff them. They’re coming with us.” The Republican Guard wasn’t supposed to be this far south. According to all our intelligence reports, they were in defensive positions north of the Tigris. The Iraqis wore Saddam mustaches and stood with hands thrust into their pockets. One sat on the ground with his legs crossed, fingering prayer beads and sipping from a Pepsi bottle. Third Platoon bound their hands behind their backs and lifted them into the bed of a truck.
Across the river, the infantry advance caught up with us while we were stopped with the prisoners. Two Humvees, armed with antitank missiles in their turrets, prowled side by side up Highway 7. We watched as Iraqi pickup trucks screeched to a halt in the southbound lane ahead of the Marines, then turned around and raced back north. Because of the turns and rises in the road, the Marines across the river couldn’t see them. Each time they spun around, the pickups flashed their headlights. They were signaling to fedayeen along the highway. I radioed this assessment to the battalion, and they passed it over to the infantry. The next pickup to spin around and flash its headlights disappeared in a fireball when one of the Humvees launched a missile into its cab. The Humvees rolled slowly past the wreckage, which sent plumes of greasy smoke into the sky.
Small-arms fire erupted on our flank, and a squad of Marines jumped from their amtrac to move into an enclosed courtyard. More firing followed.
“Frag out!” a Marine yelled, then pitched a hand grenade through a door. Smoke and dust poured from the building’s windows. Two Marines emerged on the roof seconds later, flashing a thumbs-up to their comrades on the highway and yelling, “Clear!”
The advance continued for the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon. We moved forward and to the flank of the RCT, protecting it from attacks launched from our side of the river. The heavy armor and infantry moved methodically up the highway, clearing resistance as they went and marching ever closer to Baghdad.
Around one P.M., my platoon took over point for the battalion and immediately ran into a village straddling the road. It hugged the riverbank, just a small collection of mud-brick homes and a few abandoned cars. Laundry drying on lines provided the only color. We had learned our lesson about rolling through such obvious ambush points, so half the platoon moved into the village on foot while the other half supported them with the heavy machine guns on the Humvees. The surest way to protect vehicles in a town is to put troops around them. Gunny Wynn controlled the vehicular force. I joined the Marines on foot, passing quick instructions over my headset radio.
“Vehicles, move just forward of the foot squad and be prepared to suppress so we can maneuver or break contact,” I ordered. “Foot mobiles, clear each building, collect all weapons and paperwork. Be alert for booby traps. We’ll link up on the north side and continue. Let’s go.”
Jogging across the field in a cautious crouch, I tucked my rifle into the crook of my shoulder. I felt safe there, on my feet, in the dirt. I never got used to sitting in a Humvee on the highway, waiting to be ambushed. On foot, I was in my element: man, boots, rifle.
Marines clambered over irrigation ditches and moved stealthily into the collection of mud huts. Chickens scattered, squawking, as we stacked against walls and burst into rooms. Most of the village was deserted. The squad collected two AK-47s and an RPG launcher, along with a pile of military uniforms bearing the Republican Guard’s red triangle. I walked one over to Major Whitmer, who was surrounded by maps and radios in the back of the battalion operations Humvee.
“Here you go, sir. A little souvenir of Saddam’s finest.”
He laughed and said, “I bet you thought you were coming to recon to get away from clearing villages on foot.”
At the northern end of the village, a group of women and children huddled together in a one-room school. They had seen us coming and retreated there in fear. We reassured them that we meant no harm and asked why no men were in the village. They answered through Mish.
“We are poor farmers. The men work all day in the fields.”
“Where are the Ba’ath Party, the fedayeen?”
“There are no fedayeen here. We are happy to see the Americans come.”
“Where did these Republican Guard uniforms come from?” The women had no answer and stared silently at the packed-dirt floor.
Satisfied that the village posed no threat to RCT-1’s advance, we kept driving north, snaking through groves of palm trees filled with colorful birds, singing as we passed. The shade provided refuge from the sun, and I enjoyed the cool interludes between stretches of barren fields. Clearing the village had been hard work in the midday heat. The Marines looked pale, with red-rimmed eyes. My sleeves were encrusted with white salt stains, and I gulped warm water from the plastic canteens fastened to my flak jacket. It tasted like water from a swimming pool.
Alpha Company took over on point, and I rotated the platoon to the back of the battalion formation. Somehow, we always ended up at the front or the back, never in the comfortable middle. Patrick’s and Lovell’s teams swung their guns behind us, serving as tail-end Charlie. We continued rumbling north at a walking pace, poking through villages and watching the people at work in the fields for clues about what lay around the next bend or over the next rise. The column halted. I climbed down and took a knee in the dirt next to the Humvee, stretching the radio cord to keep the handset to my ear. Wynn did the same on his side of the vehicle.
“Good day so far,” Wynn said, sounding unusually upbeat. “At least we’re doing something useful. Could you believe those fighting holes along the river? The Iraqis could have hosed the RCT and then melted away before they even knew where the fire came from.”
I didn’t share his enthusiasm. “I’m a little wigged-out by all the Republican Guard uniforms,” I said. “What else don’t we know?”
A radio call interrupted us. All platoon commanders to the front for a meeting. I shook my head at the battalion’s order. It figured that we’d just taken our place at the far rear of the formation. Laughing at Wynn’s gently mocking smile, I slung my rifle across my chest, handed him my portable radio, and started walking past the long line of stopped vehicles. The battalion sat in single file along a narrow dirt road that curved to the right and disappeared into a thicket along the riverbank. Far ahead, I saw a mosque’s turquoise dome sticking up above the palm fronds. To our left, an irrigation ditch paralleled the road, and beyond it a planted field stretched for more than a mile across flat ground. The river flowed a few feet to my right, at the bottom of a steep bank. Across it, dense palm forests bordered a field of waist-high crops. I saw a white sedan parked in the field.
As I walked, a wooden rowboat approached, drifting with the current while two Iraqi men halfheartedly paddled. They flashed me a smirk, which caught my attention. Only kids smiled. Men their age stared or avoided eye contact. I called up to a Marine high in a machine gun turret. “Can you see anything in the bottom of that boat — weapons, packages, anything?”
Damn. I would have welcomed the excuse to sink it. Something about those two was aggravating me. As combat heightened and honed my senses, I saw details and made connections that would otherwise have passed unnoticed. Instinct began to take over, and I learned to trust my instincts. They told me to shoot the guys in the boat.
No sooner had they disappeared around the bend to our rear than an unearthly whooshing noise made me drop face-first in the dirt. Any sound that loud and strange had to be dangerous. I caught the barest glimpse of an orange fireball as it streaked over my head. I lay pressed into the ground, thinking, Return fire. But I couldn’t see the fireball’s source. Facing the river, I saw my platoon to the right, stretched along the banks in a conspicuous line. A string of flaming pumpkins floated across the field and ricocheted off the riverbank, passing within feet of their Humvees. Marines abandoned turrets and fell from open doors into the road, diving for cover. Another string arced toward me and passed overhead with the sound of bowling balls hurled through the air. I dragged myself into the irrigation ditch, joining the Marines already there.
“That’s goddamn triple-A!” The Iraqis were shooting a large-caliber antiaircraft gun at us from somewhere in the far-off palm trees. I aborted my walk to the commanders’ meeting, consumed by the need to get back to the platoon. Because of the way the river curved, it looked as if my guys were the most exposed to the gun. It also looked as if they might be the only ones who could see it and return fire against it. I stood up to run and dropped again as another flaming bowling ball whined past. The berm wasn’t even going to slow one of those things down. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t hit one of our trucks yet. Nearly the whole battalion crouched in the muddy water at the bottom of the ditch. My rifle felt like a popgun. We needed air support. My radio was back with Gunny Wynn. I hoped someone was calling for Cobras.
I again stood to run, then fell to avoid another burst of fire. I thought of a quote I’d once read, something about war being a thousand private acts of cowardice. Ducking behind the dirt berm, knowing my men were exposed to the fire, I was ashamed. This wasn’t leadership. This wasn’t what I’d been taught at Quantico. Marine training is essentially a psychological battle against the instinct for self-preservation. Every impulse screamed for me to curl up behind the berm and wait for someone else to make the Iraqi gun go away. All the rituals derided as brain-washing, the instant obedience, the infusion of the Corps’s history and traditions, existed for moments like this one.
I took a breath and began to run. Another burst of fireballs burned past, overshooting again and landing with puffs of dust far out in the field to our west. A Mark-19 roared in response, and I saw a gunner in Colbert’s Humvee pumping rounds toward the source of the AAA fire. As I got closer to the platoon, my confidence returned. I was back in command.
Trombley crouched near the Humvee, leaning into a huge pair of binoculars. Hasser stood in the turret behind the Mark-19, looking down at Trombley.
“See where the tree line ends on the right?” Trombley said. “About two fingers left of that, set back in the trees. I think that’s where the gun is.”
Hasser loosed a burst, walking the exploding grenades in on the spot described by Trombley. It looked like the AAA gun was near the Mark- 19’s maximum range, maybe even out of range. They could shoot us, but we couldn’t shoot them.
In the driver’s seat of Colbert’s Humvee, Person was singing.
“One, two, three, four, what the fuck are we fighting for?”
“You have to answer that for yourself,” I said as I crouched against the fender, scanning with my binoculars.
“Well, sir,” Person said, turning in the seat to face me, oblivious to the fight all around him, “I guess I’m fighting for cheap gas and a world without ragheads blowing up our fucking buildings.”
“Good to know you’re such an idealist.”
“That world sounds pretty ideal to me right about now.”
Two Cobra attack helicopters swooped in low. The lead Cobra jerked sideways to avoid a stream of orange fire reaching up at it from the trees. The Cobras rolled in to attack, firing guns and rockets into the tree line. Dirt and dust hung in the air, and another burst of AAA fire floated up toward the helicopters. The white car we’d seen in the field was driving in tight circles, flashing its headlights. We’d witnessed this act too many times and directed the Cobras in on the car. A burst of cannon fire stopped its circling, and the driver slumped as smoke rose from beneath the hood. The AAA gun continued to fire. It must have been jamming, or maybe its operators were poorly trained, because it would let a few rounds rip before falling silent for seconds or minutes before firing again. Better aim and quicker fire could have torn us up.
With our attention focused east across the river, I turned in surprise at an explosion behind me. A plume of dust rose from the field beyond the irrigation ditch. As I watched, another rose next to it, followed by a rattling thump. Mortars.
“Snipers! Start scanning. Find that mortar observer,” I shouted. Mortar fire is ineffective unless it’s controlled by someone who can see the intended target and send corrections to the gun crew, allowing them to walk their rounds in on whatever they’re trying to hit. In this case, we were the intended target, and we began a deadly race to kill the observer before he succeeded in walking the mortar rounds in on our position.
Gunny Wynn put his eye to the sniper rifle’s scope, bracing himself on the Humvee hood to steady his view.
I alternated between two radios and the binoculars around my neck. “How many crises can we handle at once?” I asked the question idly, almost rhetorically, expecting a grunt from Wynn.
Instead, he paused and looked up from the scope, suddenly thoughtful. Mortar rounds continued falling. I wanted to retract the question and tell him to keep scanning.
“Always one fewer than we have.”
Shawn Patrick and Rudy Reyes also searched. They climbed onto a berm, lying shoulder to shoulder and interlocking their legs for stability. Reyes peered through the spotting scope as Patrick adjusted his rifle for a long shot. Marine snipers have a mythical reputation, and for good reason. Scout-sniper school at Quantico weeds out seven of every ten Marines who begin the course. The graduates can hit human targets a mile away with their modified Remington hunting rifles.
“Sir, check out that gray car.” Reyes rose from his belly to point at a vehicle barely visible beyond an irrigation ditch far out in the field. “I range it at one thousand fifty yards. There’s a guy inside looking at us and talking into a radio or a cell phone.”
I raised binoculars to my eyes and confirmed Reyes’s report. The car sat all alone in the middle of the field. A dark figure inside was clearly looking our way, periodically raising something to his head and moving his mouth as if talking into it. I briefly wondered if this were evidence enough to kill a man. Immediate self-defense is easy; this was something colder and more calculating. Another mortar round crashed into the field, closer this time, with almost no gap between the explosion’s flash and its bang. Slowly, inexorably, they were walking the rounds in on top of us.
“Take the shot.” Snipers don’t shoot to warn or dissuade. Patrick would try for a lethal first-round hit in the head or torso. I watched him regulate his breathing as Rudy called the wind.
While the Cobras raced the AAA gun, and Patrick and Reyes raced the mortar observer, I worried about distractions. The military calls this a combined-arms ambush. The Iraqis had us on the horns of a dilemma — get up to move away from the mortars and risk catching a high-explosive antiaircraft round, or hunker down to hide from the AAA and wait for the mortars to rain hot steel down on us. Fortunately, they were doing a bad job of it, shooting from long range and with less-than-overwhelming firepower. My instincts told me that they also would try to hit us from behind. The whole battalion stretched to our north, and we had the protective river to our east. To the west lay an open field, where any threat would be exposed. I was worried about our rear — the dirt road that led south toward the villages we’d just passed through.
“Jacks! Stinetorf! They may try to hit us from behind. Remember positive ID. Lots of civilians are running around out here.” Jacks and Stine trained their machine guns down the road, flashing me a thumbs-up.
Sergeant Patrick’s rifle cracked. Rudy, staring through the spotting scope, watched the bullet’s vapor trail as it streaked toward the target. “Low.” He saw the round enter the center of the driver’s door. Patrick racked the rifle and prepared for another shot before the target could move. He fired again. “On target.” Rudy saw the round break the glass of the driver’s window. The man in the car crumpled out of sight.
“Good shooting, Sergeant Patrick. Nice call, Rudy. Let’s hope the mortars stop,” I said.
“Vehicle from the rear!” Someone sounded a warning as an orange-and-white taxi raced around the corner from our south. Seeing the barrels of two machine guns, the driver stopped, and three men bailed out of the cab.
“Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” I shouted at Jacks and Stinetorf. An officer’s job isn’t only to inspire his men to action but also to rein them in when fear and adrenaline threaten to carry them away. Unless the Iraqis were armed or came running at us, we’d try to avoid shooting them. Wisely, they ran back to the south, abandoning their car. Less than a minute later, a second cab sped around the corner, and we repeated the drill. Two more men jumped out and ran back to the south.
Something wasn’t right. Mortars exploding, helicopters shooting, and these guys were driving right up into our convoy? Not once but twice, and the second cab must have passed right by the first group of men running south. I walked down to the cabs and slashed their tires with my knife. That would prevent them from following us and perhaps attacking us up the road.
By then, the Cobras had destroyed the AAA gun and were sweeping in front of us, searching for targets. No more mortar rounds fell. We had gotten the right man. The battalion, eager to cover ground before the helicopters needed fuel, called for us to move out.