THE CHAPLAIN’S VOICE DRONED, but I paid no attention. I was focused on the dusty pair of combat boots flanking an M4 stuck muzzle-first in the dirt. Horsehead was dead. We’d heard rumors earlier in the day of Fifth Marines getting in a firefight. Horsehead had been wounded, badly wounded, or evacuated, with no further details. But he couldn’t have been killed. First sergeants don’t die in combat; that’s for corporals and lieutenants to do. Besides, Smith was a common last name. There must have been hundreds of Smiths in the Marine Corps, probably even a bunch of First Sergeant Smiths. But no. First Sergeant Edward Smith, Horsehead, a recon legend doing a tour in the grunts before retiring, was dead.
I joined many other recon Marines at a dusk memorial service in a field on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad. Around us, the entire First Marine Division was massing its combat power. Marines sprawled everywhere, sleeping. Others turned wrenches on Humvees, cleaned weapons, or huddled over huge map sheets with their corners held down by bricks. We hadn’t all been together since leaving Kuwait. After almost three weeks moving across Iraq like individual rivulets of water, the division was pooling, preparing to flood the enemy capital. It was a pause, not a stop. In the distance, Baghdad’s minarets rose above the palms.
We took turns saying what a great Marine Horsehead had been, what a great husband, father, and man. We bowed our heads in silence and sang a song I cannot remember. I was staring at the boots. When a man wakes up in the morning, he puts on his boots. He laces them up and ties them. He expects to take them off again that evening. Horsehead went through the day without knowing he’d put on his boots for the last time. Maybe I’d already put on my boots for the last time, too. When the service ended, I walked slowly back to the platoon, grateful for my time alone in the dark. Faint strings of tracers climbed into the sky, too far off to hear.
Colonel Ferrando summoned his officers to battalion headquarters the following afternoon, April 8, for a mission brief. We’d spent the morning listening to the BBC and watching columns of smoke rise from Baghdad. The Army had launched an audacious “thunder run” from Saddam International Airport into the heart of the city, and resistance was lighter than feared. The Marines were preparing to unleash their own offensive across the Diyala River and into the city from the southeast. The news reports had an unreal quality to them. Part of me thought we’d never reach that point. American tanks would never roll into one of the great cities of the Middle East. I had laughed in Kuwait when General Mattis talked about using recon as dismounted shock troops during the final urban assault. Hyperbole for the lance corporals, I’d thought then. Never gonna happen. Well, it was happening. I leaned closer to learn our role in the war’s climax.
“Gentlemen, as most of you know, the assault on Baghdad has begun,” Ferrando said. As he elaborated on the American seizure of Iraq’s capital, I marveled at his uniform. It looked pressed. His clean-shaven face shone in the sunlight, and his hair was neatly combed. I, in comparison, looked as if I had come to the meeting straight from my cardboard box beneath an overpass. Days of sweat and grime stiffened my uniform. My fingernails were black, and I could feel my toes squishing in my socks. I slept at night with my head out of the sleeping bag because I couldn’t bear the stench of my own body.
The colonel confirmed that the division would attack across the Diyala River into the city. General Mattis had one overriding concern. The forty-first Armored Brigade of the Al Nida Republican Guard Division was headquartered in Ba‘quba, only fifty kilometers northeast of Baghdad. Its tanks could hit the First Marine Division’s flank less than an hour after leaving their base. And that’s where we came in.
Major Whitmer read the mission statement: “At fourteen hundred Zulu, First Recon Battalion will attack north to Ba‘quba, locating and identifying enemy forces in order to help the division develop its situation. Be prepared to engage targets of opportunity. We’ll link up with LAR at the zero-zero northing and then continue up to the three-zero northing.”
While Colonel Ferrando and Major Whitmer continued the briefing, directed mainly at the company commanders, I studied my maps. The 00 northing was a line on the map about twenty-five kilometers to our north. That meant fifteen miles of unescorted driving up to the LAR company, whose call sign was War Pig. They straddled the road at the northernmost limit of the American advance, which happened to be right at the 00 northing. We would link up with them and attack north for another thirty kilometers into the town of Ba‘quba. The map showed a highway split south of town. The left fork swung around to the west and paralleled a river on the western side of Ba‘quba. The right fork continued straight north on the eastern side of the city. In the months to come, this town would be a corner of the area called “the Sunni Triangle,” with connotations of RPG-toting insurgents and blown-up American Humvees. On April 8, 2003, it was still just Ba‘quba, a small town north of Baghdad, whose Republican Guard outpost had yet to feel the brunt of American ground power. First Recon was going to change that.
Fourteen hundred Zulu translated to five o’clock local time, a few hours before sunset. I lined the platoon up an hour early on the dirt road that led out of the division’s headquarters compound. Our ritualistic “combat prep” time was important to any successful mission, and I didn’t want to rush it. Besides, I had come to enjoy the anticipatory tingle I got whenever we prepared to step outside the wire. Gunny Wynn and I walked up and down the line of vehicles. Doc Bryan was mixing a strong coffee to sustain him through the evening, while Stinetorf racked his .50-caliber’s charging handles to clean the moving parts for later. Many of the Marines wore calf-length digital-pattern desert cloaks, leftovers from the first Gulf War which provided great protection from the dust, with an added benefit of being almost impossible to see through night vision goggles. I walked up to Colbert’s Humvee and leaned down to talk through his open window.
“OK, point man, back-brief our route to me.”
“Sir, we’ll leave the compound here and drive north on the paved road that parallels Route 5. We’re not the lead element for that portion, so I just follow in trace. At the zero-zero northing, we link up with LAR, and they’ll take the lead. I’ll be recon’s first vehicle behind them. We’ll continue north and see what happens.”
“Good. It’ll be nice having some real firepower with us for a change.” I turned and walked back to my Humvee without saying what I knew we were both thinking: Why did we have this firepower with us for a change?
Across the road, the Marines in division headquarters sat in little clumps, eating their MREs. They watched as we prepared to leave, envy and relief mixing on their faces. I was sure my platoon pitied them, knowing that they would be safe and warm here in their sleeping bags.
I folded the night’s maps and tucked them in my Plexiglas map case. It measured about two feet square and allowed me to see thirty or forty kilometers of road at a time without having maps flapping all over the place in the wind. A bandolier of grenades hung from the visor above my head, ready for quick loading in the M203. On the center console sat two GPS receivers, carefully checked to make sure they read the same, and a pile of rifle magazines loaded with all tracers. Stuck to the inside of the windshield in front of my seat were two laminated cards outlining the request procedures for artillery and air support. Stress has a way of banishing even the simplest things from one’s mind, so I was reassured to have the cheat sheets in my hour of need. A red-lens flashlight, hand grenades, night vision goggles, smoke grenades, colored flares, IV bags, humrats, a sniper rifle, and four radios completed the ensemble. For all its size, that Humvee would be a tight fit for us this evening.
Exactly on time, we started the engines and crept slowly from the camp. Out on the road, we entered a different world. Crowds of Iraqis thronged the streets. Most of them paid us little attention; they were preoccupied stealing every movable object in sight. Children drove donkeys towing pieces of scrap metal. A man on a bicycle staggered past with a wooden table balanced precariously on his fender. Behind him, an old woman dragged a plastic jug with one hand and a huge spool of copper wire with the other. We threaded through the crowd, guns elevated in deference to the people but eyes scanning for the signs of trouble we’d learned to look for over the past few weeks: anyone coolly appraising us, cars reappearing, people on radios or cell phones. Soon we escaped into the farmland beyond Baghdad’s suburbs, increasing our speed as the shadows lengthened and the sky turned gray.
We passed dozens of blown-up Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers. Some of them sat in revetments off the road; others were parked on the shoulder. Fire had blackened their desert tan paint jobs, and overpressure had blown their hatches open. I hoped the record of destruction would continue as we got farther north.
Approaching the 00 northing, we contacted War Pig on the radio. Their hulking LAVs sat in a defensive coil on the west side of the road. A coil is the twenty-first-century version of a wagon train circling up for the night. The LAVs were parked back to back, with their guns pointed outward in a full circle. We pulled to the side of the road and waited as they unlooped themselves and whined slowly up onto the pavement, taking their place at the head of the formation. The dozen LAVs traveled in a staggered column, their guns alternating left and right. Colbert followed behind the last LAV, with the rest of the platoon close at his heels. Behind us, First Recon stretched to the south in a long line. With the confidence of firepower, we accelerated into the darkness, the first Americans to enter that part of Iraq.
I used an alcohol pen to mark our progress on the map. The 05 northing passed without incident, and then the 10. We had traveled ten kilometers into uncharted territory with no trouble. Twenty kilometers of dark farmland lay between us and Ba‘quba. As I inked a little check mark next to the 14 northing on the map, a chain gun sounded its tearing rattle.
A general warning went out to all vehicles: “War Pig’s in contact. Armed dismounts on both sides of the road.”
The road before us curved to the right, and the whole column of LAVs stretched around the gentle bend. Red tracers reached out from the road. Bushmaster cannons thumped, deeper and slower than the chain gun. Still, the only fire was outgoing, nothing coming in. I dropped the night vision goggles in front of my eyes and started scanning the platoon’s flanks. Open fields stretched to our left, but a cluster of three or four small buildings stood a hundred meters directly to the right. Everything was still.
I called the teams, thinking they might see something I couldn’t. “All Hitman Two stations, I have no targets. What do you see?”
“Two-One’s looking. No joy.”
“Two-Two. We got nothing.”
Ahead of us, strings of tracers arced toward the road from the fields. They wobbled and wove, like a light show. Harmless-looking, almost pretty. LAR wasn’t shooting at shadows: people were out there, and they wanted to fight.
Radio reports were coming in fast. At least two enemy platoons armed with AKs and RPGs hid in the ditches alongside the road. War Pig was tearing them up through thermal sights. A man can hide his body under a blanket in a ditch, but he can’t hide his body heat.
Lasers danced along the buildings next to us as Marines aimed at windows and doors, waiting for movement. No one fired. To our front, the shooting increased in intensity, with the crisscrossing tracers sometimes bright enough to wash out my goggles. Behind us, a .50-caliber gun opened up with a roar, followed by the thunk-boom, thunk-boom of a Mark-19. We couldn’t see what the Marines were firing at, so we kept watching our sector. Still no targets.
The gunfire was so loud that Gunny Wynn and I had to shout at each other across the Humvee cab.
“They’re probing for weak points,” I yelled.
He nodded in agreement, and added, “We are the weak point.”
The firing began to take on a pattern. An enemy gunner would let loose a burst, and then Marines responded by pouring hundreds of rounds at him. At each crescendo, the shots were so loud and so frequent that they blended from individual popping and cracking into one indistinguishable roar. We still saw no targets nearby, so there was nothing to do but watch and wait. With thousands of bullets being fired all around us, we sat as if in the eye of a storm.
In the grainy green fields of my night vision goggles, a flash resolved into a blooming cloud of smoke and dust. Mortar. It fell on the west side of the road, to our left. I looked at Gunny Wynn.
“You see that?”
“Yeah. Big one. Eighty-two millimeter at least.” Wynn’s voice was detached, his assessment almost clinical.
“Let’s see where the next one lands,” I shouted over the gunfire still popping all around us. “Might be time to get this train moving again.”
The next one landed on the right side of the road. Then left again, but closer. They had us bracketed and were walking the rounds in on us. So much for idiotic tactics — this was a combined-arms ambush. They’d stopped us with the infantry and now hoped to hammer an easy target.
Sitting on the road, we made an easy target. But the false security of the night vision goggles protected me. I watched the mortars fall through glass lenses that divided things into two worlds. We lived in the world of color, which then was dark. The mortars fell in a world of green, which then was light. Even the tooth-rattling crump of the rounds couldn’t shake the impression that a barrier stood between these worlds, protecting us. So it seemed only vaguely threatening when we were ordered forward to help LAR break contact from the ambush.
“Hitman Two, move up on the west side of the road and provide suppressive fire for War Pig to peel back to the south.”
I had to smile at the insanity of it. “Hey, Gunny, the CO wants our tin-pot Humvees to go up there and shoot so the LAVs can disengage.”
War Pig was already doing an Australian peel, where the lead vehicle turns around as the second in line continues firing straight ahead to protect the turning vehicle. The drill is repeated down the line until the last vehicle turns. I moved the platoon forward, and we fired off into the darkness, hopefully keeping a few Iraqi heads down as the last LAV turned and roared back down the highway. Far to the north, headlights flashed and spun in the dark fields. Mortars continued to fall, including one that hit the pavement nearby, throwing sparks into the sky. When our turn came, each Humvee swung around to the south, and we accelerated behind War Pig, passing the rest of the battalion as it sat facing north.
The night was moonless, with a low overcast threatening rain. Helicopters could not fly under the weather, and jets above it couldn’t provide accurate close air support. Facing a coordinated defense-in-depth, with little idea of what lay to the north, the colonel decided to pull back two kilometers and set up a hasty defense on the roadside. With a little distance between us and the enemy positions, we could call in jets and wait for daylight.
I lined the platoon up along a berm a few hundred meters off the road. War Pig had done most of the shooting, so the Marines weren’t too amped-up. We started watch rotations, and I crawled under the Humvee to enjoy an hour’s insomnia. When the rain started, trickles of water crept across the baked earth and pooled under my back.
Before dawn on April 9, I squirted grape jelly from its plastic pouch onto an MRE cracker. Wynn and I had been sitting together by the radio for an hour, waiting for the sky to lighten. Throughout the night, jets had screamed overhead, above the clouds, and we had felt the whump of bombs being dropped near the highway. They could have been JDAMs hitting GPS coordinates provided by the battalion, or other bombs targeted by the pilots using Litening pods, special sensors that could see through darkness and clouds. I was too tired to go and find out, and it didn’t matter anyway. Bombs were bombs. They all killed the same way.
I finished my breakfast and walked over to the company headquarters Humvee, parked a short distance away in the center of our perimeter. The Marines would soon be clamoring for news, and I wanted to have something for them.
“Good morning, sir. What’s the plan for the day?”
“Shit on Ba‘quba,” the captain replied, scouring his pistol with a toothbrush.
“We’re not just gonna drive up the highway, are we?”
“No,” he replied. “LAR and the Humvees will stay on the highway. Each platoon will punch a foot-mobile patrol out to the east or west, and we’ll sweep north in a long line.”
“Christ, sir, it’s damn near fifteen miles to Ba‘quba.”
He looked at me blankly and said, “Yeah, well, hydrate. It’ll be a long day. That’s the plan.”
I briefed the platoon over the map board on the hood, and shortly after sunrise we retraced our steps toward the ambush of the night before. Gunny Wynn and I decided that he would control the machine guns, while I went with the other half of the platoon on foot. The clouds had cleared, and the sun was already hot. I gulped a canteen of water and slipped a PowerBar into my cargo pocket. This promised to be a slog.
At the 14 northing, I and eleven other Marines from the platoon moved off the western side of the road. We formed a wedge three hundred meters across and started walking north. Sergeant Espera walked point. I walked in the center of the wedge so I could control the formation most easily. Doc Bryan walked next to me so he could move quickly to any wounded man. Gunny Wynn kept the lead Humvee just in front of Sergeant Espera. All the guns were trained our way, ready to support us if we made contact.
Each furrow in the field was a potential ambush site. We found blankets and tin trays, evidence of positions quickly abandoned. I was happy to see that Iraqis had recently been here; it meant there probably wouldn’t be land mines. We moved that way for more than an hour, covering a kilometer of ground.
We crossed a dirt path running perpendicular to the highway and saw a truck hidden in a thicket. The squad approached it with weapons ready, but it was abandoned. Its doors bore the distinctive red triangle of the Republican Guard. I could think of no excuse to bring it with us and no way to ensure it would go to good use carrying a farmer’s crops to market, so we blew it up with a charge of plastic explosive on the engine block. North of the dirt road, there were a few mud-brick buildings farther west of the highway. Calling back to the battalion, I asked for Mish and for permission to go speak with the people there.
Mish huffed and puffed his way across the field, clearly dismayed not to be napping and eating Skittles in the back seat of a Humvee. I split the squad in half as we approached the buildings. One group would appear to relax, lower its rifles, and stroll over to a meeting with the villagers. The other half would stay two hundred meters back, weapons up, scanning the crowd and the buildings for any signs of trouble. This tactic let the first group be friendly ambassadors without exposing itself to too much danger. I went with the ambassadors.
A group of women and children huddled together outside the largest building. Nearby, several men lolled in the dirt, smoking. The oldest man, bearded and wearing a white robe, approached us with his hands raised, as if in a benediction. He smiled, baring yellow teeth, and crinkled his eyes in evident joy.
Mish maintained a running dialogue between the man and me as I handed him two humrats. We mean no harm and offer you this food in thanks for allowing us to travel through your fields. My doctor is happy to look at any children who are ill. Where are the Ba’ath Party and fedayeen? I tried to be open and respectful, but my eyes kept darting to the man’s hands, to the crowd, and to the dark windows behind them. I could feel the Marines’ rifle sights boring past me.
The man launched into a long speech, punctuated with pointing and gestures. His hand swept past the children, and he wiped his eyes. Mish nodded, unusually solemn, and turned to me. “He says these people are his distant family. They came here from Baghdad to avoid the bombing. There are Ba’ath ambushes farther north, maybe five miles, at a crossroads. They use pickup trucks to come down and attack the Americans. He is happy we are here but nervous if we stay too close to his home.”
“Tell him we’ll be gone in a minute, but first I want his help.” I pulled a map from inside my flak jacket and unfolded it on the ground. “Ask him to show me where the crossroads is.”
Mish relayed the question, and the man squatted next to me, peering at the map. He squinted and cocked his head, then stood up. The man couldn’t read a map, but he made up for it by speaking to Mish again.
“He says the road forks about five miles north of here. There are reeds and tall grass at the fork. The Ba’ath have set up in the grass. They are waiting for us.”
On the map, I saw a fork in the highway about eight kilometers north of the village. I thanked the man by placing my hand over my heart. He, in turn, reached across the cultural gulf and shook it. With a wave to the little girls, who hid their smiles behind cupped hands, we started off.
We had moved only two hundred meters when the first mortars hit. Plumes of smoke and dust rose from the field with each sharp crack. They had to be Soviet-era 82 mm rounds, the same as the night before. To men caught in an open field with nowhere to hide, they felt as big as artillery.
“Move two hundred meters east and stay dispered,” I ordered. I wanted to get the platoon away from the village so the people firing the mortars would have no excuse to walk them in on the people there. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the family, already displaced from their home in Baghdad, running to hide. It sickened me to think that we had brought this violence to their peaceful farm.
The mortars were still too inaccurate to cause much concern, but they crept closer by the minute. I radioed the ambush location to the battalion. They confirmed that the same information had come in from another source and ordered me to break contact to the south, away from the mortars. The Marines pumped fists in the air as two Cobras thwacked overhead, prowling up the highway in search of prey. Again I found myself in the position of wishing violent death on other human beings. Burn ’em up with those rockets, and don’t make it clean. Make it hurt.
After the Cobras destroyed a mortar firing position farther up the highway, we climbed into the Humvees again. My platoon was ordered to drive west on the dirt path where we’d blown up the Republican Guard truck. Our mission was to conduct reconnaissance and screen the battalion’s flank as it advanced.
Flies buzzed in the sun, which had burned off all the clouds and now beat down on us relentlessly. I was too hot to eat but drank some Gatorade just to keep from shutting down. The battalion needed a few more minutes to coordinate air support before moving out, so we cleaned weapons and topped off radiator coolant. As I leaned under the Humvee’s hood, an F/A-18 roared down the highway, not much higher than the telephone poles. The pilot racked his jet into a climbing right turn and made another low pass, firing his cannon. I imagined the stream of 20 mm Vulcan rounds tearing up the pavement, cars, and fedayeen positions. Even if he hit nothing, the psychological effect on us was noticeable. The Marines were up and moving, ready to go.
The dirt road twisted through small hills and disappeared over a rise. We followed it at a halting pace. I split the platoon into two elements, with Colbert, Espera, and I moving as one unit and Reyes and Lovell moving as another. One group advanced while the other stopped to cover them.
“Tank! Tank direct front! Back up, back up!” Colbert’s voice on the radio was frantic. His Humvee wheeled around, with Espera close behind. I jumped from my seat to get a better view. Ahead of us, the dirt road ended at an intersection. Beyond the intersection ran a dirt berm. Pointing over it and directly at us was a beige barrel with a yawning black opening. I expected it to turn Colbert’s Humvee to cinders at any second. Over the radio, I asked for backup from an LAV armed with antitank missiles.
From behind us, in the overwatch position, Sergeant Lovell’s laconic voice cut through our fear.
“Hey, fellas, is the tank to the left or right of that irrigation pipe?”
Irrigation pipe? I looked again. Our “tank barrel” was a farmer’s water pipe. Time froze for a second. Humvees stopped spinning around. Marines abandoned their mad scrambles for AT4 missiles. We stared at the pipe, then looked at each other. I collapsed in the seat and closed my eyes. Would I have made this mistake three weeks ago? Was it heat, dehydration, fatigue, or frayed nerves? The only reason we hadn’t blown that pipe away was that we didn’t have any weapons that wouldn’t bounce right off a tank. What if there had been kids around, or innocent villagers? Not shooting hadn’t been discipline; it had been unpreparedness. I looked at Gunny Wynn.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. No harm done,” he said. I needed the boost.
After self-consciously telling the battalion that the antitank missiles weren’t needed, I set the platoon up in a checkpoint at the intersection. The road we had come in on dead-ended there, and the other dirt path ran roughly north-south, paralleling the highway the battalion was on. A white sedan drove up, and the passengers looked startled to see our armed Humvees. Mish and I stood by the driver’s window. Before we could say anything, a man in the back seat began speaking rapidly. I waited for Mish to translate.
“He says you are the first Americans they have seen here. Ba’ath people are waiting for you at an intersection up this road. He says about five miles, where this road meets the highway.”
“That sounds like what the other guy told us.”
“He also says there is a dam near Ba‘quba. Many soldiers are at the dam, and they have buried chemical bombs in the ground there.”
“No shit? He said ‘chemical bombs’? You think he could show it to me on the map?”
“These guys don’t read maps.”
While I reported the information about the dam to the battalion, Mish continued talking with the men in the car. They kept glancing between him and me. Finally, one of them forked over three packs of cigarettes, and they drove off, looking back at us through the rear window.
“What the hell, Mish? We should be giving them smokes as thanks for helping us.”
“Yeah, but I’m out. I told them to hand over some cigarettes, or you’d kill them.”
“Mish, you can’t do that. Pretty soon we’ll be fighting the whole goddamn country.”