WE CAUGHT UP with the battalion just south of the intersection where we’d been told to expect an ambush. Aircraft had pounded it. A brushfire crackled in the tall grass, revealing a mortar pit and a twisted machine gun. RPG launchers and unfired rounds carpeted the pavement. We weaved carefully to avoid hitting them. Across the road, a car had suffered a direct hit from an aerial bomb. Its metal frame crinkled in the heat the way a piece of cellophane does over a match. The driver had escaped, but not far. He lay in the dirt, frozen in a lunge with his arms stretched out before him. His whole body was toasted to a deep almond brown, except for one hand. That hand wasn’t burned at all. Its white palm was open, waving at us.
The Marines heaped abuse on the dead Iraqi as we passed.
“Hey, check it out. Beef jerky man.”
“Shoulda worn sunscreen, motherfucker.”
Immense concrete pipes were stacked along the sides of the road. It looked like the town road crew had planned to install a new sewer system before the war changed everyone’s priorities. Fighters had been living in the pipes. Their blankets, water jugs, and piles of food were stashed inside. We sat at the intersection while another platoon rummaged through the wreckage and the fighting holes looking for anything of intelligence value. At the crossroads stood an enormous stop sign, more than three feet across. It was the customary red octagon, but the word STOP was written in Arabic. I thought it would be perfect for our roadblocks; it might even keep us from killing someone.
“Christeson, cut that stop sign down and put it in the back of the truck.” He looked at me in disbelief. An officer had never before ordered him to commit vandalism.
Alpha and Charlie companies took the right fork in the road, while Bravo and LAR went left. The two roads diverged and then ran roughly parallel about a kilometer apart. By attacking on two axes, we could throw Ba‘quba’s defenders off balance but still support each other. We spent the next four hours in constant contact with the enemy.
The running firefight started badly. A large concrete building stood in a field between the two roads on which the battalion was moving. LAR halted three hundred meters south of the building to observe it before moving forward. Sporadic rifle shots cracked toward us. As we sat there, engines idling, the captain called me over. “Nate, I want your platoon to dismount and move through this field to clear that building,” he said.
I looked at him for a long moment, trying to gauge his reasoning. “Sir, are you nuts? You want me to leave my firepower behind and move across three football fields of open ground toward a fortified position, when we can just drive right up to it with all this armor? I’ll be halfway there, and the rest of the battalion will be five miles farther north.”
“This isn’t the time for debate,” he said. I could see his resolve wavering. His orders were experiments to see which ones would stick.
“Sir, is this your idea or a battalion order?” I had so completely lost faith in my commander that I couldn’t follow his orders. If the plan had come from Major Whitmer or Colonel Ferrando, however, I would execute it without hesitation.
“I see what needs to be done here. Don’t worry — I’ll have the LAVs line up behind you to provide overhead machine gun fire.” My anger was starting to boil over. Typically, when an infantry attack is supported by machine guns, the guns are displaced ninety degrees from the objective so they can shoot in front of the advancing attackers. He planned to put the machine guns directly behind us to shoot over our heads at the buildings as we moved toward them. We would block the LAVs from firing. These basic tactics are taught during the first few weeks of an infantry officer’s training. The captain commanding the LAVs looked at me sympathetically and rolled his eyes.
Command relationships are built on trust. My CO was right about one thing: this wasn’t the time for debate. It was the time for my trust in him to override my questions and concerns. It was the time for that trust to translate into instant obedience to orders. But I had no trust, not in him. His poor decision making since before the start of the war had sapped every bit of the natural trust Marines are taught to have in their chain of command. He was a nice, hard-working guy but tactically incompetent, and that’s all that mattered.
“Sir, that’s a fucked plan, and I can’t do it. I’m not worried about getting hosed. If the fedayeen were in that building, they would have opened up on us by now. I’m worried that we’ll get way out there in the field for no reason, and then the whole battalion’s attack will lose momentum and bog down. Look over there.” I pointed through a far-off tree line where Alpha’s and Charlie’s Humvees continued the attack to the north. “They’re moving. We have to be moving.”
He shot me a glance without saying anything, and I walked back to my Humvee. I was upset that some of my Marines had been within earshot of the argument. It was unprofessional to discredit the captain in front of them, but circumstance hadn’t allowed me many options. Besides, feelings and regulations came in a distant second to winning battles and keeping Marines alive. We started moving forward, passing the concrete building without seeing anything amiss.
On the radio, Alpha Company directed jets in on an Iraqi infantry fighting vehicle, called a BMP, that was shooting at them. The jets’ engines screamed as they dove at the target, but I couldn’t see anything through the smoke and haze. Cobras hammered targets to our front, and the LAVs poured fire into buildings and palm groves along the road. The platoon had found its rhythm now — talking, moving, and shooting as one organism.
We did our best to hit discrete targets, but the battlefield is an empty place. With smoke, explosions, and rifle shots all around, it feels as if the whole world is a target. But that feeling evaporates when you look through the gun sight. Threats are everywhere, but targets are nowhere. You cannot just shoot at a tree, or a parked car, or a propane tank, or the air. You need a target. Like it or not, targets are usually human beings. But targets are hard to find, because they hide. Many times, the result was that we drove through an inferno but fired very few rounds. That wasn’t the case in Ba‘quba.
Approaching another crossroads, we passed a field of brilliantly green grass. Two men firing AK-47s popped up from a hole in the field, and a machine gun knocked them right back down. One of the men wore a green shirt and khaki trousers. A .50-caliber bullet, almost as big around as a dime and moving at supersonic speed, blew off the back of his skull. The round hit him so hard that it drove his body backward through the air. It neatly removed a piece of bone bigger than my hand, and as the man fell, his brain spilled onto the dirt. He crumpled five feet from the pool of blood that marked his place of death. I felt the elation you feel at the fair after winning a stuffed animal for popping a balloon with a pellet gun.
A mortar round fell from the sky, seemingly from nowhere. We hadn’t heard it launched, and no others fell with it. It struck the ground next to Espera’s Humvee, spraying his team with dirt and, I thought, shrapnel. When the dust cleared, I was amazed to see the team still frozen in their seats. Mortars are nerve-racking because they’re so random. All you can do is sit there and think about the next one, the one that might be coming for you.
Ordered to stay in place, we looked around. To our right stood a whitewashed building in the center of a dirt parking lot. Red graffiti covered the walls, and I asked Mish to read it.
“Well, the little sign above the door says SCHOOL. The spray-painted stuff says DEATH TO AMERICA, LONG LIVE SADDAM, and WE WILL DIE FOR YOU, O GREAT SADDAM. Lots of others, too, but you get the idea.”
“Lovell, take your team and search that building,” I ordered. We had time, and the fedayeen had a record of using schools.
Leaving one man on the machine gun, Team Three took its bolt cutters and burst through the door. I waited for rifle shots, but none came. A few seconds later, Sergeant Lovell called from the window, “Sir, you ought to come in here.”
I entered a dingy room filled with desks. Children’s drawings covered the walls. The team guarded the doors while Lovell and Doc Bryan picked through an open safe.
“Maps, military IDs, documents, a burlap bag of AK bayonets, and a bolt-action Enfield rifle. But who really cares about that shit? Check this out,” Lovell said. He held up a plastic trash bag. Inside were dozens of pairs of black boot socks. They were new, still attached at the calf by cardboard tags proclaiming them “Made in Jordan.” “Funny how everything in Iraq was made in Jordan, China, and France.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a spiteful consumer,” I replied. I wanted the documents for the intelligence analysts and the socks for the platoon. We gathered what we could and hurried back outside, concerned that the battle would move forward without us. Two Marines from Third Platoon stood over an Iraqi man lying spread-eagle on the ground.
“Sir, this gomer popped out of a fighting hole in the field. His buddy is the one whose brains are sprayed all over the place back there. Can we cuff him and throw him in the back of your Humvee?”
I agreed, because I had more empty space than anyone else. There was no time to deal with him. The lead vehicles were moving again.
One bridge stood between us and the outskirts of Ba‘quba. The countryside was bleak — dusty fields, dusty homes, dusty cars. Dust even coated the palm trees. We started to climb the bridge, but the lead Humvee stopped. I heard a zinging sound and saw strange ripples in the air. The sky above our heads shimmered, miragelike. Large-caliber rounds. Not ours. Incoming. It was another Iraqi armored vehicle.
“BMP on the road, direct front. And he’s firing!” I tried not to yell into the radio.
We backed off the bridge in a hurry and vectored an Air Force F-15 in on the BMP. I never saw the jet, or even heard it. Its bomb materialized from the blue sky. For most Iraqi soldiers, death came without warning. We again climbed the bridge and met no resistance. On the other side, the BMP was little more than a greasy black stain on the pavement and a few scattered pieces of smoking metal.
Again the road forked, and again we went left while the rest of the battalion went right. Fields gave way to dense groves of palm trees filled with homes. The Cobras had launched volleys of rockets into the palms, and everything was on fire. I hated being in the close confines of buildings and trees. Drainage ditches lined the road. Dense thickets grew right up to their edges, cutting our visibility down to only yards. Every muscle in my body tightened. I think the exhaustion following combat is partly chemical — coming down off a massive dose of adrenaline — and partly a physical release after hours in this tightened posture. Wiping sweat from my eyes, I worked to breathe slowly, think clearly, and run through my mental checklists in case we made contact. After three weeks of war, I could tell I’d gotten better at this. Calm had become my natural state. It took something truly extraordinary even to raise my heart rate.
A radio call warned that our helicopter escort, our eyes and big fists, was leaving in five minutes to get more fuel. They’d be gone for at least an hour, leaving us alone on the road, where we couldn’t see, with a Republican Guard armored brigade lurking nearby. The muscles got tighter. “When the aircraft leave, you are instructed to return to the last intersection and proceed north on the eastern fork. How copy?”
We stopped on the roadside to wait for the LAVs to make their lumbering ten-point turns on the narrow road. I took advantage of the stop to talk with the team leaders. They were doing a great job, and I wanted to let them know that. As I stood near Colbert’s window, two Marines raised their rifles, aiming past me and clicking the safeties off. I spun around. Two men walked out from behind a berm less than twenty meters away. A little girl, perhaps five years old, stumbled along between them, holding hands with each. The men forced smiles and waved, but I was focused on the little girl.
Her eyes stared vacantly, looking at nothing even as she picked her way across the uneven ground. She was filthy. Dirt caked her face, and her sweatpants, once pink, were a sickly shade of gray. I knelt down to touch her shoulder, and she shrank back, terrified.
“Food and water — now,” I called over my shoulder to the platoon. “Doc, check her out.” For some reason, I felt a sense of urgency and responsibility for this girl that I hadn’t felt before. Part of it was her small size. Mostly, though, I think I was touched by the contrast between her apparent physical health and her psychological pain. She was far too young to be so afraid. I thought of the Cobras rocketing the palm groves and lighting homes on fire. I remembered the jets dropping bombs and the roar of our own machine guns. Even for armed and trained Marines, there was a lot to be afraid of in Ba‘quba. I tried to imagine what the afternoon must have looked like through the eyes of a child.
“Sir, she seems fine physically, just a little dehydrated,” Doc reported. “It’s like she’s shell-shocked.” He handed her a bottle of water. The two men, overjoyed that we recognized their plight, laughed and hugged us.
Through Mish, the older of the two men began to speak. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, looking dignified and relaxed.
“He says tanks and soldiers are at a dam on the river. He says they are keeping people away from the place because chemical bombs are hidden there, maybe buried in the ground.”
Two independent reports of chemical weapons nearby. In addition to all our daily missions, we had general tasks that were continuous on every mission. One of the most important was safeguarding any evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. I picked up the radio and asked for Godfather, the battalion commander himself. Colonel Ferrando answered with understandable annoyance over a mere platoon commander interrupting him in the middle of a fight. I hurried to exonerate myself by explaining the two reports of chemical weapons at the dam.
“Copy all, Hitman Two. I’ll pass it up to division myself,” he said.
Our report became a national collection priority, but no chemical weapons were found.
I regretted leaving the little girl to her uncertain fate, but the helicopters were gone, the LAVs out of sight, and I had orders to turn back. We passed the last intersection and looped north on the eastern fork of the highway. Our mission was to set up a blocking position while Alpha Company did the same on other highways and Charlie entered Ba‘quba to investigate the Republican Guard headquarters building.
Scanning the mud-brick houses to our right, I saw something that made me stop. Most of the battalion had already traveled past this point, but an Iraqi military truck was parked behind one of the buildings.
“Gunny, stop the Humvee,” I said. Half the platoon advanced slowly on the house. The Marines communicated by hand signals, splitting into teams to come at the building from three directions. Just as that pre-firefight tension swelled to the point of bursting, the front door opened and a swarm of children ran out.
“America! America! Good! Good! Good!”
A middle-aged Iraqi man, dressed in Western clothes and dutifully sporting a Saddam mustache, followed the children into the yard.
“Hi, guys, I’m Hassan.” He spoke with almost no accent. As if to answer our unspoken question, he explained that he had been an English professor at Baghdad University. The twelve girls and boys, running circles around the Marines and trading funny faces with them, were his children.
He said the Republican Guard had visited his house the night before. Eight antiaircraft guns were piled in the back of the Russian-made ZIL cargo truck. Hassan was terrified that the Americans would bomb it and destroy his home in the process. With a mental bow and flourish, I told him we would be happy to remove the cause of his concern.
The prospect of doing something good for regular Iraqi citizens (and the chance to blow up a truck) galvanized the Marines to action. We hitched the truck to a Humvee and dragged it a safe distance from the house. There Colbert and others built a charge from C-4 and detonation cord. They wrapped the guns and the truck’s engine, being sure to include the fuel tanks to help amplify the blast. We gathered the kids and explained what was about to happen. Then we all crouched down together and watched the truck disappear in a fireball. Hassan invited us to stay for dinner and looked a little relieved when I declined, telling him we had unfinished business in Ba‘quba.
I picked an open stretch of highway for our blocking position, with good fields of fire in all directions. Flat, open highway would give Iraqi drivers the best chance to see and avoid us. It gave us the best chance of not having to kill anyone. We placed our looted Iraqi stop sign three hundred meters down the highway, along with a large piece of a cardboard MRE box on which Mish had written “Turn around” in Arabic. We all hoped we were learning fast enough to avoid repeating earlier mistakes.
Pausing for the first time all day, I remembered the prisoner in the back of the Humvee. He sprawled face-down on the truck bed with his hands tightly zip-cuffed behind him. Christeson stood over him with a rifle.
“Cut him free and give him some food and water,” I said. Christeson looked at me as if I’d suggested letting the lions run amok in the San Diego Zoo, but he cut the cuffs off. The man sat up slowly, rubbing his wrists and whimpering. He looked at me mournfully, his long mustache twitching, and I handed him a bottle of water.
“You speak English?” I was surprised. Judging from his dumpy appearance, I guessed he was a low-level conscript.
“A little, yes. My heart hurts.” He put his hand to his chest, and the mustache twitched again.
“What’s your name?”
“Ahmed al-Khirzgee. I am good man.”
“What unit are you from?”
“I am not a soldier,” he said with a face like a basset hound’s.
“Then why are you wearing a military uniform, and why were you shooting at us with a military rifle?”
“I am only a very low soldier from Al Quds militia. I do not want to shoot at you.”
“But you did shoot at us. We almost killed you.”
“I have five daughters. Ba’ath Party took them from me and told me to fight the Americans, or my daughters would be killed. What would you do?”
I didn’t know whether to believe him, but he had struck a nerve. Al-Khirzgee was about my father’s age. His clothes were filthy and torn. He looked as exhausted as we were. I remembered my field interrogation at SERE school and thought that, for al-Khirzgee, this was real. He was afraid we would kill him. “Ahmed, I’d probably do exactly what you did,” I said. He stared at his lap before meeting my eyes again. “Drink this water and eat some food. Do what we say, and you won’t be harmed. If you fight or try to get away, this Marine will shoot you.” I turned to wink at Christeson and mouthed “Don’t shoot him.” Christeson nodded and fixed his sternest guard face on our prisoner.
Across the highway, Sergeant Lovell led his team on a foot patrol into a palm grove. It was too close to our position to leave unchecked. When they returned, Lovell made a beeline for me.
“Sir, I need to show you something,” he said. “Just cross the road here, and you’ll be able to see.”
Two long trailers sat in a clearing. They were painted desert tan, with air-conditioning units on their roofs. They were windowless, and padlocks secured the doors. Everything we had seen in Iraq was filthy, ruined by dust and years of neglect. The trailers gleamed. I knew what Lovell was thinking: mobile biological weapons labs. We had both listened to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s testimony before the U.N. and to countless classified briefs on Iraq’s weapons program. The trailers matched the descriptions perfectly.
“Take your bolt cutters and MOPP gear,” I said. “I’ll report it up the chain after you get back to me with details on what’s inside.”
Team Three headed off at a trot as I got a radio update on the battalion’s progress. Charlie Company was in the city. Alpha had blown up at least one Iraqi T-72 tank with an AT4 missile — no small feat. We could hear muffled explosions and the occasional chatter of machine guns.
Gunny Wynn had the shortwave tuned to the BBC. We listened as the anchor described Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square being pulled down by Marines in front of cheering crowds. The war, she said, was over.
“Damn,” Wynn said, slapping his knee. “I wish they knew that up here.” M4s barked in the distance, trading shots with throatier AKs.
“What about the prisoner?” Wynn nodded toward the Humvee, where al-Khirzgee happily ate MRE pound cake while Christeson stood over him.
“It’s a Geneva violation to leave him here,” I said. “We have to take him with us. Seems sort of dumb. It’d be easier for everyone, him included, to give him some food and let him walk home. But those are the rules we have to play by.”
Lovell’s team recrossed the highway. They had cut the lock on the first trailer and carefully climbed through the door. Stainless steel equipment and digital displays lined the walls. Most of the writing was in Cyrillic. They thought we’d struck a jackpot until they began opening the cabinets and drawers. Baking trays, mixing bowls, and measuring spoons fell out. Our mobile weapons lab was a field kitchen for the Iraqi army. We laughed about it, but there was an underlying lesson. The illusions of “dual-use” technology are deceptive, and sometimes a satellite is no substitute for a team of Marines with bolt cutters.
Just before sunset, Charlie Company roared past, waving the captured standard of the Republican Guard armored brigade from the window of their lead Humvee. We cheered as if the whole day of combat had been a game of capture the flag. War Pig led the drive south, and I settled in for the two-hour ride. Gunny Wynn asked the question I was thinking.
“You think they’ll hit us again as we drive by?”
“No way. You heard the BBC. The war’s over.”
Two minutes later came the radio call: “War Pig in contact five kilometers ahead.”
We had five thousand meters to think about the fire we were heading into, to watch the tracers swishing through the darkness. I squirmed to put as many vital organs as possible behind the bulletproof ceramic plates in my flak jacket. Wynn floored the accelerator when the vehicles in front of us sped up. Shots rang past the Humvee as we flashed by. I thought of al-Khirzgee and the ironic terror of being shot at by comrades. It made me smile. As we passed back into dark and quiet fields, the illuminated face of the GPS showed that we were crossing the 14 northing. Baghdad glowed on the horizon. For the first time in a month, it lit the sky with electric light instead of firelight.