DOWNTOWN. After three weeks with the city in our sights, we drove into Baghdad early the next morning, April 10. The platoon had returned to division headquarters from Ba‘quba around midnight. While we waited in line for gas until nearly sunrise, al-Khirzgee slept in the back of the Humvee. I gently shook him awake and said it was time to go.
A warehouse near the gas pumps was being used by the military police to hold Iraqi prisoners. A sergeant sat behind a desk inside the door. His belt held a pistol, handcuffs, a club, and a bottle of pepper spray.
“Lieutenant Fick. First Recon. We picked this guy up near Ba‘quba a few hours ago. His name’s Ahmed al-Khirzgee.”
The sergeant jumped up. “Jesus, sir, that’s a prisoner? I thought he was your translator or something.” His hand went to the pistol.
“Relax. He’s been with me all night.”
Two Marines stepped from the shadows and grabbed al-Khirzgee by the upper arms. As they led him down a dark hallway into the warehouse, he looked back at me.
“Salaam alaikum, Ahmed. I hope you find your daughters.”
Baghdad was smoldering when we crossed a pontoon bridge over the Diyala River. The mud-colored Diyala runs lazily between banks often thirty or forty feet high. No bridge large enough for our vehicles had survived the fighting, so Army reservists threw out the mobile bridge, and we crossed slowly, one at a time.
Oily smoke poured from a refinery near the river, and other black pillars rose from all across the city. We drove through a hodgepodge of war and peace. Mark-19s thumped in the distance, while a herd of water buffalo wallowed in the muddy riverbank under the watchful eyes of a boy. He waved as we passed. Near him, on the road, three corpses in green Iraqi army uniforms rotted in the sun. Women carried water from the river in plastic jugs atop their heads. One of them stopped to rest, placing her jug on the hull of an abandoned T-72 tank.
A dirt dike angled away from the river. It separated a canal from a field piled with household trash and wrecked cars. We drove on it to avoid the pools of sewage on either side. Slummy housing blocks alternated with palm groves, giving the place a suburban feel, although Baghdad’s concrete high-rises were only a mile away. The architecture was Stalinist in its brute simplicity and uniformity, but instead of gray, everything was brown.
People watched as we passed. Most waved and cheered. Others went about the daily tasks of their hardscrabble lives, as if the Marines in the neighborhood were just another show of force by just another power beyond their control. Four boys perched high on a donkey cart passed us, going in the opposite direction along the dike. They sat atop a pile of looted goods — furniture, televisions, car tires, and buckets of brass shell casings. Down an alleyway, a boy led a donkey dragging a Jet Ski through the dust.
By the time we dropped off the dike onto a paved thoroughfare leading deeper into the city, the platoon had relaxed. Baghdad was not another Stalingrad, not even a bigger An Nasiriyah. It looked like the shooting war was really over. Gunfire echoed in the distance, and helicopter gunships flew low over the rooftops, but life around us plodded along as normal. Produce sellers hawked food from open stalls. Men in kaffiyehs sat at open-air cafés, drinking tea from tiny glasses. Other men smoked and fingered prayer beads, holding our gaze as we passed. We glided along with the traffic, swinging through roundabouts and stopping for traffic signals, jostling for space with trucks, buses, and taxis. A day before, I would have been apoplectic with so many people so close. But in another tribute to the human mind’s quest for equilibrium, frustration with traffic replaced fear of an ambush.
Our destination was Saddam City, a sprawling Shia slum in the northern part of Baghdad. We had been briefed that the de facto mayor of the neighborhood was a cleric named Moqtada al-Sadr. We hadn’t heard of him and didn’t much care. After all, the Shia were supposed to be our friends. I first questioned that assumption on the drive into Baghdad. Walls, adorned a week before with likenesses of Saddam Hussein, had been defaced. As in the Roman practice of damnatio memoriae (condemnation of one’s memory), every trace of the former dictator was destroyed. Posters were torn, murals painted over, and statues toppled. Most of Iraq seemed to wait expectantly for whatever symbols would represent a new regime.
But power knew no vacuum in Saddam City. Less than one day after the old regime’s collapse, images of bearded, turbaned clerics covered nearly every vertical surface along the sides of the road. U.S.-sanctioned damnatio memoriae had begun immediately and contributed to the change. The Americans trumpeted the renaming of Saddam International Airport as Baghdad International Airport and the redesignation of Saddam City as Sadr City. The wisdom of the latter change eluded us.
“That guy’s gonna come back and fuck us, sir,” Espera told me. “We just gave the fucker the golden key. Compare his shit-hole neighborhood to the rest of Baghdad. Anyone who doesn’t think the Shia want revenge needs to spend some time outside his air-conditioned office.”
We rejoiced in our new home. Painted in English on the side of the building was a sign: IRAQI STATE TOBACCO COMPANY. The factory grounds included a tall office tower and four warehouses. Fire raged through all but one of the warehouses, releasing clouds of sickly sweet smoke as thousands of bales of tobacco and millions of cigarettes burned. After three weeks of stress-induced smoking and dipping, the Marines rummaged through the one remaining warehouse, gleefully piling cartons of cigarettes in the back of the Humvees.
A concrete wall topped with concertina wire surrounded the compound. Inside the wall grew trees and a small garden. The parking lots were newly paved, and a triple-tiered concrete fountain decorated the lawn in front of the office building. Saddam’s sons had run the tobacco company, accounting for its prosperous feel in a sea of third world desperation. Inside the wall were hundreds of Marines in an orderly camp. Outside the wall were five million Iraqis in an anarchic city. The only human interaction across the barrier was provided by Navy SEAL snipers on the roof of the office building. They had orders to shoot any Iraqi with a weapon. They fired every few minutes throughout the afternoon and into the night.
We were supposed to begin patrolling Sadr City the next day. In the cavernous room where the battalion set up its operations center, I unfolded my new map of Baghdad on the concrete floor. The city sprawled across four hundred square kilometers, with a population of more than five million. It was bigger than Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, or Dallas. I carefully outlined the battalion’s zone in blue marker. The area covered twenty blocks square on the north side of the Tigris. It was the most densely populated part of the city. Other units’ zones abutted ours, so it looked as if all of Baghdad had been carved into manageable chunks.
With most of the Marine Corps and Army converging on Baghdad, there would be a lot of U.S. power in the city. If each small unit took control of a neighborhood and maintained a continuous presence in it, we could accomplish a lot. I envisioned meeting with a town council, maybe sharing tea with the elders, and having the autonomy to address their most pressing needs. Judging by what we’d already seen, I suspected that money, fresh water, and medical supplies would go a long way toward creating goodwill. The key, though, would be continuity. We had to develop personal relationships and deliver on our promises. We had to be in the same places day after day, learning the routines, learning names and faces, and learning to sense when something was amiss. When I finally refolded the map and left the operations center, I felt a new confidence and sense of purpose. The night was warm. As I crawled into my sleeping bag on the pavement, a firefight raged outside the wall. Tracers arced through the dark sky, and I wondered where all the bullets would land.
The next morning, our patrol was canceled. We would be leaving the cigarette factory the following day for another part of the city. First Recon’s zone had already changed. My faith in the postwar planning cracked just a bit. I rationalized that it was a mammoth operation and there would be a short adjustment period as all the units settled into place. But two days after the end of the shooting war, looters and criminals owned the city. U.S. patrols kept an uneasy peace during the day, but the Marines were ordered back inside their bases by sunset. At night, a tide of revenge killings ebbed and flowed across Baghdad as running gun battles consumed whole neighborhoods. We were forbidden to intervene. The consensus among many Marine commanders was that revenge would settle into a natural equilibrium. Instead, it seemed to beget more revenge. A finite supply of goodwill toward the Americans evaporated with the passing of each anarchic day. I briefed the platoon on our impending departure from the cigarette factory and already saw the doubt in their eyes.
We drove north from Baghdad to our new headquarters in a children’s hospital a few kilometers outside the city. Traffic gridlocked the highway’s southbound lanes. Mobs of jubilant people partied their way home after having fled Baghdad weeks earlier to avoid the bombing. Iraqis waved from the beds of dump trucks and the roofs of cars. Marines returned the honks and waves. I marveled at the sheer size of the city, the number of people.
“Can you imagine what it would have been like if these people had actually decided to fight us?” I asked.
“Just wait a few months till we don’t live up to their expectations and they do decide to fight,” Gunny Wynn said, looking grim.
We pulled into the children’s hospital a few minutes after noon. Like most facilities in Iraq, regardless of their intended purpose, it had an air of military order. A gated guardhouse opened to a long, tree-lined road leading to half a dozen whitewashed buildings. Guard towers dotted a sand berm bulldozed up around the compound. Each company moved into its own building of patient rooms, with battalion headquarters settling into what were once the hospital’s administrative offices. The entire place had been looted. Smashed bottles, syringes, and piles of paper covered the floor of each room. No furniture remained; even the light fixtures and switch plates had been ripped from the walls. I sat down to eat lunch with the platoon.
“So, sir, what do you think is going to happen?” Jacks asked the question, but he spoke for the others, and all eyes settled on me. Sitting around and talking with the platoon was my favorite pastime in Iraq. Sometimes I’d come up with new topics just because I didn’t want the conversations to end.
“It’s too soon to say, but I’ll tell you what I hope will happen,” I said. “I hope we’ll stop moving around and be assigned a sector. I hope we’ll patrol in that sector day after day. These people don’t give a fuck about democracy right now. They need clean water. They need to know they won’t get shot in the middle of the night. People put their money on the horse that looks like a winner. We need to convince them that we’re the winner.”
“But what are the odds of that happening, sir?” Corporal Chaffin asked, as he scrubbed a rifle balanced on his knees. “I bet we keep moving around, making promises we can’t keep, and then the normal people will start to see us as occupiers instead of liberators.” Chaffin was fair-skinned with reddish hair. His complexion darkened as he spoke. “Pretty soon, no one will want us here, and then the fucking liberals at home will start to bitch, and pretty soon we’ll be back in Vietnam. Only instead of reading about it in a book, we’ll be living it.”
“I guess I’m more optimistic than that,” I answered. “This isn’t Vietnam — the guys we’re fighting have no superpower support, no sanctuary next door.”
“Sir, I’m gonna pull your punk card,” Espera interrupted. “With all due respect, I think you’re wrong.” He leaned close and pointed his thin cigar. “Guerrilla wars aren’t fought from sanctuaries with support from sugar mama countries. That’s political scientist bullshit. They’re fought from the mind.” He tapped his temple with the cigar. “If these people don’t want for themselves what we want for them, then this will be Vietnam. We’ll get our pride and our credibility involved, and then we’ll keep throwing money and men down the pit long after everybody else knows we’re fucked. We’ll leave, and Iraq will be even worse than the shit hole it was a month ago when we kicked down the door.”
“Who’ll give us the most trouble?” I asked.
“Guys our age,” Espera said. “They hate us. They want to kill us. I can see it in their eyes.”
I agreed with him. During the first week of the war, there were definite trends in the welcome we received. Everyone under eighteen was happy to see us. The women all cheered for us. The older men, over fifty-five or so, flashed the thumbs-up. But the young men, the guys in their twenties and thirties, stared silently.
“Why is that, Espera?” I asked. For evaluating motivations on the street, my sixteen years of school weren’t worth two weeks as a repo man in L.A., and I knew it.
“Shit, sir, we emasculated them. Cut off their balls and held ’em up for their wives and kids to see. We did for them what they know they should have done for themselves.”
“But they had twelve years to do it.”
“Don’t go getting all academic on me, sir. I’m explaining why they feel that way. I’m not saying they’re right.”
Colbert cut in. He lay on his back on the concrete floor, scrubbing M203 grenades with a toothbrush. “What about the fact that the young guys have the most to lose with the old regime coming down? They had the power, and now they’re going to lose it.”
“That’s what the eggheads on TV will say, sure. But they’re wrong,” Espera said, jabbing his cigar with each word. “You think all the mass graves are full of little kids and old men? These young guys got hosed by the regime just as much as everyone else. Saddam was an equal opportunity murderer. Kids, old guys, women. He killed his own daughters’ husbands.”
The Marines fell silent. The only sound was Colbert’s toothbrush swishing back and forth across a grenade.
The next morning, we made our third move in four days, traveling north and west to the Menin al Quds power plant near the Tigris. Its transformers and warehouses sat in cultivated fields a couple of miles off a main highway north of Baghdad. Just past the entrance gate stood a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein, dressed in a tie and fedora and holding a rifle above him. Some previous visitor had left a pile of feces on his head. Our mission there was twofold: we would provide security for the power plant while workers labored to undo years of neglect, and we would use it as a staging base to patrol the northeastern quadrant of Baghdad. Having heard similar plans twice in as many days, I kept my doubts to myself.
Bravo Company moved into a warehouse at the compound’s edge. Gunfire had ruptured an oil tank, and a film of sticky petroleum covered the ground outside. It stuck to our tires and the soles of our boots. The smell made me lightheaded. Inside the warehouse was a cargo bay, and upstairs a hall of offices we turned into sleeping spaces. The bleak building’s best feature was a gravity-fed pump of frigid water that allowed us to shower for the first time in more than a month. We wore flip-flops because broken glass covered the ground, and the water pressure almost tore the horseshoe from my neck. But the shower was worth it. As darkness fell and tracers again rose from the city, the Marines of Bravo Company shrieked and shouted beneath the welcome deluge of cold, fresh water.
After showering, I put my filthy cammies back on and walked over to the recon operations center for another of the seemingly infinite briefs and planning cells for upcoming missions, both real and imagined. The Marine Corps has an institutional culture of doing more with less, and that includes not only less money and less equipment but also less time, less certainty, less guidance, and less supervision. What makes it all possible is more planning and more preparation. While the Marines took advantage of a much-deserved rest, the battalion’s officers and staff NCOs debriefed past missions, tracked current missions, and planned future missions. Those who needed rest the most, the decision makers, frequently got the least. I was nearly stumbling with fatigue as I passed a roaring generator and entered the ROC.
The generator powered a row of overhead lights illuminating maps spread across two walls. Little flags marked the last updated position of each of the battalion’s patrols. A third wall held a status board, showing the composition, call sign, location, and activity of each team or platoon on patrol. Three Marines manned a bank of radios, whose wires snaked across the floor and out an open window to a small forest of antennas on the roof. Amid the squawks and static, they kept open the vital lifeline linking patrols in the field to aircraft, artillery, and all other forms of salvation. I always entered the ROC with some trepidation. Seeing competent Marines doing their jobs well made me feel more confident when I was the one on the other end of the radio. But I always had a nagging fear that I’d find the radio operators asleep, the map positions hours out of date, and the staff playing cards while a platoon was chewed apart. I knew that the fear was irrational, but I felt it every time.
That night, the ROC thrummed like the generators outside. Marines spoke on the radio in clipped tones, shuttled back and forth with messages from the platoons in the field, and constantly updated the status board and the maps. Major Whitmer sat in the corner, reading reports. He wasn’t in my chain of command, but we’d known each other for almost four years, and I trusted him.
“Good evening, sir. May I join you for a minute?”
“Please, Nate. Pull up a chair.”
“Sir, you’re looking pretty tired. I thought field-grades got eight hours each night.”
He laughed, indulging my jab. “You look pretty rough, too.”
“Yeah, well, I better get over it. I’m taking the platoon out in the morning for forty-eight hours. We’re supposed to patrol south of here along the Tigris. Wanted to see if you could add any insight or special advice.” I laid out the patrol plan for him on the map behind us.
“Remember, Nate, we were still fighting less than a week ago. That means three things. People’s lives are a wreck, and they’ll expect a lot from you — don’t overcommit us. Also expect to see some revenge killing — don’t get sucked into a fight not of your choosing. Third, the bad guys melted away last week instead of dying in the fight — they may or may not still be bad, but they’re out there, so be careful.”