GODFATHER, THIS IS HITMAN TWO, requesting permission to depart friendly lines with five Humvees, one Marine officer, twenty Marine enlisted, one Navy enlisted, and two civilians. Patrol route is as briefed; ETR forty-eight hours from now.”
With this call, the power plant gate swung open, and the platoon, with Mish and Evan Wright riding along, rumbled down the dirt road toward Baghdad. Fedayeen had been operating in the area, and intelligence indicated they were working from an amusement park near the Tigris. Our mission was to spread goodwill to the local populace while also collecting information on the fedayeen and inflicting whatever damage we could on them. For the next two days, my platoon would be the only American presence in a sixty-square-kilometer swath north of Baghdad. On the map, it was a mix of palm groves, farms, villages, and some of the city’s northern sprawl. We were about to find out how the map stacked up against reality.
The platoon hummed. We were on our own, free to make decisions, to run missions the way we saw fit. For the next two days, the buck stopped with me and Gunny Wynn. Everyone was rested after sleeping in the relative comfort of the power plant, and mail had arrived the night before. We’d gorged ourselves on homemade cookies, beef jerky, trail mix, and all the other delicacies we had lived without for a month. Three days without missions had left us all with a sense of withdrawal. I craved action. We believed that we could bring order to our little slice of Iraq, that we could be examples of freedom and tolerance and generosity. And if anyone opposed us, at least a firefight was more exciting than lying around on a warehouse floor. I needed a fix.
Our first stop looked like a nice American subdevelopment. According to the map, its name was Qalat Abd al Jasadi. It was a small neighborhood, only three blocks square. Large, well-kept houses peeked from behind walls of manicured shrubbery. Children played ball in the street while adults did lawn work and tinkered with cars. The orderly homes had caught my attention from the highway. I reasoned that only Ba’ath Party members or supporters would have lived in such comfort under the Hussein regime. If our mission was to stabilize the city and root out unsavory elements, a Ba’ath stronghold seemed as good a place as any to start. And so I made the natural choice for a Marine platoon commander desensitized by three weeks of war and invigorated by three days of rest: I decided to provoke them.
We drove into the quiet neighborhood, snorting diesel fumes and brandishing weapons. Instead of icy stares, we found open arms. Kids ran to us, and adults gathered around to ask questions in halting English.
“Finally, America come! Iraq a nice country, yes?”
An older man elbowed through the crowd. Hard eyes bored from his deeply tanned and lined face. His white robe glared in the midday sun. I sensed that he was the neighborhood elder, the man who would speak with us on behalf of the others. He looked angry. As I climbed from the Humvee, Mish came to my side. I glanced at Wynn to make sure he was picking up the same vibe I was. He cradled a rifle in his lap, face placid, body tense. Then the older Iraqi broke into a smile and grasped my hand.
“Hallo, hallo. Thank you. Welcome.” He explained that most of the neighborhood’s residents were physicians and engineers, respected professionals even under Saddam Hussein. “But we are glad Saddam is gone.” He complained that unexploded bombs and rockets littered the streets and fields, leftovers from the battles of the week before. The community maintained a neighborhood watch to guard against looters and any fedayeen who might bring American reprisals down on them. With ample electricity and fresh water, their only concern was the unexploded ordnance.
In my triage of worries, ordnance ranked a distant third, behind security and basic services such as water and power. I urged him to keep children away from the explosives and promised that we would return the next day, but I was anxious to see as much of our zone as possible before dark. We drove away to the cheers and shouts of the townspeople. “Tomorrow, America, tomorrow!”
I wanted to see the amusement park in daylight so we could better put it under surveillance after sunset. Doing so would be a lot easier and more effective if we knew the ground. We drove west along a raised irrigation dike, hoping to follow it all the way to the Tigris, where we could drive up a paved road to the gates of the park. No plan survives its first brush with reality. The dike dropped precipitously into a ditch, too deep and steep even for Humvees. Corporal Person was willing to buckle his seat belt and give it a try, but I couldn’t afford to roll a vehicle. We backed up and plunged off the side of the berm into a forest of palms.
The grove reminded me of an old-growth pine forest. The trees, spaced widely apart, blotted out the sun. There was no underbrush. We wove between the trunks, sometimes following a dirt track and sometimes allowing the GPS to lead us more directly toward the amusement park. Birds flitted through the fronds high above, and white flowers bloomed in the sunny meadows.
Colbert keyed his handset and whistled. “We just found the Garden of Eden.”
Weaving through the trees cut us to a walking pace, and visibility was frequently under a hundred yards. It should have alarmed me. We couldn’t see, couldn’t maneuver, and couldn’t communicate because the trees distorted our radio reception. But there was no malice in the air. Combat had honed our powers of observation — we knew a threat when we saw it. There was no threat in those palms, and we enjoyed the incongruous beauty of our detour.
It was nearly dark when we emerged from the trees onto a paved road paralleling the Tigris. Three men with rifles stood in the road. A concrete barrier and stacked tires stood next to them, preventing traffic from passing. Instinctively, the platoon swung into tactical formation. Espera drew abreast of Colbert to put more firepower to the front. Reyes and Lovell took up positions to the flanks and rear. I rolled one radio over to the battalion’s frequency, ready to report that we were in contact.
Colbert and Espera stopped less than fifty meters from the men. They still stood in the road, rifles at their sides. Any advantage the men had was gone. The platoon was cocked, ready to fight, and waiting only for a shot or an order to engage. The standoff seemed to last for minutes, but it could only have been a few seconds before one of the men shouted to us in Arabic.
Mish shouted back, and then yelled over his shoulder, “It’s a neighborhood watch. They just want to stop looters.”
The men said looters had been ranging through the countryside each night and stealing anything they could move. Hand-painted banners hung from the windows of homes along the road. Mish translated them as THE TOWN OF SALIH HASAN WILL NOT TOLERATE THIEVES. YOU WILL BE KILLED. The men begged us to stay with them to protect the hamlet.
Seeing their husbands and fathers with the Americans, women and kids poured from the gates of Salih Hasan. The children were jubilant, dancing and skipping along the road in the dusk. The women were more restrained. They drifted to the sides of their men, hiding behind veils.
I wanted to help them. Leaving the neighborhood earlier had smacked of abandonment. It had eaten at me during the drive along the dike and through the palms. We were out there to do more than sight-see and wave the flag. I wanted to make good on my own assertion that Americans had to give concrete gifts to the Iraqi people. An action then, in the first week of the occupation, was worth a thousand speeches about the virtues of democracy or the evil of the fallen regime. The citizens of Salih Hasan believed that their livelihoods, if not their lives, were under attack. For them, our lone Marine platoon was American power personified. We could make everything right. Leaving them would be a symbolic desertion they weren’t likely to forget.
And yet we had a mission. We had been tasked with planting our feet in each of the zone’s four corners and with reporting back on what was happening in all of it. Spending the night in one small village seemed, at the time, like a misallocation of our scarce resources. I reasoned that looters, seeing Salih Hasan protected, would simply move down the road to the next town. We couldn’t ambush them. Since the end of open hostilities, force was permitted only in self-defense or to save a life. Thievery, from the skewed perspective of the occupiers, was regrettable but legal. When I told the men that we couldn’t stay with them, they didn’t protest. Stoicism is a common quality among Iraqis. No wailing, complaining, or arguing. Just a nod of resignation. They are a people accustomed to neglect. I promised we would return the next day and second-guessed myself all the way up the road.
As it turned out, we didn’t get very far. Delays in the palm grove and at the neighborhood checkpoint kept us from reaching the amusement park in daylight. We drove south as darkness deepened, trying to gain a little more situational awareness before settling into a patrol base for the night. In my mind, the plan was changing. It was apparent that neighborhood watches were functioning in almost every community. Armed Iraqis guarding their homes and armed Marines moving in the dark would be a volatile combination. I decided to find a safe place to harbor the platoon for the night and punch out a team on a foot patrol to do some snooping. We found a perfect spot along the canal where we had earlier detoured around the ditch. Instead of driving right up to it, we passed by and watched it for a few minutes before moving back under the cover of darkness.
Perched high above the surrounding fields sat the remnants of an Iraqi antiaircraft artillery position. The gun emplacements were abandoned, but their sandbags and commanding views made the place easily defendable. We pulled the Humvees into a rough circle on the concrete pad and set out concertina wire. A .50-caliber machine gun pointed down each section of the dike we’d driven in on, while the Mark-19s aimed out over the fields, ready to drop grenades down below. We towered thirty feet above everything around us, protected by concrete walls. The place was a natural fortress. I laid out my infrared strobe light and an infrared buzz saw. If we were attacked, I would simply mark our position and let aircraft obliterate anything beyond. The Marines began a watch rotation, while I radioed a situation report, or SITREP, to the battalion.
“Godfather, this is Hitman Two. Stand by to copy SITREP.”
“Hitman Two, this is Godfather. We have you loud and clear. Standing by to copy.”
“Patrol base location Mike Bravo 4153 9920.” I read our exact position from the map in case we needed artillery support during the night, then went on to outline some of what we’d learned that day. As the battalion radio operator read the map coordinates back to me, I thought of the warm room at the power plant, hot coffee, and the Marines updating the status board. I hoped Major Whitmer heard our call and knew where we were.
“Godfather, we plan to remain in place for the night. One foot patrol, call sign Hitman Two-Two, will investigate PIRs as briefed. How copy?” PIRs were priority information requirements — all the little details the division tasked recon with learning. Ours included the locations of schools and hospitals, the trafficability of roads, and anything we could learn about the amusement park.
When the battalion had agreed to the plan, I joined Gunny Wynn and Sergeant Reyes to plot the foot patrol. The missions I couldn’t go on were always the worst. It was easy to order the platoon into danger when I was riding with them. That was our job. There was a gung-ho camaraderie in it, a glee in scoffing at the safety-conscious, risk-averse, seat-belt-and-safety-goggle culture that had raised us. After all, I would be right there at the front, in as much danger as anyone, sometimes more. An instructor at Quantico had told me that officers got paid to be gophers: when all the sane people were burrowing in the dirt, it was an officer’s job to poke his head up and see what was happening.
But when I sent my men out without me, the mission’s rationale had to be ironclad. My litmus test was simple: If someone was killed, would I be able to visit his parents after the war and explain to them honestly why their son had died while working for me? People die in war. Every one of us in the all-volunteer military accepted that. But the death better not be senseless, the mission not unnecessary, the planning not shoddy, the equipment not inadequate. So I felt a little guilty briefing Reyes while knowing I would not be joining him out there in the palms.
The moonlight was eerily bright, casting our shadows across the ground. We spread the map on the Humvee’s hood and read it easily without a flashlight. As we discussed the patrol, gunfire erupted from the field to our east. Streams of tracers crisscrossed back and forth through the trees. Evan Wright, tucked comfortably in his sleeping bag, levitated three feet off the ground before rolling across the hood of Colbert’s Humvee and into the shelter of the front tire. Red strings reached high overhead, fading into the dark sky. West of us, near the Tigris, more gunfire echoed through the trees. In only a few seconds, raging gunfights grew to surround us on three sides. We ducked instinctively, though no rounds seemed to be coming into our position.
“Christ almighty, what started this?” Gunny Wynn spoke for us all.
We figured it was a combination of revenge killings, citizens defending against looters, and probably some delinquents who just liked shooting in a lawless town. The gunfire continued unabated for almost an hour. Sometimes it chattered for minutes on end before settling into a testy silence as the gunmen presumably reloaded or looked for more targets. Then, inevitably, it roared louder than before, with many weapons firing at once. One of the urban legends of American military training is that our tracers are red but our enemy’s are green. I never saw a green tracer. They were all red, and they were everywhere.
Decision time again. I suspected that most of the fire was from people who were nominally our “allies” — Shia killing Sunni Ba’ath Party remnants and homeowners defending against criminals. I also knew they would shoot my Marines without hesitation if the team was seen moving suspiciously through the darkness. The Marines, in turn, would shoot anyone who threatened them. It was their obligation. Major Whitmer’s advice came back to me: Don’t get sucked into a fight not of your choosing. Don’t be in a hurry to get your Marines killed. The odds were slim of anything in this bedlam being of our choosing. Guaranteed risks outweighed long-shot returns.
After Rudy left to brief his team, I looked at Wynn and said, “I think we should cancel the patrol and keep everyone here until sunrise. This isn’t aggressive — it’s foolish.”
“Damn right. Not worth killing Marines to keep someone’s TV from being stolen.”
The battalion acknowledged our change in plans, and I settled in for radio watch while AK-47s cracked all around us. A warm wind blew cordite across the hill. In the distance, headlights traveled up and down the highway north of Baghdad.
My CO called just after midnight. He updated our taskings for the next day. We were to mark any weapons caches or unexploded ordnance for EOD to destroy. Also, the battalion had received reports of a possible regime palace in our zone. I copied the target’s coordinates and saw that they placed it squarely in the center of the amusement park. We were to determine whether it was in use. Twice I asked him to repeat sentences drowned out by the gunfire behind me. After updating our mission, he turned to his second point. “Request full explanation why you canceled tonight’s foot patrol. This makes us look very bad.” In response, I held the handset up to the gunfire and pushed the button to transmit.
We started our day before dawn. The nearest weapons cache was right below our feet. Concrete bunkers stood just down the hill from the antiaircraft position, and in them we counted more than twelve thousand rounds of large-caliber ammunition. Two surface-to-air missiles lay in the field outside the building. While I examined the missiles for identifying marks, an old man in gray robes approached from a nearby house.
I put my hand to my chest and greeted him. “Salaam alaikum.”
“Alaikum es salaam.” He launched into a tirade, spitting and kicking one of the missiles. His Arabic rose and fell in a harsh, guttural staccato. I looked expectantly at Mish.
“He says he is happy you are here and he is grateful to be liberated.” I expected Mish’s stock answer and kept staring at him, waiting for more. “He also says the Iraqis had a gun here to shoot down American airplanes. They abandoned it about a week ago. He is angry at Saddam for hurting the people but also angry at the army for having no pride. He is embarrassed that they gave up without a fight.”
“Tell him there’s no honor in getting slaughtered. And ask about weapons and fedayeen in the area.” Mish relayed my request, and the man began speaking intently while pointing at a distant tree line. Behind him, the Marines began to get into the Humvees.
“He says there is a house with many missiles in that village in the trees. Large missiles and small missiles together — about twenty of them. Also, he says there is a place up the road where the fedayeen are living. There’s a tall tower there. Near a lake.”
The village with the missiles was beyond the border of our zone, so we wouldn’t be able to follow up on the lead. But the place with a tower by the lake sounded like the amusement park.
On our way up to the park, we passed through Qalat Abd al Jasadi, the neighborhood of professionals from the previous afternoon. Again the residents welcomed us warmly. Without making promises to remove any ordnance, we asked to see everything that worried them. At the very least, I figured I could collect grid coordinates and send an EOD team as soon as possible. A small group, headed by a man who introduced himself as Ibrahim, led us around the town for nearly two hours, pointing out everything from a hand grenade sitting in a classroom to a T-72 tank abandoned in an orchard. We dutifully marked the locations of unexploded bombs, tank rounds, RPGs, and out-of-place metal objects we couldn’t identify but were reticent to touch. Finally, when the midday sun had us soaked in sweat, the men said that only one object remained.
Ibrahim pushed through a wooden gate in a high wall, leading us into the isolated yard of a house on the neighborhood’s main street. My paranoia kicked in, and I posted Marines outside the wall, at the gate, and inside the courtyard. If anyone hoped to ambush us, they’d better have a good plan and a lot of firepower. But Ibrahim led us through the yard to an innocuous-looking piece of metal buried nose-first in the dirt. A green and silver fin stuck up six inches above the grass.
“That’s an RPG round, sir. It was fired but didn’t detonate,” Colbert said, as he edged back from the projectile.
“Pretty unstable,” I replied. I felt like whispering, as if a loud noise might engulf us all in a ball of fire.
“Correction, sir: very unstable. We can’t just leave it here for EOD to take care of in a week or a month. Kids live in this house. I can blow it up.” Colbert looked at me coolly.
I knew he could blow it up. I also knew that doing so was, for us, expressly against the rules. We could mark ordnance, count it, and photograph it. We could not blow it up. Too many Marines were losing fingers and eyes to volatile piles of explosives. But then, this was a family’s yard. Half the village had gathered outside the gate to watch the Americans work their magic. Our credibility was on the line. Not personal pride — that sort of immaturity got people killed — but the credibility of the U.S. Marines as a force for good in these people’s lives. One concrete act of goodwill outweighed a thousand promises, meetings, and evaluation teams.
“Get the C-4, Colbert, and do your thing. If you blow your hand off, so help me God, I’ll chop the other one off myself,” I said.
“Roger that, sir.”
We herded the growing crowd outside the courtyard as Sergeant Colbert and his team built a charge to detonate the RPG round. He molded a lump of plastic explosive into a disk the size of a silver dollar and inserted a blasting cap. Colbert took the C-4 in one hand and looped thirty yards of time fuse in the other. He and Sergeant Espera entered the yard and walked carefully toward the offending fin. Their helmet chin straps were snugged and their flak jackets tightly closed. When they approached the round, they dropped to their hands and knees, and then to their stomachs, crawling slowly forward and stringing the fuse behind them. No one in the platoon breathed as Colbert tucked the charge into the hole the RPG had dug in the turf. Because it had been fired, the round was armed and could explode at any time. He nestled the charge close to the body of the grenade and then tamped dirt on top to amplify the effect of the blast. Colbert and Espera reversed their approach — first crawling, then kneeling, and finally walking quickly back to the waiting platoon.
“No need to chop my hand off, sir.” Colbert smiled and lit the fuse. Marines waved the Iraqis down to a crouch.
Colbert waited quietly, looking at his watch, before yelling, “Fire in the hole!” A geyser of dirt shot up over the wall, raining pebbles down into the yard and sending a dust cloud out into the street. The villagers cowered for the briefest instant before breaking into cheers. Sergeant Colbert and I walked into the courtyard, looking for the scattered bits of C-4 that would indicate an incomplete detonation. There were none. A crater marked the former resting place of the RPG round, and only tiny scraps of metal remained from the grenade itself.
Ibrahim and the owner of the house approached us. “Thank you. Thank you. Please come inside and drink tea with us. You are our guests today.”
Colbert smiled wanly and deferred to me. “Sir, I have a team to take care of. You’re our diplomat.” He walked back to his men, who were now trading high-fives with Iraqi boys wearing wraparound sunglasses borrowed from the Marines.
I explained that we had other towns to visit and other jobs to do. Ibrahim understood and welcomed us back to Qalat Abd al Jasadi anytime. Driving out of town, I felt that we had accomplished something greater than blowing up one leftover grenade.