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The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

Soldier Against the Sky


There are places even in Fallujah where the streetsong drops away to nothing, shaded alleys devoid of sound: you step inside them and for a moment it seems like nothing outside could ever get to you. Keep your steps right and you could let the patrol you are with get just far enough ahead to leave you out of earshot and with nothing but your thoughts and for a brief time you could begin again to feel human, like something approaching whole. But the war never leaves you. It is always here, stalking you like a shadow. The war, it seems, has always been here and it colors and obscures everything, even the country itself. In the quiet times, in the middle of long hot patrols you can’t help wondering what this place was before it became the dark muse of the American military. What chatter filled its cafes? How did they name their winds? Did they love the desert as you do now? You close your eyes but smell only the familiar Third World stench of burning trash and hot diesel fumes mixed with Fallujahn streetfunk, dudesweat, sheepshit.

On the wall of the quarters I shared with a Marine lieutenant in Ramadi there was a large metal wipeboard and every morning before I went out into the city on patrol I would study it. The lieutenant had inherited it from the previous occupant and covering its every square inch was the collected wisdom of the Occupation, written in a fragmented, aphoristic style. The wipeboard was a marvel, a palimpsest containing at once several generations of tactical conceits and prophecies, a snapshot of the ever-evolving American mission in Iraq, a catalogue of items to unlearn, notes from the lieutenant underground, a prayer to the muse of history.

Here are a few of my favorites:

“you have firepower. firepower alone will not win.”

“the best shot is the shot you never have to take.”

“the marine corps is a government bureaucracy. you will be judged by lawyers who have never seen a firefight.”

Floating above all these admonitions in scrupulously drawn letters and seeming to preside over everything else scrawled on the board, someone had written simply: “think.”

It was mid-2006 now and a lot of the truisms on the board either were outdated or had been reversed by events. Lessons had been learned, some too late. But to spend time in Iraq is to acquire a visceral understanding of the flexibility of information and the power of place over knowledge. What is true in Ramadi is not necessarily true in Iskandariyah. What is true in Baghdad is almost never true in Basra. In Iraq, information is tribal like the people who live there. It keeps its own company. Things only seem absolutely true in Washington. The closer you get to the killing, the harder it is to know anything for sure. Even the journalists I talked to spoke of the war as beginning to dissolve as a story. It had all gotten so weird, so disparate, that none of the familiar narratives felt convincing anymore. Such was the mistrust of the official line, so heavy was the spin, that with any new piece of information you learned to do a kind of mental arithmetic whereby you divided the information given by the speaker’s rank, multiplied by his or her time in-country, and subtracted based on the number of miles the speaker was distant from the fighting.

The most useful information invariably came in the form of the anecdote, the casual aside that over time became the platoon mantra, the anonymous epigraph written on the latrine-wall (“tupac is in ramadi”), the accidental remark that encapsulated an entire operation, the eavesdropped epithet that is recalled months later and thousands of miles away and only in dreams. By the time I arrived, Iraq had entered the realm of found art.

I told the lieutenant that he ought to send the wipeboard to the Marine Corps Historical Center after his tour was over. There was a lot of great stuff on that board I told him. He just shrugged and stomped off to the company operations center a couple of doors down. Later, I thought about all the aphorisms written on the board. In theory, each lesson represented a life. In order to know that driving on dirt roads in Ramadi was dangerous, you had to have an IED (improvised explosive device) go off in your face. Before you started draping camouflage netting over the gunner’s turret atop a Humvee, you had to lose a gunner to a sniper. In order to learn the lesson, you had to lose somebody.

*  *  *  *  

To hear the marines describe it, Ramadi is the Chernobyl of the insurgency, a place where the basic proteins of guerilla warfare have been irradiated by technology and radical Islam, producing seemingly endless cells of wide-eyed gunslingers, bomb gurus, and aspiring martyrs. Globalization wrought with guns and God. A place devoid of mercy, a place where any talk of winning hearts and minds would be met with a laugh, both sides seeming to have decided, This is where the killing will never stop, so give it your best shot.

Soldier Reclining

The state of the war in Iraq has been grim for a long time but the news coming out of Ramadi has always been darker and weirder than just about anywhere else. Even now when I try to recall what the city looks like, what comes to me is nothing more than a pocked stretch of boulevard surrounded on both sides by heaps of rubbled concrete, iron palings, trash. Swirls of dust playing over the blacktop. The smell of cordite. Everything still but a grizzled dog patrolling the ruins. It can be like this—high noon, not a soul around, no threat imminent—but you can feel the sheer sinister energy of the joint. As if even the streets want you dead. Driving through downtown Ramadi for the first time gave me an unshakable vision of mystery and death. Just staring at the rubble set my heart pounding with the knowledge of the lives lost per yard.

This is not what the Marine Corps expected from Ramadi. After the quixotic invasion in 2003, the Marines had returned to Iraq the following spring with high hopes, full of the infectious zeal for the field that has always made them so alluring to outsiders. They were America’s most experienced anti-guerilla force and the general consensus among the class of observers and analysts who report on the US military was that the Marines would bring some much-needed expertise to the increasingly restive nation. Numerous experts named the Corps’ 1940 Small Wars Manual as the definitive document on counterinsurgency and talked about the Corps in such gauzy, superlative terms that it seemed a fait accompli. As Marine officers liked to remind the press, not a single Marine had been killed by hostile action after Baghdad fell. Their confidence was so high that prior to the deployment a few Marine generals began making disparaging comments about the US Army’s postinvasion handling of the situation in Iraq. Army troops were too heavy-handed, they said, too enamored of their tanks and armored vehicles, too “kinetic,” too brusque with the locals. It was like crushing a walnut with a sledgehammer. It was no wonder that the Iraqis had responded by planting homemade bombs in the streets, they said. You had to listen to the locals. You had to spend time with regional leaders. You had to rely on what Marine leaders referred to as “the velvet glove” approach.

As with everything in Iraq and Al Anbar, the Marine plan changed on March 31, 2004. All that the war was to become, all the searing images, all the familiar narratives of quagmire were first written then. On that day, four American contractors were ambushed in Fallujah and their mutilated bodies hung from a pedestrian bridge that spanned the Euphrates. Soon after, the word came down from on high (some sources indicate the call emanated from the White House itself) that the locals were to be punished for this depredation and four Marine battalions were ordered to seize the city. The Marines were closing the noose when the media coverage of the offensive got to be so bad that the generals in Baghdad called the whole thing off and ordered the Marines to begin withdrawing.

Control of Fallujah was eventually turned over to a local Iraqi militia known as the “Fallujah Brigade.” This move seemed to fit hand-in-glove with the more nuanced Marine approach, the idea being to let the locals do their own policing. However, almost immediately after the Fallujah Brigade stood up, reports began to emerge that the force was little more than a conglomeration of the very gunmen and criminals that the Marines had been trying to kill in the first place. This awkward state of affairs continued throughout the summer of 2004. And while the city was increasingly viewed by Marine officers as the hotbed of the insurgency in western Iraq, the word from Washington was clear: keep Iraq out of the headlines until after the presidential election. Privately, many Marine officers complained bitterly about the situation and argued that Washington had robbed them of a victory.

After the election, a second, this-time-we-mean-it offensive was authorized. The November battle of Fallujah, which senior Marine commanders repeatedly portrayed as a long-awaited coup de grace to the insurgency was the most intense American engagement since the Vietnam battle of Hue City and quickly earned a place in the pantheon of Marine Corps battles alongside Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and the Chosin Reservoir—but while the Marines certainly killed a lot of insurgents and restored order to the city, thus far the battle has not proven to be the decisive engagement that commanders had hoped for. Worse still, according to some Iraqis I spoke to, the locals never looked at the Marine Corps in the same way after that. The entire sequence of events had had the ultimate effect of alienating and radicalizing large portions of the local population.

In April 2004, while the world’s attention was focused on the debacle in Fallujah, an entire squad from Second Battalion, Fourth Marines was ambushed and wiped out by a cell of one hundred local insurgents. Up to this point, the Marines had never lost a firefight in Iraq and no one had any immediate explanations for it. People familiar with the attack speak of how it seemed to materialize out of nowhere and everybody who heard the story got in sudden, intimate touch with the terms of their own mortality. This attack, as utterly unexpected as it was, seemed to fit into a larger picture of an insurgency growing steadily in expertise. A threshold had been passed. The insurgency, which before had appeared a decidedly amateur affair, seemed to be finding its legs, tapping into preexisting bodies of tactical knowledge, watching the Americans, learning their habits.

Two months later a four-man Marine sniper team was discovered and executed on a rooftop near downtown Ramadi. Video footage of the executions was running on several local Arab television networks before the Marines could even mount a patrol to investigate. The event sent shockwaves through the ranks. In the Marine Corps, snipers are venerated figures, the embodiment of the exalted marksman, and the idea that a sniper team could have been so crudely dispatched seemed an affront to the very cosmology of the Marine Corps, which, despite all the advancements of modern technology, has held fast to the belief that the battlefield’s final arbiter is the well-trained man with a rifle. And while this engagement was far from decisive, it was definitive in its own way and helped to create the impression of an elite corps—one that had prided itself on its handling of insurgencies past—that was struggling to get its footing in a troubled province. The situation was so unsettling that Marine commanders eventually ordered the nominally civilian Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) to launch a formal inquiry into the matter. The logic seemed to be that Marine snipers don’t get killed that way. Local fighters with a week’s training in the desert didn’t just roll up on a sniper hide and whack everyone. It had to be an inside job.

Among many Marines operating in the Ramadi area there is an intense desire for a Fallujah-style offensive to clear the decks. The arguments here are chilling in their resemblance to paradigms deployed during Vietnam and their seeming faith in the redemptive power of violence. As one gunnery sergeant in Habbaniyah told me, “Fuck, just once I would like to go toe-to-toe with these motherfuckers. Leave the jets and the .50 cals behind and have a small-arms fight. Just M16s and AKs, man to man.” Another marine, a second lieutenant whom I knew well and who was otherwise an unusually calm and circumspect officer, explained, “An IED goes off and kills one of your guys and you see one dude standing by the side of the road talking on a cell phone—no one else is around and you can’t even arrest him. I wish we could do what we did in Fallujah in 2004. It’s so much easier when you can just shoot anybody.”

By the time I arrived in Ramadi, the place had already gained a reputation as a place that was bankable for a good, bloody story for journalists looking for a bit of the “bang-bang.” Many reporters were expecting, perhaps even hoping for a Fallujah-style assault on the town, but the American high command, not wanting to repeat the mistakes of 2004 and not wanting to be seen as usurping the power of the fledgling Iraqi government, never allowed a full-scale offensive in Ramadi. Accordingly, the insurgency in the city has continued to grow in both scale and sophistication, such that Ramadi has come to be viewed as a sort of graduate school of the insurgency.

Marines and soldiers stationed in the city spoke of the place with a sort of detached awe at the baroque madness that had taken root there. The month before my visit, marines had killed a group of insurgents who were using water-cooled saws to slice open an entire city block to plant an enormous roadside bomb. Local fighters had staged sham funeral processions that marines were obligated to observe. When the lines of mourners drew near Marine positions, they would all reach into the coffin and pull out RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and AK-47s. Insurgents in Ramadi had been known to fly kites to help adjust their mortar fire and to release pigeons to signal the approach of US troops. One marine, with a heavy-weapons company whose job it was to conduct raids around the city, told me that the guys in his unit had become amateur ornithologists, learning to spot by binoculars any birds that weren’t indigenous to Ramadi.

The tactical permutations were endless and, in some cosmic convergence of reality crashing head-on with the local grunt imagination, the Marine rumor mill began to seem like a legitimate source of intelligence: the mujahideen were all on speed, the muj were using remote-controlled cars as suicide vehicles, the muj had stolen an American tank and were waiting for just the right moment to use it, one of the muj snipers is a turncoat US marine, the muj had trained local dogs to act as scouts. (Most of the marines I knew bit on this last one and were inclined to shoot a dog as soon as look at one, and for some it was just one more drop in the karma bucket: the locals hate you, Allah hates you, hell, even the fucking dogs want you dead). The official chain of command seemed at times to struggle to keep pace with the street mojo.

Young Soldier Standing

Among the marines, who had been stationed in Ramadi longer than any army unit and saw themselves as the keepers of the city, the months of sustained combat began to have a corrosive effect on their basic humanity. There were daily situations on the streets of Ramadi that would have overwhelmed anything covered in a law of war seminar at the Army War College. The way the marines saw it, the standard-issue moral equipment simply wasn’t working and they fashioned their own with what they found in the streets. As one Marine master sergeant put it, “Over here, you have to change your definition of what an innocent bystander is.”

Yet it was immediately clear to anyone who spent time with marines in Ramadi that they relished their special status as the caretakers of the war’s premier hell, The Big Suck, The Deep End, ground zero, the heartland of the insurgency, where the World’s Worst come to die at the hands of the World’s Best. Month after month, it never let up and they absorbed the war’s worst casualties with a kind of high stoicism that was both inspiring and chilling. In some companies a refracted sense of the value of human life took hold, an unspoken understanding that casualties weren’t something to get too worked up about. Many echoed the old line from the Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, “Marines die. That’s what we’re here for.” The important thing, really, was to give as much as you got.

Some Army officers I spoke with were appalled at the marine mentality. One such officer remarked, “With an attitude like that, no wonder they take so many casualties.” When the story of the alleged atrocities at Haditha broke, some soldiers were more than willing to believe that the marines had murdered those civilians and possibly more. One Army armor officer who had served with the Marines before the war chalked all this up to the “Tarawa mentality,” in reference to the World War II battle where 990 marines died seizing a Pacific atoll of questionable strategic value. At one point during an Army-Marine coordination meeting, an Army officer who had just come down from the Tal Afar region complained about the danger of driving a marine-controlled route because of the number of roadside bombs. His complaint was immediately dismissed. “Unless there are people melting inside of Humvees,” he was told, “then it’s not a real problem.”

Welcome to Ramadi.

When I first checked in at Hurricane Point, the major Marine base near the city, I met Captain Max Barela, a company commander who had a reputation within the battalion for being somewhat of a maverick, having developed his own unique style of dealing with insurgents in his sector (one reporter had credited him for inventing “the anti-Fallujah strategy,” one of courting the local sheiks and instructing his marines to strictly limit their fire into the city). He was a cagey guy, clearly skeptical of the press or, for that matter, any outsider, and he had a talent (as the battalion executive officer put it) for “fucking with reporters.” When I first met him, he was telling the battalion commander about how one of his lieutenants had pulled a photographer from the Chicago Tribune out of the field, confiscated his camera, and told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to photograph Marine wounded. It was a tense scene: the photographer was from Great Britain but should have known better; he was clearly shaken and asked sheepishly if he was going to be sent back to Baghdad. Barela was visibly proud of his lieutenant’s handling of the situation.

In a way, I couldn’t help but identify with Barela. He was clearly playing a different game than most of the officers I’d met and had an elemental understanding of what was at stake for the locals that escaped most marines. He had an enigmatic air to him, a way of testing you before he allowed you to get close, before he really started talking to you. If he thought you were anything less than 100 percent serious about learning Ramadi, or if you flinched in the face of confrontation, he would completely ignore you. He knew that there was something extraordinary going on in his sector, and he wasn’t giving out tickets to just anyone. When I introduced myself and inquired about embedding with his company, he looked me up and down, and in a pronouncement that later seemed to me to be a sort of litmus test, a rite of passage to see if I had the balls to roll with him and his boys, said, “If you don’t do exactly what I tell you, you’ll be fucking dead in a week.”

Before I could formulate a response, he stepped out of the CO’s office and, with some marines in trace, got into a Humvee and drove back to his company patrol base in the city.


Maybe it’s all the hip-hop the grunts listen to, all that pent-up urban rage echoing in your brain as you roll down the streets, but look around, it’s Jay-Z, dead-on: swaggering, thuggish rhythms that seem to embrace these streets, defying all religion and geography. At times like this, you can almost feel the hate seeping through the bulletproof glass, the antipathy pressing in through osmosis. You might find a moment of grace, turn a corner, blink, catch sight of the cutest little girl; she’s out watching her brothers play soccer in the rubble, twirling in the kind of sundress you could have sworn didn’t exist in the Arab world. But blink again, and you can feel the streets rising up to kill you, the battle that gripped the city for weeks, the bang, the flash, the blur, sweat pouring down your back as you squeeze yourself into the space beneath a window, praying to join with the concrete.

In western Ramadi just south of the highway that bisects the town, there’s an observation post, manned by marines from Captain Barela’s company, called OP VA, because the main building comprising the observation post had been the local veterans administration office before the war. The post was larger than most Marine OPs and much better built, having been reinforced with thousands of sandbags and ringed by a series of eight-foot-high dirt-filled barriers. It sat overlooking Highway 10, the artery that connected the town to Damascus in the west and to Baghdad in the east, and was manned by forty marines.

Silhouetted Soldier

Sometime in the early morning of April 17, 2006, local al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents attacked it in a style that had never been seen before in Iraq but that clearly harkened back to the 1983 Hezbollah attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut—an assault that had precipitated the US withdrawal from Lebanon and was later cited by Osama bin Laden as one of the primary examples of American impotence. This assault began when a yellow dump truck filled with an estimated 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives crashed into the earthen barrier surrounding the Marine position and detonated. Dozens of explosives-laden suicide vehicles had been staged along the highway, waiting for the inevitable American reaction forces that would be dispatched to reinforce the post. The force of the blast at OP VA was so great that everyone who heard the explosion assumed that all the men who were there had been killed instantly. I was told by several marines who were in western Ramadi at the time, “There was no way anyone could have survived that blast.” They inevitably paused for dramatic effect, “No fucking way.”

In quick order, teams of insurgents with RPGs and machine guns moved on the American post, engulfing the building in a hail of fire. For a period of time that no one can pinpoint exactly—time becomes a staggeringly malleable commodity in combat—there was no return fire, and the absence of any radio traffic from the marines there led many to conclude that the position had been lost. What no one in authority knew at the time was that almost every man at OP VA had been knocked unconscious by the raw concussive force of the dump truck explosion. Survivors spoke later of waking up to a desolate, last-man-on-Earth feeling that gripped them as they looked around and saw dozens of their comrades lying immobile and presumably dead. Many veterans of the battle whom I spoke with claim to have no memory of the blast whatever and simply recall waking up to the gut-clenching whoosh! sound of RPGs impacting into the sides of the building. Visibility inside the OP was down to two feet. Most of the men made their way around by touch.

One by one, the marines at OP VA stirred from their involuntary slumbers and took up positions around the building. The outgoing fire, which had at first been a goose egg, then a trickle, within an hour had turned into a hailstorm, and it wasn’t long before the marines had suppressed the various teams of insurgents who had besieged the compound.

As the battle turned, Marine noncoms began taking a head count, trying to get a sense of the casualties they were looking at, and were flabbergasted to discover that no one had been killed or seriously wounded. It was beyond miraculous. The barrier system, created with an ample stand-off range, had saved them. Like most firefights in Iraq, the battle for OP VA ended with an ever-increasing volume of fire emerging from the American position followed by the insurgents fading back to their urban hideouts. In terms of ground held, nothing had changed in Ramadi.

Still, no one who was there and who repeated the story of the attack had outlived the mystery of his own survival or found a way to express his dark fascination, bordering on nostalgia for it. Each acknowledged the sheer horror of it and the fact that had the attack enjoyed even slightly better luck or a few more elements in its favor, it would have proven disastrous to the marines. At times in the retelling, the story seemed to possess these men and they struggled with the impossibility of conveying the intensity of the experience to others who had not been there. It was, as with so many things in Iraq, lost to the vapors and the shadows beyond human knowledge and yet inescapably central to the experience itself.

*  *  *  *  

Sometime after my first encounter with Captain Barela, I met a second lieutenant in his company, who was from Alabama. He was so young and good-looking and so new to the Corps that most of the guys in the company, including Barela, looked right past him. It was an exquisite form of cruelty, to be so subtly snubbed day after day, but he didn’t seem to mind, or maybe he just didn’t notice. I could see how it happened. He was soft-spoken, had the eyelashes of a dreamer, and I think the other marines took his gentle good looks as a sign of weakness.

One night before we were heading out on a patrol he asked if I’d seen the big crater out at the edge of the compound. I hadn’t. Well, when we get out there, remind me and I’ll show you, he said. Later, we made our way out of the massive, vaguely Egyptianate building and stood in the open yard of the perimeter as he toed the dirt with his boot. I could tell he was getting ready to lay something on me and that he was trying to summon the drama he would need to get it right. Still, true to what I took to be his gentle nature, he spoke simply and without the bluster that I’d seen in other marines. He told me about April 17 and how all he could remember was waking up behind a machine gun, pouring fire into the highway to the north, RPGs rushing by his head.

“This is all that’s left,” he said, looking into the dusty, ten-foot-deep crater. Yet, this crater, this meager defile, was far from the only remaining evidence of the battle. We walked back inside and he downloaded a video celebrating the April 17 attack, produced by an al Qaeda-affiliated cell and burned to CDs that sold by the thousands in Baghdad. As the video streamed, I had the vague realization that I was watching the birth of a new form of ordnance, a weaponized movie, made by a new kind of soldier, the guerrilla auteur.

It began with an ornate title sequence, the name of the dump truck driver slung across the top of the frame in a looping, golden scrawl. This was clearly a film with religious aspirations, everything done up in gaudy tones and accompanied by overdriven Arabic orchestral music. Then an earnest-looking young man read his will beneath a tree, birds singing in the background. Then a montage: the young man behind the wheel of a truck, the scene set to triumphant Arabic music; the young man singing along, smiling brightly; the young man addressing and swearing his allegiance to someone off camera; the young man hugging his comrades, on his face a look of rapture. We were looking at a martyr in the making.

Then the image quality changed, everything becoming jostled, and we were back in the world of amateur internet video. There was the blocky veterans administration building, the long brown row of earthen barriers that surrounded it. The yellow dump truck appeared in the lower-left corner of the screen and moved toward the center of the frame. The flash was for a moment as bright as the sun and it washed out the entire frame. The light dropped and there was the heavy spray of dirt and marl as the explosion rebounded off the barrier wall, the terrain suddenly airborne. Then, through the dust and smoke the hammering of many guns, the whistle of the air being split, the echo and pop of gunfire as rounds arced away and hit and skipped off the walls of the building, the architecture suddenly enshrouded by dust as round after round impacted the concrete.

Soldier in Iraqi Home

At first, no gunfire emerged from the veterans administration building. Then after several minutes of punishment, as the concrete soaked up gales of lead, the building seemed to awaken and muzzle flashes could be seen winking on the roof. Rounds began to zip and zing by the camera and then we became aware of the presence of the cameraman who was now mobile, the picture suddenly blurred by movement, and the narrative devolved into a fog of brown shapes and occasional snatches of Arabic dialogue. With that the file ended.

I looked around awkwardly at the now-deserted company operations center where we had been sitting for the last hour, not realizing then the gravity of what had just happened. Only later did I begin to understand. In some small way, the lieutenant had been trying to guarantee himself a piece of remembrance, to ensure that if he were killed by a sniper shot to the cranium or by a rigged 105 round buried in some roadside trash or by a taxi packed full of Soviet-era plastic explosives driven into a convoy, that this video might not be the only version of history, that somebody might have recorded the crucial details of his last days.

The lieutenant showed me a picture of his wife. She was blond and beautiful in a very American kind of way and her face carried on it the promise of the country, the allure of shelter, the hope of being whole again. The tenderness of women is conspicuously absent from the grunt universe, and unless you got off on enemy contact, it was all death and no sex over there. The smiling visage of the lieutenant’s wife was irreconcilable with those pixilated images of death. I had to force myself to remember that there are lovers and killers in all of us.

It was then that the lieutenant told me with some mirth how the marines had searched extensively for the remains of the driver, as they always did after these sorts of attacks. So intense was the blast that nobody could find a single scrap of flesh. The young man, so exhilarated in the video about his impending martyrdom, had, it seemed for a while, passed straight into ether. Then some days later, a marine loping around on the far side of the compound looked down and there it was: the driver’s disembodied and blackened penis. The lieutenant laughed about how the “muj cock” had probably never been used (most rural Iraqi men are virgins until marriage), and now it just lay there curled up on the ground, dozing like a little seahorse.

*  *  *  *  

In December 2005, after the Marines retook Fallujah, they established a ring of heavily fortified observation posts looking into the city. The men would sit in these for days, scouring the streets with binoculars, memorizing every stretch and corner of streetscape. For weeks on end, there was nothing but the blank routine of radio checks and the lieutenant making his rounds.

None of the observation posts had electricity or air-conditioning or any form of diversion, and the heat and monotony bore down on the men. It didn’t take long for the worst kind of boredom to set in, a deep-seated, aggressive ennui that scorched everything, the kind that can make a man’s deepest convictions seem like pure folly, his family a fading photograph. The kind of boredom that could make a man do things and want things that were clearly irrational. A reservist from Brooklyn told me that marines there started hoping that they would get attacked just to break up the monotony. Please, Lord, anything, just make the time go faster. And not just any old pussy potshot from a local shopkeeper who’s been paid by the muj.

The marines knew they could handle anything the muj could throw at them. The posts they manned had been constructed with memories of nightmare attacks built into the placement and composition of every sandbag. The post itself, a small ziggurat made out of sandbags and lumber, was mazed in concrete barriers that made a car bomb an exercise in futility. The post was a feat of military engineering designed to preserve the lives of the guys who manned it.

The attack never came.

Eventually, however, and for reasons that no one can seem to recall, one marine snapped. A couple of the guys started arguing about something and out of nowhere, one of them just leaned over, picked up his M16, and jammed it into his buddy’s chest. There came now a moment of unparalleled intimacy. Is he gonna do it? Does he have the balls? Naw, I don’t think so. He ain’t got the balls.

He was right.

The marine dropped his weapon dejectedly, saying nothing, while the other guys just looked on in amazement. He stripped off all his gear, took off his flak vest, his helmet and his CamelBak, and started walking down from the observation post and stomped away from the city and into the desert. His buddies just stood there dumfounded. What the fuck were they supposed to do? They had an observation post to man. It was their company’s primary mission. They figured he would eventually walk his anger off and come to his senses. They would all be laughing about this over an MRE in an hour.

But that moment never came. After about hour or so, the marines in the post decided that they had to let higher headquarters know what was up. This was some major-league shit. When the battalion commander found out, he ordered every available body from the 1,000-man battalion out to search for him. He requested a company of tanks from a nearby base and some air cover for his marines on the ground. There was a small air-ground task force out looking for this one wayward marine and the colonel knew it was only a matter of time before the high command would start wondering what the fuck was going on north of Fallujah. The precedents for this sort of thing were bad: in 2005, a Lebanese American marine had gone AWOL and eventually turned up at a relative’s house in Beirut. The whole affair had played out in the press, which, of course, amounted to incredible embarrassment for the Corps.

In the end, the errant marine was found fetal and shivering in a ditch. No one I spoke to had any idea what had happened to him after that.


Think about the town and the battle that possessed it for a time. The thousands of bullets that wandered the streets day and night, looking for a home in a human body. Stick your finger into one of a million bullet holes made by a Spectre gunship, crane your head down an alley to see a half-dozen houses Swiss-cheesed by gunfire. Blast holes exactly large enough to fit a squad through. Freeze this image. Behold it, strain for its patterns, earn its lessons, imagine the ironstorm that came, then passed on, looking for other cities to ruin. If these streets cannot tell you what war is, then nothing can.

One day I went out on an Iraqi Army patrol in a lush, jungly area across the Euphrates from Fallujah—twenty nervous Iraqi troops, some wearing masks so that the locals couldn’t identify them, and three Americans, all walking in a line through dry rice paddies waiting for somebody to open up on us. The major in charge of the US advisory team I was living with had insisted that I carry a rifle. It was just too hot around here, he’d said. I’d feigned my grudging assent, but inside I felt a stab of elation. I’d done a tour in the Marine Corps in the nineties, but I didn’t lose my combat cherry. So I couldn’t help it: in defiance of my better judgment and everything that I knew about the law of war and the rights of journalists in wartime, the gun felt good in my hands. Cold, hard, precisely made and with an impressive array of angular attachments.

Practically speaking, the team was ridiculously undermanned and if I intended to go out on this sort of patrol, I needed to be able to protect myself. Still, I could feel the folkloric prickle at the base of my neck; I was no longer a journalist there to observe the scene. I had crossed over, embraced the Hemingway disease. There was no turning back, no use denying it: I had stepped past that imperceptible but morally binding threshold and emerged a darker, fatally enabled man. I was a combatant, a shooter, and I wondered how I would explain this to myself if I ended up having to shoot somebody.

Some of the grunts thought it was pretty Tarzan of me. To them I was just a different kind of combat person. A guy approximately as mental and locked-in as they were. The way I saw it, we all had our reasons for being over there, some personal, some financial, some physiochemical, some political, but if you were over there and you weren’t an Iraqi, then you were a volunteer. Call it a morbid curiosity or a disturbing disregard for human life, if you like, but all of us were, at some point in time and on some level and in varying degrees, possessed by The Question: What is killing like?

Soldier Crouching in Grasses

During my first few patrols, I’d started to have visions of myself captured in the field of a sniper’s scope, imagining the final casual gestures of my life. I saw myself scratching my cheek and tilting my helmet back to wipe my brow, then the final moment, the strength passing out of my legs as I crumpled to the earth, my face unaltered except for the perfect hole over my left eye. The fact that I had worked at the Marine scout sniper school at Camp Pendleton during my last year in the Corps was the icing on the cake. Mine was to be a supremely ironic death. It was the worst possible line of thinking to have while on a patrol. I would find certain body parts growing hypersensitive, then tingling, and I’d think, “That’s where the round will hit, I know it.”

We made our way through a string of farms bounded by ancient palm trees. I weaved through paddies, trying to put my feet down in the most improbable places in order to make myself a harder target for the snipers. Booby traps were the real problem in this sector, but somehow the idea of a sniper giving it to me seemed more offensive than stepping on a booby trap. To my way of thinking, a booby trap seemed somewhat inevitable, pointless to worry about, but I hated the idea of some two-bit triggerman tracking me, observing me through an old Soviet scope before picking me off. I think it’s the voyeurism of sniping that bothers me most, the idea of being watched, appraised, judged and then dispatched. It seems to me the most intimate way to die save strangling, and unless the shot is flawless, it includes a moment of regret—worse still, recognition, a final frozen moment bonding the shooter and the shot.

*  *  *  *  

Common wisdom holds that 140,000 generally churchgoing Americans in Iraq are locked in mortal combat with some of the world’s most serious monotheists. To me, a new, less orthodox faith seems to have arisen, something far more personal and circumstantial. You could see it every time you watched a grunt throw away a box of Charms candies that came in the field rations (bad luck) or toss rounds that had been dropped (no matter how much you cleaned them, bullets that had been dropped always jammed). Like so many others, I had been inclined to believe in the bromide “There are no atheists in foxholes,” but based upon my admittedly less-than-systematic observations, there were at least as many blessed lance corporals, lucky ladybugs, stuffed giraffes, coins, and saved M16 rounds as there were rosary beads. The marines I lived with seemed to have moved on from the Twenty-third Psalm and were now deep into One Hundred Years of Solitude.

One afternoon I was watching tv at an Iraqi house that some Marine advisors had commandeered. It was a lazy afternoon, not much going on in-sector. We were all sitting around watching The Breakfast Club on a wide-screen. On the floor in front of us a lieutenant was cleaning a .50-caliber machine gun with what looked like Victorian surgical instruments. As Molly Ringwald declaimed her particular strain of late-eighties suburban anomie, the lieutenant’s hands flashed over the weapon in practiced, weirdly maternal gestures. A microwave oven buzzed in the background. The echoes of domesticity were unignorable: We were like a deranged, unexplainably well-armed family. An artillery forward observer who was new to the team said, “Man, we haven’t gotten IED’d in awhile.” The team’s executive officer, a high-strung captain who’d been a logistics officer back in the States stomped into the living room and yelled, “God damn it, dude, I know you didn’t just say that.” He craned over melodramatically to some plywood shelves near the corporal’s head and knocked on one of them. Guys were always doing this sort of thing. Anytime somebody started talking about how much time they had left or the fact that recently they’d had a run of good luck, eyes began to search frantically for a horizontal surface to knock on.

A couple of weeks later I read in the New York Times that one of the team’s Humvees had struck an enormous IED, killing two marines. After I returned to the States, I received an e-mail from the team leader saying that the Times report had been in error, but this welcome correction failed to fully erase the causal chain that had haunted my mind in the interregnum. A corporal had given voice to an idle observation about not having been IED’d in a while and some of his comrades had been killed. And, even now, this is the memory trace, the psychological residue that remains: in Iraq thinking the wrong thoughts can kill you.

The trick was to focus your mind, to yoke your paranoia to your technical knowledge. One master sergeant I met in Al Qa’im told me that sometimes he could sense muj attacks before they came. I was skeptical until the day I saw him do it. We were in a convoy of six Humvees doing a standard security patrol when he picked up a radio handset and said, “We’re gonna get hit today, I can feel it.” When a small plume of dust arched in the sky ahead of us—the shock wave from the IED hitting us a few seconds later—he just shook his head. He didn’t consider himself a metaphysician or anything; the skill was just something he’d developed over time in the field, the ability to interpolate between thousands of seemingly arbitrary micro-events and anticipate the narrative, to see the dance in the data. Scientists who study this sort of phenomenon refer to it as apophenia—a handy piece of nomenclature to be sure, but to my haunted mind, the master sergeant was nothing less than a wizard, and I tried to stay as close to him as I could.

*  *  *  *  

During halts on patrol, I talked with the team’s medic. He was a healer, a professional reliever of pain, and perhaps because empathy was central to the job description he seemed to let himself feel a little more than most of the men. He’d been in Fallujah during the Big Push in 2004, and he told me that he’d kept a casualty log during that time, recording the particulars of all the wounds he’d treated. A Fallujahn book of the near-dead. He had clearly tried to get some stand-off distance from it, but I could tell he cared deeply about the men he treated, probably more deeply than he knew. There were doctors in Iraq who had seen more gore than this guy, but they almost never knew the patients they treated. This young medical corpsman, twenty-two with three years in the service, enjoyed no such luxury. He’d lived and trained with all of his patients for months, in some cases years.

“When you’re stabilizing a patient, there’s no time to think, you’re just reacting. You don’t think to remember anything. I started writing it all down so that I would force myself to remember.” As he talked, visions of the log scrolled through my head: gunshot wound to the pelvis, laceration of the neck, shrapnel to the face (after fights like Fallujah, the grunts would often return with dozens of small shrapnel-caused welts to the face, so that they looked as if they had the chicken pox), blowout wound of the gluteus, traumatic amputation of the forearm. It seemed like a particularly deranged form of accounting, but I understood the motive. In Iraq you hear stories so brand-new, so off-the-charts weird and confounding and heartrending, so unbelievable that all you can do is stand there and say, “Wow.” I always made a point to take notes, look engaged, even when the story had drifted off into a cul-de-sac or the teller was waiting for the force of the memory to hit him again. I wanted them to know that someone was listening, that somebody was there to write it down, to ensure that it was remembered, if imperfectly. For this medic his logbook filled the same need—a catalogue of woe, a portable place to store all the pain he had seen. He had become a sort of self-designated rememberer.

Soldier Medevac

He kept talking and I started to worry that we were going to be left behind by the rest of the patrol, but he needed me to hear his story. “It was the damnedest thing,” he said. “In three tours over here, I’ve only had two guys die on me, but both of ‘em were real heartbreakers. One guy was from Columbine. He’d survived the big shoot-out by hiding under a desk in the library. He joined the Corps straight after that. Didn’t even go to his own graduation. He’d made it through the invasion of ‘03 and then the push through Fallujah. He’d done it. Been through the worst of the worst. And then the word came down that we had to back-clear some buildings in a sector vacated by a Marine unit from
Hawaii that was rotating home. He walked into an old schoolhouse where there were some muj holdouts. He took a sniper round just under his helmet.”

He paused a moment to think about it. “I worked on another guy who’d been bugging the first sergeant all that day to let him call home on one of the battalion’s satellite phones because his son was supposed to be born soon. Later, when we got home, I spoke with his wife and we compared notes. I figured out that he’d been killed the same hour that his son was born. That was some dirty math.”

His eyes stayed fixed on some far point on the horizon, as if he were looking for a new way out, a new ending to the story, this tale he might’ve told a thousand times, this tale he knew better now than the story of how his own parents met, and all I could do was give back my amazement.

“Wow,” I said.

*  *  *  *  

Toward the end of my tour, I met a kid in Third Battalion, Eighth Marines, a real hard case. He’d come from a bad family in southern Ohio and the Corps was probably the best home he’d ever had. I’d met so many guys like him, for whom the Corps served a role not unlike the French foreign legion, a place to start over, a place to forget. His arms were all inked up. On one he had “1775”—the year the Corps was founded—in a huge spiraling script. On the other were the letters “otan.” I asked him what the letters stood for and he said that he couldn’t say, that he’d gotten that one just for himself, a secret he’d take with him to the grave. (At first I thought he was playing me but later I talked to his platoon sergeant, a grizzled former sniper and no-bullshit artist, and he confirmed it, said he’d sent him out behind the barracks at Camp Lejeune to dig foxholes until he told. He shoveled for an entire weekend but he never gave it up.)

The kid and I used to find each other out on a veranda at the battalion command post in Ramadi. We’d sit and look toward the Euphrates, watch the sunset and trade French cigarettes. Three-Eight had seen some of the worst fighting and had taken its share of casualties. At times like these, between engagements, it wasn’t uncommon to see marines breaking down and sometimes crying and because I was viewed by many as a sympathetic outsider, someone who would never reveal their secrets to their buddies, I’d had a few guys break down on me. Not this kid. I never once saw his face crack, and I began to see that in its own way this toughness, this stoicism polished to a high sheen by the unspeakable privations of grunt life, was a magnificent thing. There was a rough beauty to him, a beauty made for just this kind of place, and I wondered if the hardness developed over the years hadn’t become something more than a mask for him. It was his gift, a talent that held him together, kept him whole through cold rainy nights on post, through the dust storms of the spring, through the pitiless heat of summer.

Soldier in Profile

Later he showed me another tat he had on the inside of one of his biceps. It was a stylized version of a forties pinup girl, bent at the waist with a hand held coyly up to her mouth. He said she was the only girl he’d ever been faithful to. As we talked, it came out that earlier in the morning he’d mouthed off to the battalion commander and gotten himself in trouble again. He shrugged and added, by way of closure, a catchphrase I’d heard many times before, “The Corps is just like any other woman . . . a bitch.”

Before I headed back to Baghdad I saw him standing out in the middle of a wide helicopter-landing zone near some other marines waiting for a chopper. It was a windy day, dust storms cooking on the horizon, and it was looking like all flights were going to be grounded. He stood there alone, keeping his distance from a line of guys hoping to get picked up and flown out. As I watched, he bent his head skyward and began bellowing something with a practiced familiarity that made me think it was his own personal inside joke. He had his back to me but I heard him distinctly.

“Allah has no balls, you hear me? No balls!”

*  *  *  *  

Safely back home now, I have trouble explaining why I went to Iraq, let alone why I’ve been there twice. I’m worse yet at explaining why, in all likelihood, I’ll go back. There’s really no conventional logic that can do that sort of heavy lifting. When I first went over in the spring of 2004, I had some vague notions about trying to come to grips with the essence of war and about studying modern insurgency. But that was mostly a cover, a head-fake for myself as much as anyone else, something I’d cooked up in order to get my ass over there.

In reality, I think I just couldn’t bear the thought of missing out. In the nineties, I’d served with guys who had the most stupendous stories. Stories that made you feel like you’d aged about ten years after the first listen. One old sniper in my company filled my head with apocrypha about being in Beirut in the eighties and having had Yasir Arafat glassed cold, center mass in his scope. He’d started his preshot breathing drill (breathe, relax, aim, squeeze, surprise), inhabited the whole process, saw him dead, dusted, but didn’t take the shot. Did it just to prove that he could go to the edge and not let the dime drop. I think now, looking back, that it was me in the crosshairs. I was the one who took the round.

In the most self-serving sort of way, I went to Iraq because I wanted my own stories to tell, and any war correspondent who is being honest with you will tell you the same. It’s a variation of another apocryphal story: a reporter was supposed to have asked Willie Sutton, the infamous criminal, why he robbed banks, to which Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” I went to Iraq because that’s where the stories are. It’s the Hemingway disease, and everyone there has it. Most of the reporters working in Iraq wouldn’t know Nick Adams from Samuel Adams, but they know the mythology. They know it better than they know the AP Stylebook. Get your war on. Catch some of the bang-bang. Another dispatch from the Newest Suburb of Hell. Any newsman worth his salt knows the market value of combat captured on film or on the page. But once you’ve seen it for yourself, you realize how impossible it is to capture, and the more you try to tell the truth, the more it seems to vanish in the smoke. So instead, you tell stories.

This one is mine. We were all strapped into a Sea Stallion over Fallujah, thirty of us, when the sky outside the crew chief’s hatch went suddenly orange. It was beautiful, so beautiful, until I realized what it was: incoming. We were being lit up. The chopper started swinging horribly, as if on the end of a colossal yo-yo, and the crew chief opened up with his .50 cal. You could hear the incoming and outgoing even over the sound of the rotor blades and I wondered how long it could go on.

This was the moment I’d been waiting for forever and now that it had arrived, I realized that I had no idea what to do. It was no use ducking, the chopper was unarmored; there was no cover to be had. I felt my ass getting all buzzy waiting for the shot that would claim me from below. The guy next to me started squeezing and pulling at my arm, looking for some form of comfort as the fire kept coming in. He looked around the cabin hurriedly. I remember thinking, At least I’m not losing it like this dude.

It wasn’t long after we touched down, the helicopter safely on the tarmac, the smell of burning jet fuel filling my nostrils, that one of the guys started in on the Black Hawk Down jokes. I looked over to see who was cracking wise. It was the guy who’d grabbed me, a young civilian contractor. I kept watching him but he wouldn’t meet my gaze. He was laughing and looking past me into the deep distance. I could see something happening in his eyes: the story belonged to all of us, but he was inside now, doing the work, making it his own.

Sometimes you could do that, shoulder it on your own, but sometimes you needed to find somebody with a story that would help explain what you were seeing, someone to take a little of the pressure off. Everybody in Iraq gets a little spooky and mystical at times, so you didn’t have to look hard. At a patrol base north of Fallujah I met a black platoon sergeant who liked to read the Bible every day while listening to Metallica. His father was a prominent pastor in Chicago and he dropped Bible verses like most guys dropped hip-hop lyrics. He had the most soothing voice I’d ever heard, the kind of voice that doesn’t happen naturally but only comes from growing up in a certain kind of church and being in a certain kind of choir your entire life. I would sit next to his cot and listen to him talk for hours. He told me that while Jews and Arabs were both descendents of Abraham, the Arabs had descended from the house of Shem and were a quarrelsome people, had always been quick to complain, quick to point their fingers in accusation. What he saw in Iraq was merely the embodiment of a script written millennia before. It was a simple story. It was elegant and illogical, but it was his story, and it kept him whole for all the months he’d been there. It got him through the firefights, through first Fallujah, through to the Freedom Bird.

Sometimes over there, when I was tired and my mind started drifting, I would find myself on the same tracks as that platoon sergeant, on the same tracks but headed the other direction. Sometimes I found myself thinking that, in its own way, Iraq is a miracle, a miracle of destruction, and that in a disaster of such magnitude there must be some order beneath the chaos, some evidence of God’s handiwork, for surely such a maelstrom could not have been created by man alone. Surely there is a divine energy being worked out in this land, so great is the devastation, so profound is the suffering.

Or maybe this is just the story I’m telling.


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