Surviving Fallujah

Was the largest urban military assault since Vietnam too hard for young US soldiers to handle?

U.S. Army 2-2 task force soldiers make last minute preperations at a staging area to begin a major offensive on the insurgent stronghold city of Fallujah, Iraq, on November 8th, 2004. Credit: Scott Nelson/Getty

For almost a week prior to the U.S. assault on Fallujah, Spc. John Bandy, a lanky, introspective twenty-three-year-old infantryman from West Little Rock, Arkansas, sat in a borrowed hooch on the outskirts of the city. He was nine months into a yearlong tour in Iraq with the Army's First Infantry Division, Task Force 2/2. Most of that time he'd spent in and around the 2/2's base, in the Sunni-dominated town of Muqdadiyah, eighty-five miles northeast of Baghdad. Muqdadiyah was relatively quiet, at least by Iraq standards. It had its share of mortar attacks and roadside bombings, as well as insurgents who attacked from the shadows. But with the exception of one two-day firefight back in April, there had been no real battles, nothing intensely dramatic, nothing Bandy could describe as "war." After a while, Bandy's platoon, which had lost no soldiers, began to feel untouchable. "Like we're winning," one of his buddies said. Fallujah would be unlike anything U.S. troops in Iraq had experienced thus far: a straightforward battle between the Americans and more than 3,000 heavily armed enemy fighters. Bandy's commander, Lt. Col. Peter Newell, called Fallujah "as pure a fight of good vs. evil as we will probably face in our lifetime." Sitting there, day after day, Bandy was scared shitless.

Bandy loves the infantry but is hardly the stereotypical soldier. He spends more time playing Neil Young tunes on his acoustic guitar than playing Halo with his buddies, and he's the kind of guy you could easily imagine sitting in a college lecture hall somewhere – which in fact is where he'd been, preparing to study pre-law at the University of Arkansas before dropping out to join the Army in March 2002. He enlisted because he was broke and bored with school. After two years in the military, he describes the act of soldiering as being a "robot." Still, Bandy is one of the best soldiers in Alpha Company's First Platoon. One team leader, Sgt. Scott Bentley, says he wishes he had a squad full of Bandys.

Everything he'd ever done in the military, Bandy realized – the training missions and live-fire exercises, the patrols, raids and firefights his platoon had been in all across Iraq – had led him here to Camp Fallujah, the Marine base that would serve as the staging ground for the assault. Weird things happen to your head at times like these. Bandy ran through every disaster scenario he could think of, every "what if." He checked his gear. He tried to stop himself from throwing up. To calm down, he thought of something his squad leader always said about combat: "As long as you have bullets, you'll be fine."

By November 8th, when the 5,000 or so U.S. troops positioned outside Fallujah finally got the go-ahead, the mission had become a Shakespearean drama in Bandy's head, the culmination of his entire life, the enactment of his destiny- and it was going to be tragic.

About that he would be right, but not in the way he predicted.

O

peration Phantom Fury was the U.S. military's largest urban assault since the Battle of Hue, in the Vietnam War. It was also, for the soldiers who fought there, the ultimate grudge match: payback for every catastrophe that had befallen U.S. troops since they'd arrived in Iraq. In six days last November, the American military decimated the Sunni stronghold, which, since last March, when four U.S. contractors were killed there, had become a symbol of the terrible conundrum America has faced in Iraq ever since the fall of Saddam. The Marines had tried to take care of the problem in April, but after the Iraqis put up a fight, they pulled back. In the months since, the city had become a mustering site for suicide bombers, a haven for Iraqi and foreign guerrillas, and the headquarters of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom U.S. officials consider the most dangerous man in Iraq. How to rout them provoked months of political and tactical dithering in both Baghdad and Washington. Now, with George Bush safely re-elected, and Iraq's January 30th elections just three months away, the decision was made to take the city "with overwhelming force."

I meet Bandy three weeks after Fallujah, at Forward Operating Base Normandy, a vast former Iraqi army post that is the 2/2's home in Muqdadiyah. Bandy is a lean, handsome soldier. His eyes have a wizened look, though not quite the "faraway stare" often seen among combat vets. Six feet two, with a languid, not quite Southern accent, Bandy is casually smoking a cigarette on the second floor of Alpha's white two-story barracks, which borders the southern tip of the base. The view from here is of a row of Port-a-Johns. Beyond that are a few Humvees, which like everything else on post are caked in a thick brown dust. The place looks, and feels, like a junkyard.

Nestled in the fertile breadbasket of Iraq, FOB Normandy sits in a landscape of rolling hills and winding country lanes, and can be quite pleasant on a sunny day. In the winter it is muddy, and an overall dampness permeates the FOB's Saddam-era buildings – all of which smell vaguely of pee (a residual, according to the soldiers, from the days when more than 3,000 Iraqi troops lived there and pissed indoors). The thirty or so men in Bandy's platoon live in one hall. When they arrived, it was divided into large open living bays defaced by anti-American graffiti. Now there are proper rooms, which the soldiers built themselves, and the place feels like a dorm. Sgt. Joe Alvey's room, which he shares with three other sergeants, is the designated "smoking room" and thus a hangout for half the platoon. The floor is littered with cigarette packs, soda cans and snack food: Pringles, Chex Mix, a box of Ritz Bitz, some Easy Cheese. Wherever a spot of floor is available, there is gear: M-16s, M-4s, flash grenades, flak jackets, night-vision goggles.

There are also Oriental rugs bought from local Iraqis, deck chairs and widescreen TVs. American soldiers at war, it's safe to say, have never lived in greater material comfort. In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's semiautobiographical short-story collection about the Vietnam War, soldiers brought tattered paperback novels, pictures of their girlfriends and, maybe, if they were lucky, a bag of pot into battle. Today, soldiers are equipped with iPods, laptops, video cameras, even entire entertainment systems, all available at the PXs on larger bases. Between them, the men figure they've got every movie that's come out in the past few years, as well as every season of The Sopranos, minus Season Five.

All of this comfort can seem a bit surreal, given that Iraq is the most dangerous environment for U.S. troops since Vietnam. But it's also the Army's answer to a basic problem, which is how to keep a bunch of young men from going crazy in a country where they're allowed absolutely no freedom of movement. Though many have been in Iraq for as long as a year, they have no real contact with the country they occupy. They know almost no Arabic – not even the standard greeting, salaam alaikum, or habibi, which signifies "friend" – and they speak to no Iraqis other than their translators and the Iraqi security forces they train.

On a drizzly Thursday morning, I meet Bandy in Alvey's room, where he's hanging out with a few other soldiers, debating whether to go running. "Fuck running," Bandy says, looking at Alvey. "You gonna run?" A tall kid in camouflage fatigues, Alvey looks at Bandy like he's nuts. A vet of the Afghan war, Alvey is a squad leader and, like Bandy, is twenty-three. He led fifteen soldiers through the battle of Fallujah, which right now he's reliving in a way: sitting on his bed and clicking through 500 or so Fallujah photographs that he's stored on his laptop. "Look at this guy," Alvey says, showing me a gruesome close-up of a corpse, mouth open in a ghoulish grin. "We called this guy Smiley, or fuckin' Cat Lips. His entire mouth had been eaten by cats." Alvey makes a lot of jokes about the things he saw in Fallujah. He looks at Cat Lips again. "You have that shit in your head, though," he adds. "I mean, this isn't the kind of thing you see every day."

Bandy snatches a peek. "I can stand seeing a dead haj," he says casually, using the GIs' all-purpose term for Iraqis. Seeing dead Iraqis is something he's gotten used to, he adds. "The first time I ever saw a dead guy was in April, and I was like, 'Oh, goddamn.' The dude's laying there, his arm's gone, there's a little bone stub sticking out...." It was sad, he says, because he didn't know if the dead man was an enemy. U.S. troops are often shot at from within a crowd, and when they fire back, it's often blindly. "So this guy could have been whoever," he says. But in Fallujah, "We heard that everyone was a bad guy. So when you saw these bodies ... it was almost comforting. Like, thank God somebody whacked this motherfucker before he got us."

Bandy talks frequently about the fear that infuses their daily lives in Iraq. "Your life swings on a hinge," he says. As a result, "innocent people get killed." The previous week, for example, Bandy's platoon was guarding the highway near their base when an improvised explosive device nearly blew up a U.S. military convoy. Panicked, a soldier in the convoy opened up on a civilian truck that happened to be passing. "Splatters some dude's fucking head all over that truck," Bandy says. "The dude's brother is covered head to toe with brain matter, sinus goo, skull fragments – whatever fucking flew out of that dude's fucking head. The locals come up and they're like, 'Why did you shoot my brother? Why do you kill Iraqis?'" Like a lot of soldiers, Bandy came to Iraq as an idealist. "I thought we were going to make things better here," he says. "But, I mean, what do you tell these fucking people? I've got a guy's fucking brains on me. He was just a civilian dirt farmer fucking casualty."

The son of a sheet-metal worker, Bandy lived in a "real shit-hole trailer" in the woods outside Little Rock until he was thirteen. Then his great-uncle died and left his family a house. "Typical redneck success story," he says, joking. "My uncle died, we get a house." Less than a year later, his mother left. "She leaves on my fucking birthday," he says dejectedly.

Bandy spends hours brooding about his life and talking about Iraq with his buddy Tom Aikens. A short, muscular kid with freckles and red hair, Aikens is one of the younger sergeants – he turned twenty-three in December – and is the only one of Bandy's buddies who didn't go to Fallujah. He was home in Boston on leave. On one hand, he explains, that was fine: He got to Sox win the World Series. But it also kind of sucked. "It was the biggest thing to happen in this country in a year," he says. Plus, he adds, "There were bad guys. It was a situation where you could say, 'Everyone here is a bad guy.' "

Aikens is the platoon iconoclast and know-it-all. His riffs on subjects ranging from the meaning of life to America's purpose in the war are famous among the platoon. Bandy calls Aikens his "mentor." Other soldiers call him Harry Potter.

An aspiring writer, Aikens records his life in Iraq on his blog, though he uses a pseudonym to protect himself from image-conscious superiors who frown on soldiers expressing negative opinions about the war. "If the wrong people see it, they can twist it however they want and call you a traitor," he says.

"It's like the Patriot Act," says Bandy. " 'We're going to strip you of your rights and hold you prisoner.' The whole spirit of fucking democracy lies in the individual having their fucking rights. You have the freedom of speech, but you don't have the right to speak because what you say could be offensive?"

"That's double-think right there, like 1984," says Aikens. The guys roll their eyes. "Or like this whole global war on terror," Bandy adds. "What is that?"

"There is no global war on terrorism – this is an information war," says Aikens. "This is about propaganda and changing the – way people think." Not that it's done much good in that department, he adds.

"There's no driving ideal for our time," he says. "It's all guided toward going toward something for yourself. And eventually you'll get married and have kids and have a house, and then you die." He looks kind of bummed out by this idea.

"Americans will remain docile and fucking dormant as long as they have fucking MTV" says Bandy. "And goddamn iPods." He shoots a look at Alvey's roommate, Bent-ley, a husky twenty-three-year-old huddled over a video-game controller, his face six inches from his TV. "And PlayStations."

"They don't have any passion," says Aikens. "Or conviction," Bandy adds. "They got their Martha Stewart couch, they got their TV, and as long as they've got fucking pussy and some fucking beer – actually," he smiles, "that sounds kind of good."

Aikens looks dismayed. "You know what their conviction is? We should keep doing what we're doing, this guy should run it and we'll keep doing what we're told." His face is red. "Everyone walks this beaten path...."

Bandy and the other soldiers look at one another. "Watch out," says Bandy. Bentley smirks. "He's a firebomb – he has that crazy look in his eye." "You killed Lassie!" Bandy shrieks.

Military leaders often tell journalists that today's soldiers, particularly the ones who joined in the wake of 9/11, are members of the most patriotic generation in decades and that the success of the all-volunteer Army is a testament to their love of country. But almost to a man, every soldier I met in Iraq told me his decision to enlist had nothing to do with higher ideals. Bandy, for example, "couldn't have given a shit less" about the 9/11 attacks as a reason to join the Army. Alvey joined because it was a "cool" job. "And it pays pretty decent, if you're a deadbeat," he jokes. In this way, the men of the 2/2 are typical of the men and women who've joined up to fight today's wars – bright, motivated kids who, for one reason or another, found themselves at age eighteen or nineteen without options.

"We're not the shining stars of American youth," Aikens says. "We're people who fucked up in our lives and needed to turn it around. Or needed to get away from something." Raised middle-class in upscale Newton, Massachusetts, Aikens was a rebellious teen who scoffed at his hippie dad, a stained-glass artist. Then his father died suddenly at the end of Aikens' junior year in high school and his mother ran off to Australia. Aikens wound up living in a friend's basement. After graduation, he joined the Army. "I wanted to get away because my mom had come back," he says.

"I joined the Army to go and fucking do something," says Bandy. "I was a fuck-up – 'underachiever' is a compliment." He had so many incompletes he never got his high school diploma. After leaving school, he worked a series of dead-end jobs, drifting from one low-rent house to another, until finally deciding to get his GED in order to follow his girlfriend to college.

But college didn't even last a year. He couldn't stand it. As he tells it, the decisive moment came one day during a literature class. Assigned to write a paper on a political topic, Bandy, who'd been upset by some news footage he'd seen of U.S. soldiers dying in Tora Bora, chose to focus on the fact that U.S. courts were considering granting Geneva Convention rights to detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. "I'm angry, I'm fucking convicted to bring this to people's attention, because most of the people were like, 'War's bad,'" he says, in falsetto, "or 'War's good – kill 'em all.' "

Then one of his classmates walked up to him and asked him if he wanted to sign a petition against animal cruelty. "This dude's got fucking PETA buttons all over his shirt," he says, "and I'm like, 'Do you even know what's going on in the fucking world?' It pissed me off. I didn't want to be one of those college kids with all these opinions but no fucking base in them."

Joe Alvey's stepfather was an Army recruiter. His father, who died when Alvey was two, had been an Army pilot. But Alvey's thing was music – one of his favorite bands is the Meat Puppets – and he was kind of an outsider among the Future Farmers of America crowd in Enid, Oklahoma, where he grew up. A straight-A student, he was the class valedictorian and was offered an ROTC scholarship to Oklahoma State. With no other way to pay for college, he took it, intent on becoming an officer. But his major, computer engineering, bored him. "They were like, 'We're giving you money to be an engineer,' "Alvey says. "I was like, 'I don't want to be an engineer.' "

So Alvey gave up his scholarship and dropped out during his freshman year. He spent the next six months working in a video store, living in a house with eight other guys. "All I had was this red futon and some clothes," he says. "It was one of those places where you wake up and all you want is orange juice.

But all you have is beer, so you have to drink beer. And after you start, you have to keep going, and your life sucks now because you don't have any orange juice." "See, all of us have our own sob stories," says Aikens. Probably the most poignant is Bentley's. Bentley is the rare soldier who actually likes being in Iraq. He has two more years left in the Army, and he hopes to be redeployed here again, ideally to one of Iraq's hot spots: Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad, Mosul – "somewhere shit's happening."

Unlike Bandy or Aikens, he never questions whether or not the American presence is helping the people of Iraq, and he speaks often of his willingness to give his life for his country. (Bandy, by contrast, says, "If there's someone out there who's willing to give up your life for your fucking country – go for it, bud.") The irony is that Bentley was a self-described "leech" who he says "sucked off people's flaws." Raised in suburban Columbia, Pennsylvania, he dropped out of middle school to deal drugs and spent the rest of his adolescence jumping between various juvenile detention facilities and boot camps. The shame this brought his parents, he says, is his biggest regret. "I screwed my family by dishonoring them," he says. "I was a scumbag."

By eighteen, he was running out of options. "You can only take so many hits of acid before you can't walk anymore," he says. Bentley's recruiter ignored his criminal record and asked him if he had a high school diploma. Bentley only had a GED. "The guy was like, 'No problem – I got you a program,'" he says. The next day, the recruiter drove Bentley to a nearby Christian high school, where he was promptly asked for twenty dollars and then given a test. "And a Bible," he adds. It was an "open-book" test. "I passed it, and they took my GED and gave me a high school diploma." He grins. "Hey, the Army hooks you up."

The 2/2 led the assault on Fallujah, going in thirty-six hours ahead of the Marines. By the fourth day of the battle, the city looked like something out of an Oliver Stone movie. Bodies lay in the streets, which were strewn with rubble and girded by sand-filled Hesco baskets. Tripwire lined the doorways of the houses still intact. "There were trenches and bunkers and rooms full of mattresses," says Bandy. "These insurgents were outfitted with warm clothes, tons of weapons, all this shit that you'd need to kill an American." And yet the enemy seemed forever out of reach, disappearing into a labyrinth of tunnels, alleyways and scuttle holes that wound across and under the city.

November 12th had been a particularly successful day for First Platoon. Their mission was to comb through a sector of the industrial district, a crucial battleground and enemy stronghold. All day the men cleared and searched through gutted houses, finding increasingly large caches of weapons. As darkness engulfed the blacked-out city, the exhausted men narrowly missed blowing themselves up in the yard of one compound, inadvertently walking over and around a mother lode of anti-tank mines, explosives, IED materials and surface-to-air missiles. Inside the house, there were more mines, as well as plastic explosives, rifles, beds, sleeping bags and a few bloody bandages. But the fighters were long gone. The men saw a light in a window across the street. Exhausted, they searched the house and, finding nothing, took refuge there for the night.

The next morning, they woke to discover that the entire neighborhood was a mine field. In a nearby bunker, Bandy discovered a dead insurgent lying on top of several other fighters, eyes wide open and staring blindly. "I plugged his ass out of pure shock," Bandy says. At approximately 9 A.M., the men recall, they received orders to return to the area they'd cleared the previous afternoon. There, they met up with a team from CNN. Fallujah was teeming with journalists who'd embedded themselves with both the Army and the Marines. The men had mixed feelings about the attention; they admired the dedication of the journalists who rode with them into battle, but, collectively, they viewed CNN (and to a certain extent even Fox News) as the "enemy," willfully misrepresenting the realities of the battlefield for the entertainment of the masses back home. "It just seems like we're this big reality TV show to everyone," says Bandy. "No one knows how many people are affected by what they're watching. It's a dangerous fucking place."

There are two different accounts of what happened on the morning of November 13th. The battalion commanders state that the soldiers' mission was to provide security for an Army reconnaissance team, blocking any insurgents who might want to circle back and attack the troops from behind. The soldiers believe their primary mission was to serve as escort and, to a degree, as subjects for CNN. While another platoon continued to clear buildings, Bandy's took CNN to a house in – which they'd found a large weapons cache, pointing out – where one soldier had killed a fighter just moments before he ambushed them with a grenade. Alvey, who is charismatic in front of a camera, was one of the stars. "It was straight Hollywood," says Bentley, who like most of the men felt as if he was on a "baby-sitting" mission. "They got their camera crews and they're setting up and shit, and they're fucking choreographing his fucking speech and shit – " ("They got pissed because I kept saying, 'Fuckin' haj,'" Alvey says) " – and everyone's like, 'What the fuck are we doing?' "

Suddenly, there were shots. The CNN team ducked, seeking cover beside an armored Humvee. Bandy, assuming they were under sniper attack, stood – watch over the reporters. Alvey took his squad in the direction of the shots. Emerging from his Bradley, he realized he was in front of the house next door to the one in which the platoon had spent the previous night.

There, in a back courtyard, was Cpl. Travis Barreto, whose job was to guard Sean Sims, Alpha's twenty-eight-year-old company commander. Sims had been trying to establish an observation post in the house, and he had no sooner entered when he – was shot by a fighter hiding within. In the chaos of that moment, two of Sims' men – were wounded, and Sims, to the soldiers' knowledge, was still inside. "There were so many mixed messages," says Alvey. "It – was like, 'The CO's safe' or 'He's trapped in the building!' or 'They've got him!' All this shit."

As Alvey talks, he sketches a picture of the house. There were two main rooms. Sims was in the second, lying in a pool of his own blood. "We had to clear the fucking house and – we couldn't really help him." Alvey's voice gets thick. Then he gets up and walks out of the room for a minute or two to collect himself. When he returns, he apologizes. "It's hard sometimes," he says.

"What gets me is that we slept next to this house the night prior," says Bandy. He'd pulled roof guard that night and believed the house next door was empty. And yet, looking back, he remembers hearing a noise. "I made a joke about not waking up the neighbors," he says. "So were the insurgents in there all night?" He believes they must have been – "quiet, patient and scared."

"After the CO died, we fucking firebombed the fuck out of that city," says Alvey. "It was fucked up." Now it's hard to quiet the mind to the parade of doubts and "what if's" that haunt the men to this day. In the story they tell themselves, the soldiers blame CNN – if they had not been tasked to the journalists, they might have been with Sims. Their officers say the men would not have been with Sims regardless of CNN. Intellectually, the soldiers agree, but that doesn't help them cope with their grief. "You know, I want to sit here and degrade CNN," says Bandy. "I want to be angry because they were tossed into the middle of our operation. Everybody bitches about the media – but nobody ever complains when they're on TV"

When Bandy thinks about Fallujah, he thinks about Sims. "Part of the aftermath of the shit that goes through your head is here I am a total fucking dirtbag. I don't have any ties. I severed fucking everything and fucking threw myself into this deployment. I don't have any women in my life, I don't have jack shit. In my mind, it's more acceptable for me to get fucking shot."

It's almost humiliating, he adds. "I mean, let it be me," he says soberly. "My parents would get 250 grand, and he'd get to go home. Why not fucking me? As much as I wanted to save my life, maybe things could have happened differently, and he'd be around. And I have this guilt." Bandy heaves a heavy sigh. Alvey, listening intently, toys with a pack of cigarettes on a stool. The rest of the men look at the floor and say nothing.

For the past few months, Capt. Ric Brown, the 2/2's chaplain, has been quietly keeping tabs on his men. The 2/2 will leave Iraq in mid-February and redeploy to their base, in Vilseck, Germany. So far, Brown hasn't seen too much that worries him, other than the anxiety a few soldiers feel about leaving the FOB. "A lot of guys feel they've made it this far, they don't want to do anything that'll get them killed," he says. The 2/2 has lost nineteen soldiers in the past year – in the first two months alone, there was a memorial service at Normandy every fifteen days.

Many of these deaths have been random – an IED accident, a Humvee rollover, a weird incident in which a piece of shrapnel entered a soldier's arm and made its way to his heart. But Brown wonders about the long-term effects. "We're putting the weight of the world on these kids," he says. "Considering the requirements we put on them, they hold up pretty well."

As soon as the 2/2 returns to Germany, it will go through a one-week "re-integration" seminar, to talk about issues such as how to deal with one's spouse or children, or how to act around civilians. Included in this will be a questionnaire the men will fill out to help the Army identify any symptoms of combat stress. Then the entire unit will be given thirty days of leave, after which the men who are transferring to other units will depart and the remaining soldiers will begin training for the next deployment, approximately a year from now.

Though the readjustment is a problem for every soldier, the single men, such as Bandy or Bentley, are the ones who often suffer the most. "It's very tough for these guys who don't have anyone waiting for them at home," says Brown. "The single soldier is simply returning to a lonely barracks room."

Bandy re-enlisted a few months ago. When he gets back, he tells me, he's going to the 82nd Airborne Division, which is based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It will be his first time in the United States since the Christmas he spent with his family in 2003. Though most of the other men have gone on leave, Bandy hasn't really wanted to go, he says. "This war, being here is plenty for me. I try to accept the fact that I'm here, and there's shit I need to be doing, and I do it."

Bandy admits that in some ways he dreads going home. "The one thing I hope I can fucking get from the American people is for everyone to leave me the fuck alone," he says. "Don't ask me how many people I fucking killed. Don't ask me how cool is it to fire a machine gun, how cool is it to be in combat. You're not gonna understand, I'm not gonna be able to tell you."

He wonders if he will ever be able to stop worrying that violent, unseen death is just one random attack away. "You drive around all day in a Humvee looking out the fucking window, expecting to see a dude with a fucking rocket on his shoulder, or a motherfucking AK spraying from the window," he says. "And you spend all day thinking about it: What's he gonna do, where's he gonna come from? If I was him, this is where I'd come from.... Scanning the rooftops, thinking, 'OK, I should be safe on this side....' And it just becomes a part of you. It becomes something you think about every time you do something."

Bandy has been having nightmares for the better part of a year now, in which mortars and rockets fly at him out of nowhere, or he's caught without his rifle, or abandoned by his platoon. In his most horrifying dream, he is being chased by a sixty-foot "haj" who ultimately stomps him to death, like Godzilla. Bandy has gotten used to the combat nightmares, but since Fallujah, he says, he has new dreams that scare him even more. "The truly terrifying ones are when someone I love gets shot because of a war that follows me home," he says. "Or the people I care about are dying because of my sin." Most of the time, he says he feels OK, as long as he's with his buddies: "We're all sucking together, so you can't suffer." But later on, who knows. "I kind of worry about coming back from here," Bandy admits.

Just before Christmas, I join up with Alvey's squad on a day when they've been tasked to guard the Muqdadiyah police/municipal complex, or "Joint Cooperation Center," as it's known. The JCC is one of those post-invasion outgrowths, conceptualized by Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority. Every Iraqi town of any size has one, manned by a platoon of American soldiers.

For Alvey, the fact that the local police headquarters requires twenty-four-hour protection by foreign troops is a sign of the absurdity of the American presence in Iraq. "It just shows how we're not there yet," he says as we stand on the roof, looking down at a group of Iraqi cops loitering in the JCC courtyard. "Have you ever thought about what it would be like if we didn't do all this shit, didn't step into other people's politics?" he asks. "I mean, we're like the father figure of the fucking world."

Like Bandy, Alvey re-enlisted, but he is planning to get out of the Army after his contract is up, in 2006. Then he wants to be a history teacher. "My first priority when I get out of the Army is to grow a Grizzly Adams beard," he says with a chuckle, patting his buzzed head. He and Bandy were talking about combat stress the other day, Alvey says – "for about eight hours." Usually, he says, "I'm like, 'Fuck it, I'll deal with it when it happens.'" A few shots ring out from the left of us. In one swift move, Alvey picks up his rifle and scans the sector. "No Ali Baba," he says, satisfied. "Probably a fucking wedding or something." He goes back to thinking about the aftermath of war. "It'll be interesting to see how that plays out," he says. "We're out here doing crazy shit." One dark day, he's sure all of that will hit him, or someone else in his platoon. "It's only natural," he says. "I mean, fuck. Look at these guys. We're twenty-three-year-old fucking kids."