The Killer Elite Part Three: The Battle for Baghdad

While U.S. forces in the Iraqi capital celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein, the exhausted Marines of First Recon grind toward their most desperate and bloody battle yet

Evan Wright
Marines struggle through a hymn during an Easter Sunday baptism service.
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Horsehead is dead. The beloved former First Sergeant in the Marine First Reconnaissance Battalion, a powerfully built 230-pound African-American named Edward Smith, was felled by an enemy mortar or artillery blast while riding atop an armored vehicle outside Baghdad on April 4th. He died in a military hospital the next day. Horsehead, 38, had transferred out of First Recon to an infantry unit before the war started. News of his death hits the Recon battalion hard. Sgt. Rudy Reyes is one of the first to hear of it. He moves along the camp's perimeter just outside Baghdad, spreading the word. "Hey, brother," he says softly, "I just came by to tell you Horsehead died last night."

The Killer Elite Part One

Now, a couple of days later, following a brief sundown memorial around an M-4 rifle planted upright in the dirt in honor of their fallen comrade – Marines in Bravo Company's Second Platoon gather under their camouflage nets trading Horsehead stories. Reyes repeats a phrase Horsehead always used back home at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Before loaning anyone his truck, which had an extensive sound-equalizer system, he'd say, "You can drive my truck. But don't fuck with my volumes." For some reason, repeating the phrase makes Reyes laugh almost to the verge of tears.

It's April 8th. Army and Marine units began their final assault on Baghdad several hours ago. First Recon, however, will not be heading into the Iraqi capital just yet. It's feared that Iraqi Republican Guard units may be massing for a counterattack in a town called Ba'qubah, fifty kilometers north of Baghdad. First Recon receives orders to head north and attack these forces. Sgt. Brad Colbert, whose team I am riding with, and the rest of the Marines stop reminiscing about Horsehead and load their Humvees.

About two hundred Recon Marines are slated for this mission. If the worst-case fears of their commanders are true, they will be confronting several thousand Iraqis in tanks. In the best-case scenario, they will merely be assaulting through about thirty kilometers of known ambush points along the route to Ba'qubah. "Once again, we will be at the absolute tippity-tip of the spear, going into the unknown," says Lt. Nathaniel Fick, briefing his men just before the mission. Most of the Marines are in high spirits. "It beats sitting around doing nothing while everybody else gets to have fun attacking Baghdad," says Cpl. Joshua Person before taking his position in the driver's seat of Colbert's Humvee. Colbert, however, just stares out his window at the fading light and mumbles something I can't quite make out. I ask him to repeat it, and he waves it off. "It was nothing," he says. "I was just thinking about Horsehead."

The Killer Elite Part Two: From Hell to Baghdad

Taking the lead of First Recon's fifty-vehicle column, Colbert's Humvee drives out past the camp's concertina wire and into the eastern outskirts of Baghdad. We pass newly liberated Iraqis in the throes of celebration. Though the city center will not fall for another twenty-four hours, freedom fills the air, along with the stench of uncollected garbage and overflowing sewers. Trash piles and pools of fetid water line the edges of the road. Iraqis stream through the smoky haze hauling random looted goods – ceiling fans, pieces of machinery, fluorescent lights, mismatched filing-cabinet drawers.

The bedlam continues until First Recon moves north of the city and links up with a light-armored reconnaissance company that is joining in the assault on Ba'qubah. The call sign of this adjoining company, which consists of about a hundred Marines mounted in twenty-four light-armored vehicles, is War Pig. LAVs are noisy, black-armored eight-wheel vehicles shaped like upside-down bathtubs with rapid-fire cannons mounted on top. Iraqis call them "the Great Destroyers."

Despite the fact that Colbert's team has been driving into ambushes on an almost daily basis for more than two weeks, this is the first time these Marines have started a mission with an armored escort. "Damn! That's fucking awesome," Person says. "We've got the Great Destroyers with us."

"No, the escort is not awesome," Colbert says. "This just tells us how bad they're expecting this to be." As we pull out, Colbert's mood shifts from darkly brooding to grimly cheerful. "Once more into the great good night," he says in a mock stage voice, then quotes a line from Julius Caesar. "Cry'havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war."

Hunched over the wheel, head weighted down with a night-vision device, Person says, "Man, when I get home, I'm gonna eat the fuck out of my girlfriend's pussy."

"Enemy contact," Colbert says, passing on word from his headset radio.

"LAVs report enemy contact ahead."

War Pig is spread out on the highway, with its closest vehicle about a hundred meters directly in front of Colbert's and its farthest about three kilometers ahead. Automatic cannons send out tracer rounds that look like orange ropes. They stream out in all directions, orange lines bouncing and quivering over the landscape. Other, thinner orange lines, representing enemy machine guns, stream in toward the LAVs.

Iraqi Republican Guard troops have dug into trenches along both sides of the road. The enemy fighters are armed with every conceivable type of portable weapon – from machine guns to mortars to rocket-propelled grenades. The convoy stops as War Pig and the Iraqis shoot it out ahead. Enemy mortars explode nearby, falling from the sky in a random pattern. The Recon company behind Colbert's platoon opens up with everything it has. These Marines belong to a reservist unit, just arrived in Baghdad and only linked up with First Recon a few days earlier. They're older – a lot of them are beat cops or Drug Enforcement Administration agents in civilian life. This is their first significant enemy contact, and their wild firing – some of it in the direction of Colbert's Humvee – seems panicked.

"I have no targets! I have no targets!" Colbert repeats over the gunfire, but Cpl. Walt Hasser, the gunner in the turret who operates the Mark-19 grenade launcher, begins lobbing rounds toward a nearby village.

"Cease fire!" Colbert shouts. "Easy there, buddy. You're shooting a village. We've got women and children there."

The reservists behind us have already poured at least a hundred grenades onto the small clusters of houses by the side of the road. In the window of one dwelling, a lantern glows. Through his night-vision scope, Colbert can just make out a group of what appears to be women and children taking cover behind a wall.

"We're not shooting the village, OK?" he says. In times like this, Colbert often assumes the tone of a schoolteacher calling a timeout during a frenzied playground scuffle. Mortars are exploding so close you feel the overpressure punching down on the Humvee. But Colbert will not allow his team to give in to the frenzy and shoot unless it finds clear targets or enemy muzzle flashes.

The voice of Captain America comes over the battalion radio, quavering and cracking as he excitedly calls in reports of more incoming fire. This Recon officer – who earned his derisive nickname because of what many of his men view as his overzealous antics – sounds over the radio like his voice is breaking.

"Oh, my God!" Person says. "Is he crying?"

"No, he's not," Colbert says, cutting off what will likely be a bitter tirade about Captain America. In recent days, Person has pretty much forgotten his old hatreds for pop stars such as Justin Timberlake – a former favorite subject of long, tedious rants about what's wrong with the U.S. – and now he complains almost exclusively about Captain America. Lack of respect for this officer is so acute among enlisted ranks that some of his own men openly refer to him as "dumbass" – sometimes directly to his face. "He's just nervous," Colbert says, not quite defending the officer. "Everyone's nervous. Everyone's just trying to do their job."

For the next twenty sleepless hours, the Marines in First Recon and War Pig methodically advance up the highway, traveling barely fifteen kilometers, clearing villages on foot, blowing up enemy trucks and weapons caches, and wiping out pockets of Iraqi soldiers as they hide in trenches or take cover in civilian homes.

From a raw-fear standpoint, the worst moments of the fight come early on the afternoon of April 9th. The world's attention is focused on televised pictures of American Marines in the center of Baghdad, pulling down a massive statue of Saddam Hussein. Here, north of the city, enemy mortars start exploding about thirty meters away from Bravo Company's position.

When Lt. Fick reports the bombardment to his commander over the radio, he is told to remain in position. "Stand by to die, gents," says Sgt. Antonio Espera, a former Los Angeles repo man and co-leader of the Humvee team that works in closest proximity to Colbert's. The twenty-two Marines in the platoon sit in their vehicles, engines running, as per their orders, while mortars explode all around. There's almost no conversation. Everyone watches the sky and surrounding fields for mortar blasts. One lands five meters from Sgt. Espera's open-top Humvee, blowing a fourfoot-wide hole in the ground.

I look out and see Espera hunched over his weapon, his eyes darting beneath the brim of his helmet, watching for the next hit. Beside him, his twenty-three-year-old driver, Cpl. Jason Lilley, grips the wheel, his face ashen. A few hours before leaving on this mission, Lilley had been sitting around with the platoon talking about the time he ate a clown fish – just for the hell of it – when he worked at a Wal-Mart in high school. Lilley joined the Marines to get out of his hometown in Wichita, Kansas, and stop partying. "My brains were, like, pan-fried," he says.

Nicknamed Space Ghost by his fellow Marines, Lilley is tall, gangly, with pale skin. He usually has a far-off, pensive expression, like someone who is always just one bong hit away from a profound, cosmic realization. He's given some of his deepest thought to a nickname that he helped come up with for nineteen-year-old Cpl. Harold Trombley. Eleven days ago, Trombley accidentally machine-gunned and wounded two young Iraqi shepherds. "I call him Whopper," Lilley explained to me, "because they're sold at Burger King." When I looked up at Lilley, not getting it, he shook his head at my ignorance. "Like, Whoppers, Burger King, BK – Baby Killer. Now do you dig it?"

Before leaving on this mission, many of the men in Colbert's platoon had said goodbye to one another by shaking hands or even by hugging. The formal farewells seemed odd considering that everyone was going to be shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped Humvees. The goodbyes almost seemed an acknowledgment of the transformations that take place in combat. Friends who lolled around together during free time talking about bands, girlfriends' fine asses and eating clown fish aren't really the same people anymore once they enter the battlefield.

In combat, the change seems physical at first. Adrenaline begins to flood your system the moment the first bullet is fired. But unlike adrenaline rushes in the civilian world – a car accident or bungee jump, where the surge lasts only a few minutes – in combat, the rush can go on for hours. In time, your body seems to burn out from it, or maybe the adrenaline just runs out. Whatever the case, after a while you begin to almost lose the physical capacity for fear. Explosions go off. You cease to jump or flinch. In this moment now, everyone sits still, numbly watching the mortars thump down nearby. The only things moving are the pupils of their eyes.

This is not to say the terror goes away. It simply moves out from the twitching muscles and nerves in your body and takes up residence in your mind. If you feed it with morbid thoughts of all the terrible ways you could be maimed or die, it gets worse. It also gets worse if you think about pleasant things. Good memories or plans for the future just remind you how much you don't want to die or get hurt. It's best to shut down, to block everything out. But to reach that state, you have to almost give up being yourself. This is why, I believe, everyone had said goodbye to each other. They would still be together, but they wouldn't really be seeing one another for a while, since each man would in his own way be sort of gone.

After about twenty minutes, the mortar fire ceases for the rest of the day. Enemy resistance is beginning to wither under the combined effects of the Marine advance on the ground and violent airstrikes from above. Had the Iraqis massed their armor earlier in the day when heavy clouds inhibited airstrikes, they could have wreaked havoc. But for some reason, they missed their chance. Clouds have burned off, and waves of jets and Cobra helicopters simultaneously bomb, rocket and strafe targets in all directions. Trucks, armor, homes and entire hamlets are being bombed and set on fire. With the dramatic increase in firepower from the air, First Recon and War Pig rampage north, covering the final ten kilometers to Ba'qubah in a couple of hours. When the Iraqis finally send down a few armored vehicles, they are blown to smithereens by attack jets and Marines with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Iraqis who had put up fierce resistance earlier have either fled or been slaughtered. Headless corpses – indicating well-aimed shots from high-caliber weapons – are sprawled out in trenches by the road. Others are charred beyond recognition behind the wheels of burnt, skeletonized trucks. The sole injury on the American side occurs when a Marine in Alpha Company is hit by a piece of flying shrapnel from a T-72 tank after it's blown up by one of his buddies with a shoulder-fired missile. His helmet, though partially crushed, stops the shrapnel. All the Marine suffered was a bad headache.

With each air assault, Recon teams advance into the flames and smoke, hunting for fleeing enemy fighters. The only people Colbert's team encounters are terrified villagers – a half-dozen men and one small, extremely frightened girl hiding in a ditch while their homes, fields and grape arbors burn in the wake of a Cobra attack. The men, fearing for their lives, scream, "No Saddam! No Saddam!" when Colbert's team approaches, weapons drawn. After Colbert and Fick pat the men on their shoulders to reassure them that they are not going to be executed, the village elder bursts into tears, grabs Fick's face and smothers him in kisses.

While this is going on, Sgt. Eric Kocher, leading a team in Bravo's Third Platoon on a sweep of a nearby field, bumps up against another group of Marines from the reserve Recon unit. About six of the reservists surround a dead enemy fighter, a young man in a ditch, lying in a pool of his own gore, still clutching his AK. While they ponder the corpse, Kocher apparently is the only one alert enough to notice a live Iraqi – this one armed – hiding in a trench nearby.

When Kocher alerts the reservist Marines to the presence of a live Iraqi in their midst, everyone turns his weapon on the man and shouts at him to stand up and drop his weapon. Ever since the weeklong battle in An Nasiriyah, where Iraqis attacked and killed Marines by luring them into ambushes with false surrenders, enemy takedowns have become highly charged affairs. One of the reservist Marines at the scene, First Sgt. Robert Cottle, a thirty-seven-year-old SWAT team instructor with the Los Angeles Police Department, takes out a pair of zip cuffs – sort of like heavy-duty versions of the plastic bands used to tie trash bags – and binds the Iraqi's hands behind his back.

Cottle cuffs the enemy prisoner's wrists so tightly that his arms later develop dark-purple blood streaks all the way to his shoulders. The prisoner, a low-level Republican Guard volunteer in his late forties, is over-weight, dressed in civilian clothes – a sleeveless undershirt and filthy trousers – and has a droopy Saddam mustache. He looks like a guy so out of shape, he'd get winded driving a taxicab in rush hour. Surrounded by Marines, the man begins to blubber and cry. Kocher takes over handling him. A twenty-three-year-old who served with Colbert in Afghanistan, Kocher is an amateur bodybuilder with a quietly aggressive, take-charge personality. He hands his rifle to another Marine, puts on latex gloves and produces a 9-mm sidearm. He slams the Iraqi to the ground, puts the pistol to his head and shouts, "If you move, I'll blow your fucking head off!" A few minutes later, according to Kocher, Cottle, the reservist, shook his hand, thanked him for spotting the Iraqi and said, "You might have just saved our lives."

Kocher marches the Iraqi about thirty meters up to the highway and knocks him to the ground again. But no red flags are raised until Captain America arrives on the scene. By most accounts, Captain America approached the prisoner – now lying facedown – shouting and brandishing his bayonet. The Iraqi began to cry and plead for his life. According to several of the Marines who were there, Captain America began to jab the prisoner with his bayonet and taunt him, threatening to cut his throat.

Captain America, thirty-one years old and married, denies making those threats. "I just told the guy to shut the fuck up," he says later. He also denies ever jabbing the Iraqi. He had his bayonet out, he says, because "up close it's the best way to handle someone without shooting him."

Kocher says he was worried that the situation was spiraling out of control. He ordered one of the Marines on his team, twenty-two-year-old Cpl. Dan Redman, to guard the prisoner. Redman put his boot on the Iraqi's neck and stood over him with his M-4 rifle. "We were trying to calm the situation down," says Redman. "I didn't stomp or kick the guy. Dude, we just wanted Captain America to go away."

The next day, Sgt. Cottle, the reservist who initially shook Kocher's hand and thanked him, filed a report charging Kocher, Redman and Captain America with assaulting the prisoner. Cottle later tells me, "I feel bad for the enlisted guys. They weren't really the problem. It was the officer." One of Cottle's fellow reservists, a senior enlisted man who also witnessed the events, says, "From what I saw, that officer is sick. There's something wrong with him."

Captain America denies any misdeed. He simply thought his accusers were insufficiently acquainted with the realities of the battlefield. "They saw the beast that day, and they didn't know how to handle it," Captain America says later. "The prisoner was handled properly, even though they didn't like the way it looked."

My first encounter with the enemy prisoner takes place in the back of Lt. Fick's Humvee, about an hour after the incident. It's late in the afternoon, and Bravo's Second Platoon is manning a roadblock just south of Ba'qubah. The prisoner is squirming on the truck bed, only now there's a burlap sack tied over his head. A few Marines have gathered around and are taunting him. "What do you think you'd be doing to us if we were your prisoner?" says one nineteen-year-old Marine, scowling.

Fick walks over. "Hey, I don't want any war crimes in the back of my truck." He says this lightly. He has no idea yet of the brewing controversy over the man's capture. "Untie him and give him some water."

The man's arms are swollen and purple when the Marines cut off the zip cuffs. The angry nineteen-year-old Marine helps give him a bottle of water and a package of military-ration poundcake. The prisoner, snuffling his tears away, eyes the offerings suspiciously for a moment, then eats hungrily.

"Just 'cause we're feeding you doesn't mean I don't hate you," the young Marine says. "I hate you. Do you hear me?"

By the time I speak to the prisoner, I've already heard the rumors of his mistreatment during his capture. He has no bayonet marks. The worst sign of mistreatment on his body are gruesome bruises on his arms from the zip cuffs. He speaks English reasonably well and tells me his name is Ahmed Al-Khizjrgee. He periodically grabs his shoulders and winces in pain. Despite his suffering, there's something buffoonish yet crafty about him, like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan's Heroes series. He tries to convince me that he is not actually a soldier. "It is your imagination that I am a fighter," he says. When I point out that he was found with military ID documents, carrying a loaded rifle in an enemy-ambush position, he finally admits, shrugging and stroking his Saddam mustache, "I am a very low soldier."

Al-Khizjrgee says he is forty-seven years old, with two sons and five daughters. He claims he was originally a shoemaker and joined the Republican Guard late in life. One of the Marines points out that a lot of other Iraqis have thrown their weapons down and fled. "You were waiting to kill us," the Marine says. "You didn't put your weapon down until we made you."

"It is not true," Al-Khizjrgee protests. "I am afraid. If I put my gun down, the police come and beat us." He says he and the other men in his unit received no outside information on the state of the world. Their superiors told them Iraq was winning the war. "Everybody under Saddam is silent," he says. "If Saddam say we have war with America, we say, 'Good!' If he say no war, we say, 'Good!'"

The Marines, who were so angry with the man a moment ago, have now warmed up to him. One of them says, "We can't put our weapons down, either. He was just doing his job." The Marines now smile at him and feed him more poundcake.

Al-Khizjrgee fails to catch on to the newly festive atmosphere. He leans toward me and whispers, "How can I go home now? What if my sergeant finds me?"

About half an hour earlier, the BBC reported that Baghdad has fallen. I pass this information on to him.

He begins to cry. "I am so happy!"

The news is only getting better. Fick walks up and tells Al-Khizjrgee he will be driving him to Baghdad tonight.

"For free?" he asks, as if unable to believe his good fortune.

Back in Colbert's Humvee, we drive back to Baghdad in the darkness. Person begins to sing, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys."

"Hold on, buddy!" Colbert shouts.

After forty hours without sleep, more than half of this spent in combat, nerves are on edge, and Person has just violated Colbert's cardinal rule as team leader: No country music is allowed in this war.

"It's a cowboy song," Person says.

"I hate to break it to you, but there are no cowboys."

"Yeah, there are," Person says, his face simultaneously blank and defiant. "There's tons of cowboys."

"A cowboy isn't some dipshit with a ten-gallon hat and a dinner plate on his belt. There haven't been any real cowboys for almost a hundred years. Horse-raising is a science now. Cattle-raising is an industry."

A report comes over the radio of enemy fire on the column. "Hold on," Colbert says, reluctantly putting the argument aside. "I'd like to hear about this firefight."

War Pig and First Recon, driving south on the same highway they fought their way up during the previous thirty hours, are again taking fire. I spot an enemy muzzle flash no more than five meters from the right side of the vehicle – directly outside my window. Colbert opens up, his rifle clattering. If his past performance in this type of situation is any guide, there's a strong likelihood he hit his target. I picture an enemy fighter bleeding in a cold, dark ditch and feel no remorse.

They drive the next ten kilometers in near silence, searching for more targets, until they leave the ambush zone. Colbert pulls his weapon back in from the window and resumes his discussion with Person. "The point is, Josh, people that sing about cowboys are annoying and stupid."

Early the next day, first recon crosses a pontoon bridge over the Diala River and enters Baghdad proper. The greeting in Saddam City, First Recon's destination on the north side of Baghdad, is a familiar blend of enthusiasm tinged with violence. Three million Iraqis live in Saddam City, a sprawl of low-slung, vaguely Soviet-looking apartment complexes and homes spread out over several kilometers. Thousands line the streets as First Recon's convoy winds along the edge. When Colbert's Humvee stops, it's swamped by young men in threadbare clothes who zombie-shuffle up to the windows. Many smile, but their faces have a hungry, vacant look. A few try to reach out and grab things such as canteens and packs hanging on the side on the Humvee.

The convoy snakes through the streets again. Iraqis line the way, shouting "Bush! Bush! Bush!" The Marines turn into the gates of an industrial complex, sections of which are still burning from American bombings. Tonight's camp is a gigantic cigarette factory that sits on the edge of Saddam City. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of burning cigarettes fill the air with what is likely the world's biggest-ever cloud of secondhand smoke. After setting up positions by a loading dock, Marines stock up on Sumer-brand cigarettes and lie back to enjoy the spoils of conquest. "I think it's pretty safe here," Fick tells his men in the remaining moments of daylight. "We should all get a good rest tonight."

Within minutes of sundown, the Marines are rocked by a powerful explosion – a car bomb, about a hundred meters distant. Tracers shoot up from rooftops across the city. Fick walks up to me and smiles. "I was wrong," he says. A few moments later, a random bullet falls from the sky and skips onto the concrete, sparking behind Fick's back. He laughs. "This is definitely not good."

It's factional fighting between Iraqis, and it goes on all night. During the lulls, ambulance sirens wail across the city. Most of the Marines sleep pretty soundly through it anyway. Sgt. Espera uses the free time to work on a letter he's been writing to his wife back home in Los Angeles. She works at an engineering firm and raises their eight-year-old daughter. "I've learned there are two types of people in Iraq." begins the letter, which he reads to me, "those who are very good and those who are dead. I'm very good. I've lost twenty pounds, shaved my head, started smoking, my feet have half rotted off, and I move from filthy hole to filthy hole every night. I see dead children and people everywhere and function in a void of indifference. I keep you and our daughter locked away deep down inside, and I try not to look there." Espera stops reading and looks up at me. "Do you think that's too harsh, dog?"

By daylight, most of the gunfire stops in Baghdad. Colbert's team is sent out with the rest of his company to patrol a neighborhood north of Saddam City.

The residents here seem pleased to see the Marines. It turns out that this is a middle-class area. Unpaved roads lead to large stucco homes that would not be entirely out of place in San Diego. Men on the streets greet the Marines almost as soon as they turn in and address them in halting yet formal English. "Good morning, sir," they say. The Marines stop. Iraqis gather around the Humvees smoking and bitching about life under Saddam. Most of their complaints are economic – the lack of jobs, the bribes that had to be paid to get basic services. "We have nothing to do but smoke, talk, play dominoes," a wiry chain-smoking man in his late thirties tells me. "Saddam was an asshole. Life is very hard." He asks if the Marines can provide him with Valium. "I cannot sleep at night, and the store to buy liquor has been closed since the war started."

Aside from the complaints of the idle men, the most striking feature of the neighborhood is the hard labor performed by women. Covered by black robes, they squat in the empty-lot gardens, harvesting crops with knives while children crawl at their feet. Others trudge past, carrying sacks of grain on their heads. The division of labor exists even among children. Small boys run around playing soccer while little girls haul water, "Damn, the women are like mules here," Person says.

"If we'd have fought these women instead of men," another Marine observes, "we might have got our asses kicked."

Within the first few days of their patrols, the Marines are quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of Baghdad's social breakdown. There's no electricity or clean water. The streets are filled with raw sewage. Children are dying of disease. Bandits roam freely at night. Hospitals have been looted. The only items in plentiful supply are AK rifles. Locals claim that since armories and police stations were overrun at the end of the war, an AK now costs about the same as a couple of packs of cigarettes. Gun battles continue to rage every night among Shias, Sunnis, bandits, die-hard fedayeen and even Kurdish "freedom fighters" who have been flooding into the city to hunt down Saddam loyalists. The fighting is so bad that Marines aren't even allowed out after dark.

Sadi Ali Hossein – a courtly man in his fifties who helped run one of the city's main electric plants but now offers his services to the Marines as a translator – has a grim view of Iraq's future. "This is a bomb," he says of the rift between Sunni and Shia religious factions. "If it explodes, it will be bigger than the war." Sgt. Espera has his own take on the situation. "Let a motherfucker use an American toilet for a week and they'll forget all about this Sunni-Shia bullshit."

Despite the general Iraqi enthusiasm for the American invaders, many of them also spout bizarre conspiracy theories. They believe Bush and Saddam are secretly in league with each other. Iraqis approach Marines and ask them if it's true that Saddam is now living in Washington, D.C. Hossein claims that ninety percent of Iraqis believe this story. Those I ask about this legend, a few of them educated professionals, are positive that this is true. "My good friend saw Saddam fly away with the Americans in a helicopter," one man tells me, voicing a widespread urban legend.

During the next few days, First Recon moves from the cigarette factory to a wrecked hospital to a looted power plant, all the while dogged by an increasingly bitter rift over the prisoner-handling incident that occurred outside Ba'qubah. The first Marine to come under investigation is Sgt. Eric Kocher, who is kicked off his team. Cpl. Dan Redman, who placed his boot on the prisoner's neck, is also put under investigation. Captain America is temporarily relieved of his command.

After days of fact-finding and acrimonious meetings among the men, First Recon commander Lt. Col. Steve Ferrando clears the three men charged in the prisoner incident and reinstates Kocher and Captain America. Later, I meet with Ferrando in his temporary, partially destroyed office. He is a lean forty-two-year-old who speaks in a grating whisper, following a bout with throat cancer. Because of that voice, everyone calls him Godfather, which he also uses as his call sign. Ferrando tells me he thinks his men walked a fine line but were still "within the box" of acceptable behavior. But he adds, "In my mind, when you allow that behavior to progress, you end up with a My Lai massacre." Then he leans across his desk and asks me if I think he should have taken harsher action toward Captain America.

I honestly can't answer him. In the past four weeks, I have been on hand while this comparatively small unit of Marines has killed quite a few people. I personally saw three civilians shot, one of them fatally with a bullet in the eye. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The Marines killed dozens, if not hundreds, in combat through direct fire. And no one will probably ever know how many died from the approximately 30,000 pounds of bombs First Recon ordered dropped during airstnkes, or from the several hundred rounds of artillery the battalion called in on towns and highways, often at night. And of these perhaps hundreds of fatalities, how many others are without legs or eyes or other pieces of their bodies? I can't imagine how the man ultimately responsible for all of these deaths – at least on the battalion level – sorts it all out and draws the line between what is wanton killing and what is civilised military conduct. I suppose if it were up to me, I might let Captain America keep his job, but I would take away his rifle and bayonet and give him a cap gun.

First Recon's final night in Baghdad, April 18th, is spent camped in the playing field of the soccer stadium that once belonged to Saddam's son Uday. Tonight, the usual gun battles fought by locals start before sunset. Recon Marines keeping watch high up on the bleachers suddenly come under fire. As rounds zing past, one of the men, caught by surprise, stumbles as he tries to pull his machine gun off the fence and take cover. His arms flail while he tries to regain his balance. More gunshots ring out. Marines watching on the grass below burst into laughter. It's almost as if the war has turned into a comedy.

Later on, several Marines in another unit gather in a dark corner of the stadium to drink toasts to a one-armed Iraqi man who's been selling locally distilled gin for five American dollars per fifth. Generally, it doesn't require any alcohol to lower the young Marines' inhibitions. When they bring up the topic of "combat jacks" – who has masturbated the most since entering the combat zone – no one ever hesitates to mention the times he's jacked off on watch to stay awake and pass the hours. After surviving their first ambush at Al Gharraf, a couple of Marines even admitted to an almost frenzied need to get off combat jacks. But now, with the one-armed man's gin flowing, a Marine brings up a subject so taboo and almost pornographic in its own way, I doubt he'd ever broach it sober among his buddies. "You know," he says, "I've fired 203-grenade rounds into windows, through a door once. But the thing I wish I'd seen – I wish I could have seen a grenade go into someone's body and blow it up. You know what I'm saying?" The other Marines just listen silently in the darkness.

At first light, the battalion leaves Baghdad on a deserted superhighway and sets up camp sixty kilometers south. On Easter Sunday, the chaplain holds a special service in a barren field. "I have good news," he begins, announcing to the crowd of about fifty that a Marine from Recon's support unit has chosen this day to be baptized. When Colbert hears the good news, he cannot conceal his outrage. To him, religion is right up there with country music as an expression of collective idiocy. "Give me a break," he says. "Marines getting baptized? This used to be a place of men with pure warrior spirit. Chaplains are a goddamn waste."

The next day, First Recon suffers its fourth and fifth casualties when Gunnery Sgt. David J. Dill, a combat engineer attached to the battalion, steps on a mine and blows his foot off. Flying shrapnel takes out the eye of another Marine nearby. There's a bitter irony to the confusion that follows. The three Marines cleared in the prisoner incident work together on the rescue. Kocher runs into the minefield to assist Dill. After loading him into a Humvee, Captain America orders the Marines to take a shortcut, over their strenuous objections, and the vehicle becomes mired in a swamp. "Dude, it was awful," says Redman, "trying to rock that Humvee out, with Dill in the back seat, his foot blown off." They finally carried Dill to another Humvee and got him to medical treatment. His leg was amputated below the knee several hours later-though through no fault of the delay caused by Captain America's shortcut.

First Recon moves to its final camp in Iraq, at a former Iraqi military base outside the city of Ad Diwaniyah, 180 kilometers south of Baghdad. Bravo Company winds up in one of the shittiest spots in the camp. They set up on an exposed concrete pad next to the latrine trenches and burn pits. Dust storms blow continually. Most Marines have only had one shower in the past forty days. The men are beset by flies and dysentery. Surveying this last infernal camp with an almost satisfied smile, Cpl. Michael Stinetorf, a Second Platoon machine-gunner, says, "One universal fact of being in the Marine Corps is that no matter where we go in the world, we always end up in some random shitty place."

The senior officers, set up in nicer quarters across the camp, are basking in the glow of victory. First Recon, one of the smallest, most lightly armed battalions in the Corps, led the way for much of the Marines' blitzkrieg to Baghdad. "No other military in the world can do what we do," Ferrando tells me. "We are America's shock troops." Maj. Gen. James Mattis, whom I also interview at Ad Diwaniyah, heaps praise on the courage and initiative displayed by the men in First Recon, whom he credits with a large measure of success in winning the war. "They should be very proud," he says.

When I return to Second Platoon's encampment and pass on the general's praise, the men stand around in the dust considering his glowing remarks. Finally, Cpl. Gabriel Garza says, "Yeah? Well, we still did a lot of stupid shit."

Despite their success in blasting their way through more than a dozen ambushes and firefights, the Recon Marines did not do the job they had been trained for: stealthy, undetected reconnaissance. "Normally, in our jobs," says Colbert, "if we get shot at, it means we failed. The enemy is never supposed to see us. We're the most highly trained Marines in the Corps. The way they used us in this war, it's like they took a Ferrari and put it in a demolition derby. We did OK, but we didn't sign up for this."

Even so, most Marines unabashedly love the action. "You really can't top it," Cpl. Redman says. "Combat is the supreme adrenaline rush. You take rounds. Shoot back, shit starts blowing up. It's sensory overload. It's the one thing that's not over rated in the military."

Despite their misgivings and their discomfort, the mood is buoyant in this hellish camp. The Marines sleep through each night for the first time in weeks, boil coffee every morning on fires started with C-4 explosive, run for miles each afternoon in the 110-degree heat, play cards, dip tin after tin of Copenhagen and bench-press for hours on a free-weight set they assemble from gears and flywheels from wrecked Iraqi tanks. "Man, this is fucking awesome," Cpl. James Chaffin, a twenty-two-year-old Recon Marine, declares one morning while blazing up his coffee with a ball of C-4 explosive. "I can't believe I'm getting paid to work out, dip and hang out with the best guys in the world."

Sgt. Espera composes more long letters to his wife and occasionally shares with younger Marines bits of wisdom he learned on the streets of L.A. He says one afternoon that if he were writing a memoir of the days when he worked as a car-repo man before joining the Marines, he would title it Nobody Gives a Fuck. According to Espera, the ideal place and time to repossess or even steal an automobile is in a crowded parking lot in the middle of the afternoon. "Jump in, drive that bitch off with the car alarm going – nobody's going to stop you, nobody's going to even look at you," he says. "You know why? Nobody gives a fuck. In my line of work, that was the key to everything. The only people that will fuck you up are dogooders. I can't stand do-gooders. Luckily, there's not too many of those."

Many Marines I talk to are skeptical of the aims used to justify the war- fighting terrorism, getting weapons of mass destruction (which they never see). Quite a few accept that this war was probably fought for oil. Standing around the camp, surveying the blown-up buildings in the horizon, Bravo Company medic Robert "Doc" Bryan says, "War doesn't change anything. This place was fucked up before we came, and it's fucked up now. I personally don't believe we 'liberated' the Iraqis. Time will tell."

Colbert is one of the few Marines who continue to follow the war's progress on the BBC each day. When the BBC runs a report of a U.S. Army unit that accidentally fired on civilians, he stands up, outraged, and walks past his fellow Marines dozing on the concrete. "They are screwing this up," he says. "Those idiots. Don't they realize the world already hates us?"

"Relax, Devil Dog," Espera says, calling him by the universal Marine nickname. "The only thing we have to worry about are the fucking do-gooders."

This story is from the July 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

 

 

From The Archives Issue 927: July 24, 2003
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