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The Killer Elite Part Two: From Hell to Baghdad

One week into the war, the invaders have become the prey, the killing has become routine and the men of Bravo Company are beginning to wonder if they have been sent on a suicide mission

Iraqi children treat invading forces like rock stars, despite the fact that the Marines have destroyed vast portions of their cities.
Evan Wright
July 10, 2003 12:00 AM ET

It's not a good day for god in Iraq. Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Bodley, chaplain for the First Reconnaissance Battalion, is trying to minister to fighting Marines, now resting for the first time since the invasion of Iraq began more than a week ago. They have set up a defensive camp by the airfield they seized near Qal'at Sukkar, in central Iraq. After their initiation into urban-guerrilla warfare in An Nasiriyah to the south, followed by three days of continual fighting against an enemy they seldom actually saw, the 374 Marines of the elite battalion have been given forty-eight hours of downtime to recuperate. Their camp is spread across two kilometers of what looks like a fantasy Martian landscape of dried-out, reddish mud flats and empty canals. Each four- to six-man team lives in holes dug beneath camouflage nets placed around its Humvee. Through-out the day, Bodley walks around the camp and attempts to minister to his flock of heavily armed young men. Although the Marines in First Recon have already killed dozens, accidentally wounded civilians and taken one casualty of their own (a driver shot in the arm), the chaplain encounters few troubled by war itself. "A lot of the young men I talk to can compartmentalize the terrible things they've seen," he says. "But many of them feel bad because they haven't had a chance to fire their weapons. They worry that they haven't done their jobs as Marines."

The Killer Elite Part One

Bodley is new to First Recon, and he confesses that he finds these Marines tough to counsel. "The zeal these young men have for killing surprises me," he admits. "When I first heard them talk so easily about taking human lives, using such profane language, it instilled in me a sense of disbelief and rage. People here think Jesus is a doormat."

Over by Sgt. Brad Colbert's Humvee, the Marines lounge under the camouflage netting, enjoying a few idle hours on a hot afternoon. Cpl. Joshua Person, the team's driver, lounges with his shirt off, trying to roast the "chacne" – chest zits – off his skin in the harsh Iraqi sun. Gunnery Sgt. Michael Wynn, the senior enlisted man in Bravo Company's Second Platoon, stops by to pass the latest gossip. "Word is," he says in a mild Texas accent, "we might go to the Iranian border to interdict smugglers."

"Fuck, no!" Person says. "I want to go to Baghdad and kill people."

A couple of men pass the time naming illustrious former Marines – Oliver North, Captain Kangaroo and John Wayne Bobbit. "After they sewed his dick back on, didn't he make porn movies where he fucked a midget?" someone asks.

Wynn, who's thirty-five and is almost a father figure to many in the platoon, who are ten to fifteen years younger, beams with pride. "Yeah, he probably did. A Marine will fuck anything."

It took these Marines nearly a week to reach this airfield, and they are less than halfway to their destination: the city of Al Kut, sixty miles to the north and head-quarters of a Republican Guard division. The Marines are also fighting their way into uncharted moral terrain, hunting an enemy that has remained hidden – dressed in civilian clothes, shooting at them from within populated areas. At times, the slaughter of unarmed civilians will almost seem to exceed that of actual combatants.

The Killer Elite Part Three: The Battle for Baghdad

It's an adage among officers that "a bitching Marine is a happy Marine," By this standard, no officer makes the Marines in First Recon happier than their commander, Lt. Col. Steve Ferrando. They blame Ferrando for staffing the officer corps with men they feel are incompetent, such as the platoon commander the Marines have derisively nicknamed Captain America – who will shortly come under suspicion for mistreating enemy prisoners of war. They blame Ferrando for leading them into the ambush two days ago at Al Gharraf, where one Marine was wounded and many others narrowly, even miraculously, escaped death. They blame Ferrando for sending them on the last-minute assault on the Qal'at Sukkar airfield, during which Cpl. Harold Trombley, on Colbert's team, mistakenly wounded two young shepherds. They hate Ferrando for his relentless obsession with what he calls "the grooming standard" – his insistence that even in combat his troops maintain regulation haircuts, proper shaves and meticulously neat uniforms.

In their most paranoid moments, a few Marines believe their commander is trying to get them killed. "In some morbid realm," says Sgt. Christopher Wasik, "it may be a possibility that the commander wants some of us to die, so when he sits around with other leaders, they don't snicker at him and ask what kind of shit he got into. Yeah, that's the suspicion around here." (Asked about these sentiments, Ferrando says, "It's unfortunate some of them feel that way. When you sign up for war, you get shot at.")

It often seems as if bitching about Ferrando serves as a release valve for all the frustrations the Marines don't complain about. None of them has slept more than three hours straight since leaving Kuwait last week. Even worse, their diet has been reduced to about one and a half meals a day (following an incident in which one of their supply trucks carrying rations was blown up by Iraqis). Nor do they complain about their water, also in short supply, which smells and tastes, in the opinion of Colbert, like "dirty ass." Many Marines who took their boots off for the first time in a week when they set up the camp discovered the skin on their feet was rotting off in pale white strips like tapeworms as a result of fungal infections. They don't complain about the flies that infest the camp; their constant coughing, runny noses and weeping, swollen eyes caused by continual dust storms; or the cases of vomiting and diarrhea that afflict about a quarter of them. Instead of bitching about these miseries, the Marines laugh.

A few of them will admit to deeper misgivings, not to mention outright fear. "This is all the tough-guy shit I need," says Sgt. Antonio Espera. "I don't like nothing about combat. I don't like the shooting. I don't like the action."

Espera, like a lot of others, joined the Marines to prove something. He grew up in a turbulent home in a sketchy area outside Los Angeles and scraped by for four years in his early twenties as a car-repo man in South Central. While working a job he hated, he watched his friends and one close family member go to prison for violent crimes, which were fairly routine in his world. Though he is one-quarter Anglo on his mother's side, Espera is predominantly Latino and American Indian, and he says he grew up hating the white man.

At one point a few years ago, he claims, he deliberately avoided earning his community-college degree, though he was just a couple of credits short of receiving it, because, he says, "I didn't want some piece of paper from the white master saying I was qualified to function in his world." But after four years of repossessing cars in L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods, Espera had an epiphany: "I was getting shot at, making chump change, so I could protect the assets of a bunch of rich white bankers." So he enlisted in the Marines. He might be serving the white man, he reasoned, but he'd be doing so with "purity and honor."

Espera was among the first Marines on the ground in Afghanistan and spent forty-five days living in a hole there, but in that war he was hardly shot at. Now, he says, he regrets having reenlisted after Afghanistan, "What was I thinking, dawg?" he asks. "Every morning I think I'm going to die. For what? So some colonel can make general by throwing us into another firefight?"

The next night, a spy plane reports a potential Iraqi armored column moving toward First Recon's perimeter, and Marines near Colbert's position claim to have counted as many as 140 Iraqi vehicles, headlights inexplicably on. Colbert, who also observes the lights, scoffs at the report. "Those are the lights of a village," he tells his men.

His opinion is not shared by others. At high levels within the division, the alarm is sounded that First Recon is about to be hammered by a sizable Iraqi armored force. U.S. military doctrine is pretty straight forward in situations like this: If there even appears to be an imminent threat, bomb the shit out of it. One of First Recon's officers, Capt. Stephen Kintzley, puts it this way: "We get a few random shots, and we fire back with such overwhelming force that we stomp them. I call it disciplining the Hajjis," he says, using a nickname for Iraqis common among U.S. military personnel.

In the next few hours, wave after wave of attack jets and bombers drop an estimated 8,000 pounds of ordnance around the camp. The next day, Recon sends out a foot patrol to do bomb-damage assessment. They see lots of craters outside a village, but no sign of any armor. Sgt. Damon Fawcett of First Recon's Alpha Company, which led one of the patrols, says, "We could have gone farther, Bombs fell in areas we didn't get to see, but I believe they didn't want us to investigate too much and find out possibly that we'd hit homes or civilians. Or just nothing at all."

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