The Killer Elite Part Two: From Hell to Baghdad - Rolling Stone
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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

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.”

On March 30th, first recon pulls back from the airfield and joins up with the main Marine battle force in central Iraq, Regimental Combat Team One, camped out by Highway 7, the main road between An Nasiriyah and Al Kut. Comprising approximately 7,000 Marines, RCT I is about twenty times larger than First Recon and, with nearly 200 tunks and armored vehicles, much better armed. Evidently feeling secure with so much armor in the vicinity, battalion command allows the men to go to sleep without digging the usual holes that protect them from shrapnel in case of an attack.

At about midnight, I awaken as a series of explosions turns the field across the battalion’s row of Humvees into what looks like a sea of molten orange and blue liquid. In my effort to roll underneath the Humvee for protection, I slam into Person, sleeping next to me. “Don’t worry about that,” he says over the roar. “That’s our artillery, It’s just danger-close.” Then he goes back to sleep.

The next morning, the men are informed that they are lucky to be alive – they were nearly bombarded by Iraqi artillery, not “danger-close” American rounds. Lt. Nathan Fick, commander of Bravo Second Platoon, delivers the news with a grimly amused smile: “That Iraqi rocket system kills everything in an entire grid square” – a square kilometer. “They knew our coordinates and came within a few hundred meters of us. We got lucky, again.”

Fick also tells the men that the battalion is resuming its drive north. “We’re following the Al Gharraf canal, doing a movement to contact.” He offers another grimly amused smile. This means the battalion will be rolling in the open toward expected ambush points, trying to flush out the enemy. First Recon will take the west side of the canal and move ahead of RCTI, which will be on the opposite bank. First Recon’s objective is Al Hayy, a town of about 40,000. It’s a Ba’ath Party headquarters and home to a large Republican Guard unit.

At about eight o’clock, I set out with Colbert’s team, back in the Humvee with Trombley on the SAW machine gun to my left, Cpl. Walt Hasser on the Mark-19 grenade launcher in the turret, Person at the wheel and Colbert in command in the front passenger seat. The battalion is moving in a single-file convoy on a winding route that passes through small, walled villages, grassy fields, palm groves and dried mud flats sliced with trenches – excellent cover for enemy shooters. Within twenty minutes of crossing the canal and turning onto a narrow dirt trail, the Marines begin to take sporadic fire from small arms, machine guns and mortars, but no one is able to spot the enemy positions. Despite the intermittent gunfire, shepherds, women and children flock out of their houses, waving and smiling.

By midmorning, the Marines stop a truck racing across a field. The truck carries about twenty Iraqi men who are dressed in civilian clothes but are armed. They insist they are farm laborers and have weapons because they are afraid of bandits. But while being chased, several threw bags out of the truck. When the Marines retrieve the bags, they find Republican Guard military documents and uniforms, still drenched in sweat. They take the Iraqis prisoner, binding their wrists with plastic zip cuffs and loading them into one of the battalion’s transport trucks.

Still taking occasional small-arms and mortar fire yet unable to find a single shooter, the Marines dismount and clear hamlets, moving house to house. Colbert leads his team through one walled cluster of about seven homes, while Espera keeps the villagers under guard. The men are forced to lie on their stomachs with their fingers interlocked over their heads, as about twenty women and children are herded to-ward the road. Mortar rounds begin to hit extremely close by – when they come with in about fifty meters, the explosions cause a temporary surge in the surrounding air pressure, which makes the hair on your body feel like it’s standing on end, as if you’ve been zapped with a mild electric jolt. An old woman in black begins screaming and shaking her fists at the Marines guarding her. “This brings me back to my repo days,” Espera says. “Women are always the fiercest. Doesn’t matter if it’s a black bitch in South Central or a rich white bitch in Beverly Hills, They always come after you screaming,”

After about six hours of searching for an elusive enemy, the men in Colbert’s Humvee are worn down, their nerves frayed. The chatter and profanity and inside jokes have ceased. Even Person – who started off the morning repeating the chorus of Country Joe McDonald’s anti-war song: “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” – just stares vacantly out the window. The silence is broken by an unusual new sound, a series of high-pitched zings. Orange-red tracers streak through the air and slam into a dirt berm in front of and behind the Humvee.

“Person, get out of the vehicle,” Colbert orders.

Everybody dives out of the Humvee and takes cover behind a berm. Marines from the forty other vehicles follow suit. “That’s a goddamn ZPU!” Colbert says, referring to a type of powerful multibarreled Russian anti-aircraft gun. No one can figure out where it’s located. These men, who usually laugh off other forms of gunfire, now burrow facedown in the nearest comforting patch of mother earth – all of them except Trombley, who jumps out of the vehicle with a pair of binoculars and scampers up the berm like a gopher, scanning the horizon. He’s sitting up high, looking around excitedly, eagerly taking in this terrifying new experience.

“That’s cool,” he says in a low voice as another salvo of ZPU rounds zings past. “I think I see it, Sergeant.”

Colbert and Person now rise over the berm, somewhat more cautiously than Trombley. Following his initial directions, they spot the enemy-gun position about a kilometer away. Colbert orders Hasser onto the Mark-19 grenade launcher, and with the ZPU still firing, the team methodically directs fire at it. Cobra attack helicopters join in the effort and hit a nearby pickup with men inside, who appear to burn up. The fire from the ZPU ceases.

I later ask Trombley why he showed no signs of fear, seemed quite calm in fact, when he sat up on the berm and located the position of the gun that seemed to be terrorizing just about every other Marine in the battalion. “I know this might sound weird,” Trombley says, “but deep down inside I want to know what it feels like to get shot. Not that I want to get shot, but the reality is, I feel more nervous watching a game show on TV at home than I do here in all this.”

He tears into his plastic meal-ration bag and grins. “All this gunfighting is making me hungry,” he says with a cheerful smile.

“All this stupidity is making me want to kill myself,” Person counters grimly, one of his first displays of low spirits in Iraq.

Despite the triumph of taking out the ZPU, the forty-vehicle battalion is still taking mortar fire. Mortars, fired in three to six-round volleys about five minutes apart, each drawing closer, follow the convoy’s movements. The orderly progression of the shelling suggests that an enemy observer is on the ground following the battalion and directing the mortars. Whoever is shooting the mortars is probably four to eight kilometers away, aided by an observer who is likely within a kilometer. The Marines push out to the surrounding berms and look for anyone with a radio hidden among the shepherds and farmers in the surrounding fields.

The twenty prisoners of war that First Recon picked up earlier in the day – suspected Republican Guard soldiers – are packed into the rear of a flatbed transport truck, sitting on benches. Marines are tying the Iraqis’ wrists with parachute cord. Left in the truck during the attack from the ZPU while their Marine captors dived behind the nearby berms for cover, the prisoners had gnawed through their plastic wrist cuffs like rats. The Iraqis jostle in their seats, hands bound behind their backs. They are like a small clown-only traveling circus. Some make exaggerated grimaces indicating that their bindings are painfully tight. Some mad-dog the Americans with spiteful stares, Others make faces, trying to ingratiate themselves to the Americans with humor. One grinning Iraqi, hoping to curry favor, shouts, “Fuck Saddam!” repeatedly.

Sgt. Larry Sean Patrick, a team leader and sniper in Colbert’s platoon, has spotted an Iraqi several hundred meters away, parked in a white pickup. He seems to be an observer. The rules of evidence are somewhat looser in a combat zone than they are back home – which means that he earns himself a death sentence for the crime of appearing to be holding binoculars and a radio. Patrick fires one shot, watches for a few moments through his scope and says, “The man went down.”

This is Patrick’s second sniper kill in Iraq. Another sniper in First Recon, who calls his rifle Lila, short for Little Angel the pet name for his daughter – can describe in vivid detail the gory circumstances of each kill he’s bagged. Patrick doesn’t say much about his kills. He doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in them. The sergeant says he’d eagerly leave the war if somehow magically given the chance, but adds, “Just the same, I want to be with these guys so I can do what I can to help them live.”

No more mortars are fired after Patrick’s shot. Evidently, he killed the right man. Fick says the battalion is now going to execute the final stage of today’s mission: to drive along the western side of Al Hayy, then cut across a bridge into the city, skirt its northern edge and seize the main highway bridge out of town. The whole point is to seal off the northern escape route from the city before RCT I assaults at dawn. Given the past eight hours of harassing fire south of the city, Fick is less than cheerful about the prospect of driving into Al Hayy – First Recon now has fewer than 300 Marines going into a city of 40,000. After briefing his men, he says privately to me, “This is Black Hawk Down shit we are doing.”

As the convoy starts rolling, Cobra escorts pour rockets and machine-gun fire into a palm grove directly across the river, and Colbert says, “This country is dirty and nasty, and the sooner we are out of here, the better.”

Though almost no one ever talks religion, some Marines silently repeat prayers. Cpl. Jason Lilley, the driver of the Humvee just behind Colbert’s, clenches the wheel. He’s staring ahead, unblinking, lips moving. He later tells me that although he’s not a big Christian or anything, he was just saying, “Lord, see us through,” over and over.

From an ambush standpoint, we drive through the worst terrain imaginable. The road sinks down and snakes between tree lined hamlets, whose walls extend right up to the edge of the Humvees. Some of Recon’s transport trucks take fire. One has two of its tires shot out, but it rides on its rims. We cross the first bridge into a sort of industrial area of low-slung cinder-block buildings at the edge of Al Hayy. A Humvee in Charlie Company comes under heavy machinegun fire. Marines ahead of us pelt the building where the hostile fire is coming from with about thirty Mark-19 grenades, blowing off large chunks of its facade and suppressing the enemy fire. As we roll by the destruction, Person shouts, “Damn, sucka!”

Across from the building, a live Arab lies in the road. He’s in a dingy white robe, squeezed between piles of rubble. The man is only about five feet from where our wheels pass, on his back with both hands covering his eyes. After being subjected to hostile fire all day, there’s a kind of sick, triumphant rush in seeing another human being, perhaps an enemy fighter, now on his back, helplessly cowering. It’s empowering in a way that is also depressing. All the Marines who drive past the man train their guns on him but don’t shoot. He’s not a threat, childishly trying to protect his face with his hands.

A few minutes later, First Recon reaches its objective: the highway bridge that leads over a small canal and out of the city. The bridge presents another strange juxtaposition typical of Iraq. After moving all day through clusters of mud-brick houses and surrounded by thatched-reed fences evocative of biblical times, the Marines now stand on a span that could be on a German autobahn. It’s a long, graceful concrete structure. Marines run out to the center and set up concertina wire. Colbert’s team, as well as Espera’s and the other two Humvees in the platoon, park at the crest of the bridge and wait.

Fick walks up, grinning. Even loaded down with his vest, flak jacket and bulky chemical-protection suit, as he is now, he always has a sort of loping, bouncing, adolescent stride. Today it’s even more buoyant. “I feel like for the first time we seized the initiative,” he says, surveying the roadblock. Everyone seems to be swaggering as they walk around the bridge. After nearly two weeks of feeling hunted, the Marines have done what they were supposed to do: They assaulted through resistance and took an objective. This small band, now about twenty kilometers from any friendly American forces, controls the key exit from a town of 40,000.

But the one thing the Marines haven’t trained for, or really even thought through, is the operation of roadblocks. The basic idea is simple enough: Put an obstacle like concertina wire in the road and point guns at it. If a car approaches, fire warning shots. if it keeps coming, shoot it. The question is: Do the Iraqis understand what’s going on? When it gets dark, can Iraqi drivers actually see the concertina wire? Even Marines have been known to drive through concertina wire at night. The other problem is warning shots. In the dark, a warning shot is simply a series of loud bangs and orange flashes. It’s not like this is the International code for “Stop your vehicle and turn around.” As it turns out, many Iraqis react to warning shots by speeding up. Maybe they just panic. Consequently, a lot of Iraqis die at roadblocks.

The first killings come just after dark. Several cars approach the bridge with their headlights on. Bravo’s 50-caliber gunners, at the top of the bridge, fire warning bursts. The cars turn around. Then a tractor-trailer appears, its diesel engine grumbling. The Marines fire warning shots, but the truck keeps coming.

At this point, no one is completely sure it’s a semi. It sounds like one, but it could also be Iraqi armor or fedayeen who have commandeered a civilian truck and loaded it with weapons and soldiers. What the men do know is that they are completely alone here in the dark. First Recon is the northernmost unit in central Iraq, and there is nothing between its position on this bridge and a mechanized division of 20,000 Iraqis based twenty kilometers north. Only later will it become clear that most regular Iraqi forces won’t fight; on the night of March 31st, that fact is an unknown. Even worse, through the result of a technical glitch, First Recon has lost communication with its air cover. If the battalion is attacked, it will have to fight on its own.

A few seconds after the truck fails to respond to the second warning burst, its headlights dip onto Bravo’s position, blinding the Marines. The truck sounds like it must be doing thirty or forty.

“Light it the fuck up!” some one shouts. Under the rules of engagement, a vehicle that fails to stop at a roadblock is declared hostile, and everyone in it may justifiably be shot. Almost the entire platoon opens fire, But for some reason, these Marines who have put down enemy shooters with almost surgical precision are unable to take out even the truck’s headlights after several seconds of heavy fire. Red and white tracers and muzzle flashes stream toward the truck. Mark-19 grenades explode all around it. The truck keeps coming, blaring its horn.

Just before reaching the concertina wire, the vehicle jackknifes and screeches. The driver’s head has been blown clean off. Meanwhile, three men jump from the cab. Espera, who is wearing night-vision goggles, sees them and fires his M-4 from a crouching position, methodically pumping three-round bursts into the chest of each. Almost as an afterthought, the Marines shoot out the last headlight of the truck, still shining at an off-kilter angle.

There’s no time to examine the scene of the shooting. The battalion pulls back a couple of kilometers to a more defensible position. Triumphal feelings that soared a half-hour ago have vanished. It’s suddenly cold, a Humvee is stuck in the mud, and a string of headlights has appeared a kilometer or so to the west. Using night-vision equipment, Marines observe what appears to be trucks with weapons on them moving along an alternate route out of the city. “They’re fucking flanking us!” Fick says. One truck is seen stopping across from First Recon’s position and unloading men and equipment, possibly guns. First Recon requests an artillery strike to take out the vehicles.

Colbert’s platoon falls back to defend the eastern edge of First Recon’s position, digging several sets of sleeping holes in hard, claylike earth that is nevertheless water-logged. Before nodding off for quick “combat naps,” several Marines from Bravo gather by their wet holes to eat their meager food rations in the darkness. “I felt cold-blooded as a motherfucker shooting those guys that popped out of the truck,” Espera says, glumly describing the details of each killing. “Whatever last shred of humanity I had before I came here, it’s gone.”

Warning shots continually erupt at the roadblock manned by Recon’s Charlie Company a kilometer to the north. We hear one volley, then the sound of a car engine racing. Marines shout orders to fire, and a massive burst of weapons fire follows. The sound of the engine draws closer in the darkness. Guns fire, then there’s a protracted screeching of tires. In the immediate silence, someone says, “Well, that stopped him.” For some reason, everyone bursts into laughter.

The Marines on the roadblock watch as men run from the car, waving their hands. They are unarmed. As Marines shout at them, they drop obediently to the side of the road.

Two Marines cautiously approach the car. It is shot up, its doors wide open, lights still on. Sgt. Charles Graves sees a lights still on. Sgt. Charles Graves sees a small girl of about three curled up in the back seat. There’s a small amount of blood on the upholstery, but the girl’s eyes are open. Graves reaches in to pick her up – thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her, he later says – then the top of her head slides off and her brains drop out. When Graves steps back, he nearly falls over when his boot slips in the girl’s brains. It takes a full minute before Graves can actually talk. The situation is one he can only describe in elemental terms, “I could see her throat from the top of her skull,” he says.

No weapons are found in the car. A translator asks the father, sitting by the side of the road, why he didn’t heed the warning shots and stop it. He simply repeats, “I’m sorry,” then meekly asks permission to pick up his daughter’s body. The last the Marines see of him, he is walking down the road carrying her corpse in his arms.

Meanwhile, rounds from the artillery strike ordered by Bravo Company forty-five minutes earlier begin to land on the highway to the west – where vehicles had been observed fleeing the city. The 155 mm rounds are fired from Marine howitzers dug in perhaps sixteen to twenty-five kilometers to the south. You can follow their orange trails arcing across the sky. Seen from a distance, the fiery explosions are beautiful and hypnotizing, just like any decent Fourth of July display. The artillery gunners drop 164 rounds along the highway, but any carnage visited on the vehicles, hamlets and farms along the route is invisible in the darkness.

The destruction continues after sunrise. Slow-moving A-10 Thunderbolt jets circle the northern fringes of Al Hayy, belching machine-gun fire. The airframe of the A-IO is essentially built around a twenty-one-foot-long seven-barrel machine gun one of the largest of its type. When it fires, it makes a ripping sound like someone is tearing the sky in half. The A-IOS wrap up their performance by dropping four phosphorus bombs on the city, chemical incendiary devices that burst in the sky, sending long tendrils of white, sparkling flames onto targets below.

Civilians line up by the side of the road when First Recon’s convoy assembles that morning. The battalion is heading south, back to Al Hayy, then north on a different route to the next town, Al Muwaffaqiyah. Most of the crowd are boys, twelve to fifteen. The morning’s show of American air power has whipped them into a frenzy. They greet the Marines like they are rock stars. “Hello, my friend!” some of them shout. “I love you!” It doesn’t seem to matter that these young men have just witnessed portions of their city being destroyed. Or maybe this is the very appeal of the Marines. One of the promises made by the Bush administration before the war started was that the Iraqi populace would be pacified by a “shock and awe” air-bombing campaign, The strange thing is, these people appear to be entertained by it. “They think we’re cool,” says Person, “because we’re so good at blowing shit up.”

First Recon’s convoy pauses on the road by the bridge. Waving and jumping up and down, kids gathered by the tractor-trailer shot up the night before pay no heed to the corpses of its occupants scattered by their feet. Further on, there’s another shot-up car, with a male corpse next to it in the dirt. More kids dance around the carnage, giving thumbs-up to the Americans, shouting, “Bush! Bush! Bush!”

I stop by Espera’s vehicle, an open-top Humvee. He gazes out at the grinning, impoverished children with dirty feet and says, “How these people live makes me want to puke.” Cpl. Gabriel Garza, standing at his vehicle’s 50-cal, says, “They live just like Mexicans in Mexico.” Garza smiles at the children and throws them some candy. His grandmother is from Mexico, and by the way he is grinning, you get the idea that living like Mexicans is not all bad.

Espera turns away in disgust. “That’s why I fucking can’t stand Mexico. I hate Third World countries.”

Despite Espera’s harsh critique of the white man – he derides English as “the master’s language” – his worldview reflects his self-avowed role as servant in the white man’s empire. It’s a job he seems to relish with equal parts pride and cynicism. “These people live like hell,” he says. “The U.S. should just go into all these countries here and in Africa, and set up a U.S. government and infrastructure – with McDonald’s, Starbucks, MTV – then just hand it over. If we have to kill 100,000 to save 20 million, it’s worth it.” He lights a cigar. “Hell, the U.S. did it at home for 200 years – killed Indians, used slaves, exploited immigrant labor to build a system that’s good for everybody today. What does the white man call it? Manifest Destiny.”

Within a half-hour, First Recon’s convoy is again creeping north on an agricultural back road. Colbert’s Humvee passes a tree-shaded hamlet on the left as a series of explosions issues from its direction. It sounds like mortars being launched, perhaps from inside the village. Whereas ten days ago being within a couple of hundred meters of an enemy position would have sent the entire team into a high state of alert, this morning nobody says a word. Colbert wearily picks up his radio hand-set and passes on the location of the suspected enemy position.

Once the initial excitement wears off, invading a country becomes repetitive and stressful, like working on an old-school industrial assembly line: The task seldom varies, but if your attention wanders, you are liable to get injured or killed. The team pauses in a field by a canal a few hundred meters down from the village. The battalion’s job this morning is to observe a high-way across from the waterway. It’s another route out of Al Hayy, and First Recon is to shoot any armed Iraqis fleeing the city. RCT 1 is currently rolling into the town.

Half of Colbert’s team stretches out in the grass and dozes. It’s beautiful. There’s a stand of palm trees nearby with bright-blue and bright-green birds that fill the air with a loud, musical chattering. Trombley counts off ducks and turtles he observes in the canal with his binoculars. “We’re in safari land,” Colbert says.

The spell is broken when a Recon unit 500 meters down the line opens up on a truck leaving the city. In the distance, a man jumps out holding an AK. He jogs through a field on the other side of the canal. We watch lazily from the grass as he’s gunned down by other Marines.

The birds are singing again when the man across the canal reappears, limping and weaving like a drunk. Nobody shoots him. He’s not holding a gun anymore. The rules of engagement are scrupulously observed. Even so, they cannot mask the sheer brutality of the situation.

A few vehicles down from Colbert’s, another team in the platoon monitors the area where mortars had seemed to be fired from about an hour earlier. This team, led by Sgt. Steven Lovell, a sniper, has been watching the village through binoculars and sniper scopes. They have seen no signs of enemy activity, just a group of civilians – men, women and children – going about their business outside a cluster of three huts. But it’s possible that rounds were fired from there – the fedayeen often drive into a town, launch a few mortars and leave.

In any case, the place is quiet when, at about eleven o’clock, a lone 1,000-pound bomb dropped from an F-18 blows it to smithereens. The blast is so powerful that Fick jumps over a berm to avoid flying debris and lands on his superior officer. A perfectly shaped black mushroom cloud rises up where the huts had been, and a singed dog runs out of the smoke, making crazy circles. Lovell, who was watching when the bomb hit, is livid: “I just saw seven people vaporized right before my very eyes!” Down the line of Humvees, the commanders who called in the strike smoke cigars and laugh. Later, they tell me that mortar fire was definitely coming from the hamlet.

By noon, First Recon is back on the move, heading toward Muwaffaqiyah, a town of about 5,000. Several kilometers south of the town, the convoy stops in an agricultural village, where locals warn that an ambush is being set up by the bridge into Muwaffaqiyah. It’s another confusing scene. Villagers greet the Marines enthusiastically – fathers hoist babies on their shoulders, teenage girls flout religious code by running out with their heads uncovered, giggling and waving. But only a short way up the road, their neighbors have just been wiped out by a 1,000-pound bomb.

First Recon sets up a camp four kilometers east of the bridge. Before sundown, a light-armored reconnaissance company from RCT 1 attempts to cross the bridge and meets stiff resistance. It takes at least one casualty and rolls back. Artillery strikes are called in on suspected enemy positions.

At about eight o’clock that night, Fick holds a briefing for his platoon’s team leaders. “The bad news is, we won’t get much sleep tonight,” he says. “The good news is, we get to kill people.” It’s rare for Fick to sound so “moto” – regaling his men with enthusiastic talk of killing. He goes on to present the battalion commander’s ambitious last-minute plan to go north of Muwaffaqiyah and set up ambushes on a road believed to be heavily traveled by fedayeen. “The goal is to terrorize the fedayeen,” he says, looking around, smiling expectantly.

His men are skeptical. Sgt. Patrick repeatedly questions Fick about the enemy situation on the bridge. “It’s been pounded all day by artillery,” Fick answers, waving off his objections, sounding almost glib, like a salesman. “I think the chances of a serious threat are low.”

Fick walks a delicate line with his men. A good officer should be eager to take calculated risks. Despite the men’s complaints against Col. Ferrando for ordering them into an ambush at Al Gharraf, the fact is only one Marine was injured, and the enemy’s plans to halt the Marines’ advance were thwarted. Fick privately admits that there have been times when he’s actually resisted sending his troops on missions, because, as he says, “I care a lot about these guys, and I don’t like the idea of sending them into something where somebody isn’t going to come back.” While acting on these sentiments might make him a good person, they perhaps make him a less-good officer. Tonight he seems uncharacteristically on edge, as if he’s fighting against his tendencies to be overly protective. He admonishes his team leaders, saying, “I’m not hearing the aggressiveness I’d like to.” His voice sounds hollow, like he’s not convinced himself.

The men, who ultimately have no choice in the matter, reluctantly voice their support of Fick’s orders. After he goes off, Patrick says, “The people running this can fuck things up all they want. But as long as we keep getting lucky and making it through alive, they’ll just keep repeating the same mistakes.”

Confidence is not bolstered when an Iraqi artillery unit – thought to have been wiped out by this point – sends several rounds slamming into a nearby field. However beautiful artillery might look when it’s arcing across the sky onto enemy positions, when it’s aimed at you, it sounds like some-body hurling freight trains at your head. The Marines run for the nearest holes and take cover.

For tonight’s mission, Colbert’s team wins the honor of driving the lead vehicle onto the bridge. We roll out at about eleven, in total darkness. There’s almost no moon, which makes the operation of night-vision goggles less than ideal, and the battalion has run out of the specialized batteries that power the thermal-imaging devices, a key tool for spotting enemy positions in the dark. Cobra pilots flying overhead spot armed men hiding beneath trees to the left of the foot of the bridge. But communication breaks down, and this word is never passed to Colbert’s team.

We see the Cobras fire rockets across the bridge a few hundred meters in front of Colbert’s vehicle. The explosions light up the sky. But no one in the vehicle even knows what the Cobras are shooting at. Colbert orders Person to keep driving to ward the bridge and the explosions.

Everyone’s life depends on Person. He hunches forward over the steering wheel, his face obscured by the night-vision apparatus hanging over his helmet. The NVGs resemble an optometrist’s scope. Two lenses over each eye attach to a single barrel that sticks out about five inches. The goggles give their wearer a bright-gray-green view of the night but offer a limited, tunnel-vision perspective and no depth perception. It requires a great deal of concentration to drive with them. “There’s an obstacle on the bridge,” Person says in a dull monotone that nevertheless manages to sound urgent.

There’s a blown-up truck turned sideways at the entrance to the bridge. We stop about twenty meters in front it. To the left is a stand of tall eucalyptus trees about five meters from the edge of the road. Behind us, there’s a large segment of drain pipe. Person drove around the pipe a moment ago, believing it to be a piece of random debris, but now it’s becoming clear that the pipe and the ruined truck in front were deliberately placed to channel the vehicle into what is known in military terms as a “kill zone.” We are sitting in the middle of an ambush box.

Everyone in the Humvee – except me-has figured this out. They remain extremely calm. “Turn the vehicle around,” Colbert says softly. The problem is the rest of the convoy has continued pushing into the kill zone. All five Humvees in the platoon are bunched together, with twenty more pressing from behind. Person gets the Humvee partially turned around; the eucalyptus trees are now on our immediate right. But the pipe prevents the Humvee from moving forward. We stop as Colbert radios to the rest of the platoon, telling them to back the fuck up.

He simultaneously peers out his window through his night-vision gun scope. “There are people in the trees.” he says and repeats the message to alert the rest of the platoon. Then he leans into his rifle scope and opens fire.

There are between five and ten enemy fighters crouched beneath the trees. There are several more across the bridge, manning a machine gun, and still more on the other side of the road. They have the Marines surrounded on three sides. Why they did not start shooting first is a mystery. Colbert believes they simply didn’t understand the capabilities of American night-vision optics.

But the Marines’ advantage is precarious. As soon as Colbert opens up, the enemy sprays the kill zone with rifle and machine-gun fire. They also launch at least one RPG that flies across the hood of our Humvee. Two Marines in the platoon – Patrick and Cpl. Evan Stafford – are shot almost immediately. Stafford is knocked down, hit in the leg, and Patrick is shot in the foot. Both tie tourniquets (which Recon Marines carry on their vests) onto their wounds and resume shooting.

They cannot fire indiscriminately with their Humvees so close together. Each carefully picks his targets. Robert Bryan, team medic, in a Humvee behind Colbert’s, takes out two men with head shots. When the 50-caliber machine gun opens up overhead, the concussive blasting is so intense that Bryan’s nose starts gushing blood. Espera sees an enemy combatant, already shot in the chest and trying to crawl away, and drops him with an M-4 burst into his head. Sgt. Rudy Reyes, often teased for being the platoon’s pretty boy, narrowly escapes a bullet that shatters his windshield and passes within an inch of his beautiful head. Fick jumps out of his vehicle and runs into the center of the melee in order to direct the Humvees, still jammed up in the kill zone, to safety. With his 9 mm pistol raised in one hand, Fick almost appears to be dancing on the pavement as streams of enemy machine-gun fire skip past his feet. He later says he felt like he was in a shootout from The Matrix.

In our vehicle, Colbert seems to have entered a realm of his own. He stares intently out the window, firing bursts from his weapon and, for some inexplicable reason, humming “Sundown,” the depressing 1970s Gordon Lightfoot anthem. Mean-while, Person, frustrated by the traffic jam, opens his door and, with shots crackling all around, shouts, “Would you back the fuck up!” In the heat of battle, his Missouri accent comes out extra hick. He repeats himself and climbs back in, his movements seeming almost lackadaisical.

It takes five to ten minutes for the platoon to extricate itself from the kill zone, leaving most of the would-be ambushers either dead or in flight. The next five hours are spent pushing back to the bridge and assaulting it again with tanks and more helicopters. On the other side, about three square blocks of Muwaffaqiyah are completely leveled before the bridge is declared secure, though in the process of taking the bridge, the Marines blow a massive hole in it, rendering the span nearly impassable.

At sunrise, the marines seem to be in a near hypnotic state. After six hours of combat – their second straight night without sleep – they are given a couple of hours’ rest before moving out. They park their Humvees in a dried mud field a few kilometers back from the bridge. Several gather around Colbert’s vehicle, drinking water, tearing into their food rations and cleaning and reloading the weapons they will likely be using again later in the day.

Everyone has radically different ways of dealing with the stress of combat. During lulls in the action, Colbert becomes excessively cheerful. This morning he’s pointing at birds flying overhead, exclaiming, “Look! How pretty!” It’s not like he’s maniacally energized from having escaped death. His satisfaction seems deeper and quieter, as if he’s elated to have been involved in something highly rewarding. It’s as though he’s just finished a difficult crossword puzzle or won at chess.

When Espera comes by to share one of his stinky cigars, he gestures to Colbert and says, “Look at that skinny-ass dude. You’d never guess what a bad motherfucker he is.” When they met a few years ago, Espera says he felt sorry for Colbert. “I thought he had no friends – he’s such a loner,” he says. “But he just can’t stand people, even me. I’m only his friend to piss him off. But the dude is a straight-up warrior.”

Trombley seems interested in combat only during its intense moments – when the bullets are coming directly at us. After that, he often snaps into deep sleeps. During the team’s second assault on the bridge, while rolling toward the firefight, flanked by tanks and armored vehicles with weapons thundering. Trombley was slumped over his machine gun, snoring, and had to be jiggled awake.

I react to fear in a more traditional manner. After the most recent ambush, my entire body was trembling so badly when we rolled back from the bridge that my feet were bouncing off the floor of the Humvee, and my teeth were chattering. Bryan later tells me this was likely a physical reaction to excessive adrenalin, which cuts the flow of blood to the extremities, resulting in severe cold. Person affects no discernible change. “When I am in these ambushes,” he asserts confidently, “I don’t feel like I’m going to die.”

Espera, who, after combat, always looks as though his eyes have sunk deeper into their sockets and the skin on his shaved skull has just tightened an extra notch, says, “We’ve been brainwashed and trained for combat. We must say ‘Kill!’3,000 times a day in boot camp. That’s why it’s easy.” Then he adds, “That dude I saw crawling last night, I shot him in the grape. Saw the top of his head bust off. That didn’t feel good. It makes me sick.” Bryan, with his two confirmed kills in the ambush, says he feels nothing about having taken human lives. “It’s a funny paradox,” he says, bringing up his frantic effort a few days earlier to save the life of a civilian wounded by a Marine. “I would have done anything to save that kid. But I couldn’t give a fuck about those guys I just killed. It’s like, you’re supposed to feel fucked after killing people. I don’t.”

Fick, who saw Patrick med-evacked off with his shot foot, appears to be in a morbid state of self-reflection. He walks among his Marines saying almost nothing. They’ve set up again a few kilometers back from the bridge and gather in small groups around their Humvees going over every detail of the previous night’s actions. Several of them slap Fick on the back, laughing about the courage he displayed by walking through the kill zone to direct the Humvees out at the height of the ambush. Fick sloughs off their praise, saying, “I merely had a lack of situational awareness.” He tells me, “We should never be in a position like this again. That was bad tactics.”

Captain America, the platoon commander who is almost universally disrespected by the enlisted men, seems to deal with the stress by rising to a state of jabbering incoherence. Up by the bridge there are four enemy dead scattered under the eucalyptus trees, along with piles of munitions – RPGs, AKs and hand grenades. Captain America runs back and forth, picking up their weapons, hurling them into the nearby canal and screaming at the top of his lungs. No one knows what he’s screaming about or why, but as another officer who came upon this scene later concluded, “Whatever he was doing, he was not being in command.”

The four killed are the first combatants the Marines in First Recon have ever seen up close. The dead wear pleated slacks, loafers and leather jackets. An officer leans down and picks up the hand of one. Between his thumb and index finger, there are words tattooed on his skin in English: I love you. The officer reads it aloud for the benefit of the other Marines nearby and says, “These guys look like foreign university students in New York.”

The biggest revelation is the discovery of Syrian passports on the dead fighters. Not one of them is an Iraqi. Sgt. Eric Kocher, 23, a team leader in Captain America’s platoon, is one of the first Marines to notice a fifth enemy fighter, wounded but still alive, lifting his head up and watching the Americans.

Kocher kneels over him and pats him down for weapons. The man howls in pain. He’s shot in the right arm and has a two-inch chunk of his right leg missing. He carries a Syrian passport that bears the name Ahmed Shahada. He’s twenty-six years old, and his place of address in Iraq is listed as the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, by local standards one of the better hotels, catering to foreign journalists and European aid workers. He’s carrying 500 Syrian pounds, a packet of prescription painkillers in his shirt pocket and an entry visa to Iraq dated March 23rd. He arrived barely more than a week ago. Handwritten in the section of his visa that asks the purpose of his visit to Iraq is one word: “Jihad.”

When news spreads of the foreign identities of the enemy combatants, the Marines are excited. “We just fought actual terrorists,” Bryan says. After nearly two weeks of never knowing who was shooting at them, the Marines can finally put a face to the enemy. Intelligence officers in the Marine First Division later estimate that between fifty and seventy-five percent of all enemy combatants in central Iraq were foreigners – primarily young Palestinian men bearing Syrian or Egyptian passports. “Saddam offered these men land, money and wives to come and fight for him,” says an intelligence officer.

As it turns out, the war for the future of this country is largely being fought between two armies of interlopers.

Just before midnight on April 2nd, the battalion reaches the outskirts of Al Kut. Located 110 miles north of Nasiriyah, Al Kut is the largest city in north-central Iraq. More im-portant, it is headquarters of a Republican Guard division. But the anticipated show-down in Al Kut never happens. Soon after reaching the edge of the city, the battalion is ordered to head to Baghdad. Seizing Al Kut itself was never an actual goal.

This entire campaign has been a feint – a false movement designed to convince the Iraqi leadership that the main U.S. invasion was coming through central Iraq. The strategy has been a success. The Iraqis left a key division and other forces in and around Al Kut in order to fight off a Marine advance that never actually came. With so many Iraqi forces tied down near there, Baghdad was left relatively undefended for the combined Army and Marine assault to come. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the First Marine Division, a key architect of this diversion, later boasts to me, “The Iraqis expected us to go all the way through Al Kut – that the ‘dumb Marines’ would fight their way through the worst terrain to Baghdad.” While the plan worked brilliantly, Mattis adds, with characteristic modesty, “I’m not a great general. I was just up against other generals who don’t know shit.”

It takes two days to reach the outskirts of Baghdad. Hastily erected oil pipelines zigzag along the highway to the city, built by Saddam to flood adjacent trenches with oil that was then set on fire. As a result, smoke hangs everywhere. Saddam intended these flaming oil trenches to be some sort of half-assed defense, but their only effect is to add to the general state of pollution and despair. Dead cows bloated to twice their normal size lie near some ditches. Smoke curls up from bombed buildings. Artillery rumbles in the distance. Human corpses are scattered in small clusters every few kilometers. It’s the usual horrorscape of a country at war. Just before reaching the final Marine camp outside Baghdad, Espera’s vehicle swerves to avoid running over a human head lying in the road. When the vehicle turns, he looks up to see a dog eating a human corpse. “Can it get any sicker than this?” he asks.

Person, however, has an entirely different reaction. Set back from the highway, gleaming like some sort of religious shrine, there is a modern-looking glass structure with bright plastic signs in front. It’s an Iraqi version of a 7-Eleven. Though looted and smashed, it gives Person hope. “Damn!” he says. “It looks almost half-civilized here.”

First Recon sets up in a field of tall grass next to some blown-up industrial buildings. Baghdad is too far away to see but close enough to hear as U.S. bombs and artillery pound it steadily around the clock. The bombardment sounds like the steady rhythm of a car with a bass-booster stereo parked outside your window.

On my first afternoon here, I sit down with Captain America. Back in Kuwait, when Captain America still had a mustache, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Matt Dillon’s goofy con-artist charmer in There’s Something About Mary. He comes off as one of the more thoughtful and articulate men in the battalion, and I begin to wonder if the enlisted men have read him all wrong. He’s very likable, but with an unfocused intensity that’s both charismatic and draining. When he stares at you, he doesn’t blink; his pupils almost seem to vibrate. He mixes acute and surprising political observation – “This part of the world would be better off without us” – with Nietzschean speculation on the deadly nature of battle. “Right now, at any time, we could die,” he says, leaning forward. “It almost makes you lose your sanity. The fear of dying will make you lose your sanity.” He adds, “But to remain calm and stay in a place where you think you will die, that is the definition of insane, too. You must become insane to survive in combat.”

When I bring up one of the complaints his men make against him – his proclivity for leading them on childish but also dangerous treasure hunts for Iraqi military souvenirs – he launches into a detailed description of the relative merits of Iraqi and U.S. arms, freely admitting to taking Iraqi AKs. He even boasts of killing an enemy fighter with one. “These are good, up-close weapons for firing from a vehicle,” he says, sounding perfectly reasonable.

Sgt. Kocher, one of Captain America’s men, spots me talking to him and later approaches to tell me something that’s troubling him. Kocher is a veteran of Afghanistan, where he served on the same team with Colbert. Like Colbert, Kocher prides himself on his extreme professionalism. He grew up “running around in the back-woods of Pennsylvania” and is powerfully built. When he gets out of the Marine Corps, he plans to become a professional bodybuilder. Where Captain America has a scattered presence, Kocher’s is one of pure focus. He now leads his own Recon team, and three nights ago while patrolling outside Al Kut, he claims Captain America attempted to stab an enemy prisoner of war with a bayonet. According to Kocher, his team was operating in total darkness with NVGs when it encountered an enemy fighter kneeling in a ditch, trying to hide from them. He and two Marines approached the Iraqi, weapons drawn. “The truth is,” says Kocher, “We were all pissed because Sergeant Patrick had just been shot, and I wanted to shoot that guy. But that would have given away our position.” Kocher and his two men disarmed the Iraqi, with Kocher grabbing him and putting him in a crushing armlock. Then, according to Kocher, Captain America came charging through the darkness with his bayonet drawn. (Long before this incident, I had heard enlisted men belittle Captain America for strutting around with a bayonet, something no other Marine in the battalion did regularly. “He just wants to overdramatize everything, so he feels like more of a hero,” says one Marine.) Kocher says, “He jumps over me and jams him in chest with his bayonet. He turned the situation into chaos.”

According to Kocher, the prisoner had rifle magazines clipped to his chest that deflected Captain America’s bayonet. Kocher, Captain America and the man tumbled over. It took several moments of struggling to regain control of the prisoner. Kocher says that as soon as he restrained him, with his arms pinned behind his back, Captain America rushed forward again, this time to kick the enemy in the stomach. “He hits me in the stomach instead,” Kocher says.

The sergeant keeps a written log. “I call it my ‘bitter journal,”‘ he says. “If something happens to me, I want my wife to know the truth. Because of guys like Captain America, we’ve fought retarded.”

Captain America disputes Kocher’s version of events. He says the prisoner was not under control when he arrived. In his version, he brandished his bayonet when the man resisted being captured. “I jabbed him with my bayonet,” Captain America says. “If I’d wanted to kill him, I would have shot him. By stabbing him, I saved his life.”

In this case, the details seem too murky to draw any firm conclusions. What will soon become clear, though, is that this incident ominously foreshadows one of the more controversial episodes of the campaign, when, a few days later, outside Baghdad, Captain America and his bayonet make another dramatic appearance during a prisoner capture. And this time, ironically, Kocher and another enlisted man critical of Captain America will be involved.

On this night, all is looking good. Ferrando visits Colbert’s team and offers rare praise. “I’ve heard they’re speaking pretty highly of First Recon at division head quarters,” Ferrando says. “The general thinks we’re slaying dragons.”

After he leaves, Espera offers his own assessment. “Do you realize the shit we’ve done here, the people we’ve killed? Back home in the civilian world, if we did this, we would go to prison.”

This is from the July 10th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.


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