Military history


Islept for five hours and awoke to find that our Army counterparts had shown up bright and early. They lived in a different base, about fifteen minutes away, and they had driven over to pick us up. Noriel, Bowen, Leza, Captain Bronzi, and I made our way over to the six Army Humvees (all of which were heavily armored) and readied ourselves for the pre-mission briefing. The platoon may have been fairly new to the city, but as they talked with us that morning, they seemed to know it well enough. The platoon commander, Lieutenant Mitchell, spoke with confidence, and he covered all the standard bases—medevac plans, reaction to enemy attacks, communication failure plans, and so on—just as (if not better than) I would have. His NCOs, in turn, briefed my squad leaders. The Army enlisted seemed as competent and experienced as their officer.

Unfortunately, the platoon from the 506th had room in their Humvees for only five or six of us on each of their rides. As Golf Company’s first mission after turnover with the Army would fall to Joker One, my three squad leaders and I had priority on the first several trips. Zipping around the city in the thick, squat vehicles with the Army was exhilarating, even if it wasn’t entirely representative of the way in which we planned to fulfill our mission. The 506th confined itself mainly to the city’s major highway and a few other significant roads, and they only rarely left their vehicles to move on foot. Unlike the Marine Corps, the Army had money for massively armored Humvees, and it provided plenty of these monsters to its troops in harm’s way. We, by contrast, still didn’t have enough unarmored Humvees to carry an entire forty-man platoon. So we planned to walk the city on foot, exploring Ramadi in a way that no unit before us had, but on some level we envied the equipment and mobility of our sister service.

The details of how we would ultimately achieve our “security and stability” mission were still a bit hazy, but we wanted to try to get a sense of all of Ramadi’s neighborhoods. We wanted to interact face-to-face with its people; to get to know its politicians, policemen, and sheiks; to demonstrate that the entire city was ours and that we cared about all of it, that no place would be a no-go area for the Marines. After all, Ramadi was the capital city of Anbar province. Over the last several months, the vast majority of Iraq’s hostile incidents had happened in Anbar, which was why the Marines had been sent to the restive area. Like the rest of Anbar, Ramadi was populated almost exclusively by Sunni Arabs. While Saddam Hussein had ruled, the city’s most prominent export had been officers for his army, and it had been well treated as a result. The city still retained some vestiges of his largesse—beautiful mosques, functioning traffic circles, road signs, and so on.

However, the Ramadi we saw on the Army’s early tours had suffered as a result of the war’s aftermath. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) disbanded the Iraqi army, quite a few of Ramadi’s residents had lost their jobs. Though the city’s downtown still teemed with commerce, male unemployment was high, well above 50 percent. Furthermore, in the aftermath of Baghdad’s downfall, most of Saddam’s civil servants had found themselves out of jobs, and most of the violent criminals had found themselves out of jail. Thus ten months after President Bush made his “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier landing, Ramadi’s basic services were nonexistent and crime was rampant. Trash and human waste littered every street. Massive open-air garbage dumps were scattered across the city, and no one tended to them. A few of the buildings had the distinctive bullet-hole pock-marks scattered across them, and a few of the roads had the scorched and blackened potholes that indicated an IED had gone off there. Still, those things aside, most of the city had been spared war’s rampant physical destruction.

Ramadi proper could be roughly divided into four quadrants. In the northwest was the souk: a vibrant, bustling marketplace with streets so narrow that it was impossible to fit a Humvee down most of them. Here a clever shopper could buy everything from the latest consumer electronics to European house music to hard-core pornography and anti-American videos. From about 10 AM onward, with the exception of some downtime in the early afternoon, the souk was jammed solid with pedestrians. Most buildings in this quadrant’s southern portion were three-to four-story commercial structures; these gradually gave way to two-story residential properties as one moved farther north. Everything, it seemed, was connected by dense networks of wire that stretched crazily in all directions in rat’s nests of tangled connections some ten to fifteen feet off the ground. Some of these wires tapped into the city’s power supply, probably illegally; some served to hang laundry; and some did double duty. Across from the souk, in the southwest quadrant of Ramadi, the past and present were skirmishing. Multistory, relatively modern government buildings dominated the top half of the area, but butchers ruled the bottom. Here, individual two-story residences mingled with halal shopkeepers who slaughtered animals in the same manner as their Bedouin forefathers. Skinless, glistening pink-and-red corpses hung in front of small, dirty storefronts, and unpaved streets ran dark with blood. The air was thickly heavy with a sharp metallic tang. Packs of wild dogs—animals considered unclean by the Iraqis—roamed these streets, looking for food.

The southeastern quadrant of the city was a similarly solid urban area that we called the Farouq district, named after the volubly anti-American Farouq mosque located at the quadrant’s southwestern tip. Aside from a gigantic, professional-quality soccer stadium directly across the street from this mosque, the Farouq district had little else to distinguish it; just row after row of the two-story walled compounds that serve as the standard residential structure in Ramadi. In this city, every house was surrounded on all four sides by an eight-foot-high concrete fence, with some sort of steel gate serving as the only entrance into or out of the compound. Inside the walls, an open courtyard of varying sizes surrounded each house, which usually sat at least five or so meters back from the gate. Each exterior wall was joined to that of its neighbor’s, and each city block was some seven to ten houses long and two houses wide.

We realized on that first tour that this section of the city would present us with a serious challenge in the form of thirty-meter-wide, hundred-meter-long solid lines of wall. Crossing between houses was a near impossibility, for it usually meant climbing three eight-foot-high walls in rapid succession—the one in front of the nearest house, that house’s rear wall, and the street-facing wall of the new compound you had just dropped into—or breaching three separate sturdy metal doors. The easiest and most practical way to transition from one block to another was simply to walk to a block’s end and then use the streets that ran around each block to cut over. We would find out the hard way that this typically Middle Eastern housing array meant that if any squad was more than two blocks away from its counterparts, the squad was, for all intents and purposes, completely on its own.

Finally, Ramadi’s northeastern quadrant was its industrial zone. Though the area had some residential buildings concentrated in its northern and western areas, the vast majority of the quadrant was taken up by fifteen warehouses, one gigantic parking lot, and scores of small mechanic shops. Each of these automobile repair places usually had an actual automobile on top of its flat roof, transforming what would normally have been one-story buildings into one-and-a-half-story buildings. At the zone’s easternmost point, another smaller soccer stadium provided a playing field for many of the area’s children, and those who couldn’t get a spot inside the stadium itself could always use the dusty plain just to the north. Both stadium and plain were bounded on the east by what had previously been a gigantic trash dump, and the eight-foot-high, rolling mounds of garbage still reeked fetidly in the heat of the day.

Neatly through all of this ran Route Michigan. The city’s most vital transportation artery bisected Ramadi in a perfectly straight west-east line from one end of the town to the other. On that first tour, our Army guides pointed out several important sites situated along the highway. The al-Haq mosque, located directly across Michigan from the northern stadium, broadcast anti-American rhetoric from its loudspeakers every Friday, the standard Muslim day of worship, equivalent to Western Sundays. The al-Haq had, our guides told us, distinguished itself from other mosques by the intensity of its diatribes and its propensity to advocate immediate military action against U.S. forces. Smack dab in the center of the city, perched inside a gigantic traffic circle in the middle of Michigan, stood the massive Saddam mosque, commissioned by the former dictator himself in the mid-1990s, sometime after he decided that his Baath Party would no longer be a secular, communist organization. On some Fridays that mosque also broadcast hatred of the infidel foreigners, but on most it simply exhorted devout Muslims to live their lives in a manner hewing more closely to the dictates of the Koran.

Just one hundred meters west was the city’s cemetery, a gigantic triangle that extended its tip nearly ten blocks south of Michigan, deep into the butchers’ area. A flat plain dotted with small aboveground mausoleums and headstones, the cemetery was considered the most sacred area in the city (outside of the mosques), according to our Army guides. Six blocks west of this cemetery, near the western edge of the city, lay the provincial Government Center, a four-block-long, five-block-wide walled compound that contained all the infrastructure necessary to support the oversight of Anbar province. Leaning over as we passed it, Lieutenant Mitchell yelled to me that it was here that the governor, the mayor, and their respective councils met every day, and here that the province’s police chief held court.

After we passed the Government Center, our six-vehicle convoy ran into the western boundary of Ramadi, a wide tributary of the mighty Euphrates River. We drove south along it until we ran into the city’s southern boundary, a set of railroad tracks running west to east. Turning east again, we paralleled the tracks. For nearly the entire length of the city, an open-air trash dump bordered the railroad. The stench was incredible, even inside the Humvees. After some twenty minutes of driving down a potholed, intermittently paved road, we ran into the city’s eastern boundary, a wide irrigation canal. We headed north, and five minutes later we were back on Michigan, a mere two hundred meters west of our base. The rural areas outside the city were dotted with occasional housing compounds, well-tended fields, and lush greenery—as long as they were close to the Euphrates. Get more than three kilometers from the river, though, and the fields, the houses, and the trees disappeared. In their place was the vast desert.

As we drove around the city on that first day, I was struck by the living conditions endured by its citizens—they had little power, no sewers, no garbage disposal, broken-down roads, and the occasional IED that blew up on their main highway. Their country was in shambles, and I felt saddened that our country was largely responsible for it. I knew that my squad leaders and I shared the same sense of wanting to help them, and to show them that Americans were decent people who truly did desire the best for others, even if we didn’t always know how to go about providing it. So I enjoyed the stops we made along the way. First off, we met with a female Christian bank manager who worried about road security. Through the Army translator, a large, fit Iraqi known only as “Monster,” she told us that she needed to transfer some reserves from one branch to another and that she feared them being stolen without adequate protection. Through Monster, Lieutenant Mitchell reassured her. Later that evening, after dark, we stopped by the Government Center to meet with Anbar province’s police chief. Just inside the building’s entryway was a small foyer, into which were crammed about ten Iraqi policemen, all huddled around a TV set. Curious, I glanced over to see what had them so intrigued. It was hard-core porn. Noticing us, the policemen smiled and gave us the thumbs-up sign. We grinned back. Some things, it seemed, were common to fighting men of all cultures.

Continuing on, we made our way into the police chief’s office. As soon as he laid eyes on the Army lieutenant, the chief—a giant, bald, mustachioed man who reminded me a little bit of a walrus—broke into a huge smile, stood up, and embraced the lieutenant in a bear hug. After exchanging pleasantries, sweet, hot chai was served in small shot glasses as Mitchell and the police chief talked about security in Ramadi and elsewhere. Four rounds of tea later, we made our way out of the building. That man, Mitch ell told us, was a terrific ally.

The next day, Mitchell, Bronzi, and I visited another police chief, this one suspected of being on the take. It was our mission to warn him to change his ways or risk joining the inmates he currently oversaw. While at the station house, deep in the Farouq area, Mitchell pointed out the spot where an enemy had fired an RPG at his patrol two weeks previously. Since then, he told us, nothing major had happened in Ramadi. The story confirmed what we all suspected and hoped: Combat in the city probably wouldn’t be very fierce, and the action that did occur would likely confine itself to occasional IED blasts and mortar attacks. From that day forward, all of the officers from the CO on down regularly debated whether we would ever be authorized to wear the coveted Combat Action Ribbon, since the criteria for this award demanded that fire be both taken and returned.

Another measure of our naïveté came a few days later, when, during a brief foot patrol with the Army through the packed souk, the CO and I heard automatic weapons fire from what sounded like a block or two away. Even though we hadn’t heard the distinctive cracking that indicated the fire was actually close enough to do damage, for the rest of the day we twittered to each other about the incident like excited schoolboys. What we didn’t realize then was that the default way to express nearly any emotion in Ramadi was to walk outside and peel off a few rounds from the family AK-47. Wedding parties wildly fired their weapons into the air to celebrate the joy of marriage; funeral parties wildly fired their weapons into the air to mourn the sadness of passing; families at circumcisions wildly fired their weapons into the air to commemorate the separation of a boy from a part of his penis.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!