Military history

CHAPTER 9

The Man Within

NATHAN SASSAMAN sat on the dais and walked his subjects through the first steps of democratic rule. It was a Friday morning at the Balad Youth Center, fifty miles north of Baghdad. Sassaman, an army lieutenant colonel, had gathered the newly elected members of the Balad City Council for their first meeting. He had an athlete’s broad frame and he’d taken off his helmet and placed it on the table so the Iraqis could get a better look at him.

“Okay,” the colonel said, glancing in the direction of an Iraqi man standing behind a card table, “could you please pick up the ballot box and show us all that it’s empty?”

An Iraqi man dutifully turned over a large cardboard box and held it up high. Nothing fell out.

“And now,” Sassaman told the Iraqis, “you are going to decide whether or not to extend the term of Mayor Darwash. It’s a yes or no vote. It’s up to you.”

Sassaman looked out at the seventy Iraqis who made up the new council. He was an intelligent man, and I could almost see his eyes sparkle from my place in the audience.

“Mayor Darwash, why don’t you come forward?”

A tired-looking man shuffled to the front of the room and took a seat.

With that, the newly elected members of the Balad City Council stood and walked over to the table. They filled out their ballots and dropped them into the box. Then they returned to their seats and waited for the results.

With Sassaman looking on, the Iraqi standing at the card table tallied the votes and wrote the score on a blackboard behind him. Mayor Darwash lost, 35 to 24.

“All right, that is your decision,” Sassaman said. He looked at Darwash, still slumped in his chair.

“I want to take a moment to congratulate the mayor for the great job he’s done, for all the effort he has made for a secure and stable environment in Balad.”

Darwash stood up, and all the Iraqis clapped.

“Next week, we’ll choose a new mayor,” Sassaman said. And the meeting continued on its way.

Only a few weeks before, Sassaman had presided over a revolutionary event in this small, crumbling city, registering forty-five thousand Iraqis to vote in the first election that anyone could remember. The American occupation was only six months old in October 2003, and Sassaman had pushed so far ahead of his peers around the rest of the country that the civilian leadership in Baghdad had already tried to slow him down. The Iraqis weren’t ready for so much democracy, the diplomats told him. Sassaman had forged ahead anyway, and his superiors in Baghdad had finally relented, telling him that he could go forward as long as he agreed to call the process a “selection” rather than an “election.” So he did, and the “selection” in Balad went off without a hitch.

“It was a free election, without threats or intimidation,” Ahmad Abdul Wahid, the deputy mayor, told me after the meeting broke up. “Colonel Sassaman is very patient with us. He tolerates our criticisms. I respect him. No one wants the Americans to stay, but our country is not secure yet. Six more months at least. We can live with that.”

In the fall of 2003, Nathan Sassaman, then forty, was the most impressive American field commander in Iraq. He was witty, bright and relentless, the embodiment of the best that America could offer. He was the son of a Methodist minister and a graduate of West Point; as the quarterback for Army’s football team, he had led the school to its first bowl victory. When I met him, Sassaman was working day and night to make the American project in Iraq succeed, inspiring the eight hundred young men under his command to do the same. He slept in his boots.

Sassaman’s patch of territory, about three hundred square miles around the Tigris River, contained all the contradictions of post-Saddam Iraq. Balad, the main city, was dominated by Shiite Muslims, the majority sect that had borne the brunt of Saddam’s furies. Outside Balad, the countryside was populated by Sunnis, the minority that had dominated Mesopotamia—under Saddam, under the British, under the Ottomans—for hundreds of years. Deposed by the invasion, the Sunnis had already begun to resist the American project. In the fall of 2003, the insurgency was just beginning to find its legs.

Just as the two realities, Sunni and Shia, came to define modern Iraq, they came, in the weeks and months ahead, to define the struggle for Colonel Sassaman’s heart. In the Shiite areas like Balad—in halls and venues like the Balad Youth Center—the Iraqis thanked the Americans for their liberation, and their neighborhoods were largely safe and secure. Sassaman’s virtues flourished there: his vision, his intelligence, his tirelessness. When I met him, in October 2003, Sassaman had already dispersed nearly $ 1 million to set up a new government and refurbish mosques and schools. His junior officers were studying Arabic, and Sassaman was halfway through From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas L. Friedman’s book on the Middle East. Every Friday, inside a circle of armored personnel carriers, the local Iraqis and the men of Sassaman’s 1-8 battalion would square off for a game of soccer.

His men loved him. “It wouldn’t be anything to be out there doing a raid or doing whatever and then a Bradley would pull up behind you and it would be like, who the hell is this?” Captain Matthew Cunningham, a company commander, told me. “And you look back and it’s the colonel. Whoa, whoa, whoa. It’s the old man. It’s Colonel Sassaman. He’s out here with us.”

As he drove his Humvee around Balad, Sassaman seemed to carry the hopes of the American enterprise on his shoulders. It seemed, on those good days, that it just might work, despite all the problems, because of people like him.

Yet outside Balad’s city limits, the landscape changed, and Sassaman did, too. The Sunnis, disenfranchised by the American invasion, didn’t see goodwill in Sassaman’s promises, or in his gestures, or even in his money. They were hostile and intractable, and they were not, or at least did not appear to be, amenable to politics. In the Sunni countryside, the preacher’s son saw his generosity go unrewarded, saw his good works blown up and painted with graffiti. Over time, when Sassaman went into the countryside, he began to slough off the virtues that had paid such dividends inside the Shiite city of Balad.

At first, the colonel revealed his disillusionment only briefly, usually at the end of a very long day. Once, as I was sitting in his barracks with him near midnight, Sassaman said that he and his men had come to Iraq trained to fight a big battle against a big, uniformed army, something out of World War II. They hadn’t received any instruction on holding elections or setting up police departments. No one in his unit spoke more than a few words of Arabic. The men made do. One of the reservists under Sassaman’s command happened to have carried with him an operations manual from the Tiverton, Rhode Island, police department, where he worked. And soon enough, the Balad police department was functioning remarkably like its New England counterpart. “We are doing a lot of missions that we didn’t train for,” Sassaman told me that night. “Sometimes I wish there were more people who knew more about nation building.”

The struggle inside of Sassaman intensified with the insurgency itself, which, in the fall of 2003, was expanding across the Sunni Triangle, the vast area north and west of Baghdad. One night, as we sat inside a darkened chow hall eating dinner, he spoke in despair. “Sometimes I think they just want us to leave,” he said. His face was invisible in the blackened tent. “I am getting tired of telling mothers and fathers that they have lost their sons.”

There were ugly moments and there were hopeful ones, and they made me wonder not only what the Americans were doing to Iraq, but what Iraq was doing to the Americans. The struggle for the country was mirrored in the hearts of the men. Sassaman himself sometimes seemed like two people, the visionary American officer setting up a city council, and the warrior who took too much joy in the brutalites of his job.

“It’s like Jekyll and Hyde out here,” Sassaman told me after the Balad City Council meeting. “By day, we are putting on a happy face. By night, we are hunting down and killing our enemies.”

At dawn the morning after the council meeting, Sassaman led his 1-8 battalion on a series of house-to-house searches in Abu Shakur, a Sunni village outside Balad. Sassaman’s men had been taking mortar fire from the palm groves near the town, and the colonel was determined to stop it.

That morning, the battalion’s men swept into Abu Shakur and, without warning, began to kick down doors. House after house, the soldiers poured in with their rifles ready to shoot. They rousted men from their beds and pulled them outside, many of them still in their pajamas and underwear, their wives and children looking on in horror. “Get down and don’t move,” one of the soldiers growled at an Iraqi man.

In a raid on a particularly large house, the soldiers dashed inside, pulling mattresses off bedframes and clothing from closets, throwing lamps and cushions onto the floor. The soldiers pulled eleven Iraqi men outside, forcing them to sit on their haunches with their hands behind their heads. As they crashed through the house, a young woman stood with three small girls, probably her daughters, each with her hands high in the air. The Americans found no weapons. The Iraqi men squatted outside for half an hour, the unhappiness etched on their faces. “I feel bad for these people, I really do,” Sergeant Eric Brown said to me, standing over the Iraqi men. “It’s so hard to separate the good from the bad.”

By midmorning, Sassaman’s battalion had searched seventy homes in Abu Shakur and questioned dozens of men, but netted not a single gun nor a single suspect. If you multiplied the raid on Abu Shakur a thousand times, it was not difficult to conclude that the war was being lost: however many Iraqis opposed them before the Americans came into the village, dozens and dozens more did by the time they left. The Americans were making enemies faster than they could kill them.

Later in the day, I drove with Sassaman into the countryside again, this time to a meeting of Sunni clerics at a mosque outside Balad. As we bounced along in the Humvee, Sassaman said he was reconsidering his policy of spending the bulk of his reconstruction money in Shiite Balad. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, had begun a week before, and Sassaman had recently proposed a truce to the Sunni sheikhs: he would scale back the number of American patrols in the Sunni villages as long as his men did not come under attack. So far, the truce was holding. “There hasn’t been a mortar attack in three weeks,” Sassaman told me as we rolled up to a mosque. “We’re going to give the people here a chance to do the right thing.” I could sense the hardness in his voice.

The Sunni imams had gathered in the courtyard of the mosque, most of them seated in the grass. They smiled at Sassaman and shook his hand. Sitting before them, Sassaman asked the imams how they were faring. One by one, they aired their complaints, nearly all of them identical: young Sunni men were being roughed up and detained by American soldiers because of the misdeeds of a handful of troublemakers whose identities none of them knew.

“We are trying to calm the people down, but it is difficult,” Sheikh Mushtaq Hamid told Sassaman. Hamid was dressed in a red-and-white-checked kafiya and a brown robe. “The situation is unsettled.

“From time to time some of our people are attacked by American soldiers,” the sheikh went on. “They are being detained with no evidence. Sometimes the parents are not even informed of what has happened to their son.”

Sassaman sat quietly. I thought of the raids in Abu Shakur a few hours before. The sheikhs were frank, but they were not angry.

“Colonel Sassaman, you must understand,” Hamid said. “There is some suspicion. Before the war, the American way of life was the democratic way. Everyone knew this. And when the Americans invaded Iraq, they were not democratic with the Iraqi people. You cannot accuse innocent people.”

Less than three weeks before, Hamid said, the Americans had come down his street and detained sixteen men without cause, including the sheikh himself.

“There was no evidence against me,” Hamid said, pointing at himself with his fingers. “They pulled my beard. They cuffed my hands behind my back and blindfolded me.”

Sassaman listened to Hamid’s complaints, but he didn’t address them. I wasn’t surprised. The grievances being voiced by the imams were genuine. But if you happened to be an American officer presiding over an occupation, they were one-sided: the imams weren’t offering Sassaman any help whatsoever.

“Who is attacking my men?” Sassaman asked.

“Foreign people,” one of the imams replied. “People from the outside. People from Ramadi.”

Sassaman carried on, coming to the point of his visit.

“Thank you for being peaceful of late,” Sassaman said. “We have some money, and we would like to help you make some improvements on your mosques. We’d like to do some building.”

The imams perked up. At last the conversation gathered speed. Sassaman and the imams began talking specifics, this mosque and that, $ 300 for a roof, $ 100 for a door. Then the subject turned to schools. Sassaman’s men had paid for about 60 to be repainted so far; about 120 remained.

“We have schools, but no desks, no books,” said one of the clerics, Muhata. “Also the irrigation system is destroyed. We need water for our fields. What about that?”

“Well,” Sassaman said, leaning back, “if I were in charge, and I guess I am, I’d say, Water for everyone!”

The imams laughed. The climate had changed. It seemed a kind of game now: Sassaman promising and half promising, the imams indulging him with a smile. The colonel changed the subject.

“Have any of you seen Saddam Hussein?” he asked.

The imams shook their heads and smiled again.

“If you find him, I can assure you, you won’t have any more problems with your schools,” the colonel said. “You’ll have more money than you can spend. Anything you want.”

The imams laughed again; but why, exactly, was unclear. They led Sassaman to his Humvee and bid him a warm goodbye.

The next day, as I prepared to leave Balad, Sassaman told me he had been ordered to dispatch one of his companies to Samarra, a violent city twenty miles to the north. With the exception of Falluja, Samarra was the hardest, meanest city in all of Iraq. It was slipping from American control. Sassaman was excited about the mission; he invited me to go along. Come back in a couple of weeks, he said. He smiled as he spoke. His eyes were glowing.

“We are going to inflict extreme violence.”

SASSAMAN WAS STANDING at a checkpoint, waving back a crowd of unhappy men. He was holding up an identification card, which he was now requiring for all the men of Abu Hishma, at the entrance to which he now stood. The Iraqis pushed and surged.

“If you have one of these cards, you can come and go,” Sassaman said over the crowd. “If you don’t have one of these cards, you can’t.”

Some of the men tried to enter the village, and they were blocked by American soldiers.

“You will not enter until you get a card,” Sassaman told them. “Thank you.”

Abu Hishma, a Sunni village of about seven thousand, was encased by razor wire. The wire was laid out in big, rolling hoops, one on top of the other, stretching for two miles, along the road and through the date groves and all the way to the banks of the Tigris. Along the way, signs were posted warning the locals against trying to pass through the fence.

“This fence is here for your protection,” one of the signs said. “Do not approach or try to cross or you will be shot.”

Sassaman was directing the Iraqis to a brick shed where his soldiers were issuing the ID cards. Inside, an American soldier stood with a camera, taking a mug shot. Before him stood an Iraqi man, holding up two pieces of paper, one in each hand, to make his ID number, 2 and 02. A line of men waited outside.

“Where is the Iraqi freedom?” Faiz Musla, forty-six, a father of eight, said as he walked out of the shack. “We are just like the people in the Gaza Strip.”

A young man handed me his card. It showed his unsmiling face; his name, Mohin Hussein; his number, 284; and the make of his car, a 1981 white Toyota. “Abu Hishma Resident ID,” the card said in English. Not a word was in Arabic.

Only a month had passed since I’d last been here, but both Sassaman and the surrounding area seemed different. Sassaman was a harder man, without the lightness or humor he’d shown before. The eyes that glittered were now mostly dull. The insurgency, then a simmering threat, had bloomed into a full-blown rebellion. As Sassaman had promised, he had scaled back the number of patrols in the Sunni countryside. The insurgents had used the pause to organize and step up their attacks. It was happening not just around Balad, but across the entire Sunni heartland.

Mortar fire was coming into Sassaman’s base regularly. Homemade bombs were exploding under the roads, under dead animals. The IEDs were getting bigger and more sophisticated: a typical roadside bomb now consisted of a stack of antitank mines triggered by a call from a cell phone. And the insurgents had money, more than the Americans. Captain Alex Williams, the battalion’s intelligence officer, told me the insurgents had put a $ 50,000 bounty on Sassaman’s head, and smaller ones on his subordinate officers. They were paying kids $ 300 each to lay a roadside bomb.

The breaking point for Sassaman had come two weeks before, on November 17. A group of his soldiers was on patrol, driving a pair of Bradley personnel carriers down the two-lane road near the entrance to Abu Hishma. A group of Iraqi kids started taunting the soldiers, running their fingers across their necks. The kids knew what was coming next. A couple of seconds later, a group of insurgents fired a volley of rocket-propelled grenades. One of them pierced the front of one of the Bradleys and sailed into the chest of Dale Panchot, a twenty-six-year-old staff sergeant from Northome, Minnesota. It nearly cut him in half.

The next morning, Sassaman’s men swept through the village kicking down doors, throwing Iraqis to the ground, leading young men away. In the ensuing days Sassaman called in airstrikes on houses suspected of sheltering insurgents; his tanks bulldozed others. He fired phosphorous rounds into wheat fields where insurgents had set up mortars, burning them to the ground. And they began wrapping Abu Hishma in razor wire. “We’ve been wreaking havoc,” Captain Todd Brown told me.

I’d heard about the troubles in Abu Hishma and drove north with Ashley Gilbertson, the photographer. Still in our car, we came upon Abu Hishma, encased in razor wire. The checkpoint did indeed look like something in the West Bank. We spotted a group of American soldiers and pulled over. Sassaman was one of them. They were standing over an Iraqi man. It was an interrogation.

“If you weren’t here, we would beat the shit out of this guy,” one of the soldiers said.

Sassaman was looking for the men who killed Panchot and he thought he’d found one. The man was wearing a sportshirt that said “Opel” on it. The soldiers yanked it up over his head, revealing a bandaged wound on the man’s back.

“Football,” the man said through his upturned shirt.

“That’s a bullet wound,” Sassaman said, and they led the man away.

The next morning, as I watched Sassaman explain the new ID cards to the Iraqis, I slipped past the front gate and into the village itself. Abu Hishma was a drab collection of low-slung buildings, one of the innumerable farm towns that dotted the banks of the Tigris.

The streets were silent. Bulldozed houses lay in rubble. Graffiti covered the walls that were still standing. “We’ll sacrifice our blood and souls for Saddam,” said one. There wasn’t any question that this was a stronghold for the insurgency. But there were old ladies and kids walking around, too. A group of young men watched me from inside a ruined house.

I walked over to three men sitting on a curb.

“This is absolutely humiliating,” said one of them, Yasin Mustafa, a thirty-nine-year-old primary-school teacher. “We are like birds in a cage.”

Sassaman and his men were sweeping Abu Hishma every night, the men said, taking away young men, sometimes all the males in a single family. They cuffed them, they put bags over their heads. The young men were disappearing into American detention camps without a word. “Even women, even children—suddenly, when the women are sleeping,” one of the men said. Among those detained, the men said, were several local police officers and Fahim Mohammad, a member of the city council.

What the Iraqi men were saying mirrored the new American approach then unfolding across the Sunni Triangle. Confronted by an insurgency they had not anticipated, American commanders had ordered a crackdown across the Sunni heartland. Almost immediately the get-tough tactics brought the violence down. Prisons like Abu Ghraib swelled with new arrivals. But the tactics, even as they were restoring a measure of calm, were intensifying the hatred the Sunnis already felt for the Americans.

Now, the three Iraqi men told me, Abu Hishma was under a fifteen-hour curfew, beginning at five o’clock in the afternoon and lasting until eight o’clock the next morning. That meant none of Abu Hishma’s people could go to the mosque for morning or evening prayers. And it meant they could no longer sit in their cars to buy gasoline, a daily ordeal for Iraqis that usually lasted well into the night.

I asked them about Sassaman.

“All the people know him,” said Ra’ad Daoud, one of the men. “He is a war criminal. He has killed children. He is the commander who bombed four houses in Abu Hishma. In one of those houses there were seven children; two of them were injured. He has taken our sheikhs to jail. He came into Abu Hishma and he said to us, There is no God—I am God here.”

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I wasn’t sure how much to believe. Then an elderly man, Hamjir Thamir Rabia, spoke up: “At night, when the mothers of Abu Hishma put their boys to sleep, they tell them they had better be good. Or Colonel Sassaman will come to get them.”

I walked out of the village, through the gate, to the astonishment of the American soldiers on the outside. “Those people are wild in there,” Captain Brown told me, looking over my shoulder.

Sassaman was still directing traffic at the checkpoint and I pulled him aside. Most of what he was doing—bulldozing homes, calling in airstrikes, capturing families, encasing the village in razor wire—had been approved or ordered by his commanders, he said. Wrapping Abu Hishma wasn’t his idea; it was his commander’s. Even so, Sassaman believed he had no other choice. “I’ve told the people here, when they turn over the guys that killed Panchot, I’ll remove the fence. Otherwise it stays.”

Only eight months had passed since Saddam’s regime fell, but it seemed a lifetime away. Later that day, I asked Sassaman if he wasn’t alienating anyone in Abu Hishma who might have been willing to help. To the contrary, he said. “I think we are close,” he said. “With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.”

I asked him if he really meant that. Fear and violence?

“The good people we can bring around,” Sassaman said. “But the bad guys—they have to be convinced that there is a price to pay for opposing us.”

Some of Sassaman’s soldiers had begun throwing around a phrase, “the Arab mind,” which they had picked up from a pseudoscientific book by the same name that was popular among American officers. One of them was Captain Brown. In the raids on Abu Shakur two months before, I had watched as Brown had stopped to give an ad hoc English lesson to a group of Iraqi schoolgirls. The girls had looked at him as if he were some great god. “You’ve got to understand the Arab mind,” Brown told me outside the gates of Abu Hishma. “The only thing they understand is force—force, pride and saving face.”

Of course, like all such generalizations, this one had some truth to it. Even with the village of Abu Hishma in full revolt, some of the locals still retained their sycophantic ways in the presence of an absolute leader. With the cars of Abu Hishma rolling through the checkpoint, an old man walked up to Sassaman and showed him his ID card. Sassaman waved him through, but the old man stayed back. He was trembling in Sassaman’s presence, but he wasn’t backing down.

“Colonel Sassaman, you should come and live in this village and be a sheikh,” the man, Hassan Ali al-Tai, told the colonel.

Sassaman gave him a smile, and Tai looked at me.

“Colonel Sassaman is a very good man,” Tai said. “If he got rid of the barbed wire and the checkpoint, everyone would love him.”

SASSAMAN WALKED INTO the Starbucks in downtown Colorado Springs wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. He’d just come from running a 10 K race with his ten-year-old daughter, Nicole. After so much time away, Sassaman was amazed by how fast his daughter had become, and how competitive. “You should see her,” Sassaman said, beaming with a father’s pride. “She really has the infantryman in her. I don’t know where she got that.”

He was looking for a job. Home Depot was dangling an executive position, and that paid a lot of money. But there was a clinic that trained high school football coaches that was ready to bring him in. Sassaman said he hadn’t made up his mind yet, but he was leaning toward coaching, even though it paid far less. “I feel like I should give something back to society,” Sassaman told me. “I know this is weird—does this sound weird? I just want to work with young kids, be able to mentor coaches. Just touch people, let them know that life is fragile, that it’s fleeting. And sometimes, incredibly unfair.”

Sassaman was leaving the army. His career was finished. He was lucky, all things considered, that he had stayed out of jail.

I might have guessed that something like this was coming, though I had missed the moment itself. It happened on a January night, about a month after I’d last seen him, at the foot of a bridge on the banks of the Tigris.

A group of Sassaman’s men had been on patrol in Samarra when they spotted a couple of Iraqis driving around past curfew. The soldiers stopped the men, who happened to be cousins, searched their truck and found a heap of bathroom fixtures. They told the Iraqis to hurry home. Then, as the two men started to leave, the soldiers stopped them again. This time, the Americans cuffed the two Iraqis, whose names were Marwan and Zaydoon Fadil, put them in the hull of their Bradley and took them to a spot on the Tigris.

It was a dark and frigid January night. The soldiers motioned with their guns. Jump, they told them. Marwan and Zaydoon resisted, even begged. Finally they went into the water, and the Americans drove away.

“It was a dumb call,” Sassaman said, nursing his coffee.

Pushing people into the Tigris at night, I now learned, was one of a number of punishments Sassaman’s men had dreamed up to discipline the Iraqis who had gone completely out of control. That is, discipline the Iraqis without killing them. They called it “nonlethal force.” Sassaman approved of some of the measures, disapproved of others. He claimed not to know about what his kids called “getting people wet.”

Nonlethal force: it wasn’t so hard to understand. By the fall of 2003, the Sunni heartland was in open revolt. It wasn’t just that the insurgents were killing American soldiers. It was that the civilians were defying the Americans in every way they could. Whenever Sassaman’s soldiers entered a village, children threw rocks. Adults threw rocks. People, sometimes entire villages, defied the curfew. When the Americans drove onto a street, the locals would give them the middle finger. They would drag their fingers across their necks. “If I didn’t do anything when a guy flipped me off,” one of Sassaman’s men told me in Colorado Springs, “then the next time you drive around there, you are going to catch an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade].”

To bring the Iraqis back under control, Sassaman and his men devised a range of “nonlethal” punishments. They thought it was cutting-edge stuff. Some of it was. When kids threw rocks at Sassaman’s soldiers, he ordered his men to throw rocks back. When a kid in Abu Hishma ran his finger across his neck in front of one of Sassaman’s captains, Matthew Cunningham, he chased the kid in his Bradley, plowed through a village wall and pulled the kid out of the house. When Sassaman’s soldiers caught Iraqis violating curfew, they drove them miles outside of town, dropped them off and made them walk home. When they found anti-American graffiti, they bulldozed the wall it was painted on. Nothing terribly brutal—not in the beginning, anyway.

“All I was getting at was, if grown-ups throw rocks at me, we’re throwing them back,” Sassaman said to me. “We are not going to just wave. We are not driving by and taking it. Because a lot of the units did.”

By the time he ended his tour in Iraq, the insurgents had come to fear Sassaman more than anyone else. Whenever he left Balad, even for a couple of days, the insurgents would step up their attacks. When he returned, they would back off. Once, after Sassaman returned from a mission in Samarra, insurgents fired a single mortar round into his compound, as if to welcome him back. He responded by firing twenty-eight 155 -millimeter artillery shells and forty-two mortar rounds. He called in two airstrikes, one with a 500 -pound bomb and the other with a 2,000 -pound bomb. Later on, his men found a crater as deep as a swimming pool.

“You know what?” Sassaman told me at the Starbucks. “We just didn’t get hit after that.”

But for all of that, Sassaman told me, the situation in the Sunni villages kept getting worse. One day, during the middle of his tour, his commander, Major General Raymond Odierno, flew to the local HQ and gave Sassaman a direct but curiously vague order: “Increase lethality.” Kill more people, the general told him. Odierno didn’t tell Sassaman how; he just wanted higher body counts. So Sassaman’s men started experimenting—sometimes with the colonel’s approval, sometimes not.

Sassaman claimed he never knew about Iraqis being pushed into the Tigris. In this case, the problem came when the Fadil family told the Americans that Marwan, one of the two cousins who’d been forced into the Tigris that night, had climbed out of the water, while the other, Zaydoon, had drowned.

When the American investigators arrived, Sassaman ordered his men to lie. “I told my guys to tell them about everything—everything except the water,” Sassaman told me. At this point, we’d moved from the Starbucks to a Chipotle burrito restaurant, in a strip shopping center on the other side of Colorado Springs. Sassaman didn’t seem especially sorry.

“I could have turned them all in and sent them to jail and gone back to the base and that would have been it,” Sassaman said, echoing what he told a judge. “But I wasn’t going to let the lives of my men be destroyed. Not because they pushed a couple of insurgents into a pond.”

A couple of weeks after the incident at the river, an Iraqi search party found a body floating facedown in an irrigation canal off the Tigris. It was about a mile from the spot where the soldiers had made Marwan and Zaydoon jump in. Before I flew to Colorado Springs to see Sassaman, I’d watched a brief, badly lit video of a funeral. The Fadil family said it was Zaydoon’s. The video showed a waterlogged cadaver covered in a shroud. The cloth was peeled back, revealing a wrinkly face. “Focus on the eyes,” a voice said over the video. Zaydoon’s family said they’d buried the body the day it was found.

A group of American investigators never determined whether the body was actually Zaydoon’s, or whether he’d just faked his drowning to cause a stir in the United States. At the trial of one of Sassaman’s soldiers, some of his comrades who witnessed the incident testified that they had watched both Zaydoon and Marwan climb out of the Tigris. Some of them said they’d seen Marwan get out—not Zaydoon. The Americans wanted to exhume and run tests on the body found floating in the Tigris, but the Fadil family was opposed, for religious reasons, they said. There was indeed some evidence to suggest that Zaydoon’s drowning had been faked. An Iraqi informant, for instance, had told an American intelligence officer that Zaydoon was alive and well. But such evidence was naturally incomplete. Sergeant Irene Cintron, an army investigator in the case, told a judge she never had any doubts that Zaydoon had drowned. “I personally believed that the whole chain of command was lying to me,” Cintron said.

And then there was Marwan, the Iraqi survivor. I drove him to the scene near Samarra and stood with him on the bank of the irrigation canal. Beneath us, the water was still. It looked like it would have been easy to jump into the water and climb out. That is, unless it was dark and cold and you swam in the wrong direction. In that case, the gates of the Tharthar Dam were only thirty feet away, pulling the water in at terrifying speed.

“I felt the water dragging me,” Marwan said. “I was thinking of Zaydoon. I was looking at him. The water was so cold. My feet never touched the bottom. I tried to save Zaydoon, but he slipped from my hands.”

In the end, two of Sassaman’s soldiers went to jail. Not for drowning Zaydoon—nobody could prove that—but for pushing him and Marwan into the Tigris. For getting them wet. The irony was not lost on Sassaman, who received a written reprimand, effectively ending his career. “You know what’s strange?” Sassaman said at the Chipotle. “Two Iraqis out after curfew, in a town like Samarra? They could have killed those guys, and they would have gotten medals.”

AFTER THE LUNCH with Sassaman, I drove to the other side of Colorado Springs to meet Ralph Logan. In the sorry case of Marwan and Zaydoon, Logan was the only American who acted with unquestioned honor. Logan, a low-ranking specialist from Indian Lake, Ohio, had been in the Bradley that night when his comrades spotted Marwan and Zaydoon driving around after curfew. He’d helped cuff them. But when his lieutenant ordered him to throw Marwan and Zaydoon into the Tigris, Logan refused. Logan’s commander was angry with him, but he let him stay behind in the road. The other soldiers walked Marwan and Zaydoon down to the riverbank.

I found Logan in the living room of his girlfriend’s home. She was at work and Logan was watching her two young children. The floor was covered in toys and papers and uneaten food. Logan was working day and night then, building houses and tending bar. Like Sassaman, he’d left the army, too. “Basically, the guys in the unit made it clear they didn’t want me around anymore,” Logan said.

I asked him about the night on the Tigris. Logan spoke with the faint drawl of his rural Ohio home.

“The best way I can explain it is, it’s like a new kid on the playground,” Logan told me. “Say you’re a fifth grader. You just moved into the school. You’ve got to earn the respect of the other kids. Sometimes that involves throwing down a little bit, so they know they can’t push you around. Personally, the whole incident, I kind of look at it as high schoolers picking on freshmen. Us being the seniors and the Iraqis being the freshmen. We’re throwing them in the river. It was like giving someone a swirly.”

What’s a swirly? I asked Logan. We were seated on the floor with the toys.

“When you turn the kid upside down and throw his head down in the toilet and flush it.”

Logan laughed a little.

“They weren’t meaning for anyone to drown.”

What about Sassaman? I asked him.

“There is the white, the right way, and the black, the wrong way. And there is a large, gray middle—the gray area in the middle where most of the shit gets done,” Logan said. “Sassaman liked to play in the gray. You know, Charlie-Mike. Continue Mission. Finish the mission. That was his philosophy. His company commanders did not have to call him to ask permission to do things if it was a life-or-limb situation. He left it in their hands. They are trained officers, trained soldiers. He trusted their judgment. And when they did something, he backed them up on it. Or he turned a blind eye to it.”

We started talking about Iraq. Logan shook his head.

“The culture there, I just—whoa,” he said. “They sat there with their hand out and saying, Help us, please help us. And then in the other hand, they are holding an M-16 behind their back, waiting for us to turn around and shoot us.”

Two years later, after I returned to the United States, I decided to track Logan down. I had some difficulty at first. It turned out he had left Colorado Springs and gone back to his boyhood home in Indian Lake. His grandmother was dying, and Logan wanted to spend the last weeks with her. On the night of September 10, 2006, Logan walked into the lobby of the Comfort Inn motel and robbed the attendant at knifepoint. Then Logan drove to his mother’s home. He left the $ 4,000 he got from the hotel in a bag in the car. He didn’t try to flee. He didn’t hide the money. Three days later, a police officer came to the house; he and Logan had gone to the same high school. Logan had been waiting for him. He confessed on the spot. He got two years in prison. His mother, Nancy, visits him twice a month. He is hoping to be a truck driver when he gets out, she said. She told me she’d never heard about Marwan and Zaydoon.

“I wonder every day if something happened while he was over there,” she said.

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