Military history

CHAPTER 11

Pearland

TWILIGHT in Falluja. A yellow veil descended over the ruined city. Domes of mosques slouched in their wreckage. Apartments, split apart, surrendered their interiors. Minarets lay snapped at the stem. A handful of marines stood on the roof of a three-story building, trading shots with insurgents through the haze. A bullet whizzed past Sergeant Eric Brown and smashed a window behind him.

“God I hate this place, the way the sun sets,” Brown said, wiping blood from his lip. He fired into the street.

Looking over Brown’s shoulder I saw a black flag. There was no fanfare. It just appeared, a half-mile to the south, flapping from the top of a water tower. Brown’s eyes were elsewhere.

“I don’t see anything moving down there,” he said.

Then a second black flag went up, this one over an apartment building.

“What the hell is that?” Brown said.

The black flags flapped in silence. The marines eyed each other and said nothing and started down the stairs. They gathered in a column and walked in silence down an alley. They were heading toward the flags.

It was the third day of the assault on Falluja, the jihadi safe-haven west of Baghdad. Six thousand marines and soldiers were moving into the city on foot. The unit I was with, Bravo Company, comprised 150 marines; they were at the point of the attack, at the front and in the middle. Their goal was to sweep from the northern edge of Falluja to its southern end three miles away where it emptied into the desert. On their way the Americans could kill any insurgent they found. So far, the guerrillas were proving to be spectral beings: shooting and running, vanishing and appearing, falling back and falling back. Drawing us in.

image

The marines walked quietly down the alley, the only sound the clink of their gear.

A voice came over the radio.

“Enemy truck approaching your position, a white truck,” the voice said.

We walked some more and the radio crackled again.

“You’ve got a second truck headed your way,” the voice said. “Get ready.”

Now at least we knew what the black flags were for. The insurgents had spotted us, and they were signaling their friends to come: Come to the fight. It’s here.

A moment later the alley ahead exploded in gunfire. We leaped to the walls on each side. The radio crackled a third time.

“You’ve got a group of about forty insurgents coming your way,” the voice said.

The radio was being handled by Captain Omohundro, the thirty-four-year-old Texas native who was Bravo’s commander. In the first two days of the battle, Omohundro had moved his company through the warrens and back alleys of the city with great skill, but not without cost. Two of his men were dead.

Omohundro picked out a row of houses and Bravo Company turned. We walked into a street flooded with an inexplicable black oil and passed a burning car. Its molten upholstery popped and gasped in the fire.

“There’s an attack coming,” Omohundro said to one of his lieutenants.

Omohundro pointed to a house. His voice was low but he spoke quickly. When the gate refused to budge, Omohundro ordered one of his men to open it with a rocket. We poured inside and waited. Nothing. We waited in silence as the sun set. The stillness outside seemed the measure of our ignorance. The insurgents were coming, and now they were not. They were watching us.

After an hour, in the darkness, Bravo Company filed out of the house. We split into three groups; I went with Omohundro and the first platoon. I was still thinking of the black flags, now invisible in the darkness.

The column clanked and clinked in the darkness. Above us, the lights of the jets blinked and fluttered. In the first days of the battle I’d found my only peace shadowing Omohundro’s every step. In the night’s inky blackness, I could no longer see him; there wasn’t enough light to make out his stubby form. It was an odd thing about leadership; people talked about it and CEOs wrote books about it. But there was nothing like facing death to feel it in the flesh. It was as if Omohundro wore a mask, and with that mask he gave everyone more courage than they knew they had. The trick was never showing fear. “It’s not like I don’t feel it,” Omohundro told me in a quiet moment. “But if I ever showed it, the whole thing would fall apart.”

We walked down a street that felt like a cave when gunfire and screaming rose ahead. The column froze. Then more gunfire sounded and a second man screamed. Omohundro’s shadow disappeared as he ran to the front.

Word traveled quickly back. It was Private Andrew Russell, his right leg nearly severed. The bone was protruding from his leg. He was carried away screaming. Corporal Nathan Anderson was dead. He was a lanky kid from a small town in Ohio who was always taking his buddies’ spare change to raise money for his sister’s college tuition. A few days before, after we’d run through machine-gun fire to cross 40th Street, Anderson had braved gunfire to go back and rescue his friends. Anderson’s buddies did the same here, charging into the gunfire to get him. He’d died in their arms.

Anderson and Russell had been walking point when they’d turned up an alley. Just ahead they’d spotted a group of men dressed in Iraqi National Guard uniforms, marked with the red-and-white tape the Americans had handed out before the battle had begun to set them apart. The red tape would go on the shoulder, the white on the leg. In the alley, the Americans caught the glimmer of the red and white. Anderson’s point man waved. The guys in the Iraqi uniforms opened fire. Then they disappeared.

Were they insurgents? Or Iraqi soldiers? Often there was no difference. Iraqi soldiers weren’t supposed to be out here, not at night. Whatever assurances were coming from Washington about Iraqis taking over the burden from the Americans, in Falluja the fiction was dispensed with. It was an American fight.

Gunfights were breaking out on both ends of the column. Bullets zipped past. I knelt against a wall, pushing on it for maximum cover, when the marine in front shoved me out of the way. I got down lower, like I was trying to hide.

A flare floated into our ranks and gunfire exploded everywhere. It was an insurgent flare—the marines had night-vision goggles—and the insurgents were using the flares to shoot at us. The flare lit the alley like it was high noon. It floated on a tiny parachute, taking its time to land, while bullets pinged off the bricks above our heads. The marines fired until the sky went black again.

With Omohundro occupied, the platoon’s lieutenant, Andy Eckert, began to panic. Eckert, who was twenty-three, was tough and resourceful, but he barely reached the shoulders of some of the men in his charge. When Eckert heaped all his gear on his body, seventy pounds of it, he looked wider than he was tall.

In his panic, Eckert began leading the platoon back and forth between two houses. It made no sense. No sense at all.

“This way!” Eckert said. “Follow me.” And the kids followed.

“No, this way,” and the platoon turned in the darkness.

“No, here. Here!”

I couldn’t see Eckert but I could sense that he was cracking. In the alley, his men began to argue.

“What the fuck are we doing?” someone asked.

“Shut the fuck up,” came the answer.

“We’re running around like chickens,” someone else said.

I started to say something.

“You—keep your fucking mouth shut; you’re not part of this unit,” one of the kids said to me.

At last Omohundro returned; disorder and mutiny receded.

Omohundro stood over Eckert in the blackened alley, away from the others. Exhausted by his own exertions, Eckert was nodding and breathing hard. Omohundro spoke quietly, almost in a whisper.

“Do you want me to take over?” Omohundro said.

Eckert said nothing.

“Do you want me to take over?” Omohundro repeated.

“No, sir, I can handle it,” Eckert said.

A couple of tanks came to our rescue. The M-1 s were too wide to pass through most of Falluja’s streets; our street was just wide enough. We tucked in behind them and moved slowly behind their clankings. As we did, rocket-propelled grenades whizzed out of the darkness, striking the M-1 s and exploding but doing no harm. Whoosh-bang, like a fireworks show. Whoosh-bang.

The real weirdness was circling above. The night sky echoed with pops and pings, the invisible sounds of frantic action. Most were being made by the AC-130 gunships, whose propellers were putting out a reassuring hum. But over the droning came stranger sounds: the plane’s Gatling gun let out long, deep burps at volumes that were symphonic. Its 105 mm cannon made a popping sound, the same as you would hear from a machine that served tennis balls. A pop! followed by a boom! Pop-boom. And then there was the insect buzz of the ScanEagle, the pilotless airplane that hovered above us and beamed images back to base. It was as if we were witnessing the violent struggles of an entire ecosystem, a clash of airborne nocturnal beasts we could not see.

The third platoon turned into a walled compound, which held a two-story house and a front yard with grass. After the trauma of Anderson and Russell, we were looking for a place to sleep. The guys walking point kicked down the door and went inside to clear the house. Through the windows I followed their flashlights as they moved upstairs. Then came an enormous boom, a bright flash and a scream. A grenade.

“My face! My face!” a marine yelled.

“No! No! No!”

I stood in the yard as the marines carried out the wounded on their backs. With just enough light to see, I could make out their silhouettes. One of them was Jake Knospler, a kid from Pennsylvania, and he was silent as if he were dead. Jake’s cot had been next to mine in the barracks before the battle. He was the platoon’s unofficial disc jockey. On a large boombox he kept next to his cot, Jake played mostly Johnny Cash, “Ring of Fire” his favorite. Jake even sort of looked like Johnny Cash, big, square jaw. Which was blown off by the grenade.

Months later, after the battle, Ashley Gilbertson and I traveled to Jacksonville, North Carolina, for a memorial service for the 1/8 battalion, which included Bravo Company. Jacksonville is a small town that lives off Camp Lejeune, a big marine base. Driving in from the airport, Ash and I stopped at a restaurant where we ate catfish and hush puppies and washed them down with sweet tea. The restaurant backed up on a pond.

I’d been expecting a ceremony and a parade and a band, with a lot of American flags and a cheering crowd. As it happened the ceremony was held inside a gymnasium on the base called the Goettge Memorial Field House. When I arrived, the gym was about a third full, mostly with members of the battalion and their girlfriends and wives. There wasn’t anybody from the town, as far as I could tell, no reporters from the local paper and no band. About half of the gym’s bleachers remained tucked in place against the walls. The guys from Bravo were dressed in their tan uniforms, the same ones they’d worn in Iraq, not their dress blues.

From my spot in the bleachers halfway up, I scanned Bravo’s ranks. I looked first for Jake Knospler but did not see him. He survived, it turned out; doctors had begun performing the first of what would be twenty-two surgeries on his face and other parts. I spotted a guy seated in the front row. They’d put him on the floor so he wouldn’t have to climb the bleachers. A metal brace encased his leg. The brace was so large and it stuck out so far that it resembled the scaffolding on a building. Or a bird-cage. It belonged to Andrew Russell, whose screams I’d heard in the alley that night. He was moving very slowly, but the leg was his.

MORNINGS WERE THE HARDEST, the combat excepted. There wasn’t any electricity, of course. And there was no more water than what you could carry on your back, so of course showers and coffee were out of the question. After two hours sleeping on a cement floor and a day of combat ahead, coffee was something I thought about. Ashley was similarly needful, but most of the kids were not; their days of coffee still lay ahead of them. So they were happy to oblige us, and every morning when we woke the guys would hand over their packets of Taster’s Choice from their daily prefab rations. Each morning, Ash and I would pull ourselves out of our sleeping bags on whatever rooftop we had slept on—in Falluja, we usually slept on a roof—and gathered our packets of Taster’s Choice and powdered cream and sugar. We’d open our mouths and pour in all three, throw in a little water and violently shake our heads.

Writing was hard, the physical act of it. The light on my laptop would give away our position, so I was permitted to use my laptop only if I crawled into my sleeping bag and zipped it up all the way. Ashley needed more room than a zipped-up bag could offer. Many of the houses in Falluja kept an outhouse on their roof; so Ash would sit in one of those, amid the shit, and send his pictures to New York. I’d sit in the dark on the roof and I’d listen to him cursing the smell from inside the outhouse. I was obsessed by electricity, or, I should say, by the lack of it, by the fear of running out. I had my satellite phone and my laptop to consider and Ash his digital cameras. I brought all sorts of gadgetry to tap whatever source I could find, one of them being the batteries of cars. After the marines had captured the Mohammadiya Mosque, I dashed into the street with my battery clips and converter, the only human as far as I could see, and pried open the hood of a bullet-riddled car. I was worrying about snipers. The car battery was dead. I ran back inside.

Then there was the matter of going to the bathroom. This was no small thing for six thousand marines moving through a city on foot. You couldn’t exactly crap in a field somewhere, even at night, as the insurgents had snipers with very good aim. The toilets didn’t work because the water had been cut off. At the Grand Mosque, one of the places we stopped for a day, the marines used the storage room for the Korans, not out of disrespect for the Korans but for the privacy of the room. The marines put down a bunch of cardboard boxes in there, which were the toilets, and hauled them out when they were overflowing. Enormous, dripping cardboard boxes filled with human shit. Most days, though, traveling through the city, we just used somebody’s bathroom. We’d break into their house and shit in their toilet until it overflowed and then we just used the floor. There’d be piles and piles of the stuff by the time we got going again. Shitting in the house of a person I’d never met—there were worse things that happened in Iraq every day. Still I didn’t feel very good about it.

Once or twice during the battle I used a satellite phone to download my e-mail. Most of the messages came from readers wishing me well. You’ve got balls the size of melons to be there, wrote Joe from Connecticut. I liked that one. Another note came from a music critic at a newspaper in Florida asking for the name of the AC/DC song the marines had blasted that first night. Some of the readers accused me of insufficient patriotism. Hey crap for brains. You are another reason why I canceled my subscription, wrote someone named Andy. The most poignant notes were the ones I got from worried mothers of the marines I traveled with. I got a lot of those. This one came from Peggy Spears of Sugar Land, Texas:

Christopher is a 21 year old Texan. The son of two people that love him more than life itself. He is the LOVE OF MY LIFE. Of course most moms think that but I have the love of this young man in the core of my bones and my love for him embedded in my soul. Can love be any deeper? I think not. If you are assigned to his battalion, please find him, tell him the depth of my love for him. I want him to feel my hugs and kisses each and every moment of every day.

I read the letter and worried for Peggy Spears in the event that Christopher were killed. Then one day while riding in a seven-ton troop carrier I found myself sitting next to Christopher himself. I told him I’d heard from his mother and he shot me a funny look but he paid attention when I turned my laptop on. It had just enough juice for him to read the whole thing. Christopher tried not to smile, but his buddies razzed him and laughed.

We had a lot of downtime. Usually, if we weren’t working, Ash and I would sit around and talk with the kids. At first they were suspicious; mainly, I think, because they were afraid we’d slow them down. But the wariness disappeared after the first day. We had become part of the team. I knew they would save me if I got in trouble. (And in fact they did.) “You a reporter?” one of them would ask, and we’d sit down and have a conversation. Ashley had an instant rapport, warmer than mine. They loved his Australian accent, loved the cigarettes he shared, loved the cameras he let them tinker with. I felt self-conscious of my age and my profession and my education, that they would think me an impostor who couldn’t tell one end of a gun from another. Once, at the request of Staff Sergeant Brown, I called my office on the satellite phone to get the most recent NASCAR standings. I was able to tell the sergeant that Kurt Busch was in front in the Nextel Cup Series, edging out Jimmie Johnson, who held a small lead over Jeff Gordon. I got a lot of points for that.

Usually I would ask them where they were from. It was almost always some place I’d never heard of. Pearland, Texas. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Starkville, Mississippi. “Where’s that?” I’d say, and they’d light up a cigarette. One afternoon I sat with Chad Ritchie, a soft-spoken intelligence officer from Keezletown, Virginia. He was twenty-two. When I asked Ritchie what the best thing about growing up in Keezletown was, he didn’t hesitate: “We’d have a bonfire, and back the trucks up on it, and open up the backs, and someone would always have some speakers. We’d drink beer, tell stories.”

Like many of the kids in Bravo Company, Corporal Ritchie joined the marines because he yearned for an adventure larger than Keezletown could offer.

“The guys who stayed, they’re all living with their parents, making $ 7 an hour,” Ritchie said. “I’m not going to be one of those people who gets old and says, I wish I had done this. I wish I had done that. Every once in a while, you’ve got to do something hard, do something you’re not comfortable with. A person needs a gut check.”

They might have been kids, but they were leaner and tougher than their counterparts in Manhattan and Santa Monica. Bravo Company’s three platoon leaders, each responsible for the lives of fifty men, were twenty-three and twenty-four years old. Some of Bravo Company’s best soldiers, like Lance Corporal Bradley Parker, were nineteen. Sometimes they wrestled over the packets of M&Ms that came in their rations. They sang together the songs they knew. One of them was “Copenhagen,” a country music ditty named for a brand of chewing tobacco that they bought almost to a man at the base PX:

Copenhagen, what a wad of flavor

Copenhagen, you can see it in my smile

Copenhagen, hey do yourself a favor, dip

Copenhagen, it drives the cowgirls wild.

One night when we were camped out in an Iraqi National Guard building we came under heavy mortar fire. These were giant mortars, 120 s, and the first shells fell close enough to shake the walls. Then came another and another, a ping signaling a launch, then a long silence and then a boom. The windows shattered and the ceiling caved in and the walls began to teeter. I lay on the floor and waited to die. And in the silence between the ping and the explosion I began to hear the murmur of prayers. After thirty explosions the shelling stopped.

All the guys had a story like that, at least the ones who lived. Out there, the boundary between life and death shrank so much that it was little more than a membrane, thin and clear. With hardly a step you could pass from life into death—and sometimes, it seemed, from death back to life. Anthony Silva was one of the men who dashed into 40th Street that day when all the gunfire was crisscrossing in the street. A bullet hit him in the back. Silva fell on his face, thinking of his daughter, Audrey, thinking he would die. But the bullet had hit his backpack, cut through the journal that he carried with him and broken a packet of Saltines. It stopped at his Kevlar plate. “I thought the bullet went through,” Silva said. He was twenty-two.

I remembered each of them by something they carried or something they said. Corporal Romulo Jimenez, twenty-one, from Bellington, West Virginia, had flames tattooed on his arms. Jimenez talked mostly about his 1992 Ford Mustang and how he was going to take it to hot rod shows when the war was done. The day after the marines had captured the Mohammadiya Mosque, Romulo was shot in the spine. He died. Sergeant Lonny Wells was a cardplayer, Texas hold ’em his favorite, and he laughed when he took his buddies’ money. He died crossing 40th Street on the first morning of the attack. “He knew all the probabilities,” Corporal Gentian Marku said a few days after Wells died. Marku, an Albanian kid who came to the United States at fourteen, was shot a week later, on Thanksgiving Day. He died, too.

There wasn’t any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers, after all. They could hit a guy at five hundred yards or cut his throat from ear-to-ear. And they didn’t ask a lot of questions. They had faith, they did what they were told and they killed people. Sometimes I got frustrated with them; sometimes I wished they asked more questions. But things were complicated out there in Keezletown and Punxsutawney; they were complicated in Falluja. Out there in Falluja, in the streets, I was happy they were in front of me.

One afternoon, while Bravo Company hunkered down at the Grand Mosque in downtown Falluja, I climbed into the rafters and sat with the snipers. One of them was Corporal Nick Ziolkowski. His friends called him Ski. He’d been on the roof for several hours, looking through the scope on his bolt-action M-40, waiting for guerrillas to step into his sights. The scope was big and wide, and sometimes Ski removed his helmet to get a better view. He had three kills for the day.

Tall, good-looking and gregarious, Ski was one of Bravo’s most popular soldiers. Unlike most snipers, who typically learned to shoot while growing up in the countryside, Ski was raised near Baltimore, unfamiliar with guns. Though Baltimore boasted no beachfront, Ski’s passion was surfing; at Camp Lejeune, Bravo Company’s base, he often organized his entire day around the tides. When he got out of the Marines, he was planning on opening a surf shop.

“All I need now is a beach with some waves,” Corporal Ziolkowski told me from his place in the rafters of the mosque. During the break, Ski foretold his death. The snipers, he said, were among the most hunted of Americans. In the first battle for Falluja, seven months before, American snipers had been especially lethal, and intelligence officers had warned Ski that this time he’d likely be a target himself. “They are trying to take us out,” he said.

The bullet, when it came, knocked Ski backward and onto the roof. He had been sitting on the outskirts of the Shuhada neighborhood, an area controlled by insurgents, peering through his wide scope. He had taken off his helmet to get a better view. The bullet hit him in the head.

A SNIPER FIRED into Bravo Company’s ranks.

Crack!

A marine fell.

Then again. Crack!

He was dead. The marines pulled his body as they ran for cover. They chose an abandoned Iraqi National Guard building that fronted Highway 10, the main road into Falluja. Twenty guys ran up to the roof. They set up their machine guns and waited. The sniper fired again. He was in the building across the street, fifty yards away, on the second floor. The flash of a shadow. The marines opened up with everything they had. Aimed, fired, raked and sprayed. Ten seconds. Three thousand shots. Bullet casings in smoking piles. The quickened pulses of young men. Smoke oozing from barrels.

“I don’t see him,” one of them said.

Minutes went by. Cigarettes glowed.

Crack!

A bullet zinged across the rooftop. A shadow passed by a window.

Western side of the building this time, someone said, third floor.

The marines opened fire again. They held their guns steady on the ledge of the rooftop as they let them fly: M-4 s, M-16 s, SAWs, 240 s, M-203 grenade launchers. A blazing symphony.

The building across the street shook and smoked. A fire began on the second floor. The sniper fired. Crack, crack. A muzzle flashed.

“Goddamn you!” someone shouted as the marines fired again.

“We got one guy moving back and forth,” Lieutenant Eckert, one of the platoon leaders, said calmly.

“We may have found him,” another marine said, but everyone kept firing where they were firing.

Eckert stood back from the wall on the roof to get a wider view.

“The idea is, he just sits up there and eats a sandwich, and we go crazy trying to find him,” he said.

The building was a sniper’s heaven; it was long with dozens of windows and many points of view. Three floors. Someone had put cardboard in each of the panes, dozens of cardboard boxes, making it almost impossible to see inside.

The marines kept firing, thousands and thousands of rounds. The barrels of their machine guns glowed and sagged.

“Get me another barrel,” one of the kids said.

More firing commenced.

“I don’t know who he is, but he is very well trained,” said Lieutenant Steven Berch, another one of the platoon leaders.

Omohundro was downstairs. He listened to the commotion and called in an airstrike. “Just blow the building to shit,” he said. First a 2,000 -pound bomb, then a 500 -pounder flew into the building and burst. A cloud unfolded upward and revealed a gigantic fire. It rose through the ruined ceiling. Part of a wall collapsed.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

The marines ducked, cursed loudly and returned fire. No one spotted the sniper this time. The sniper fired back. The marines responded with another blast of gunfire, many thousands of rounds.

I stood with some guys at the back of the roof, behind a shed. A blue and green parakeet fluttered out of the sky and hovered in tight circles. Bullets flew past. The parakeet landed on a slumping power line. The marines stared in amazement.

“Someone’s pet?” a marine said.

I ran across the top of the roof and the sniper took a shot.

Crack!

The bullet whizzed by.

An artillery barrage began. First came the 155 mm shells, each filled with fifty pounds of high explosives. One after the other the shells sailed into the building. Fire swept through the three floors. What was left of the ceiling collapsed in the smoke. Cardboard sailed out of shattered windows. Twenty shells, then thirty, each one large enough to end the world.

The shelling ceased and the shooting stopped. The building burned. Remarkably it still had a frame, and parts of its three floors still stood. Suddenly a sound rustled from a storefront on the first floor. The marines tensed. A cat sauntered out, dirty yellow, tail in the air. It walked like a runway model in front of a construction site.

“Can I shoot it, sir?” a marine asked his squad leader.

“Absolutely not,” came the reply.

Crack! Crack! The sniper. More swearing and more shooting.

After some minutes two M-1 tanks arrived, clanking and smoking.

They leveled their terrible guns. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ten shots. The shock waves bounced off our ears.

Someone pointed and yelled.

“Look!” shouted Corporal Christopher Spears. “He’s on a bike!”

A man pedaled away from the building, away from the marines, in an alley. There was no shot to take; the angle was oblique.

“He’s in the road, he’s in the road!” Eckert yelled. “Shoot him!”

Evening approached. The sun sagged. Six hours had passed since the sniper first fired. The ruins belched smoke and fire. Omohundro sent a squad across the street. They put out clouds of green smoke to cover their advance. No one fired. The marines entered the building, what was left of it. There was no one inside.

IT WAS 4 A.M., and Omohundro had taken some marines to a roof to survey the way ahead when a voice came over the radio. It was Bravo Company’s fire-support team, called Fist, which coordinated air support and artillery. The Fist officer told Omohundro that he’d just gotten a call from Basher, the radio name of the AC-130 gunship hovering above us. He called Omohundro by his radio name, Beowulf Six.

“Beowulf Six, this is Fist,” the voice said. “Basher has spotted numerous armed men on a roof next to you. Basher requests permission to fire.”

Basher had been spotting insurgents all week long and killing them from the air. Sometimes the insurgents were as close as fifty yards. Or just around the corner. Basher was a fearsome thing: it had a Gatling gun that fired an astonishing 1,800 rounds a minute; hence its terrible burping sound. And it had a howitzer that could shoot as fast as a shotgun.

Omohundro told everyone to get down. Then he crept to the south side of the roof and peeked over the ledge, half expecting to draw gunfire. He didn’t see anyone. The radio crackled.

“Basher has spotted numerous armed individuals moving to the west wall,” the fire-support officer said.

Omohundro crept across the roof again to get a look at the building’s west wall. He didn’t see anyone, which wasn’t, under the circumstances, all that unusual: in the dark the insurgents were sometimes very near.

“Basher is requesting permission to fire,” the fire-support officer said. The Basher crew was going to use its howitzer. It was going to be a big one.

The radio crackled again. The fire-support officer gave Omohundro the coordinates of the target. Omohundro peered into his GPS, but in the darkness couldn’t make out the numbers. He didn’t want to light up his GPS for fear of tipping off the insurgents to his presence. Instead, he ordered one of his men to plant an infrared strobe beacon on the roof to show Basher exactly where we were. Omohundro was worried about shrapnel from a target exploding so close.

“Tell Basher they are clear to fire,” Omohundro said into the radio.

About ten seconds later, the fire-support officer came back on.

“So, Basher says the insurgents have their own infrared strobe beacon,” he said. “They’ve put it up on the roof. Basher is preparing to fire.”

Omohundro screamed into the radio.

“Basher, Basher, this is Beowulf! Abort! Abort! Abort goddamnit! Friendlies on the roof! Abort! Abort! Hold your fire! I say again, friendlies on the roof! Abort! Over?”

There was a pause on the radio. It was one of Basher’s crew.

“Roger, aborting firing sequence,” the voice said. “Sorry about that.”

Another pause. Omohundro shook his head.

“Five more seconds and we were goners,” Omohundro said.

The radio crackled again. It was the fire-support officer.

“Sorry about that, Beowulf Six.”

THE GEESE CAME IN from the north, flying in a slightly broken V, as the fighting of southern Falluja unfolded below. As the birds approached, they appeared unable to alter their course. They kept flying until they were directly over the fighting. There was machine-gun fire, then an explosion. Then the formation of geese began to break apart. The V dissolved into a tangle of confused circles, the birds veering past each other in the sky, seemingly trapped above the apocalypse below. They flew in circles, some large, some smaller. It was as if their internal gyroscopes, ancient and delicate, had been knocked awry. It was quiet where I stood, but I watched the fighting a few blocks away, directly below the geese. A building exploded, sending up a tunnel of flame.

After several minutes, the geese began to gather themselves and re-form into their broken V. Then they turned to the southwest and continued on their way.

WORD CAME OVER the radio that one of the patrols had discovered a tunnel network used by the insurgents. I was excited; I wanted to see it. That’s where all the insurgents were, I thought. “Ash, we gotta go!” Ash said no way, too risky. Ash was usually the one who wanted to go, but this time it was me. He thought it was stupid. No way. We’d have to cross that open field again. Snipers are everywhere. We don’t have an escort. We don’t know the streets.

“We’re going,” I told Ash. We always went together, even when it was stupid. Omohundro radioed ahead and told the patrol that we were coming. We dashed into the open field, the two of us, Ash swearing the whole way. “Fuck you,” he shouted in his Aussie accent as we ran. “Fuck you. We’re going to die.” We couldn’t run fast because we didn’t have uniforms, and we were afraid the marines might think we were insurgents. “This is bullshit,” Ash screamed. “Fuck. Fuck. You’re a fucking asshole.”

We turned on what we guessed was the correct street and saw a hand come out of a metal gate and wave us in. We ran at top speed, hit the gate and fell into the courtyard. “You guys are crazy,” one of the marines said. It turned out the tunnel was only a sewage pipe. The insurgents weren’t using it for anything. Nothing but an ocean of shit. So we turned back and ran again.

“Fuck you,” Ash shouted, running across the field. “You’re a fucking asshole.”

I don’t remember any of it. Not the tunnels, not the shit, not even Ash swearing at the top of his lungs. My notebook is blank.

“It totally happened,” Ash said. “One hundred percent.”

IT STARTED WITH a face. Black, possibly an Arab from North Africa, covered by a thin layer of dust. Rubble around the head. Lips parted slightly. No blood. The marines had found him at the top of the minaret in the southern part of town, at the top of a winding set of stairs, and snapped a photo. It had been in the evening, and the face had a bluish cast. From the start, the guerrillas had used the minarets: to shoot, to spot, to signal one another. When they first came into Falluja the marines weren’t allowed to shoot into the mosques without permission; after a few hours the marines threw the rule away.

We knew there were a lot of dead guerrillas; we weren’t seeing them. By then, a week into the thing, nearly a quarter of Bravo was wounded or dead: Romulo, Nick, Nathan, Lonny. Bradley Parker, nineteen, from Marion, West Virginia. Jake, the mouthless mangled face; he was still alive. There were others. But we had gone forward anyway, rolling, absorbing the blows, moving forward through the streets. They were shooting at us, the marines and me and Ash, but we were moving and now we were at the city limits, where the streets opened onto a big, flat plain of brush and trash, abruptly, just like a movie set. End of town. So where did the insurgents go? They were dead, under the rubble, that’s where they were. Buried. Vaporized. Ground to dust. “Have you ever seen what a 2,000 -pound bomb does to a person?” an American officer asked me once, not really bragging because in this case the victims had been American soldiers. Friendly fire, Afghanistan, five guys. “We put the remains in a sandwich bag,” he said.

Still, it was a curiosity that we had seen so few bodies. The generals were reporting hundreds of dead, thousands even, we knew that from the radio, but we weren’t seeing many. You’d think by then we would have seen an arm. A head. Like in the suicide bombings in Baghdad. So I’d been rolling it over, the lack of bodies, considering the explanations: the Muslims bury their dead very quickly; it’s a religious thing. That was one. The insurgents never leave their dead behind. That was another. They’re fucking invisible, with their own passageways out of the city. How was that?

The face. We were on top of this building on the edge of town, staring out at the big plain that swept out of the southern edge of the city when one of the marines, Lance Corporal Alex Saxby, came over and showed Ashley the picture. He tilted up his point-and-shoot camera to show us. Saxby had brought us the photo because he knew we needed one, a photo of a dead insurgent. “I got two dead friends,” he said. Alex’s glasses had broken at his nose, and he was holding them together with a wad of first-aid tape. The photo of the dead jihadi seemed to be all he had left in the world. “It’s my birthday today,” he said.

I remembered when the marines killed the insurgent; it had been a couple of days before. We had come to this open spot in the city, a kind of Falluja Central Park, with trash and junk strewn about it, and there was a long row of buildings on the other side. Filled with bad guys, or so they said, and they seemed to know well enough. They’d send up the ScanEagle, the model airplane with cameras, the one you could hear at night buzzing around like a big fly. They had sent the tanks in front of us, and they had blasted the shit out of those buildings, blowing giant holes in them, so we could advance across the junk field. They blasted a minaret, too. Two shots, two large holes in the tower and then silence. The marines went up later, up the winding stairs, and found the guy. In the rubble. Saxby snapped a photo. A face in bluish hue.

And so with the fighting over it seemed like the thing to do. Ashley needed a corpse for the newspaper. So he asked Omohundro, and he gave us a dozen guys. They liked us now; we’d been through hell with them, seen their buddies die. They wanted to help us. So we walked back up the street we had come down the day before. By then, you hardly noticed the wreckage, there was so much of it. Long piles of white rocks and dead wires and sliced-up cars, some of them still smoking. A ruined world. Nothing like the way we had found it coming in, when it looked more or less like a normal city. The marines had blasted everything: every building, every car, even if there was no one in it, every fucking person, even the ones hidden in the shadows. It was like a party. Now the town was quiet. Nobody said much. It had been many days since I’d heard my own footsteps. It was only then that I thought something might be wrong.

We came to the door of the minaret. Ashley stepped to go inside. When Ash needed a photo, he had no fear. He’d go anywhere for a picture, right into death if he had to, snap and click. A few days before he’d run right into machine gun fire, right into it. I’d stayed crouched behind the wall. I didn’t much feel like following him into the minaret. It was a picture, after all. There wasn’t much I could do with a corpse. I wanted to leave. I followed him anyway. So Ash and I stepped to go through the door when a pair of marines stepped in front of us. We’ll go first, they said. The first marine put his hand out. I didn’t get a look at them, maybe a sidelong glance of the first guy, and they bounded up the stairs. Ashley with his camera fell in behind them and I was behind Ashley.

The stairs squeaked as we went up. It was a narrow staircase, winding, just wide enough for your body. A nautilus, maybe a hundred feet high. Not very stable. Dark, too, but for the holes shot by the tank. I could see beams of light above. I slowed my step. The shot was loud inside the staircase, and I couldn’t see much, because the second marine was falling backwards, falling onto Ashley, who fell onto me. Warm liquid spattered on my face. Three of us tumbled backwards out the doorway.

The first marine was stuck, maybe three-quarters of the way up the stairway. The shot had come from farther up the stairs. A very loud shot. Then tumbling and screaming and quiet. The guy who had fired was in the minaret, at the top of the stairs, sitting up there.

“Miller!” the marines shouted.

“Miller!”

No answer.

I tried to imagine him up there, Miller, foot stuck in the stairwell in some odd way that prevented him from falling like the rest of us. Unable, for some reason, to speak.

Ashley was sitting on the stoop beside the entrance to the minaret mumbling to himself. His back was turned to the tower, and his helmet was on crooked so he looked especially vulnerable. His shoulders were heaving. My fault, he was saying, my fault. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. My fault.

“Miller!” The marines were screaming now.

They started to run into the tower. It was crazy, but they ran into the tower, heedless and headlong, the way you would charge a machine-gun nest. Young and determined, up the winding stairs. They ran up the stairs and there were more shots, I couldn’t tell whose, there was fighting and yelling. Then the marines came out empty-handed. Alive but empty. Fuck, the first one shouted.

That was Goggin. Michael Goggin, Irish kid, Weymouth, Massachusetts, heavy accent, nineteen. Face covered in dust. Like the dust in the photo, looking like a ghost. “I can’t get to him,” he said.

Again and again they went up, Goggin and the others, and there were more shots and more dust and more loud fucks. I wondered how many people were going to die to save Miller, who was shot for a picture. The insurgents didn’t leave their dead behind, and neither did the marines. Miller was trapped and an insurgent was up there, in a perfect spot, with perfect lines of fire. You could see the marines, too; it was in their eyes. Obsessed and burning. Maybe the whole platoon would die, I thought.

“Miller!”

Silence.

“Miller!”

Our leader that day was First Sergeant Sam Williams, a twenty-six-year-old from northern Michigan. Sam pointed to the top of the tower and told his men to fire. And so they did, guns singing, grenades launching, machine guns blasting, boom-boom-boom-boom. Fucking horrendous. Unbelievably loud.

What if Miller is still alive? I thought. There was so much firing and so much crap flying, bricks, shrapnel, bullets. Two marines were wounded. One of them was Demarkus Brown, a kid from Martinsville, Virginia, twenty-two. The marines were raking the minaret, Demarkus was, too, and then he dropped his rifle and grabbed his right cheek. “I’m hit! I’m hit!” he said, panic in his eyes, real panic like he was going to die. But the wound was small and Demarkus was so young, he seemed like one of those kids on the playground who gets hurt every time. He seemed so frightened. He was killed four days later.

The firing stopped. Smoking rifles. Two more marines went up, and the minaret began to come apart. Bricks falling, dust and rocks, the tower swaying. Gunfire started to come into the mosque from the houses nearby. The insurgents had found us.

Ashley was still seated on the stoop, helmet crooked, mumbling to himself like a child. My fault.

Miller appeared. Two marines had pulled him out, Goggin one of them, choking and coughing. Black lung, they called it later. Miller was on his back; he’d come out head first. His face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling.

“Please tell me he’s not dead,” Ash said. “Please tell me.”

“He’s dead,” I said.

I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as people say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before. The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and the tear moves so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling across the wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.

A troop carrier, one of the old marine jobs, had come for Miller. Bullets were bouncing off it as it rolled up. It was going to head straight for the hospital, as if there were a chance for him. The marines lifted Miller onto a gurney, arms flapping, face flapping.

The escape was left to Sam. Ashley got up finally and we moved inside the main body of the mosque next to the minaret. Gunfire everywhere, so loud. The insurgents were closing in. One of the marines was holding a rifle covered in blood and he looked at Ashley and figured, I think, that he’d best not give him a gun right now. So he shoved the M-16 into my hands; sticky and warm. The marines don’t leave their guns behind either. When I was in high school I shot a duck with my friend’s gun, barrel out the window of his parents’ station wagon. The duck swam in circles for a while and then he died. Take this, asshole. I didn’t actually hear him say that. It was too loud to hear.

Sam held up three fingers and counted them down. Three-two-one and we were off, out the door and into the street, me carrying Miller’s blood-soaked gun, a pair of machine guns to our east opening up as we ran. Legs like jelly, legs like wings, we were all flying together. Bullets zinging past, hitting the bricks. “I want to die,” I heard Ashley say. “I hope they shoot me.” We jumped a final fallen tree and turned a corner down an alley and we were safe.

“I know you guys are thinking you got Miller killed,” Sam said back at the house with the rest of the platoon. He was pulling on a cigarette, seated against a wall on the second floor. He seemed a wise old man sitting there, not a line on his face, and we the children. “It’s a war,” he said slowly, like a man as old as time. “That’s what happens in war.”

Lieutenant Eckert walked in. He hadn’t gone with us.

“We take full responsibility for what happened out there,” Ashley said to Eckert. I said it, too.

“Yeah, it was your fault,” he said.

A jet came later and dropped two 500-pound bombs. It seemed an angry gesture: two big bombs for one shooter at the top of a tower. The marines went back the next day—they didn’t bring us this time—to make sure everyone was dead. They found two bodies. Sometimes I imagine the live insurgent with the gun and the dead one we wanted to photograph, powder on his face, together at the top of the minaret in the moments before we arrived. What was he doing up there, the live insurgent? Cradling his buddy, weeping for him? Had they come from Saudi Arabia together to fight the jihad, riding together on a decrepit bus to the Syrian border? Or had the live one come to retrieve the dead one on orders from his commander, only to be interrupted by Miller coming up the stairs?

Lance Corporal William L. Miller, twenty-two, Pearland, Texas. The town made me think of pearls. A necklace. Miller’s official portrait shows a boyish cadet with a long, thin face untroubled by thoughts of the future. Rummaging through Ash’s photos, I found a photograph, taken at another mosque a few blocks back—the Grand Mosque, the center of town. The marines had fought hard for that building; the photo shows Miller and four of his buddies taking a break during a quiet moment, sprawled in a perfect row, illuminated by a ray of light that entered through a nearby window. Miller’s head is tilted to the right. He’s asleep.

A few months later, at the memorial service in the gymnasium in North Carolina, I spotted Miller’s parents, Susie and Lewis. Billy’s helmet and rifle and boots and dog tag were out there on the gym floor, arranged in a tombstonelike structure along with those of the other marines who had died there in Iraq. The graves were splayed out in a large V on the gym floor. Billy’s memorial was the fourth from the bottom on the right-hand side.

I wasn’t sure if I could face the Millers but I felt like I needed to say something. They’d no doubt read the marines’ after-action report, which, for all its jargon, had laid out in detail what had happened that day. “First platoon was given the order to escort two reporters to a mosque at the 883 northing on the west side of PL Frank, so they could get a picture of a dead enemy in the mosque minaret.”

I walked up to the Millers with some hesitation and they saw me. I was carrying a notebook. I figured the Millers would say something cutting, something full of despair, maybe even lunge at me. The father of a woman who’d been murdered in Palm Bay, Florida, did that to me once, in the waiting room of the local hospital. “You bastard,” he said. I hadn’t even asked him a question. I hadn’t gotten his daughter killed.

“We’re so grateful to you,” Lewis said to me when the service was over, down on the gym floor. “If it weren’t for you, we would never have known how our son died.”

I wanted to tell the Millers what had happened. Hadn’t they read the after-action report? My eyes met theirs; their eyes looked tired. Exhausted. When I was a kid I had a friend who shot himself, Pat Galloway, and I went to the viewing, and his mother and father, Bob and Natalie, had the same exhausted eyes. All cried out. After he died the Galloways put Pat’s high school graduation photo on the mantel in their living room. I imagined a photo like that of Billy on the mantel in the Millers’ home.

I asked them about Pearland.

“Pear-land,” Lewis said to me, “Pear-land. We’re known for our pears.”

Habibi

IN THE SUMMER of 2005, the American military spent $ 1.5 million to renovate a fifty-yard-wide strip of earth between Abu Nawas Street and the banks of the Tigris. They called it Tigris River Park. They cleared away the old cars and the animal carcasses. They sodded the fields with green grass. They installed a sprinkler system and swing sets for children, erected a “community center” for barbecues and weddings. The soldiers even built a winding sidewalk which one of the American commanders referred to as a “lovers’ lane.” The project seemed out of place in Baghdad, which every day was slipping deeper into anarchy. But in its own way Tigris River Park was a symbol of American goodwill.

The American engineers also laid a heavy, paved road along the bank of the Tigris, thick enough to hold tanks and troop carriers. It ran for a couple of miles, north to the Jumhuriyah Bridge. Until the American engineers came, the banks of the Tigris had been spooky—for the carcasses and the old cars, for the corpses and the wild dogs. The wild dogs yipped and howled from their hiding places in the reeds—dozens of them, hundreds of them—and they harassed anyone who approached. One day, some of the security guards who protected a nearby hotel came out and, with their M-4 s and Kalashnikovs, shot most of them. They mowed them down; I listened to the shooting from my bedroom. I was never certain whether the shooting was part of the American-backed project, or whether the security guards were just bored.

Yet for all the effort to improve Tigris River Park, the Iraqis didn’t show much interest. On most afternoons, most of the park was empty. An American Humvee sometimes planted itself in the middle of the sodded fields, the soldiers seated inside as motionless as blue herons. The Humvee didn’t exactly help attract the locals. But what really chased the Iraqis away was the park itself: before the renovation, the Iraqis would gather for soccer in the late afternoon, with three or four games starting up amid the dirt and junk. When the Americans renovated the park, they laid down a curvy, S-shaped sidewalk—the lovers’ lane—that snaked its way from one end of the park to the other. The sidewalk cut right through the old soccer fields. Now, instead of three or four games, there was usually just one, in a small corner of the park that had been left untouched. By sundown, the park was more often than not abandoned, the lovers’ lane and the swings desolate, intensifying, rather than diminishing, the sense of despair that pervaded the city.

Personally, I couldn’t complain. Tigris River Park was great for me. In the afternoons, I could take off running along the river, cruising atop the smooth heavy blacktop. It was hot, but I could run all the way to the Jumhuriyah Bridge. If I closed my eyes, it felt like Phoenix.

One day, returning from a trip, I headed out and ran less than a mile before I approached a checkpoint manned by Iraqi army soldiers. It had gone up when I was away. It was a long cement wall with sandbags and watchtowers that cut the park in half. The soldiers were half-asleep in the heat, wilting under the sun. As I approached, they perked up, looking on with fascination. I stopped, sweating and panting in my shorts, and one of the soldiers recoiled a little and waved me through. “Shukran,” I said to him. “Shukran jazeelan.” Thanks, thanks very much. And then I slipped through the gate and ran to the bridge. I passed the soldiers on the way back and thanked them again.

For the next several weeks, I followed the same route, the same routine. As the sun began to set, I’d come running up the Tigris, usually offering a few Arabic words to ease my way through. “Shlounik, habibi,” I’d say, “How are you, my friend?” Or “Kulish hara”—“Very hot.” The Iraqis marveled at my willingness to run in the furnace that enveloped the city. I’d approach, and one of them would come down and look at me, sweating and faint, and say: “Laish? Laish, habibi?” “Why? Why, my friend?” And he would always wave me through.

Over time I realized that I was the highlight of the Iraqis’ day. I was the only thing that happened. The soldiers would sit in their checkpoint for hours at a stretch, enduring the heat, without so much as a fender bender to keep them awake. Then I would come running and the soldiers would brighten, come out and greet me. They’d offer me water; sometimes I’d take it. Sometimes I’d offer them a swig from the bottle I carried with me. A few times, as I passed through the checkpoint, a wild dog plunged out of the reeds to menace me. The dog population had made a comeback. It would bare its teeth and snap at me as the Iraqis looked on. And then a few days later as I ran through the checkpoint I noticed the dog was gone. The Iraqi soldiers were smiling proudly. “Boom-boom, mistah!” one of the soldiers said, mimicking a shot with his rifle.

The one thing that bothered the Iraqis was my shorts. Whenever I approached the checkpoint, the soldiers stared at my legs. They looked at them in horror, as if I were naked and deranged. But they never complained. They were too polite. I knew what I was doing was rude—showing one’s bare legs is considered offensive across the Arab world. But after much deliberation I decided I was going to keep my shorts. It was the heat—the piercing, suffocating heat. Even if I took off in the early evening before sundown, at 7 p.m., the temperature would still be around 120 or 130 in the sun. It took everything I had to run at all. Staying inside—not running—didn’t seem like an option, either. Running in Iraq was dangerous, it was reckless, it was arrogant. If I were kidnapped, the whole American army would be dispatched to look for me. But as Baghdad slipped deeper into chaos, the more cooped up my colleagues and I had to be. The dissonance was jarring: a war was unfolding outside, the war we’d come to write about, and yet more and more we had to seal ourselves off from it, there in the middle of it. I could hear the bombs from my bedroom and I couldn’t chase them. I could climb on the roof and see the Iraqis in the street and I couldn’t talk to them. I needed an outlet, something to do. I needed to run like a wild horse. The little road along the Tigris was probably the only place in all of Iraq an American could run and have a reasonable expectation of surviving, outside the Green Zone or a military base or Kurdistan. And by chance I happened to live right next to it. I thought it was worth the risk, come what may. My legs—the Iraqis were going to have to put up with my legs.

One day, late in the summer, as I ran toward the checkpoint, one of the Iraqi guards stepped out and put his hand up for me to stop. I was panting and delirious. The Iraqi soldiers gathered round. The soldier was holding something and he offered it to me with both hands. It was a gift: a uniform of the Iraqi national soccer team, white with green trim, with the red, white and black Iraqi flag sewn into the chest. I was deeply touched. The Iraqis were crazy about soccer; I couldn’t imagine a more heartfelt gesture. I thanked them and shook their hands. The uniform contained shorts, too, which, I could not help but notice, plunged far below the knee. Later that night, as I was trying on the shorts, it occurred to me that the Iraqi guards were, in their subtle way, trying to persuade me to cover my legs.

The next day I hit the trail and ran north toward the Jumhuriyah Bridge. I’d tried the shorts on, and they were ridiculous: clingy and polyester and too small, which meant that they would cook my legs like a pair of rubber pants. I put them on and took them off and put them on and took them off. I left them behind. I did put on the Iraqi top. The top, too, was made of polyester, and as I approached the checkpoint, I was near collapse; it was like I was wearing a plastic bag. The chief walked out and gave me an affectionate but disappointed look, like a father would his wayward son.

Laish, habibi,” he said, reaching down and tugging on his pants. “Why, my friend?”

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!