Military history

CHAPTER 18

Fuck Us

IN THE MORNINGS, you could stand on the rooftop of the government center in downtown Ramadi and watch the Iraqis trickle into the streets far away. The cityscape was obliterated for a mile in each direction. Total ruin, like Grozny or Dresden. The marines had given names to the blown-up buildings: Swiss Cheese, Battleship Gray. The human activity unfolded beyond that, at the outer edges of the destruction. From the top of the government center, the Iraqis seemed like tiny figures in a greater landscape, trudging to some end they did not know. By noon, the landscape would be empty again.

It was a joke among the marines posted there, “the government center,” since there wasn’t much of either. The center of the city was obliterated and the government had ceased to exist. There was a governor, a half-crazed man named Mamoon Sami Rashid, but most everyone else in the government was dead or in hiding. A few months before, Rashid’s secretary had been beheaded. Rashid lived a weird, cloistered life, driving with the marines, flying with the marines, surrounded by the marines in the rubble of his hometown.

There were two worlds at the government center, the rooftop and the interior. Unless you were going out to fight, fully loaded, the outside was off-limits. The moment you stepped out of the building you had to run. You had to run everywhere, even to your Humvee. No standing. It was the snipers. The toilets were broken, naturally, since there was no water, but you couldn’t go outside for that, either. There were no port-a-lets because the snipers would have gotten them. You had to do your business indoors, into a small green sack called a Wag Bag, named for the flammable chemicals it carried in its lining. When you were done you’d tie up the Wag Bag and toss it into a regular trash bag, and one of the grunts would take it out at night and set it on fire.

The snipers were good. In Iraq, the insurgents might have been raggedy-assed guys who scored by rigging blasting caps to rusty artillery shells, but a number of them were former soldiers, and some of them were snipers. They carried Russian Dragonoff rifles with huge scopes and long barrels. They aimed for the neck, in the soft spot between your helmet and flak jacket.

The marines, all from Kilo Company, lived inside, about seventy-five at a time. The place reeked, of course, of stale piss and old clothes and so many bodies pressed too close together. There weren’t any showers; you showered after you came out. The urinals didn’t really work but they used them anyway; sometimes the piss would drain through the pipe and sometimes it would leak out on the floors and go stale. The guys slept eight to a room, stacked together like kids in a dorm. The rooms had windows, but most of them had been shot out and boarded up.

The tours at the government center lasted two weeks, long enough to make anyone crazy. One marine, David, lived by himself in a tiny crawl space on the second floor opposite the stairwell that took you up to the roof. He was from Tampa. His job was to keep the rest of the marines supplied with water and food, which wasn’t much of a job, a kind of make-work thing. He was sort of a Boo Radley character, friendly but a little slower than the others. Most of the time David stayed inside the cubbyhole, playing violent video games. Whenever I walked past his room I could hear the explosions. “I’ve never been on the roof,” David said, gesturing toward the sunlight in the stairwell. “Ain’t never going up there.” And nobody was forcing him to.

The marines were young and they made the most of their circumstances. They kept a weight room on the first floor, dark and sandy, and they played Metallica and pumped iron till they fell asleep. Banging music and banging weights. They slept more than you would think. Generators kept the AC going and the boarded-up windows made the rooms dark, and most of the guys would sleep right through the gun battles on the roof.

The heat outside was astounding, but the guys still went out most days, loaded with gear and guns. Into the night, into the rubble. Looking to waste people. Sometimes when they ran, they tossed canisters that threw up green smoke. I never heard them talk about hearts and minds.

“We go out and kill these people,” Captain Andrew Del Gaudio said. He was in charge.

There was a primal simplicity to being in Ramadi that made it refreshing, even in the stink of it. There were no politics to complicate things, like there were back in Baghdad. People were fighting to the death.

I asked Del Gaudio how his men were doing.

“Let’s see, Lance Corporal Tussey, shot in the thigh.

“Lance Corporal Zimmerman, shot in the leg.

“Lance Corporal Sardinas, shrapnel, hit in the face.

“Corporal Wilson, shrapnel in the throat.

“That’s all I can think of right now,” the captain said.

Del Gaudio was thirty, an Italian from Parkchester in the Bronx. Sitting there glowering in his T-shirt, he reminded me of one of those tough guys from a 1950 s movie. Brando without the charm. I guess he had a right to be angry, trapped in this desert shithole and charged with killing people. I asked Del Gaudio to take me out on one of the night patrols and he told me to forget it. “You’d probably step on something and blow us all the fuck up.”

I left his office and closed the door behind me. There were some guys standing around a sign-up sheet. A clipboard and a pen. They were talking about Lara Logan, the sexy CBS correspondent who had visited a couple of weeks before. The sign-up sheet was recording suggestions for the logo on Kilo Company’s T-shirt. The boys were going home soon.

“Kilo Company,” one of the marines had written. “Killed More People Than Cancer.”

“Kilo Company: Fuck Iraq.”

“Kilo Company: Fuck Ramadi.”

“Kilo Company: Fuck Lara Logan!”

“Kilo Company: Fuck Us.”

IT WAS QUIET and dark on the roof when Lance Corporal Joseph Hamlin began to talk about his life.

“I’m nineteen; I’ll be twenty in September,” he said. I couldn’t see him; it was like listening to a disembodied voice in the night. “I’m from western Georgia, on the Alabama line. LaGrange. They say it’s the biggest little city in Georgia. It means ‘the farm’ in French. Lafayette was there.”

Hamlin was standing at Post 1, overlooking Ramadi from the northwest corner of the government center. The post was a concrete-block hut covered in sandbags. There was just enough room for the two of us.

“This is my first time ever,” he said. “I joined in May ’ 05. Right after I graduated high school. Graduated high school on Friday, showed up for boot camp on Monday. Didn’t take any time off.”

He laughed. The streets below were mostly invisible in the dark. Even at 11 p.m., the temperature hovered at well over 100 degrees. Every few minutes or so, Corporal Hamlin picked up his night-vision scope and peered down the alley that jutted directly north from his post.

A volley of shots rang out in the distance.

“Over yonder there,” he said, pointing with a slow roll of his hand.

“Jeff Foxworthy, he bought some land in LaGrange,” Corporal Hamlin said. “You know him, they call him a country comedian. ‘You must be a redneck,’ stuff like that. He bought some land down there to hunt on. It’s good hunting.”

He peered into the scope of his rifle.

“I’m a decent shot. Pretty good,” he said. “Not like the snipers.”

Another shot echoed in the distance.

“What do I hunt? Whatever is in season: deer, squirrel, turkey, dove. I love to hunt. If I could have a job where money didn’t matter, I’d be a hunter.”

Corporal Hamlin had laid out four weapons: an M-240 belt-fed machine gun, an M-16 rifle, an M-79 grenade launcher and a rifle called a Sam-R that he especially liked.

“It’s like my .308 Remington—it’s got a free-floating barrel, too,” he said. “That’s my favorite.

“I joined the marines. I’m hoping to go to college. When I’m in, I’ll do what I can for my country. Do something to help this country.”

Cradling the Sam-R, Hamlin looked into the blackness.

“Here it’s more difficult,” he said. “It’s not like all you have to do is be quiet and still and just shoot whatever comes by. Like a duck blind. These guys will play. A turkey don’t play. A turkey don’t shoot back. He just turns around and runs. They shoot back.”

The night wore on. Because of the lack of electricity, Ramadi was dark. What light there was came from the stars, arrayed in their particular way from horizon to horizon.

“I wish they had some police out here,” Corporal Hamlin said. “You know, the gangs. We have gangs in places like New York City. They wouldn’t stand a chance here. They would have their heads cut off. These are the real gangs here.

“People say this is the worst place in the world. But it isn’t bad. They need to fight for themselves,” he said. “Everybody has a civil war. We had ours. We got stronger. Maybe they need to have theirs and get it over with.”

Midnight neared. Corporal Hamlin turned back to his favorite subject.

“Oh yeah, they got pigs down there. They like to play. You shoot one of them with a .357 right in the head and they keep running. My dad got gored by one of them once. That’s some cool hunting.

“I want to kill some bear. I want to go with a bow. A long bow. Not even a compound bow,” he said. “You know the difference? A compound bow has the pulleys. Long bow is just the bow. I want to go with a long bow. Kill a big-ass bear.

“My dad lived in China,” Corporal Hamlin said. “He ran the Duracell plant there. I lived there. I learned martial arts. Aikido, which is Japanese. Tae kwon do, which is Korean. I’m a second-degree black belt.

“If I had a choice between this, martial arts and hunting, I’d take hunting easy. No alcohol, women or anything like that, like some guys.”

Three nights before, the government center had come under attack by about twenty guerrillas. The firefight lasted two hours. The marines had fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition, dropped bombs and artillery. Corporal Hamlin had been asleep in his bunk.

“I shot a couple of guys,” he said. “When you’re young, seeing movies and everything, you’re brought up to think killing is wrong. That’s what people do in gangs. Weird. You just shoot. They attack you. Either you are going to shoot and go back to your family or they are going to kill you and keep on killing everyone else. I don’t really know what to think of it.”

“If I shoot, I get to go back to my family, my girl,” he said.

He scanned the streets through his rifle scope.

“I’m a Christian. East Vernon Baptist Church.”

Corporal Hamlin was silent for a time. The streets, too, were quiet.

“I asked other people before what it was like to kill somebody. I wasn’t sure I could kill somebody. I didn’t know what it would be like. Now, I don’t know if I feel that much.

“I did have a girlfriend until two days ago. We were together for five years,” he said. It happened on the telephone. “She doesn’t handle my being gone. She says it’s hard. I think whatever I’m going through here is harder. Whatever problems she’s having at the house, she doesn’t have RPGs being shot at her.”

The telephone conversation with his girlfriend, Hamlin said, left him feeling blue. The couple had planned to marry. “Yes, I was wanting to. We were going to get an apartment.”

He considered the possibility that she had gotten another boyfriend back in LaGrange.

“Absolutely. She probably does. She might be lying.

“She is a full-blooded Indian. Mohawk. I’m just a pale-skinned white boy.

“I’ll get with her when I get back, talk to her,” he said. “See if I can work things out. It’ll be okay.”

Another young voice entered from outside Post 1. It was Corporal Hamlin’s relief. He’d been six hours on post. It was midnight, time for bed.

“Good talking to you,” he said.

The corporal picked up his rifle and walked downstairs.

THE HUMVEE CRAWLED forward, down a street strewn with trash. The marines sat inside, searching the road with their eyes. Saying nothing. The Humvee advanced. Stones cracked beneath its wheels. At headquarters a map of the city was marked with small white flags wherever the marines had discovered a bomb. There were dozens of them; some of the streets were crammed with tiny white flags.

The Humvee inched up the street. An Iraqi man stood at the gates of his house, his hand cupped over his eyes. The Humvee moved some more. A kid waved.

“Toss him a soccer ball,” Gunnery Sergeant John Scroggins said.

A ball bounced from the Humvee’s turret.

The street was littered in debris. Look for wires, the marines had said, but the wires were everywhere, snaking out of garbage piles and old electric motors. We rolled past the skeleton of a goat, bleached white and splayed. Behind our goggles our eyes were straining to see. At the base someone had tacked up a photo of a marine after a blast. His face was shredded like hamburger but he’d worn his goggles and his eyes were beaming bright and wide.

Some Iraqis stood on a corner, eating slices of watermelon.

“Look at that, right there,” Scroggins said.

The Humvee stopped. There, the gunnery sergeant said, pointing. We rolled along the side of it. On the left, down.

Two green wires, thin, the kind used in a transistor radio, curled out from a piece of a pipe and into the ground. The pipe was three inches across and two feet long. The dirt, which covered the bomb itself, had been patted down with such care that the dig marks were invisible. The wires ran up and out of the ground and into the pipe and then to the trigger, which would have detonated had we run over the pipe. A pressure switch. Crush the pipe and you die.

A toy merry-go-round lay in the street a foot away, tipped over.

“Okay, let’s go,” the gunnery sergeant said, and our Humvee began to crawl forward again.

The Iraqis on the corner were gone.

THROUGH NIGHT-VISION GOGGLES, the elementary school shimmered in pale green. The Humvee pulled up next to it and stopped.

“Anything?” a marine said.

“Nothing,” a second one said.

The Humvee lurched forward. I pulled my goggles down for a second and saw nothing. Only darkness. I put them back on and the pale green returned.

The days were so hot in July that the marines had been scaling back their daytime patrols in favor of night. They still went out during the day, but not on foot. Not anymore. Too many guys were collapsing. The insurgents had stopped coming out in the daylight, too. They attacked the tiny Marine base in downtown Ramadi every day, but they waited for the sun to go down.

The Humvee drove through the darkness. It was a little cooler now, maybe 100 degrees. We peered into our goggles. A greenish shadow flitted across my line of sight. It was a car, passing through an intersection, here and gone.

“Probably a spotter,” the marine said.

“Maybe a car bomb,” his buddy next to him said.

The Humvee stopped in front of a warehouse. We got out and walked inside. Through the goggles it seemed a lighted cave, glowing and cavernous. There was nothing. No one.

“Let’s get out of here,” one of the marines said.

We climbed back inside and circled back toward the school. Same street as before, ten minutes later. A backtrack. The Humvee lurched to a halt.

“I’ll be damned,” the driver said.

Two metal cans, ten gallons each, standing next to each other, sat in the road. A wire ran between them. In the goggles, the cans were pale green.

“Incendiary,” the driver said.

“Yeah,” said his buddy.

We backed up and took a different street.

ONE MORNING the marines were preparing to escort the Anbar governor through downtown. I asked to go along.

“No problem,” Corporal Jonathan Nelson said. He was twenty-one, from Brooklyn.

It was an ordinary drive in an ordinary Humvee. Nelson and the others delivered the governor to the Ramadi government center, and I got out. They drove away.

A few minutes later I heard an explosion.

“IED,” someone said.

Half an hour later, Nelson stepped into the building. The bomb had struck the Humvee and ruined its front end. Everyone was okay. Nelson looked fine. He even looked exhilarated.

“Best feeling in the world,” he said, eyes bright. “To get hit with an IED and live. It’s like bungee jumping.”

You serious? I asked.

“Yeah,” Nelson said. “You get these vibrations all over your body like somebody pounded the hell out of you.”

Right. What about the gash on your head?

“I hit the window,” he said.

How many times is that?

“This is my fifth,” he said. “The first time we were going to Abu Ghraib, the prison, and it hit our Humvee. Wounded one of the guys. Really weird, you know, your first time.”

Right, I said.

“Second time was Garma, June ’ 05,” he said. “I was looking at it when it went off. I thought I was dead. I couldn’t feel my body. I couldn’t move. I thought I had died.”

His Humvee mate, Lance Corporal Trent Frazor, was listening over his shoulder. Frazor was from Pickens, South Carolina. He was also twenty-one.

“Dude, you bring your bad luck into the truck,” Frazor said.

They laughed. Nelson went on.

“So there was this other time, when I saw the thing, it was two .155 shells stacked and a Motorola cell phone,” he said. “I walked up on it. It didn’t go off.”

Nelson and Frazor laughed again.

“It will happen one day,” Frazor said, not laughing anymore.

Nelson was looking at him.

“You’ll be in a convoy one day, and all of a sudden it will happen,” Frazor said. “It will happen when it’s going to happen.”

Nelson shrugged.

Later on, at a cafeteria in a base across town, two marines, possibly from the same Humvee, were carrying their trays to a table.

“So, you saw the IED in the middle of the street, and you kept on driving?” one marine asked the other, moving toward the table. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

LANCE CORPORAL Sean Patton wheeled the Humvee down the street and the children cried out to him.

“Football! Football!” they squealed, and his men tossed a ball from the turret. It bounced in the street and the children ran after it.

Patton guided his Humvee around the corner, down a narrow street. I was in the back seat behind him, and he was wearing a helmet and flak jacket, so I couldn’t see much of him. He wheeled the Humvee with poise; he had a sense of where he was.

“This is not the safest neighborhood in the world,” Patton said, cranking the wheel around. “But the people are friendly.”

Patton waved out the window. Most people just looked at him. A few waved back.

“The people are in the middle,” Patton said. “Between us and the insurgents. Whoever is friendly, they will help.”

Patton turned right, moving toward an intersection with a kebab stand and a pharmacy. It was late in the afternoon and the people were coming out as the sun cooled. Some of the kids were kicking a soccer ball.

Then the Iraqis started moving. Walking away. The intersection was suddenly empty. The Iraqis were gone. Patton stopped in the middle of the intersection.

“They’re going to hit us,” he said, scanning the streets. He kept the truck in the middle of the intersection.

We sat for what seemed like an age. The marine next to me was standing up through the turret with his hands on the MK-19 grenade launcher. His legs were banging my shoulders. He’d left a copy of Surfing magazine on his seat.

“We’re going to get hit,” another marine said, in the seat next to Patton.

I picked up Surfing and started leafing through it to distract myself, stopping at an article about the waves in Nicaragua.

Patton pulled out. He crept through the intersection and drove two blocks and turned right. As the Humvee swung round, I looked back and saw the Iraqis walking back into the intersection.

Patton drove some more and wheeled the Humvee around. The people were filling the intersection again. The soccer game had resumed.

We rolled into the intersection, the same spot as before.

The Iraqis started moving again. No panic on their faces. Just walking away.

“We’re going to get hit,” Patton said, gripping the steering wheel.

I picked up the magazine again.

“They’re going to hit us,” the other marine said.

The attack never came.

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