Military history


I Love You

March 2003

THE FACES OF the Iraqi soldiers were veiled by orange dust from the passing storm. Old mattresses and tins of unopened food mingled with their bodies in the trench. The Iraqis had been waiting on the side of the highway for the American convoy to drive by, and they’d opened fire. It didn’t last very long: a couple of shots from one of the big American guns and then silence.

Dr. Wade Wilde, an American doctor, walked around the air-conditioned tent the Americans had erected with amazing speed on the side of the highway. It was already filled with wounded Iraqi soldiers. Wilde was a soft-spoken man from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a pediatrician in Virginia. Some of the Iraqis were already on their elbows, watching him. “The officers threatened to shoot us unless we fought,” one of the Iraqis said. None of the others protested. “They took out their guns and started shooting.”

Wilde stepped outside. It was early morning in the Iraqi desert, the invasion six days old. A layer of clouds shrouded the sky in pale gray. Wilde nodded toward a green blanket on the ground next to the tent. The blanket was full and still.

“We think he was shot by his own,” the doctor said.

Under the blanket lay an Iraqi soldier. By the rise and fall of the blanket I could see he was still breathing. His head was swathed in a pillow of gauze Wade had made for him, and so his face was invisible. The gauze around his head was so voluminous that he looked like an alien from space. The marines had found him after the firefight in one of the Iraqi trenches. There was a bullet lodged in the back of his head. A small-caliber shell, Wilde said, probably a pistol, fired at close range. Much of the Iraqi’s skull had come apart.

“If he had been hit by an M-16, it would have taken his whole head off,” Wilde said, looking over at the blanket. “Seems like it was an Iraqi gun.”

The Iraqi had reached a state of human existence that Wilde referred to as “expectant,” meaning that although he was still alive there was nothing the doctors could do to save him. Wilde had been unable to extract the bullet. He had given the soldier an injection of morphine and laid him down in a quiet spot next to the tent.

“We’ve tried to make him as comfortable as possible,” Wilde said, “and let the wound run its course.”

I DROVE NORTH toward Baghdad in my rented SUV. The burning oil wells glowed orange along the far horizon. On the side of the highway I counted the little heaps of Iraqi army uniforms left along the way. Tanks and trucks lay abandoned; the trenches had gone barren.

I came upon a group of marines who’d taken three Iraqis prisoner. They’d deserted some weeks before, they told the Americans, and had been living on tomatoes and sleeping under a bridge. They had been waiting for the Americans to come. The marines were driving up the road when they spotted the three men waving a long stick with a dirty bedsheet tied to it. The Americans had spread out blankets inside a ring of barbed wire, and had given the Iraqis peanut butter and crackers.

“We are not cowards, but what is the point?” Ahmed Ghobashi, an Iraqi colonel from Baghdad, told me through the barbed wire. “I’ve got a rifle from World War II. What can I do against American airplanes?”

Colonel Ghobashi talked on for a while, detailing his participation in Saddam’s wars. “War upon war,” he said. He called himself a professional soldier and a family man, and he said he had not joined the military to engage in fanciful adventures.

“He doesn’t give us enough to eat, he doesn’t pay us. Then he starts this thing with the Americans and tells us to defend the country against the invader. Tell me what is the sense in that?”

Colonel Ghobashi bit into one of the American crackers and shook his head.

“I believe Saddam is an American agent,” he said.

A GROUP OF IRAQIS WAS MOVING along a road that ran along the Euphrates. Cobra gunships were circling a few hundred yards away over the middle of the city the Iraqis had fled. The reports were confusing but an American supply truck had taken a wrong turn and driven directly into Nasiriya. Iraqi militiamen had killed some of the Americans and taken the rest prisoner. Among them was a nineteen-year-old from West Virginia named Jessica Lynch. The Iraqis walking out of the city were Shiites, the people the Americans told themselves they were liberating, but the Iraqis snarled as they approached an American checkpoint.

“No Iraqi will support what the Americans are doing here,” a man who called himself Nawaf said. “If they want to go to Baghdad, that’s one thing, but now they have come into our cities, and all Iraqis will fight them.”

“Yes, yes!” the crowd of Iraqis behind him said.

Mustafa Muhammad Ali, a medical assistant at Saddam Hospital inside Nasiriya, shoved his way to the front of the pack. He said he’d spent much of the morning hauling dead and wounded civilians out of buildings that had been bombed by the Americans. He said he had no love for the Iraqi dictator, but he said the Americans had forfeited his support.

“I saw how the Americans bombed our civilians with my own eyes,” Ali said, and he held up a bloodied sleeve. “I dragged them into the ambulances myself.”

“You want to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime?” he asked me. “Go to Baghdad. What are you doing here?”

One of the Americans manning the checkpoint, First Sergeant Michael Sprague, stepped in. “You’ll get your country back,” he said.

Someone translated and the crowd hissed.

Then a man named Mohsen Ali stepped forward and pointed at my notebook. Despite his reduced circumstances, he carried himself with greater pride than the others. Write this down, he instructed me.

“Saddam is a knight—he is a knight,” Ali said, and the other Iraqis quieted considerably on hearing this. “There is no one like him in the world.”

I reminded Ali that Saddam had killed tens of thousands of his fellow Shiites a dozen years before, in the uprising after the first Gulf War. Many thousands in this very city, I said. He practically spit on me.

“In Iraq if there is a leader who is fair, he will be killed,” Ali said. “He must be tough, or he will be killed the very next day.”

AT THE BASE CAMP of the Fifth Marine Regiment, just outside of Diwaniya, two sharpshooters sat on a berm and swapped tales of combat. They’d just climbed off a helicopter, and their eyes were aflame.

“We had a great day,” Sergeant Eric Schrumpf told me. “We killed a lot of people.”

“Yeah,” Corporal Mikael McIntosh said.

All up and down the highway to Baghdad, the shooters said, the Iraqi fighters were mixing with the civilians, jumping out of houses and cars to shoot, then running away. Some of the fighters wore strange black uniforms. Fedayeen Saddam was what the officers were calling them, a militia of irregular fighters.

“These soldiers don’t even have socks,” McIntosh said.

Schrumpf and McIntosh said they were frustrated by the fedayeen’s practice of using unarmed women and children as shields. “Cowardly but effective,” Schrumpf said. He was only twenty-eight. Both men said they had declined to shoot several times for fear they might hit civilians.

“It’s a judgment call,” Corporal McIntosh said. He was twenty. “If the risks outweigh the losses, then you don’t take the shot.”

Schrumpf nodded.

But in the heat of a firefight, the calculus sometimes changed. A shot not taken in one set of circumstances might suddenly become a life-or-death necessity. There were a few of those moments today.

“We dropped a few civilians,” Sergeant Schrumpf shrugged, “but what do you do?”

To illustrate, the sergeant offered a pair of examples.

“There was one Iraqi soldier, and twenty-five women and children,” he said, “I didn’t take the shot.”

But more than once, Sergeant Schrumpf said, the odds were in his favor. One of the fedayeen fighters would be standing among two or three civilians. Usually it worked out: Schrumpf shot him. Not always. He recalled one such moment, in which he and some other men in his unit opened fire. He watched one of the women standing near an Iraqi soldier drop to the ground.

“I’m sorry,” Sergeant Schrumpf said, shaking his head. “But the chick was in the way.”

TOMMY SMITH sat alone in his ambulance, in the driver’s seat, staring ahead into the distance. The streets were quiet, scattered with bullet casings and broken glass. Most of the other marines, thousands of them, had continued toward Baghdad.

“All the stretchers were full of blood,” Smith said. “I was shooting guys with morphine. Pretty much all of them had gunshot wounds.”

With blond hair and a boyish voice, Smith was twenty-one but looked even younger. He was from Brooklyn, with a slight accent, and we talked about New York for a bit. Then he walked around the back of the ambulance and opened the door to the cabin. “I just got done cleaning it a few minutes ago,” he said. “It was full of blood.”

At the outskirts of Baghdad, Smith’s battalion had run into an ambush. An American tank, hit by an Iraqi rocket, had burst into flames and blocked the road. Then the driver of Smith’s ambulance, Corporal Luke Holden, took a bullet in the middle finger of his left hand.

Smith took over, with Holden in the passenger seat, when he was shot again, this time in his right hand as he hung it out the window. With bullets zinging past, Smith carried Holden to the cabin, then weaved his ambulance in and out of gunfire, stopping to pick up wounded marines. In the middle of the firefight, Smith picked up eight of his bleeding comrades; one of them, a captain, had been shot in the face. Then Smith felt a bullet hit his own chest. It felt like someone had punched him, he said. When he recovered, he looked down and saw a hole in his tunic where the bullet had gone in. It hit his Kevlar vest. The hole was there still.

“I didn’t think we were going to make it,” he said. “They hit us with rockets. You don’t know where they’re coming from.”

Smith’s voice was so gentle, and he seemed so young, that I felt moved to comfort him in the way that I would a child. I wanted to hug him, but I couldn’t very well do that, so I handed him my satellite phone. It was a Saturday morning in Brooklyn.

“I’ll have some stories for you when I get home,” Smith said into the phone. “I love you, too, Ma.”

THE MARINES HAD smeared war paint on their faces, flat black and olive green. They had given their daggers a last lethal edge. And by the time they crossed the Diyala River they had left nothing untouched. The landscape was littered with smoldering Iraqi bodies. The air stank from the smell of so many things afire. Only the stray dogs, nosing around the flesh and flames, appeared to be alive.

My truck crept down a narrow lane marked by little flags, a path through a minefield. Shards of metal and bullet cases cracked under the wheels. On the left, the bottom half of a corpse lay in the dirt; a few feet away, a human head. It was twilight.

The bodies of three Iraqi soldiers lay at the foot of a stone wall. They were pressed tight against it, cheeks and arms in a tangle together. They had been running when the bullets found them, and as they went down they had kept moving forward. Pressed against the wall, the three men looked as if they had been trying to crawl inside of it, to become one with the stone.


All through the desert, the Iraqis had run backward. In a few places they had stood and fought, one shot, two shots, and then they had run. Here, at the outskirts of the capital, the three Iraqis had tried to flee, but there was nowhere left to go. So here they lay together, in a last contorted pose.

Over against the fence were piles of black boots and old military uniforms, discarded by deserters. I picked up a small piece of paper blowing in the breeze.

“Oh God, creator of all things in the world,” went the handwritten note, “please bind up all my wounds.”

With the fighting over, the marines were suddenly not so buoyant anymore. They had taken off their war paint and they were no longer joking. “It’s a little sobering,” Captain Sal Aguilar told me, looking at a field full of dead Iraqis. “When you’re training for this, you joke about it, you can’t wait for the real thing. Then when you see it, when you see the real thing, you never want to see it again.”

I felt as though I’d seen something the marines did not want me to see. As night fell the colonel came over and told me in a voice that was not negotiable that I was no longer welcome. “Get out of my unit,” he said, so I drove back through the darkness and across the river and behind the lines.

It was a beautiful night. The landscape was still. The dead were no longer visible. I lay in the road, next to a box of bullets and the corpse of a dog, and fell asleep.

AS THE AMERICANS streamed toward Baghdad, the Iraqis were fleeing south. They were crammed into buses, cars and taxis, all flying southward on Highway 6. One Iraqi was driving himself and his family on a motorcycle and sidecar, another in a clattering 1954 Dodge pickup with everything he owned stuffed inside. A third man, standing in the bed of another pickup, raced down the highway shouting what appeared to be the only words he knew in English.

“George Bush!” he cried, whizzing past.

Even some Iraqi soldiers, hoping to make their escape, had jumped aboard the backs of trucks. Many Iraqis, eyeing the American convoys, waved white flags, some fashioned out of bedsheets or T-shirts. One woman waved a pair of boxer shorts.

“You have saved us from him,” exclaimed Alawih Hussein, pausing as he drove his battered red Toyota out of the capital. “It is finished. It is finished. We want you to kill him, as he has been killing us.”

Hussein’s wife, who sat next to her husband, was so effusive in her joy that she paused several times to suck on a pocket inhaler.

“I love you,” she said in English, panting and weeping. “I love you.”

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