At 02:33 I hear the first drops of rain pitter-pattering against the water-resistant shell around my sleeping bag. I wiggle deeper into the bag and go fetal to avoid the inevitable seepage. I will be wet before dawn,both from rain and condensation. This disquieting thought, as much the creeping clamminess, rouse me every half hour until reveille at 5AM.
By then the rain has turned into a soft drizzle. The sun won’t rise for two more hours, and even then it’ll be damn-near invisible. It is 3 February, the second day of “Operation Smokewagon,” a sweep for weapons and antioccupation fighters through towns, desert, and farmland around Hit.
The 230 or so Marines of Bravo Company and the 30-plus Iraqi soldiers accompanying them on this mission emerge from their bedrolls. Iraqi Army soldiers – “IAs” in Marine shorthand - rustle up Halal Meals-Ready-to-Eat around their own campfire. Marines rip open regular MREs - “Country Captain Chicken,” “Beef Teriyaki,” and “Jambalaya". Americans hang with Americans, Iraqis with Iraqis.
Calling this arrangement self-segregation wouldn’t describe it adequately, though both groups seem to accept the split. So many things separate the IAs and the Marines – language, culture, training, and equipment - that the division is understandable. It is still lamentable. Few IAs speak English well enough to carry on a conversation with a grunt, and I haven’t met a Marine who can speak more than a few words of Arabic, though each takes a language course before arriving in-country.
There are notable exceptions to the segregation norm. There’s the burly young enlisted Marine I met at Firm Base 5 who breakfasts regularly with IAs. He tipped me off to the fresh flatbread they bake and the sweet chai they prepare every morning. As the IAs chatted comfortably, baked and sipped, the Marine hovered around the hot oven. They didn’t seem to mind him at all, and they fed both of us.
Then there’s the earnest Iraqi soldier who seems to enjoy the company of grunts. He tolerates their condescension and crudeness. When a Marine combat engineer fumbled with a Soviet-style machine gun unearthed from a cache hidden in the dirt, the Iraqi soldier took the weapon from him and popped open the receiver with ease. Grudging approval slipped from the lips of several Marines. “Good work, haj,” one remarked.
For the most part, the relationship between Iraqi soldiers and American grunts is uneasy. It cannot honestly be called a partnership. The IA is almost completely dependent on the Marines. Americans have literal power over them – bigger and more lethal weapons; aircraft, artillery, and armor; robust stocks of food, vehicles, and logistical support; functional high-tech communications; vastly superior training; and stable institutions with deep reserves of human capital like the Marine Corps itself. At the most fundamental level, US Marines are backed by the most powerful government in the world, which has arrogated to itself the authority to attack preemptively those it deems enemies, anywhere in the world, any time. Charged with their orders from the “national command authority” and their generals and colonels, the Marines sweep through the area with absolute confidence, searching homes and detaining "suspicious" locals.
For their part, the IAs have a sort of abstract power on their side – this is their country, after all - but they have no way to make it concrete. US Marines are the law in Hit; the US military is the law across most of Iraq, the Bush administration's reports about the profusion of independent Iraqi Army units and the autonomous government in Baghdad notwithstanding.
The IAs I have watched on missions during this trip and previous ones often perform more like new recruits or disinterested draftees than professionals. Most handle their weapons loosely – muzzles pointed every which way, sometimes at other IAs and at Marines. Some patrol as if strolling across a living room; others concentrate on the task at hand, though it appears they often don’t know what that task is because commands don’t necessarily trickle down to them. They are reduced to following the lead of the closest Marine.
At best, IAs provide basic support to the grunts. They are often called on to search homes alongside Marines. They ask occupants basic questions, but most IAs have trouble conveying the people's meaning to the Marines. Conversations devolve into mime and guessing games. (And real translators are in short supply. Same situation as last year -worse, in fact.) At their worst, IAs are superfluous to American combat ops, warm bodies Marines drag around because higher tells them to.
IAs and Marines load up their packs on seven-ton trucks as the sky brightens from black to an ashy gray. The rain falls heavily at some moments, lightly at others. No one avoids the wet. At 7AM the Smokewagon sweep fires up. The force slogs through brown fields and short grass for the next five hours. With each step each man creates a wet mud waffle around the soles of his boots.
A little bit after noon, I follow Staff Sergeant David Marino, his radio operator Lance Corporal Adrian Bobadilla, and Navy Corpsman O’Brien Chin down a road toward a long, low concrete building. There's a green expanse of grass growing in the wet field to the right of the building. We gripe about the rain and shift the weight of our daypacks and bulletproof vests from one shoulder to the other. My load is light compared to the grunts. Chin hauls a full combat medical kit; Bobadilla schleps a heavy-ass radio and batteries. They also carry automatic rifles and ammunition. And water.
Then, bursts of automatic gunfire erupt about 50 meters ahead of us, followed by a couple of heavy whumps, grenade rounds. Marino, Chin, and Bobadilla drop to their knees in the mud; I follow their example. Bullets whiz over us from many directions. “Cease fire!,” Marino yells to those shooting behind us, over us. “You got friendlies in front of you! Cease fire!” he shouts.
The shooting is loud and furious and disorienting, particularly to me. This is my first real firefight. I point my video camera at the loudest clump of shooting. I pan to my right toward Marino and his team as they fire rounds into the field at an enemy I can't see. I’m trying to concentrate on the action happening in the viewfinder while keeping my head parallel to the mud.
Marino and his team push up to a shed next to the farm building and tuck into its crevices. I follow, huffing air. “Bob! Comm!” Marino yells to Bobadilla, who unclips the radio’s handset from his shoulder strap and hands it over. Marino listens, and then hands the device back to Bob. They crouch then run into the field.
I point the camera toward to group of Marines and zoom in. One grunt stands over a man who lies prostrate. “You got another bandanna to blindfold this piece of shit?” a Corporal shouts to a squad mate.
I walk up to another group of Marines gathered around a 50ish man. A Marine cleans a bloody wound on the man’s scalp with bottled water. An Iraqi soldier walks up to the man, who lies on his back, and spits on him. Marines shoo him away.
“Sir, you got three dead right over,” Marino tells his commanding officer, Captain Moni Laube as they scan the field. One of the dead men has plastic explosives strapped to his chest, according to Marines on the squad radio. “He’s got C-4 on his chest,” Marino shouts. “You need to move them away from there.”
I walk over to the third body. “He’s dead,” a Marine says to me and anyone else who is listening. “I shot him right in the fucking face.” I see the hole.
Three “enemy KIA” but “there’s more that ran away," Marino confirms. "They can fucking come back,” he warns the grunts around him.
Someone spots something or someone moving in the canal among the reeds. A wounded, possibly dead, fighter is either hiding or dying.Gunfire erupts again. I peer through the swaying stalks but see nothing. Marino and the Laube spot the body. Marino puts two final bullets into the man. All I see is a spray of blood after the second shot. That’s the fourth and final “enemy KIA”.
I look into the disfigured faces of the dead men and try to humanize them, to imagine who they might have been. I know nothing about them, about their lives or their cause. Understanding something, anything, about them, I think, might make me feel something about the terrible carnage around me. I struggle to conjure images of sons and daughters and wives, but I can’t. The Marine’s bullets, the dead men's eerily unreal gray skin and frozen expressions, plus my own ignorance make it impossible.
I crouch behind a berm with Marino and a squad of Marines. “Thirty seconds!” Corpsman Chin shouts. Then, Boom! The Explosive Ordnance Demolition team has “blown in place” two of the dead fighters, one of whom wore the suicide the vest. (The other carried a grenade with the detonation pin pulled, Marines said.) “Stand by for body parts,” shouts a grunt. I don’t hear anything hit the ground after the blast, but as I walk back to the farmhouse, I notice moist coin-size bits of pink, brown, and red glistening in the dirt. I identify one chunk as a piece of liver. Corpsman Chin corrects me. “That’s lung.
“You know what’s awesome, sir?” a Marine asks Marino when the shooting stops. “They didn’t get any of us.
I am back at Camp Hit, in the Public Affairs tent tearing into another MRE -“Cajun-Style Rice with Beans and Beef Sausage.” Operation Smokewagon ended after four days. Five hundred Marines from Bravo and Golf Companies plus 75 IAs covered dozens of kilometers. Thirteen weapons caches were found. Eight men were detained. Several other Iraqi men were released immediately, among them a fisherman who kept small bags of gunpowder in his home (more effective than a rod and reel); a 16-year-old boy who happened to be near the farmhouse during the firefight; and another 20-something fisherman and his son who were angling near a weapons cache the Marines dug up.
Major Dent of Public Affairs told me yesterday that a tremendous improvised explosive device blew up an up-armored Humvee earlier that morning. It destroyed the rear of the vehicle – “vaporized” is the verb two Marines I spoke with used. Two Marines died at the scene; one died later. The driver of the vehicle was not wounded critically. (Commanders are not releasing the names of the dead Marines until their families have been notified.) The day before that, five Marines were injured on a routine patrol by an IED blast. One of whom the Marines, Justin Reynolds, was injured seriously enough to be medevaced to Germany. Battalion Landing Team 1/2 and the 22d MEU will not return home whole. That's the reality of being a Marine, the First Sergeant from the company that lost three Marines told me last night. His tone was Semper Fi, but his eyes were still wet.