This story appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review.
Second Lieutenant Dave Hagner was tall and smooth-faced, and like many other marines he carried himself in a way that brought his toughness into uncomfortable contrast with his youth. He was twenty-seven, older than the men in the platoon he commanded. During the day he worked out and joked around and daydreamed of the boat he would buy when he left the Marine Corps. It was long and sleek, and probably it would be white. It would whisk him light and free above Hawaiian reefs, chasing marlin, sailfish, sharks. He intended, in retirement, to be an old man by the sea.
At night he put the boat aside, slipped into his body armor, checked his rifle and his radio, his ammo clips and night-vision goggles and safety glasses. He pulled on gloves, pushed in earplugs. If he felt lucky, or unlucky, he would ask aloud how the mission would go and toss into the air an angular stone painted with various prophecies, like the Magic 8-Balls you can buy at toyshops. Fortune found, Hagner led his platoon into the ruined, stinking maze of Ramadi. Quietly they slipped by packs of feral dogs, lagoons of sewage. They stepped around the unexploded mortars and crept under open windows, the soft sounds of whispered Arabic falling over them, the speakers unaware of, or unconcerned about, the passage of armed men. When they reached a certain neighborhood, Hagner’s marines would burst into houses and bring the male occupants to him as they blinked off sleep. Then the questioning began.
It must have seemed to the Iraqis that they were being hauled before a nightmare judge. They were accustomed to this, to violent noises, interrogations, searches. But still they were cowed by Hagner, by all of it. And even though he was careful to say Thank you and even sometimes Things are gonna get better to those frightened people, the words seemed empty after what had just been done, and Hagner seemed remote and alien. Inhuman. A few hours later, Hagner would emerge from his armor cocoon, pale and sweat-soaked, a wiry, almost skinny guy from Essex, Maryland, eating candy and falling exhausted onto his bunk. Happily alive, dreaming of boats.
Hagner and his men were doing what other people would later call winning the war. They didn’t know they were winning it. I, embedded with them, didn’t know it. US politicians now describe Ramadi as a model of success. The president points there and grins. Look, it’s working. There’s the proof. If this is true, Ramadi must have changed a great deal since I visited.
It is strange, looking back. At the time I didn’t feel any shift in the balance of things, though I’m told success was unfolding around me. Zarqawi had recently been killed, but that seemed to have little effect on the violent streets of Baghdad or anywhere else. There were only a few moments when it was possible to sense or grasp anything beyond the details of getting by. In the evenings, as the orange sun fell away and bats emerged from towers of the old palaces, you could feel the precariousness of the larger story, of the battle for Ramadi. It was as though, in the softening of the light and heat, a hidden view of the landscape was revealed. Perhaps it was that with dusk came a momentary peace. But then the acid night poured in, dissolving the edges of the city and reducing everything once more to small, irreversible moments of fear and action and inaction. It was in these moments that Ramadi was won, if it has really been won at all.
By the summer of 2006, Ramadi had been called the most dangerous city on earth, and it had been briefly closed to journalists. The closure made many of us suspect something big was about to happen, something, perhaps, like the siege on Fallujah in 2004. Fallujah had mutated into a bloody, ruinous, and heavily reported on debacle; it was possible to see why the Marines, who played a major role in the siege, might not want more attention if they were about to flatten another city. Also that summer, news of a massacre at Haditha, where marines were reported to have killed twenty-four Iraqis—many, if not all, unarmed civilians—spread like a stain across the country. It was a particularly sensitive time.
The military eventually relented, and the press was again allowed into Ramadi. I was told I was one of the first to go. At the time I was in Iraq reporting a story for National Geographic magazine, traveling between sweltering bases with photographer Jim Nachtwey. We had planned to visit Ramadi together. Jim is a tough, intelligent man many years my senior. He was nearly gutted by a grenade during a previous assignment in Iraq. He changed his mind about Ramadi after reading about it and hearing from colleagues. He tried to change mine.
“I strongly urge you to reconsider,” he said one night, dark eyes inscrutable in a cavernous bunkroom. His voice was calm and serious. A father’s voice. I lay in my sleeping bag gauging the weight of his words. I wondered how many times he had been told the same thing. It occurred to me that we avoid the judgment of later critics only through success. Jim had been very successful. Had he been unlucky, someone would have called him stupid, reckless. No one said that to me, exactly, but they were waiting to see how it went. The only person who seemed upbeat about my trip was the Marine major who arranged it. She was pleasant and cheerful, her voice sweet over bad phone lines. I never met her. She died in Ramadi when a bomb exploded beneath her Humvee. But that was later. The next morning I made the decision Jim had made a hundred times before he was famous, and after. As I prepared to leave, he shook my hand and smiled and said, as he often does, “Take good care.”
Ramadi is the capital of Al Anbar province, a large and wild polygon stretching from the center of the country to its western border. It isn’t far from Baghdad, but getting there took days. Sweltering days of waiting, dust clouds flooding the bases. Hours of sitting on dark runways, lines of troops sacked out along them, cigarettes glowing. Late-night flights aboard yawning helicopters packed with these boy soldiers. In all of this waiting the only complaints I heard came when a flight was cancelled again, and the guys were forced to spend another night in a tent like a warehouse, sleeping beneath wheezing air conditioners on cots stained with someone else’s sweat.
On the night I departed from a base called Al Taqaddum, a soldier at the edge of the runway worked through the line of men: with a black marker he wrote letters on the backs of our hands. It was shorthand for the names of our destinations, like three-letter airport codes on a luggage tag. The helicopter to Ramadi would make a few stops along the way and at each the crew would hold up a chalkboard with the name of the stop scrawled on it, then they’d walk through the cabin checking hands. It was easier than shouting over the noise of the rotor blades, and this way fewer people slept through their stops. I had never thought it would be possible to sleep in the sweltering, rattling, sick-smelling belly of a helicopter until sleep began taking me, until the harness holding me tight to my seat felt like an embrace and the regular shudder of flight lulled me into gentle submission.
I landed at an enormous military base outside Ramadi sometime after 3 a.m. and slept in a tunnel-like tent packed with rows of empty bunks. A few hours later I met Army Colonel Sean MacFarland, commander in charge of operations in Ramadi. In a conference room he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation and said that American forces had been closing off sections of Ramadi, trying to squeeze the enemy out.
“Ramadi will not be Fallujah,” he said. It will not, he meant, suffer the shelling, the urban combat, the death and chaos. MacFarland was plain-looking and dryly funny, comparing the enemy in Ramadi to Mafiosi, to characters from The Sopranos. He called up scenes from The Godfather and said the largest band of “the enemy” consisted mostly of smugglers, garden-variety criminals. Then there were a smaller number of resistance fighters and ex-Baathists. “They’re kind of like Texans,” he said, laughing. “They just don’t like to answer to authority.”
Finally, there were the al Qaeda operatives, the mujahideen, who had answered to Zarqawi. MacFarland said the Americans had lately observed fighting between local groups in the city. He was convinced the scene was changing. Al Qaeda had been too brutal. Their intimidation campaign and kidnappings, their vicious and repeated murder of government officials, had backfired. MacFarland was looking for ways to exploit the infighting. Almost as an afterthought he mentioned that the average insurgency lasts twelve to fifteen years.
“To use an example from my own background, in Northern Ireland, not a lot of people were actually in the IRA fighting the British,” MacFarland said. “But the saying was everybody left their back door open, so if the British Army was chasing someone, they’d have a place to hide. What I’m trying to do is get the Iraqis to close their back doors.”
To shut the back doors, Dave Hagner’s marines would go in through the front.
The Humvee sped along the edge of the city. Ramadi flashed past, ruined and sun-scorched, brown and green and mute. We were outside the wire, shooting across vulnerable ground from MacFarland’s base to a Marine one inside Ramadi. The marines in the truck tensed even on this short run. It was their unit’s second tour in Iraq; previously they’d been deployed near Fallujah. They understood the possibilities.
The driver turned and shouted over his shoulder.
“Last year I was hit by seven or eight IEDs.” He grinned. There was pride in the telling. The guy beside him smirked.
“Back then the IEDs were really small,” he said. “Not big, like here.”
Ramadi was known for IEDs the way certain French cities are known for wine. Insurgents had been refining their technique here. The marines spoke of the bombs with a kind of reverence and sense of inevitability, even curiosity. If you were around long enough you would get hit and then you would know. Or you would be dead.
We arrived at a riverside base called Hurricane Point, headquarters for the Third Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment. The Point was part of a palace compound that once belonged to prominent Baathists, perhaps one of Saddam’s sons. The Marines had bunkered down there, laying out mazes of blast walls and Hesco barriers, giant fabric tubes rammed with earth and circled with steel mesh. Guard towers. Razor wire glinted in the sun. Sandbags leaked like hourglasses. It was any American base: imposing, intimidating, unapproachable.
I met briefly with the Three-Eight’s commander, a tall, buzzing man named Neary. He had the face of a leprechaun and spoke with a Boston accent. Neary told me there were 300,000 Iraqis living in the area under his jurisdiction. Each day his marines escorted Al Anbar’s governor from his home to his office in Ramadi because it was too dangerous for him to make the trip alone. A detachment of Neary’s marines guarded the compound where the governor and his besieged staff worked. The city seemed utterly unlivable. For a long, bloody stretch al Qaeda and other groups had been killing people who worked for the government, or people who worked with the Americans, or people who didn’t work anywhere at all. The killing was out of control.
In his air-conditioned office, Neary bantered with his officers like a high-school jock. He had agreed, or been ordered, to allow me to spend a week with India Company, one of his units, as they patrolled western Ramadi. He took me aside and told me I was to treat his men right. It was a standard warning, not unkind. Nine men from the Three-Eight had been killed by that point, a few by snipers, one by a rocket-propelled grenade, most by IEDs. Later, on port-o-john walls, I read what some thought of Neary and the growing body count. In black marker, unhappy marines had scrawled, “neary kills” and “neary kills marines.”
After Neary, I met outside with Gunnery Sergeant Preston Lambert of India Company, an enormous black man with cannonball biceps and a neat mustache. He looked like the actor Carl Weathers—Apollo Creed himself, only bigger. Lambert and his security team of about six marines loaded and locked their weapons and climbed into their Humvees for another quarter-mile sprint outside the wire to the entrance of Camp Blue Diamond. Little, deadly commutes. Blue Diamond was one more palace-turned-military-outpost where India Company kept quarters. We crossed a bridge over the Euphrates. The ancient river fell in white plumes over a dam. Mist threaded the green reeds along the bank. It was seductive, the sound and presence of it. It drew my eyes and held them, as it has captured shepherds, farmers, and prophets for millennia. There is nothing so beautiful in the desert. The stirring waters, the munificence of God.
“Looks almost clean here,” I said. “Not like down south.”
Lambert watched the river.
“Any body of water that you’ve read about in the Bible that’s still around is pretty significant,” he said.
I would learn that God and the Bible were never far from Lambert’s lips. They appeared as bits and pieces in his natural flow, God this, God that, sacred sound bites. It was strangely comforting. Iraq is, after all, the landscape of the Old Testament, and for a lot of soldiers and marines, it means something to be stationed there, minor actors in a new epic set on an ancient stage. I imagined Lambert was like me, that any of the marines were, that after weeks in the heat they began daydreaming about shedding their heavy, ovenlike armor and dropping into the river, letting it rinse away sand and sweat and sin. Of course, this was impossible.
On my first evening in Ramadi, Lambert offered me a weapon. It was just before I headed out on patrol with Hagner’s men. We stood in a narrow, dim corridor walled in plywood.
“We can get you one,” he said. His heavy brow rose expectantly.
Offers of armament had come before I arrived in Ramadi, at outposts nearby, or on Baghdad’s streets, from men accustomed to the weight and comfort of guns. If a soldier or marine liked you, even if he didn’t, he might try to arm you, a gesture rooted in the nearness of blood and death. By that point I’d been offered a small armory. I had always refused instantly, joking it away. But in Ramadi, I paused.
To troops, a weapon sometimes seemed the only reliable defense. In the customs of that place, offering one to me was a friendly attempt to care for a stranger. Unspoken behind it was the knowledge that Ramadi was the most fucked-up place on Earth, and that soldiers, marines, journalists, and many, many others had been captured in Iraq by insurgents and killed after enduring horrors beyond words. If you had a weapon, at least you had a chance. My pause lasted a beat or two. But the choice was pretty clear. No guns, even in Ramadi.
No thanks, I told Lambert.
“You sure? I’d hate to see you get dragged into some room.”
I was very suddenly aware of Jim Nachtwey’s advice warning me not to go to Ramadi. I felt insubstantial, a kind of dizziness spreading through me. Lambert said something I don’t remember and moved past me. My mind restarted and the feeling passed and I followed him into a large conference room where Dave Hagner was about to brief his platoon on that night’s mission.
Ramadi is a mostly Sunni city; its sympathies, and whatever prosperity it enjoyed before the war, were linked to Saddam’s regime. As with Fallujah, as with many other towns and cities, insurgent groups sprouted in Ramadi in the chaos after the invasion, as American forces stumbled and bullied their way around. When American troops besieged Fallujah, many insurgents escaped to Ramadi. Today you know—if you are interested in such things—that after Ramadi they escaped to a province called Diyala. Chasing insurgents around Iraq is still a matter of squeezing, as Colonel MacFarland had said. It is like squeezing toothpaste around in a tube that is still capped.
Hagner told his men they would split into squads and walk into neighborhoods they’d never visited to do something called a census op, or census operation. The marines would go door to door searching the houses, sizing up the families, and asking questions. How are things in Ramadi? How many weapons do you have? Do you have access to the internet? Have you seen insurgent activity? Do you know any insurgents? In each household the marines would count military-age males and photograph them with digital cameras. Then they would ask the man of the house to fill out a form and sign it.
Earlier, Hagner had tried to explain the value of the mission: it would collect important intelligence, establish an American presence—he was trying to convince the Iraqis the Marines were there to help. He said his men would conduct themselves as politely as possible. The missions were not supposed to be raids; they were the military equivalent of a meet-and-greet.
The Marines had previously done census ops during the day, but it had become too dangerous. Snipers, IEDs, grenades. Now they would do it sometime after midnight. They would knock first, that was true. But if no one answered, they would kick the door in. If the door wouldn’t budge, they’d blast it open with a shotgun. For a few moments I sat in stunned silence and tried to imagine it. On summer nights in blacked-out towns, many Iraqis gather on the cool floors of living rooms, seeking some small relief from the heat. I imagined a family there, heard the loud banging that chopped them from sleep. A confused father opening his door. Marines pouring in, their weapons swiveling over the heads of his children.
The intrusiveness, the violence of it. In a country and a culture that values respect above almost anything else. I did not see how armed men bursting in on sleeping families could possibly be a good idea, even if they did it with a smile. Hate is sown by such tactics. I suggested as much to Hagner.
He shook his head.
“It’s absolutely counterproductive at some points,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me in my home.”
Yet this was the mission. And the Marines, being good Marines, had learned to say, Fuck it. Let’s do it.
Through the green fog of night-vision goggles, Ramadi was a nightmare, smashed and jagged. Abandoned buildings loomed in the darkness, empty windows gaping. Weak lights pulsed in the rooms of surviving houses. Stars spun slowly above, brilliant and unblinking in their cold orbits.
It was almost midnight. A platoon of marines slipped slowly into the city. Feral dogs, invisible at the roadsides, snarled around us. Each man wore an infrared chemlite, a glow stick visible only with night-vision goggles, so he could be identified, and not accidentally shot, by others in the platoon. My goggles were hand-me-downs, and slipped drunkenly over my face. I didn’t use them much. When I did, I saw not men but a trail of green lights floating through the blackness, rising and falling, vanishing in the distance. It was beautiful, unsettling. It was as if they were already dead, a procession of departing spirits.
“If one of those dogs comes at me, I’ma shoot the fucker,” a marine whispered.
The dogs kept their distance. We’d press our backs against a wall then run, one by one, across street intersections, gear and flack jackets rattling. It was nearly 100 degrees. No one appeared outside. A curfew had been set over the city and anyone on the streets was considered a target.
But the marines knew the mujahideen—the muj—were moving through the darkness, seeding the roads with bombs. They knew because each morning a new crop blew up the marines on the day shift. We would hear them sporadically, deafening booms that shook the earth and squeezed the heart. Some were detonated by the muj, some by an American bomb-disposal unit that crept alone along the nighttime roads, sniffing for bombs in a truck whose belly is made of steel. Nobody had a good job in Ramadi.
We entered a neighborhood. The violence was coming. The marines walked up the street and began banging on doors, the sound of it rippling across the black pool of night. Then they were inside, shouting, herding the residents, searching for weapons. A certain feeling from childhood welled up in me. The feeling when night-swimming, when jumping into a still pond, being frightened and thrilled by the darkness and the loudness of the splash, knowing I had just announced my presence and a thousand nighttime eyes had turned to look.
With Hagner’s squad I stepped over piles of sandals outside a front door and entered a house. The marines fanned out through it. Some climbed to the roof to watch surrounding buildings. Others cleared each room. A man and a woman, the latter wearing a black headscarf, sat before a television in a small first-floor room. One child, a daughter perhaps five or six years old, crouched at her mother’s feet, her hair gathered in a long, pretty braid. She stared blankly at me while a Jordanian interpreter named C. J. questioned her parents. How are things in Ramadi? How many AK-47s do you have? Do you have internet access? The man answered quietly. Another tiny child slept through it all on the floor beside him.
We stood on their rugs and mats in our filthy boots. More heat pulsed into their already sweltering house. From next door we heard another squad batter its way into a courtyard, a metal gate screeching. Our stealth was spent, the neighborhood warned. A huge bomb suddenly exploded nearby, a waterfall of sound. Then silence. The men paused, listening. “IED,” Hagner said finally.
The marines snapped a digital photo of the man and filed back out of the house. They must have seemed like robots. If only the Iraqis could have seen them without armor and helmets and weapons: pale, slender, unformed, many just past the gates of manhood. Not so different. Before leaving, Hagner shook the man’s hand, said Thank you. He did this every time. He tried hard to be kind and respectful. “The worst is just the kids,” he said, looking at the girl. “You know, seeing them, how it scares them. It plays on your emotions after a while.”
No one was home at the next house. Marines smashed open the door with a steel bar called a hooligan tool. Echoes in the darkness. I imagined the enemy, formless, invisible, drawing closer with each metallic clang. Zeroing in. Hagner told his men to search the shit out of the place, and the marines tossed the house like detectives. They found little: photos wedged in a mirror’s frame, one AK-47 under a bed. Perhaps the family fled Ramadi to stay with relatives in a nearby village. Perhaps they fled to Syria or Jordan.
Another house. Deep rugs, a television, a single bulb like a nipple in the ceiling. The gray walls crumbling and sweating. Grit rasping beneath combat boots. A large, round, bearded man in a long white shirt shifted from foot to foot as the marines pushed into his home. In the distance, another IED exploded.
The man was Ammar Mohamed Obaid. His wife, two daughters, and son waited in another room for the thing to be done. Through the interpreter he told me conditions had grown very bad in his neighborhood. He used to work at the government center, he said. Now he was too afraid to go to work.
“It’s not good,” Obaid said. “The main market is closed by noon. After noon, no one goes out.”
Obaid was thirty-one, same as me, though he looked much older. When he learned we were the same age he put a hand on his belly. For a moment, his face relaxed.
“How much do you weigh?” he asked.
“About seventy-five kilos.”
“I weigh much more. I used to be a goalkeeper, you know.”
He swatted an imaginary ball away from a net. Other times, other lives. There was little else to say. The ruin of his world was reflected in every surface. It was difficult to interview Iraqis when embedded and relying on military interpreters. In Ramadi, some Iraqis said things were quiet in their neighborhood. Others said things were fine, no problem. Many turned up their hands as if to say, Look how you came to my house, in darkness, with guns. You have seen what it’s like out there. Why do you even ask? After a while I stopped.
The marines pulled out a chemical swab designed to test for traces of explosives. The swabs change color if a person has recently handled them. Obaid offered his hands indifferently. He’d been through it before. The test came back positive. Obaid denied handling bombs and Hagner ordered another swabbing. This one returned negative. Hagner apologized, said it must have misread. A handshake, a thank-you, an exit. Obaid swaying from foot to foot like an anxious goalie waiting for the shot.
And so it went. The adrenaline drained away after a while, replaced by weariness and the wet burden of body armor. Doors breached, marines yelling, confused families huddling on mats beneath ceiling fans. Children stared, some young enough to be curious and to smile at the gift of a soccer ball. Others were older, settling in the ways of their fathers, glaring at us, arms crossed.
When Hagner said, “Things are gonna get better,” I don’t know if he believed it. During one search we stood watching the interpreter question a man. Hagner, half-listening, said the muj usually didn’t attack during these missions. The presence of families seemed to deter them.
“They know we’re here. We don’t know how they know, but they know.” He nodded toward the Iraqi. “So they’ll probably pay this guy a visit tomorrow. Ask him what he told us. Maybe beat up his family a little.”
It was not unusual for the Marines to take advantage of the insurgents’ reluctance to attack when civilians were present. Some squads specifically sought civilian homes to use as cover. They chose a house and commandeered it, rounding up the family and sequestering them in an interior room where they would, ideally, be safer. Then the marines ascended to the roof, sometimes punching “rabbit holes” in walls just large enough to insert the muzzle of a rifle. There they sat, providing a lookout for other units, until the mission ended. Sometimes the marines took fire, sometimes they laid it down in thick streams of spinning metal. All the while the Iraqi family remained quietly captive somewhere below.
When it was over, the marines gave the family a claims form with which they could petition at the government center for reimbursement of damages. Never mind the danger of trying to collect. Never mind that the governor required an American escort to travel safely to the center. It was another feature of the Ramadi operation that seemed absolutely backward. By taking over houses, by using them for cover, the Marines drew fire and insurgent wrath on civilians who appeared to be collaborating.
“Now you see the catch-22 of what we deal with every day,” Hagner told me. “But by not going there you’re providing the insurgents with a refuge, so you’re not accomplishing anything. You’ve got two options: you can do it the way we do it or you can surround the city, throw the families out and shoot the shit out of it, like we did in Fallujah, and you can destroy everything.”
It drained Hagner to consider the implications and questions. He had been a grunt for six years before studying and passing tests to become an officer. Sometimes he seemed to long for that previous, less-complicated path. But he had more responsibility now; he had men. He was thoughtful, and he sympathized with the Iraqis in a way, though his emotions had been hardened by death and work and by the chasmal distance between the locals and the Marines, who spent most of their time barricaded like overlords in the palaces of the old regime. Ultimately, Hagner’s priorities, like those of most frontline troops, lay elsewhere.
“All I care about is my guys,” he said. “No shit.”
In the last few houses of the night the marines found several ill Iraqis. A Navy corpsman named Bevis investigated, but the symptoms were vague and puzzling in translation. He could do little with the gear he carried, most of it designed to plug bullet and shrapnel holes. One middle-aged man fidgeted and trembled alone on a mat in a corner, removed from the rest of the family, his eyes open but unseeing, a shadow of beard on his thin cheeks. His sister explained that he was retarded. She looked at us expectantly, as if we might carry a cure. In her face were the withered traces of a once-exquisite beauty.
Shooting stars burned the sky as we ran and stumbled back to friendly lines. Except for the thunder of IEDs, western Ramadi had been quiet. By 4 a.m., we fell soaked and exhausted into bed. The marines would sleep till noon, roll out of their dirty bunks, eat lunch, and wait for the start of the next night mission. Meanwhile, the sun would return to broil the city, and the souk would buzz with tales of the marines’ visits. I wondered if Obaid would receive a knock on his door, if severe, bearded men would inquire about his evening. What would he say?
I didn’t tell them anything. We talked about soccer.
Over the next few days I went on more missions, visited more neighborhoods, observed the oppression of fear. In between I hung around with marines from Hagner’s or another platoon, watching World Cup soccer matches, listening to stories, drinking teeth-rotting quantities of Gatorade, the unofficial drink of the war.
The Marine barracks were in another palace building. They smelled of locker rooms, unwashed men. Bunk beds lined the walls. Some men had fashioned curtains from camo netting. Video game consoles sat atop trunks, care packages sent by strangers packed shelves alongside ratty paperbacks and piles of sweat-sopped gear. On the wall, a poster of a porn star, blond and ruby-lipped, gripping a penis as if it were a Popsicle. Someone had squirted ribbons of moisture lotion across her. In Vietnam there were cafés, whorehouses, bars, many ways to relieve tension. In Iraq you had nonalcoholic beer and official advice telling marines to relieve stress through masturbation.
I liked most of the marines I met. They were helpful and open and watched out for me. As I look back, it is clear, however, that in Ramadi they were winning, if that’s what we’ve chosen to call it, in spite of themselves. They understood the backwardness of the missions, the terror it inflicted on the Iraqis. Some even saw that their desires and the Iraqis’ were simple and identical: to live through the night. Beyond that, most of the men I spoke with cared nothing for the war. They merely wanted to leave, intact, with their friends.
They were frank about their feelings toward Iraqis. “Fuck all those motherfuckers,” a marine from Miami told me. “What they need is some McDonald’s, some water parks, and a Super Wal-Mart. If they only knew what they could have, they’d chill the fuck out.”
Later, the same man told me that for him, nothing equaled the feeling of killing a person face-to-face. By person, he meant Iraqi. It would be wrong to conclude that all marines agreed with such statements about the war or about Iraqis, though I know many did. What was notable was the absence of contrary views: no one in Ramadi ever told me they liked Iraqis or felt good about the war. Iraqis were an ungrateful obstacle on the road home. But they were not simply passive problems that could be skirted. They were potential enemies who might actively prevent the one thing you wanted above all else, more than any victory: that triumphant homecoming. This mental calculation meant Iraqis were frequently the objects of hatred. And with the Haditha killings fresh in their minds, the Iraqis knew it.
The problem arose one night in the middle of my stay. I had left Hagner’s platoon, joining another that traveled house to house in the graceless, bludgeoning heat, making ambiguous discoveries, encountering faces of stone. The people we met seemed somehow more hostile. Probably they had heard the Marines were coming. Perhaps their own anger had been simmering. The population blurred into a homogeneous mass.
The marines were amazed at the living conditions they encountered—fetid, garbage-lined rooms, lines of ants pulsing like black veins in the floors. The rankness seemed to make the marines even angrier, as if each instance of pathetic living were somehow an insult. After several stifling, stinking houses and frustrating interactions, the marines grew acidic. In the next home they discovered, wedged into a kind of cabinet, a stash of remote-controlled cars and the radio boxes used to drive them, along with spaghetti-clusters of wires. Suspicious stuff. It was said similar materials had been used to rig IEDs. The find further enraged a few of them.
A big marine stepped up to one of several Iraqi men in the house.
“What the fuck is this for?” he said. “You making bombs with this shit?”
The interpreter did not translate. The Iraqi man spoke only a few words of English and didn’t understand the questions. No doubt he understood the anger.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, you fucker. Thank you.”
He stepped closer to the small Iraqi. Eclipsed him. The man’s forehead shone with sweat. None of the other marines moved. The Iraqis in the room stared. Two paths opened before us.
“Fuck you,” the marine said.
He turned and went out.
“Thank you,” the man said after him. “Sorry.”
The wires and controllers lay in a heap on the floor. There was no proof outing the man as a bombmaker. But proof was an academic luxury. It took far less in the minds of anxious men who patrolled a city where enemy and civilian were indistinguishable. The shortcuts of war never change, and always deliver the traveler to the same destination.
And yet the shortcut was not taken. The redeeming feature of the confrontation lay in what didn’t happen. It ended with nothing more than a Fuck you, and that was infinitely better than a thousand other possibilities. Perhaps nothing more happened because I was there. The marine later admitted he had wanted to crack open the Iraqi’s head, but most people don’t do things like that with an audience. Whatever the reason, he chose not to. It was something. Elsewhere in the city, the others vying for hearts and minds were making more brutal choices.
On my last full mission in Ramadi, I rejoined Hagner and his men as they crept into the city to raid a school. It had been abandoned. Classes and the government that supported them disintegrated long ago. The shell of the school had apparently been taken over by insurgents. Commanders believed they were either storing weapons in the building or using it for a lookout. The Three-Eight had just lost two more marines—one to a sniper, another to an IED—and Hagner’s men went in looking for a fight. They found nothing. Their scuffling boots echoed off bare walls, their voices reverberated in empty rooms.
For the drive back to base, sometime after 3 a.m., I rode with Hagner and a few others. Ours was the lead Humvee in the convoy. The driver thumbed his iPod and the truck filled with AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” We were exhausted. My eyelids dropped like window shades. I felt my body slacken against the seatbelt, surrender to the pleasant massage of the rumbling machine. Then an IED exploded beneath us.
I remember screaming and dirt and a blast wave like a kick to the chest. I remember thinking that gunfire should be next, and then Hagner shouting to me to check if I still had my arms and legs. Sitting in the smoke and dust, with a not unpleasant vibration echoing through my body, I had not even thought to look. Later we stood around the wrecked Humvee, staring. The IED had blown up a second too early. Half the blast had gone into empty space. The other half destroyed the front of the truck, blowing both tires and pitting the windshield with apple-size craters. Gunnery Sergeant Lambert praised God that we were all alive and mostly uninjured. He had been driving behind us and had watched it unfold.
“I thought it was catastrophic,” he said. Before the smoke cleared, he had decided we were dead. Above, a sign on a wall reminded us that today is day one.
I took longer than usual to fall asleep that morning. I could see plainly all I had risked—my family’s love, my limbs—and I could not remember why I had decided to do it. I lay staring at the ceiling for a while, still tasting the dirt in my mouth, until exhaustion pulled me down and I slept.
When we woke a few hours later, nothing had changed, except, perhaps, for me. Someone told me I had lost my virginity. Now I knew. Hagner, like many others, had already lived through an IED. He and his men got out of bed, ate, and prepared for another mission as if nothing had happened. The wrecked Humvee was slotted into a line of trucks that had been similarly destroyed. At the time it seemed a small crime, all those trucks sitting there, useless, each a monument to the peculiar evolution of killing.
A month later, back in the US, I got an e-mail from Hagner. He said he was busy, that things were picking up in Ramadi. He wrote about how some of his men had been injured by a rocket-propelled grenade, and that one of them had been sent back to a hospital in the US. He closed by telling me to have a gin and tonic for him, his drink of choice, the one he daydreamed about enjoying on the deck of his boat.
It’s busy. Things are picking up. There was no hint of a downturn in violence, of the subtle shift in alliances away from insurgents and toward the US. Neither of us could have guessed that in a year the politicians and the generals would be holding on to Ramadi, almost clinging to it, as if it were a life raft spinning in the flotsam.
So much lay in what I did not see, in what the Americans did not see. If you have come to this point and are uncomfortable or perhaps horrified by the missions, by the behavior of the Marines, then consider what the insurgents must have been doing for the population to turn against them. It came down to small details, to the outrages that did not occur, or that happened outside the sphere of American influence.
For Iraqis, the battle for Ramadi turned on simple questions: Whom do I hate less, the Americans or the insurgents? Who is less likely to kill my family and me? Which is the lesser evil? The residents of Ramadi found their answer in the rhythm of bombings and raids, in the aftershock of executions, in light reflecting off pools of sewage in the streets. The calculation was complicated by honor and history and a shifting set of sensible considerations. But ultimately local leaders made their choice and gave the American government a kind of gossamer victory, something so sheer it seems the desert sun may yet melt it away.
It is impossible to know exactly what role men such as Dave Hagner played in this, whether his “Thank you’s” and “Things are gonna get better"s opened Iraqis to new perspectives. Or whether, in the curious restraint of a young, angry marine, there appeared enough contrast to the more violent actions of the insurgents to set the Americans tentatively on higher ground. What I saw in Ramadi did not prepare me for what exists there now. I am uncomfortable with the way the place has been transformed into an example, as if it were a template easily applied elsewhere. Until quite recently, Ramadi remained a deadly, warped maze. But a few things are clear. In discrete moments, before my visit, during it, and after, the Iraqis were making decisions. They were choosing sides. When Hagner came through the door and stood in the parlor asking questions, he decided to do that rough thing a little less roughly. And the Iraqis, some of them, decided they were looking at the lesser evil.