In the United States, we’ve become so accustomed to high-tech weaponry, so assured of our own power, that we’ve become blind to who actually does the fighting and dying. Bomb-mounted cameras were the stars of Operation Desert Storm. Special Operations soldiers directing airstrikes with lasers were the stars of Operation Enduring Freedom.Jessica Lynch and invisible weapons of mass destruction were the stars of Operation Iraqi Freedom I. In Operation Iraqi Freedom II, however, the protagonists are throwbacks: infantrymen. Twenty-year-old men who hunt other men with rifles. The problem is that unless the place of the American rifleman can be taken by his Iraqi counterpart, this war is not winnable.
The biggest mistake of Operation Iraqi Freedom I was not the decision to send young men and women into the breach to remove a despot who possessed illegal weapons. As it turns out, he did not. Yet Saddam managed to convince everyone—the Bushies, the Clintons, John Kerry, France, the New York Times—that he had them. Even Saddam’s own soldiers thought he would employ them. Here at 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, they tell the story of enemy soldiers snared in the initial invasion who were carrying gas masks. When asked if they really thought the United States would employ chemicals, the Iraqis responded, “United States? We’re worried about Saddam firing them at you.”
The biggest mistake of the war was disbanding the Iraqi army and subsequently disenfranchising the Sunnis. Iraq did not have a large recruiting pool of bona fide warriors to begin with. This is a skittish population that has practiced acquiescence for 25 years. To toss those few Iraqis who actually relished the duty of soldiering out onto the street with no paycheck was to hand them over to the other side. Now we’re struggling to find other men willing to grab AK-47s, level their sights on Iraqi insurgents hell-bent on killing them, and pull their own triggers.
It’s proved difficult thus far. When an American-trained Iraqi battalion was dispatched to Fallujah in April to aid the Marines in their attack, the unit crumbled and then imploded. Word is that the new battalions are looking better, but we won’t know until they taste the despicable ultraviolence our soldiers and Marines have been swallowing for a year now. The sad truth is that Iraq’s warrior class is already fighting for the other side. Let’s hope that we can overcome a tepid martial spirit with good pay, good benefits, and a vision of a free Iraq that will be dependent on deep personal sacrifice at the outset.
Who are we looking for? Let’s take a look at the infantrymen of 1st Recon Battalion. They have volunteered three times—for the Marines, for infantry, for recon—so that they might one day end up in a place like Fallujah, where they could serve their country and test themselves in the ultimate crucible. That may sound insane for most.
According to the military historian John Keegan, infantrymen are a different breed. They rarely question orders; to do so in battle can mean death. Their definition of self-worth hinges on the opinion of their peers. The only recognition they seek is from each other. No one else understands the acidic mania that eats away at them if other riflemen are fighting battles from which they’ve been excluded.
They hail from across the socio-economic spectrum, tilting toward the middle class. Don’t dare imply, as Michael Moore and others do, that they’re here because they had no other options. Even the poorest of them—especially the poorest—will immediately let you know that he’s here because he, too, felt that patriotic call of the wild. To pity these men is to spit on them.
Their worldview trends toward action. As the operations officer for 1st Recon, Maj. Brian Gilman, puts it, “Marines get restless if they’re sitting around for more than two days. They’re happiest out on patrol.” What of the inherent dangers? “Well,” he says, “you don’t really think about that side of it. You just focus on the next mission.”
They hate politics. They don’t question their value in Iraq. They never fire first. They’re here because they were sent here, and they’re killing insurgents because insurgents are doing everything they can to kill them. It’s a black-and-white world.
This morning Bravo Company rolled outside the gates of the compound and headed toward a Fallujah suburb. Their mission: to locate and destroy enemy mortar men who have been harassing a brother infantry battalion for a week now. In their ranks were several Iraqi soldiers on loan from an Iraqi general-turned-contractor.
Children smiled and waved, chirping, “Mistah! Mistah!” as they always do. Men either ignored them or tossed venomous stares down-range, as they always do. Marines are associated with death. If they stop the patrol, it’s best to go inside.
When the vehicles reached the edge of bad-guy country, where improvised explosive devices can flip a vehicle and end a life in a heartbeat, they slowed to 10 mph, scanning the side of the road with their optics. Their posture was aggressive. It was clear that if an insurgent decided to detonate a bomb, he had better be ready for a fight afterward.
An hour later, they had their first bomb discovery: a fat, encased explosive buried under a hump of sand. It was a particularly satisfying removal; each bomb destroyed is another brother soldier or Marine saved. On its face, approaching roadside bombs is insane. What if it detonates as they are de-arming it? Why don’t they call the experts—explosive ordnance disposal—and wait for them to arrive? Time, they said. They still had mortar men to hunt.
Then it was the Iraqis’ turn to contribute. They spotted two burn marks on the side of the road. They claimed they were signposts for a weapons cache. They were right. The whole country is a giant ammunition dump, but it was an encouraging sign, Iraqis and Marines working together in the hinterland.
But what would happen when the shooting started? Would the Iraqis follow the cool-headed examples of Cpl. Eddie Wright and Sgt. Leandro Baptista?
Though he had lost both hands in the RPG ambush on April 7, Cpl. Wright was able to calmly correct his buddies when they tied faulty tourniquets to his dripping arms. Satisfied that they were holding, he then asked if there was anything he could do to help in the fight.
After the fire petered out that day, Sgt. Baptista was tasked with leading a three-man team back across the ambush area in search of lost Marines. The Marines in question were actually safe on the road, but Baptista did not know that. He negotiated the long obstacle course that Capt. Brent Morel had sprinted that day. Approaching the ambush site, Baptista noticed an IED. Without regard for himself, he sprinted up and yanked the detonator free. It was the third IED in three months that he had de-armed by hand.
Cresting the berm, Baptista saw 11 Iraqi fighters crouching on the other side, 20 meters away. Baptista directed his two Marines to shoot the six to his right. He then dispatched those on his left.
Baptista, Morel, and Wright were fighting on instinct that day. Here’s hoping that the Iraqis will fight as hard with their own country in the balance.