“War, children, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away” — The Rolling Stones, from “Gimme Shelter”
FALLUJAH — A sign on the door leading out of India Company’s Combat Operations Center says “Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet.” For a fraction of second I thought it might be some kind of joke. But I was with the Marine Corps in Fallujah, and it wasn’t a joke.
I asked Captain Stewart Glenn if he could explain and perhaps elaborate a bit on what, exactly, that sign is about. “It’s pretty straightforward,” he said rather bluntly. “It means exactly what it says.”
Welcome to counterinsurgency.
A sign outside Lieutenant Nathan Bibler’s Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah makes the point a little more clearly, and delicately. “Look at everyone as though they are trying to kill you, but you cannot treat them that way.”
“The threat’s always there,” Sergeant Chuck Balley told me as he looked blankly at nothing in particular. “Everybody is sketchy.”
Maybe they are. But very few people in Fallujah try to kill Americans — or other Iraqis — anymore. It has been months since a single Marine in Fallujah has been even wounded, let alone killed. But at least a handful of disorganized insurgents still lurk in the city. Once a week or so somebody takes a shot at the Americans.
“Do you have plates in that Kevlar?” one Marine sergeant said to me as I donned my body armor on our way into the city. He was referring to steel SAPI plates that fit inside Kevlar vests that can stop even a sniper round.
“No,” I said, and I didn’t care. The odds that I, personally, would be the first person shot in Fallujah for months were microscopic.
“Look,” he said. “You are not gonna get shot. But you should still carry some plates.”
One lieutenant forced me to wear Marine-issue body armor — which weighs almost 80 pounds — before he would let me go out on patrol with him. I felt like Godzilla lumbering around with all the extra bulk and weight, and I didn’t really feel safer. Running while carrying those extra pounds all of a sudden wasn’t much of an option. Sacrificing most of my speed and agility to make myself a little more bullet-proof might not be worth it. But perhaps that’s just what I told myself so I could justify wearing lighter and more comfortable armor. It’s hard to say. What I do know for certain is that Fallujah at the end of 2007 was neither scary nor stressful. No one can go there right now without feeling what is perhaps a dangerous sense of complacency.
But complacency kills. The Marines are reminded of this fact every day, as was I when I traveled and worked with them.
The day I arrived at India Company’s Forward Operating Base, which had been converted from an old train station, all the Marines had to attend readiness training classes designed to offset complacency.
“Too many Marines are getting complacent and lax,” Captain Glenn said. “Complacency is as potentially deadly as an IED at this point.”
The Marines couldn’t help it, and neither could I. Combat operations in Fallujah are over. It wasn’t possible to work myself up into feeling nervous in that city. I just knew I wouldn’t be shot. Of course, I could have been wrong, and I knew that, too.
“Are you a strict non-combatant?” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said to me as we stepped out of the joint security station in Jolan, Northern Fallujah, and began a patrol.
“What do you mean?” I said. Of course I am a non-combatant. Was he asking if I’m a pacifist?
“Do you fight?” he said.
I narrowed my eyes at him slightly, still not quite sure what he was getting at.
“If we get in a fire fight,” he said, “and I give you my pistol, will you take it?”
Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot
He put his hand on his sidearm and fingered the thumb break. He wasn’t kidding. All I had to do was say so and he would hand me that pistol.
“I’m not allowed to carry a weapon,” I said.
He rolled his eyes, not at me but at the policy.
“No embedded journalists are allowed to pick up a weapon,” I continued. “They’ll throw me out of Iraq if I do. It’s a good policy. Most of us aren’t trained to fight in a war. If reporters were armed, eventually one of us would shoot a kid or an old woman.”
It is a sound policy. He nodded and seemed to understand that. Still, he repeated the question. “If I give you my pistol, will you take it?”
“If it gets bad enough out here that either I shoot it or die, then yes,” I said. “I’d rather be thrown of Iraq then be killed. But that is not going to happen, so I can’t take your pistol.”
We walked a few steps.
Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot on patrol
“Thanks, though,” I said, and I meant it.
Several Marines were shocked that I was willing to walk around the streets of Fallujah without a gun, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit nervous. Complacency kills, and I get that. But I had Marines as bodyguards and I wasn’t allowed to defend myself anyway. So I figured I might as well relax.
“Anyway,” I always said to Marines who thought I should carry a weapon, “if it gets bad enough out here that you’re relying on me in a fight, you’re really screwed.”
Having a plan to kill everyone I met wasn’t an option. I tried it out for a few minutes, though, to get a tiny idea of what it might be like inside the mind of a non-complacent counterinsurgent. I imagined carrying an M-16 on a sling and holding it at the deck with both hands, index finger off but near the trigger. How quickly could I raise a rifle and shoot a man who takes the initiative and fires an AK-47 at me or at somebody else? What if the friendly young man who just smiled at me pulls a knife? Was I supposed to look at women and children as potential combatants? Once in a while insurgents are able to pressure children into throwing hand grenades at Americans.
We walked past houses and buildings riddled with bullet holes. Raw sewage slowly ran in rivulets through the streets. Only the smallest of businesses were open — it will be a long time before any international corporate chains arrive in Fallujah. A young bearded man wearing baggy white pants and a filthy blue shirt sold black market fuel in jerry cans to motorists.
Contrary to popular belief, there are motorists in Fallujah. There is a so-called vehicle ban, but it has been misreported and misunderstood. It is true that Fallujah neighborhoods are segmented by barriers, but residents can walk and drive their vehicles from one neighborhood to the other after passing through Iraqi Police checkpoints. They can also leave and enter the city whenever they like as long as they have a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of their car. Fallujah’s vehicle ban only applies to cars from outside the city. Non-residents are welcome in Fallujah, but they have to leave their vehicle at the outskirts. The city is very small. It is easily walkable, and taxi service is cheap and available. The non-resident vehicle ban is enforced by the Iraqi Police, not the Marines. Iraqi Police Colonel Faisal will decide when the non-resident vehicle ban will be lifted.
I did not realized that I had dropped my pen after jotting down a few observations in my notebook while I walked. A young Iraqi boy ran up behind me, picked up my pen, and handed it over. Every day at least one Iraqi kid will ask me to give him my pen, but this one wanted to make sure I didn’t lose it. Another young boy came up and gave me a high-five. They often do this to the Marines. Whatever the adults in Fallujah might think of Americans, the kids really do seem to like us. Eight year olds do not have politics.
Almost every house in the city is ringed with a high wall for privacy. The residents didn’t have siege warfare in mind when they designed their homes, but the walls are strong, made of concrete, and they can serve that function. Any number of insurgents could, in theory, be crouching behind them and we wouldn’t know it until they opened fire on us.
One of the Marines found a cassette tape stashed in the bushes and eyed it suspiciously as he pulled it out. Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq sometimes distributes propaganda on audio tapes just as Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran before the Islamic Revolution.
“Can I see it?” our interpreter said. The Marine handed over the tape. “It’s just music,” he said as he read the label. “Nothing to worry about.”
It has been months since the jihadists have been able to murder anyone in Fallujah. Only a few weeks before, however, a handful showed up on a street corner and handed out anti-American snuff films on DVD. Apparently they thought the local civilians would be impressed. They were not. They called the Iraqi Police, and the propagandists were taken away to the jail.
The main Jolan market was up ahead, but first we passed through a neighborhood that, unlike almost anywhere else in Iraq, received 24 hours a day of electricity.
Lieutenant Barefoot pointed up toward the sky. “See the electricity poles?” he said. I did, and I was amazed.
The neighborhood was wired properly as though it were part of a modern First World country. Gone all of a sudden were the hideously tangled rat’s nest of wires and cables that make up most of Iraq’s electrical grid.
“Why is the wiring so much better here?” I said. “And is that really enough by itself to give people 24 hours a day of electricity? Is this a politically favored neighborhood or what?”
“No,” said the lieutenant. “They just have better local leadership in this neighborhood.”
Political corruption is unspeakably bad in Iraq, in Kurdistan as well as in the Arabic parts of the country. If Lieutenant Barefoot is right about this section of Jolan, the insurgency is by no means solely to blame for Iraq’s shattered infrastructure.
We arrived at Jolan’s market district. It was not what I expected. Jolan is the oldest part of Fallujah. It was built on the banks of the Euphrates River where it swings in closest to Baghdad. I thought perhaps we would walk through one of the covered souks that are so ubiquitous in the Middle East. But few buildings in even this part of the city looked more than fifty years old, and many of the shops were in outdoor booths.
The Marines found the market impressive because it had only reopened recently. Objectively, though, it is not very impressive. Everything is relative in a place like Fallujah. The market is an ugly ramshackle mess where only the most basic goods and necessities are for sale. It smelled of piss. Trash burned in oil barrels. There were hardly any women out and about, even though the market areas of conservative Muslim cities are where you are most likely to see them. All women older than teenagers wore black abayas that enveloped them from head to toe. Only their faces were visible. A man carrying a stick led goats through the area who managed to find nourishment from piles of garbage.
Amid this drabness, though, was a surprising little oasis. A local man was selling flowers and plants at a pleasant little store. He contentedly watered his flora with a hose and smiled at us as we walked past.
I had a hard time imagining that the Marines I walked with had a quiet and secretive plan to kill this guy if all of a sudden he raised up an AK-47 from behind the bushes. He was not going to do that. I just knew it. It is very nearly impossible to tell what most Iraqis are thinking when you briefly pass them on the street. Theoretically any one of them could be an insurgent. But there are some I felt safe writing off as potential threats. You can just tell with some people. At least I have the luxury of thinking so when it isn’t my job to return hostile fire.
On our way back to the station we stopped by a volleyball game.
An Iraqi Police captain recently started a Fallujah-wide volleyball tournament. He purchased uniforms for the players and trophies that will go to the winners when the tournament ends. Most of the Marines I spoke to were stunned by this development, especially those who had previously served in Fallujah when it was still the catastrophically violent city most Americans think it still is.
I wasn’t personally all that impressed with the fact that Iraqis play volleyball now. That is not because I don’t “get it,” but because it’s hard to imagine just how bad a place Fallujah recently was. It’s not a nice place today, but it is almost normal for a rough-around-the-edges city in the Third World. And it’s a paradise compared with, say, a shantytown-packed Mexican border town like Juarez or Tijuana.
Our patrol came upon a wedding party being put together in the street. A shiny black Mercedes decorated with purple, red, and white flowers pulled up beside us.
Sharply dressed Iraqi men and children got out and walked up to meet us. They were so friendly. An older man in a keffiyeh greeted us so warmly and sincerely it was obvious his affection was real. “Thank you, thank you,” he said. We all knew what he meant. Thank you for being here. Thank you for the security.
Some Iraqis only pretend to be friendly, but it’s obvious when you meet someone who isn’t pretending. Human emotion and its expression is the same across cultures. This man could not have been a combatant. I was certain the odds of him trying to kill us were zero. I couldn’t help wondering: was it really necessary to have a plan to kill everyone? But complacency kills. You never know who might attack you in Iraq. I imagined bashing his head into the sidewalk.
I shared a room that night at the Joint Security Station with Lieutenant Barefoot and his roommate and station commanding officer Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin. Joint Security Stations are shared by American Marines and Iraqi Police. Our room was on the Arab side of the house. The wall opposite my bed was riddled with shrapnel holes, as if a mortar round had exploded right in our bedroom.
“It used to be a lot less friendly here,” Lieutenant Laughlin said and laughed.
He led me out to the back porch where we could sit and enjoy the moderately warm afternoon sunshine.
All the Marines I spoke to were amazed at the progress made in Fallujah. It was safer than even they had expected. I asked Lieutenant Laughlin what, specifically, surprised him most about the current state of the city.
Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin
“The most surprising thing,” he said, “is how friendly people are. I expected people here to just hate us after Al-Fajr. You kind of have to take it with a grain of salt, though. Some of them really just want the Iraqi Police to take over, and they only smile at us to be polite.”
That has to be right. Some unknown percentage of Fallujahns are still disgruntled with the American presence. But there is almost no surface-level evidence that this is true. Very nearly 100 percent of the people who live there are friendly.
“Have you run into any civilians who are hostile toward you?” I said.
“Not really,” he said. “Some of them are scared of us, though. We can look pretty intimidating.”
Lieutenant Laughlin had only been in Fallujah for a couple of months. First Lieutenant Barry Edwards has been around longer, so he could compare and contrast the present and past.
“Have you seen a shift in the way Iraqis treat you in the year you’ve been here?” I said.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “This summer I ate dinner just about every week out there. I couldn’t have done that back in January. They would have lit my tail up. You couldn’t go 100 feet down the road that runs along the river without getting hit by an IED. Now we can sit there with our flak jackets and helmets off like we’re sitting right here. We can do that outside in the open. We go out there and eat chow with the guys who were shooting at us a year ago.”
While Lieutenant Laughlin and I basked in Iraq’s winter sunlight, we heard a weather report that might be slightly disturbing under different circumstances: there was absolutely no wind. That meant it was an ideal time, from the point of view of insurgents, to launch a chemical weapons attack. Because the air was perfectly still, poison gas wouldn’t float away on the wind. Marines, therefore, were required to carry gas masks on their person at all times, even though the odds of a chemical weapons attack were very near zero. Not quite zero, though. Chlorine gas has been used by Fallujah insurgents before. The Marines seems hyper-prepared almost to the point of paranoia. But they were not paranoid. They were just ready for anything. “Make Yourself Hard to Kill” is one of their catchphrases.
“Marines are more focused than soldiers,” Sergeant Balley told me. “If we get in a fire fight, you will see.”
But I could see it, a little, even though we weren’t being shot at. They do seem to make themselves a little bit harder to injure or kill than Army soldiers. The differences aren’t huge, but they are there. One of the reasons I felt relaxed in Fallujah was that they seemed so over-prepared for everything.
One of the peculiar things about Fallujah now is that, for some people at least, it’s less dangerous than some other places in the Middle East, even some that are full of tourists.
“Our interpreter is from Jordan,” said Lieutenant Laughlin. “He’s been with us for four years. He doesn’t go home. There have been threats against his life from former Iraqi insurgents who live there. He is actually safer here in Iraq because we protect him.”
I walked the streets of Fallujah at night with a platoon of Marines looking for intelligence tips from local civilians. They weren’t fishing for information about anything in particular. They just wanted to ask around the neighborhood in case anyone was up to something suspicious.
We passed through a reeking garbage dump on a empty lot as wild dogs barked. I ducked beneath dangling wires and almost ran straight into a group of young Neighborhood Watch men carrying AK-47s and lurking like dark wraiths in the night. Plastic bags snarled in razor wire billowed in the soft breeze sighing in from the desert beyond the city’s walls.
Local civilians grumbled about the price of gasoline and the lack of electricity, as they often do, but no one said they had seen anything suspicious. The one thing they were actually happy about was the dramatic and apparently stable restoration of calm.
Later, though, we came across something suspicious ourselves.
I rode along in the first truck in a convoy of Humvees on the way back to India Company’s Forward Operating Base. Our driver slammed on his brakes and said something to the sergeant in the passenger seat. The sergeant stepped out of the vehicle and walked in front of the headlights.
“What’s going on?” I said to the driver.
“There’s a mound of dirt in the road that was not there this morning,” the driver said.
I found it amazing that such a small detail was noticed.
“Why is that a problem exactly?” I said.
“It’s in the shape of a speed bump,” he said.
I stood up as much as I could in the back seat. Sure enough, dirt had been carefully piled up on the road in the exact shape of a speed bump. Someone had done this on purpose.
“It could be a pressure-plate IED,” he said, but he did not need to say so. Those IEDs are notorious, and they do look exactly like speed bumps. The explosives are triggered by the weight of a Humvee or Bradley.
The sergeant gingerly pushed dirt aside with his boot. He had better hope there wasn’t an insurgent lurking somewhere who could manually set it off. I was safe in the back of an up-armored vehicle, but there’s no way he could survive an explosion from right underneath him.
But there was nothing under the dirt, and no one triggered anything manually.
“It’s fine,” the sergeant said as he climbed back in.
“Why on earth would someone push dirt into the street like that?” I said, unconvinced that everything was actually fine. It was obviously formed by hand for a specific purpose. What on earth for?
“I don’t know, sir,” the sergeant said. “Iraqis are weird.”
Perhaps someone wants Marines to become complacent about piles of dirt in the shape of a speed bump so they’ll slowly learn to just drive over the top of them. But it’s also true that some Iraqis really are weird.
“We’ve had kids out here build fake IEDs on the side of the road,” Lieutenant Laughlin said. “Last time it happened was right out in from of the station. We saw what looked like an IED so we got out of our Humvees all concerned. Then some kids jumped out and yelled Mister! Mister! Chocolate! Chocolate! They know they can get us to stop with fake IED, but we won’t give them candy when they do. Our psy-ops guys put out fliers telling kids not to do this. It’s dangerous. But they don’t understand, or they don’t care.”
The next day we heard gunfire, and we heard a lot of it.
I walked the perimeter of Fallujah with a platoon from the Khaderi station. Corporal Hayes was in charge of my security. The desert was on our left, houses on our right.
“Route Kathy was hit with a Katyusha rocket in early October,” he said. Route Kathy was one of the main streets through the neighborhood which we would shortly be walking along. “It was fired from six miles away.”
There is nothing you can do if a Katyusha rocket explodes next to you. You’re just dead.
Iraqi Police officers joined us on the patrol. They walked in front so it would appear to the locals that they were leading. But they were not really leading.
“They’re too bunched up!” one of the Marines said. “Tell them to spread out.”
Our interpreter told the Iraqi Police to spread out. Too many people too close together are more likely to be shot at.
The Marines carried their regular rifles, and a few brought grenade launchers, too. One Marine fingered a smoke grenade — they’re useful if you come under fire from snipers. Some carried signal flares to be fired in the air if we made contact with the enemy. Overwatch at the station will see the flares and send reinforcements. I carried a high-tech signal device that Lieutenant Mike Barefoot had given me in case I got separated from the platoon.
Several unemployed Iraqi men loitered and waved hello as we passed.
“There’s movement on the roof of that house,” one Marine said and pointed to a house just outside the city on our left. I could barely make out the figure of a person on top.
“There’s two people up there now,” said another.
They were too far away to accurately shoot at us with anything but a sniper rifle. But they could give away our position to somebody closer if that’s what they wanted to do. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. But complacency kills, so I stopped walking in a straight line and started to zig zag at random to make myself harder to shoot at. It was not because I was paranoid. I never felt nervous in Fallujah, not even after what happened next. I’ve just learned to do a few things that soldiers and Marines do to make myself a harder target. I do it casually now, often times without even thinking about it.
We walked a few moments in silence and kept our eyes on the roof of that house. Suddenly we heard automatic gunfire behind us.
“Shit,” I said. “That sounds close.”
“It sounds bad,” I heard a Marine say.
More gun shots.
“It sounds like it’s coming from that checkpoint we just passed,” Corporal Hayes said.
Then there were more shots, also automatic, and they sounded different. More than one kind of weapon was being fired.
“That’s intense,” I said. And it was. It sounded like a full-blown fire fight had just broken out.
“That’s worse than anything we’ve seen since we got here,” said another Marine.
We crossed the street and leaned up against the outer walls of the houses.
“We have to get you back,” Corporal Hayes said to me.
“Back to Khaderi?” I said.
“I don’t want to go back,” I said.
I was slightly surprised to hear myself say this. I probably should have been scared. A fire fight in Fallujah is nothing to shrug at. But I wanted to see what would happen. And of course I would stay in the rear where I wouldn’t be personally shot at.
Several Marines sized me up in ways they hadn’t before. They were obviously trying to determine if I would be a liability for them in a fight, if I would need to be babysat while they were being shot at. No one objected when I said I didn’t want to go back, but I have no idea what they were thinking.
“Is that coming from the train station?” someone said.
Oh, I thought. Yeah. The Forward Operating Base that had been converted from a train station was only a few hundred meters away.
“Maybe they’re test firing at the station?”
As soon as somebody said it, I was sure that’s what it was. The shots were probably on the practice range. Fallujah is no longer a war zone.
But we didn’t know. The Marines are supposed to be warned in advance when the range goes live so they don’t overreact and think there’s a war on. Every single one of them first thought what we were hearing was combat.
“Khaderi isn’t answering.”
“That has to be the range, right?”
“The shots are too consistent. It isn’t a fight.”
“Somebody should have told us.”
We still weren’t sure, though. No one at Khaderi answered the call. But everyone was slowly convinced that the gun shots were practice rounds on the range.
The platoon’s radio squawked. It was Khaderi. Twenty minutes from now, we were told, they will be gun shots at the train station.
“Nice of them to tell us,” Corporal Hayes said.
It was only then that I noticed that none of the Iraqis on the street reacted in any noticeable way to what had just happened. They didn’t take cover when we did. We were all briefly certain that war had returned to Fallujah. But the Iraqi kids still played in the street. They did not run and hide. Their parents did not yank them inside. Try to imagine that in an American city.
One of the Marines later told me that military dogs, while they’re being trained, are put into rooms with loud speakers. The first half hour of Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — that terrifying scene where hundreds of soldiers are shot and blown to pieces while storming the beach at Normandy — are played over and over again until the dogs no longer fear the sounds of war.
Iraqis who live in Fallujah have heard more shots fired in anger than I ever will. Machine gun fire has been the sound track in that city for a long time. War is just a shot away, but even the children of Fallujah won’t flinch if it breaks out again.
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