A journalist's strange journey on the road to Baghdad.
- By Peter Maass<p> Peter Maass is a journalist and author of a memoir about the war in Bosnia, Love Thy Neighbor. </p>
This article was originally published in Outside magazine in July 2003 and is reproduced with permission.
I do not know the value of life. In every war zone that I find myself in, I routinely fail to establish a sensible line beyond which I will not take risks, just as I struggle to pass judgment on war itself. When is killing justified? When is risking my life to report on killing justified? Most of what I have seen is unacceptable, but some of it is not — a nation defending itself against genocide, or a nation liberating itself from tyranny. The parameters of war are liquid, like blood.
In the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq, I saw a well-traveled friend writing in his diary. He had been keeping it for nine years, writing in it every day. "When I look back on the early passages," he told me, "I realize that I have learned nothing." I don’t keep a diary, but his words made me wonder how much — and what — I have learned about war. I was asking these questions as I drove into Iraq on the first day of the invasion, and by the time I arrived in Baghdad, three weeks later, I had found some answers.
It was supposed to be a walkover. American troops would cross into Iraq and meet surrendering soldiers and grateful civilians, and I would write a story about the happy liberation of the southern city of Basra.
The invasion began on the night of March 19. I’d been staying with some other journalists in a house in the northern Kuwaiti desert, a few miles from the Iraqi border. Packing up that night, we could hear everything — the 2,000-pound smart bombs landing on Iraqi trenches and the waves of Apache gunships flying 50 feet overhead, eerily invisible, moving without lights.
I was on assignment for The New York Times Magazine with French photographer Laurent Van der Stockt. We made our last preparations for the 40-mile drive to Basra, bolting luggage racks onto our two rented SUVs and strapping down jerry cans filled with gasoline. We figured it would be a short trip, but in case light skirmishing delayed the city’s liberation, we packed a few other prudent items: sleeping bags, cans of tuna, chocolate bars, gallons of drinking water, body armor, Kevlar helmets, biochemical suits, U.S. military uniforms, two spare tires, a stove, satellite phones, shortwave radios, and, in Laurent’s Mitsubishi Pajero, a box of Cuban cigars.
We headed out at 4 a.m., hoping the thousands of fighting vehicles storming across the desert would create enough havoc to let us slip across the border. Laurent led the way, because his vehicle had an onboard compass and GPS system; at the wheel of my Hyundai, I followed him along one back road and then another, neither of us sure where they led, except toward the war. Shortly before dawn, we passed through a gap in the line of sand berms the Kuwaitis had created on their side of the demilitarized zone; I could see flashes of artillery and tank fire a mile or two ahead. We were close. Then I heard the shouting. "Turn off your fucking lights! Turn them off now!"
We stopped and turned off our lights. The American soldiers who appeared out of the darkness had a Special Forces look, with black caps and assault rifles outfitted with high-tech accessories. They were not happy to see us.
"We almost lit you up," one of them said. "What the fuck are you doing here?" They ordered us to turn around.
By daybreak we were back in Kuwait. After several more hours of driving along the desert border, trying to sneak through the breaches that U.S. and British troops had made in the defensive berms, we found an unguarded stretch and raced across it, into an empty no-man’s-land, hoping that no Apache helicopters or Abrams tanks would spot us and treat our unmarked vehicles as hostile targets.
This was madness, and I was aware of it. But I was also aware that the only way to get into Iraq was to take chances. That, or return to Kuwait City and wait for the U.S. military to give a green light to "unilateral" journalists, as those of us who were not embedded were called. We suspected the go-ahead the Pentagon had promised might be weeks away; Laurent and I hadn’t come to the Middle East to sit in hotel rooms and watch the invasion on CNN.
We made it across the no-man’s-land and reached Safwan, an Iraqi border town that had been secured by a unit of U.S. Marines. We arrived just in time to see the troops starting to pull down billboards and posters of Saddam Hussein.
Wars are like people: Each is different, each is unpredictable in ways that are not predictable. Laurent and I assumed, once we were in Iraq, that we had reached a happy war zone, that Iraqi soldiers would give up like they had in 1991 and Iraqi civilians would celebrate. I don’t know where this assumption might register on the stupidity scale, but my only comfort is that we did not have a monopoly on idiocy.
It wasn’t surprising, in Safwan, to find only a handful of SUVs containing unilateral journalists. Hundreds had tried to cross into Iraq on the first day, and most had failed; in subsequent days, they would try and fail again, because after the invasion’s chaotic first hours, U.S. and British forces clamped down on the border.
We were not only unembedded; we were unwanted.
After an hour in Safwan, 11 of us decided to continue up the open road to Basra, deeper into Iraq. We asked the troops in Safwan about the situation ahead, and several assured us that coalition forces had seized advance positions on the outskirts and if we journeyed up the road we would find them.
Those of us who headed toward Basra in our six SUVs did not constitute a convoy of fools. We had decades of experience in war zones. Laurent, who is 39, had covered the war in Croatia, where he had nearly been killed by a mortar (his left shoulder is scarred and bent unnaturally), and two years ago an Israeli sniper shot him in the knee. He now has trouble running, yet remains one of the most able companions you could hope for in dire circumstances. The second vehicle was driven by a 38-year-old Brit, Gary Knight, an award-winning photographer for Newsweek who has gone into, and survived, the worst conflict zones of the past 15 years. There were no rookies among us.
We drove for about four miles, through a dusty area that had a smattering of mud houses and palm trees. It was peaceful — but too peaceful. Where were the American military vehicles? Where were the telltale signs of battle? Laurent’s SUV slowed down. A few hundred yards to his left was an Iraqi tank. To his right, about 50 yards from the road, several dozen Iraqi soldiers timidly waved a white flag. About a thousand yards ahead, through a heat mirage that distorted our vision, a line of people stretched across the road.
Laurent swerved around and headed back at full speed, and the rest of the convoy followed suit. There were, we realized, no Americans or Brits ahead; we had been driving toward an Iraqi checkpoint. The soldiers who wanted to surrender were doing so because no troops had arrived. Presumably some of them were the tank’s crew, and had they changed their minds, they could have easily turned our caravan into smoldering steel and flesh. Just as easily, the American and British tanks in Safwan could have vaporized us as we raced back toward them. Fortunately, someone recognized our returning convoy; they did not fire.
It would be nice to say that I quickly realized this war was not the walkover I expected and that it was far too dangerous to cover without being embedded in an American military unit. But I failed to come to that conclusion even the next day, when we learned that a four-man team from ITN, the British television network, had ventured up an open roa
d not far from where we had ventured, encountered Iraqi soldiers, as we had done, and turned back, as we had done. But an Iraqi pickup truck followed the two ITN vehicles, and as they neared the checkpoint, an American tank opened fire. One journalist survived; another was killed; the third journalist and the team’s translator are still missing.
Control, or the portion of control that we truly possess, is not lost; it is surrendered, bit by bit, from one hour to the next, from one decision or nondecision to the next. I’m not saying that war is a drug — that’s too easy, a cliché — but I am saying that I cannot identify a moment when the control I had, or thought I had, was taken away from me. In fact, it was given up.
We spent our first night in Iraq under an overpass outside Safwan, with the sounds of artillery and small-arms fire in the distance, and the mosquito-like whine of Predator drones high above. Basra was not falling. Soldiers on both sides were fighting and dying.
At dawn, there was only one direction to go. The road to Umm Qasr was closed off by barbed wire. We had already tried the road to Basra. And the road back to Kuwait was a professional dead end. I told myself I would stay with this war for now, see what happened, and pull out if that became the wise thing to do. Oddly, going deeper into the war was the easy way. Deciding that the risks were too high and living with the second-guessing and feelings of cowardice that might afflict me if I retreated and my colleagues continued on — that would have required real courage.
We drove north, circling up toward Zubayr, a suburb of Basra, past a line of several hundred military vehicles going nowhere. We followed a column of about 30 Marine armored vehicles as they took a northern side road, and when they stopped at a plateau, they allowed us to park inside their perimeter. Now there was no way I could turn back: Even if I remembered the zigzagging route, I would be traveling without military cover, in a war zone of amorphous front lines surrounded by free-fire zones.
Within a few hours the Marines began moving out, heading north again.
The term "war correspondent" is used liberally these days, pasted upon anyone who has been in a conflict zone and lived to tell about it back home. Geraldo Rivera is a war correspondent, or so the teasers on Fox News tell us. So is any reporter with an exotic dateline and a flak jacket. The term has been applied to me on occasion, because I’ve covered wars in Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. I’ve never felt comfortable with the label; it implies a psychological profile that I don’t believe I have. I don’t enjoy the risks you have to take in war zones. If I must go forward, I try to follow others whom I trust.
The pool of real war correspondents is very small, probably around 40 in the world, and most of them are photographers. They run terribly high risks, but the truth is that it is safer to take high risks in the company of James Nachtwey (a Time photographer) or John Burns (a New York Times reporter) than moderate risks in the company of someone with less experience. Perhaps the most important reason I went forward to Baghdad was that I was following Gary Knight and Laurent Van der Stockt.
The supporting cast was eclectic. Gary’s traveling partner was Enrico Dagnino, a 43-year-old Italian photographer who’d spent his youth being thrown out of private schools and stealing cars; along the way he’d gotten a tattoo on his forearm of a skull with a mohawk. Enrico had had the foresight to smuggle a supply of hash into the country, and when most of it had been smoked — a dark day for several members of the convoy — he probed local markets during occasional stops in small towns. While some of us waded through groups of Iraqis asking, "Cigarettes? Cigarettes?" Enrico was saying, "Hashish? Hashish?"
At 46, Laurent Rebours, a French photographer for the Associated Press, was the oldest in the group. He could be jovial one moment and furious the next. I once overheard him talking to one of his editors in New York. He was, as usual, shouting. "The good news is that my computer is now working," he bellowed. "In a rage, I hit it and said, ‘Fuck this machine,’ and now it’s working."
The three other Frenchmen in our group were all freelance photographers, traveling together in a Honda SUV. My fellow Americans were Ellen Knickmeyer, 40, a reporter for the AP; Kit Roane, 34, a reporter for U.S. News & World Report; and Wesley Bocxe, 42, a madcap freelance photographer who reminded me of the actor Steve Buscemi. Several days into the journey, Kuni Takahashi, a 37-year-old Japanese photographer for the Boston Herald, abandoned the Marine unit he’d been embedded in and embedded himself in my Hyundai.
Driving north, making sure that the open road had Americans ahead of us, we soon reached the tail end of a Marine convoy. The sentries at the rear aimed their weapons at us, but we slowed to a crawl and stopped 150 yards from them. Gary got out and walked up, and one of their officers agreed to let us follow them for the rest of the day.
We stopped at dusk. As helicopter gunships circled overhead, scouring the desert for enemy soldiers, military culture met journalist culture.
"You’re not carrying any frigging weapons?" one incredulous Marine asked me.
Those are the rules, I explained.
"What kind of frigging rules is that?" he replied. "Not even a nine-millimeter?"
Our supplies of food and water were running low, but we soon learned to barter. The Marines had no way to contact their wives and families back home, so we swapped sat-phone access for supplies. As the Marines began surprising their loved ones by calling from the middle of the Iraqi desert, two cases of combat rations — MREs, or meals ready to eat — were speedily loaded into my SUV.
The conversations were often heartbreaking. "Don’t cry, babe, please don’t cry," they’d say. "I love you, I love you, I can’t tell you how much I love you." The endearments were repeated endlessly, carried away by the desert breeze.
I needed to call home, too. The incident with the ITN crew had been followed by the deaths, injuries, and capture of several other reporters. My editors instructed me to forget Basra and do whatever I thought wisest. They were worried about my safety. So was my family.
I suppose that one of the hints that you’re losing control of your life is when you start shamelessly lying about it. The alcoholic lies about how much he’s drinking; the journalist lies to his family about the risks he’s taking. I called one of my brothers and told him everything was fine. "I’m with the Marines," I said. "Tell Mom and Dad and everyone else that I’m surrounded by Marines and I’m as safe as can be."
Of course, I didn’t say that Marines were being ambushed up and down the road and that, in truth, I wasn’t traveling with them but behind them. I didn’t say I was scared.
Late in the afternoon on the war’s fourth day, 140 miles north of Safwan, we neared a small bridge over the Euphrates River. Nasiriyah was just east of us, and we could see a battle going on. From the BBC shortwave service we learned that a U.S. Marine and a unit of Army soldiers had been captured there. As the sun set, flares shot high over the city and tracer fire filled the air. We were within easy range of Iraqi mortar and artillery crews.
There was a tremendous traffic jam at the bridgehead. Hundreds of military vehicles — from tanks and armored fighting vehicles to Humvees and trucks carrying mobile pontoon bridges and boats and fuel and food and troops and howitzers — were backed up and waiting to cross. Understandably, the commander of the checkpoint at the bridge refused to let us p
ass, because he wanted to give priority to military vehicles. We waited, swallowing dust and diesel fumes, our eyes burning.
Chuck Stevenson, a producer for the CBS program 48 Hours Investigates who was embedded with one of the units preparing to cross the bridge, saw us parked at the side of the road. "These guys are not embedded," I heard him say to an officer. "They’re not supposed to be here." Stevenson then headed up toward the checkpoint commander and, on his way back, got into a heated discussion with my colleagues.
This was beyond annoying; it could be dangerous. The military had clarified its position on unilateral journalists, and we were allowed to stay. But the situation was fluid, and individual commanders had a lot of leeway. If we had to go back, we’d be traveling alone — there were no convoys heading all the way back to Kuwait. We huddled and agreed that Stevenson was a snitch.
Enrico was furious. "This guy is fucking us," he said. "Let’s take care of him now."
In view of Enrico’s previous hobbies, this was a credible threat. Wes was equally outraged.
"Let’s fuck him up right now," Wes urged. "He’s going to get us killed."
Enrico and Wes moved in Stevenson’s direction. Gary stepped in their way.
"Enrico, I’m getting mad," Gary said. "And you don’t want me to get mad, because when I hit you, you stay down."
"But this guy is an asshole," Enrico pleaded. "He puts our lives at risk. You are too polite, Gary."
"We have a situation that we have to deal with," Gary replied. "Let’s not make it worse. We need to get across the bridge, and that will never happen if we deck the guy."
Wes came around. "We’ll get him in Baghdad," he said.
"Absolutely," Gary said. "After you get him, I’ll finish him off." (Later, Stevenson acknowledged that "a hostile moment" took place, but denied that it happened at the bridgehead, or that he told any officer that our presence was unauthorized.)
Stevenson’s convoy was waved forward. We were finally allowed to move forward in darkness, without our lights, at 3 a.m.
One of the unheralded skills of working in a war zone is being a good driver. You have to be able to navigate Third World roads that are in Fourth World shape, and you might be behind the wheel of a Fifth World vehicle. Driving at night raised the dangers exponentially. The Marines had night-vision goggles; we had only two pairs, which belonged to the AP team, Ellen and Laurent. The Marines didn’t even use brake lights. We had to tape ours, leaving only a small sliver a half-inch wide to help prevent rear-end collisions. Visibility was ridiculously limited. Let more than 20 yards get between you and the car in front and you’d be lost. Less than 20 yards and if the car stopped, which was often, you’d hit them. We drove along nearly blind. One 67-ton Abrams tank after another would roar up alongside us and pass with just a foot or so between my eyes and their treads. There was no margin for error. It was terrifying.
Sunrise was a relief, but it brought a new nightmare: The paved road we had been traveling on had petered out, and we were driving into roadless desert, on sand, in rented SUVs, behind military vehicles heading to an unknown destination. Into Baghdad, into battle? We had no idea. We were low on gasoline, and because military vehicles use diesel, begging or bartering for fuel didn’t seem to be in the cards. The convoy stopped for a bit, and as we stood debating the options, the Marines suddenly rushed out of their vehicles and dropped, spread-eagle, on the ground, their weapons pointed beyond our heads. Piles of sand for highway construction lined our eastern flank, and the Marines feared an Iraqi ambush. We quickly moved out of the line of fire.
This was unlike any war any of us had covered. There were no front lines behind which we were safe or bases where we could shelter. The Marines were rushing north to Baghdad in unconnected convoys, not bothering to secure their flanks or even the rear. Their defensive tactic was simple: Treat anything that moves as hostile. The desert, the Marines, the Iraqis, land mines, night driving, chemical weapons — any of them could be our undoing.
"I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ll tell you guys, this is one of the most fucked-up situations I’ve been in," Gary said. "No joking. It’s time to go home or go forward. Everybody has to make important decisions. I’m not going to make them for you. Right now I’m only thinking of myself, what’s right for me. You have to make your own decisions."
"This is a real war," Enrico said. "Let’s cover it. Or try to cover it."
Everyone wanted to go forward. I followed.
There were no houses and no landmarks; we were surrounded by flatness and sand and, above us, the sun. Every mile or so we passed Iraqi men or women who were doing one of three things: rubbing their stomachs, because they wanted food; tilting back their heads, because they were thirsty; or waving Iraqi bank notes that bore the image of Saddam Hussein. If pity was not enough to persuade us to part with our riches of food and water, perhaps a war souvenir would seal the deal.
We drove about 25 miles that day and stopped at a plateau where the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, had pulled up for the evening. The battalion, which is based in Twentynine Palms, California, had deployed more than a thousand Marines and more than 75 armored fighting vehicles, including tanks. One of the reporters embedded with the unit told us that the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy, was a friendly guy, and when we asked an officer if we could spend the night inside their perimeter, he agreed.
As dusk fell, McCoy came out of his command tent to meet us. A 40-year-old Oklahoman, he is linebacker-tall, with an authoritative bearing that suggests leadership without a word or gesture. McCoy is a combat veteran, having served as a company commander in the Gulf War. Kit was surfing the Web and let the colonel read the latest stories about the soldiers captured in Nasiriyah. McCoy clicked his way through the stories, saying nothing. Then he told us how he was going to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to his boys.
"There are two kinds of people on this battlefield," he said. "Predators and prey. Don’t be prey. Don’t be an easy target. We’ll do the ambushing; we’ll do the killing; we’ll take the fight to the enemy and not be passive about it. The best medicine is aggression and violent supremacy. After contact, they will fear us more than they hate us." McCoy was blunt as a howitzer.
McCoy mentioned that his men had spearheaded the attack on Basra’s airport a few days earlier, and showed us an Iraqi flag he had taken as a souvenir. When Laurent offered him a cigar, his eyes sparkled. McCoy lit the Cohiba and invited us to join his march on Baghdad. The Third Battalion was the foothold we needed to survive.
The next morning, March 25, a strong wind was blowing, but the skies were clear. Soon, however, the wind grew fiercer and picked up the sand. It became a gale that lashed the car; we used the windshield wipers to clear the bone-dry wash of dusty grains.
My Hyundai, rented from Hertz in Kuwait City, had not been made for a military march through the trackless desert. It began making a throbbing noise from the engine, as if it were in pain. The spasms began to come quicker, but there was nothing to be done. We drove on.
Kuni, the photographer for the Boston Herald, took over driving, and I dozed off. I was jolted awake by a crash. Kuni had rear-ended Laurent’s Pajero.
"Sorry, I lost attention," Kuni said sheepishly. We jumped out to inspect the damage. Laurent’s SUV wa
s fine. Our hood was crumpled and the fender was dented, but the engine continued to run. And the throbbing noise was gone, never to return.
At noon the sky turned hepatitis yellow, as though it were sick. It seemed that entire deserts of sand were being scooped up and blown around us. By 2 p.m. the sky had turned Martian red. Heavy, isolated raindrops began to fall, followed abruptly by a frenetic downpour. The rain stopped as quickly as it had started. The wind and sand were worse than ever.
At three o’clock the Marine Corps surrendered to reality. The convoy halted. A Marine stumbled over to us with the sort of drunken walk that you see in news footage of people trying to move through hurricane winds. He knocked on the window. I rolled it down.
I hadn’t realized how deafening the wind was. "We can’t go forward," he shouted. "Do not use sat phones. We can’t see our flanks, and the Iraqis can use com signals to pinpoint our position."
The convoy was like a submarine sitting silent at the bottom of the ocean. The sand seemed alive, hitting the car furiously, trying to get at us. Even with the doors and windows shut, the air was filled with the stuff, and though I put a bandanna across my face, I was still breathing it. When I ground my teeth, I felt and heard the crackling of sand. The temperature rose inside the car, and kept rising. Or maybe I had a fever. I asked Kuni how he felt. Feverish, he said.
I drank liters of water and then had to relieve myself — a new problem. I put on my desert goggles and shoved the door open — the wind, pressing against it, fought back hard — and the sandstorm entered the vehicle, like atom-size bees swarming to a hive. The scarf I had wrapped around my face was torn off and blown away. I leaned against the car, held on to the buckled hood with one hand, and took care of business, rocked by the wind. When I got back inside, absolutely every part of me was covered in sand.
After midnight the storm finally blew itself out, and the lightless convoy moved out.
The cliché about a battle plan not surviving its first contact with the enemy happens to be true. Improvisation is required in warfare, though improvising is a way of acknowledging that the chaos is stronger than your ability to master it. The battles that the battalion would fight on its way to Baghdad, the resistance they would meet, how they would defeat that resistance — these things were, for the most part, figured out on the fly. I got a taste of this one night after I rode with the battalion’s intelligence officer, Captain Bryan Mangan, to a briefing at regimental headquarters, five miles south of the battalion’s camp. Mangan was supposed to lead a psychological operations team from HQ back to camp, but as we got ready to drive back, he saw that the psy-ops Humvees were already leaving.
"Where are those idiots going?" he asked his driver.
"They’re following you."
"But I’m here," Mangan said.
"They think they’re following you."
"Because you’re driving in a Humvee, and that’s a Humvee they’re following."
"There are 4,000 motherfucking Humvees in this fucking country."
"Do they have a radio?" Mangan asked.
"Yes," the driver replied.
"Can we call them on it and tell them to get their asses back here?"
"Let me check."
The driver ran to the com tent. He returned in a minute.
"No, sir," he said.
The unlikeliness of all this was heightened by the fact that Mangan was a yuppie. About 30 years old, he’d grown up in New York City’s wealthy Westchester County suburbs and graduated from Fordham Prep, the kind of private school that sends its graduates to Harvard and Yale and on to banking and politics. He enlisted in the Marine Corps instead. He’d considered leaving the military shortly before the war began but decided to stay with it. Iraq would be his way of doing something about 9/11.
This was Mangan’s first war. Like many Marines, he had mixed feelings about the sort of killing that occurs in the sort of war he was fighting, where enemy soldiers were dressing as civilians, and where many Iraqi combatants were being forced to fight. "We’re going to have to do things that are potentially ugly," he told me. "We are killing. There’s no other way around it. In order for us to do what we have to do, we kill people."
I was surprised at how much the Marines would reveal to us. Since the Vietnam War, there has been a chilliness between the military and the press, but there was none with the Third Battalion. By embedding hundreds of journalists, the brass had sent the unstated message that it was OK to be honest.
"Why do you think you’re here?" I asked Mangan’s driver.
"We’re here to liberate these fucking Eye-rackis," he replied.
The psychology of killing is driven not just by a sense of mission or hatred, but by fear. Despite their bravado, these guys were scared — scared of being killed, scared of being captured. This is one of the reasons why traveling with them was almost as dangerous as not traveling with them. Anytime you weren’t right next to a Marine, you became a potential target. Marines were even scared of other Marines. "There are a lot of trigger-happy guys out here," one told me.
One morning I walked 25 yards from the spot where we had stationed our cars and found a discreet place to serve as a desert latrine. Gary happened to be 200 yards away, standing next to a command vehicle and listening to its military radio. Suddenly the routine chatter turned urgent: "Potential unfriendly in the perimeter. We’ve got him sighted. He’s got a black shirt on; he’s crouching down. Looks like a fedayeen."
Because lots of Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen irregulars wore dark civilian clothes — the better to fade into the shadows — a black T-shirt was potential enemy garb. At least one Marine, perhaps more, had lined me up in his crosshairs. Colonel McCoy happened to be listening and gave an order that the guy in the black shirt might be one of the media guys, so nobody should fire.
I wore light-colored shirts until the war was over.
By now we’d been traveling with McCoy for more than a week, but despite frequent Third Battalion skirmishes, we hadn’t seen any fighting. Now, halfway to Baghdad, more battles were in the offing. We realized that the colonel, who already had three journalists embedded in his unit — two from Time magazine and one from the San Francisco Chronicle — was not about to allow our six vehicles to drive into combat.
The convoy’s tanks and armored vehicles peeled off for two days and moved northeast, attacking Afak and two smaller towns. A day after we arrived at the outskirts of the town of Diwaniya, the combat team left on another incursion — or, as McCoy called it, a "tune-up" for Baghdad. Again we were left behind. Finally, before the division attacked the city of Al Kut, McCoy agreed to start taking a few unilaterals, but we’d have to choose who.
Gary proposed drawing lots. It seemed fair to everyone except Laurent Rebours.
"Non, non," he said. "I am the Associated Press. Non."
There was a roar of disapproval. Gary picked up a stick and drew AP in the dust. He then erased it with his foot, angrily.
"Fuck the companies," he said. "It’s not about them."
He then wrote Rebours’s name in the dust, and did not erase it.
"The AP, I don’t give a shit about. But you, Laurent, I care about. It’s about us. Twelve people who have risked their lives to get here. Nothing else."
"Non," Rebours said. "I go on all m
issions. I work for the AP."
Albert, one of the quiet French photographers, was ready to punch him.
"Ne me fait pas chier," he said. "Tu as une attitude de merde." He added, in English, "You will never borrow my sleeping bag again."
Rebours backed down. In the end, when McCoy called for two vehicles to accompany him into battle at Al Kut, we simply threw everything out of the two largest SUVs, and six of us piled into each, like flak-jacketed clowns in a circus act.
At Al Kut, we stayed at the rear of the combat train, about a mile and a half from the front line. Sporadic fire was directed at our location, but most of it came from us: The Marines shot at anything they thought had moved. Meanwhile, a sniper hit by Iraqi fire was rushed back to the medic station; shortly after he was carried into a Chinook helicopter, he died of shock. Corporal Mark Evnin was the battalion’s first Marine killed in action.
A few nights later, we were, unbelievably, nine miles from the center of Baghdad, at a factory near a bridge that led into the city. Earlier in the day, we had passed through an abandoned military base. Along with the usual assortment of portraits of Saddam Hussein and outdated computers, Ellen discovered a shower with running water. I grabbed a bar of soap, raced inside, and stripped. Just then a Marine shouted down the hallway, "The building is rigged with C4! Get out!"
I got out.
The factory was a mile and a half down the road from the Diyala Bridge, which crosses a tributary that flows into the Tigris. It was the Third Battalion’s mission to seize the bridge and march into the Iraqi capital. The battalion was on edge; the previous day, a tank from a sister battalion had been destroyed by a suicide bomber. Everyone was exhausted.
On the first morning of the two-day battle, April 6, I stayed back at the factory, sitting in the passenger seat of my car, writing. After a few hours I heard the sounds of battle and saw huge plumes of smoke ahead. I put on my flak jacket and helmet and walked up the road, which was jammed with tanks and armored fighting vehicles waiting to cross the bridge. A Marine commanding a six-man mortar crew in an open-backed Humvee stopped and asked me if I wanted a lift.
"You’re not going all the way, are you?" I asked.
"No, we’ll be a few hundred meters back."
I hopped into the back and the driver continued on. Less than a minute later the Humvee came under fire. I dived to the floor, attempting to become one with it as the Marines around me opened up with their M-16s.
"I shot him!" one of them shouted. "I shot him!"
The driver went nuts. He veered over the center median, knocking everyone from whatever position they happened to be firing from. Then he veered back, jolting us again.
"Who the fuck is driving?" someone yelled.
I knew who was driving: a Marine trying to dodge bullets.
"You’re never going to drive this fucking Humvee again," a Marine next to me shouted, between shots.
The Humvee made a hard right and jerked to a halt. The Marines jumped out, and so did I.
"How’d you like the ride?" one of them asked me.
"Where are we?" I replied.
"The bridge," he said.
The colonel’s Humvee was a few yards away.
"How are you doing, Peter?" McCoy asked as I scrambled over.
His Marines were firing every kind of ordnance they had across the river, and shots were coming back, and there we were, in it.
A few yards away, a terrified Iraqi woman came running out of a building in a black cloak with a white scarf across her forehead. "Is that a frigging nun?" McCoy said.
I listened as he talked on the radio with his commanders and his other officers. In between radio squawks, McCoy chatted as though we were hanging out in a park, watching the neighborhood kids play in a sandbox.
"They’re doing a poor job of Chechen tactics," he explained, referring to the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics the Iraqis were using. "We trained on that. We’re getting them with snipers. Coughlin’s already got six to eight kills today."
His attention returned to the radio phone. He listened, then he gave an order.
"We just got a SIGINT hit that the enemy has requested arty," he said. In other words, the signals intelligence unit had intercepted a radio conversation in which the Republican Guard unit on the other side of the bridge was calling in artillery fire on our positions.
"We’ve got to get our guys down," McCoy continued. "We’ve got guys in the open here."
I was one of those guys.
I used to smoke when I was in college, then quit, but in the past two weeks I had started again. I was nearing a pack a day.
The battalion’s combat troops dug themselves in to the south side of the bridge for the night. I went back to the factory and tried to sleep; the heat was oppressive, the mosquitoes worse.
The Marines planned to take the bridge the next day. Because a pylon was damaged, no vehicles could move over it; the assault would be on foot, World War II style.
At about 10 a.m., word reached the rear that one of the battalion’s armored vehicles had been hit by an artillery shell; two Marines were killed, several injured. The first wave of troops crossed the bridge, and soon the air on the far side was thick with ordnance — artillery shells, mortars, bullets. Two more columns of Marines ran forward, toward the bridge and over it.
I fell into one of the lines, telling myself, I am a journalist. This is a war. I must cover it. We passed the armored fighting vehicle that had been shelled; it was a smoking mess of twisted metal.
"Holy shit," one of the Marines said.
"Don’t look, don’t look," said another.
We ran over the bridge, jumping over a bullet-riddled Iraqi corpse, and as soon as I got over, I noticed Colonel McCoy, standing by a house with his radioman.
"How are you doing, Peter?" he asked, again.
"Just fine, colonel." It was fucking Groundhog Day. I lit a cigarette.
What happened that day was the subject of a story I wrote for The New York Times Magazine. The battle raged around us. Marines were fanning out in all directions, firing their weapons at unseen enemy troops that retreated from building to building as the troops advanced. Fearful of suicide bombers, the Marines fired warning shots at approaching vehicles, and then opened fire. Most of the vehicles, as it turned out, carried confused civilians trying to get out of Baghdad. The day after the battle was over, I counted nearly a dozen bodies; all of them appeared to have been civilians. When I asked one of the Marines what he thought, he said, "That’s war."
Just as things that should have disturbed the Marines didn’t, things that should have disturbed me didn’t. After the fight, I sat in my car, writing, not 20 yards away from a partly crushed corpse sprawled in the road. I’d gotten used to it.
It was April 8. On the BBC, we heard that Baghdad was beginning to fall; the Americans had taken the main presidential palace. With the other journalists, I drove farther into the city. There were Marines everywhere. We parked next to two of their fighting vehicles at an abandoned house, but when a U.S. fighter jet swooped in and dropped an errant bomb 400 yards away, we got out fast.
Not long after, we encountered a group of Marines who had just shot a young boy and girl. They were jittery and didn’t know what to do; they asked us to take the injured children to a medic station in the rear. Laurent Van der Stockt bundled them into
his car, and Enrico held the girl in his arms as the father held his son, who had been shot in the chest and was losing consciousness. "Why? Why?" the father asked as we raced back toward the bridge.
The city came unglued. On the road there was only theft, looters carrying and pushing or pulling whatever they could: air conditioners, water fountains, carpets, lightbulbs. "It’s like Wal-Mart out there," a Marine told me. Outside a technical college, a group of Iraqis pleaded with Marine sentries for permission to come inside and take what they could. "I am working on my Ph.D.," one of them said, in excellent English. "I need a computer."
The next day, April 9, the Third Battalion met no further resistance, though others did. Laurent and I crept ahead once we realized that the final miles would be the easy ones. We were standing at a square in the heart of Baghdad, marveling at it all, when Colonel McCoy roared up in his Humvee. "I’m going to the Palestine Hotel!" he shouted, so we jumped into our vehicles and followed him.
Within a few minutes, we pulled up in front of the Palestine, which housed most of the international press corps in Baghdad and which, the day before, had been shelled by U.S. Army soldiers who believed they were being fired upon, killing two cameramen, one Spanish and one Ukrainian. As we watched, McCoy’s Marines rolled their largest armored vehicle up to the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, put a metal chain around it, and began pulling it down. The symbolic liberation of Baghdad was being carried out by Colonel McCoy and his men, live on CNN.
"How do you feel?" I asked McCoy.
"Speechless," he replied, though he soon found the politically appropriate words about liberation.
I asked him about the Marines I knew his battalion had lost — Evnin, the two men at the bridge, another killed in a Humvee accident at night. What did McCoy think, now that his mission had been accomplished, about the men who had lost their lives?
This time, McCoy truly was speechless. He looked at the ground, held back tears, and finally said, very quietly, "God bless them."
I had thought I had little interest in reporting on wars again. After I covered Bosnia and wrote a book about it, I was satisfied with what I had written and wanted to move on to other subjects. Still, I continued to venture into zones of conflict, though I did so with caution. The circumstances in Iraq did not allow for caution. I like to be in control of my life, and I learned that in war, the notion of control reveals itself as a hoax.
I saw, again, the killing of civilians and soldiers. I experienced, again, the strange mix of humor and friendship that is created when stress and absurdity and terror come together. On the first day I met Colonel McCoy, he’d said that at the start of his march on Baghdad, he told his men that they would undergo a great experience they would hope to never have again. He was right; he studied and knew war. It has been going on for quite some time, after all. The tools of warfare have changed over the millennia, but its nature has not. Terms like "surgical strikes" and "collateral damage" distort a vital truth. War is killing.