The bloody battle for the Diyala bridge.
This article was originally published in the New York Times Magazine on April 20, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.
As the war in Iraq is debated and turned into history, the emphasis will be on the role of technology — precision bombing, cruise missiles, decapitation strikes. That was what was new. But there was another side to the war, and it was the one that most of the fighting men and women in Iraq experienced, even if it wasn’t what Americans watching at home saw: raw military might, humans killing humans. The Third Battalion, Fourth Marines was one of the rawest expressions of that might. Based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., it specializes in desert warfare, and its forces number about 1,500 troops, equipped during the war in Iraq with about 30 Abrams tanks and 60 armored assault vehicles, backed up with whatever artillery and aircraft were required for its missions, like 155-millimeter howitzers and Cobra gunships and fighter jets. The battalion made the ground shake, quite literally, as it rumbled north from Kuwait through Iraq, beginning its march by seizing the Basra airport, continuing on past Nasiriya, into the desert and through a sandstorm that turned the sky red and became, at its worst moments, a hurricane of sand that rocked armored vehicles like plastic toys nudged by a child’s finger. On the way to Baghdad, the battalion also fought fierce but limited battles in Afaq and Diwaniya, about 120 miles south of Baghdad, and in Al Kut, about 100 miles from the Iraqi capital.
On April 6, three days before the fall of Baghdad, the battalion arrived at the Diyala bridge, a major gateway into the southeastern sector of the city. The bridge crosses the Diyala River, which flows into the Tigris. Once across its 150-yard span, the Third Battalion would be only nine miles from the center of Baghdad. The bridge was heavily defended on the north side by both Republican Guard and irregular forces, and the battle to seize and cross it took two days. It was, in retrospect, a signal event in the war, a vivid example of the kind of brutal, up-close fighting that didn’t get shown on cable TV.
The Third Battalion had a consistent strategy as it moved toward Baghdad: kill every fighter who refused to surrender. It was extremely effective. It allowed the battalion to move quickly. It minimized American casualties. But it was a strategy that came with a price, and that price was paid in blood on the far side of the Diyala bridge.
The unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy, had a calm bearing that never seemed to waver as he and his troops made their way through Iraq. His mood stayed the same, whether he was in battle or drinking his morning coffee or smoking a cigar; neither the tone nor the pace of his voice strayed from its steady-as-she-goes manner. Perhaps his calm came from experience. His father was an Army officer in Vietnam, serving two combat tours there. McCoy was born into the military and has lived in it for his entire life. This wasn’t the first time he fought against Iraqi soldiers; he was a company commander during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
When I spoke to him on the southern side of the Diyala bridge soon after the battalion arrived there on the morning of April 6, he was in a serene mood. "Things are going well," he said. "Really well."
When Colonel McCoy told you that things were going well, it meant his marines were killing Iraqi fighters. That’s what was happening as we exchanged pleasantries at the bridge. His armored Humvee was parked 30 yards from the bridge. If one of the Republican Guard soldiers on the other side of the bridge had wanted to shout an insult across the river, he would have been heard — were it not for the fact that Colonel McCoy’s battalion was at that moment lobbing so many bullets and mortars and artillery shells across the waterway that a shout could never have been heard, and in any event the Iraqis had no time for insults before dying. The only sound was the roar of death.
"Lordy," McCoy said. "Heck of a day. Good kills."
McCoy’s immediate objective was to kill or drive away enough of the forces on the north side of the river to let him move his men and equipment across. He had no doubt that he would succeed. He was sitting in the front seat of his Humvee, with an encrypted radio phone to his left ear. He had the sort of done-it-again pride in his voice that you hear from a business executive who is kicking back at the clubhouse as he tells you he beat par again. Two Abrams tanks lumbered past us — vehicles that weigh 67 tons apiece do not move softly — and the earth shook, though not as much as it was shaking on the other side of the river, where American mortars were exploding, 150 yards away. The dark plumes of smoke that created a twilight effect at noon, the broken glass and crumpled metal on the road, the flak-jacketed marines crouching and firing their weapons — it was a day for connoisseurs of close combat, like the colonel.
"We’re moving those tanks back a bit to take care of them over there," he explained, nodding to his right, where hit-and-run Iraqi fighters were shooting rocket-propelled grenades at his men, without success. Colonel McCoy’s assessment was Marine blunt: "We’re killing ’em."
He turned his attention to the radio phone, updating his regiment commander. His voice remained calm.
"Dark Side Six, Ripper Six," he said, using his call sign and his commander’s. "We’re killing them like it’s going out of style. They keep reinforcing, these Republican Guards, and we’re killing them as they show up. We’re running out of ammo."
McCoy, whose marines refer to him as, simply, "the colonel," was not succumbing, in his plain talk of slaughter, to the military equivalent of exuberance, irrational or otherwise. For him, as for other officers who won the prize of front-line commands, this war was not about hearts and minds or even liberation. Those are amorphous concepts, not rock-hard missions. For Colonel McCoy and the other officers who inflicted heavy casualties on Iraqis and suffered few of their own, this war was about one thing: killing anyone who wished to take up a weapon in defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime, even if they were running away. Colonel McCoy refers to it as establishing "violent supremacy."
"We’re here until Saddam and his henchmen are dead," he told me at one point during his march on Baghdad. "It’s over for us when the last guy who wants to fight for Saddam has flies crawling across his eyeballs. Then we go home. It’s smashmouth tactics. Sherman said that war is cruelty. There’s no sense in trying to refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it’s over."
When I suggested to Colonel McCoy one morning that Iraqi civilians might not appreciate the manner in which his marines tended to say hello to the locals with the barrels of their guns raised, he did not make any excuses.
"They don’t have to like us," he said. "Liking has nothing to do with it. You’ll never make them like you. I can’t make them like me. All we can do is make them respect us and then make sure that they know we’re here on their behalf. Making them like us — Yanks always want to be liked, but it doesn’t always work out that way."
Though the fighting was lopsided, the marines did not get to the Diyala bridge unscathed. On April 3, three days before the battle for the bridge, the Third Battalion entered the town of Al Kut. It was an incursion intended to convey the point that, as Colonel McCoy described it, there were new "alpha males" in the country.
The attack began at dawn with an artillery barrage that had excited marines next to my vehicle. They yelled "Bam! Bam!" as each shell was fired into the
air. Tanks led the way into town, and as I stayed a kilometer behind at a medic station, the sounds of battle commenced, mortars and machine-gun fire that were accompanied, as ever, by the visuals of war — smoke plumes that were an arsonist’s dream.
A half-hour into the battle, a Humvee raced out of the city and stopped at the medic station. A marine, whose body was rag-doll floppy, was pulled out and put on a stretcher. A marine doctor and medics surrounded him. His clothes were stripped off and needles and monitors placed on and into his body, and the dialogue of battlefield medicine began among the team, all of whom had slung their M-16’s over their backs as they tried to save their comrade’s life.
"Left lower abdomen."
"He’s in urgent surgical."
"Wriggle your toes for me."
"He needs medevac, now."
"My arms are numb."
"Keep talking, Evnin."
His name was Mark Evnin. He was a corporal, a sniper who was in one of the lead vehicles going into Al Kut. Iraqi fighters were waiting in ambush and had fired the first shots; one of them got him.
"Keep talking to us. Where are you from?"
"Remon," he mumbled.
"Where? Where are you from?"
Evnin was not doing well. The battalion chaplain, Bob Grove, leaned over him, and because the chaplain knew Evnin was Jewish, he pulled out of his pocket a sheet with instructions for "emergency Jewish ministration." Grove read the Sh’ma, which begins, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God." Then he began reading the 23rd Psalm, at which point Evnin said, "Chaplain, I’m not going to die."
A Chinook landed 50 yards away. Evnin’s stretcher was lifted from the asphalt and rushed to the chopper. Shortly after he was airborne, he went into shock and died.
Colonel McCoy was just a few feet from where Corporal Evnin was mortally wounded. "I saw him go down," he said afterward. "That fight lasted about nine seconds. We had about 15 human-wave guys attack the tanks. They were mowed down. They drew first blood. They got one of us, but we got all of them."
Corporal Evnin was the battalion’s first K.I.A., but he was certainly not the only marine to die in Iraq. The men of the Third Battalion paid close attention to news of marine battle deaths. The day before they arrived at the Diyala bridge, a Marine tank was blown up by an explosives-laden truck that drove alongside it and was detonated by its driver. It was the realization of one of the marines’ worst fears: suicide bombers.
McCoy remained focused; he told me that his mission, to kill Iraqi fighters, had not changed. "I’m not allowed to have the luxury of emotions to guide my decisions," he said. "It’ll cloud my decisions, and I’ll make a bad one if I submit to that. I have to look at everything very clinically." He reacted to the suicide bombing tactically: a new danger had emerged, and his troops would have to be on increased alert to the threat posed by civilian vehicles.
But the deaths of their comrades deeply affected the grunts, and when the battalion got to Diyala bridge, every man was primed to kill.
"There’s an unspoken change in attitude," McCoy told me a few days before we reached the bridge. "Their blood is up."
The battle for the Diyala bridge lasted for two days. One of the bridge’s main pylons had been badly damaged, and armored vehicles could not move over it. So after the first day of fighting on April 6, the battalion dug itself into the southern side for the night, giving itself time to plan an infantry assault over the span the next morning.
In the morning, the battalion released another round of heavy artillery barrages to soften up the opposition on the northern side of the river. In the fighting, two more marines were killed when an artillery shell hit their armored vehicle on the southern side of the bridge. Eventually, the battalion killed most of the Republican Guard fighters, or at least pushed them back from their dug-in positions on the northern side, and McCoy decided that it was time to try a crossing.
The men of the Third Battalion moved across the Diyala bridge "dismounted," that is, on foot. It was a tableau from Vietnam, or even World War II; grunts running and firing their weapons in front of them. This was, as McCoy described it, "blue-collar warfare."
When the marines crossed to the northern side, they found themselves in a semi-urban neighborhood of one-story shops and two-story houses, a few dozen palm trees and lots of dust. A narrow highway led away from the bridge, toward Baghdad. Immediately, they were met with incoming fire — occasional bullets and the odd rocket-propelled grenade, fired mostly from a palm grove on the eastern side of the road to Baghdad. Colonel McCoy set up his command position — basically, himself and his radioman — adjacent to a house by the bridge. Marines fanned out into the palm grove, while others moved north up the road, going house to house. Advance units set up sniper positions and machine-gun positions a few hundred yards farther up the road; beyond them, American mortars and bombs, fired by units near and behind Colonel McCoy’s position, were loudly raining down.
One of Colonel McCoy’s sergeants ran up to him and told him that Iraqi reinforcements had just arrived.
"A technical vehicle dropped off some [expletives] over there," he said, pointing up the road.
"Did you get it?" Colonel McCoy asked.
"Some of them. Some ran away."
"Boys are doing good," the colonel said moments later. "Brute force is going to prevail today."
He listened to his radio.
"Suicide bombers headed for the bridge?" he said. "We’ll drill them."
Then, one by one, about a half-dozen vehicles came up the road, separately, and the marines got ready to drill them.
Battle is confusion. If a military unit is well trained and well led, the confusion can be minimized, but it can never be eliminated. Split-second decisions — whether to fire or not fire, whether to go left or right, whether to seek cover behind a house or in a ditch, whether the enemy is 200 yards ahead or 400 yards ahead — these kinds of decisions are often made on the basis of fragmentary and contradictory information by men who are sleep-deprived or operating on adrenaline; by men who fear for their lives or for the lives of civilians around them or both; by men who rely on instincts they hope will keep them alive and not lead them into actions they will regret to their graves. When soldiers make their split-second decisions, they do not know the outcome.
The situation was further complicated on the north side of the Diyala bridge, because what was left of the Iraqi resistance had resorted to guerrilla tactics. The Iraqis still firing on the marines were not wearing uniforms. They would fire a few shots from a window, drop their weapons, run away as though they were civilians, then go to another location where they had hidden other weapons and fire those.
Amid the chaos of battle McCoy was, as usual, placid yet focused. Black smoke blew overhead and through the streets; hundreds of marines crept forward on their bellies or in low runs, darting, as fast as they could with their combat gear, from palm tree to palm tree or from house to house. On all sides, there was the sound of gunfire, an orchestra of sounds — the pop-pop of assault weapons, the boom-boom of heavy machine guns, the thump of mortars. Harmony was taking a day off. There would be a sudden burst of a few shots, then a crescendo in which, it seemed, every mari
ne in the vicinity was firing his weapon at an enemy who was, for the most part, unseen; and then it would stop, briefly.
The bulk of the fire emanated from McCoy’s forces, not the Iraqis. Some marines branched farther out to the east, beyond the palm grove. Others moved forward, straight down the road, trying to "go firm" on a front line there, to establish a defensive perimeter into which Iraqi fighters could not penetrate.
The plan was for marine snipers along the road to fire warning shots several hundred yards up the road at any approaching vehicles. As the half-dozen vehicles approached, some shots were fired at the ground in front of the cars; others were fired, with great precision, at their tires or their engine blocks. Marine snipers can snipe. The warning shots were intended either to simply disable a vehicle — wrecking the engine or the tires — or to send the message that the cars should stop or turn around, or that passengers should get out and head away from the marines.
But some of the vehicles weren’t fully disabled by the snipers, and they continued to move forward. When that happened, the marines riddled the vehicles with bullets until they ground to a halt. There would be no car bombs taking out members of the Third Battalion.
The vehicles, it only later became clear, were full of Iraqi civilians. These Iraqis were apparently trying to escape the American bombs that were landing behind them, farther down the road, and to escape Baghdad itself; the road they were on is a key route out of the city. The civilians probably couldn’t see the marines, who were wearing camouflage fatigues and had taken up ground and rooftop positions that were intended to be difficult for approaching fighters to spot. What the civilians probably saw in front of them was an open road; no American military vehicles had yet been able to cross the disabled bridge. In the chaos, the civilians were driving toward a battalion of marines who had just lost two of their own in battle that morning and had been told that suicide bombers were heading their way.
One by one, civilians were killed. Several hundred yards from the forward marine positions, a blue minivan was fired on; three people were killed. An old man, walking with a cane on the side of the road, was shot and killed. It is unclear what he was doing there; perhaps he was confused and scared and just trying to get away from the city. Several other vehicles were fired on; over a stretch of about 600 yards nearly a half dozen vehicles were stopped by gunfire. When the firing stopped, there were nearly a dozen corpses, all but two of which had no apparent military clothing or weapons.
Two journalists who were ahead of me, farther up the road, said that a company commander told his men to hold their fire until the snipers had taken a few shots, to try to disable the vehicles without killing the passengers. "Let the snipers deal with civilian vehicles," the commander had said. But as soon as the nearest sniper fired his first warning shots, other marines apparently opened fire with M-16’s or machine guns.
Two more journalists were with another group of marines along the road that was also involved in the shooting. Both journalists said that a squad leader, after the shooting stopped, shouted: "My men showed no mercy. Outstanding."
The battle lasted until the afternoon, and the battalion camped for the night on the north side of the bridge. The next morning, April 8, I walked down the road. I counted at least six vehicles that had been shot at. Most of them contained corpses or had corpses near them. The blue van, a Kia, had more than 20 bullet holes in its windshield. Two bodies were slumped over in the front seats; they were men in street clothes and had no weapons that I could see. In the back seat, a woman in a black chador had fallen to the floor; she was dead, too. There was no visible cargo in the van — no suitcases, no bombs.
Two of the van’s passengers had survived the shooting; one of them, Eman Alshamnery, had been shot in the toe. She had passed out and spent the night in the vehicle. When she woke in the morning she was taken by marines for treatment by their medical team.
Alshamnery told me that her home in Baghdad had been bombed and that she was trying to flee the city with her sister, who was the dead woman I had seen in the back seat of the van. Alshamnery said she had not heard a warning shot — which doesn’t mean that one wasn’t fired. In fact, it would have been difficult, particularly for civilians unaccustomed to the sounds of war, to know a warning shot when they heard it, or to know where it came from, or how to react appropriately.
Alshamnery, who spoke to me through a Marine interpreter, was sitting next to another woman, who gave her name as Bakis Obeid and said she had been in one of the other passenger vehicles that was hit. She said her son and husband had been killed.
There were other survivors. A few yards down the road from the Kia van, three men were digging a grave. One gravedigger gave his name as Sabah Hassan and said he was a chef at the Al Rashid hotel, which is in the center of Baghdad and, in more peaceful times, was where foreign journalists stayed. Hassan said he was fleeing the city and was in a sedan with three other men on the road when they came under fire, apparently from the marines. A passenger in his car was killed. I asked him what he felt.
"What can I say?" he replied. "I am afraid to say anything. I don’t know what comes in the future. Please." He plunged his shovel back into the earth and continued his funereal chores.
Not far from the gravediggers, I came across the body of the old man with the cane. He had a massive wound in the back of his head. He died on his back, looking at the sky, and his body was covered with flies. His cane, made of aluminum, lay by his right hand.
Just a few yards away, a Toyota pickup truck was by the side of the road, with more than 30 bullet holes in its windshield. The driver, who was wearing a green military tunic, was dead, his head thrown back, slightly to the left. Nearby, the body of another man lay on the ground, on his stomach; attached to the back of his belt was a holster for a pistol. An AK-47 assault rifle was in the sand nearby. These were the only fighters, or apparent fighters, that I saw on the road or in adjacent buildings.
As I took notes, several marines came by and peeked inside the blue van.
"I wish I had been here," one of them said. In other words, he wished he had participated in the combat.
"The marines just opened up," another said. "Better safe than sorry."
A journalist came up and said the civilians should not have been shot. There was a silence, and after the journalist walked away, a third marine, Lance Cpl. Santiago Ventura, began talking, angrily.
"How can you tell who’s who?" said Corporal Ventura. He spoke sharply, as though trying to contain his fury. "You get a soldier in a car with an AK-47 and civilians in the next car. How can you tell? You can’t tell."
He paused. Then he continued, still upset at the suggestion that the killings were not correct.
"One of these vans took out our tank. Car bomb. When we tell them they have to stop, they have to stop," he said, referring to civilians. "We’ve got to be concerned about our safety. We dropped pamphlets over these people weeks and weeks ago and told them to leave the city. You can’t blame marines for what happened. It’s bull. What are you doing getting in a taxi in the middle of a war zone?
"Half of them look like civilians," he continued. He was referring to irregular forces. "I mean, I have sympathy, and this breaks my heart, but you can’t tell who’s who. We’ve done more than enough to help these people. I don’t think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people di
dn’t die. Innocent people die. There’s nothing we can do."
Two days later, the Third Battalion arrived at the Palestine Hotel in the center of Baghdad, the first marines to reach the heart of the city. They had made it from the Kuwaiti border in 22 days. As the marines were taking up defensive positions around the hotel, I noticed a sniper I had become acquainted with during the past weeks. (Because he has children who do not know precisely what he does in the Marines, he had asked me not to name him.) He was squatting on the ground in Firdos Square, in front of the hotel, scanning nearby buildings through the scope on his rifle, looking for enemy snipers. About 150 yards away, at the other end of the square, one of the battalion’s armored vehicles was in the process of wrapping a metal chain around the statue of Saddam Hussein, preparing to pull it down.
Although this was a moment of triumph, I was still thinking about the civilians killed at Diyala bridge, and I said to the sniper that I had heard that he was one of the men who had fired shots there. He nodded his head, and I didn’t need to ask anything more, because he began to talk about it. It was clear the bridge was weighing on his mind, too. He said that during the battle, he fired a shot at the engine block of a vehicle and that it kept moving forward. For him, this had been evidence that the person behind the wheel was determined to push ahead, and to do harm.
I said that a civilian driver might not know what to do when a bullet hits his vehicle, and might press ahead out of fear or confusion.
"It’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback on Monday morning," he replied. "But we did everything we could to avoid civilian casualties."
When I visited the kill box down the road from Diyala bridge the morning after the battle, I noticed that the destroyed cars were several hundred yards from the marine positions that fired on them. The marines could have waited a bit longer before firing, and if they had, perhaps the cars would have stopped, or perhaps the marines would have figured out that the cars contained confused civilians. The sniper knew this. He knew that something tragic had happened at the bridge. And so, as we spoke in Baghdad, he stopped defending the marines’ actions and started talking about their intent. He and his fellow marines, he said, had not come to Iraq to drill bullets into women and old men who were just trying to find a safe place.
Collateral damage is far easier to bear for those who are responsible for it from afar — from the cockpit of a B-1 bomber, from the command center of a Navy destroyer, from the rear positions of artillery crews. These warriors do not see the faces of the mothers and fathers they have killed. They do not see the blood and hear the screams and live with those memories for the rest of their lives. The grunts suffer this. The Third Battalion accomplished its mission of bringing military calamity upon the regime of Saddam Hussein; the statue of Saddam fell just a few minutes after the sniper and I spoke. But the sniper, and many other marines of the Third Battalion, could not feel as joyous as the officers in the rear, the generals in Qatar and the politicians in Washington.
The civilians who were killed — a precise number is not and probably never will be available for the toll at Diyala bridge, or in the rest of Iraq — paid the ultimate price. But a price was paid, too, by the men who were responsible for killing them. For these men, this was not a clean war of smart bombs and surgical strikes. It was war as it has always been, war at close range, war as Sherman described it, bloody and cruel.