It’s funny what triggers a memory.
Hurrying out of Kroger recently on a warm afternoon I was nearly struck by two grocery carts. Irritated, I looked behind the carts to find a slightly overweight young man in a navy blue Kroger vest, anxiously fumbling with a strap on one of the baskets. His head was bent in awkward concentration and I realized he was mentally handicapped. Immediately, my irritation turned to empathy and I suppressed a paternalistic urge to help. As I carefully sidestepped his roadblock, the young man looked up and beamed sweetly at me with friendly innocence.
That smile. Unexpectedly, I was back in a blasted town on the banks of the Euphrates, looking down at the frozen smile of a man as he trembled in the grip of two big Marines.
Thursday 28 April 2005 – Operation OUTERBANKS – Haqlaniyah, Al Anbar Province, Iraq
It was a bad intersection – in fact, one of the worst in Iraq.
Curled up like a surly dog between a mosque, the river, and a handful of crumbling houses, the roundabout linked the western desert road with the river road between Bani Dahir to the north and Haqlaniyah to the south. There really wasn’t any other way to move men
and material between the main base at the Hadithah Dam and a unit conducting operations along the west bank of the Euphrates river – the upper road was mined so badly it was considered a “black route” or complete no go for Coalition traffic – so as my three-vehicle element closed the distance to the intersection, we kept 20 meters of spacing and looked hard for roadside bombs. Exploded cement curbs and twisted bits of metal and rubber marked the places where looking hard hadn’t been enough.
We were on a speed run to drop off detainees at the battalion Advanced Logistics Operations Center (ALOC) in the desert fringe and extract a sniper team from their hide position covering the mosque. I was in the lead trac with Marines posted out the back cargo hatches as security and I was worried. The insurgents knew exactly where we were after three straight days of dismounted clearing operations and they knew what chokepoints we would have to pass when we finally used vehicles to move. So as we roared into the intersection at 30 miles per hour, I almost expected the jarring, screeching stop when it came.
“Hey sir, looks like there could be an IED up by that curb. Better call EOD.” The trac commander’s voice was pitched flat and matter of fact through my headset. A novice might have mistaken his poise for unconcern. I knew better. Roadside bombs were the top killer in Iraq. Standing orders from Division were for all potential IEDs to be cordoned and destroyed. We had found and detonated three IEDs in Bani Dahir on the first day of OUTERBANKS alone. Even though this intersection was possibly the worst place in the Middle East – and therefore in the whole world – to be stopped, it didn’t matter because we were here and there was an IED and that was that.
“Roger. We’ll keep the snipers in place for over watch until EOD gets done.” I hadn’t finished the order before the tracs herringboned (pivoted outboard in alternate directions) and took up overlapping fields of fire. A dozen Marines remained standing in the troop compartments with rifles balanced on the open cargo hatches, scanning their sectors with a combination of eagerness and uneasiness unique to men in the profession of arms. They were ready for a fight but unhappy that it might be here.
I understood their concern. Armored vehicles are famously vulnerable to dismounted infantry in an urban environment. Two days prior a tank had taken an RPG hit from a gully after I failed to provide infantry for its security. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice, but I also didn’t want any Marines to dismount and clear houses to establish security positions. Two months into my first “combat” tour, I still hadn’t seen any combat. My natural preference for order, control, and limiting the decisions I had to make meant roving fire teams of Marines were not yet in my playbook.
With the snipers in over watch and the call sent out for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, there was nothing to do but wait. Men hunched down in turrets and hatches until only darting eyes were visible between armor plating and dusty Kevlar helmets. There were no known enemy snipers in the area but it wouldn’t take a trained marksman to open up on automatic and hit a vehicle in the open – and we were definitely in the open.
My neck prickled with the shrinking feeling of being watched. Scanning structures fifty yards across the intersection, I noted cinder block walls crumbled from repeated explosions, building facades cross-hatched by machine gun bullets, and the frayed black scalps of severed electrical wires dangling from rusted iron poles. The visual evidence of previous violence was sobering: men who had expected to live had died here. I wished I was somewhere else.
The wait lasted for more than 2 hours: unforgivably long to be stopped and completely exposed in a cross-compartment danger area. In the decayed streets and structures around us only tatters of shredded plastic fluttered from scattered coils of concertina wire to give movement to the scene. I half expected to see a tumbleweed bounce by. This was unmistakably a bad place and we were unmistakably not welcome in it.
Added to my nervousness was a growing sense of self-consciousness due to unmet responsibility. To some degree, I envied the Marines around me with their narrow mission of covering avenues of approach or monitoring the radio. While equally exposed to danger, they did not share my angst about the next decision. At what point should we reposition to gain better cover? There were no obviously better locations from which to observe the intersection while maintaining mutually supporting fields of fire. On the other hand, it didn’t take a Rommel to realize bad things were bound to happen if we remained in place.
As the sun climbed directly overhead the temperature crept past 100 degrees. Sweat pooled in the small of my back between body armor and belt, then diffused into my undershorts. A special kind of throbbing ache – part thirst, part sleeplessness, and part Kevlar helmet – pressed against my temples. My feet felt squishy inside dirty boots; I flexed my toes absentmindedly, repelled by my own filth and depressed by the knowledge that we were less than halfway through the operation. My mind wandered to cooler, cleaner places.
“Hey! I’ve got movement to the south about 200 yards. Looks to be a MAM.” I jerked upright and realized I had zoned out. There was no mistaking the urgency of the sniper team leader’s report, as he had foregone call signs and normal radio procedure to warn us of the contact. I wondered if the sniper team had been lulled into a stupor, too. The thought was unnerving.
A MAM was any military-aged male. We treated them differently than other Iraqi citizens because the insurgency was almost exclusively conducted by the dislocated former soldiers of Saddam’s army and by angry young men who freelanced as mujahideen for financial, religious, political, or personal reasons.
“Roger. What is he doing? Over.” A lone MAM poking his head out of a building to check us out would not be unusual in a town the size of Haqlaniyah. In fact, I was surprised we hadn’t yet seen anyone during the whole time we had been at the intersection. It was odd. Eerie, even.
“Uh, he’s moving this way, over.” The trac commander in the hatch next to me cursed and stood up, accompanied by the hydraulic whirring of his turret-mounted heavy machine guns reorienting south at the approaching man.
“Does he have a weapon? Over.” I was playing for time, processing information while trying to decide on the right course of action. Of course he wouldn’t have a weapon. But at this stage of the war, every reasonable person in Iraq knew not to walk up on a cordon of Marines. I couldn’t fathom a reason why an innocent man would pop out of nowhere and stroll towards us down an abandoned street as we grouped around a known ambush spot. On the other hand, it didn’t make sense that an insurgent would approach us so brazenly. None of it made sense, really. I was left with the thought that this was a ruse, intended to lure Marines out of armored positions in order to expose them to hidden explosives or gunmen.
“Negative. He’s just walking normally, over.” Then immediately, “What do you want us to do? Over.”
“Standby, over.” I had no idea what the sniper team should do. Or the rest of the Marines, for that matter. I needed more information, but more information was not a luxury I was going to get. I could feel the weight of expectation from the men around me. It was my job to give them direction and make this situation turn out right. Instead, I wished fervently for something to happen to make the problem go away.
By now I was tracking the movement of the approaching man through my Rifle Combat Optic. At 4x power he looked not much different than every other MAM I had seen over the past few months. Perhaps a bit more disheveled – his dark gray jacket looked dirty and stained, his hair unkempt. And his walk was unsteady and meandering. It occurred to me he might be drunk.
I had an idea.
Shifting aim 15 or 20 yards to the right of the man, I fired a single shot into a nearby wall.
“What do you see, sir? What’s going on?!” The trac commander pivoted towards me with an expectant look on his face. In the troop compartment behind me there was rustling movement and metallic scraping of Marines getting ready for a fight.
I cursed under my breath. It hadn’t occurred to me to communicate what I was going to do. I was so wrapped up in my internal conflict that my ability to think clearly and communicate had been compromised. Marine Corps policy prohibited firing warning shots at people. The men around me knew the policy and naturally assumed there was a threat.
“That was a warning shot, over.” I felt stupid and should have. Second Lieutenants had to work hard against a Fleet stereotype of overeager inexperience. My rash action did nothing to diminish that reputation.
Flushed with embarrassment, I turned my attention back to the MAM. He had stopped but not turned to leave. Instead, he stood somewhat aimlessly in the middle of the street and stared vacantly at our security position with a half-smile on his face. This was not the reaction I expected from someone who had just been shot at.
It dawned on me that for whatever reason, this Iraqi was not going anywhere unless we made him. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team would not deal with the IED if they arrived on scene and found a random dude hanging out within 50 yards of their position – he might be a trigger man. My uncertainty and embarrassment crystallized into frustration at the lone figure swaying in the street.
“Go snatch him up,” I ordered a tall corporal waiting eagerly near the troop hatch behind me. In a rush, he and two other Marines were out the hatch and onto the street, moving quickly in a dispersed wedge. Gated windows, empty rooftops, and thickets of underbrush that might blossom into sparkling muzzle flashes blurred by the running men. I expected them to stop a few paces away from the MAM to order him prone and detain him. They did not.
Violently, the lead Marine slammed into the man and drove him into the dirt. I blinked. This was my introduction to kinetic energy applied to a problem, so different from my schoolboy track days or sand table exercises at The Basic School. A profound realization settled on me that I was a director of violence against other men. It mattered what I said and it mattered to whom I said it.
The Iraqi man lay crushed in the dust, unmoving.
Internally I winced as the Marine on top of the man rolled him onto his face, put a knee in his back and cinched flexcuffs around his wrists. Theoretically, the Iraqi was a possible enemy and therefore the Marine’s actions were well within our rules of engagement. But something inside me shrank from the force that had been used to subdue an unresisting man. I felt tension between my gentler sensibilities as a Christian introvert and my professional responsibility to deal swiftly and effectively with possible threats to my mission and to the Marines under my command.
In truth, it was a good thing most Marines were inured to violence and comfortable with its application. Marine Corps training was brutal by intent. The Iraqi being jerked back to my position between two grim Marines was no longer an unknown, uncontrollable quantity in our battlefield calculus. Whatever his reason for inserting himself into our situation, the man’s removal by force simplified things for me. In fact, his detention couldn’t have come at a better time: EOD was just now rolling onto the scene.
Handing over tactical control of the perimeter to the senior EOD man, I turned to deal with the man being shoved through the troop hatch behind me.
“He’s a retard, sir.”
The corporal was right, if harsh. Orange food stains smeared the Iraqi’s shirt. His hair was matted in places and drool feathered his cheeks. He smelled ghastly. I lowered my gaze and noted a wet spot darkening his leg. The man was terrified.
There are times when remorse, shame, and regret overpower one’s sense of professional adherence to duty. I suppressed those emotions. It would be weakness to release the man now, precisely at the sensitive moment when an EOD technician was examining what we thought might be a roadside bomb. The apparently random appearance of a handicapped man in the middle of this awful intersection was clearly not an accident. In fact, this was the first of many times during two tours in Iraq that I would witness Al Qaeda’s callous disregard for innocent lives, as they sent children, the disabled, and terrified civilians to probe Marine roadblocks; not infrequently, those episodes ended in death for the sacrificial lamb. Al Qaeda operatives, meanwhile, coolly observed each interaction from the shadows and adjusted tactics accordingly. The technique was barbaric, and very effective.
Directing my attention back to the trembling man in the troop compartment, I ordered the Marines to blindfold him, search him, and seat him next to the other detainees for transportation to the detention facility. Since we didn’t have a proper blindfold, the corporal grabbed an empty sandbag from the trac floor. As the bag went over his head, the handicapped man’s eyes rolled in terror and a mirthless smile froze on his face.
I felt like a schoolyard bully.
Deep in thought, I walked slowly across the Kroger parking lot to my car. I hoped somewhere in another place, a handicapped Iraqi man was being treated with kindness and gentleness and care. All of the things I had not done for him, when I had the power and he was caught in the middle of other men’s war.