On the morning of April 10, the day after resistance collapsed in most of Baghdad, I talked to a small group of looters at a warehouse belonging to the Ministry of Finance who were carting off brand-new water coolers and air-conditioning units. Except when they scuffled with one another, they were friendly and unapologetic. A young man named Habib, who had two water coolers strapped to the top of a taxi, said, “Now we have freedom, this is our right. We’ve earned these things and we’re poor.” Sitting on top of an air-conditioning unit he had just taken, another man called Sami said, “I was in the army for eleven years and I don’t have an air conditioner. I have four children.”
I talked to some of the many other people crowded around and expressing their anger about the looting, and especially with the American soldiers for not stopping it. “I could have taken stuff but I didn’t,” said a man called Ahmed Yusuf. “It is forbidden by our religion. These people are ignorant and the Americans should make a checkpoint to take care of the institutions”—by which he meant such places as hospitals, banks, and public buildings. Across the city that morning many people told me the same thing: as the occupying power, the US had a duty to provide people with security.
While I was talking to the looters I met Staff Sergeant Nicholas Clark of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, who was making his way through the crowd, with his pistol drawn. He was smiling at them. I thought perhaps he would stop them, but he did not, and asked me to follow him so that he could show me why. Next to the Finance Ministry’s building was another warehouse, which a couple of Marines were guarding. Inside were crates of ammunition and mortar shells, tear gas, piles of rifles and other guns. Some of the boxes were marked in Arabic, some in English, and some with Cyrillic lettering. Some boxes were labeled “Jordan Armed Forces.”
Sergeant Clark then showed me another building that he said was crammed with ammunition, and then he took me to yet another warehouse a few minutes away, which was full of crates containing rocket launchers, hand grenades, and more than a dozen antiaircraft guns. To put it simply, he said, quite apart from the Marines’ not wanting to get into the “police business,” the problem was that local Iraqis had been asking the Marines to protect the many ammunition stores across the city. Fighting was still going on anyway, he said, and the Marines did not have the additional manpower to stop looters. They had to stop these guns from falling into people’s hands; otherwise the situation would get even uglier than it was already.
Surrounded by piles of weapons in one of the warehouses, I asked Sergeant Clark, who had grown up in Lansing, Michigan, and fought in the first Gulf War in …