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Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs

a complete rejection of the hyped, consumerist American dream as it is dished out in reality TV shows and pop-song lyrics…. Their highest aspiration is self-sacrifice over self-preservation.

This sounds idealistic, but, as Wright is quick to note, “the whole point of their training is to commit the ultimate taboo: to kill. Their culture revels in this.” At the end of team briefings, “Marines put their hands together and shout, ‘Kill!’”

Like Fick with his visions of ancient Greece, many of these men arrived in Kuwait full of romantic notions about honor, valor, and sacrifice. From the very start, however, those ideas would be put to the test. Both Fick and Wright express dismay at the layers of incompetence among superior officers with which the men in First Recon must contend. The company’s operations chief, while failing to bring along enough batteries for the Marines’ critical night-fighting equipment, had the presence of mind to bring a personal video camera, which he plans to use to make a war documentary that he hopes to sell after the invasion. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Ferrando, seems more interested in the Marines’ personal appearance than in their preparedness for battle. Addressing them in the Kuwaiti desert on the eve of war, he tells them that when they cross the Euphrates, all mustaches must come off. “We’re getting ready to invade a country, and this is what our commander talks to us about?” one soldier says. “Mustaches?”

3.

During their initial thrust into Iraq, the Marines encounter little resistance. Speeding along Iraq’s highways, they are cheered on by excited Iraqi children. By the third day, the platoon has pushed to within twenty kilometers of the southern city of Nasiriyah. Along with 10,000 other Marines, they park on the road, waiting for orders. Even while idle, they leave their mark, in the form of garbage and—a subject rarely broached by the mainstream media—bodily waste. “Taking a shit is always a big production in a war zone,” Wright observes.

In the civilian world, of course, utmost care is taken to perform bodily functions in private. Public defecation is an act of shame, or even insanity. In a war zone, it’s the opposite. You don’t want to wander off by yourself. You could get shot by enemy snipers, or by Marines when you’re coming back into friendly lines. So everyone just squats in the open a few meters from the road, often perching on empty wooden grenade crates used as portable “shitters.” Trash from thousands of discarded MRE packs litters the area. With everyone lounging around, eating, sleeping, sunning, pooping, it looks like some weird combat version of an outdoor rock festival.

In a cluster of mud-hut homes across from the platoon’s position, old ladies in black robes stand outside, “staring at the pale, white ass of a Marine” who, naked from the waist down, is “taking a dump in their front yard.” A Marine says to Wright, “Can you imagine if this was reversed, and some army came into suburbia and was crapping in everyone’s front lawns? It’s fucking wild.”

By the next morning, all the trash has miraculously been picked up by the soldiers. But things quickly take a darker turn. In the first real setback for the Americans, some Marine units become bogged down in a series of firefights in and around Nasiriyah. Fick’s platoon, waiting some distance away, watches as artillery batteries fire 155mm shells into the city. “Marines who so scrupulously picked up all their litter this morning are now bombing the shit out of the city,” Wright observes. A short time later, Fick’s men, approaching a bridge leading into Nasiriyah, are unsettled to see armed men darting through alleyways, clutching women in front of them for cover. The Marines’ rules of engagement forbid them to fire unless first fired on, but, once the Iraqis do begin shooting, Wright reports, “up and down the line, just about every rifle, machine gun and grenade launcher roars to life.”

As the Marines fall back, some are clearly exhilarated at this first exposure to battle; others express remorse. “Before we crossed into Iraq, I fucking hated Arabs,” says Antonio Espera, a thirty-year-old sergeant from California. “I don’t know why…. But as soon as we got here, it’s just gone. I just feel sorry for them. I miss my little girl. Dog, I don’t want to kill nobody’s children.” Coming under heavy fire for the first time, Wright is surprised to find himself calm, but he is astonished at the fierceness of the barrage being directed at Nasiriyah. It includes high-explosive rounds that can blast through steel and concrete as well as DPICMs (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions), cluster shells that burst overhead, dispersing dozens of bomblets designed to shred people.

Even in the best of circumstances, Wright notes, artillery fire is imprecise, which leads him to wonder why reporters and antiwar groups concerned about collateral damage in war pay so little attention to it:

The beauty of aircraft, coupled with their high-tech destructive power, captures the imagination. From a news standpoint, jets flying through the sky make for much more dramatic footage than images of cannons parked in the mud, intermittently belching puffs of smoke.

But the fact is, the Marines rely much more on artillery bombardment than on aircraft dropping precision-guided munitions. During our thirty-six hours outside Nasiriyah they have already lobbed an estimated 2,000 rounds into the city. The impact of this shelling on its 400,000 residents must be devastating.

Entering the city with the Marines, Wright gets to see just how devastating the impact has been. Smoke curls from collapsed structures, and houses facing the road are pockmarked and cratered. The corpses of Iraqi attackers are scattered on the road leading out of the city. Run over repeatedly by tracked vehicles, “they are flattened, with their entrails squished out,” Wright notes, adding:

We pass a bus, smashed and burned, with charred human remains sitting upright in some windows. There’s a man in the road with no head and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no legs.

Heading north, the Marines find themselves amid the palm trees and canals of the Fertile Crescent, but all around are signs of death. Along the highway are torched vehicles with “charred corpses nearby, occupants who crawled out and made it a few meters before expiring, with their grasping hands still smoldering.” Lying beside one car is the mangled body of a small child, face down, whose clothes are too ripped to determine the gender. “Seeing this is almost no longer a big deal,” Wright comments. “Since the shooting started in Nasiriyah forty-eight hours ago, firing weapons and seeing dead people has become almost routine.” Fick, reaching back to his four years in a Jesuit high school, writes that he found himself “mouthing the Twenty-third Psalm: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….’”

Further north, as they near the town of Qalat Sukkar, Fick writes, he and his men are ordered to seize a nearby military airfield. This upsets them, since they are not trained for such a mission, and their Humvees lack not only armor but also doors and roofs. Fick is further distressed to hear the new rules of engagement: all personnel on the airfield—whether armed or not—are to be considered hostile. During training, he writes, “we had learned about Vietnam’s free-fire zones. They had been, it was acknowledged, immoral and counterproductive. Qalat Sukkar was being declared a free-fire zone.” As they race toward the airfield, one of his men suddenly opens fire. Looking out, Fick sees in the distance a blur of cars, camels, and men carrying long sticks that might be rifles.

Finally reaching the airfield, the Marines find it deserted. While relieved, they are shaken to see how vulnerable they had been. They are soon approached by five Iraqis dragging two bundles. Inside are two teenaged boys. Both have been wounded—one gravely. Examining him, Doc Bryan, a medic, can see that he’s been shot with 5.56mm rounds, a caliber used by the Americans. “Marines shot this boy!” he roars. It’s now clear that the distant figures who’d been shot at were not fighters with rifles but shepherds with canes.

Fick runs to company headquarters and explains what has happened. He wants the boys evacuated to a field hospital. The major on duty informs him that Lieutenant Colonel Ferrando is sleeping and can’t be disturbed. Fick is livid:

I wanted to tell the major that we were Americans, that Americans don’t shoot kids and let them die, that the men in my platoon had to be able to look themselves in the mirror for the rest of their lives.

The reckless way his men have been deployed has opened up cracks in his trust in his commanding officers:

I thought of the untold innocent civilians who must have been killed by artillery and air strikes over the past week. The only difference was that we hadn’t stuck around to see the effects those wrought. Our actions were being thrust in our faces, and the chain of command was passing the buck to the youngest, and most vulnerable, of the troops.

Determined to force the issue, Fick races back to his men. Placing the two boys on stretchers, they rush them to the battalion headquarters, then deposit them in front of the indifferent major. Faced with this small-scale mutiny, he slips to the back of the tent to rouse Ferrando. Coming out, the lieutenant colonel—quickly sizing up the situation—orders the boys’ immediate transfer to a field hospital. Fick’s dejection does not lift:

I felt sick for the shepherd boys, for the girl in the blue dress, and for all the innocent people who surely lived in Nasiriyah, Ar Rifa, and the other towns this war would consume. I hurt for my Marines, goodhearted American guys who’d bear these burdens for the rest of their lives. And I mourned for myself. Not in self-pity, but for the kid who’d come to Iraq. He was gone. I did all this in the dark, away from the platoon, because combat command is the loneliest job in the world.

4.

The morale of Fick’s men continues to erode as they press northward. A new source of tension is added by the need to set up roadblocks to counter the unanticipated threat of suicide attacks. Because these sites tend to be poorly marked, many Iraqi drivers fail to stop at them. When US soldiers fire warning shots, the Iraqis often speed up. As a result, many are killed. After one car has been shot at, a Marine named Graves goes to help a little girl cowering in the back seat, her eyes wide open. As he goes to pick her up, “thinking about what medical supplies he might need to treat her…the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out,” Wright writes. As Graves steps back in horror, his boot slips in the girl’s brains. “This is the event that is going to get to me when I go home,” he says.

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