November 27, 2007

An Edgy Calm in Fallujah

An Edgy Calm in Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH, IRAQ – “You're probably safer here than you are in New York City,” said Marine First Lieutenant Barry Edwards when I arrived in Fallujah. I raised my eyebrows at him skeptically. “How many people got shot at last night in New York City?” he said.

“Probably somebody,” I said.

“Yeah, probably somebody did,” he said. “Somewhere.”

Nobody was shot last night in Fallujah. No American has been shot anywhere in Fallujah since the 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment rotated into the city two months ago. There have been no rocket or mortar attacks since the summer. Not a single of the 3/5 Marines has even been wounded.

“The only shots we've fired since we got here are warning shots,” said Lieutenant J.C. Davis. Another officer didn't agree. “We haven't even fired warning shots,” he said. “It's too dangerous.”

It's dangerous because anti-American sentiment still exists in the city, even though it is mostly passive right now. It isn't entirely passive, however. Someone has been taking pot shots at Americans. A few days ago somebody threw a hand grenade at Marines. Two weeks ago an insurgent was caught by Iraqi Police officers while planting an IED near the main station. He freaked out, accidentally connected the wires, and blew himself up. “That's what he gets,” Private Gauniel said.

Destruction from Humvee Fallujah.jpg

Destruction in Fallujah as seen from inside a Humvee

Even so, almost all patrols in the city are routine and uneventful affairs.

“We've got it quiet all the way up to our boundary line,” said Lieutenant Edwards. “But it's stalling as you get closer to Baghdad. I don't know who is on the other side over there. But the tribe that lives in that area doesn't stop at our imaginary boundary line. The tribe keeps going toward Baghdad. We don't know why the insurgency is still active because we're not operating there.”

You can't get a picture of Iraq as a whole from embedded reporters. It just isn't possible. When I'm with an Army or Marine unit I'm mostly aware of what's right in front of me, somewhat aware of what goes on generally in their area, and no more informed about the rest of the country than anyone else.

In July of 2007 I reported that my corner of Baghdad – in Graya'at, near Adhamiya – was quiet. It was, and I meant that literally. I spent a week there outside the wire with the 82nd Airborne, and I saw no violence whatsoever. I heard a single (very loud) car bomb from three miles away, but there was no other indication that I was in a city at war.

Last week I spent a mere eight hours in the Green Zone waiting for a helicopter flight to Fallujah. I lolled on the grass just outside the Iraqi Parliament building, about one hundred feet from the Red Zone, and heard a series of gunshots on the other side of the wall, followed by police sirens. The Iraqi Police responded to the violence as they should – by driving toward it, not by hiding or running away from it. Sadly, that counts as progress in Baghdad. But the sounds of gun fire continued without let up for another hour and a half. I have no idea who was shooting at who. The Americans at the Green Zone outpost didn't know either. The Peruvians guarding the gates shrugged when I asked if they knew what was happening. “Hay muchas problemas,” one said. “Es Baghdad.”

Baghdad is supposedly only half as violent as it was when I spent my quiet week inside the city, but it is still very dangerous. The trend lines are going in the right direction, but anything can still happen anywhere at any time. It remains a city at war.

Fallujah is different.

None of the Marines I've spoken to are nervous while walking the streets. “Complacency kills” is the new catchphrase in Fallujah, and it's drummed into the heads of the Americans here every day. The Marines may not have yet won the war in this city, but it sure is starting to look like it. The insurgency in Fallujah is over.

Road Sign to Baghdad From Fallujah.jpg

Fallujah is so close to Baghdad it is almost a suburb, though technically it belongs to Anbar Province. Even so, I have heard almost nothing about the Anbar Awakening here. I've always thought of Fallujah as a place unto itself. The locals and the Marines think of it that way, as well. Ramadi is the real city of Anbar. Fallujah is Fallujah.

Whatever else you might say about Fallujah, it's an original. For decades it has been the infamous bad boy city in Iraq.

Author Bing West describes the place this way in No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. “Ask Iraqis about Fallujah, and they roll their eyes: Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean. Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.”

“Saddam rewarded Fallujah with money and recruited his secret police and fedayeen from here,” Lieutenant Edwards said. “Now it is powerless.” It was also the backbone of the insurgency before it slagged off. Ramadi was the capital of Al Qaeda's so-called “Islamic State in Iraq. But Fallujah was, as the lieutenant put it, Al Qaeda's first club house.

It isn't nearly as dangerous anymore. I would be foolish to say it is safe. You would not want to come here on vacation even if the Iraqi Police would let you inside its walls – and they won't if you don't live here and have the proper ID.

Earlier this year the police set up checkpoints outside the city where they refuse entry to everyone without a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of their car. Even residents who have the permit can only drive on designated streets. Every neighborhood has been sectioned off from the others with concrete barriers and checkpoints.

Marine and Minaret Fallujah.jpg

Fallujah is known as the City of Mosques. It is also a city of walls.

*

“Today we're going to a place where we've seen some small arms fire,” Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling said before I joined him on a dismounted foot patrol in a neighborhood called Dubat. “Earlier in the week one of the patrols was attacked with a hand grenade and small arms fire,” he said. “And last night there was small arms fire again. A single shot. That makes it even more interesting. Why only a single shot?”

Colonel Dowling Fallujah.jpg

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling

“Was it a sniper round?” I said.

“I don't know,” he said. “This was last night at 1:30. The company commander went through this morning and I want to follow up so they can see the situation has my concern. We'll talk to people. In Iraq everybody knows everybody. So they'll figure that one out real quick.”

He also wanted to check out the market.

“Iraqis don't normally drink coffee,” he said. “But we're told there's a guy now selling coffee. So we're going to find out why he's selling coffee and who is drinking the coffee.”

Lots of Arabs drink coffee, but he's right that Iraqis do not. They have a tea culture here. Are there foreigners here buying the coffee? Fallujah is a closed city. They aren't selling it to tourists from Morocco or Lebanon.

The colonel goes out on patrol with his men every week. He also goes to city council meetings regularly.

“He no longer has a place at the table,” Lieutenant J.C. Davis said. “He is only there as an advisor if they need him.”

“What was his role before?” I said.

“Basically, mayor,” he said.

The colonel said he wanted to minimize the presence of Marines.

“I'd like to see the convoys stop going through Fallujah,” he said. “I'd rather go around Fallujah. I want to hand the city back over.”

The former insurgency in the city had many causes, not the least of which was the perception that Americans were here to be an oppressor. Now that security has been restored, the Marines are pulling back hard.

“When you go on night patrols you'll see people playing dominoes in the middle of the night,” Colonel Dowling said. “I'm not scooting 'em because it's 23:00 and they're supposed to be inside their doors. I'm out saying Hey, have some tea. Are you sleeping outside tonight? Please be safe. Those are the things a typical neighborhood cop would say. And that's what I want to show them. I'm not shaking them down. I'm not kicking in doors. I'm not demanding information. I'm not taking over their house to use for a sniper. I'll knock politely, and if they don't want me in the house, we don't go in the house.”

“Do you get attitude from people sometimes when you do that?” I said.

“I don't get attitude for that,” he said. “But sometimes I'll see someone on the street who gives me the stink eye. And I'll stop that person on the street. I'll say, hey, why are you upset? I'll never attack him for giving me a dirty look. I'll say You seem upset, what's the matter? He'll usually say I'm not upset. Or sometimes he'll say I just woke up.” He laughed. “Then I'll spend five or ten minutes with the guy and try to change his perception of a U.S. Marine and remind him what it was like a year ago, five months ago.”

We walked toward our waiting convoy of Humvees. Most patrols in the city are conducted out of small security stations in the various neighborhoods, but the colonel works at Camp Baharia outside the city. We would first have to drive in.

“We need to get you some gloves,” he said as we loaded up our gear. “In case there is an explosion.” At Camp Fallujah I saw gruesome photographs of the hands of Marines who survived explosions and who didn't wear gloves. The colonel did not need to convince me.

No one suggested I wear gloves when I embedded with Army units. Nor had it ever occurred to me.

The drive into Fallujah from Camp Baharia took us through a dreary landscape of what the Marines and soldiers call “moon dust,” the finely grained grit that covers and blows all over everything in Western Iraq. You can't touch anything or even go outside in this country without getting it all over you.

Desert Outside Fallujah.jpg

Before crossing into Fallujah we passed the checkpoint that keeps non-resident vehicles out. Just past the checkpoint was a sign written in Arabic: Welcome to Fallujah. A Terrorist-Free City.

Brand new solar-powered street lights line the main roads. Now that insurgents no longer sabotage the electrical grid, Fallujah gets around twelve hours of electricity a day on average. (It used to be a lot less.) Getting street lights permanently off the electrical grid not only frees up power for televisions and air conditioners, it prevents the city from going dark even when the power is out. The Marines plan to have every street lit up with solar power in two years. Sunlight in this country is a terrible punisher for almost half the year, but it makes solar power almost a no-brainer, especially since the electrical system is already broken.

Web of Wires Fallujah.jpg

Iraq's Third World electrical system is partly disabled by Iraqi incompetence. When a transformer blows, everyone manually moves their wires to another transformer, which then in turn blows, and so on in a domino effect that never ends.

Just inside this overwhelmingly Sunni city is the Blue Mosque, which is Shia.

Blue Mosque Fallujah.jpg

The mosque was aligned with Moqtada al Sadr's radical Mahdi Army militia until the Marines said it would be kept off the aid list if the imam didn't drop his support for jihad. So the mosque came over the coalition side.

We dismounted from our Humvees and walked along the main street in the market area. Colonel Dowling struck up conversations with random Iraqis as we went. Most of the talk was just casual chit chat, but he did mention the hand grenade that was thrown at Marines. He wanted to make sure the locals knew they had his attention.

Market Street Fallujah.jpg

If anyone knew who threw it, they didn't say anything. The Iraqis did, however, voice their complaints. Many groused about the government in Baghdad. Fallujah was an important city when Saddam Hussein was in power. It's not anymore. Ramadi is the capital of this province, in fact now as well as in name, but even that city is neglected by the central government.

One Iraqi wildly gesticulated while denouncing the “crazy countries,” Syria and Iran, for fomenting violence in his. The colonel listened with sympathy.

He cuts an intimidating personality on base when interacting with Marines, as colonels often do. With Iraqis, though, he seemed more like a jovial grandpa and a bit of a do-gooder type. I don't think it was for show. He's a professional, and he adjusts his behavior as needed.

Goofy Teenager Fallujah.jpg

Our interpreter's name was Al. He is originally from Cairo, but he lives now in Las Vegas and is an American citizen. Before he moved to Las Vegas he lived in Baghdad. He prides himself on his knowledge of Iraqi Arabic and his ability to speak it mostly without an accent and blend in as an Iraqi himself.

Later an old Iraqi man dressed in a sharp Western suit figured out where he was from. “You are Egyptian,” he said.

Man in Suit Fallujah.jpg

This man busted our interpreter Al

“You're busted, Al,” I said and laughed.

Fallujah looks filthy to my eyes, but the city is apparently a lot cleaner than it recently was. The Marines hire local day laborers to clean up the dump sites around town. Ramadi looked worse in August than Fallujah does now, but both are less trash-strewn than they were. There was no garbage collection during the insurgency. Security isn't everything in Iraq, but none of these cities can function properly without it.

Humvees and Telephone Poles Fallujah.jpg

New orange dumpsters have been set up every couple of blocks on the streets. The trash is picked up once a week by a Fallujah garbage collection company. Iraqis aren't used to dumpsters, and they have to be told what they're for. Some willingly dispose of their trash inside. Others, out of sheer habit and carelessness, still hurl their refuse onto sidewalks and into gutters and empty lots.

There is no getting around it: this place is ugly, and not only because of the garbage. The streets are dusty as well as filthy. There aren't many trees. The architecture is brutal. Almost every house crouches behind a wall. The Marines have blocked off a huge number of streets with barbed wire and Jersey barriers. There are no nice restaurants and only a handful of the most basic stores. I've only seen one tea shop so far, and there is only one bar in the entire city, somewhere out there next to an empty building with no sign telling citizens what is inside. 99 percent of the people you see outside are men. Fallujah looks like a stern Islamic garrison city.

The Marines know it, too. They feel bad about their own contribution to its hideousness, so they paid local artists a good bit of money to paint murals on the barriers and the walls.

Doves and Skyline Mural Fallujah.jpg

Statue Mural Fallujah.jpg

The city may be hyperconservative, but that does not mean it is radical. At least it's not anymore. Several children ran up to me and, after asking for candy and pictures, said “There are no terrorists in Fallujah.”

*

It isn't quite true that there are no terrorists in Fallujah. As the colonel said, somebody threw a hand grenade at Marines just a few days before. Technically that was an act of guerrilla war rather than terrorism. But the line between guerrillas and terrorists is a thin one in Iraq. Often times the very same individuals who detonate IEDs beneath Humvees also explode car bombs in civilian markets.

Two Girls on Wall Fallujah.jpg

Just a few days ago, eleven people were rounded up and detained. I don't know if they were foreigners or Iraqis, and I don't know why they were arrested. That information is classified. But it happened. Total security is impossible in any country, and especially in a place like Iraq. In Fallujah, though, it is about as good as it can possibly be while the insurgency still grinds on elsewhere.

“My number one concern remains security,” Colonel Dowling told me. “My number two concern is education. I want the schools to be filled with kids. I want the schoolhouse teaching good information.”

“Is anybody monitoring the content of their education?” I said.

“No,” he said.

This surprised me. Schools in some parts of the Middle East are ideological indoctrination factories. I don't know if this has been a problem in Fallujah or not, but someone should know.

Two Boys Fallujah.jpg

“I ask questions about ABCs,” the colonel continued. “I'll go out there and see kids run up to me and they'll just start reciting the ABCs. Or they'll whip out their English books and they'll start reading their English books to me.” I saw the same thing in Ramadi in August. “If I can get these folks to start speaking English, they really will be the bright future for Iraq.”

“When I asked about the curriculum,” I said, “I meant the politics.”

“I don't think they're doing that anymore,” he said.

“You know what I mean?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “They're not...the imams understand what we're trying to do right now.”

He sounded confident, but he also said no one was checking. The Marines do, however, have fluent Arabic speakers listen to what gets said in the mosques.

Man and Girl Fallujah.jpg

“I make sure that my chaplain is out talking to the imams,” he continued. “He goes out once a week and sits and talks to them about religion, values, orphanges, things like that. They see a different perspective from him than they do from the typical Marine. They see that we're very quick to help the poor, and that we'll readily give the shirt off our backs, particularly the Marines. And we back it up. I go to a school once a week just to see what's going on, and I've never heard any anti-coalition messages or anything like that. My Marines have never heard anything bad coming from the loudspeakers of the mosques. They either say coaltition forces are helpful, or a proverb, a direction on how to lead your life, or Thank God for the Iraqi Police. I prefer to hear a proverb and just erase or eliminate discussing anything about coalition forces, either good or bad.”

Aid for mosques is dependent on imams pitching jihad over the side, but the Marines don't force a point of view on the Iraqis. Still, the colonel's preference for no pro-coalition messages was counter-intuitive.

“Why would you not want the imams saying something good?” I said.

“They can do it inside the mosque,” he said, “but I don't need them to announce it. I would rather have normalcy added back to their lives, so they can go back to the way they were 20 years ago or 40 years ago. That's what I'd like to see.”

The U.S. is winning in Iraq right now, but losing in Afghanistan. (American conventional wisdom is terribly out of date in both countries.) Lots of the Marines I've spoken to here want to wrap up their mission and move on to the hotter, more pressing, battlefield. If all goes as well as they hope, the build-up in troops this year means fewer will be needed next year.

“The biggest thing we've got going for us is the surge,” said Lieutenant Edwards. “You've probably read about it or heard about it on television.”

Girl with Teletubbies Shirt Fallujah.jpg

“Yeah,” I said and laughed. I witnessed and covered the surge myself in July and August.

“Has it helped us?” he said. “Extremely. What we can do is we can go in, knock out the enemy forces, and still leave forces there to remain and hold security down. We can then take our own forces, develop the Iraqi forces so that they can hold their own spot, then we can move to another one.”

The Marines have an extra 1,000 troops in the Fallujah area this year, but they aren't in the city. There are far fewer Marines here now than there were.

“We went from having 3,000 Marines in the city last year to down around 300 now,” the lieutenant said. “Maybe 250.”

“So you didn't surge Marines into the city,” I said.

“No,” he said. “We surged Marines around Fallujah. We either capture and kill AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq], or they move out. If we don't kill or capture them, they move somewhere else. They avoid Fallujah now like it's the plague.”

“Even though there are only a tenth as many Marines?” I said. “Are they afraid of the Iraqis?”

“They're afraid of the Iraqis,” he said. “That's what's holding this place down. It's the citizens and the Iraqi forces. We're here as an overwatch in case something happens, but they're holding their own. They're holding their own security in the sense that if you fail, you fail your family and you fail your tribe. That's humiliating for them, and it is not going to happen.”

*

As in Baghdad and Ramadi, children mobbed me everywhere I went on the street. They ran up to the Marines and asked for “chocolate,” which to them means any kind of candy at all. They also asked me for chocolate, but they also wanted me take pictures. “Mister! Mister! Sura!

Sura!” (sura means picture, I guess). Some wanted money.

Children V Sign Fallujah.jpg

Kids with Red and Blue Shirts Fallujah.jpg

Thumb Wrestling the Colonel and Terp Al Fallujah.jpg

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Dowling beats an Iraqi boy in a thumb wrestling contest while our interpreter Al looks on.

Some Marines like to say “You give me money!” when the kids are particularly aggressive. The kids usually laugh and back off, understanding the point and not taking offense. I tried it myself and one kid actually pulled some cash out of his pocket and handed it over. “No, no, I was just joking,” I said. Occasionally an Iraqi adult took pity on my and shooed the kids away so I could photograph something else.

Three Story Building Fallujah.jpg

Two nicely dressed men saw Colonel Dowling and bolted. “Hey!” he said in a friendly tone of voice. They froze and approached us warily, pretending to be friendly. The colonel chatted them up with some small talk, apparently to show them that the Marines are not (necessarily) out to get them. After a few minutes the colonel let them go with an amiable “see you later.” The two men moved away from us as quickly as they could without actually running.

“Public opinion is split about 70-30,” Lieutenant Davis said. “About 70 percent are with us to an extent, though they do want us to leave eventually. 30 percent want us to leave now, but they oppose us passively. I recently met a guy at the market who speaks pretty good English, and he made it very clear he wants us out of his country for good, and he wants us out now.”

Derelict Corner Fallujah.jpg

As we walked back toward the Humvees, a strung-out drug addict walked up behind Colonel Dowling and wildly waved a syringe in his hand. One of the Marines disarmed him, crouched, and bent the needle backwards on the sidewalk. He sealed it up in a plastic bag and brought it back to Camp Baharia for analysis.

“So what did you think?” the colonel said as we headed back to the base.

“It reminds me a bit of Ramadi,” I said.

“Ramadi is better than here,” he said.

Postscript: Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I'll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

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If you prefer to use Pay Pal, that is still an option.

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:56 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

Comments are Back

Comments are back on for the time being. If problems persist, I will shut them off again until I get home from Iraq.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:47 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 25, 2007

Comments are Closed

A little terrorist supporter named Abraham thinks it is funny to impersonate me and others on my own blog. So comments are closed until further notice. I really do not have time for this crap.

If you're unhappy with this temporary new policy, go on over to his idiot blog and tell him what you think about his behavior.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:09 PM | Permalink | 3 Comments »

November 23, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend

I would have written "Happy Thanksgiving" to all my American readers, but I have been embedded in joint Marine-Iraqi security stations in Fallujah very far from Internet access. So my holiday greeting is late.

The Marines are keeping me busy. I have tons of material, and little time to write yet. But I should, theoretically, have a proper full-length article for you on Monday (he says as he crosses fingers.) Thank you for being patient.

JSS Jbail Fallujah.jpg

Here is a picture of one of the joint security stations in southern Fallujah. It's a large rented house where Marines live and work. Iraqi Police officers live and work in the house next door.

JSS Jbail Sleeping Room Fallujah.jpg

Here is a picture of my “bedroom.” The station is spartan, and it is known as the nicest in the city. They do not have Internet access. Nor do they have plumbing, indoor or outdoor. This is no Hilton. Camp Fallujah is a five star spa and resort by comparison. This is where I and a Marine unit spent Thanksgiving.

I'm not complaining, though. Just showing you how it is.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:37 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 18, 2007

Fallujah is Lovely This Time of Year

Really, the weather in Fallujah is lovely in November. Internet access, not so much.

I am still alive, breathing, and vertical, though, and should have something for you to read shortly.

Those of you who like to comment, consider this an open thread. Be nice and obey the moderator.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:34 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 13, 2007

The House from Hell

Reading Staff Sergeant David Bellavia on my way to Fallujah doesn't exactly make me feel good about going there, but his book House to House: An Epic Memoir of War provides a gripping and necessary prologue to the state of the city today.

House to House: An Epic Memoir of War

Click the image to order from Amazon.com

He was there at the second battle of Fallujah in November, 2004, when the city had been seized by Islamist insurgents from all over the place and emptied of the 250,000 civilians who had recently lived there. U.S. Army soldiers and Marines fought house to house and at times hand to hand as they stormed in to clear it.

Some of the insurgents were former Baath Party officers, and many, if not most, were Iraqis. A significant number, though, were from somewhere else.

The fighting was grisly and horrific at best, but one house was particularly nightmarish. Insurgents had set up the perfect death trap where they were shielded behind concrete barriers. Any soldiers who entered would walk straight into the kill zone.

In the kitchen, we found drugs and U.S. Army-issue auto injectors. They had been full of atropine and epinephrine. The muj inside the house had shot the drug directly into their hearts. It acted like PCP – angel dust – and kept them going long after my bullets should have killed them.

In another section of that house, I found a pouch with a Hezbollah insignia. At least some of the six men inside were Shia, not the radical Sunni we were told were so prevalent in the Al Qaeda-dominated Anbar Province. Somebody else found documents from the Palestinian Authority amid the debris upstairs.

Before any of this was discovered, though, the house had to be taken. Bellavia's unit casually entered before anyone realized they had walked straight into a death trap. They barely managed to escape with their lives by running out the way they came in. Bellavia was furious at himself for running away without clearing the insurgents out.

He, more than the others, was especially chagrined, and not only because he was the unit's leader. One reason he joined the Army in the first place was because his home was invaded by burglars when he was younger, and he stood by impotently while they rummaged through the house and stole his belongings. He hoped the Army would toughen him up (and it most certainly did), and that he would never again run away from a fight.

As I storm around in the street, struggling with myself, [Time Magazine and CNN reporter] Michael Ware regards me curiously. The last thing I want right now is a journalist watching me grapple with my own demons. I turn away and pace back up the street, slipping on a couple of 25mm shell casings in the process. Another spray of sparks flares around me...

If I don't go in, they'll have won. How many times have we heard American soldiers rely on firepower and technology because they lack courage? How many times has our enemy said that man-for-man, they can beat us? That's nothing new. The Germans and Japanese said the same thing in World War II.

Inside that house, I surrendered my honor and my manhood. Now I have to take both back, or live with the fact that they are right about me. That is unacceptable.

I rant and swear with abandon. Down the street, I see Sergeant Knapp taking care of my men like they are his little brothers. I want to cry I am so proud. I love these kids in a way I will never be able to express.

I see their faces. One by one. John Ruiz, Lucas Abernathy, Piotr Sucholas, Alex Stuckert, Victor Santos, Brett Pulley, Tristan Maxfield – they deserve more from me.

I stop pacing and let out a deep, rattling sigh. Only Ware remains near me on the street. Everyone else has moved away. Perhaps my display has convinced them I've gone mad.

But Ware is still here. The journalist. Our platoon's unofficial intel officer. We stare intently at each other.

“Fuck it,” I say.

“Fuck it,” agrees Ware.

That settles it. I'm going back in.

You know things are not right with the world when you share a spiritual moment with a damn journalist. But there it is. Mick Ware and I are standing on the street, digesting the finality of the option we've just chosen.

So he and the journalist Michael Ware – whom Bellavia respects tremendously for his intelligence and his bravery – go into the well-crafted death trap alone.

Ware is explicitly told to stay back where he is at least slightly less likely to be killed. He sets up his video camera in the foyer and melts back into the shadows. It is night, the electrical grid is down, and there is little ambient light. It is unlikely he managed to catch much on the camera, but a guy has to try.

Bellavia charges the first set of insurgents as they wait behind concrete barriers with RPGs and machine guns.

Somebody must die now. There is no turning back.

I bring my rifle to the ready up position. The M16 feels right; it is exactly what I need right now. Tucked firmly against my shoulder, I have a perfect eye line over the rifle's sights.

Across the room, I see the young insurgent standing behind the barriers. His head is down, still working on the RPG. The kid's gotta be drugged halfway to Neptune.

I take a step into the room; my feet slosh in the water and send ripples across the flooded floor. The M16's barrel pivots and stops when it is pointed at the insurgent's chest. I have the sight picture. My finger is about to end him.

He looks up. He stares at me with terror in his eyes. I know right then that I have surprised him. He doesn't have a chance, and he knows it, too.

“Jew!” he hisses in fear and spite, as if the word can protect him.

Close-quarters combat is instinctual, fought on the most basic and animalistic level of the human brain. Body language, eye contact, the inflection of a voice can turn a fight in a heartbeat. That is what happens here...

I pull the trigger and hit him right in the chest. He staggers back. I take a step to the left to move out of the doorway. The room's carpet is so waterlogged that my boots make a sucking sound with each step.

After a heartbeat's pause, I shoot him again. This time, my bullet goes into his pelvis. He spins completely around and falls across the barrier. Hands splayed, head draped, he gushes blood across the concrete. The water around him turns a milky crimson.

The last thing he expected was a rush through the doorway. That surprise saved my life and doomed his.

I can win this fight. I can do this.

A red heat forms on my face. The back of my neck tingles.

Where's the second guy?

There was not only a second guy lurking in the dark. Six well-placed insurgents waited in that house. Bellavia took them all out by himself.
Something slides along the wall on the other side of the doorway. I hear breathing. Somebody is close.

“I will kill you and take your dog collar.”

It is a malevolent, accented voice, low and totally devoid of fear. Its self-assured tone triggers a memory of the Nicholas Berg beheading video we watched at our base so long ago. It took them twenty-six seconds to decapitate him, and it was horrifying to watch. They were self-assured, too.

Now my imagination conjures a scene: my severed head, a grimy hand pulling my bloody dog tags free.

That's never gonna happen. Never—gonna—happen.

He's mind-fucking me, this one behind the door. I can't see him. I start to tremble. I fight it, but I can't control my body's physical reaction to this terror.

I can either go to pieces completely, or mind-fuck him back.

“Okay, listen up. I know you are not going to motherfucking stop. You know I am not going to motherfucking stop. La ta quiome.

La ta quiome is my broken Arabic for “Do not resist.”

The enemy behind the door sniggers. He spits a curse in his native language. Sometimes it sounds like Arabic and sometimes it sounds totally different. Could that have been Farsi?

Am I fucking fighting Iranians in here?

“Mommy will never find your body.”

Bellavia shoots him. At least five times.

But there are more in the house. The fight isn't finished.

He fingers his last magazine and thinks of his wife and son.

Deanna. Evan. I'm so sorry. I can't leave this fight. This is what I am. A warrior. It is my blood oath. If I turn my back on that again, I will be nothing and I can't face that.

I creep around the mattress, M16 at the ready. When I reach the doorway, I nearly slip. The water here is deeper and cloudy, probably with blood.

Neither corpse is in the doorway. I study the floor. Dark slicks of blood trail off into the stairwell room. It looks like one or both of them crawled into the kitchen.

Do I go finish them off and face the threat of somebody coming down the stairs again? I could get shot in the back as I go into the kitchen. Or do I go upstairs and face the bandolier-wearing Bogeyman from the closet? He's up there, somewhere in the darkness, waiting for me to do just that.

Or do I leave, get the rest of my squad and do this right.

No! I brought this on myself. I have to finish it.

Lawson is wounded. He's wounded because I didn't finish this the first time. I will not risk another man.

Fuck it.

I step through the doorway and onto the stairs. Eyes on the landing, I drop my current magazine out of the M16. I catch it and sling it into my pouch, then search for my last fresh one. I seize it and slam it home. The new mag makes a metallic snick as it slaps into place. I've got twenty-nine rounds in the mag and one in the pipe.

I begin to climb the stairs. There's no turning back now.

The image of my boy in his Halloween costume tumbles through my mind again. I hear his little voice in my head. It is the last thing he said to me on the phone before I left for Fallujah.

“I am going to save you, Daddy.”

I'm sorry, buddy. I love you. I'm so sorry.

He finds the “bandolier-wearing Bogeyman” upstairs. They're locked into hand-to-hand combat.
He clamped his teeth on the side of my thumb near the knuckle, and now he tears at it, trying to pull meat from bone. As he rages against the side of my right hand, his Adam's apple still in my clutch, I feel one of his hands move under me. Suddenly, a pistol cracks in the room. A puff of gun smoke rolls over us. The bullet hits the wall in front of me.

Where did that come from? Does he have a sidearm?

I cuff him across the face with my torn left hand. He rides the blow and somehow breaks my choke hold on him. I bludgeon his face. He tears at mine.

We share a single question of survival. Which one of us has the stronger will to live?

I gouge his left eye with my right index finger. I am astonished to discover that the human eye is not so much a firm ball as a soft, pliable sack. I try with all my might to send my finger all the way through. He wails like a child. It unnerves me, and I lose the stomach for this dirty trick. I withdraw my finger. Something metallic hits the cold concrete flooring. It is the same hand cannon that almost took my head off. His interest in trying to grab it opens a window of opportunity for me.

As he reaches for the pistol, I slam my left fist as hard as I can down onto his collarbone. He swings wildly at me again. My helmet's gone now. I have no idea where my M16 is. I've nothing but my hands left. And they're not enough. We will struggle and exhaust each other until the stalemate is broken by whoever's friends show up first.

I feel my strength ebbing. I don't have much left. He kicks at me, throwing his whole body into it. I've got to end this. But I don't know how.

“Surrender!”

I'm ignored. He fights on, and I can sense he's encouraged. He's close to getting free of me. I swallow hard and gag. My mouth is full of blood, and I don't know whose. Both of us are slick with it; we have been bleeding all over each other. I taste bile through the blood. My body's maxed out. I don't know what to do.

He remembers he has a knife on his belt.
I pounce on him. My body splays over his and I drive the knife right under his collarbone. My first thrust hits solid meat. The blade stops, and my hand slips off the handle and slides down the blade, slicing my pinkie finger. I grab the handle and squeeze it hard. The blade sinks into him, and he wails with terror and pain.

The blade finally sinks all the way to the handle.

I push and thrust it, hoping to get it under the collarbone and sever an artery in his neck. He fights, but I can feel he's weakening by the second.

I lunge at him, putting all my weight behind the blade. We're chin to chin now, and his sour breath is on my face. His eyes swim with hatred and terror. They're wide and dark and rimmed with blood. His face is covered with cuts and gouges. His mouth is curled into a grimace. His teeth are bared. It reminds me of the dogs I'd seen the day before.

The knife finally nicks an artery. We both hear a soft liquidy spurting sound. He tries to look down, but I've pinned him with the weight of my own body. My torn left hand has a killer's grip on his forehead. He can't move.

I'm bathed in warmth from neck to chest. I can't see it, but I know it is his blood. His eyes lose their luster. The hate evaporates. His right hand grabs a tuft of my hair. He pulls and yanks at it and tries to get his other hand up, but he is feeble.

“Just stop! Stop...Just stop! Rajahan hudna,” I plead. Please truce. We both know it is just a matter of time.

He gurgles a response drowned in blood...

His eyes show nothing but fear now. He knows he's going to die. His face is inches from mine, and I see him regard me for a split second. At the end, he says, “Please.”

“Surrender!” I cry. I'm almost in tears.

“No...” he manages weakly.

His face goes slack. His right hand slips from my hair. It hangs in the air for a moment, then with one last spasm of strength, he brings it to my cheek. It lingers there, and as I look into his dying eyes, he caresses the side of my face.

His hand runs gently from my cheeks to my jaw, then falls to the floor.

He takes a last ragged breath, and his eyes go dim, still staring into mine...

Tears blur my vision. I can hardly see him now, but he looks peaceful.

Why did he touch me like that at the end?

He was forgiving me...

“Sergeant Bell, Sergeant Bell, where are you?”

It's Lawson.

“Up here,” I manage.

“Sergeant Bell, are you okay? Why didn't you stay downstairs? Are you okay, man?”

“Yeah, I'm good. I'm good.”

It's a lie. I wonder if I will ever be good again.

You can buy the book from Amazon.com if you want to read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:13 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 10, 2007

Back from Vegas, Off to Fallujah

I'm briefly home from the Blog World and New Media Expo in Las Vegas and will be leaving for Fallujah in less than 24 hours. Sorry I haven't had much content here lately, but I've been busy and it has been difficult to find time to write. I should have a bit of downtime in Kuwait, though, before I go up into Iraq. I can write then.

The good news is that I won the 2007 Weblog Awards in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category. Thanks so much to everyone who supported me. I had some tough competition, not only from my friends at Iraq the Model, but also from My Marrakesh, which took second place. That site is a delightful discovery if you haven't yet seen it. The photos are luscious, and much better than mine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:14 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 6, 2007

Best New Blog — Contentions

Can I ask you all to vote one more time in the Wizbang 2007 Weblog Awards? Commentary Magazine's group blog Contentions, which I contribute to, was nominated for Best New Blog.

If you haven't bookmarked it yet, you might want to consider it. Lots of great material is published there every day.

You can read all my Contentions articles here.

You can read all my former co-blogger Noah Pollak's Contentions material here.

And you can vote for Contentions as the Best New Blog here.

I'll try to have something more substantial for you to read shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:45 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

November 5, 2007

Hold Music

Sorry for putting you all on "hold." I'm packing for Fallujah and the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas at the same time. I hope at least to have another excerpt from House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia before I fly off to Kuwait. In the meantime, buy that book. It is extraordinary. And it will help put my own dispatches from Fallujah (whatever they happen to be about) into the proper context.

I will be speaking at the convention if you want to come by and listen or say hi. Matt Burden from Blackfive will be on the same panel with me.

TO BLOG OR NOT TO BLOG: MILBLOGGERS,THE DOD AND THE MEDIA, Moderator: Ward Carroll

Thursday, November 8 (2:45 – 3:45)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:19 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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