Fallujah--From Near, from Afar
My first embed in Iraq was actually my second embed in Iraq, which of course doesn’t make sense, but like a lot of things in Saddam’s former police state, a broad explanation is always needed and even then you’ll often contradict yourself.
The same way the vision slowly adjusts after a burst of light, from the United States, I saw the after-image of hazy objects and movement, all out of context and jumbled. I rubbed my eyes with both hands trying to refocus, but by then the images were gone, and new violent flashes replaced them. Most Americans have that “look-away” view of Iraq, an annoying glare in the periphery that is better not to examine too closely.
For Major Andrew Dietz of the 5th Batallion 10th Marine Regiment "The Five and Dime" out of Camp Lejeune, Fallujah matters a lot. The 5/10 was not originally meant to be a CAG unit (Civil Affairs Group) but like many serving in Iraq, the ability to adapt is crucial.
Sandy blond, and easy-natured, Major “D” smiled affably and told stories of his wife and children. Like so many of the men and women in the armed forces, there was more than the conflict at hand, there was their “real life” back home. The Internet, DSN lines and old-fashion mail, give the average serviceman more access than any other Marine in a previous wars. Major “D” was able to talk to his wife and kids on nearly a daily basis. So, the average problems of bringing up a pre-teen were never too far, even though the major was thousands of miles away, in a land that little-resembled North Carolina.
At Camp Fallujah, I was preparing to go outside the wire for the first time. Excited and apprehensive, a kid waiting in line to get on a roller coaster, but this was no amusement park. That week, a sniper had killed a Marine, the week before, a special forces Marine was killed but the circumstances were unclear. When I was in the United States and read the reports of troops dying it was always something far away, something that had happened over there, where anything could have happened. Now, over there was “right here, and I was about to head into downtown Fallujah with the 5/10 Marines.
We got to the gate, the ECP (entry control point) that are everywhere throughout the city. The entries to the American bases are, of course, extremely well-protected. Hesco barriers, a type of sack packed with dirt, they kind of look like over-sized grocery bags. Concertina wire was to dissuade any casual visitors from strolling into an area where they didn’t belong. Concrete, blast-proof walls make any approaching vehicle zig-zag up to a observation post where several armed guards are waiting. The guards have “Rules of Engagement” or “ROE” for vehicles that don’t belong or don’t follow directions, which is pretty much the same thing. The last escalation on the rules checklist is disable the driver, which means several well-aimed bullets through the windshield. From the outside, the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) are foreboding places, hardly welcoming, but once inside you’re in one of the safest areas of a country where explosions are a leading cause of death, right behind shot wounds to the head.
As we approached the gate the Marines locked in rounds, bolts drew back and bullets snapped into chambers, just a firing pin tap away from discharge. The mission was Operation Alljah. The Marines knew roughly what the final goal was, but what happened in between was a matter of training, circumstances and the vote the unidentifiable enemy casts at some point along the way. “Complacency Kills” was written near the exit, a constant reminder that the rut of routine could quickly become a one-time final event.
In 2004, on CNN or Fox News, I saw the bodies of contractors strung up like livestock, and the faces of Fallujans pointing at the carcasses and laughing. It was a challenge. In my mind, Fallujah was the symbol of revolt, terrorism and unfettered violence. The people of Fallujah have a reputation of being a clan, a distinct Sunni stronghold that has more mosques than schools.
In 2004, the United Marines descended into the Anbar province to fight what will be counted among the great battles of the Corps. Like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, Fallujah was worth more as a symbol than as a pacified city. The images of defiance were broadcast around the world. The new law and order, the new owners of the country were going to have to take a stand in Fallujah, or the contagion of violence would spark throughout Iraq, like a gasoline leak that inevitably leads to a bigger more combustible source.
A motivated and armed mob was going to face a disciplined and highly-trained fighting force. The images I saw on televisions were those of Marines fighting from street to street, a Marlboro Man having a cigarette and a bloodied senior non-commissioned officer being dragged away from the fight by his fellow Marines. There were also men with colorful head scarves wrapped around their heads. They popped out of alleys, shot of rounds. As one of the few Iraqi cities anyone in the West can identify by name Fallujah had earned it’s reputation as a dangerous place that was not only resistant to the occupation, but actively fighting back. Like much of what I discovered in Iraq, my impressions were a distortion of reality.