Two Years Ago Today, In Fallujah
So, I started thinking about how I had such great stuff from my own brief time in Iraq, but at the time I didn’t have a blog. By sheer coincidence I was looking through my official journal for the period, and found this (now slightly edited) post for 24 April 2004. I think it pretty well captures daily life in the so-called “cease-fire” during the first battle of Fallujah. I include it here as a salute to what was a horrific fight that the Marines on the ground were prevented from winning by powers high up in the chain of command, and as a contrast to how Fallujah is doing today...
24 Apr 04: Spent yesterday with 2/2 [2nd Bn 2nd Marines], and then 3/4 [3rd Bn 4th Marines] invited me to go out to Fallujah to overnight with India Company. A great trip, one of the highlights thus far. India’s position is in the northeast quarter of the city, perhaps 700 meters in from the MSR. The line is no more 300 meters long, and is in the shape of an “L,” with the long side running north-to-south. It is the position they occupied when word came down to cease the advance.
I spent the bulk of the time with 1st Platoon, under command of 1stLt Andrew Lee, a dyed-in-the-wool Boston Irishman—he referenced the date of the battalion’s move to Fallujah from the days of Holy Week—who did six years in 1/25 [1st Bn 25th Marines] before going on to join the Merchant Marine as an engineering officer. Sometime after Sept 11 he walked in to the OSO, presented his credentials and went to OCS. He fought in the battalion in OIF1. (By the way, he is also Recruit Lee in Thomas Ricks’ book, Making The Corps.) [And also now in Bing West’s book, No True Glory, that's his photo on the cover.] He is a fine officer in every respect, and a real character.
Lt Lee’s platoon occupies the roofs of about four or five houses right on the street that is the limit of advance. Everything to their front is bad Fallujah. On the avenue of approach that tees into their main position, a wide street running about 400 meters west, is a burned out car (their handiwork); another is in a trash filled lot only 50 meters across the street. These were the vehicles that carried several enemy fighters on their last ride, meeting an untimely end under the massed fire of 1st Platoon’s weapons. Those actions and others are described in the interviews I did, and depicted in the accompanying photos.
(This is the terrain directly in front of 1st Platoon, India 3/4's position. One burned out car is in the lot in the foreground, another is in the middle of the street that runs off on the left. India 3/4 Marines destroyed them and their jihadi occupants. (It was in the lot that feral dogs and cats ate the bodies of the dead jihadis.)
Fallujah stinks, literally. Stinks like Mogadishu stank and probably still does. The streets and empty lots serve as the local garbage dumps, and that was so before the Marines arrived. The Marines burn their trash as best they can. Open garbage pits are just recruit depots for the flies, whole squadrons, groups and wings of them. They infest everything. The Marines occupy the daylight hours by keeping scores of the flies they kill. When the sun goes down the flies conduct a relief-in-place with the mosquitoes. The whole place is unhealthy filthy. As my friend Major Mark Stanovich said, “Cradle of civilization, my ass. 4000 years of civilization and they still shit on the floor.”
That being said, some of the houses are sizable and well appointed, clearly owned by people of relative wealth. Though the workmanship is shoddy, with no staircase having any treads or risers of uniform size, and rebar sticking out of walls to impale the unwary, the stone and block construction provides a good foundation for the defense, and these Marines have built their positions into real strongpoints. They defend from the roofs, though they also occupy the ground floors too, except in one odd case where the owners are still at home. They barricade the gates in the walls that surround each house, and block staircases leading topside. Always a Marine watches the rear for anyone coming up an alley. They go from roof to roof over makeshift bridges and through holes battered in the walls of the rooftop patios.
(One of the NCOs from Lt Lee's platoon stands by the holes they battered in the walls surrounding each house's roof-top patio. That sort of construction makes for natural fortifications, but it impedes movement unless you make your own doors.)
India has been on duty here since they stopped the advance. In 1st Platoon the machine gunners and other weapons crews have been two hours on/two hours off for thirteen days. Their entire life is spent on the roof or down in the interior of the houses. They piss down drainpipes and shit in cans filled with JP-8, which they then drag out and burn. When it’s sunny they get hot, when it rains (and it does) they get wet. And always they keep watch on the avenues of approach, and on the few residents still in town. They note any and all movement. When they see a clear hostile they engage. The snipers have taken a grim toll. The dead are carted off by their brethren or by the Red Crescent. In one case several bodies burned and unburned lay out for days while feral dogs and cats feasted on them and the flies swarmed in shocking numbers.
Several times each day the mosques of the city blare out the call to prayer. In the evenings this is followed by “the Angry Arab,” who blasts propaganda from what the Marines of India Company think is a makeshift pysops vehicle. You can hear the voice move slowly in the darkness, so they must be right. And they try hard to pinpoint the vehicle so they can bring fire on it but so far have not been successful. The Angry Arab shrieks on for hours. You can pick out the words, “Fallujah,” “jihad,” “mujahedin.”
The company position is a strong one, anchored on a solid corner building that looks out on a large empty lot and commands three avenues. No force in Fallujah could move them an inch. As one of their company commanders pointed out, a Marine rifle company in the defense is a tough thing to unhinge. The 60mm mortar attached to 1st Platoon is high atop the roof of that building, well protected from observation and direct fire, mounted on a sandbag and dirt bed constructed by its crew.
(The 60mm mortar attached to Lt Lee's platoon. It sits on a bed of dirt and blocks that was hauled up by these four Marines. Why aren't they wearing flaks and helmets? The walls of the roof-top patio protect them. In fact, on the walls they painted their azimuth markers so they could bring fire on any target, rapidly and accurately.)
For all the strength of the position and the clear tactical advantages we have, the Marines up there on the line can’t move an inch beyond the limit of advance. No patrolling forward, no periodic house clearing actions on the next block to make sure evildoers aren’t doing evil, no ambushes to catch an unwary jihadist. One of the squad leaders wants to start clearing houses quietly each night, and carefully opening holes into the next house in line to create a covered path of advance for the day they’re told to step off again. Tactically bold and aggressive, but his hands are tied. In the words of the company CO, “the only direction these Marines want to go is west.”