The Ground They Fight On

War: USA, Afghanistan, Iraq
January 2004
(The following essay was published in the book “War: USA, Afghanistan, Iraq,” which features the work of photographers from the VII photo agency.)

Wars, like people, have many expressions. The Iraq conflict involved a diplomatic war at the United Nations that overlapped with a media war and a psychological war in which American leaflets were dropped over Baghdad and other cities. There was an air war of F-16s and B-52s, as well as a special operations war and an intelligence war — where was Saddam Hussein hiding? Also, there was a hit-and-run war fought by Iraqi irregulars, and a terror war in which suicide bombers attacked American troops. Then there was the weapons of mass destruction war — did Iraq have any and, if so, would they be used? Fighting persisted after President Bush declared, on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, that major combat operations had ceased; this was the guerrilla war against occupation.

Unfortunately, before it has been fully examined, the core expression of the conflict in Iraq is fading from view — the twenty-one days of ground combat by U.S. forces. News coverage at the time focused on preparations for battle, strategies for battle, movements toward battle, and the aftermath of battle; only a limited number of journalists went into actual combat with frontline units and conveyed its deadliness and horror. Yet combat revealed the war’s essence, which consisted of the killing and maiming of fighters and civilians, often at close range. This is what makes war so exceptional — it is intentional slaughter. If you avert your eyes, or if the camera averts its lens, you will not see the real war; what you see, instead, is its weak shadow, which is less offensive, less troublesome.

The photographs in this book are a reminder of the ground war that was, rather than the ground war that was broadcast. It is important to linger on these images because they tell a different story from the flag-wrapped one settling into the consciousness of America, and being written, too early, into history books. This was a war in which more than 3,200 civilians perished in three weeks, according to a study by the Associated Press, which admitted that its count was fragmentary and the final toll probably significantly higher. But how and why were they killed?

Exploring these questions is not an anti-war endeavor. I covered the war as a “unilateral” journalist following marines from Kuwait to Baghdad, and the troops I was with, in general, welcomed in-depth reporting; they wanted their story told, even if it involved the killings of reluctant conscripts or innocent civilians. These men were less interested in covering up their doubts or errors than in letting journalists know the truth about war. They knew that even in the age of Stealth bombers and smart bombs, the capturing of territory by grunts trained to use overwhelming force remains an ugly business. As Lt. Colonel Bryan McCoy, who commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Marines, explained to me, “Sherman said that war is cruelty. There’s no sense in trying to refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it’s over.” His intelligence officer, Captain Bryan Mangan, was equally blunt as the march on Baghdad got underway: “We’re going to have to do things that are potentially ugly. In order for us to do what we have to do, we kill people.”

One of the benefits of the doctrine of overwhelming force is that it deters an enemy from resisting. If a defeatable army had invaded Iraq, the Republican Guard might have fought rather than vanished. The American and British land armada was, indeed, overwhelming. The mentioning of mere numbers—200,000 troops in Iraq—does not do it justice. It was quite stunning to be on the ground, in a military convoy that stretched for miles and miles, composed of tanks and howitzers and gun trucks and Humvees and even portable bridges, and to look over the horizon and see other convoys, even longer, snaking through the desert like columns of lethal ants. This display of military muscle was fearsome on a visual and visceral level; it took no brains to understand that resistance, at least of the conventional variety, was futile.

The drawback, however, is that overwhelming force was not just threatened but used. When U.S. troops were shot at, or believed they were shot at, they responded with all the massive firepower their doctrine called for. This was a drawback not in the sense that it delayed victory but that it caused civilian casualties. “We don’t fight fair,” Lt. Colonel David Haight, who commanded a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, told me shortly after Baghdad had fallen. “We’re not trained to. We gang tackle. That’s what’s expected. President Bush expects it, I expect it, your parents expect it.” As Colonel McCoy said, “If they’re dug into a building, then I drop the building on them.” He understood the implications. “Collateral damage,” he noted, “will be high.”

Neither Colonel McCoy nor Colonel Haight were insensitive to civilian deaths; they are honest men who wished to avoid unnecessary killing. They had enough firepower at their disposal to raze every building that stood between them and Baghdad, yet they used it only when they felt they had to. The problem was that they confronted an enemy that didn’t show its face, that wore civilian clothes and moved in civilian vehicles, that fired shots from buildings that also contained civilians. This was inevitable, really; if conventional resistance is hopeless, unconventional resistance becomes inevitable. It is an effective strategy, not for defeating an invading army outright, but for making full victory impossible. Months after President Bush proclaimed the war over, American soldiers are still dying — as are Iraqi civilians.

During the invasion, most Iraqi fighters looked no different from the civilians they hid among, and this was the point of their strategy: to make it difficult for the Americans to spot and kill them. Almost every day, the marines I followed captured Iraqi fighters and herded them into barbed-wire enclosures. Few had uniforms. Some were in their mid-teens, others were in their forties or fifties. Making matters worse, some fighters became suicide bombers, driving up to U.S. checkpoints, or alongside U.S. military vehicles, and detonating themselves or their vehicles.

“I can’t believe the tactics they’re using,” a marine sergeant told me one day as he ordered his squad to prevent civilians from approaching our position along a major road to Baghdad. “They’re breaking every rule in the book.” True, but “the book” was written in the age of armies that fought toe-to-toe or mortar-to-mortar. That was not happening in Iraq, and this took the G.I.s by surprise. The tactics of suicide bombs and melting into civilian populations have been used in the Middle East and elsewhere for quite some time, but they hadn’t sufficiently trained for it. It’s called asymmetrical warfare. The enemy can be anyone.

“They don’t come near us,” the sergeant shouted to his men, referring to civilians trying to beg water from us. “If they come near us, you give them fair warning. If they keep coming, you know the rest.” What did “the rest” mean? At the Diyala Bridge, I found out.

On April 6, Colonel McCoy’s battalion, which consisted of more than one thousand marines and more than fifty tanks and armored fighting vehicles, fought to establish a foothold on the northern side of the Diyala Bridge, which is a key artery into Baghdad. The bridge was damaged, which meant that no vehicles could cross it. On the next day, April 7, the marines crossed the bridge on foot and seized the other side; they were on the outskirts of Baghdad. Just before they crossed, an artillery shell, probably an errant shot from an American howitzer, struck one of their vehicles. The men who crossed the bridge, passing by the smoldering vehicle, were upset; they had just lost two of their men and could see the blood on the ground. A few days earlier, a suicide bomber had exploded a truck next to a tank of a sister battalion. The marines of the 3rd Battalion were in no mood to take more casualties.

It is crucial for understanding how a battle unfolds to understand the mindset of the troops. Battles are not only shaped by tactics or weapons, psychology plays a role, too. Are the troops tired? Have they just suffered losses? Are they pumped up or bitter or scared? As they crossed to the Baghdad side of the Diyala Bridge, many of the marines had become fed up with the war they had been fighting for nearly three weeks. Suicide bombers and even their own guns were inflicting losses on them. Their living conditions were miserable — sleeping in the open, too hot or too cold, with no showers, eating MREs. They wanted the war to be over, and they wanted to go home, alive. It was not a good time for civilians to cross their path.

Yet that’s what happened. After encountering light resistance as they took the bridge—Iraqi fighters melted away—the marines established a defensive perimeter that extended nearly a mile down the road to Baghdad. They set up machine-gun nests, and snipers took positions on rooftops. I was standing next to Colonel McCoy as he received an intelligence alarm on his radiophone. “Suicide bombers headed for the bridge?” Colonel McCoy said. “We’ll fucking drill them.”

About a dozen vehicles came up the road; all but one contained civilians who were trying to get out of Baghdad, which was under heavy bombardment. The sole military vehicle—a white pickup that contained a man wearing an army tunic and another man with a gun—was indeed drilled; the driver was killed in his seat, while the passenger was killed as he tried to run away. Yet the other vehicles were drilled, too. Some of them managed to escape, others were abandoned by their passengers, who were able to run away. But some of the civilians—about a dozen—were shot in their seats.

Some of the killing was by design, some not. In an effort to avoid civilian casualties, snipers fired warning shots at approaching vehicles; if they didn’t turn around, they would be machine-gunned by the platoons that lay in wait. The strategy had two flaws, however; one tactical and the other human. The tactical flaw was quite simple: civilians may not realize that shots fired at them mean they are supposed to turn back. It can be quite difficult, even for people experienced in war zones, to know the right move in such circumstances. Some of the vehicles continued moving forward, into a death trap. Other vehicles didn’t get a chance to turn around, due to the human flaw in the strategy: instead of waiting for the vehicles to respond to the warning shots, many marines simply opened up once they heard the snipers fire. Afterwards, one of my colleagues, who was hunkered down with a squad of marines, heard their commander shout, “My men showed no mercy. Outstanding.”

The marines could have held their fire a bit longer, or they could have improvised a barricade across the road. Both solutions would have lessened the probability of civilian casualties but entailed added risk for the marines. If you hold your fire, cars will get closer to you, and if you put barbed wire across the road, you could be shot by a sniper as you do so. American commanders feel a deep responsibility to keep their troops safe, and the troops feel a deep responsibility to keep each other safe, and the bottom line to this equation is that a civilian body bag, though unfortunate, is preferable to an American body bag. Barricades were not built, fire was not held.

Should American troops act differently? The killings at the Diyala Bridge, which were mirrored in similar incidents throughout Iraq, prompted discussions among, in particular, the journalists who witnessed them. A dozen of us were scattered among the marines that day, and afterwards we exchanged impressions. Some thought the killings unacceptable and unprofessional; others saw the killings as normal and predictable events in wartime — the sort of nasty bloodshed that has always occurred in wartime.

If the Americans had fought perfectly, the killings would not have happened. But wars are never fought perfectly, and it is hard to imagine how they might be. Although the popular American image of warfare in the 21st century consists, to a great degree, of precise and careful killing—this is what the Pentagon would like us to believe, at least—once troops are on the ground, in the mythical fog of war that is not a myth but a reality, precision is as easy to acquire as a grain of sand in a sandstorm. Are there ten fighters behind the wall in the distance, or a hundred? Are they preparing to attack or run away? Do they have RPGs or just AK-47s? Is the field between you and them salted with land mines? Precise information is elusive.

It is important to remember, too, that soldiers are flawed, as we all are, and the ones who do most of the fighting are in the lower ranks — specialists and lance corporals who are also quite young. Most of the marines at Diyala were in their late teens or early twenties. They had neither the experience nor the training of their comrades in the Special Forces. Most had never been outside the United States, even for training, and few had seen combat. They were, as the war entered its second and third weeks, tired, angry and scared. It would be easy to fault them for that, but what nineteen year-old, after marching through the desert for weeks, seeing comrades killed in horrible ways, sensing danger from every civilian who passes within firing range, will react perfectly in the cauldron of combat?

“How can you tell who’s who?” The question, which was more of a statement, came from Lance Corporal Santiago Ventura as he stood over some of the corpses of civilians at the bridge. This was the day after the battle, so the stench of the dead was still bearable, though flies were everywhere. Corporal Ventura was angry at the suggestion that the killings were inappropriate. “You get a soldier in car with an AK-47 and civilians in the next car,” he said. “How can you tell? You can’t fucking tell. We’ve got to be concerned about our safety. You can’t blame marines for what happened. It’s bullshit. I don’t think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people didn’t die. Innocent people fucking die.”

They did—in World War I, in World War II, in Vietnam—and they will die in a 21st-century war fought by the most technologically sophisticated military force that has existed on our planet. One of the oddities and truisms of the modern age is that it is much easier to drop a bomb on a dime from an altitude of 35,000 feet, or fire a missile at the dime from a nuclear-powered submarine that is 1,000 feet underwater and 1,500 miles away, than it is to discern from a distance of 150 yards whether a man crouching in a building is a sniper or a civilian. That is why ground combat remains brutal and blurred and acceptable only at times of dire national peril or to prevent genocide.

It is tempting, though wrong, to equate overwhelming power with absolute power, or extensive information with complete information. Ask any commander whether his battle plan will be followed once the battle breaks out and he will laugh in your face, because there is an old saying in the military profession, “Fight the enemy, not the plan.” It means the plan is not likely to correspond to reality on the ground and that the likeliest scenario is unlikely to be the one you planned for.

The fact that the U.S. military is the most powerful military force today does not mean it can do whatever it wants. Yes, it can crush Iraq’s army, or any army, but precisely how that will be done once a war begins—where the battles will be fought, how they will be fought, how long it will take, how many soldiers and civilians will die—is impossible to predict. War is chaos, and we cannot control it, only adapt to it. This is why generals tend to be more reluctant to go to war than politicians; military men understand that war, and its aftermath, are not obedient to our wishes.

Once Baghdad fell (the marines of the 3rd Battalion, who had fought at the Diyala Bridge, were also, as chance would have it, the ones who tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein at Al-Ferdaous Square) looting broke out on a massive scale. The U.S. military had not anticipated this and did not have enough troops in the country to control it. The looting has been followed by a low-intensity war in which one G.I. after another has been picked off by gunmen who disappear like ghosts. This had not been anticipated by the politicians, either; they had hoped for a peaceful transition to democracy. What will happen next? Nobody can say, and those who say do not know. Just as a battle cannot be choreographed by planners in a military headquarters, neither can Iraq’s future be charted by wishful thinkers in Washington.

The good news, aside from the ousting of a murderous tyrant, is that the cost could have been much higher. Some American ground units engaged in fierce combat in Iraq, but the generals were smart and avoided seizing cities except Baghdad. Urban warfare is the nightmare of nightmares for regular armies because of the inevitable mixing of combatants and civilians. As Corporal Ventura noted, you can’t tell who’s who, or you might know who’s who but the gunman you want to drop a bomb on is firing from an apartment building that also contains five hundred civilians. It was quite fortunate that Baghdad, filled with millions of civilians and millions of windows from which snipers could fire at invading troops, eased into American control without a major battle; house-to-house fighting was the exception, not the rule. Everyone was lucky — the Americans who would have done the killing and perhaps been killed themselves, and the many Iraqis who most certainly would have perished.

The 3rd Battalion has a veteran sniper, Staff Sergeant Jack Coughlin, for whom the war in Iraq was only the latest of many wars; he fought in Mogadishu, too. On the first day of the battle at the Diyala Bridge, he had eleven kills. He is one of the best snipers in the Marine Corps, perhaps the very best. When I asked one of his commanders about his skills, the commander smiled and said, “I’m just glad he’s on our side.” On a slow morning after Baghdad had fallen, Sergeant Coughlin told me about the difference between Iraq and Somalia: few Iraqis were willing to put their lives on the line for Saddam Hussein, whereas in Somalia there was no shortage of fighters willing to die. In the worst day of casualties for U.S. troops since the Vietnam War, eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in 1993 during a botched raid. Somalis fought fiercely and hundreds of them were killed, along with the civilians they hid among. “If the Iraqis had fought like the Somalis, it would have been a bloodbath,” Sergeant Coughlin told me.

A few days later, I stopped by the Ministry of Oil, which was deserted except for a detachment of marines protecting it. Captain Rob Warfield was at the entrance beside a sandbagged machine-gun nest that told you everything you needed to know about who was in charge of things. Because his father worked for Boeing, Captain Warfield had spent much of his life overseas, in Egypt, Iran and Indonesia. He knew the world and he knew war, and he realized that the conflict in Iraq, violent as it was, could have been more deadly. “Saddam could have made us pay for every inch of ground,” he said. “We would have won, but a lot of people would have been killed. It would have been like Berlin in World War II or Seoul or Hué. It would have been awful.”

That level of horror was avoided in Iraq, but we might not be so fortunate the next time. The essence of ground combat—killing and confusion—has not changed since there was ground to fight on.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.