Feature

The Burning Tip of the Spear

Facing an unexpected guerrilla war in the northern Iraq, what the cavalry wanted most was to get out alive

The five Bradley Fighting Vehicles started up their engines under a crescent moon, kicking up vast, unruly curtains of sand and revving so thunderously you could barely hear yourself speak. I was on Staff Sergeant Forest Geary’s track, nicknamed “Circus Freaks,” standing chest-deep in the open rear hold sandwiched between Sergeant Michael Malecha and Corporal Dustin Dakel, who were already poised with their weapons ready. . . .

It was June 7, 2003, and we were in Balad, about ninety kilometres northwest of Baghdad along the Tigris River. Moving forward in single-file formation, we rolled slowly through Base Camp Anaconda, past stands of tanks and support vehicles barely visible in the swirling sand, past the latrines, past Command Headquarters, past the thousands of soldiers who would remain behind tonight. As we rumbled through the gate and into the darkness, it had the feeling of a fleet of warships heading out to sea. The soldiers on this patrol were Cavalry scouts, members of Crazy Horse, which is how the 150 men in Charlie Troop sometimes referred to themselves. Crazy Horse was part of the 3rd Squadron of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment – the 3/7 for short – which in turn was part of the 3rd Infantry Division, the 3ID. The Cavalry had been summoned to Balad from Baghdad for a specific reason: an unexpected guerrilla war had broken out in the Sunni Triangle of North Central Iraq, and Balad was the focus of the problem. The 4th Infantry Division -– 4ID – who had just arrived in Iraq and had already suffered casualties, needed backup. The Cavalry had “combat mentality.” They had a reputation for being tough and implacable in battle. In March, they had led the ground incursion from Kuwait into Iraq: in their parlance, they were “the burning tip of the spear.” They claimed to have captured the first Iraqi flag and to have killed over a thousand Iraqi troops before reaching Baghdad, and they’d done it all without losing a single man. This had earned them the respect of other units, but it had also won them some notoriety.

Tonight, on their first patrol in the region, they’d been given unusual orders: to bring back the bodies of any Iraqi insurgents they happened to kill. Headquarters wanted to know more about the new enemy they were dealing with, but Captain Brett Bair, the troop commander (whose code name was Crazy 6), didn’t like the idea. “I’ve been in combat before and I never heard of bringing in bodies,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about dead eyes – I don’t think it’s good for some of these guys to see.”

Beyond the gate the Bradleys drove slowly along the road in the pitch dark. They were now at full black-out, their headlights off while the crews scoured their surroundings with thermal night-vision optics. The landscape was blissful in the gracious cool of night. Your mind cleared; you were alert to the sudden beauty. I looked through Dakel’s hand-held night-vision sight and could see endless groves of date palms and vineyards criss-crossed with irrigation ditches. There were little villas, the occasional dog. There was also a danger of ambush all around, and compared to the endless heat and boredom of the days, it was exhilarating.

Geary, perched atop our Bradley, was the first to spot the enemy. “Sir,” he said calmly, talking to Captain Bair over the intercom, “I got people up here on the berm behind the irrigation canal.”

Shrouded in the eerie green optics of the night-vision sights on their machine guns, they could see at least twenty men dressed in what looked like typical Fedayeen militia garb – baggy pants, head scarves, bandoliers of ammunition. They were about five hundred metres ahead, half hidden in the vegetation, and they looked bewildered. These were the first heavy armoured vehicles they’d encountered in the region, but we were invisible to them and we could see them searching with their ears for what their eyes could not see.

As the convoy of Bradleys approached, the Iraqis stood up, raising their weapons.

“I got weapons to the right,” said Geary over the radio. “At least twenty of the fuckers.”

Captain Bair confirmed the sighting. In unison, Malecha and Dakel laid a hand each on the top of my Kevlar helmet and pushed me down into the safety of the hold, but I popped back up again. “I can’t get a photo from down there,” I yelled into Dakel’s ear.

“Contact right!” said the Captain. Five Bradley turrets simultaneously whirred and rotated right, the five main guns now pointing into the grove. Fifteen seconds later, Captain Bair gave the order: “Fire right!”

In an instant, and with a deafening noise, the side of the road was lit up with flashes of machine-gun fire. Five, eight, perhaps ten Iraqis went down. “Cover your ears!” Dakel shouted at me. “Blue Three’s firing their TOW.” There was a huge explosion and the sky turned bright. Staff Sergeant John Williams’s 25 mm cannon had jammed so he’d used his bigger weapon, an anti-tank missile. He fired a second time and hit a concrete canal barricade beyond the berm. Any Iraqis who’d evaded the gunfire were now running for their lives through irrigation ditches, dispersing beyond our line of sight. We were wide-eyed, powerful, and safe, the Bradleys’ heavy armour wrapped around our lucky asses.

“Action right!” the Captain said. It was a standard battle drill. The five Bradleys manoeuvred right in perfect synchronicity and headed into the grove. Fifty metres to our left, “Criminal Minds,” commanded by First Lieutenant Justin McCormick, had got into trouble and was teetering on the brink of the canal. The captain ordered him to pull back and provide fire protection from atop a hillock while our track and Staff Sergeant Dillard Johnson’s Bradley looked for a better way over the canal.

The two Bradleys advanced slowly now, searching for bodies. The heat and moisture from the grapes on the vines were obscuring the night-vision optics and it was hard to tell what was still out there. The drivers turned their lights back on, casting grim cones of illumination into the darkness. We stopped and dismounted and I stayed close to Dakel and Malecha, who were creeping through the dense vegetation, sweeping the area with flashlights.

“Hey sir, I got one of the fuckers,” Johnson shouted. Crazy J, as he was called, was about fifty metres from our position. He’d remembered seeing an Iraqi go down and found him by keeping the trail of blood in his headlights. The Iraqi was still armed and moving, so before hopping off the track, Johnson shot him a couple more times.

We ran and jumped over the canal ditches to find Johnson, the Captain, and Second Lieutenant Garrett McAdams standing over the mangled remains. Dakel pointed a flashlight at the dead man’s face. Soldiers die with their eyes wide open and this man was no exception. Lying in the dirt beside him, where his arm used to be, was an AK-47 and a knife with a large, curved blade. A bandolier full of ammunition was wrapped around his tunic and in his pocket was a small, orange-plastic-handled kitchen knife.

By now it was past two a.m. and Captain Bair was uncomfortable keeping his men out much longer. Even if Headquarters was urging them to bring in bodies, one was enough, he reasoned. He gave the orders to bag the dead man.

Private First Class Michael Sullivan dug through the bustle rack of their Bradley looking for a body bag. They’dnever planned on using one and Sullivan didn’t even know what they looked like. For some reason, he thought they’d be green, but, to his surprise, the one they found was blue. While the Captain held the flashlight, Johnson and Sullivan wrangled the remains into the bag. There was blood everywhere, dripping out of the bag and onto Sullivan and Johnson. It took several men to lift the body up onto the front slope of the Bradley and strap it down. “Arrrrgh – fucking gross!” Sullivan yelled when his hand slipped into the bag.

Johnson was angry. A veteran of the Gulf War, he had killed hundreds of guys and there was nothing special about this one. “A dead guy is a dead guy,” he said. “That’s what you get for bringing a pistol to a tank fight.”

On the ride back to Anaconda the only sound was the deep throbbing of the engines. The men’s dirt-caked faces betrayed signs of physical and emotional exhaustion, but also a strange look of resignation, a mere hint of what they had seen. Captain Bair was right: there was something about looking into a dead man’s eyes.

There were no more ambushes that night. Halfway back to camp we saw a convoy of ten 4ID Humvees travelling under full light. It was stupid as shit, everyone agreed, an easy target. Back at Anaconda, we drove up to Headquarters. Captain Bair kicked the body bag off the front slope of the Bradley onto the front steps and left it there.

What Crazy Horse had done that night quickly became a camp legend. The soldiers of the 4ID – who had come to Iraq after Crazy Horse – rounded up the care packages sent to soldiers who’d died or gone home injured and gave the contents to Crazy Horse as a gesture of thanks: chocolate bars, CDs and DVDs, books and magazines, baby wipes, chewing tobacco, razors, Bibles, drawings made by school children.

The men were touched by the generosity but it didn’t change much in how they viewed the 4ID soldiers, who had suffered casualties but had no enemy kills to show for it. Even worse in the eyes of the Cav, the 4ID were getting shot at but weren’t shooting back. In Balad the 3/7 was now working under the 4ID, but they were instructed to operate under the same interpretation of the Rules of Engagement they’d been using all along, an interpretation that allowed them to shoot threatening targets first. They believed it gave them extra protection. The fact was that after that first night patrol, Charlie Troop were hardly ever ambushed again.

The cachet of being Cavalry was talked about a lot around camp. It wasn’t just that they were combat veterans. Many of the men had chosen to be Cavalry scouts when they were first recruited and they were hugely proud of it. Sergeant Jason Neely, for instance, had wanted to be a Cavalryman ever since he was a boy, and he had a tattoo of crossed sabres, the Cavalry emblem, on his right arm. Charlie Troop was the only unit I’d encountered in Iraq that actually sang the 3ID song, “Dog-face Soldier.” Specialist Christopher Murphy, with his infectious, booming voice, would lead them in versions of it sung as rap, as R&B, as pop. Neely taught me the words to “Garry Owen,” a song that General Custer had adopted after overhearing the Irish Troops sing it during the Indian Wars. (The words “Garry Owen” became, and remain, the Cavalry’s war cry.)

Custer had been a genius at motivating soldiers. In 1866, they told me, he’d banded together an unruly group of men – the dregs of society, the riff-raff, drunkards and criminals – and turned them into soldiers. He hardly ever lost a battle, with the important exception of his decisive defeat at Little Bighorn at the hands of a Sioux Indian chief named Crazy Horse. Warriors have always admired their defeaters, and to this day the Cavalry reveres the memory of Crazy Horse. Charlie Troop takes its nickname from him, and one of their mantras is Crazy Horse’s famous saying: “It’s a good day to fight; it’s a good day to die.” Their insignia, spray-painted on their tracks, on their undershirts, and on façades across Iraq, is an Indian skull they call Nowatay. They were all promising to get Nowatay tattoos when they got home.

One morning, on my way to the latrine at Camp Anaconda, where Crazy Troop was based for a few days, I met a young female soldier who drove a truck in one of the support units. “You live with those guys? Boy,” she said, “one day I’ll be able to say I met Crazy J.”

She was referring to Johnson, the thirty-nine-year-old career scout who’d been specifically recruited by the Crazy Horse commander to lead the ground war into Iraq. Johnson had earned the first Silver Star awarded to 3/7 troopers when his Bradley, “Carnivore,” seized bridges and portions of southern Al-Samawah in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Crazy J was the first man from Charlie Troop I had met. Six weeks earlier, on April 26, “Carnivore” and its crew, along with Staff Sergeant Martin Crawford’s Bradley, “Can’t Puck Wit Dis,” were guarding a checkpoint at Camp Victory, the big U.S. military base at Baghdad International Airport. I’d gone out there as a photojournalist on assignment for The Daily Mail of London to get a photo of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but Charlie Troop wouldn’t let me and the Mail staff writer Richard Pendlebury through.

Richard and I spent the afternoon talking to them and taking photos. They had good stories to tell, so we went back the next day and Crazy J invited us to their camp, across the highway from the airport. “C’mon, Rick and Rita,” he said, “I’ll show ya the first captured Iraqi flag.”

Having grown up in Canada, I’d had little contact with the military. I was a pacifist, and I was suspicious of soldiers. But I’d come to Iraq to cover the war and, having missed the “high-intensity phase,” as they were calling it, getting to know men in the U.S. army seemed like a sensible alternative.

At first I would visit them only during the day. The curfew in Baghdad put real constraints on civilian mobility and it wasn’t easy to get to them. My Iraqi driver, Mohammed Shakhur, wasn’t allowed onto the base, so he would bring me to the main gate in the morning and he’d often wait all day for me to return. I hated leaving him there, but with no phones there was no other way to get back to Baghdad before the curfew. It also meant I couldn’t get photographs once dusk was approaching; we always had to drive away just as the light was threatening to become beautiful. To get around this, I started sleeping over with the Cavalry.

By mid-May, I had pretty much stopped covering anything but Charlie Troop. I was still spending a few nights a week in Baghdad when I heard rumours that neither Jordan nor Kuwait were allowing Canadians to enter their countries because of the SARS virus. This was bad news for me because I no longer had a safe way out of the country. I had originally come into Iraq illegally; in mid-April, travelling under cover of night, I made a harrowing three-day journey to Iraq by foot from Turkey, paying Kurdish smugglers $1300 U.S. to take me through steep,rugged mountain terrain via Syria, often traversing sheer cliffs high above the Tigris, always looking over our shoulders for Turkish border guards, who had shoot-to-kill orders. I had risked my life to get to Iraq, a place the soldiers wanted more than anything in the world to leave. They thought I was crazy, but it also earned me their acceptance.

Charlie Troop was well aware of my difficulties, so they suggested I come to live with them full-time until I could arrange a way out of the country. Captain Bair consulted the army’s Public Affairs Office, and they okayed it. And so, about two weeks after President Bush declared the end of “major combat,” I became an officially embedded journalist. “You’re ‘Cav’ now,” the technical-operations commander, Staff Sergeant Robert Allen, told me.

A week later, Charlie Troop got word they were being sent to Balad. I spent most of my remaining money to buy my own Thuraya satellite telephone with one hundred minutes of air time, let my friends and family and my agency know where I was going, and left Baghdad behind, with its support network of journalists and their communications equipment. I’d be safe with Charlie Troop, but otherwise I was going to be pretty much incommunicado.

The people of Balad had good reason to welcome the American troops. Balad lies at the heart of the Sunni Triangle, but its 60,000 inhabitants are mostly Shi’ite Muslims. In 1982, Balad hosted an uprising and an assassination attempt against Saddam. The Republican Guard came down hard on them: thousands were displaced or made to disappear, and more than 300 people were killed, 150 of whom were hanged in the public square. Then, as added insurance, Saddam installed Ba’ath Party loyalists in the villages surrounding Balad. They were given big houses, big farms, big cars, and a licence to lord it over everyone else.

After more than twenty years of operating clandestinely, the human-rights organization now called Balad Freed Prisoners had set up headquarters after the fall of the regime, about a month before Charlie Troop had arrived in Balad. Hundreds of dog-eared family photographs collected over the years – photographs of the missing or dead – lined the walls of their new office. Captain Bair worked closely with the prisoners’ association, which was often more interested in retribution for the 1982 massacre than in identifying possible insurgents.

On June 9, the Cavalry was moved out of Camp Anaconda to set up road blocks at bridges across the Tigris. It was the first day of Operation Peninsula Strike, billed as the biggest major operation since the fall of Tikrit on April 14. They paid particular attention to expensive cars and were on the lookout for weapons and large sums of money that might be used to support the guerrilla war.

With no shelter except their vehicles, Charlie Troop set up camp on one of the bridges, using a looted schoolhouse nearby as a temporary holding cell. One afternoon, some of the soldiers and I were at the schoolhouse, getting out of the sun, when a woman in her late thirties, frantic and apparently in distress, appeared from around the corner. Her head and face were covered in a dark green scarf, but she was wearing western clothes. She said she had information about the insurgency and wanted to talk to our captain. Beckoning us to follow her, she led us through a grove of date palms behind the school to a house about a hundred metres away. There, another woman brought us tea.

Sergeant Mario Mihaucich radioed for the Captain and our interpreter, but as it turned out the woman’s English was quite good. She said her name was Asma and that this was her sister’s house. She said she’d fled Baghdad because she was certain someone there was trying to kill her. “I know so many people in Saddam’s army,” she said. “They have many guns and they put them under the ground. I tell you this because I am worried about my sister and my daughter.” She went on to say that as an official in a bank, she’d been a member of the Saddam Fedayeen – one of the security services – and a Ba’ath party member.

The sister, who was fully covered in a black abaya, brought more tea, and spoke for the first time: “Do not say anything to anyone,” she pleaded. “They will kill us for talking to you.” Asma warned of six men, two of whom were relatives of theirs. The sister brought out a family album to show us photos of them. “The two brothers are very dangerous,” Asma said. “You must be careful if you find them. The oldest is very thin, with a big nose and an ugly face.”

“Yes!” the sister interjected. “Very ugly and dangerous like a fox!”

“It’s okay,” Crazy J reassured them. “I’m a dangerous man too. I like fox hunting.”

We’d warmed up to each other easily, and everyone laughed, but I wondered about the sisters. They seemed to be asking the men to hunt down some of their own family. Were they trying to induce them to settle some kind of deadly family dispute?

When the Captain and the interpreter arrived, Asma pointed out on a map the location of houses where she had seen weapon caches, but the houses were on the other side of the Tigris, outside Charlie Troop’s range of operation. That meant we were going to have to hand her over to the 173 U.S. Airborne, a unit based in Vincenza, Italy, that had arrived in Balad the day before.

As darkness approached, we prepared Asma for her mission by disguising her in soldiers’ clothing, Kevlar helmet and all. I was the only other woman around and she clung to me while I tried to allay her fears. “It’ll be okay,” I said. “The American soldiers will take care of you.” An hour later, she drove away in a Humvee with the Airborne.

We were anxious to find out what would happen, so a group of us waited up in the dark by the dusty side of the road drinking Coke, smoking cigarettes, and picking through half-eaten rations. Hours passed. Finally, at 3 a.m. we saw the headlights of the 173’s Humvee coming toward us across the bridge. They had come to return the soldiers’ clothes. We asked the 173 sergeant, a large, poker-faced man, how things had turned out with Asma.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said, “but she confessed to being Fedayeen, Ba’ath Party, so we threw her in jail. Not a good day for the lady.”

We were stunned. The first thing she’d told us was of her former affiliation with the Ba’ath Party. It was the reason she’d been so afraid to be seen talking to us. Asma had left behind her green head scarf, but we were too embarrassed to bring it back to her sister’s house.

The next day, after having spent five days on the bridge, we moved to a new Forward Operations Base (FOB) fifteen miles away. Like many of the new American bases, this one was a former Ba’ath training facility, with hand-painted slogans on the walls in Arabic, including exhortations such as “Shoot to kill,” and morale boosters such as “Snipers of the Jerusalem camp are the sharpest shooters.”

The heat continued and climbed to 130 degrees. There was no escaping it; it made your brain feel as though it was about to explode. The men were between missions that day, so they all chipped in from their small advances to buy soft drinks and a block of ice for each Bradley. Arrangements were made and sometime later, an Iraqi ice dealer drove his donkey cart through the front gate, then two men carried each three-foot-long block back to the Bradleys.

Neely eyed a block of ice mischievously, pulled off his shirt, and lay down belly-first on top of it, his dog tags hanging over the edge of the ice. “Bet you can’t put your ass on that,” someone taunted. And in fact several of them did.

The blocks of ice had three-inch holes running through the middle of them so they could be carried on poles. “Bet you can’t stick your dick in it,” someone said. Soprano, who had the reputation for being one of the most daring men in Crazy Troop, accepted the challenge. He lasted seven minutes, and exited to cheers all around.

Sergeant Michael Soprano, twenty-one years old, was Crazy J’s gunner on “Carnivore.” During the initial push to Baghdad, Soprano had earned the distinction of killing more Iraqis than any other soldier in the troop – somewhere between one hundred and two hundred kills. They kept a tally on the side of their Bradley – nine tanks, two aircraft, ten missile-launcher trucks. Their track alone had at least four hundred kills, but Soprano was surprisingly modest about his record. He insisted he’d merely been in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you wanted to look at it.

The soldiers in Charlie Troop were quick to admit that they were professional killers, and though they appeared to take it in their stride, the strain sometimes surfaced. The numbers of enemy soldiers killed in war is never easy to determine, and this bothered Sergeant Adrian Dupuy, a twenty-five-year-old Bradley observer from El Paso, Texas. Dupuy, you could say, had soldiering in his blood. His ancestors had served in the American military since the Revolution. He had devoured all the classics of the Vietnam War era – books by Michael Herr, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Hunter S. Thompson. He gave me his copy of Catch-22 and we talked. “I think it’s kind of sad,” he said. “I might never know if I killed somebody. If I did kill somebody, and I didn’t know it, it’s kind of fucked up. So if you think about it, you’re born, you’re raised, you’ve been around for so many years and it’s wiped out like that by somebody else, and they don’t even know if they did it. I think that would be fucked up.”

Private First Class Sullivan was nineteen, with big brown eyes and a look of innocence that we joked about. I called him Little Cow Eyes. He had over fifty kills, and a pragmatic view of his job. “If I had a chance to do it again,” he told me, “I would have done a lot of shit differently. I’d have probably shot at a lot more people, took a lot more chances, ‘cause you only get a chance to do this maybe once in your life. You never know how many times you’re going to get paid to shoot at people, throw bombs at tanks and stuff. I mean, I’ll come home with a fat load of cash and a lifetime of memories. Even if I do get out of the army in, like, three years from now, I could still say I served my country, I did my thing in Iraq.”

I asked the 3/7 Cav chaplain, Captain Stephen Balog, how he justified the killing to the soldiers. “Religiously speaking,” he said, “I’ve never had a lot of guys question the killing part. I think America’s done a pretty good job of working that. It’s more of a ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ as opposed to ‘Thou shalt not actually go out and kill.’ Let me put it this way: it’s about the eradication of evil, or wickedness. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I think that guy there is evil, so I’m going to kill him.’ That’s wrong. But when the nation says, ‘This is an evil empire, it’s an evil nation; we’re going to step in now, and unfortunately have to use force,’ now, that makes killing just.”

I wondered how effective his arguments were. Most of the soldiers, it seemed, didn’t have a lot of time for religion or crusades. When they were in trouble, emotionally, they tended to rely on each other. Twenty-six-year-old Specialist Robert Marin told me about the day he’d “lost it.” He’s tall and friendly, with thick, dark hair and big military-issue glasses, a bit of a loner. “I just started thinking of four or five different ways to kill myself,” he said. “I was thinking about dousing myself in JP-8 [gasoline] and lighting myself on fire, ‘cause that stuff catches very quickly. And I was thinking about climbing a tree and jumping off; or I was thinking about climbing a building and finding a way to hang myself, or using my weapon, but I ruled that out because it was too noisy.” We laughed uneasily. “The scary thing is, I thought about my wife and kids and it didn’t change the thought at all. Sergeant Lagard just happened to be walking by, so I talked to him.”

Samuel Lagard went to the senior officers and NCOs, who all talked to Marin. At least ten people talked to him that night, and by the time the chaplain came around Marin said he was fine. He was still evacuated to Camp Victory for a few days of combat stress management, and it helped to have some time to think. But the highlight at Camp Victory, he said, was that he got to see Arnold Schwarzenegger for a few seconds.

By June 13 my digital camera was malfunctioning because of sand damage, I had nearly run out of batteries, and I had virtually no money left. I planned to leave the next day with thirty dollars in my pocket to catch a bus to the Turkish border and try my luck at turning myself in to the Turkish military. Once back in New York, I would have my equipment repaired, get some cash, and then I’d return as soon as possible. The next day, with a stack of mail, a list of phone numbers to call back in the States, and an escort of six sergeants, I left for Baghdad. None of the men believed I’d ever come back.

When I returned to Balad three weeks later, Crazy Horse was in an angry mood. They’d just got word that their stay in Iraq had been extended by at least sixty days, possibly even twice that. They were being sent to Fallujah, the new insurgency hot spot fifty kilometres west of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Fourth Infantry Division was replacing them at the FOB. “Those fuckers,” someone said. “They killed our dog.” Charlie Troop had taken in a stray dog and called it Nowatay. When the 4ID arrived, their commander said the dog was unsanitary, so a couple of his guys drowned it, put it in a bag, and left it in the smouldering firepit where Crazy Horse found it the next morning, the day I’d arrived back. They were under strict orders not to retaliate.

That night, while Charlie Troop slept, I went on patrol with their replacements from 4ID. “No fun getting shot at if you can’t get shot,” Captain Charles Semenko said, grinning gleefully as we hopped into a Humvee. I felt exposed after riding in the Bradleys. Semenko and I sat in the open back; the rest of the crew included a private, a sergeant, and two Iraqi informants dressed in American desert combat uniforms and wearing black balaclavas. The informants were terrified. I offered them cigarettes, which they accepted; Semenko declined. He seemed completely calm. “Are you sure you don’t want a weapon?” he asked me.

We’d scarcely been out ten minutes when the Bradley in front of us was struck by a Rocket Propelled Grenade: a big explosion, but no casualties. We came to a stop. A second RPG struck, disabling another Bradley. Soldiers up ahead dismounted and rushed into the trees looking for the perpetrators. A series of house raids ensued. The Iraqis offered little resistance. Twelve prisoners, all of them men, were rounded up, “bagged and tied,” which meant that white burlap bags were pulled over their heads and their wrists were tied with plastic cuffs. It was impossible to sort the guilty from the innocent, so they were all brought back to the FOB and thrown in the old Ba’ath Party jail.

The prisoners were treated reasonably well. They ate and drank the same rations the soldiers did and there were plenty of cigarettes to go around. As the days passed and the Iraqis realized that the Americans were not going to kill them, their moods improved. They’d experienced worse and under the American interrogation they usually stuck to their stories. Through an interpreter, Semenko and Captain Matthew Cunningham of the 4ID would fire questions at the prisoners at a dizzying pace, trying to catch them in contradictions.

Who was firing RPGs off your lawn?

I don’t know.

Who are your neighbours?

I don’t know.

You don’t know. It’s your house, isn’t it?

It belongs to my father.

Where’s your father?

In Baghdad.

How long’s he been there?

A few weeks.

So you’ve been living in the house for several weeks, you’re supposed to be taking care of your family for your father, and you don’t know your neighbours, and you didn’t see who shot off the RPGs? You’re not much of a man, are you?

And so it went. When the interrogations were over, prisoners were sometimes let go, but more often than not were taken back to the jail. Part of the interrogation tactics was to deny the prisoners sleep by keeping bright lights on them and playing loud heavy-metal rock music. One night, when I walked in at about 3 a.m., a haunting anti-war ballad, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was drifting from the boom box. “Do you guys realize how bizarre this is”? I said to the two young 4ID soldiers standing guard.

“Well, ma’am,” one of them said, “We’ve run out of CDs. We got this one in a care package.” Someone had sent them a private compilation that might well have been labelled “Greatest Anti-War Hits of the Vietnam Era”: Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam”; The Doors’ “The End”; “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish; songs from “Hair.” The music resonated through the prison bars, out the windows and into the heat of the night while the soldiers sat tired and listless, apparently unaware of the irony. The prisoners smiled wanly at me, and for a moment I imagined they understood the lyrics.

I left the prison and walked out to the front gate to see who from Charlie Troop was on guard duty. Neely was there, and I told him where I’d been. Neely is thirty-two, a big man with a wide grin, a father, a former lumberjack from Washington State with a degree in psychology. But tonight he was indignant. What did I think I was doing, hanging out with the 4ID and taking photos of some poor farmers they’d mistaken for enemies? Was I crazy? Riding in the back of a Humvee on night patrol? Hadn’t I learnt anything about safety from riding with Charlie Troop? I could forget about Crazy Horse altogether if I was going to acquiesce to shit like that.

A week later, Neely’s sidekick, Michael Soprano, left for the States, his End of Time and Service having come to pass. After Soprano left, Neely was not the same. He seemed perpetually disgruntled, and was even unenthusiastic about returning home. When I’d talked to him about it the day after Soprano left his eyes welled up with tears. “Sometimes, in combat, we got to be in the same track,” he told me. “Sometimes we’d hold hands.”

Now they were going to Fallujah with their numbers diminished and it didn’t feel right. Weren’t they all meant to go home months ago? Each new redeployment threatened their status of being one of the few combat units in the war not to lose a man. With what they had seen and done on the way to Baghdad, it was truly astonishing that none of them had been killed. In fact, the entire 3/7 Cavalry had not lost a single man. Not losing anyone meant everything.

As headlines back in the U.S. called for the Third Infantry Division to be relieved, Charley Troop geared up and headed for Fallujah. Then, as if by a miracle, a Stop Movement Command came down from the higher ranks, and before they could react, they were heading instead to Kuwait, and then home.

Daytime temperatures at Camp Udari in Kuwait reached 150 degrees in the sun. And there was nothing but clear skies. For two weeks it was sand and sun as far as the eye could see in every direction, unless the wind picked up and suddenly you were blinded by the sandstorm. The sheer physical discomfort was hallucinogenic.

Many afternoons, as the ink in my notebook ran from the sweat dripping off my fingers, I talked to the men about their memories of war. Almost nostalgically, Staff Sergeant Williams said that for him, the best moment of the war was when the Iraqis began to accept their presence. “Yeah,” Sergeant Mark Prince agreed, “when the civilians were bringing us food and coming around, talking to us and seeing that we weren’t the really evil people Saddam was saying we were. Once they saw how friendly we were, they started taking care of us, pretty much.”

When I asked Sergeant Dupuy what his worst memory was, his answer was instantaneous. “Najaf,” he said. “Ambush Alley.” It was just before dawn on March 26, about six days into the war. Half of Charlie Troop (1st and 2nd Platoon) was up ahead of 3rd Platoon around a bend in the road engaging a complex of mortar positions. Following up behind 3rd Platoon, while they cleared the way of enemy threats, were miles of support-vehicle convoys and escorts. Sergeant First Class Billy Ray Wearnes, First Lieutenant Jason Greenan, and Staff Sergeant James Wasson’s Bradleys were scanning the right side of the road and quickly established and relayed that there were no threatening targets – just Iraqi families crouched in a ditch, trying to stay out of harm’s way.

Suddenly a Bradley from an Air Defense Artillery (ADA) unit came up from behind and started shooting right over top of the 3rd Platoon Bradleys and some 4th Platoon tanks, firing directly at the group of civilians they had just identified as non-threatening targets. Wearnes tried to stop it. He tried alerting the ADA Bradley, but there was no response. He tried signalling them, flashing his lights at them, manoeuvring closer to them. Nothing worked. “Maybe they just perceived [the civilians] to bea threat because of the fire fight, I don’t know,” said Prince, who was Wearnes’s gunner. “We could see the civilians clearly through our thermals, the visibility was still very good.”

Wasson was commanding a 3rd Platoon Bradley on the scene. “The worst part about it,” he said, “was [the ADA guys] had a tank right in front of them and they were actually engaging over the top of our tanks and our Bradleys. They didn’t clear their fire, they didn’t do anything to ensure safety, nothing. They had no communications, they didn’t ask what was going on; they just rolled up and started shooting.”

When the sun came up that morning, Wearnes and Prince confronted the ADA captain. Wearnes was still seething with rage, and told the captain he’d see him go to Leavenworth, the army prison in Kansas. “Wearnes wanted to kill the guy,” Prince said.

On August 11, we flew home, landing at Hunter airfield in Georgia. As we rode the homecoming military bus through the early-evening rain from the airfield to the Third Infantry Division’s home base at Fort Stewart, there were few smiles to be seen. The buses drove up to an empty field with empty bleachers and, facing the empty bleachers in formation in the pouring rain, the soldiers were called upon to give a last battle cry: “Gaaaaarrry Owen!” they shouted, and then they ran behind their red and white guidon flag to a welcoming ceremony at the nearby gymnasium where family waited for some, and empty barracks waited for others.

I had imagined a big blow-out celebration at the barracks. Everyone had been talking about how they would party, and how drunk they would get when they got back to the States. But the men I’d watched waging war over the past three months now looked more vulnerable and young than I’d ever seen them. They drank a little, then passed out. Murphy tried his best to keep celebrating, but he was so exhausted he fell asleep on his feet, then shuffled over to one of the lower bunks and started relieving himself.

“Murphy! Wake up, Murph!” I shouted, my arms outstretched above my head, shaking him on the shoulders, “You’re pissing on Hinderlitter!”

“No, no, man, it’s cool,” he crooned, still in a dream. “I’m cool. It’s cool. Everything is okay.”

Private Eric Hinderlitter woke up, looked surprised for a moment, then rolled over. Murphy lay down on the carpeted floor beneath the bunk, fast asleep. They’d all come home alive. And everything was okay.