Hour 18 of a 24-hour mission. Well, two missions really. We had spent the day pulling outer security for General Petraeus himself, while he strolled down Anu al-Verona with no helmet and basic body armor, surrounded by a camo entourage and media parade Patton’s ghost would respect, to buy some falafels. I didn’t get to meet the Big Man, but I did get a photo of the aforementioned circus from about 100 meters away, with all three rings in action. Trust me, I didn’t want to be any closer. No matter how many gorgeous aides there were in his posse who would have been dutifully unimpressed with a too-cocky, too-skinny scout platoon leader who can’t get rid of the black bags entrenched underneath his eyes, had drank 10 bottles of water in the past eight hours to fight off sunstroke, and hadn’t showered in two weeks.
After the General left, the Gravediggers charlie miked straight into an escort mission for an engineer unit tasked to fill potholes. A straight forward enough concept – surround the engineers in a Stryker diamond, and destroy any and all terrorists hordes that pour over the Anu al-Fulda Gap in the mean time. Translation: Rotate gunners and institute a much-needed and well-deserved rest plan for the platoon. Also, it gave us a chance to bring the three new Gravediggers – SPC Tunnel Rat, PVT Stove-Top, and PVT Hot Wheels – up to speed on the mechanics of our Strykers. Sounded like a great plan, at the time.
Then the war got in the way. Again.
45 minutes after we established our outer cordon security positions – right at the aforementioned hour 18 - SSG Boondock’s words boomeranged across the net, hiding the thrill in his voice as much as a teenage boy does while issuing instructions before a panty raid.
“Gravedigger 1, this is Gravedigger 3 … we got some real shady mother fuckers low crawling onto the road, down from the canal. It looks like two of ‘em.”
I bolted straight up in the back of my Stryker, and started studying my map. The 3 vehicle was on the complete other side of the diamond from my vehicle, oriented due south, overwatching a well-traveled north-south thoroughfare.
“Keep watching him,” I said, stating the obvious while conflicting thoughts of violent chaos and escalation of force procedures pumped through my mind like a million competing race car pistons.
Are they sure they’re seeing two guys low crawling? It’s night. They still haven’t done anything wrong yet. Technically. Not yet. Are they sure? Why are they low-crawling? Did I leave my rules of engagement card in the laundry? Are they sure? I need to stay calm, that’s what Lieutenants do in the movies in situations like this, they stay calm and make good decisions or they freak the fuck out and fuck everything up. Why are they low-crawling? Why can’t we just shoot, again? It’s not just night, it’s midnight. He said they were shady. Are they sure? Can they be sure with night-vision? Can they ever be sure with night-vision? Just don’t be the guy who yells CHARGE and you’ll be alright. I need to ask if there’s another heat signature other than the bodies. That’s what I need to ask. Are they fucking sure?
“Heat signatures?” I finally sputtered out, hoping my question would be accepted as proper radio brevity, and not typical LT G brain vomit.
Five seconds that felt like a standard Pentagon deployment passed before SSG Boondock replied. “Roger! Roger! It looks like there’s a box and my gunner reports they have set it down 250 meters from our position.”
Cue brain retching.
Light ‘em up. A quick burst or two of 50-caliber rounds should suffice. I’ve never tasted bloodlust before, not the lethal brew anyhow, but it seeped into my soul this night. As I’ve written before, I didn’t come here to kill, and never felt to impulse or desire to truly end a man’s life. But here it was, arriving as quickly as the crawling terrorists had. Kill or be killed. Never has this war been so clear, so pure, so obvious, so clean. And yet …
The platoon leader in me knew we couldn’t shoot yet, and tugged at my brain like a giant anchor holding in place a battleship on full throttle. Escalation of force. Fuck. Rules of engagement. Double fuck. They haven’t technically dug anything yet, thus, haven’t begin emplacing anything. SGT Axel was ready, certainly, zeroing in on the two human silhouettes with a long-barreled machine gun of raw destruction, but the Iraq War has become so PC, so cluttered, so trigger-shy five years into the war, that any round fired – no matter how justified or understandable at the time of the incident – yields paperwork inquiries and scrutiny more fitting of a Senate Judiciary Committee report. Staff monkeys have found new purpose in this combat zone as Monday morning quarterbacks, conducting investigations with omnipotent spotlights to cut through the fog of war days after the storm passed. I’m not claiming that such retrospective studies are not healthy for a military unit, nor am I arguing that precision and restraint should not be fundamentals ingrained in every soldier fighting an insurgency. Part of what makes an American soldier an American soldier is that he fights with rules that sometimes hinder him, in an attempt to keep sight of the ideals and principles which led him to fight in the first place. That’s all gravy. I am stating, however, that the fact that these thoughts clouded my mind in a decisive moment of combat – and not just my mind, as it would turn out – proves that we are officially no longer on the offensive here. To repeat a new mantra of some of my NCOs, “Uncle Sam has gone soft.”
I didn’t want to spend the next decade at Fort Leavenworth cutting stone, and certainly didn’t want any of my men to do that, either. Maybe that’s what would have happened if I had ordered them to shoot then. Maybe not. Anything now is just surmising, reflecting back with the benefit of hindsight on decisions made in mere seconds during a black tempest of confusion. We employed proper rules of engagement, just like we’re taught to by the Army lawyers hired to teach us how to avoid jail-time and war crimes and sensationalized scandals reported by a clueless, leaching mass media to an equally clueless public addicted to shock and awe. For every Abu-Ghraib there are hundreds of stories like this; unreported acts of trepidation brought on by the castigation of our combat operations in the name of nation building.
I kicked out my Bravo section’s dismounts, one team led by SFC Big Country (whose 4 vehicle was closest to the 3), the other by SSG Boondock, with the hope of being able to detain our targets. They were standing by behind the cover of our vehicles for the time being. I told SGT Axel, the 3 vehicle’s gunner, to beam the targets with a bright naked eye laser, to let them know we were watching. Then I told him, “If they begin to run, open fire and engage the targets.” There. I had satiated the gods of what if, and found an avenue for my soldiers to still do their job.
“Roger, will comply!” SGT Axel responded.
I had given the order to kill. Haughty enough to condemn two individuals to The End because they had been stupid enough to be fucking seen in a war of shadows. Somewhere in the time-space continuum, the boy who cried after my first fistfight - not because I was hurt, but because I thought I had done something to upset the instigator and still didn't understand the concept of bullying - hung himself with a calendar rope. At least he succeeded. That’s something at least.
“X-Ray, this is Gravedigger 1.” It had been a few minutes since I had sent up a situation report to Troop; an instrumental part of any Lieutenant’s job is to serve as a connection between the front line and whatever is behind us. Remembering such at this precise moment would turn out to be my only lasting regret from this whole ordeal.
“We have a possible IED-emplacement happening time now, at our location. Grid to follow. (Grid follows.) We’re employing ROE, and will engage with fire if they run and detainment is no longer a viable option.”
“Negative Gravedigger 1, you will not engage!” It was CPT Whiteback now on the other end of the radio call. What the hell was he still doing up? “Attempt to detain the individuals. Do not open fire unless the individuals attempt to directly engage you.”
I could hear the frustration oozing out of CPT Whiteback’s voice like puss coming out of a popped zit; I’m sure he wanted us to kill these two as much as we did. He has no love lost for insurgents. And as he reminds us at least twice a day, he had been in Sadr City in 2004, and knew what it was like to be pulling triggers all day, every day. So this newfound act of hesitation wasn’t a result of inexperience or nerves. That didn’t stop me from seeking clarification, though.
“This is Gravedigger 1 … I copy the only way we can open fire, even after positive identification, is if these guys open fire at us with rifles they don’t have or try to actually detonate the IED on us?” There may have been a few F-bombs in there, as well. I can’t recall.
“Roger,” came my answer.
I sighed, disbelievingly, and switched back to the platoon net. “You monitor the CO’s traffic, 3-Golf?”
SGT Axel’s voice could have cut through steel. It was that sharp. “This is 3-Golf. Roger.”
The next few hours morphed into a blur. I unleashed a primal howl and ripped the hand mic out of our radio, throwing it into the back of the Stryker, waking up a confused Biggie. SGT Axel lasered the two shapes, who quickly darted back into the canal. The two dismount teams moved after them in hot pursuit, but with it 1) being night and 2) not being our native terrain, we were automatically at a huge disadvantage in this impromptu hunt. No one was surprised when the only thing that was found was sets of muddy footprints behind some broken reeds. No one was really surprised either, when SPC Tunnel Rat and newly-promoted PFC Das Boot stumbled upon a compact brick-like object covered in tumbleweeds; after PFC Das Boot gave it the scratch-and-sniff treatment and informed SSG Boondock (“You did what, you big German fuck? You scratched it and smelled your finger? Are you high?”), we cordoned off the area and called the Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Turns out the brick was a state of the art pressure plate IED designed specifically for attacks on armored vehicles. EOD then blew it up without incident. Too tired to care anymore, the Gravediggers returned to the combat outpost with nothing to say to anyone who hadn’t been there with us. We felt like neutered wolves.
48 hours later, an individual detained by another unit outside of our AO admitted to attempting to emplace an IED exactly where we found the pressure plate exactly when we had observed him attempt to do so. Just like all emplacers, he was just a punk teenager who knew next to nothing, got paid $20 to feed his family for a week for his act, and literally shit himself when he got detained. According to the intel geek rumor mill, he was also very curious as to why we hadn’t shot him up instead of tipping him off to our whereabouts with a green laser. No word yet as to the fate of his shadow buddy from the night in question.
SSG Boondock came up to me the morning after the initial event, as I brooded on the Crow’s Nest. I don’t let go of things easily, and while my platoon seemed to have shed the events of the previous night rather quickly with some sleep and Guitar Hero, I had not. He took a seat next to me and lit up a cigarette.
“Fucked up shit last night, Sir,” he said.
“Yeah.” SSG Boondock had killed before in this war, and would be ready to do so again. I could only imagine his thoughts on the matter, and quite frankly, was not sure I was ready to hear them.
He leaned back and chuckled. “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have given the fire command to open fire like you did. That took balls.”
I felt my eyes open wide with surprise. This was the last thing I expected this NCO to say. He had never hesitated to tell me how he felt about anything, even when it might hurt my feelings. I’ve always valued his candid voice, and simply could not believe he would have done anything but open fire if placed in my position.
“You’ve done it before,” I said. "A few times."
“Yeah … it was different then, though. Shit now … it’s just hard to explain how much things have changed here.” He patted me on the knee. “You did fine, LT. No one expects you to be Dick Winters. Fuck, no one wants you to be Dick Winters.”
I looked at him skeptically. “Did SFC Big Country put you up to this to cheer me up?”
Another cackle. “Naw, nothing like that. Three years ago, fuck yeah, those guys would be rotting corpses on the side of the road, and nobody would blink an eye. Things are just fucking different now. Everyone’s so scared to make a mistake, convinced they’ll end up on the cover of Time.” He paused, took a final drag, and continued. “Just get us home, LT. I’ll take care of the rest.” He cackled again, and walked back inside. I stayed on the Crow’s Nest to finish brooding.
Is one detained terrorist with some information better for the war effort than two dead terrorists? To hell if I know; it’s kind of one of those “is the glass half-full or half-empty” questions. I do know though, that the lesson I’ve retained from this sequence of events is simple and straightforward, and something that could be garnered from any Clint Eastwood film ever made: shoot first, ask questions later. The way out is through. Even if the only ones who understand that are the ones on the ground, living in the Suck every day and every night, placing themselves in harm’s way every time they roll out of the wire in a manner that their countrymen cannot, will not, and should not ever comprehend. That IED wouldn’t have hit the vehicle of the guy who tweaks the rules of engagement, or the guy who would’ve been appointed the investigating officer if we had shot, that’s for damn sure. They are tucked away safely and comfortably in some glass house on the Beltway and the FOB, respectively, casting stones. The IED would have cut through me, or my men, or some of my comrades in the other platoons, in an instantaneous fireball of death. Fuck it. I will not hesitate again, even for just a few seconds, nor will I call up an update until after the fact. There’s too much at stake now for me to not employ those lessons learned. The next time, we might not be able to find the damn thing until after it explodes and we’re separating scrap metal from human remains.
We’d be out looking for the other insurgent right now, but we can’t leave the combat outpost. Some jackass somewhere else had a negligent discharge and destroyed a clearing barrel, causing the entire Brigade to go on a safety stand-down. Beyond being Grade A Garrison Bullshit, I’m just hoping that the terrorists got the memo that the war’s on timeout for the next 40 hours. I’m certain that they did. The actual war part of this war may be carefully regulated now, but the paperwork machine still has free reign to terrorize.
It is what it is.