The Battle to Take Fallujah

I arrived in Iraq on September 10th, and at Camp Fallujah on October 28th. Camp Fallujah is one of the largest American military bases in Iraq. It houses approximately six battalions of the American military, four of them Marines, making for a total of several thousand soldiers. The Camp is found seven kilometres outside of the city, which, up until November 8th, the day of the attack, was off-limits to the American troops, given that it served as a stronghold for the guerrilla forces in Iraq.

Until November 8th I was housed in nearby Camp Owens, which holds two battalions of Marines, approximately 1700 people freshly arrived from Hawaii, where these two battalions are normally stationed. All the Marines are youngsters aged 18 to 24 who have been sent to Iraq for the first time in their lives in order to fight this battle. The majority of them have never been in a combat zone before, and the only dead bodies they have seen are those on TV.

The camp is a half-ruined former Iraqi military base in a desert zone. Meant to serve only as a temporary staging point for those taking part in this operation, it is extremely uncomfortable, with no electricity or running water. We slept in one-floor buildings that had been practically destroyed and had no doors or windows. At night the desert wind and the artillery salvos fired by the camps guns kept you from sleeping, creating a state of endless excruciation.

I spent all the days between October 28th and the day of the attack covering the preparations for the assault. The Marines practiced urban combat tactics using rocket launchers and mortars. They slept, they ate and they prayed. They ran here and there. It was extraordinary to observe these massive, muscular young men who are fragile and unaware of the horror of war as they changed, unwittingly transforming themselves as the day of the attack drew near.

I could see the fear of the unknown in their eyes. Their officers stuffed them with food like geese to be fattened before slaughter. They were all too proud to admit what I could see in their eyes, and what I myself felt: fear. I do not believe I have ever been so afraid in my life. I did not have the faintest idea of what would happen, of what it would be like, of whether or not I would survive.

I remember the day I arrived with all the other journalists who had asked to cover this event with the troops. There were a total of 60 reporters and photographers from all over the world, each assigned to a different unit of the approximately 12000 soldiers that would be taking part in this battle. They gathered us all in a room and the Marine Corp general who welcomed us said:
“We are glad to have you here, covering one of the most important battles in the history of the Marines, after Vietnam and the taking of Kuwait City. I want you to know that some of you will not make it home”. When I heard that, I felt my throat tighten.

The day before the battle the military chaplain said mass and the commanding officer gave a motivational talk. One moment that stayed with me was when the commander said: “We’ll do everything we can to get you all home, but they’re going be some who won’t make it. One thing I prove, no one will be left out on the battlefield. Your bodies will all be taken back to the base, and there won’t be any prisoners of war in this battle.” Then, all together, they yelled out the Marine battle hymn. HURRA!

I believe my blood froze. In shock I watched what amounted to an ancestral initiation rite in atmosphere of collective madness. As one of my editors said: “How can something this medieval take place in the twenty-first century? It’s less like Vietnam than a remake of the War of the Roses, or, to be more up-to-date, Stalingrad.”

The day of the battle we left around five in the morning to go to a spot roughly a kilometre and a half outside of the city of Fallujah. I was the only journalist attached to my company, the 1st U.S. Marines Expeditionary Unit, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, Bravo Company. There were 120 Marines in all. We dug a hole in the desert and we got in to wait for night.

At 3:00 am on the morning of the next day, four amphibious assault craft, a sort of tank without a gun used for troop transport, came to pick us up in the middle of the absolutely pitch-black night. Naturally the Marines had night-vision visors, but I, who was not equipped with one, could not see a thing. We headed off in the direction of the point from which we were to attack, a kilometres and a half further ahead.

Army troops backed by tanks, planes and artillery surrounded the entire city, while the Marines were given the job of attacking and invading the entire city from the north, until they had reached the banks of the Euphrates to the south. It took us a total of five days to move three kilometres inside the city.

We disembarked from the vehicles in front of what the Marines called “the bridge”: a barrier of rubble, dirt and whatever else the guerrillas could get their hands on, built between two houses in order to close of one of the main entry roads. The Marine sappers who were supposed to blow away the barrier and smooth it out with their bulldozers failed somehow: four of them were killed or wounded.

What is more, the amphibious vehicles left us in the wrong spot, too far from the “bridge”, and so we were left without cover. When I got out of the vehicle, I could not believe my eyes: despite the dark, I saw the sky light up with every imaginable type of explosion. The guerrillas were shooting at us with everything they had: rpg rockets, mortars, machine gun bursts and single rifle shots. It had to begin to rain too, and the ground was sticky with mud. We called along the ground for roughly three hours, giving me all the time I needed to wonder what I was doing in a situation like that, and regret the fact that I had not waited until the morning after to set off on the adventure. Then again, waiting for the next morning would have meant running the risk of not entering the city and losing a major part of the story.

In the dark, in the midst of hundreds of Marines, I was afraid I might lose my unit. For practically the whole time we stayed out in the open I held on to the uniform sleeve of one of my Marines, until three mortar rounds fell into the middle of the group, sheering off an arm and a leg of one of the Marine next to me and wounding others.

From that moment on we were officially inside the city, where we stayed under cover, inside a house, under constant fire from the guerrillas. The next week my unit fought street by street, house by house, for five days and five nights, during which we slept standing up in a ghost city that had originally been populated by three hundred thousand people, almost all of whom had escaped weeks ago in expectation of the attack.

It is estimated that twelve thousand civilians were left in the city, including several thousand guerrillas. The military authorities estimate that approximately one thousand, two hundred guerrillas were killed during this battle, in which roughly 40 American soldiers lost their lives and almost five hundred were wounded. Naturally, there were no figures on the dead and wounded among the civilian population.

During those days, I saw and lived through every imaginable type of situation. I saw guerrillas and soldiers die. I saw the desperation and horror of a battle in which, fortunately, the number of dead among the Marines was minimal, thanks to overwhelming firepower and the quantities of men and equipment through into the battle by the American armed forces.

I shared fears, feelings, horror, desperation, hunger, thirst and sleep deprivation with these men, trying to gain an understanding of both sides while asking myself as many questions as I could on the reasons behind all this.

Fallujah is practically destroyed. The few civilians left in the deserted, desolate city collect bodies from the streets, still under sporadic fire from both sides. It has already been said that the taking of the city will not stop the guerrilla warfare in Iraq, meaning that it will do little to resolve the many problems remaining before the Iraqi election in January.

It might appear rhetorical to ask what all these people have died for, but I like to believe that there is still room for such questions.

During the last few days, after the end of the heavy fighting, my unit has searched entire neighbourhoods, moving house to house, arresting every male old enough to fight, between the ages of 15 and 55, and burning any object that could be used by the guerrillas to nourish or supply themselves, including mattresses, pillows, blankets, food and whatever weapons were found. Every night we slept in a different house.

The system used for the searches is hard to believe. A neighbourhood is chosen and it is decided to go into every house. More often than not a rocket is shot or a hand grenade is thrown inside the house. Then the door is knocked down with another explosive charge, if it has not already been blown away. The Marines enter, they search, and if they find men, they arrest them. Otherwise mattresses, pillows, blankets, food and all the weapons found are dragged outside and burned in the middle of the street. All this is done with every house. I ask myself what kind of an approach it is to fire a rocket inside a home, with the risk of finding an innocent family still inside of it. Or if before burning the contents of that home anyone wonders what the owners are going to think when they return from their forced exile. I have to believe that all this is simply part of the long and famous list of the “collateral damages” of war.

Yesterday the Marines invited the civilian population to come and receive food near a mosque. Given that most of the civilians who showed up were men, the Marines decided to test for traces of gunpowder on their hands and clothes. Then they arrested all those who tested positive: 47 people in ten minutes. Apart from the questionable method, I am starting to wonder where they put all these people!

In the next few days the fourth phase of this operation should begin. The city will be made secure and it will be rebuilt. Aid will be distributed, and the population will be allowed to come home.
Once they have come back, they may go to a Marine lawyer to file a claim for damage to their home and be partially or totally reimbursed. I wonder if support from a psychologist is included.

I am not sure that the images, for those who have seen them on the Getty Images site, get across the idea of all this. I have the feeling that, at times, even photography has its limits. I often found myself in situations where I could not take a picture because it was too dark, or because I was being shot at, or because I was asked not out of respect, or because I did not feel up to it myself, out of respect for the people who I would have had to photograph.

I left Falluja on November 20th.

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