The Secret Letter From Iraq
Written last month, this straightforward account of life in Iraq by a Marine officer was initially sent just to a small group of family and friends. His honest but wry narration and unusually frank dissection of the mission contrasts sharply with the story presented by both sides of the Iraq war debate, the Pentagon spin masters and fierce critics. Perhaps inevitably, the “Letter from Iraq” moved quickly beyond the small group of acquantainaces and hit the inboxes of retired generals, officers in the Pentagon, and staffers on Capitol Hill. TIME’s Sally B. Donnelly first received a copy three weeks ago but only this week was able to track down the author and verify the document’s authenticity. The author wishes to remain anonymous but has allowed us to publish it here — with a few judicious omissions.
All: I haven’t written very much from Iraq. There’s really not much to write about. More exactly, there’s not much I can write about because practically everything I do, read or hear is classified military information or is depressing to the point that I’d rather just forget about it, never mind write about it. The gaps in between all of that are filled with the pure tedium of daily life in an armed camp. So it’s a bit of a struggle to think of anything to put into a letter that’s worth reading. Worse, this place just consumes you. I work 18-20-hour days, every day. The quest to draw a clear picture of what the insurgents are up to never ends. Problems and frictions crop up faster than solutions. Every challenge demands a response. It’s like this every day. Before I know it, I can’t see straight, because it’s 0400 and I’ve been at work for 20 hours straight, somehow missing dinner again in the process. And once again I haven’t written to anyone. It starts all over again four hours later. It’s not really like Ground Hog Day, it’s more like a level from Dante’s Inferno.
Rather than attempting to sum up the last seven months, I figured I’d just hit the record-setting highlights of 2006 in Iraq. These are among the events and experiences I’ll remember best.
Worst Case of Deja Vu — I thought I was familiar with the feeling of deja vu until I arrived back here in Fallujah in February. The moment I stepped off of the helicopter, just as dawn broke, and saw the camp just as I had left it ten months before — that was deja vu. Kind of unnerving. It was as if I had never left. Same work area, same busted desk, same chair, same computer, same room, same creaky rack, same… everything. Same everything for the next year. It was like entering a parallel universe. Home wasn’t 10,000 miles away, it was a different lifetime.
Most Surreal Moment — Watching Marines arrive at my detention facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. We had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.
Most Profound Man in Iraq — an unidentified farmer in a fairly remote area who, after being asked by Reconnaissance Marines if he had seen any foreign fighters in the area replied “Yes, you.”
Worst City in al-Anbar Province — Ramadi, hands down. The provincial capital of 400,000 people. Lots and lots of insurgents killed in there since we arrived in February. Every day is a nasty gun battle. They blast us with giant bombs in the road, snipers, mortars and small arms. We blast them with tanks, attack helicopters, artillery, our snipers (much better than theirs), and every weapon that an infantryman can carry. Every day. Incredibly, I rarely see Ramadi in the news. We have as many attacks out here in the west as Baghdad. Yet, Baghdad has 7 million people, we have just 1.2 million. Per capita, al-Anbar province is the most violent place in Iraq by several orders of magnitude. I suppose it was no accident that the Marines were assigned this area in 2003.
Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province — Any Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician (EOD Tech). How’d you like a job that required you to defuse bombs in a hole in the middle of the road that very likely are booby-trapped or connected by wire to a bad guy who’s just waiting for you to get close to the bomb before he clicks the detonator? Every day. Sanitation workers in New York City get paid more than these guys. Talk about courage and commitment.
Second Bravest Guy in al-Anbar Province — It’s a 20,000-way tie among all these Marines and Soldiers who venture out on the highways and through the towns of al-Anbar every day, not knowing if it will be their last — and for a couple of them, it will be.
Worst E-Mail Message — “The Walking Blood Bank is Activated. We need blood type A+ stat.” I always head down to the surgical unit as soon as I get these messages, but I never give blood — there’s always about 80 Marines in line, night or day.
Biggest Surprise — Iraqi Police. All local guys. I never figured that we’d get a police force established in the cities in al-Anbar. I estimated that insurgents would kill the first few, scaring off the rest. Well, insurgents did kill the first few, but the cops kept on coming. The insurgents continue to target the police, killing them in their homes and on the streets, but the cops won’t give up. Absolutely incredible tenacity. The insurgents know that the police are far better at finding them than we are — and they are finding them. Now, if we could just get them out of the habit of beating prisoners to a pulp…
Greatest Vindication — Stocking up on outrageous quantities of Diet Coke from the chow hall in spite of the derision from my men on such hoarding, then having a 122mm rocket blast apart the giant shipping container that held all of the soda for the chow hall. Yep, you can’t buy experience.
Biggest Mystery — How some people can gain weight out here. I’m down to 165 lbs. Who has time to eat?
Second Biggest Mystery — if there’s no atheists in foxholes, then why aren’t there more people at Mass every Sunday?
Favorite Iraqi TV Show — Oprah. I have no idea. They all have satellite TV.
Coolest Insurgent Act — Stealing almost $7 million from the main bank in Ramadi in broad daylight, then, upon exiting, waving to the Marines in the combat outpost right next to the bank, who had no clue of what was going on. The Marines waved back. Too cool.
Most Memorable Scene — In the middle of the night, on a dusty airfield, watching the better part of a battalion of Marines packed up and ready to go home after over six months in al-Anbar, the relief etched in their young faces even in the moonlight. Then watching these same Marines exchange glances with a similar number of grunts loaded down with gear file past — their replacements. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.
Highest Unit Re-enlistment Rate — Any outfit that has been in Iraq recently. All the danger, all the hardship, all the time away from home, all the horror, all the frustrations with the fight here — all are outweighed by the desire for young men to be part of a band of brothers who will die for one another. They found what they were looking for when they enlisted out of high school. Man for man, they now have more combat experience than any Marines in the history of our Corps.
Most Surprising Thing I Don’t Miss — Beer. Perhaps being half-stunned by lack of sleep makes up for it.
Worst Smell — Porta-johns in 120-degree heat — and that’s 120 degrees outside of the porta-john.
Highest Temperature — I don’t know exactly, but it was in the porta-johns. Needed to re-hydrate after each trip to the loo.
Biggest Hassle — High-ranking visitors. More disruptive to work than a rocket attack. VIPs demand briefs and “battlefield” tours (we take them to quiet sections of Fallujah, which is plenty scary for them). Our briefs and commentary seem to have no effect on their preconceived notions of what’s going on in Iraq. Their trips allow them to say that they’ve been to Fallujah, which gives them an unfortunate degree of credibility in perpetuating their fantasies about the insurgency here.
Biggest Outrage — Practically anything said by talking heads on TV about the war in Iraq, not that I get to watch much TV. Their thoughts are consistently both grossly simplistic and politically slanted. Biggest Offender: Bill O’Reilly.
Best Intel Work — Finding Jill Carroll’s kidnappers — all of them. I was mighty proud of my guys that day. I figured we’d all get the Christian Science Monitor for free after this, but none have showed up yet. [CLARIFICATION FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: “Regarding the writer’s comments about his unit’s “Best Intel Work”, the Monitor is very grateful for all of the efforts the US government made to secure Jill Carroll’s freedom after she was held against her will for 82 days. Monitor Editor Richard Bergenheim expressed his gratitude in a press conference he conducted on the day that the capture of Jill’s kidnappers
was announced, and Jill directly thanked the men who participated in the operation. Also, the Monitor has offered to send the marine who wrote this letter and his unit 25 gift subscriptions to its weekly international edition.”]
Saddest Moment — Having an infantry battalion commander hand me the dog tags of one of my Marines who had just been killed while on a mission with his unit. Hit by a 60mm mortar. He was a great Marine. I felt crushed for a long time afterward. His picture now hangs at the entrance to our section area. We’ll carry it home with us when we leave in February.
Best Chuck Norris Moment — 13 May. Bad Guys arrived at the government center in a small town to kidnap the mayor, since they have a problem with any form of government that does not include regular beheadings and women wearing burqahs. There were seven of them. As they brought the mayor out to put him in a pick-up truck to take him off to be beheaded (on video, as usual), one of the Bad Guys put down his machine gun so that he could tie the mayor’s hands. The mayor took the opportunity to pick up the machine gun and drill five of the Bad Guys. The other two ran away. One of the dead Bad Guys was on our top twenty wanted list. Like they say, you can’t fight City Hall.
Worst Sound — That crack-boom off in the distance that means an IED or mine just went off. You just wonder who got it, hoping that it was a near miss rather than a direct hit. Hear it practically every day.
Second Worst Sound — Our artillery firing without warning. The howitzers are pretty close to where I work. Believe me, outgoing sounds a lot like incoming when our guns are firing right over our heads. They’d about knock the fillings out of your teeth.
Only Thing Better in Iraq Than in the U.S. — Sunsets. Spectacular. It’s from all the dust in the air.
Proudest Moment — It’s a tie every day, watching our Marines produce phenomenal intelligence products that go pretty far in teasing apart Bad Guy operations in al-Anbar. Every night Marines and Soldiers are kicking in doors and grabbing Bad Guys based on intelligence developed by our guys. We rarely lose a Marine during these raids, they are so well-informed of the objective. A bunch of kids right out of high school shouldn’t be able to work so well, but they do.
Happiest Moment — Well, it wasn’t in Iraq. There are no truly happy moments here. It was back in California when I was able to hold my family again while home on leave during July.
Most Common Thought — Home. Always thinking of home, of my great wife and the kids. Wondering how everyone else is getting along. Regretting that I don’t write more. Yep, always thinking of home.
I hope you all are doing well. If you want to do something for me, kiss a cop, flush a toilet, and drink a beer. I’ll try to write again before too long — I promise.
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