This past week an Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized significant swaths of Anbar Province in Iraq. I spent my early twenties there, fighting in Anbar’s streets. In the years since, those streets have never been far from my mind. I am, and forever will be, strangely an expatriate of places like Fallujah, Haditha, Hit, and others that barely dot a map. Like any expat, I’m defined by a place I might return to someday, the idea that somewhere on my life’s horizon is a time when I’ll again walk those streets knowing my war is finished.
After any war, a chorus always wonders about the cost. Was it all a waste? That chorus has been particularly loud this week, especially among those who shed blood wresting Fallujah from Al-Qaeda in 2004. I’ve had a hard time pinning down my emotions about this. Instead, a story keeps running through my head like archive footage.
It’s about 8am in the morning, almost ten years ago, in Fallujah, the second day of the battle. The platoon of Marines I lead, forty-six of us, fight rooftop to rooftop in the middle of the city. The night before, we’d snuck behind the insurgents’ main defensive lines to seize Fallujah’s Government Center, a five building complex. The sky is perfectly blue. We’re crouched behind a wall on the roof. Between machine gun salvos, rockets, and grenades, the Marines snap pictures of each other with cheap disposable cameras. No one’s been hurt yet.
In front of us is Highway 10. Its four lanes bisect the city. Back in March, the bodies of four Blackwater contractors were dragged down this highway. For three days, their corpses hung from the crossbeams of the Euphrates Bridge, starting the first battle, the one we’d been sent here to finish. By around 9am, all hell is breaking loose. Rocket-propelled grenades sail overhead regularly, like trains passing through a station. One slams into the wall above us. Everyone is okay. A piece of steel, jagged as a shark’s tooth, embeds into a grenadier named Pratt’s groin protector. Smoke rises from the Kevlar flap. Pratt waves it way. He’s fine. We all laugh, sort of.
We fire our rockets back. We throw our grenades into the street. I shoot my rifle, but its pop-pop-pop seems inconsequential as the morning battle now includes Abrams tanks and Howitzers. Overhead that perfect blue sky now swarms with attack helicopters and jets. Like herons taking fish from the sea, they swoop down and gulp whole buildings from the city. When their bombs drop close, we crouch behind the roof’s wall and open our mouths so the overpressure won’t burst our eardrums.
I’ve sweat through my uniform completely. Even my boots are wet. I look at my watch, 0917. I decide to stop looking at my watch. I’ll never make it through the day if I do.
Our building shakes on its foundation. Steel hits its side like the crack of a thousand bullwhips. For a moment, I lose sight of the Marines around me. We disappear into a cloud of dust. When the dust clears, half the platoon has their mouths open. It’s too late though, and my ears ring and hurt. Nick Ames, my radio operator, screams, “What the fuck was that, LT!”
“Fucking Muj artillery!” says Pratt.
“The Muj don’t have fucking artillery,” I say. “That’s ours.”
I grab the radio’s handset and call my friend, our fire support officer, 1st Lieutenant Dan Malcolm. He’s next door to us, in a building we’ve taken to calling “the high-rise.” Before he’d been on the high-rise’s rooftop, but the incoming fire had gotten so bad he’d had to spot his airstrikes and artillery from a few stories down.
“I didn’t call that artillery in,” Dan says in his soft Virginia drawl.
Before I can say, Shit, who did? another salvo lands right in front of us. It tears open Highway 10. The air sucks out so hard, it feels like an open palm smacked across my cheek. Among the forty-six of us, I hear someone whimper. I crawl over to Nick. Broken glass and cement crunch beneath my palms and knees. I grab the radio again. We’re pressed together so close I can see every pimple on his nineteen year-old face. Before I can scream at Dan, he tells me the artillery is coming from our Regimental Headquarters far outside the city. And he says, calmly, “I’m headed to the roof to get it shifted off you.”
I throw the handset back at Nick. I feel forty-six sets of eyes on me. There is a strange quiet. We’re pressed shoulder to shoulder and I can hear all of us breathing. It’s as if the insurgents and us all anxiously await the next artillery salvo to land. Far away, I hear a single gun shot, an insignificant pop. After it, all hell breaks loose again, as if sound and time were trying to divorce one another. We press into the wall but our ears don’t hurt, no dust consumes us. I poke my head up. About a hundred meters away, the artillery impacts land among the insurgents’ positions.
I grab the radio. “Nice shooting!” I tell Dan.
A different voice meets mine. “Get a Corpsman to the high-rise!”
Dan was the first one killed that day.
I didn’t check my watch again until that night. It read 2350 and we’d crossed Highway Ten, fighting four hundred meters deeper into the city. Of the forty-six on the roof that morning, twenty-one were still on their feet. We didn’t know it then, but we’d fight in Fallujah for another month.
wear a black bracelet on my wrist. It’s got Dan’s name on it, and the date 10 November 2004. I wear it for him but for others, too. Next to that bracelet is another one, a plastic one threaded with pink hearts and blue stars that my three-year old daughter made for me. If it weren’t for the black bracelet, the plastic one wouldn’t exist.
Does Fallujah falling into the hands of the ISIS make what Dan did for me and for the forty-six of us a waste? I wonder what he’d say.
When I think about my wars, and what happened, I do sometimes ask myself if it was worth it. I’m not thinking about Bush or Obama, or about Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m thinking about Pratt and Ames, and of course Dan, and unfortunately other friends like him. I hope they’d think what we’d did for each other was worth it.
Elliot Ackerman served five tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. He currently splits his time between Washington, D.C., and southern Turkey, where he writes on the Syrian Civil War. His novel Green On Blue is forthcoming from Scribner.