The young captain herded the Marines of Fox Company into a semicircle in the sand facing a plywood easel from which hung a sheaf of long laminated pages. The first one read: "Cordon and Search Operations." The men were already sweaty and hot from the desert sun, and it wasn't even noon. Still, the captain, a USMC training officer, demanded their attention for the next 30 minutes.
"If that means you need to eat your lunch, rock on. Eat lunch. Roger that. If you need to drink water, Gatorade, throw in a dip, smoke a cigarette -- what I'm getting at is, make yourself as comfortable as you can as long as you're listening and not distracting anybody else," he barked. "Tracking all that?"
"Er," the Marines, all men, mostly under 25, responded faintly.
Methodically, the captain laid out the steps of a cordon and search, Marine lingo for isolating a fixed objective, a house or building, and surrounding it with troops to keep certain people -- those Marines want to question or detain -- from escaping, and to prevent others from getting in. Most of the stuff he presented was old news to the grunts, some of whom had served a tour or two in Iraq. But he also introduced refinements to "TTP" -- tactics, techniques, and procedures -- based on fresh feedback from combat troops in Iraq. Then the captain shared a statistic.
"Over the last 12 months or so we killed about 1000 Iraqis at blocking positions and checkpoints," the captain told the grunts. "About 60 -- six zero -- we could demonstrate that, yeah, he was a bad guy. He was an insurgent. Six zero out of about 1000. So all we're doing -- if we don't communicate what we want them to do, all we're doing is creating more enemies."
His words didn't faze the grunts, but they startled the hell out of me. Innocent Iraqis are killed at checkpoints frequently. I knew that, but I'd never heard anyone of rank admit it categorically. When I was in country in 2004, 2005, and 2006 I often heard grunts talk about "lighting up" cars that didn't stop at the trigger line. Why did the drivers keep going? Bad brakes, a misunderstanding of Marines' hand signals, darkness, stupidity, grunts ventured. But who could say? I had also read USMC investigation reports of checkpoint shootings. No Marines were charged in any of these incidents because they had followed the Rules of Engagement and their commanders' directives: shoot to kill the moment a vehicle crosses the trigger line.
The gruesome 60-out-of-1000 stat popped up in another talk, this one by an earthy corporal, a trainer himself. "This statistic's roughly a month old now, but over 1000 Iraqi civilians have been killed at traffic control points, VCPs [vehicle check points], blocking positions, and out of those -- this was in a 12-month period -- and out of those, only sixty-something were declared bad guys on the spot -- so, had explosives, weapons anything like that. So obviously 900-something innocent Iraqis have been killed. That's pretty shitty numbers, right?"
I arrived at this training exercise, "Mojave Viper," during the "urban warfare training" segment, in June. It's the Corps' newest response to bloody lessons learned in Iraq, and it is as ambitious as it is creative. After dry lectures, the fun begins. Trainers stage boots-in-the-sand combat simulations in a "town" carved out of the Mojave and furnished with beige shipping containers configured to resemble buildings. The town is populated with "civilians" and "insurgents," about 400 roles players when running at full throttle, among them Iraqi expatriates who speak only Arabic once a "practical application" begins. And there are plenty of things that go boom: improvised explosive devices fashioned from black powder and compressed air, snipers firing blanks (and in one exercise I didn't witness, paintball-type rounds that Marines say sting like the dickens when they hit you) and other convincing touches. Fidelity to the in-country experience -- that country being Iraq -- is the USMC's goal. Indeed, when I trailed a squad of grunts into an "Iraqi home," where they encountered a man fulminating in Arabic and two veiled women huddling in a corner, I felt, at least for a moment, as if I were back in Musayyib or Hit.
The squad I followed, which was led by 20-year-old corporal, impressed me tremendously. I watched he and his men bust through doors and clear buildings of "hostile actors" with precision and fire discipline. The Marine Corps handles this piece of the training exceedingly well, and I applaud the attempt to integrate all the salient lessons learned in Iraq into one exercise. I have no doubt that his training will save lives.
But there were too many odd and upsetting moments, among them the 60-out-of-1000 admissions delivered by the captain and corporal. They were acknowledging that killing civilians, while something to be avoided, is essentially business as usual in Iraq. We're not talking about anything premediated, like what allegedly happened in Haditha; this is accidental, but the numbers show that it happens with a disturbing same-shit, different-day frequency. This truth, this reality exposes the fundamental contradictions in and the absurdity of what these young men are being asked to do in Iraq: Protect yourself, even when it means taking an innocent life; find and kill "insurgents" in a population you don't understand and can't communicate with; build trust among the locals so you can help them build a nation. But how do you build trust and win hearts and minds if you're pumping them full of bullets?
In an awkward chat with a group of Marines outside the city of Hit a few months ago, an English student named Omar offered one explanation for Iraqi drivers' failure to stop.
"Let me tell you, there is a big difference between the cars in America and here," Omar told the grunts. "Most of the car here do not have any brake. There is no brake in the car. It is very ancient car."
"They gotta do something," a young grunt replied. "We just can't let a car come up on us like that."
"In this situation we are still the victim," Omar said softly, to no one in particular.
The corporal at Mojave Viper laid out a few more reasons why drivers don't always stop. "Maybe his wife's pregnant -- he 's trying to get her to the hospital. That happens all the time. Maybe he's just a fucking retard." Marines make mistakes too, he allowed. "Marines grab an Arabic sign. They throw it out at the blocking position thinking, that's a stop sign; when in actuality it says, "Coalition Checkpoint, Proceed with Caution." What do you think the Iraqis do? They fucking proceed with caution, and they proceed to get lit up."
The corporal told the men to give the driver the benefit of the doubt, even if his vehicle passes the first three barriers of their four-layered security cordon. Yell louder, make more hand signals, pump more warning shots into the ground. But if and when the vehicle crosses the trigger line, do what you must.
"For whatever reason it turns out to be a carload of woman and children or whatever, " the corporal assured the grunts, "you're still gonna be justified because we don't know why they came through. We have four zones set up. They came through all of them. We tried everything we could do to stop 'em. We did what we had to do. That's the most important thing to take away from this class."
While I credit USMC commanders for building Mojave Viper, which will surely save lives, the grunts are being set up for failure by the administration. US Marines and other service members are proverbial fingers in the dike of a nation-building disaster that stems from the administration's hubris and its criminally sketchy, ideologically driven, and rhetoric-fueled Iraq policy. The administration dissembles about reality and leaves it to folks in the field to devise solutions to impossible problems. So the ultimate responsibility gets pushed to the lowest level, that of the "strategic corporal" on the streets of Ramadi or Baghdad. Such tragic improvisation creates, among other things, 940-some checkpoint deaths. All that responsibility is a hell of a burden for a 20-year-old to bear (not to mention the average Iraqi civilian).
And he can't complain about it. Grousing about one's orders and commanders is forbidden not only by the Uniform Code of Military Justice but also by the Marine Corps' warrior ethos. Complaining is un-Marine, and it's downright un-American. So Marines do what they do to survive and execute the mission: they improvise, adapt, and overcome as best as they can. And the war continues, the damage limited to a faraway place and "those people" -- and to the troops and their families, who tend to suffer in patriotic silence.