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In Iraq: Out on Patrol

At 17:15 hours our five Humvee convoy rolled past Camp Fallujah’s final checkpoint. Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart, riding shotgun in the third vehicle, radios that all crews may insert—but not cycle—ammo clips into their rifles and pistols. Dagenhart and his driver, 19 year-old L/Cpl John Johnson from Shreveport, Louisiana, immediately place extra clips, flares and stun grenades on the dashboard. These items mutely testify to the unpleasant possibilities that might await this patrol on Iraq’s nighttime highways. Yet they explain little about its mission. The coiled razor wire and safety-orange plastic cones that were packed in the trunks hold more answers. These objects, supplemented by twenty pairs of watchful eyes and the convoy’s three turret mounted .50 caliber machine guns, will allow the 2nd Platoon to fulfill the first of this evening’s objectives: establishing random VCPs [Vehicle Check Points], a temporary roadblock that will enable these Marines to inspect vehicles for weapons, bombs, or insurgents.

As we pull onto a paved roadway, I review my notes about Fallujah. Wars generate their own iconic landmarks, often nicknamed, that forever testify to the once-great dangers or dramas that were experienced there. In the Iraq War one of these will surely be MSR [ Main Supply Route] Michigan, the military’s codename for Iraq Highway 10. Connecting Baghdad with the western river towns along the Euphrates, MSR Michigan passes through the center of Fallujah, and was a focal point of the recently concluded Operation Al Fajr (Dawn) for control of the city. Because MSR Michigan is one of the region’s principal thoroughfares for commercial and military traffic, and because roadside IEDs have become the insurgent’s weapon of choice, this road is now one of the war’s permanent battlefields. The Marines know it as the “Highway of Death.”

Perhaps sensing my fears about night patrol on roads potentially studded with remotely detonated 105 mm artillery shells, Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart talks to me as he might any first-time recruit. “Now this vehicle has been hit twice by IEDs,” he casually remarks. “Withstood it both times.” The information is comforting. Based on media reports the words “IED” and “killed” inevitably appear in the same sentence—but in fact, the link is not inevitable. “Takes your breath away—knocks the wind out of you,” Dagenhart declares above the noisy Humvee engine. “There are two things to keep in mind though—surprise and concussion.” He concluded with an upbeat recollection: “Drove right through it.” I notice that L/Cpl Johnson is nodding agreement. As the Gunnery Sergeant knows, conveying confidence—without minimizing risk—isn’t just in the words—it’s tone, anecdote, and attitude.

What daylight remains is spent driving up and down 2nd Platoon’s assigned stretch of MSR Michigan. The Blue Screen, which depicts miles of this divided, interstate-like highway, reveals more convoys patrolling other stretches of Michigan. The radio crackles with the voices of 2nd Platoon’s convoy. All eyes search for roadside anomalies that might conceal IEDs as well as the slim but real possibility of VBIEDs [Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices], better known as truck-driving suicide bombers. Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart shares with me excerpts from what might be called the Book of IED Wisdom, written in American blood by the enemy’s resourcefulness, our mistakes, and plain bad luck. “The biggest key to success out here is to change everything we do—we don’t set patterns,” Dagenhart explains. “For all we know, there’s a guy watching us right now. When we come back tomorrow, we do it a different way.” By different way he means tactics—how the vehicles are staggered in convoy, driving speeds, and which lane (if any lane—the Humvees also move on the median strip) they’ll choose. “IEDs amount to complex ambushes,” he continues. “Stagger them, hide a few, keep one or two in the open. That’s their game. We look for stuff like bricks that have been taken out of curbs or rocks that look different than before. We take pictures of the roads, and compare them the next day. Usually within 800 meters you’ll find the button man.”

“I know this road by heart,” Dagenhart concludes proudly. “I know the holes and bumps. I know where certain spots are hotter than others.” By definition, this is not empty boasting, because Dagenhart remains alive. In truth, the best “technology” for spotting an IED remains some combination of the human eye, human memory, and luck, all of which must be leavened with experience. “It’s kind of a crappy job for today’s grunts having to drive up and down Iraqi highways looking for bombs. But it’s what we get paid to do.” He seems to sigh but breaks the downbeat with a wink and a smile.

After nightfall the convoy slows and all necks crane towards the highway’s right shoulder. This section merits extra scrutiny because it is here that we will establish our first VCP. It is also here that the English and Arabic sign instructing traffic to stop within 50 meters (or be shot) will serve its purpose. The Gunnery Sergeant is first out and quickly; in another instant, all vehicles empty save for the turret gunners and a radio operator. Several Marines race ahead and stagger the safety cones; together with razor wire, the highway will be narrowed to one lane. The point of arbitrarily establishing VCPs is to disrupt insurgent communications by randomizing the risks of capture. However, what is anything but random are the locations of every man and vehicle of 2nd Platoon. Fingers rest inside the rifles’ trigger guards; no one paces casually, or merely kills time, or has any state of mind other than focused. As Iraqi cars approach this checkpoint, what in fact surrounds me is a carefully choreographed deployment of Humvees and Marines, something like a loosely circled wagon train. This almost-instant assemblage of men and trucks is a well-practiced defensive ballet whose purpose is survival rather than art: halt oncoming vehicles while protecting the convoy’s flanks and rear with weapons and eyeballs. One of the .50s is pointed directly at traffic while the others cover the flanks. Men watch and listen—but what they will always hear is the voice of Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart—chatting with drivers, waving cars by, micro-positioning his men for especially suspect vehicles.

On day or night patrols, I’ve noticed that Iraqi automobiles seem to come in two flavors—very old, and riveted from the parts of six different cars, or, less frequently, black, sleek and Mercedes Benz. What do these Iraqis (mostly Sunnis) think of us? Some glare with a chilling hatred (often the Mercedes occupants—perhaps former regime apparatchiks); some smile with an unknown sincerity; but most faces are expressionless, and I have the same thoughts as Confederate Mary Chestnut when, as the Civil War intensified, she gazed at the faces of her black servants, “as unreadable as the sphinx” and wondered: “Are they stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?”

House Searches

The convoy travels at night with no headlights; NVD [Night Vision Detection] shows the way. This increases our safety exponentially; IED button-men and suicide bombers can’t explode targets that they can’t see. But we’re about to trade in these increased survival odds for some increased risks from another operation, hazardous at any time—house-to-house searches. As we enter the street grid of a richer-than-average Iraqi suburb of Fallujah, I’m struck by how well Dagenhart knows his way around. He points to one house. “Last month we pulled a whole mess of RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] out of there,” he says. “The occupants or the bad guys will hide stacks of them outside in the yard, near the border of the property. That way, if they get caught, everybody looks around and says, ‘I didn’t know shit.’” He points to another house where his patrol recently arrested several insurgents. Nearby was a house that had to be approached cautiously because of some crazy dogs. “In each neighborhood, we’re only ‘good’ for a couple of houses,” he says. “After that, everyone’s on their cell phone telling the world that whatever they’ve got, ditch it, because the Marines are here.” Nevertheless, there is nothing futile about this—insurgents are forced to run, constantly shift supplies, and constantly redeploy.

This evening we will search some 5 houses in several neighborhoods. But the only Marine voice I will remember hearing is Dagenhart’s, who, (except when speaking to Iraqis), speaks to his men in three word orders, when he speaks at all. A raised arm, a pointed finger, a waved hand is a better, safer language in these neighborhoods, and at this hour. Second Platoon poses its vehicles around the first residence—one Humvee in the driveway, .50 pointed at the house; two in the street, turrets covering both directions—while its Marines quickly exit. What happens next is also choreographed, the result of training and experience. Quiet like cats, several men race to the rear of this house; others split to cover the sides while some beeline for the backyard, distant flashlights appearing like fireflies on amphetamines.

But Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart and four men walk calmly to the entrance, knock politely and wait for the door to open. A short, expressionless, middle-aged man answers and without inviting us in, steps aside so that we can enter. Dagenhart pauses and, slowly, firmly, announces the point of his visit. “Sir, we’re here to take a look inside. Do you have any weapons in the house?” The man says nothing, but sullenly gestures us to follow him. Once inside, I’m struck by the contrast between the house’s drab exterior and bright interior, colorfully painted rooms filled with well-appointed furniture. As we enter, Dagenhart instructs his men with a hand signal to begin searching the rooms; they deploy in two teams of two—no one walks into a room “uncovered.” But the Gunnery Sergeant remains in the living room, jawing with the man, who is joined by two curious teenage boys. Peeking through a partially opened door are the faces of several hijab-covered women, whose expressions of anxiety seemed to increase with their age; the youngest, perhaps six years old, was smiling at me. I waved, she giggled, and her face disappeared. Nevertheless, I feel as welcome as fecal matter in a swimming pool.

Suddenly, a young boy, perhaps eight years old, calls to Dagenhart from a room down the hallway. “American! American! Here, here.” The middle aged man gestures that we follow but Dagenhart pauses for a moment, waiting until he is rejoined by one of his teams (who have found no contraband). Together we proceed to a poorly lit room in the rear of the house. A row of pillows rest on a window bench. The boy opens one of the seats and extracts an AK-47. Knowing the steps that the kid must follow to turn the gun on him, Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart doesn’t flinch—he would have plenty of time to react. To my amazement, this kid, under the approving gaze of the older man, removes the clip, points the weapon in a safe direction, cycles the bolt (demonstrating that the rifle is empty) and crisply hands it to the Gunnery Sergeant, as for inspection. And Dagenhart accepts the weapon in the same spirit. He looks down the barrel, cycles the bolt, nods his approval and returns the weapon to the boy.

As we leave the room, the kid hisses for my attention. I turn and watch as the boy puts himself through the Manual of Arms, while whispering to me, “American! American! You want to buy?”

Later I mention this episode to Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart and speculate that the family probably had more weapons. “Of course they have,” he replied with a smile. “But we don’t do smash door searches here except on very specific info. Just like the VCPs, the bad guys don’t know where or when we’ll show up. They make our lives harder, we make their lives harder.” Later, another Marine explained that, “this war just ain’t about the bullets, man.”