First things first. How does a civilian get to Fallujah, Iraq? "You could try bribing a guard at the border near Safwan and just driving up," said Dave, a goateed kid wearing a Louisiana Tech T-shirt, who was squeezed next to me on the flight to Kuwait City. "Problem is, as a civilian, you might get killed real easy. Probably beheaded."
First-class was sparsely populated with Arab men in suits. Coach was packed with a mix of Arab families and white guys going one of two routes—jeans, Tevas, and T-shirts or khakis, cropped hair, and Docksiders. Sloppy dress and facial hair are expressions of freedom common to recent escapees from the military, so it wasn't hard to tell private security from public soldier.
Dave had a tribal tattoo that was still shiny encircling his bicep. He was likely a recent separation, lured back to Iraq by either dollars or adventure or both. Were the rumors of incredible pay accurate? Today's infantrymen are speaking of six-figure payouts dangled by security companies. Dave put his index finger against his pursed lips, indicating he could not speak in the company of the others. On a napkin I scrawled, "$500/day?" He pointed his thumb at the ceiling, smirked, and mouthed "tax free," but he refused to say more. There's an incubating firestorm of stress that will gut the military if left unchecked, and this—private soldiers earning five to 10 times what the comparable serviceman earns—is one of its fuels.
"Anyway, even we don't drive in," Dave said eventually. "If you drive more than 50 miles up north, you'll be hit. Period."
In the days following the war, you could drive unmolested throughout Iraq. My father did just that in a yellow Suburban. Had security deteriorated that much? Or was Dave (and the press corps) exaggerating, a few wild tales having been churned up by a military rumor mill now engorged with hyperbole? Apparently not. The three staging areas en route to Fallujah were filled with soldiers hammering the same point: The single riskiest venture in Iraq is to drive. Military vehicles are hit by roadside bombs. Civvie vehicles are cornered and captured. Indeed, the only convoys rolling into Fallujah operate at night. Same goes for helicopters.
But what of statistics? If the number of convoys increased in line with the sheer number of insurgents the soldiers and Marines were killing, the chances of an individual car or Humvee being hit had to be small and getting smaller. "No way," said one Marine infantryman. "Grunts don't look at percentages, because we're always the ones getting picked. You think, 'No way I draw working party,' but guess what? You get picked. Same goes on the roads. You can't think, I'm not gonna be hit. You gotta think, that dirt pile there's an IED [improvised explosive device]."
A Marine lieutenant named MacDonald, whose job is to travel Iraq in support of the air wing, was riding in a convoy that was hit five times in 50 miles. "One kill zone lasted 1.8 miles. There was smoke everywhere. Some Hajjis would zip past us in cars blasting their horns, alerting the next ambush. Then others would come right out of the reeds firing," he said. "Now I prefer to fly."
To combat the insurgency, the military has instituted a color-code alert system for the roads, systematically closing troublesome routes and opening others. It has cut down interdiction substantially. "It's blue, brown, and black," said MacDonald. When I raised my eyebrows, he added, "Same as green, yellow, and red stoplights to you." I needed no further elaboration. To ask why the military didn't just use the latter colors is to ask why a water fountain is called a scuttlebutt.
Before the night flight arrived to take us north into Iraq, I met a big Marine colonel named Loch. We shared a meal and fewer than three hours of conversation, but that was enough. I was confident that in the face of disaster he'd look out for me. I hoped I'd have the guts to do the same for him. A standing policy in Iraq is the Battle Buddy system—no man or woman should ever be alone on this wildly undulating battlefield. I suppose that, without being prodded, Loch and I were doing the same thing. Securing a quick friendship that would hold up under fire. To paraphrase the historian (and former jarhead) William Manchester: He who has no friends in a combat zone is truly damned.
The C-130 flight carried a combination of active military and civilian contractors from Kellogg Brown & Root. The socioeconomic spectrum was well represented: A 40-year-old woman from Texas trained in hotel management, a fat IT guy with a ponytail, three fiftysomething men who were former consultants, and a cute, 29-year-old woman who clutched a huge down pillow. Either she was so salty she planned to sleep the whole way or so boot that she needed comfort from home, however small. Was the money that good in Iraq? Or did these folks all have some hidden adventure-lust finally bubbling to the surface?
It was a tough flight for an indoctrination. The Marine pilots took us on a blacked-out roller coaster ride complete with a low-power elevator drop onto the dark airfield. When the wheels hit, everyone gasped, as usual. The pilots were beaming, as usual. We shuffled into a makeshift terminal where we spent the night with an assortment of wounded Marines and soldiers, a dozen more contractors, and a few combat replacements fresh in-country.
The mortar round hit sometime in the morning. A loud thump. Cots creaking. The reaction inside the wooden house was unexpected; two combat veterans near me rushed to throw their flak jackets and helmets on, while the new joins dismissed the explosion. "That was a mortar round," said one of the vets, who had been wounded in the hand by shrapnel three weeks earlier. "And when there's one, there's three." Soon everyone was wearing the gear. Another cliché was shattered soon after. Vietnam movies often open with the scene of a cherry soldier stepping off the plane to a sea of body bags and a wall of vacant, heartless stares by veterans. Outside Fallujah, the veterans were bright-eyed and welcoming, infusing the newbies with confidence instead of dread. Different war? Perhaps, but Vietnam may have been different from Hollywood's version as well.
That night we lined up for the helicopter flight. In the darkness, I heard a Marine in front of me telling another why he'd chosen to return to his unit despite his wounds. He had a little girl at home who'd been born five days after he arrived in Fallujah. "Can't leave the unit though, with six weeks left to go." He'd been peppered by shrapnel and then struck by an AK-47 round in the chest plate of his armor.
Now came the compression of the air by the whirling rotors and the feeling of electricity as we sprinted to the bird, the crew chief slapping us as he screamed some number that evaporated in the wind, the whole rig shaking and roaring. The troop space smelled of hydraulic fluid and jet fuel. Pitch black. I shouted, "So you have a little girl?"
The Marine took me in, my Red Sox hat and wanna-be-an-adventurer shirt, and shouted, "Don't worry dog. Something goes down, you stick close to me!"
I was irritated at first. I didn't need coddling. I was asking about his family. Then the bird shuddered and was airborne and the feeling mutated. I felt ashamed. Ashamed that I had been defensive. Ashamed that in a week's time I would be back home grumbling over the Sox's box score while this young man was out on patrol sacrificing all he had for me and mine.