A Marine's eye-view of detainee operations

For the past few weeks I have been participating in Operation Phantom Fury. Of course, my function is nothing like the young men who were leaning into the Muj and testing their allegiance to Allah.  My role has been limited to detainee operations and providing assistance to dislocated civilians. 

On D Day plus 1 (Nov. 9), my team and I went forward into Fallujah in order to provide financial assistance to the expected hordes of civilians fleeing Fallujah.  A strange thing happened on the way to ousting the Muj: the civilians left Fallujah.  Hence, our services were not needed and we left Fallujah about a day later.  

My team consists of a legal clerk and two disbursers. The city was literally deserted except for Muj.  Reports from the front line troops stated that certain forces never saw any civilians whatsoever. Even now the city is largely deserted. 

Many newspapers tried to write about a humanitarian nightmare and starving Fallujans; all of that rhetoric was complete BS.  Although there are very few structures that were undamaged, the number of civilians killed numbers less than 20.  The reconstruction of Fallujah will take a long time and it will be difficult to accomplish.  But, based upon the number of caches that were found, the people of Fallujah were at best turning a blind eye, and at worst complicit with the Muj. 

The highlight of the last few weeks was that I awoke on the morning of 10 November in the city of Fallujah.  The tenth of November is very special to Marines; it is the birthday of the Corps. As such, there was simply no better way to spend a Marine Corps birthday than forward deployed taking part in a major operation. Unfortunately, spending that one day in Fallujah came at the price of spending several months in Iraq.

I am sure you are acquainted with the recent story about a Marine killing an unarmed Muj.  The pictures, reminiscent of Rodney King, only tell a part of the story.  There are some things to keep in mind.  First, the Marine Corps does not tolerate violations of the laws of armed conflict regarding the treatment of unarmed injured combatants who no longer desire to fight.  We hold ourselves to a higher standard.  If you recall, by the time the announcement was made, we were already investigating the matter. I know this because the person who made that decision sits 3 feet from my desk. 

As a lawyer in theatre I can tell you that the Marine Corps investigates every allegation of abuse, no matter how tenuous (or unbelievable) the allegation. I know the tone of the one Marine who you can hear after the shooting seems a bit matter—of—fact about it; well, that's how Marines deal with difficult situations. Biting sarcasm is simply a way of life. How else does one deal with fighting and dying?  Should they become choir boys and lament each Muj's death? 

We want these men to impose violence on our enemy and that requires something extraordinary, it requires them to deal with it for the rest of their lives.  Let me tell you some things that we are finding.  Syringes and vials of pain killers and adrenalin have been found in the Muj's home; the natural supposition is that the Muj were taking them before going into battle. There are many reports that the Muj who had been shot were seen getting up and attacking again and again.  Corpsmen were reporting that the types of drugs used would have allowed the Muj to feel absolutely no effects from a gunshot wound. 

Moreover, there were incidents of Muj feigning death and then popping up and shooting at our forces.  One such incident led to the death of a Marine and the injury of several others just the day before the killing of that Muj on tape.  If that were not enough, the environment favored the enemy with the battle waged at street level, over head, and below ground. I actually met the reporter who broke the story a few days before the story reached the public.  I could see that he was mentally exhausted over the release.  It is my opinion that he looked like he was facing the moral dilemma of his life.  All of us have a job to do; in the end, he felt the same way.  The tape was the property of NBC and not the reporter.  Ultimately, the decision was NBC's.  There is a story to the release, but the final decision, based upon first hand knowledge, was made by a bigwig at NBC.
 
After a few days, we had captured many military aged—males in Fallujah.  Some were watching their homes during the battle to prevent looting and/or occupation by the Muj and others had nowhere else to go.  Regardless, we detained "innocent" civilians and after a vetting process, we released individuals in massive numbers. It was my team's responsibility to actually effectuate the release. As part of the release process, through my interpreter, I would give them a speech about why we were in Iraq and that we would not leave until peace and security exists for everyone.  I viewed my speech as a closing argument: an opportunity to summarize in a succinct fashion why the US is in Iraq and what will happen to those who oppose our mission. 

I mentioned that in the Marine Corps we have a saying: "no better friend, no worse enemy."  I reminded them that many Fallujans have found out what kind of enemy we can be and that they are at a point to be our friend or our enemy.  If they are our enemy, then we will kill them.  However, if they are our friend, then together we will make Iraq safe and secure.  Finally, I challenged them to be a man and take care of their family.  Who knows whether any of what I said survived translations and ultimately impressed a point upon them.  But, they would shout "friend" in Arabic at the appropriate time and repeat a few of the Arabic words that I would spout.  Peace will come to Iraq — In shah Allah.
 
Fallujah has fallen. On a daily basis I venture into the city to accomplish various tasks.  There are very few buildings that are unscathed by the battle.  However, if you look out across the city you can see the spires from the mosques that rise above the city.  I went to college in Charleston, S.C.  It has the nickname of the Holy City due to the number of churches.  Fallujah certainly provided stiff competition to Charleston for that moniker.  It is easy to see why Fallujans were so fanatical; it was easier to go to a mosque than a store.  We also took great pains not to attack mosques unless they were used to attack our troops.  For example, at one mosque only one spire was destroyed and the remaining structure was left alone.  When Marines arrived at this mosque, Muj were using the spire as a sniper position.  The Muj had no regard for their mosques and large weapons caches were found within them. 

At this point it is difficult to determine the long term impact of the fall of Fallujah.  Anecdotally, the number of IED attacks is down across the area of operation by a significant margin.  Since I arrived in June, this base was struck at least five times a week with either rockets or mortars. We haven't had an attack since last week.  It is the longest stretch without such an attack on the base.  You can't say the fall of Fallujah meant nothing. The jury is still out as to what it means, but it does mean something.
 
I managed to see a great deal of the city in the last few weeks including some of the homes.  In fact, I lived in an apartment for awhile during the operation.  The rooms were modest.  The same kinds of children's toys were strewn about as at my home.  Pictures of relatives filled the walls.  Yet, you could tell that the former occupants had a harsher existence. I don't think I have ever described the sanitation system. It is a very rudimentary system.  A person stands to do their business and then will wash the pipe clear with a bucket of water.  The pipes all feed to the Euphrates River.  There were also numerous gas lamps, as if they expected to be periodically without power. This is modern Iraq.

I found out on Monday night that I will be coming home.  It certainly has been an experience and one that continues to grow even now.  I have done absolutely everything that I desired to do.  I have served at the battalion, regimental and force level.  I have heard briefings from the I MEF commander as well as convoy briefings by corporals who aren't even old enough to drink.  I have stood in the military square in Baghdad.  I have seen how something that happens in a flash of an eye can change someone's life forever.  I felt the camaraderie of shared misery and exposure to danger. 

I have been under fire and returned it.  I have seen the land between the rivers and the work of a thousand years of experience in irrigation.  The news is reporting about the new battles in Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah and Yusafiyah and I have seen each of those cities first hand.  My experience has been tame in comparison to the men of the Corps who at this very moment are exposing themselves to danger.

What I have had is a glimpse into that Spartan life.  The conclusion I draw from this glimpse is that men at war exhibit and experience the best and worst of life.  To the Marine on the ground, everything is a frontal attack no matter where you strike at the enemy and how much technology advances to make their job easier.  Every shower is a downpour when there is no place to get dry.  When it is cold, there simply is no way to get warm if you are doing your job.  Everything here is at an extreme — e.g., commitment, destruction, misery, and happiness.
 
My father spent 13 months in Korea during that war.  My grandfather was gassed and shot while serving as a Doughboy in WWI.  My uncles served in WWII and one gave his life at the Battle of St. Lo in France.  In that light, my wartime experience has been tame, uneventful and almost like going to camp without the arts, crafts and parent's night.
 
We managed to have turkey and all the fixins' for Thanksgiving.  It really was nice.  But, there was a certain amount of melancholy that filled the air.  One could not help but think of home and Thanksgivings in years past.  What I wouldn't have given to suffer through one of my father's Thanksgiving prayers! 

With every email, package, and card I have received I know they were sent with the best wishes and I thank each of you for your support to me and our country.  Please continue to pray for our Marines in harm's way.  Although I have missed my daughter's birthday, the beginning of school, the Olympics, and the entire college football season, I will be home for Christmas and that truly gives me a reason to be thankful.

For the past few weeks I have been participating in Operation Phantom Fury. Of course, my function is nothing like the young men who were leaning into the Muj and testing their allegiance to Allah.  My role has been limited to detainee operations and providing assistance to dislocated civilians. 

On D Day plus 1 (Nov. 9), my team and I went forward into Fallujah in order to provide financial assistance to the expected hordes of civilians fleeing Fallujah.  A strange thing happened on the way to ousting the Muj: the civilians left Fallujah.  Hence, our services were not needed and we left Fallujah about a day later.  

My team consists of a legal clerk and two disbursers. The city was literally deserted except for Muj.  Reports from the front line troops stated that certain forces never saw any civilians whatsoever. Even now the city is largely deserted. 

Many newspapers tried to write about a humanitarian nightmare and starving Fallujans; all of that rhetoric was complete BS.  Although there are very few structures that were undamaged, the number of civilians killed numbers less than 20.  The reconstruction of Fallujah will take a long time and it will be difficult to accomplish.  But, based upon the number of caches that were found, the people of Fallujah were at best turning a blind eye, and at worst complicit with the Muj. 

The highlight of the last few weeks was that I awoke on the morning of 10 November in the city of Fallujah.  The tenth of November is very special to Marines; it is the birthday of the Corps. As such, there was simply no better way to spend a Marine Corps birthday than forward deployed taking part in a major operation. Unfortunately, spending that one day in Fallujah came at the price of spending several months in Iraq.

I am sure you are acquainted with the recent story about a Marine killing an unarmed Muj.  The pictures, reminiscent of Rodney King, only tell a part of the story.  There are some things to keep in mind.  First, the Marine Corps does not tolerate violations of the laws of armed conflict regarding the treatment of unarmed injured combatants who no longer desire to fight.  We hold ourselves to a higher standard.  If you recall, by the time the announcement was made, we were already investigating the matter. I know this because the person who made that decision sits 3 feet from my desk. 

As a lawyer in theatre I can tell you that the Marine Corps investigates every allegation of abuse, no matter how tenuous (or unbelievable) the allegation. I know the tone of the one Marine who you can hear after the shooting seems a bit matter—of—fact about it; well, that's how Marines deal with difficult situations. Biting sarcasm is simply a way of life. How else does one deal with fighting and dying?  Should they become choir boys and lament each Muj's death? 

We want these men to impose violence on our enemy and that requires something extraordinary, it requires them to deal with it for the rest of their lives.  Let me tell you some things that we are finding.  Syringes and vials of pain killers and adrenalin have been found in the Muj's home; the natural supposition is that the Muj were taking them before going into battle. There are many reports that the Muj who had been shot were seen getting up and attacking again and again.  Corpsmen were reporting that the types of drugs used would have allowed the Muj to feel absolutely no effects from a gunshot wound. 

Moreover, there were incidents of Muj feigning death and then popping up and shooting at our forces.  One such incident led to the death of a Marine and the injury of several others just the day before the killing of that Muj on tape.  If that were not enough, the environment favored the enemy with the battle waged at street level, over head, and below ground. I actually met the reporter who broke the story a few days before the story reached the public.  I could see that he was mentally exhausted over the release.  It is my opinion that he looked like he was facing the moral dilemma of his life.  All of us have a job to do; in the end, he felt the same way.  The tape was the property of NBC and not the reporter.  Ultimately, the decision was NBC's.  There is a story to the release, but the final decision, based upon first hand knowledge, was made by a bigwig at NBC.
 
After a few days, we had captured many military aged—males in Fallujah.  Some were watching their homes during the battle to prevent looting and/or occupation by the Muj and others had nowhere else to go.  Regardless, we detained "innocent" civilians and after a vetting process, we released individuals in massive numbers. It was my team's responsibility to actually effectuate the release. As part of the release process, through my interpreter, I would give them a speech about why we were in Iraq and that we would not leave until peace and security exists for everyone.  I viewed my speech as a closing argument: an opportunity to summarize in a succinct fashion why the US is in Iraq and what will happen to those who oppose our mission. 

I mentioned that in the Marine Corps we have a saying: "no better friend, no worse enemy."  I reminded them that many Fallujans have found out what kind of enemy we can be and that they are at a point to be our friend or our enemy.  If they are our enemy, then we will kill them.  However, if they are our friend, then together we will make Iraq safe and secure.  Finally, I challenged them to be a man and take care of their family.  Who knows whether any of what I said survived translations and ultimately impressed a point upon them.  But, they would shout "friend" in Arabic at the appropriate time and repeat a few of the Arabic words that I would spout.  Peace will come to Iraq — In shah Allah.
 
Fallujah has fallen. On a daily basis I venture into the city to accomplish various tasks.  There are very few buildings that are unscathed by the battle.  However, if you look out across the city you can see the spires from the mosques that rise above the city.  I went to college in Charleston, S.C.  It has the nickname of the Holy City due to the number of churches.  Fallujah certainly provided stiff competition to Charleston for that moniker.  It is easy to see why Fallujans were so fanatical; it was easier to go to a mosque than a store.  We also took great pains not to attack mosques unless they were used to attack our troops.  For example, at one mosque only one spire was destroyed and the remaining structure was left alone.  When Marines arrived at this mosque, Muj were using the spire as a sniper position.  The Muj had no regard for their mosques and large weapons caches were found within them. 

At this point it is difficult to determine the long term impact of the fall of Fallujah.  Anecdotally, the number of IED attacks is down across the area of operation by a significant margin.  Since I arrived in June, this base was struck at least five times a week with either rockets or mortars. We haven't had an attack since last week.  It is the longest stretch without such an attack on the base.  You can't say the fall of Fallujah meant nothing. The jury is still out as to what it means, but it does mean something.
 
I managed to see a great deal of the city in the last few weeks including some of the homes.  In fact, I lived in an apartment for awhile during the operation.  The rooms were modest.  The same kinds of children's toys were strewn about as at my home.  Pictures of relatives filled the walls.  Yet, you could tell that the former occupants had a harsher existence. I don't think I have ever described the sanitation system. It is a very rudimentary system.  A person stands to do their business and then will wash the pipe clear with a bucket of water.  The pipes all feed to the Euphrates River.  There were also numerous gas lamps, as if they expected to be periodically without power. This is modern Iraq.

I found out on Monday night that I will be coming home.  It certainly has been an experience and one that continues to grow even now.  I have done absolutely everything that I desired to do.  I have served at the battalion, regimental and force level.  I have heard briefings from the I MEF commander as well as convoy briefings by corporals who aren't even old enough to drink.  I have stood in the military square in Baghdad.  I have seen how something that happens in a flash of an eye can change someone's life forever.  I felt the camaraderie of shared misery and exposure to danger. 

I have been under fire and returned it.  I have seen the land between the rivers and the work of a thousand years of experience in irrigation.  The news is reporting about the new battles in Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah and Yusafiyah and I have seen each of those cities first hand.  My experience has been tame in comparison to the men of the Corps who at this very moment are exposing themselves to danger.

What I have had is a glimpse into that Spartan life.  The conclusion I draw from this glimpse is that men at war exhibit and experience the best and worst of life.  To the Marine on the ground, everything is a frontal attack no matter where you strike at the enemy and how much technology advances to make their job easier.  Every shower is a downpour when there is no place to get dry.  When it is cold, there simply is no way to get warm if you are doing your job.  Everything here is at an extreme — e.g., commitment, destruction, misery, and happiness.
 
My father spent 13 months in Korea during that war.  My grandfather was gassed and shot while serving as a Doughboy in WWI.  My uncles served in WWII and one gave his life at the Battle of St. Lo in France.  In that light, my wartime experience has been tame, uneventful and almost like going to camp without the arts, crafts and parent's night.
 
We managed to have turkey and all the fixins' for Thanksgiving.  It really was nice.  But, there was a certain amount of melancholy that filled the air.  One could not help but think of home and Thanksgivings in years past.  What I wouldn't have given to suffer through one of my father's Thanksgiving prayers! 

With every email, package, and card I have received I know they were sent with the best wishes and I thank each of you for your support to me and our country.  Please continue to pray for our Marines in harm's way.  Although I have missed my daughter's birthday, the beginning of school, the Olympics, and the entire college football season, I will be home for Christmas and that truly gives me a reason to be thankful.