Ramadi Nights

Article excerpt


SECOND LIEUTENANT Dave Hagner was tall and smooth-faced, and like many other marines he carried himself in a way that brought his toughness into uncomfortable contrast with his youth. He was twenty-seven, older than the men in the platoon he commanded. During the day he worked out and joked around and daydreamed of the boat he would buy when he left the Marine Corps. It was long and sleek, and probably it would be white. It would whisk him light and free above Hawaiian reefs, chasing marlin, sailfish, sharks. He intended, in retirement, to be an old man by the sea.

At night he put the boat aside, slipped into his body armor, checked his rifle and his radio, his ammo clips and night-vision goggles and safety glasses. He pulled on gloves, pushed in earplugs. If he felt lucky, or unlucky, he would ask aloud how the mission would go and toss into the air an angular stone painted with various prophecies, like the Magic 8-Balls you can buy at toyshops. Fortune found, Hagner led his platoon into the ruined, stinking maze of Ramadi. Quietly they slipped by packs of feral dogs, lagoons of sewage. They stepped around the unexploded mortars and crept under open windows, the soft sounds of whispered Arabic falling over them, the speakers unaware of, or unconcerned about, the passage of armed men. When they reached a certain neighborhood, Hagner's marines would burst into houses and bring the male occupants to him as they blinked off sleep. Then the questioning began.

It must have seemed to the Iraqis that they were being hauled before a nightmare judge. They were accustomed to this, to violent noises, interrogations, searches. But still they were cowed by Hagner, by all of it. And even though he was careful to say Thank you and even sometimes Things are gonna get better to those frightened people, the words seemed empty after what had just been done, and Hagner seemed remote and alien. Inhuman. A few hours later, Hagner would emerge from his armor cocoon, pale and sweat-soaked, a wiry, almost skinny guy from Essex, Maryland, eating candy and falling exhausted onto his bunk. Happily alive, dreaming of boats.

Hagner and his men were doing what other people would later call winning the war. They didn't know they were winning it. I, embedded with them, didn't know it. US politicians now describe Ramadi as a model of success. The president points there and grins. Look, it's working. There's the proof. If this is true, Ramadi must have changed a great deal since I visited.

It is strange, looking back. At the time I didn't feel any shift in the balance of things, though I'm told success was unfolding around me. Zarqawi had recently been killed, but that seemed to have little effect on the violent streets of Baghdad or anywhere else. There were only a few moments when it was possible to sense or grasp anything beyond the details of getting by. In the evenings, as the orange sun fell away and bats emerged from towers of the old palaces, you could feel the precariousness of the larger story, of the battle for Ramadi. It was as though, in the softening of the light and heat, a hidden view of the landscape was revealed. Perhaps it was that with dusk came a momentary peace. But then the acid night poured in, dissolving the edges of the city and reducing everything once more to small, irreversible moments of fear and action and inaction. It was in these moments that Ramadi was won, if it has really been won at all.

BY THE SUMMER of 2006, Ramadi had been called the most dangerous city on earth, and it had been briefly closed to journalists. The closure made many of us suspect something big was about to happen, something, perhaps, like the siege on Fallujah in 2004. Fallujah had mutated into a bloody, ruinous, and heavily reported on debacle; it was possible to see why the Marines, who played a major role in the siege, might not want more attention if they were about to flatten another city. …