Illustration: Taking Baghdad book cover

A memoir of the 2003 invasion of Iraq


NORWICH RECORD | Summer 2020

Historian and former U.S. Marine Aaron Michael Grant graduated from the Masters in Military History program at the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies in 2014. His most recent book is Taking Baghdad: Victory in Iraq With the U.S. Marines (Köehlerbooks, 2019). Part memoir, part history, his account recalls his experience as a Marine corporal and tank mechanic with Bravo Company, 2nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Grant served on the crew of “Hells Wrecker,” a lightly armored, 70-ton M-88-A2 Hercules tank recovery vehicle. When not fighting or rescuing and repairing the broken-down tanks of his fellow Marines, Grant kept a detailed journal. His new book draws upon those sand-covered pages to portray one man’s experience of the war and the moral questions it raised. The following excerpt has been edited for length.

On March 23, Third Battalion, 5th Marines ran into trouble close to Ad Diwaniyah on Highway 1, pinned down by a surprisingly coordinated ambush. In a hail of automatic machine gun fire, 1st Lt. Brian R. Chontosh commanded his vehicle to drive off the road, straight toward Iraqi trenches. RPGs and mortars sliced the air as he rolled up to the enemy, where he dismounted and emptied his ammunition, killing, with the help of another Marine, over 20 Iraqi fighters. “It’s nothing like TV,” Chontosh told a reporter at Newsweek. “It’s ugly. It’s contorted. People fall how they fall. It’s not like the bullet hits and they’re blown back or anything like that.”

The fight was so intense Chontosh and his fellow Marine were obliged to pick up Iraqi weapons, silencing a greater part of the battlefield and making safe the rest of the convoy. The stiff firefight was within earshot as the convoy moved slowly north, and the lieutenant later received the Navy Cross and two Bronze Stars for his heroism in the face of heavy fire that day.

Back at my position, the sky changed from bright blue to a dusty, thick orange. Outside the M-88, sand brushed gently against my face. Since making our way west from Rumaila and north past An Nasiriyah and Ur to our current position east of Ad Diwaniyah, we had traveled primarily under the cover of darkness. Conserving energy during the day, running the columns ever northward at night had taken its toll. Days and nights blended together as one memory, one giant day full of events that one could scarcely track. The heat of day did not lend itself to sleep, nor did the Marines favor living in a nocturnal state. The orange sky signaled the precursor to a sandstorm. In the lull before it arrived, I took time to pen a thought in my journal:

It seemed like a dream; one of those that you could not discern from fantasy or reality. Like a fairy tale, how they depict the surroundings totally foreign and unique from ours. I have never before seen skies like this.

Hopping up on Hells Wrecker, I assumed the machine gun position on the sweltering commander’s hatch. The storm came slowly, the M-88 sealed to prevent the dust from raiding the inside.

I sat on top alone, standing watch behind my .50 caliber. Fastening helmet and fixing my goggles for the onslaught, I waited. “This damn M2!” I swore aloud. “If they only could fire from the inside!” These thoughts did not save me. A tidal wave of sand clawed its way toward me, engulfing all in its path, so fierce it appeared to have purpose. Papers and debris accompanying the storm could well have traveled hundreds of miles to where I sat now. It surrounded me.

I pursed my lips and suddenly realized it would be impossible to make a shot in any direction to defend myself. I had underestimated this storm; I attempted to see the hand in front of my face. Quickly tying a bandanna around my sand-salted mouth, I realized that every crevice of my person would be invaded with sand. I accepted my fate, sitting immobile on the gigantic, 70-ton mechanical log that was Hells Wrecker. My mind wandered, peaceful with the lack of sight. In the rush of wind and orange earth, I pictured—though I don’t understand why—being in a different place at another time. Images of the ancient armies of Sargon the Great and the mighty Hammurabi came to me, marching in this same parched land. Their faces blasted like my own, salty rings around thousands of dry mouths. This sand carried their story. I envisioned history in the grit between my teeth.

A powerful wind slammed my body; I looked through my green-lensed goggles down to my person. No difference in fabric, only a flat shelf of orange. I had become a dune. Though the sand infiltrated into my uniform at an incredible rate, I sat still.

The storm was almost over. I could see again, forcing imagination back down to earth. I stood, the sand rolling off my hands as fast as it came. The scattered trash that the convoy produced had been carried along with the storm, its sole companion for another hundred miles.

The storm encompassed the entire theater of operations for about an hour.

God has always used the weather to intervene in human events. I later dis¬covered that satellite images from that exact time picked up extensive enemy movement while the entire coalition remained still. It was no simple act of nature. What was foiled because of the sandstorm, or what was done because of it, had infinite possibilities.

Recalling a story from the Revolutionary War, I remembered how George Washington and his retreating army crossed the East River in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in 1776. He took ad¬vantage of the night to move his army in boats across the river to Manhattan but didn’t have nearly enough time to complete the task. At dawn, a deep fog suddenly settled, so thick one could barely see a foot in any direction. The British, hot on his heels, could do nothing but wait it out. By the time it lifted, the Americans had long crossed the river in one of the greatest, most organized military retreats in history, saving nearly 10,000 Americans and the revolution itself. Thanks to God, and God only. It was apparent God was doing the same in this war, lifting the enemy from bunkers and foxholes so we could engage after the weather cleared. It also allowed the Iraqis to adapt to their perilous situation without harassment from us. God designs the outcome of battles.

Around this time, a blessing landed on Hells Wrecker. Hearing a commotion on back of the M-88, I looked back and met the gaze of a pigeon under the orange sky. I wasn’t surprised until he hopped down into the commander’s hatch. The shining purple-and-pale-gray creature searched, oblivious to all of us inside staring at it. Up until that point, I had not seen a single bird in Iraq, and here one was acting like it had brain damage, nestling into a cap hanging on the bulkhead. He fluffed himself up, circled a few times, and fell asleep. And there he stayed for three days. He became “Willie,” and he let us pet him, feed him, put him on our shoulders, and every evening he would return to his cap and fall asleep when we did. Writing in my journal about him, I knew he was more than he seemed:

In the direction I was looking, a pigeon landed on the tank. Some people see things as a simple coincidence, an act of chance. Others see [events] as more [than] chance; they see a sign. I am the latter, and this fearless creature is a sign. My spirit, as of late, has run too fast. Too little time to focus and see like I normally do. “He’s probably someone’s pet,” I tell myself. He reminds me of how simple life can be, and how content you can be if you let yourself. Who knows when he’ll leave; for the time being I will enjoy his company as he does mine.

For the days we had him, Willie reminded me to be content. Looking at him sleeping in the smelly Hercules, regardless of the firefights, he made me think of faith. Have faith. God would teach me later in life to be content, and I see now he sent this messenger to show us all that if a bird, who we could squash at any time, could be content with us, then we should be content and have faith we could deal with a few Iraqis.

The sandstorm cleared. Bravo Company spotted a civilian vehicle coming directly at them on the highway, traveling at a high rate of speed. The tanks fired a warning shot with small arms. No reaction. The vehicle sped directly for us. We tensed as we surmised the car could be packed with explosives. Another shot was fired. This time it ricocheted off the pavement directly in front of the car and buried itself in the chest of the passenger. The car wheeled and arced to a complete stop directly in front of the tanks. Tankers dismounted and pulled the wounded driver from the car. He was a deserter, and the man with a gaping hole in his chest was his uncle. “Why didn’t you stop!?” screamed the Marines.

No one could understand what he was blubbering. The man sitting dead in the seat caused the Marines to shout obscenities. He wasn’t a combatant, and there he was dead, and the deserter crying.

No one could figure out why they were moving so fast directly for the tanks. They had no explosives or fire¬arms. They were afraid of something ahead. Pulling the dead man from the car, someone produced a tarp to drape over him, and there he lay for days. I looked at his lifeless arm dangling with a wedding ring on it. What an idiot, I thought. What were you running from?

I had a good idea why they were running. There was not a single friendly unit ahead of us. There were artillery strikes, 2,000 sorties by Apache helicopters, jets, and bombers, and Baghdad had been hit by cruise missiles. The Army was currently fighting in As Samwah, west of An Nasiriyah, and Najaf to the west of Ad Diwaniyah, and securing local airfields. If that didn’t make the deserter flee, it was the Ba’ath militia or Fedayeen, who forced Iraqi troops to fight, that scared the hell out of them. In either case, the deserter and his uncle found making a suicidal run toward the American tanks preferable to what lay ahead.

And there was something ahead.

The morning of March 27 dawned crisp. We passed countless homes made of mud brick, their occupants gazing from within with innocent eyes. Occasionally, following in slow pace with the tanks, we were entertained by crowds of civilians gathered to watch the fabled U.S. Marines. They were as unknown to us as any outsider in the context of war. I had been told that the Iraqis believed that killing someone was part of Marine Corps recruit training. They thought we were bloodthirsty, though most had never killed anyone.

Arab faces thrust from every corner. I was amazed at their quietness, the colors, their mystery. I cursed myself for not learning Arabic in Kuwait, where I had plenty of time to do so. It was not only the culture that was shocking but also not knowing what information they had of the enemy’s movements around us. If we just could communicate with the civilians, the invasion would have been easier. Light eyes hidden under a purple veil here, small children whispering to one another there. I sensed questioning hearts.

The Marines in Iraq were like a closed society—a counterculture even— with its own values and language floating about the desert. It was impossible to know the Iraqi through the lens of Americanism, which clashed directly with Iraqi nationalism. Truly, if not for the ever-present language barrier, we could get over the rest.

The language killed us and the culture shocked us. We did not know that the Iraqi was fiercely tribal, that his loyalty was to his neighbor, not Saddam, though he wouldn’t speak of it to avoid the secret police. Could the Marines—the wolfpack, the counterculture—truly understand the Iraqi? We understood tactics, the bullets flying, and the bombs. From that alone we understood the motivation—and ineptitude—of the Iraqi military. But outside of that, the civilians hiding in the shadows or squatting beneath trees were an enigma.

An us-and-them complex developed very quickly, as if the people were beyond understanding. It was convenient. When we looked at them it was easier to see something less than a human being, an enemy who was simply waiting for the opportunity to strike, informing his friends on our movements, taking advantage of the language barrier to hide his true intentions. Yes, the Iraqis were a finger’s touch away from us and couldn’t be farther at the same time.

They became objects, barely more than the shadows they cast upon the desert—one and the same, every face a complete mystery.

Some of the houses were fortresses; a sizable home in the center accompanied four towers in each corner connected by walls. I wondered as we passed why they needed such fortification. Children played in the fields close to the earthen ramparts under the careful eye of a mother resting in the shade. Under the palm tree, I caught her eye wandering from beneath her veil. She faltered in the attempt not to notice the invading army, gazing through us without dis¬comfort or surprise. The M-88 passed through an underpass when word came over the speaker that a civilian was waving forward, as if warning us of something ahead. Our menacing caravan of tanks kept cautious, until our anxiety soon elevated.

A call erupted from Capt. Gunn notifying Hells Wrecker that an ammunition box was lying on the left side of the road. The captain’s tank ahead had just passed the large wooden box; it was up to the M-88 to destroy it. Before entering Iraq, general instruction was given to destroy Iraqi munitions so they could not be utilized by the enemy. Our M-88’s commander traversed the M2 over the left side—the same machine gun that had been jamming when test fires were attempted. I lifted my eyebrows out of sight, knowing that it would simply jam again. I touched the M-16 rifle at my side, readying myself to perform the task that our unreliable, dirty main gun couldn’t.

As soon as the captain breathed his order, shots rang out from the left. Rounds impacted Hells Wrecker all around me. The whiff each round made danced around my torso. Unaware that rounds had struck the metal near his head, our driver continued on his straight course. An oil jug riddled with bullets spewed its hot contents onto the blacktop, spattering the hull. I bolted out of my hatch fully exposed. Muzzle directly in front of our driver’s nose, I began firing at the innocent grass field making the attempt on our lives. The familiar jamming and cursing of our M-88 commander barely registered, my sole focus on the gentle sway of a green ocean. Nature was my foe, a shield to the heart that so coveted my demise. He was in there somewhere. The familiar chugging of Hells Wrecker overcame my senses within seconds. Momentarily, there was peace. I hurriedly grabbed more ammunition inside, grazing by Willie dead asleep in his cap.

Total concentration, which I had never experienced, glazed my eyes. Adrenaline pumped in my veins.

The convoy ahead staged tanks to the right and left side of the road, in the familiar herring-bone defensive formation that we were all accustomed to. We heard shots and numerous transmissions that the enemy was attacking with small arms fire from either side of the road. It was an ambush. The forward elements of the convoy, tanks, AAVs, then the M-88 stopped fully and engaged various targets utilizing “recon by fire.” I fired at anything that looked suspicious.

Shots continued from everywhere—from motionless tall grass and seemingly vacant mud-brick homes. It struck me then that nobody knew exactly what we were engaging. The homes became littered with machine gun fire. Pocks and wisps of smoke exploded from the ground, rounds accurate to the shooter’s erratic aim. Marines cooped up in Kuwait for months now had the chance to unleash on a helpless machine-gun trigger. Though no guerrilla was ever seen during this tremendous volley of retaliation, our minds became red with the yearning to destroy, partly to take back the pieces of our lives that we had thus far spent so miserably here.

“Move on! Move on!” our captain shouted. “Keep pressing forward!”

Tanks wheeled left and right, back into a neat column on the pavement. My eyes, just above the threshold of the hatch, rarely perceived the origin of the shots. Not soon after the first contact, where nerves remained tense, we received word that a white truck had been spotted coming in from the east. I squinted far off to the right, seeing men in black leaping from a pickup, diving into the concealing field. Fedayeen Saddam. A hundred yards out, the truck abruptly stopped. I lifted my rifle and took my best aim at the driver: a shot, then one to the passenger. I was an expert shot, and it filled me with adrenaline knowing they were dead. I felt as if I would live forever.

They tried to teach morals in the Marine Corps in the hope that some of it would stick when the time came. It did for me, and I struggle with it every day. I know my comrades do as well, because they know what really happened on the ground in Iraq and keep those truths locked up, seldom revealed. It was the price of accomplishing the mission, which was commonly to root out the combatants from the civilians at any given time. The Iraqi combatant who disguised himself in the civilian population received the most contempt from U.S. forces. How dare the guerrilla attack us from within his loved ones’ reach? He pushed us to the extreme, he pushed us to kill, and doing so destroyed our sense of morality honorably won as fighting men.

In total war, moral injury strikes everyone. Morals are hard won in life, and you have them if you don’t shed innocent blood, if you are not the “bad guy.” You believe that you are a good American soldier as long as you do what is right— what is chivalrous. American soldiers have been reared to embody the best qualities admired by a peaceable society. A culture that values a good fight so long as it can be stopped at the bell. A culture that doesn’t understand total war; one that frowns on its ugliness, and which hangs up its fighting men, knowing nothing of military matters. The reality of war is something modern society wants kept in the dark. And most of the time, it remains unseen.

But what of the men? Soldiers regret things that they have done to bring war to the enemy; the most effective way to kill a cause, kill their motivation, is to submit them to your will. Destroying homes, destroying the means by which to thrive, bringing the war into the hearts of civilians, was precisely what our enemy was doing.

He was exposing a weakness—or so he thought—in the American military; he assumed that we would not act if civilians were mixed into the fray. In truth, it was his best chance of succeeding against the technologically and numerically superior force. Fear. He exposed fear because he knew we were trained to “do the right thing” in the face of adversity. He wanted war with America, not war for Saddam, and that made it a more personal matter. Our reaction to the guerrilla reflected his success, as it did our seriousness. Total war does not sit well with good men. I had to go deeper.

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