I am an unlikely, unworthy even, chronicler of a Marine infantry battalion at war. I am not a Marine and have not experienced frontline combat. To Marine infantrymen, who proudly call themselves “grunts”, I am a “person-other-than-grunt” (POG or “pogue”). In fact, my POG-ness runs even deeper. As an Air Force intelligence officer (now retired), and a reservist to boot, my status on the spectrum of warrior merit is very low. To be honest, I struggled with that as I began this journey. Internal questions would arise; What makes you think you can write this story? Wouldn’t someone else be more qualified? But time and again, another question would come; If not you, who?
In more confident moments, I realized I brought a unique mix of strengths to the effort. First, long experience as an analyst prepared me to see the larger patterns and pull together pieces of fragmentary information into a coherent narrative. I also have on-the-ground experience in Iraq, though not in Al-Qaim or Anbar. Deployments in both 2004 and 2007 gave me valuable first-hand perspectives on the war, first from the strategic and operational level and then from a more tactical viewpoint.
Additionally, for an Air Force officer, I am atypically familiar with ground combat operations. Part of that passionate interest stems from having a son in the U.S. Army who has deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan at the very tip of the spear. As father to a warrior son, I am intimately familiar with the stresses combat veterans and their families face. I have learned much from him, both in concrete and intangible ways. Much of that very personal knowledge relates directly to the experiences of the Marines I write about here.
In a strange way, then, this combination has made me a rare breed of “insider-outsider” and perhaps an ideal teller of this story. As an outsider, I bring a wider perspective on the war and the campaign to stabilize Anbar. And as an Iraq War veteran myself, I hold certain insider perspectives and attitudes that no journalist or academic researcher could tap into.
What started as an intellectual exercise evolved into something much more personal. As I reached out to veterans one by one and they shared their experiences with me, the feelings behind the facts became the real substance of the book. For some, talking about those days was a release, a chance to open up about things they’d pushed down deep. Some had never shared them with anyone. Often, a call I thought would be a short introduction stretched late into the night.
Others were reluctant at first, even suspicious. These combat veterans still maintain close-knit, battle-forged circles of brother warriors. For those circles, I was, will always be, an outsider. And that is as it should be. In most cases, I was granted the honor of conditional, temporary access. Once I’d earned a measure of trust, one Marine would introduce me to others in his circle. But not always. Some remained guarded. And there are some who prefer to keep the past in the past. Their choices must be respected.
Usually though, when these men opened up, they wanted their story to be heard. Some pointedly told me to be accurate, to be fair. Most often there were no demands, just a gracious thank you for my efforts. But even when not explicitly stated, a charge was silently assumed; the charge to “get it right.” I have endeavored mightily to do so.
Forgetting and remembering
The sacrifices and accomplishments of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment during 2005 were either unknown or quickly forgotten. The same goes for the entire Iraq War for that matter. Reaching back now, years later, is to uncover what is ancient history in today’s Twitter-fueled hyperworld. Those events have been covered by windblown dunes, layer upon layer of tragedy, and blithe forgetfulness that settled over a nation eager to move on. Which is a tragedy all its own.
The war began badly, with many questionable political, strategic, and military decisions. Too often it takes time for the world’s most successful democracy, and the military which serves it, to find what it takes to prevail in a new conflict. Sadly, that learning curve imposes steep costs. This was certainly true in Iraq. Opportunities were missed, resources squandered, precious lives lost, as we learned the hard lessons. But, in fact, even during the darkest days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (the Pentagon’s official name for the conflict in Iraq), there was rapid learning taking place.
When seen in full perspective, the American military in Iraq adapted quickly to a new type of warfare and a baffling array of new enemies. In a surprisingly short time span, tactics improved, strategy became aligned with reality, better leaders arose, and units got smarter. The mass “flipping” of Sunni tribes to our side in 2006 and implementation of the Bush/Petraeus surge in 2007 eventually led to amazing success. But the foundations of that success were laid by those who labored through the dark days.
By 2009, Anbar Province, previously the hotbed of insurgency, was peaceful and American troops sipped chai in the marketplaces. Meanwhile, deprived of high casualty counts, media headlines at home were dominated by the latest iPhone release and Michael Jackson’s funeral. Paradoxically, success in Iraq only accelerated America’s collective amnesia. Still more cognizance was buried as a new administration announced, then executed an ill-advised withdrawal, completed by 2011. Afghanistan became Obama’s “good war.” Iraq was Bush’s “bad war,” the stepchild rejected by both left and right.
Then, in 2014, came a layer of hot volcanic ash blasting out of the desert. It swept across the entire landscape as the black shroud of ISIS descended. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was the hyper-violent reincarnation of a previous extremist group, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), that U.S, troops had fought and defeated on the battlefield. For veterans who had served in Iraq, especially those who’d been part of the campaigns to pacify Anbar, it was painful to watch enemies they’d once vanquished return to infest large swathes of the country. Each city that fell to the raving killers brought memories of sacrifices made, of friends lost, of blood spilt, all now seemingly in vain.
My own reaction was to psychologically turn away. It was hard to deal with what I felt was a massive betrayal that was unfolding as ditches filled with corpses and roads were lined with severed heads. Other veterans I’ve spoken with had similar feelings. It was hard to fathom how America could let the progress we’d made, and yes, the victories we’d won, slip away.
And so multiple strata of forgetfulness settled over Anbar, over Al-Qaim (one of the first areas to fall under ISIS rule) and hid the battlegrounds where U.S. Marines fought just a few years before. In a way, then, my task has been akin to that of an archeologist, carefully brushing back layers of sediment to reveal the forgotten truths below.
But the Marines of 3/2 remember. It is time that many others remember as well. I have a deep respect for these men, for what they went through and in too many cases what they continue to endure, and for the sacrifice they offered up for all of us. I now count several of them as friends. Many of them helped me piece together this book, guiding me, providing facts, images, and even their personal journals. Without their help, I could never have written an account of this clarity, depth, and accuracy. To them and the other warriors who assisted me in ways large and small, I am grateful beyond words. This is my humble attempt to tell their story. If there are errors or oversights—inevitably there will be some—they are my own.
Sources & methods
As I began writing, I felt prepared for a long, tough road. But it was even tougher than I thought. I soon realized that to tell the story faithfully while putting it into the right context would take far longer than I’d anticipated. Available written sources were cursory and fragmented. Just determining correct locations was a challenge. And the decentralized, distributed nature of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq made understanding the relationships between certain events difficult. It required a kind of cognitive percolation process that just took time.
There are published volumes, mostly official histories published by the U.S. Marine Corps, Army, or Department of Defense, providing the outlines of major operations in and around Al-Qaim. But they lack fine-grained descriptions and details. There are also a handful of books with eye-witness accounts of events in far west Anbar during 2004 and 2005. For my purposes, the most important of these were written by men who served either in 3/2 or units that supported them. Naturally, however, these provided a very personalized and limited view.
By far the most useful documentary source was the multi-volume study, conducted and published by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), entitled Al-Sahawa – The Awakening. Sponsored by the Marine Corps, IDA’s “Awakening Project” is a remarkable work of scholarship which presents a rich tapestry of the many events, personalities, and currents that culminated in the Sunni Awakening and a key turning point in the Iraq War. I owe Dr. Bill Knarr (Colonel, retired) and his associates a debt of gratitude.
I am also grateful to the Marine Corps University’s History Division for giving me access to a valuable collection of recorded interviews conducted in Anbar during the summer of 2005 by a Marine field historian, Lieutenant Colonel David Benhoff. These unique interviews provided an unmatched window directly into the contemporaneous thoughts and perspectives of key participants.
Moving beyond this required exhaustive searches for anything on Al-Qaim and the struggle that raged there from 2003 through 2007. Many press articles from those days were confused and inaccurate but revealed important details when placed properly into the mosaic. Surprisingly, videos turned out to be highly useful. Online documentaries, media clips, B-rolls and footage from Marines’ own handheld cameras gave me unfiltered details and vital visual context.
The other irreplaceable online sources were mapping applications, which feature open-source satellite imagery of surprising clarity. Without these tools, I would likely have remained forever confused on topography, place names, and the physical relationship between key locations. I have spent countless hours virtually roving across the terrain where 3/2 operated, zooming into city streets, even identifying individual buildings.
Without a doubt, though, my most valuable sources were the Marines themselves. This book is the product of over two hundred personal interviews, conducted mostly by phone or online chat sessions, with men who were there. The first 3/2 veterans I reached out to had been junior enlisted Marines in 2005. This was because of my own inexperience and lack of contacts, not by design. A seasoned military history author would probably have started by interviewing the top of the chain of command, not the lance corporals. I did eventually make contact with much of the battalion’s leadership. They were open and amazingly helpful, providing the bigger picture and absolutely vital operational understanding.
But the bottom-up approach I took by first talking with Marines from the ranks yielded a richness, an emotional depth to the story that could not have come any other way. Laced throughout these pages are stories from the guys who manned the posts, ate dust on patrol, and kicked the doors with God-knows-what behind them. These are the grunts, the heart and soul of the Corps. They’re really who this book is about and ultimately who it’s for.
The book was reviewed by the Defense Office of Pre-Publication and Security Review at the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Prepublication Classification Review Board. Minor changes were made to alleviate security concerns. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information, factual accuracy, or endorsement of the author’s views.
* In 2004/2005, the author was stationed at Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar and deployed forward several times into Iraq for short periods. In 2007, he was attached to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq and worked on forward operating bases south of Baghdad in Babil and Wasit Provinces.