Haze and chaos
by David Zucchino
On the morning of April 7, as a reporter embedded with a battalion of the Third Infantry Division, I was part of an armored column fighting its way into downtown Baghdad. The gunner and commander in my Bradley Fighting Vehicle were taking turns killing Iraqi infantrymen with the Bradley’s M-240 machine gun and destroying bunkers and vehicles with blasts from the vehicle’s 25 mm cannon.
Peering through one of the Bradley’s three-inch-high slits of bulletproof glass, I wasn’t just viewing the battlefield for a news story. I was searching for Iraqi fighters for the gunner to kill. An officer in the Bradley had asked me to watch for “dismounts,” as the tankers called Iraqi infantrymen. There was no time for debate or discussion. Our lives were in danger. I was sitting in a seat normally occupied by a soldier. I put my face to the glass. Through the haze and chaos, I could not see clearly enough to distinguish any targets for the gunner. But I’m certain that if I’d seen one I would have shouted, “Dismount at nine o’clock!” like everyone else inside the Bradley.
I was relieved that I didn’t have to. I had serious misgivings about the war and the justifications our government offered. During my seven weeks as an embedded reporter with military units, several soldiers asked me, jokingly, if I were “one of those ****ing liberals,” and I cheerfully confessed. But I am also a U.S. citizen, and once the war began I wanted it to be won quickly and decisively, with the fewest possible casualties among Iraqi military and civilians, and especially among U.S. soldiers.
Once I was thrown into the battle, the men in the Bradley weren’t just soldiers. They were fellow Americans fighting for their lives. The Bradley commander wasn’t some anonymous soldier. He was Mark Jewell, a husband and a father troubled about missing his wedding anniversary that week. The soldier poking his automatic rifle through the Bradley’s rear gun port wasn’t just another GI. He was Trevor Havens, 23, a corporal who suddenly realized that the opening day of the battle was the two-month birthday of an infant daughter he had yet to see.
It was difficult to remain dispassionate about these men—or about the Iraqis who were firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at us. At one point, our Bradley stopped and a few paces away lay the scorched remains of an Iraqi soldier. His face was contorted in a grimace, but I could summon no pity. I wanted to feel compassion for this fellow human being, but I could not stop thinking that the rocket-propelled grenade he had carried could have left me there on the roadway, just as dead.
I saw dozens of dead Iraqi fighters splayed in the dirt, and after a while I found myself struggling to avoid becoming inured to death. I had to remind myself that these men were no different from the men inside the Bradley. Each was a father, a son, a husband, or a boyfriend. And somewhere, someone was grieving terribly for them.
I was relieved to discover, in talking to dozens of U.S. soldiers, that none of them reveled in killing fellow human beings. To a man, they said they took no joy in the deaths. Two soldiers were profoundly disturbed by the corpse of a young Iraqi woman. Her body lay in the street near their position for three days. Finally, they couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. They found a body bag and walked over to her. They asked me to shine my flashlight on her. She was wearing a blue skirt and blouse. She had long dark hair and red fingernail polish. She was quite young. The two soldiers gently lifted her into the bag and zipped it up. Then they realized they didn’t know what to do next.
There was a secluded spot under a shade tree. Grunting in the dark, the soldiers hauled the bag to the tree and left it there. We wanted to say a prayer or offer a blessing, but we were in a war zone in the dark, illuminated by my flashlight. We killed the light and walked away.
I don’t know whether the actions I took or the decisions I made during the war were right or wrong, much less moral. I know only that war does not provide the luxury of reflection or contemplation. Those who survive can only pray for those who did not.