The author is a Marine Corps veteran of the second siege of Fallujah and a member of March Forward!. He is the founder of the 'Justice for Fallujah Project' and will be speaking at various events in Boston for the first annual 'Remember Fallujah Week,' Nov. 16-19. Click here to get more information.
On the eve that the air assault ended and Operation Phantom Fury (the 2nd siege of Fallujah) began, I found myself sitting in a fighting hole about a klick outside of Fallujah. My unit sat there anxiously watching what looked like a fireworks show, as the flashes of everything from 500 lbs bombs to 2,000 lbs bombs lit Fallujah up like the 4th of July. At a certain point I saw a spark, and then a cluster of glowing white balls slowly descending in the direction of Fallujah. It was white phosphorous, which I knew could easily melt through an engine block, and as I watched it drifting in the wind I wondered how we could be using such an inaccurate and deadly weapon. I asked the lieutenant closest to me if this was legal, and he replied to me that it was because we were using it as a smoke screen rather than using it offensively.
I had stopped believing what my chain of command told me long before that night, but I convinced myself that I had no choice but to finish my deployment. I told myself that I had only made one mistake, and that was joining the Marine Corps. Everything that happened from the day that I arrived at bootcamp until the moment I found myself in a fighting hole sitting outside of Fallujah was not my fault, and that I was a victim of circumstance. But none of that was true, and I am only able to recognize now, six years later, that everyday that I laced my boots up I made a choice. I chose to participate in what I knew in my gut to be wrong, rather than choosing not to participate. There were consequences with either choice, but they were choices, and there was only one choice that would have allowed me to leave Iraq without blood on my hands.
My unit was inserted into the center of Fallujah almost a day later at roughly 0400 hours. I was part of Headquarters Platoon because my chain of command hated my unenthusiastic attitude, and they wanted me to be around authority at all times. I became the Captains radio operator, or rather his mule that carried heavy things for him. As soon as we stepped off the tracks, the other platoons quickly cleared the police station and the mayor’s complex, and then Headquarters Platoon moved to the roof of the police station to make radio transmissions. I put up our antenna and then passed the headset to the Captain. The police station was tall enough that we could see all of Fallujah. The horizon was just beginning to turn orange, and the city was dimly lit, silent, and eerie. Tan square houses stretched as far as we could see in all directions, with innumerable minarets poking up out of the dense neighborhoods and pointing to the sky. Fallujah’s big blue domed mosque sat only a couple hundred meters away.
The Captain coordinated with different platoons and squads around our position over the radio, until the sun poked its head over the horizon and Morning Prayer sounded over the loud speakers across the city. As soon as the prayer ended gunfire rang out in the distance, and it continued and intensified throughout the day. Headquarters Platoon moved to the roof of the mayors complex where we quickly found ourselves pinned down by sniper and rocket fire. Within a few hours we took our first casualty; Lieutenant Malcom was hit by sniper fire. Gunnery Sergeant Ramos suddenly appeared on the scene. Gunnery Sergeant Ramos hated me more than any of my other higher-ups, and as soon as he saw me he ordered me to run across an open field, through sniper fire, to get a box of chow.
Two weeks later he said to me, “Hey boy, how did you like it when I made you run for your life to get that box of chow? Maybe that will give you some incentive to start doing what you’re told.”
Rockets and machine gunfire continued throughout the day, and some of the guys in my unit finally got something that they had been taught since bootcamp that they should want – a kill. Around noontime we saw our first group of civilians trying to cross the street with a white flag. We had been told that all civilians had left the city, and when we lifted our heads to look at them, sniper fire began to crack over our heads. Everyone around me immediately jumped to the conclusion that the civilians were working with the insurgents, helping to draw us out from behind our cover. The gunfire continued until the sun went down and Evening Prayer sounded, after which there was total silence. The first day of the siege was over, and the stage was set for what was to come.
The guys in my unit, the low men on the totem pole, were tired, frustrated, lied to, and afraid (whether they admitted it or not). Plus, a new element had been added to the equation: killing. Some of us believed there were no civilians left in the city, and some of us believed that the civilians were aiding the insurgents. Our higher-ups told us that over 2,000 hardcore insurgents of Zarqawi’s army had chosen to stay in the city and fight, that we were all going to make history, and they made it perfectly clear that dissent would not be tolerated. It was a recipe for disaster, and some might correctly call it an atrocity producing situation, because that is exactly what happened next.
For the next two weeks we went house-to-house searching for bad guys. As soon as Morning Prayer would finish the gunfire would begin, and it did not stop until Evening Prayer finished. I watched good people in my unit become sick in a matter of days. The violence twisted our minds and became a self-fueling fire in itself. Looting became commonplace, and some of us even rifled through the pockets of dead resistance fighters hoping to find cash. Some went around mutilating the bodies of the dead resistance fighters. One guy slit a puppy’s throat because he could not stand its crying. At a certain point a friend came running up to me with a smile on his face, “Caputi, I finally shot someone!” he said to me.
The sudden onset of violence affected everyone, even all the way up the chain of command. They were aware that all this was happening, but they let it continue. We began using tactics like bulldozing houses, and "reconnaissance by fire." "Reconnaissance by fire" is when you fire into a house to see if people are inside. If you hear silence after firing, then there is nobody in the house, at least nobody that is alive. If you hear moaning or shouting then there might be resistance fighters in the house, or there might be civilians. At one point we came to a house with two resistance fighters and a little boy inside. I have no idea if there were any attempts made to negotiate or to save that boys life in some way, but I watched as grenades were shot into that house until the roof crumbled down on all three of them.
Without even seeing it coming I joined the long legacy of American soldiers and Marines who unwittingly helped kill innocents to build an empire. For years I tried to forget Fallujah, and I stopped watching the news and reading the newspaper. When I could no longer stand the people in my home town thanking me for my “service” and treating me like a king for the “sacrifice” that I made, I packed my bags and moved to Italy. But without realizing it I was joining another long standing legacy; this one of soldiers and Marines who committed atrocities and then let the truth slip down the memory hole. As much as I tried I could never completely put Fallujah out of my mind. It was always there preventing me from looking people in the eye. Years passed, and I eventually gave up and admitted to myself that Fallujah would always be the skeleton in my closet. It would never go away and I could not hide from it. And I was exactly right. Fallujah had not gone away, and it remains one of the most miserable places on this planet.
It was years after the siege when I first learned about the estimated number of civilians killed in the siege (I have heard numbers from 500 to 1,000 depending on the source) and about the number of refugees that the siege created (over 200,000). Only recently have I learned about the health crisis that we caused. Since the sieges in 2004, Fallujah has seen a spike in infant mortality rates, birth defects, and cancer. Children are being born horribly deformed, or with missing limbs, or mentally retarded, or with scaly skin. There has been one case of a child born with three heads, and another of a child born with one eye in the center of his forehead. The leading research is pointing to depleted uranium weapons as the cause.
It is not easy but today I can admit that I am complicit in all of this, even if I never pulled the trigger. Everyday that I chose to ignore that feeling in my gut telling me that we were doing something wrong, I was complicit. And every day after I got out of the Marine Corps and remained silent, I was complicit. I cannot go on making the same mistakes that I made in the past, and only think about what is good for me. That is why I helped form the Justice for Fallujah Project, and that is why we are organizing the first annual Remember Fallujah Week this year. Although Americans may choose to forget Fallujah, the rest of the world will not. Fallujah will remain a symbol of occupation and cruelty, and unless we confront it, it will disappear down the memory hole, and the next generation of Americans will never understand what the rest of the world is so angry about.