By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
You had a rare insight into the actual, in-your-face fog of war. What was it like?
Most books about war will describe a battle and all these different moving pieces, and these guys are shooting at these guys over here. But I realized immediately after these firefights that I had no clue as to what had actually happened. The guy next to me was the first one to see the enemy; the kid over there was shooting. I had no clue what was going on. And neither did they, actually. So what I realized is that when you are in combat, you’re completely in the dark. You might know a little bit about what’s within six feet of you. You might kind of know what the guy next to you is doing. But around the corner, you don’t know.
How does it happen that grunts can be competent but there is gross incompetence by their commanders?
I was constantly amazed at how calm the Marines were. If you can imagine being in this vehicle, you hear gunshots, machine guns and see muzzle flashes around you, and your vehicle starts getting hit with bullets. My reaction would be to panic. And they didn’t panic. Their response was very measured, talking calmly — guys were not screaming and shouting. So they’re very competent.
The enlisted guys in this kind of elite unit had to really go through hell to get into it. There are enlisted guys who serve for like 10, 15 years. The officer can come in fresh out of college, the Officer Candidate School, and he’s suddenly in command. But he has no experience. And it’s true: Some of the officers didn’t know the basics.
You get the sense that you were surrounded by idiosyncratic and iconoclastic people.
I’d been embedded with the Army in the past and then with the Marines, and the Marines actually struck me as much more competent than the Army. But the interesting paradox is that the Marines are really brainwashed when they go through training. And the Army is supposedly less brainwashed. It’s harder to do stories on Army guys in general because they’re much more institutionalized. They don’t have a lot of — well, if they have original thoughts, they’re not eager to share them. But you could have dropped me into any group of Marines, and you would have found, like, the same level of insanity. They say that the Army sells job skills, and the Marines sell, you know, “Become a warrior.” It’s a fantasy. A lot of them are really big fuck-ups, and the Marine Corps is what straightened them out. But they’re still, in their souls, iconoclasts.
The thing is that they’re also trained to violate the ultimate taboo of society — to kill people. As Sergeant Espera says in the book, “If we’d done this shit back in L.A., we’d all be in prison now.” And I think one of the ways they both deal with it and condition themselves for it is to violate every other taboo they can think of.
And yet it’s the commanders that seem callous to the killing.
The enlisted guy’s psychology is to operate much more as sort of a sensitive humanitarian individual, even though he’s also the one pulling the trigger and doing the hands-on killing. Commanders were much more callous about civilian deaths than the enlisted guys. They were pretty much happy with the road-block situation that we were operating under, where all these women and children and unarmed men were shot. [But] the enlisted men had this little mini-rebellion, where they’re like, “No, we’re gonna fire smoke grenades to warn them off.” The commanders were against that because they thought it was less aggressive and the Marines were putting their own lives in danger. Of course, it’s the commander’s job. He’s the one who sends people into battle, and he’s the one that actually sees the big picture and knows, I will lose this number of people today. But in a moral sense, to be a commander you do have to be a sociopath, you know?
They’re under pressure from above too, right?
The side story of the book is about the commander of First Recon, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Ferrando. He was a heartless motherfucker, and everyone hated him. He wanted to deny medical treatment to the kids they shot. It was only [after] a rebellion that the men fomented against his command that he relented and gave medical treatment. But he was one of the more successful battalion commanders in all of Iraq because the welfare of the men didn’t seem like a priority. And the [missions] he sent them on were insane. I mean, sending First Recon through that first ambushed town of Al Gharraf in open Humvees . . .
In the writing of the book, I tried to understate this because I didn’t want to be overly dramatic. But a lot of other commanders I talked to were, like, “That was insane.” Before First Recon went through Al Gharraf, there were Marines in armored vehicles and tanks that had been stopped; they took heavy fire in this major firefight, and I believe they took some deaths. In fact, the artillery unit lost people south of that town. They actually did this thing they almost never do: They turned their guns and aimed them directly into the town because they were taking such heavy fire from it. Well, that’s the same town that Ferrando was, like, “We’ll just drive through and surprise them.” And he said it to me like, “I thought we’d cause some problems for those motherfuckers, and we did.” That was his flippant attitude. And now he’s going to receive the Silver Star.