There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ambush Alley on the bus

Finished reading British journalist Tim Pritchard's "Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War."

This is the story of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, who were tasked with the job of securing two bridges at Nasiriyah, the Iraqi town made famous for Americans when an Army maintenance convoy made a wrong turn and ran into an ambush and a young private named Jessica Lynch was captured.

The story covers a single day, March 23, 2003, from the discovery of the smashed Army convoy to the completion of the mission to open the road to Baghdad for the main Marine force.

Pritchard writes:

"On March 23, 2003, eighteen marines from Charilie Company were killed in action between the southern Euphrates Bridge and the northern Saddam Canal Bridge. Over thirty-five were injured. It was the single heaviest loss suffered by the U.S. Military during the entire combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
I don't know where the "most extraordinary battle" aspect is supposed to play into this. Nothing went according to plan. Tanks became mired in a sewage bog. Commanders had no idea where the various units were on the battlefield. And, worst of all, as many as 10 of the 18 deaths suffered by Charlie Company were caused by two Air Force A-10 jets who were mistakenly told there were no friendlies around the northern bridge.

Pritchard interviewed the marines and tells the story from their perspective, from the boredom of the journey from Kuwait to the horror of battle. If anything, the "extra" of the "ordinary" in the "battle" on March 23 was the way that the individual marines put their training to work.
"From the TC's hatch (Alpha Company commander Capt. Mike) Brooks watched his marines dismount (from the AAV, lightly armored amphibious assault vehicles) and scatter into a 180-degree perimeter. He was heartened at the way they reacted. He'd seen many of them in action at the combined arms exercise over the summer when they'd practiced as a helo-borne company. Several had struggled through training, getting things badly wrong because they were either out of shape, lazy, or just slow. He knew some of them had checkered backgrounds, were troublemakers, and carried a whole lot of baggage with them. Now, amid the flying metal, the explosions, and the swirling dust, he saw all that stuff go away. Individually, they were nothing special, but when they came together they were amazing. They were moving together, reacting to what was going on around them, taking the initiative. There was coherence, which gave him an enormous sense of pride. He was surprised that the marines who had struggled with training were now the ones who seemed to be taking control."
But in the end it is the individual who fights the war, and it is the individual who lives with the consequences.

Lance Corporal Edward Castleberry was an AAV driver whose vehicle crashed in Ambush Alley during an effort to evacuate wounded. Castleberry and the marines in his vehicle were able to evict an Iraqi family from a house and take up defensive positions. Without a functioning radio, they held off Iraqi fighters, not knowing if they would all die in their Alamo. But eventually Castleberry and the others were rescued. In the evening, as he was digging in to a defensive position, battalion commander Lt. Col. Rick Grabowski came up to him and said, "You did a great job."
"The more Castleberry thought about that day, the more wound up he became. I'm going through some sort of religious meltdown. His mom had wanted him to go to church. But that night he was losing all sense of religion. He thought about the women and children he shot. He remembered one kid in particular. They'd shot an Iraqi dead from the house in the middle of Ambush Alley. This little kid, maybe the dead man's son, who couldn't have been more than ten years old, ran out and picked up the abandoned AK-47. He lay on the ground and started firing it. Castleberry and some of the others shot the young boy, punching bullet holes right through him. The kid did a sort of combat roll, stood up, and then fell down dead. Castleberry knew that he would shoot hundreds more kids like that to save the life of just one marine. That's how fucked up this job is. How could God let this happen? He tortured himself with the vision of (Lance Corporal David) Fribley's broken body. And then you look in the troop compartment of your track and there is a guy there with his entrails pouring out of him, his body blown to pieces and completely desecrated. And yet the day before he was laughing at you because someone had taken a photo of you while you were shitting. That's what had turned him against God. And now he didn't know how he was supposed to find any sort of faith. Trouble is, if I believe in God, I'm really screwed because I killed a lot of people out there."

Postscript: There's something of a local angle in this. Major David Sosa, the operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, became commander of Recruiting Station Sacramento after he returned from Iraq.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Marines in the Garden of Eden tells the entire story of the battle for An Nasiriyah.