Cycle of Violence
Husaybah, al-Anbar Province, Iraq
Four of my Marine Force Recon teammates lay spread-eagle in deep sleep on the dusty concrete floor beside me. As they recovered from physical and emotional exhaustion, Brian and I stood watch, scanning the city from the blasted-out windows of the building’s top floor. Before dawn, our team had clandestinely occupied the abandoned Saddam-era Iraqi government office, known to us as the “Crack House.” Miraculously, we had remained unseen from the vigilant civilians and combatants by low-crawling in through a weed- and shit-filled ditch which ran next to our new hide site. Like hunters eager to kill a trophy buck, we searched the alleyways below with high-powered optics, hoping to catch our prey off-guard as the sun rose.
Husaybah, a densely-packed rat’s nest of a town on the Syrian border, was our corner of the war. It was bursting at the seams with “Muj”—a mix of hardcore foreign jihadists, combat tourists, disenfranchised former Iraqi soldiers, and local opportunitists. All were hell-bent on killing Americans. The savage outpost had a nasty edge, with death so close that a short life span seemed natural. Religion, testosterone, and conspiracy theories fueled a self-sustaining cycle of violence. The deaths of colleagues and slights of honor incited further action. Body counts were scorecards.
Hatred infected everything in this deranged ecosystem. It could be heard in the too-long bursts of fire that overheated machine gun barrels. It drove the Muj IED makers to work to exhaustion like obsessed outsider artists in back-alley garages. It motivated our platoon to drop unit calling cards on dead Muj with smiles on our faces. The enemy intensified the hostility by employing car bombs and suicide bombers, and we introduced them to our air strikes and thermobaric rockets. We fought like wild-eyed predators thrown together in a small cage.
Little was wasted in Husaybah other than life. During running gun battles, local kids greedily harvested our spent brass ammunition casings as they fell on the street. The Muj hid IEDs in dead animals, and then reloaded bombs into new holes blown into the street once the explosives-filled carcasses detonated on American patrols. Our platoon snipers, hidden among garbage on the outskirts of the city, maintained distant watch over Muj they killed in the streets. The dead enemy were valuable bait to attract more Muj attempting to recover their martyred comrades.
Our six-man team, one of four in our Force Recon platoon, was a well-oiled, versatile war machine. We could act as one of several assault or security elements within a larger direct-action raid force, or could also strike out on our own as an independent ambush/sniper/reconnaissance unit, as we were doing today. Friendship and trust had solidified within our group over the past two years of training and deployment. We occasionally argued and bitched amongst ourselves at times, but still loved and trusted each other. This bond allowed us to accept great risks without complaint.
The New York Times generalized us to be victims and pawns of the government, but this was a false narrative. We weren’t deluded losers with no options outside of the military, but warriors who willingly chose this path. There was no where else we’d rather be. We might be fighting George W.’s Dirty War, but at least we weren’t suffering in a quiet hell of cubicle-bound mediocrity with the other neutered, low-testosterone, leaf-eating American males back home.
Brian and I were especially tight. He was our team leader, and I was his deputy. During down time between missions, we often discussed deep philosophical issues—especially religion. Proud atheists in the foxhole, our outspoken conversations often unsettled the two practicing Christians in the team. As much as we cared about these Believers, their discomfort didn’t really bother us. We hoped that some of our rationality would rub off and help them to realize that a God who allowed such suffering wasn’t worthy of worship.
A few months earlier, our platoon and a reinforced company of infantry Marines deployed to Husaybah intending to safeguard the civilians from a growing insurgency. We soon discovered, however, that the locals, under pressure from the swaggering and ruthless Muj who lived among them, were intractable. Our generals’ premature aspirations of creating infrastructure and providing services as a means to build trust with the populace proved to be pipe dreams. While Marine field-grade officers parroted Lawrence of Arabia and planned reconstruction projects, the operators and grunts passed around well-worn copies of Devil’s Guard and devised ruthless ways to extricate the Muj from the population. We knew that a successful counterinsurgency first required breaking the enemy’s will.
We grew to despise everyone in Husaybah, and they returned the sentiment in spades. These so-called “civilians” weren’t non-combatants. They were accomplices to murder. Our jaws and trigger fingers tightened as the locals openly laughed, their faces beaming with pure joy, when IEDs maimed young infantry Marines on patrol. The hateful children acted as spotters and threw rocks at us while the parents looked on with approval. If we were now the government, we’d see to it that these nasty fucks got the government they deserved.
After three months in country, my platoon had grown accustomed to the violence. We were usually on the receiving end, though—an unnatural position for offensive special operators. The Muj regularly attacked us with AK-47s, PKM machine guns, Dragunov sniper rifles, RPGs, and IEDs before slipping back into the populace. They pounded our base with mortars as we sat impotently pondering the construction of our makeshift barracks. I had my close calls. A month ago, an enemy sniper round struck my ceramic chest plate while I held security on the street during a daytime raid. The experience left me with a deep bruise and bouts of dark contemplation.
We weren’t the only targets. Early in our deployment, the Muj took reprisal against the few civilians who dared to collaborate with us. In one memorable case, the Muj used a wood chipper to torture and kill a local sheikh who resisted their control. According to a source, the Muj first crammed the screaming sheikh’s bare feet into the wood chipper’s spinning blades, eventually grinding down both legs up to the groin six inches at a time. Under the watchful eye of a local doctor who apparently thought the Hippocratic Oath was overrated, the Muj applied a tourniquet to the Sheik’s stumps every few minutes to prolong his life/agony. Grind the flesh, slide the tourniquet higher up the leg to prevent him from bleeding out, continue as required. The Muj’s message was loud and clear when the locals saw the sheikh’s head displayed on a pike in the market.
Four days ago, our platoon had volunteered to recover the remains of a beloved infantry company commander who had been killed in action. We felt a responsibility to spare the captain’s subordinates the trauma of seeing his broken body up close. Working silently as the mid-day sun hammered us, my teammates and I wrapped a black body bag around the captain’s mangled corpse, which was nearly cut in half by close-range machine gun fire. The cheap plastic body bag had once been the object of the captain’s black humor as he jumped into the passenger seat of his command vehicle. Now unfurled, it realized its purpose as a temporary tomb for his dismembered dirt- and blood-covered corpse. A heroic soul reduced to an obscene and unnatural pile of flesh.
I had often chatted with the friendly captain in our small base’s chow hall. I noticed that he always ensured that each of his Marines had eaten before he took any food. Now I could see his brain matter and intestines glistening in the sunlight. Clear liquid pooled under his exposed skull. Before zipping up the body bag, we did a final sweep of the area looking for any loose body parts we may have missed. We eventually found a tooth and a few more pieces of flesh and uniform hidden on the ground. We placed them into the bag.
The captain’s devastated Marines held security a few hundred meters away while sneaking uneasy glances at the recovery effort. Over the next few hours, I obsessed thinking about the coming next-of-kin notifications. I knew what would follow. The screams of a wife. The confusion of a four-year old daughter. The suffering that would eventually break his parents’ spirit.
Early the next morning, our platoon and the captain’s orphaned company raided homes throughout the city. Acting on decent intelligence, we hoped to take revenge on those responsible for the captain’s death as they hid in their bed-down locations. After the infantry Marines established a cordon around the target houses, our platoon explosively breached and methodically cleared the structures, eventually capturing 14 Muj and recovering a trove of computers, phones, IED materials, weapons, and other military equipment. We much preferred to kill, rather than capture, the Muj, but none met our criteria for using lethal force. Some resisted being flex cuffed, however, and we rained fists and boots on the cowards who refused to fight us like men.
As our convoy snaked back to base with the detainees, the enemy responded by triggering a Chinese rocket from a launcher they had built into a stairwell 20 feet above the road. The rocket screamed down into the open back of a Humvee where five young infantry Marines were seated facing each other like they were on park benches. As the Marines discussed the sexual merits of Brittany Spears vs. Christina Aguilera, the warhead exploded among the five, slinging dozens of small arrow-like metal flechettes through the air.
As the badly-damaged Humvee limped to a stop, two of the Marines crawled over the back of the truck and fell to the ground. Incredibly alive, they were covered in blood and explosive material. They slowly stood on wobbly legs and stumbled aimlessly in the street. The survivors’ three friends, seated close enough to reach out and touch only 30 seconds earlier, were instantly transformed into headless masses as if commanded so by an evil magic wand. Back in the US, the death notifications continued.
We helped recover what remained of the dead Marines and searched nearby buildings for the attackers with no success. After returning to base, I staged my equipment and went outside to take a piss. As I walked around a building, I saw the two surviving Marines openly crying next to the base’s water source, sobbing hysterically while hosing their dead friends’ brain matter off of their boots. I felt dirty for having witnessed their pain and confusion. Maybe religion, philosophy, or just an acceptance of the randomness of life would help them live in peace one day.
After dwelling a little on these recent events, I refocused and continued scanning the dusty lots and alleyways outside the Crack House. I occasionally snuck glances at Brian in case he needed to communicate. Orange moon-dust swirled outside and plastic bags danced in the street like tumbleweeds. Another 30 minutes was left before a teammate would take my shift to allow me to sleep for an hour or two. I watched a woman as she hung laundry outside to dry, oblivious to our presence.
I was startled from my complacency as six Muj appeared from behind a building only fifty meters away. Oblivious to our presence, they stopped at a small open intersection and huddled in discussion. The Muj wore black running pants and dark shirts, their faces covered with balaclavas and red checkered keffiyeh scarves. Two had draped bandoliers of machine gun ammunition over their shoulders. Another carried a backpack which contained extra RPG rounds and AK-47 ammunition. As they prepared for some sort of operation, most of the Muj bounced up and down in place like boxers waiting for the bell. One was clearly in charge, his arms gesturing like a preacher while delivering instructions to his attentive flock. As my heart raced with excitement, I hissed “Enemy, twelve o’clock!” toward Brian.
Brian slid in beside me. He took in the scene and whispered, ‘Oh, hell yes!’ while moving his rifle up into position. I lined up the crosshairs of my ACOG rifle sight on the preacher’s chest, which was so close that it nearly filled the entire view of my magnified scope. I focused in on a stain the preacher’s shirt and pressed my suppressed M4 carbine deeper into my shoulder.
I told Brian, “I’ll take the guy in the middle who’s giving orders and then shift to the others on the left. You take the RPG gunner and then move to the two on the right. After that, we’ll improvise….on three.”
Once I counted down to one, I slowly pulled the trigger, and felt the satisfying break of the shot. The preacher immediately dropped to his knees. I followed him down, firing four more shots into his chest and head in quick succession before he fell forward into the dirt. After years of training, my actions were mechanical and rhythmic, like a slaughterhouse worker driving a bolt into a cow’s head.
I swung my rifle right to engage the other Muj just as Brian dropped the RPG gunner with two well-placed .556 shots to the chest. The firing of our suppressed semi-automatic carbines created confusion among the Muj, who couldn’t identify the origin of the muffled shots echoing among the buildings. During the final seconds of their lives, the remaining Muj scattered like panicked rabbits, unsure which direction led to safety.
Within the confusion, three of the Muj ran directly toward our position and stopped on the street just fifteen meters below. They shouldered their weapons and frantically scanned the rooftops across while jabbering in Arabic with their backs to us. Leaning slightly out of the window, Brian and I first placed several rounds into the Muj machine gunner, and then transitioned to finish off the two other Muj as they turned toward us in a too-late moment of recognition. Hormones electrified us as we alternated placing fresh magazines in our weapons.
One Muj remained. Still trapped in the middle of our kill zone but hidden from our view, he yelled “Allah Akbar” from behind a low wall twenty-five meters away. We fired at the top of the wall to keep him fixed in place until we could figure out how to get to him. Realizing that his options were limited, the Muj broke from behind the wall and ran left across our field of view. I swung my rifle to engage the fleeing target, led him by a foot, and fired. I missed with the first shot, but connected with a solid second shot to his thigh. As he crumpled to the ground, Brian and I rapidly fired several more shots to his profiled chest. The kill zone cleansed of life, we continued to scan for enemy reinforcements.
The ambush was over in less than a minute. We had decimated the Muj element. The rest of our team, startled awake by our firing, scrambled to throw on gear and move to firing positions.
“Hold security on the other window,” Brian barked to one of the disoriented Marines. “We killed six, but there are probably more.”
“Do you want me to call the QRF?” asked our radio operator, referring to the remainder of our platoon waiting on standby as a quick reaction force back at base.
“Fuck yes,” Brian responded calmly. “But tell them only to stage just outside the base for now. We don’t need need them to come in yet. We’ll need an extract eventually, just not now. Since we can defend this position indefinitely, we’ll stay a little longer and see what happens. Make sure you guys maintain 360 security and watch the stairwell.”
We had certainly lost the element of surprise, and everyone in town now knew we were in the Crack House. We were secure for the time being, though, and accurately assessed that more Muj would come out in an attempt to save face. Over the next hour, we remained in sporadic contact as small groups of Muj popped up to fire inaccurate bursts from several hundred meters away. After a few minutes of surveillance, I dropped a black-clad male as he stood on the street staring at our position while speaking into a radio. Although he didn’t have a weapon, it was clear he was spotting for the Muj. I wouldn’t lose sleep over taking the shot.
One of my teammates nailed three more Muj from over 1,000 meters away with his Barrett SASR .50 caliber sniper rifle. I provided corrections for him from behind my spotting scope, which offered a front row view of the dirty work. Upon impact, the huge SASR rounds rounds, designed to destroy vehicles and infrastructure, took the Muj off their feet and left huge gaping exit wounds. I watched with fascination as a mangy wild dog pulled at the flesh of one of the dead Muj. The feasting dog snarled and snapped at other members of his pack as they tentatively approached to share in the prize.
By nightfall, we ran out of targets as the Muj lost the spirit to fight. We were energized, having killed several enemy with no friendly casualties. As nightfall arrived, we carefully departed the Crack House while scanning for hidden IEDs and Muj lying in wait. With the aid of our night vision goggles, we hastily searched the dead Muj sprawled spread-eagle in front of the Crack House. We recovered a few cell phones, SIM cards, and ID cards, which would help us target more Muj. After moving down dark alleyways, we linked up with our platoon as they waited in idling vehicles. Cobra attack helicopters, piloted by men who were chomping at the bit to engage the enemy, hovered overhead to cover our extract.
After returning to base, my recently-adopted puppy jumped in my arms and licked my filthy face, his softness a welcome change. As the sun rose, I sat outside on concrete steps reflecting on the previous day’s action. I was temporarily satisfied, but would soon be anxious to return outside the wire. We won this round, but the war would continue tomorrow on the Muj’s terms.
Seabass is the pen name of a former USMC infantry and Force Reconnaissance officer with extensive combat experience.