A little more than halfway into their year-long tour of duty, with one dead and more than a dozen others wounded by improvised explosive devices, the young men of Bravo Troop found themselves thinking about a quiet little city where such mayhem would have been unfathomable. It was not their tranquil flyspeck towns of Burnsville, North Carolina; or Grants, New Mexico; or Sidney, Ohio; or Daphne, Alabama. Nor was it Killeen, the Central Texas home of their military base, Fort Hood. Rather, the city in question was Al Hillah, the provincial capital of Babil, in central Iraq, which they’d left only five weeks before. They’d begun their tour there because, according to intel, the Shiites were funneling weapons through Al Hillah up to Baghdad. Yet Bravo Troop never found evidence of a major supply line. They encountered no insurgents, no enemy fire. Hardly any hostilities at all, in fact. And so they’d devoted their six months in Al Hillah to humanitarian missions and attempting to train the many hopelessly incompetent local army and police squadrons. That and touring the ancient city of Babylon. Washing the Special Forces’ dogs. Fiddling with their PlayStations. Smoking cigarettes. Lifting weights. And, from time to time, thinking, Why are we here?
Back then, a few of them had even gone so far as to complain about the lack of action in Al Hillah. Handing out coloring books and soccer balls to Iraqi schoolchildren—who the hell enlisted for that? “I didn’t join the fricking Peace Corps,” one of them groused. To which Captain Mac—Brian McCarthy, the troop commander—would inevitably smile and reply, “Hearts and minds, boys, hearts and minds,” reminding them that not all battles were fought with bullets.
One night, while standing watch atop the city’s guard tower and staring out into an infinity of palm leaves dancing in the wind, a private told his sergeant, Mark Jalone, “We should go home. We’re useless here.”
Though Jalone had been thinking the same thing himself, this was his third tour in Iraq. He knew the whole country wasn’t one big Club Med. “Hey, be thankful for what we’ve got right now,” he told the private. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Now it was the summer of 2006. Al Hillah lay fifty or sixty miles behind them. Arab Jabour was their destination. Like Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now, Bravo Troop had wanted a mission, and for their sins they were given one: Establish a presence in the Jab, as the Sunni enclave came to be known. They’d tried, and they’d kept trying, and Ben Laymon was dead and Jalone and at least a dozen others were scarred by IED attacks, and Captain Mac wasn’t emphasizing hearts and minds anymore. Instead, he was exhorting his battered charges, “Take a look in the mirror. Ask yourself: ‘Am I ready to pull the trigger tomorrow and end someone’s life?’”
But the question was moot. They rarely pulled the trigger, because they rarely saw anyone to shoot at. On the outskirts of the Jab, in the very year that saw Iraq’s conditions become (in the Iraq Study Group’s unforgettable phraseology) “grave and deteriorating,” Bravo Troop was walloped by a foe it never even beheld, much less defeated. Though only two soldiers in the ninety-man troop died, one third received Purple Hearts for their injuries. Very few of them left Iraq with the sense of a mission accomplished. Most could not even discern what the mission had been. Theirs was a fiasco subsumed by the greater fiasco of a war conceived by men and women in Washington who had predicted a cakewalk and then insulted intelligent ears with flip observations that “freedom’s untidy” and “stuff happens.” Men and women who, were they to possess one tenth of Bravo Troop’s guts, would have the fortitude to admit by now that, for a horrific stretch of time, they had no idea what the hell they were doing. Men and women who, just maybe, five years in, have it finally figured out.
But not in time to bring glory to Bravo Troop. They, like an untold number of U.S. soldiers, became lab rats in a slipshod military experiment. “The government sold America on a picture-perfect war,” Jalone told me. “But then we got an insurgency warfare, and we weren’t trained to fight insurgents. We were scouts, which is conventional warfare,