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, force on force. That’s a battle that we weren’t ready to fight.”

They fought anyway, valiantly but fruitlessly, raising the question: For what, exactly? Fully a year after departing Iraq, their tour of duty strikes many of them as a tragic waste. As one of Bravo Troop’s sergeants would conclude, “Me, I think we got blown up for nothing. I didn’t see any importance to what we did.”

Bravo Troop—First Squadron, Tenth Cavalry, Second Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division—was styled in the image of Donald Rumsfeld’s lighter, fleeter twenty-first-century Army brigade. In the former defense secretary’s vision, there would be combined arms packages. Plug-and-play modular units. Scouts, mortarmen, and fire support specialists rolling through foreign lands in agile Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles rather than bulky Abrams tanks and Kiowa Warrior helicopters. Thus was the First Squadron, Tenth Cavalry (the 1-10) and its three line troops (Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie) reconfigured in 2004, shed of its modern brawn as if paying homage to the original Tenth Cavalry, which was formed in 1866 and consisted largely of freed slaves on horseback.

This new regiment would be drawn from the welling pool of mostly white, middle-class, high school-educated males harboring a postmodern agnosticism about the American dream parried by that ineffable itch for something, anything, higher than all this. Jalone was driving down a street in Anchorage when he heard a “Be All You Can Be” ad on the radio and impulsively tore into an Army recruiting office. Nick Ganser was an aimless teenager in Lakeview, Michigan, who got tired of sleeping in cars and parks and so decided, on his eighteenth birthday, to make the Army his family. Shortly after 9/11, a West Virginia hillbilly teenager named Zach Baldwin announced to his mother, “I’m gonna defend my country whether you like it or not.” Peter Richloff, from the Massachusetts burg of Halifax, had been pining to lead soldiers into combat since the first Gulf War had erupted. “I hope it continues till I can go!” the fourth-grader exclaimed back then. By the summer of 2002, a second Gulf War was imminent, and Richloff signed his life over while he was still in high school.

These were the young volunteers who accepted assignments to Fort Hood and spent August 2005 at Fort Irwin, in the Mojave Desert, learning how to deal with misery. Then it was on to Kuwait in November 2005 and, ten days later, ferried by C-130’s, to . . . action! At Camp Charlie, in Al Hillah, they relieved the Poles, Latvians, Romanians, El Salvadorans, and Mongolians of their duty, climbed the grain elevators, and patrolled the streets, waiting. Months and months of waiting.

Captain Mac had already seen plenty of action in Iraq. He warned his troops against complacency. “It takes ten years to fight an insurgency,” he said. “They could be at a lull. They don’t care how long it takes. To them, any small battle is a victory.” He reminded them darkly: “All the dumb insurgents are already dead.”

Orders came down: Switch gears. Warriors to goodwill ambassadors. Hearts and minds. In the nearby town of Al Muhawil, Bravo Troop erected a water treatment plant. They visited schools and, as if in a parade, flung candy from the turrets of their Humvees. In this improvised mission, less was more. They didn’t fire warning shots from the guard towers like the Mongolians had. The entire cavalry stayed at Camp Charlie during the December 2005 Iraq elections, so that the four U.S. senators who choppered in to visit a polling station at Al Hillah would see only the welcome image of Iraqi soldiers safeguarding their country. And on February 9, 2006, on the Muslim holy day of Ashura, Bravo Troop’s first platoon sat in their parked Humvees on the side of a road—weapons hidden, gunners crouched—and watched in astonishment as thousands upon thousands of chanting men garbed in black swelled through the street like a cloud of mosquitoes. These were radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the same Shiite brigade that had fought U.S. troops in Najaf to a standstill in the summer of 2004 (and the same militia that would run roughshod over Baghdad in the ensuing months of 2006). The militiamen scowled at the Humvees. Inside, the two dozen Americans kept low. Their orders relating to al-Sadr’s thugs had been ambiguous: Observe, but do not engage unless necessary. The matter was out of their hands. They were thoroughly exposed, laughingly outnumbered. “Anyone who tells you they weren’t scared,” Ganser would later recall, “is full of shit.”

Al-Sadr’s forces passed by. They were there not to waylay Americans but, instead, to escort fellow Shia on their Ashura pilgrimage to Karbala. In one of the trucks sat a lanky, sharp-eyed 28-year-old scout named Michael Plimmer, awed as much as anything else as he gaped at the throngs of males flagellating themselves with ropes and chains in brutal synchronicity. Plimmer was cut differently from the others in Bravo Troop. He was the son of an oil executive, had lived everywhere from Brunei to Scotland, and had graduated from Vanderbilt University with an anthropology degree. He’d been reading scripts for a movie production company in Los Angeles when, one day in 2004, he chucked his dilettantism to consider a fundamental question: Am I tough enough?

Plimmer had the background to go the intel route. But he wanted to see combat. Though watching Shia pilgrims self-flagellating was an absorbing cultural spectacle, it wasn’t the primal test he’d had in mind. Fully four more months would pass before he finally heard the words he’d been waiting for: “You’re going on a right-seat ride.”

Plimmer, sergeants Jalone and Ryan Roush, and a few others had been chosen to accompany Captain Mac on a tour of the area that they would soon be inheriting from the 1-22 Infantry, another contingent from Fort Hood’s Fourth Infantry Division. The territory lay just south of Baghdad, along the Tigris River, near Forward Operating Base Falcon. As the captain’s convoy rolled up to the gates of FOB Falcon during the first week of June 2006, they noticed a convoy gathered on the opposite side of the road. “You should be fine on your side,” someone from the convoy called out. Plimmer caught a glimpse of what was preoccupying them: an IED sitting right outside the gates. Welcome to Falcon.

At the base, the Bravo Troopers studied the map of what would be their new jurisdiction. Pointing to a mass of residences set along the river, one of the sergeants said, “That’s Arab Jabour, right? I guess that’ll be our area of operations.”

The 1-22’s commander shook his head. “We don’t even go there anymore,” he said. “You can’t get there. There are IEDs all over the place. Snipers. Everything’s booby-trapped. It’s not worth it.” The Jab had effectively been consigned to the insurgency. The Bravo Troopers who heard this dire assessment were not especially intimidated. “We walk in as cavalrymen,” Jalone would say. “No job’s too hard.”

To Plimmer, the men of the 1-22 looked as if they were from another civilization. Their eyes somehow betrayed both an exaggerated state of alertness and hopeless exhaustion. Everything they carried had been rigged for the realities on the ground, from the lighter rucksacks on their shoulders to the shotguns with pistol grips that were easier to grab at a moment’s notice. The 1-22 was the twelfth American unit to rotate in and out of the area since the war had begun. Though their commander would later proclaim dubiously that they had “given hope to the people of southern Baghdad,” his troops were badly whipped. The previous week, one of their corporals had been killed by an IED blast. Half a dozen other comrades had been shipped back to the States with severe wounds in the past month alone. The hell they’d been through was about to become Bravo Troop’s hell.

At 0300 the following morning, thirty Bravo and 1-22 troops descended by helicopter into the Jab for a raid on a suspected bomb-making safe house. They rolled out of their choppers, near the banks of the Tigris. The target house was about six hundred meters away. They made it to the house, where the accompanying Iraqi army soldiers arrested its residents. The scouts set out to patrol the area. A jungle of date palms loomed along the river, the canopy hovering 75 feet overhead. Half a mile beyond, the valley opened up into acres of cultivated farmland. Grass nearly five feet tall covered the banks. A web of hundreds of canals stretched across the river valley. The air was almost unbreathably humid. This was not Iraq as many of the Bravo Troopers had imagined it. This was Vietnam.

From across the river came the staccato of small-arms fire. Jesus, this is the real deal, thought Plimmer. The scouts ducked, but the snipers were invisible. Plimmer saw the bullets spray the grass behind him. By the time they made it back to the safe house, it was noon, and the temperature had climbed to 130. Most of the Americans shed their body armor, lay on the floor of the portico, and passed around some MREs for lunch, while the Iraqi soldiers and the men from the 1-22 provided security from the rooftop . . . except they weren’t on the roof. They were upstairs taking showers and cooking food. The building suddenly shook with mortar blasts. Two grenades landed in the driveway of the house, near a burned-out car where Plimmer and Roush had been resting with their helmets off. The concussion of the first grenade knocked Plimmer flat. Roush grabbed him by the shoulder and they ran. The second grenade went off in front of them. They dived into a garage. Plimmer’s ears were ringing, but he could hear someone holler, “Medic!” Roush’s arm was bloody. Another sergeant ran up to Plimmer. He asked in disbelief, “Are you okay?”

Running back to the choppers, Jalone thought of how, earlier that morning, one of the 1-22 troops had promised him, “Enemy contact here is one hundred percent. You can count on it.” Jalone had protested that this was surely bullshit—but here it was, mortars, grenades, machine-gun fire, all on a single right-seat ride, before Bravo Troop’s mission had even begun. More action in a single day than they’d seen in the past six months combined in Al Hillah.

Captain Mac was a strong believer in street talk. During his previous tour, he’d made a habit of dropping in on a pool hall in Baqubah to listen to what the locals were griping about. He had been able to see how de-Baathification had caused schools to shut down because government ministers weren’t present to tell teachers to report to work. He saw how the unsealed borders had led to unfettered trafficking into and out of Iran and Syria. He saw disgruntled men from the disbanded Iraqi army join sides with the insurgency. And he heard a continuing refrain: You Americans can put people on the moon. Why can’t you restore our electricity?

So the first task he assigned Bravo Troop once they took over FOB Falcon was to tour a small village outside the Jab on a Friday, the Muslim day of worship, and see what the imam was preaching in the mosque that day. Four Humvees rolled up to the outskirts of town on the morning of June 8. Lieutenant Patrick Rice led a dismounted patrol to a place where he and an interpreter could hear the mosque message. The imam read a passage from the Koran about pleasing God by giving water to thirsty people. A lightbulb went off over Rice’s head. He radioed back to Sergeant Zachery Boltz: “Hey, let’s consolidate all our extra water, drive it up to the mosque, and pass out the bottles!”

An hour or so later, the first three trucks crossed a small dirt bridge en route to the mosque. The fourth truck, containing Boltz, never got there. As a deafening sound erupted, the Humvee bucked in the air at a 45-degree angle. Boltz was momentarily knocked unconscious but sustained no serious injuries. Later that afternoon, while waiting for the recovery vehicle to tow the Humvee back to Falcon, Boltz and Rice asked the imam to come speak with them. They inquired as to why the villagers would attack the Americans for trying to do the Lord’s work. “I don’t know what happened on the road,” the imam coolly replied. “I stay inside my house.”

The atmosphere had become instantly more tense at Falcon, though some guys seemed to let nothing get to them. Sergeant Ben Laymon was one. Laymon was 22, a native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, outsized and redheaded, with tattoos of concertina wire and Skoal tobacco cans covering his arms. Back in Texas, he was fond of guzzling Jägermeister and frequenting the Perfect 10 men’s club. But he was also the last guy standing and spraying ammo during the base drills. In his fearlessness Laymon was similar to the compact and dark-haired Sergeant Richloff, whose charisma derived from his focused intensity. As one Bravo Trooper would put it, Laymon was “the Chris Farley of the platoon,” while Richloff was “the kind of guy I wanted to be.”

Early on the morning of June 24, two Humvees conveying both sergeants and a few others from Bravo and Alpha troops headed down an isolated canal road known as Route Buick. An IED had been discovered there the night before, and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit needed an escort to the site so that its robot could destroy the bomb. Laymon was in the lead truck, Richloff in the rear. A mile before they reached the IED, the Humvees came upon a gigantic crater in the road, the site of an earlier IED blast that had killed three Alpha Troop soldiers in their Bradley tank. Laymon’s truck eased past the macabre spectacle. As soon as Richloff’s Humvee did the same, a booming noise shattered the morning silence. A crack spread across Richloff’s windshield. Someone had detonated an IED, but not in time to do the desired damage.

The platoon dismounted, and the EOD specialists soon found copper command wire in the crater. Laymon saw no percentage in continuing to the previous night’s IED site. “I’m gonna hole up here,” he told Richloff. “If we get ambushed, we don’t have the personnel to defend ourselves.” He called in for the Quick Reaction Force to supply backup. Then he, Richloff, and a couple of other soldiers began to follow the command wire from the crater into the brush, toward a mud shack fifty meters off the road.

No one expected the second blast—and thus no one could compute that the first IED blast had been a decoy, luring the platoon along the wire to another IED, which an unseen triggerman then set off with a remote-control switch or a cell phone. Someone screamed. Bodies flew in all directions. The air was filled with machine-gun fire. Richloff scrambled to his feet. Running to a berm for cover, he could see that the bullets were coming from a house farther away from Route Buick. He began firing back. As he radioed for his truck to come forward, he noticed that his boot had filled with blood and that both of his arms were aching. But when the medic jumped out to render first aid, Richloff suddenly thought about Laymon. He ran back to the wire.

Laymon’s legs were a mess; he wasn’t conscious at first. Feeling Laymon’s throat, Rich-loff called out to the medic, “I think he’s dead. But you take a look.” Then Laymon let out a snorting gasp. When Richloff and the medic picked the big fellow up, they could see the two wounds on the back of his head and on either side of his spine.

Richloff then found another soldier in the tall grass. The facial wounds had rendered him unrecognizable. It was Justin Norton, an Alpha Troop sergeant. Richloff ripped apart Norton’s body armor and saw that his stomach had been split open. “This is way out of my league,” he muttered.

The medevac choppers descended. There were seven wounded in all. Richloff waved off the stretcher. With Laymon and Norton down, the platoon needed him to stay behind. A lieutenant called in for Apache helicopters to strafe the house where the enemy fire had come from. Which house? the pilots wanted to know. The platoon was ordered to fire smoke bombs to mark it. The platoon did so, but all the smoke bombs were duds. No strafing. The triggermen, whoever they were, got away.

That afternoon, several members of Bravo Troop were ferried to the military hospital inside Baghdad’s Green Zone to visit Laymon. They were gathered in the hallway when Captain Mac stepped out of Laymon’s room and headed their way. He was accompanied by a chaplain.

The commander did as commanders must do. As he delivered the news, several of his men broke down on the spot.

Captain Mac and the 1-10 Cav’s squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel J. J. Love, were determined to establish a presence in the Jab. A boulevard, nicknamed Route Gnat, ran parallel to the Tigris right through town and straight up to Baghdad. Whether by land or by water, weapons and bomb-making materials were running through the Jab and into the hands of Sunni insurgents. The town, so said intel, was rotten with AQI, “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” If they took control of the Sunni enclave, they could choke off terrorist operations in the capital. If only they could find a safe road in there.

The squadron had been doing route-clearance operations up and down the river on the morning of July 7 and had already lost two Humvees to IEDs when Jalone and his guys in the second platoon were called out to escort EOD specialists to yet another IED site. Along the way, he received word by radio that a clearance team had discovered a huge IED blast hole up ahead. Jalone’s platoon would have to take a bypass through an open field. When the lead truck missed the turn to the bypass, Jalone’s Humvee raced ahead. When the gunner remarked that there was a man running away from the road toward a house and then the driver added that he could see a second man doing the same thing, it occurred to Jalone that something bad was about to happen.

The Humvee flew fifteen feet into the air, landing in the crater the IED had just created, and then burst into flames. Fire barreled into Jalone’s face. Somehow he pushed the door open, rolled out, and swatted down the flames on his leg. Then he slid into a canal embankment. Struggling to his knees, his head seething from burns, he saw his driver, Johnny Bridges, staggering over the crater’s ledge. Bridges, 270 pounds of muscle, yanked him out of the embankment. The gunner, Marcos Arredondo, had landed on the back hatch and fractured two limbs. Jalone picked him up and helped him to the EOD vehicle. As the truck roared with flames, someone asked where Nathan Nadasi was.

Bridges found Nadasi, Bravo Troop’s tiniest soldier, curled up in a ball on the floorboard of the Humvee. Two men held back the door while Bridges reached inside and plucked out Nadasi, as if delivering him from a fiery womb. Jalone lay on his back, listening to the ammo cooking off in the blazing truck. Soon the skies erupted with the whirring of medevac choppers. A doctor scrubbed his second- and third-degree burns. “We’re gonna send you to Qatar for two months of rehab,” the doc told him. “Then we’ll send you home.” Jalone could not have been happier.

Twenty minutes later, the brigade’s colonel arrived on the scene and observed the men and their injuries. “RTD,” he said of Jalone, Arredondo, and Bridges. Return to duty.

It was commonly held in Bravo Troop that while there were some very fine Iraqi soldiers, the best policy was to be suspicious of them. They were volunteers, so no one could force them to stay on the job. Many in their ranks swore more allegiance to the Sunni or Shia militias than to the national army. Their officers lacked the leadership training necessary to enforce discipline. As Lieutenant Colonel Love would observe: “This is what you get when you disband the army. You’re building one from scratch.”

On the evening before launching Operation Iron Fist—a full-scale mission to locate new east-west routes into the Jab—Captain Mac learned that a local news station was broadcasting word of a new U.S. initiative in the area, something called “Operation Metal Hand.” The Bravo Troop commander convened a meeting with the interpreters and the Iraqi army officers in the dayroom. Those passing by could hear furniture flying around and Captain Mac hollering, “I’d better not find the source of the leak came from here!” In fact, he had little doubt that their Iraqi brothers had done them in.

They went through with the operation anyway, commencing in early July. On the first day, an IED blasted one of their Humvees off of Route Corvette. One of the men medevaced to the hospital, Derrick Ruffin, had arrived at Falcon only a few weeks before.

The next morning, the second platoon was marching along Corvette at a rapid pace—too fast for the Iraqi soldiers, one of whom tried to bribe a patrolman with $200 to slow things down—when Sergeant Justin Edmondson’s foot kicked a command wire. Immediately the scouts began to cordon off the area and fan out in search of the wire’s origin. In doing so, someone found two air defense weapons lying in the tall grass. They radioed for the EOD to bring out the bomb-killing robot. A couple of trucks went up ahead to clear the road.

Specialists Michael Brown and Micheal Douglas were in the lead truck, discussing the virtues of overweight prostitutes, when their Humvee ran over a pressure-plate IED that levitated it and blew away its front end. Douglas screamed. When he and Brown discovered that they were somehow unhurt, they began whooping and high-fiving. Pointing to the gash on his elbow, Douglas said, “Here’s my Purple Heart, dude!”

Because Bravo Troop was now short one vehicle, Douglas’s platoon leader, Sergeant Michael Thornton, told him to ride back to the patrol base in the Humvee following the tow truck. When the recovery vehicle arrived and hitched up the blasted Humvee, Douglas squeezed himself in, waved goodbye, and . . .

Boom! Three hundred meters down the road, the Humvee ran over a second IED. When they pulled Douglas out, he had two large holes in his left thigh. Had the camera in his cargo pocket not taken the brunt of the blast, his leg would have been severed nine inches below the waist.

By now, the road was chattering with sniper fire. One of the men from Charlie Troop escorting the EOD specialists got shot. They radioed for medevac and then started pulling out toward FOB Falcon. Brown happened to be in the lead vehicle. A mile from the base, his ears suddenly split open from a ferocious noise, and his mouth filled with blood. His second IED.

The hood of Brown’s Humvee was gone. Two of the tires were flat. Captain Mac radioed Thornton to ask if they’d like to wait for recovery. No, said the sergeant. No way in hell were they going to sit in this death trap any longer. They would roll back to FOB Falcon at whatever speed the ruined vehicles could manage. And so they did, along a well-populated street, where the locals stood and took in the miserable procession of smoking hoods and deflated tires. The Humvees sat for weeks in Falcon’s maintenance yard—a monument to defeat.

Late that evening, Captain Mac and Lieutenant Colonel Love decided that Iron Fist had been compromised and that it would be a good idea to cut the mission short. They sent out a route-clearance team to guard a path from the patrol base they had set up back to Falcon. A vehicle sat watch all night. The path back to Falcon was secure.

Plimmer was among the scouts doing overwatch. Crouched against a berm, they could see a man standing on a hill. Whenever one of the Apache surveillance choppers zoomed overhead, the man fell to the grass. Once it was gone, he stood again. This went on for hours. Plimmer radioed Lieutenant Rice, and Rice accosted the man, who said he was but a humble goatherd. Rice ordered his men and the Iraqi soldiers to start searching the area for command wire. The Iraqis wouldn’t participate—it was too hot, they said. They sat under a tree for a while, then simply wandered off northward, abandoning Rice.

Plimmer made his way through the tall grass to the trucks. He climbed into a backseat and took off his helmet, summoning the breeze. From the front seat, Ganser handed him a water bottle. “We’re rolling. Put your cap back on,” Ganser told him.

The convoy rolled toward the patrol base, a hundred meters away. A guard lifted the concertina wire. The first truck passed under it. The second truck was Ganser’s, the last surviving member of Bravo Troop’s original fleet of Humvees, and it went over the same spot as the first truck—the very same spot where the guard vehicle had been sitting throughout the previous night.

And then it blew up. The Humvee flipped in midair. Ganser flew out of the turret and landed in a field, his right leg thoroughly shattered. Plimmer had to be pulled from the truck. His skull was fractured in multiple places. A third soldier, Emmett Martin, collided against the back plate of the truck and cracked his spine. Only Private Jason Palmer remained inside, momentarily unconscious.

When they returned to the base, Plimmer couldn’t see. “It’s gonna be okay,” he heard Captain Mac say. “You look fine.” His face was, in fact, oozing blood and pus. It was swollen beyond all recognition.

Plimmer, Ganser, and Martin were medevaced to Baghdad. They were later flown to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and, finally, back to America.

In the days after Operation Iron Fist fell apart, Captain Mac had his morale-boosting work cut out for him. Laymon was dead. Douglas, Ganser, Plimmer, and Martin had been sent home, nursing serious wounds. Richloff was hobbling around the base on a cane with two dime-size holes in his left ankle. Since the mosque mission IED, Boltz had been blasted twice more (a fourth was still to come). Jalone, who had burns on his face and arms, had proclaimed himself done with combat. Another sergeant was using every excuse available to hang out at the base, where he would flirt with an Iraqi interpreter named Amanda, who was widely suspected of funneling information to the insurgents. One of the privates had suffered a meltdown and put a gun in his mouth, prompting Captain Mac to confiscate his firing pin before the stress doc finally arranged for a medical discharge.

“Hey, I know this sucks,” the captain would tell them. “Division’s hearing great things. You may not be seeing it, but you’re helping to secure Baghdad.”

His guys felt sorry for Captain Mac for having to resort to such crap, because they knew him to be a straight talker. It wasn’t his fault that the Apache choppers had been assigned to more-glamorous missions. (Thanks to the Rumsfeldian transformation of the cavalry regiments, Bravo had been stripped of its own air support.) At headquarters, they could hear him hollering on the phone, “I’m not making my guys do that!” He himself had caught shrapnel during one mission and had refused to be medevaced. Any way he could fight for his men, he would fight. When the hollering didn’t work, when his later gung ho testimonials would fall on deaf ears, Captain Mac would try another approach: sending a few guys at a time off to Camp Liberty, in Baghdad, on some baloney assignment, adding, with a winking aside, “There’s a swimming pool on the base. Do what you have to do.”

Of course, he didn’t have it all wrong. They’d learned all sorts of things out there. This road was impassable. That bridge on the map didn’t exist anymore. And here was a town, Abu Waitha, that the map didn’t even include. But why, four years into the war, had such rudimentary things been left for Bravo Troop to discover?

Meanwhile, the insurgents—whoever they were (and the top brass could never figure out if they were AQI or homegrown)—were giving them something new to discover every day. They were adapting faster than Bravo Troop could adjust to their new devilry. Their IEDs had gotten more powerful, so Bravo Troop had added armor to its vehicles, which prompted the insurgents to bury pressure-plate IEDs under the roads, in turn compelling the Americans to get out of their trucks and start walking, which incited sniper fire. For his part, Captain Mac had tried to mix things up—taking different roads, changing the speed and spacing of the vehicles—but in the end, the least-bad option was for his troops to proceed on foot. That meant being so hot that they couldn’t eat, so hot that they concluded their missions hooked up to IVs. But at least they weren’t getting blown up as much.

For a few days at a time, they even made it into the Jab, a town filled with the grand river homes owned by Saddam cronies, mostly deserted. The main boulevard, Route Gnat, was rumored to have some of Saddam’s five-hundred-pound bombs buried underneath it. The neighborhoods were littered with concertina wire—emblems of halfhearted attempts to build patrol bases there. The 1-10 Cav was the thirteenth unit to roll into Arab Jabour, promising salvation from the insurgents. Captain Mac’s soldiers dropped off stacks of tabloids on street corners, trumpeting “good news” for hearts-and-minds conversions. His lieutenants paraded the Iraqi army officers around town—See? Your people are running things!—and offered public works projects in exchange for counterinsurgency tips. The locals did not bother to conceal their skepticism.

“Every time you come to see me,” a resident told Roush, “some man in a mask comes the next day and threatens to kill me.”

“We never had any problems until you came here,” a woman told Rice’s interpreter, referring to the U.S. presence as a whole. She added, not unkindly, “Won’t you please just leave?”

September 16 was about “presence patrol”—a dirty phrase in the Army, seeing as how no one wants to drive around waiting to get blown up. But Captain Mac needed the insurgents to know that Bravo Troop was still unbowed. Still a presence.

The whole damn troop had been out doing presence patrol for the past couple of days. By afternoon, it was time to roll back. The mortar platoon led. As the road hit a Y along a canal, Thornton recognized the choke point for what it was. Looks like a good place to die, he thought. Standing outside his vehicle and studying a map, he radioed to the other trucks, pointing out a shack shrouded in palm groves off to the east. “If we get hit, it’s coming from there,” he predicted. Then he walked back to his Humvee and reached for the door.

The concussion flung Thornton and his forward observer, John Biggerstaff, into the air. The Humvee’s gunner, Curtis Spivey, shot out of the turret and out of sight. The truck flipped end over end three times. When it at last came to rest, split more or less in half, the driver tumbled out of the front seat and onto the road. It was Brown. Skin was dangling from his hands, and his helmet was on fire. He jumped into the canal.

Thornton’s hair had melted away from his scalp. Biggerstaff was holding up his burning hands, speechless, in shock. As the air crackled with the reports of the Humvee cooking off its rounds, Corporal Cullen Dorfman pulled the chewing tobacco out of Biggerstaff’s gasping mouth, while a sergeant stood over Spivey and his mangled legs, begging him to wake up.

The following day, Major General J. D. Thurman, the commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, choppered into Falcon. He was not happy. He couldn’t understand why the Jab was still giving Bravo Troop fits. He demanded: Why can’t you isolate the problem, surround it, and cut it off?

“I can’t get there,” Captain Mac replied. “I can put fifty guys out there, but I can’t protect them with the combat power we have.” He and Lieutenant Colonel Love both insisted that the only way to succeed in a counter-insurgency was to keep trying to penetrate, little by little. Establish patrol bases. Chip away at the locals.

The general pointed out that, yes, some good was happening, but at the end of the day, too many of their men were getting blown up. And, anyway, this was outside of the greater mission’s intent. We’re supposed to be turning things over to the Iraqis, Thurman reminded them. Never mind that the Iraqis weren’t ready.

The general suggested that a new course of action needed to be taken and that Bravo Troop should be pulled back from the Jab. And so they returned to Falcon, while Brown, Thornton, and Biggerstaff flew back to the States with severe burns covering their bodies—joined by Spivey, who would die a few months later, but at least in an American hospital bed rather than on a canal road south of Baghdad, while the faceless enemy smiled.

Uncle Sam got the rest of them home for Thanksgiving. Before a packed crowd of family and friends seated in Fort Hood’s Starker Gym, some five hundred members of the Fourth Infantry Division’s Second Brigade Combat Team, including Bravo Troop, charged through a curtain of machine-induced fog with music roaring, like a home football team galloping out of the stadium tunnel and onto a playing field of inevitable glory. Then they said goodbye to one another and returned to their obscure creases of America. Or tried to. People called them heroes and bought them drinks and asked them how many terrorists they’d killed. Life seemed dull and banal. And yet at the sound of any screeching tire, any popping firecracker, danger was omnipresent. In their dreams they saw Laymon. They saw all sorts of crazy things. One scout who returned physically unscathed, Daniel Sevilla, had a dream in which he was on patrol, watching a car drive by . . . and there was an Iraqi boy sitting in the passenger seat, shooting him the bird. Now, what did that mean?

Three months later, in February 2007, the 1-10 reconvened at the base for its cavalry ball. Dressed in prom clothes, with their girlfriends or spouses on their arms, the young men of Bravo Troop greeted one another with brotherly insults. Captain Mac had supplied each table with old wine bottles filled with ceremonial grog—in this case, tequila. Everyone got ripped in a hurry. Everyone kept on drinking.

Lieutenant Colonel Love presented a slide show to highlight the 1-10’s time in Iraq. The images were safe. Guys standing beside their unscarred Humvees. Guys relaxing in their bunkers. The kinds of images, they’d sworn to their parents in e-mails, that were thoroughly representative of their overall experience. Tonight the soldiers laughed and clapped, content with the representation. Only when the slide of Benjamin J. Laymon came on the screen did the members of Bravo Troop begin to cry. Thanks a lot, guys, Jalone thought bitterly. Thanks for showing us what we’re trying to forget.

At the end of the evening, Richloff—freshly decorated with both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his bravery that day eight months ago when Laymon was killed—accidentally sprayed a can of beer into the face of a girl who happened to be the daughter of a particular sergeant he disliked. The sergeant ran over and threw a beer at Richloff, who was then dragged outside by his buddies and restrained until they were assured that he wouldn’t go back inside and pound the sergeant’s face in. A few of them shook Richloff’s hand, and he tried to smile—not wanting them to know that what he was feeling inside had little if anything to do with the sergeant.

Richloff was not the same person. After dreaming all his life of a military career, he decided he was through with the Army. At the same time, the only people he wanted to talk to were from Bravo Troop. They understood about the strange muscle pains, the headaches, the aching boredom. How he waited for some joy to appear.

Jalone was not the same person. His wife told him that all the time. He was winding down his Army career as an instructor in Fort Knox, Kentucky. There, at least, he could make use of his rage: Look, asshole—I lost some buddies because they weren’t paying attention, so pay attention!

Plimmer was not the same person. The brain trauma had been severe. For a while, he had forgotten how to comprehend things as basic as vowels and numbers. Captain Mac visited him at Fort Hood one day, and in the middle of a nice chat, Plimmer confessed, “I’m sorry, sir. But I have no idea what we’re talking about.”

Boltz and Palmer with their memory loss, Baldwin with his insomnia and deafness, Douglas with his drinking, Ganser with the cane, Brown with the burns all over his face—to say nothing of Rice and Roush and Captain Mac and all the others in Bravo Troop who cleaned up nicely after the Jab and, for their trouble, will be redeployed to some brilliant new mission in Iraq or Afghanistan somewhere down the line.

But good news! After four years and thirteen failed missions, General David Petraeus brought the surge to Arab Jabour, flooding the zone with 1,200 American troops. Today, a permanent patrol base is stationed in the Jab. The local Sunnis have begun to join the police force and turn in the bad guys. When the members of Bravo Troop are told this, their eyes brighten. Just as quickly, the light seems to fade. They should share in this victory. It would be only fair. But really, they cannot.

Today, in his new life as a thirty-year-old wounded veteran living with his fiancée in Austin, Plimmer ponders the reasons he signed on for all this: Am I tough enough? Would I hesitate? “At times I reacted the way I would’ve hoped,” he says. “And that was success. But I still have the same questions. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that, facing adversity, I will react to it. Maybe not the right way. But I will react.”

Some evenings, after he’s done worrying about the future—which only makes the headaches worse—Plimmer gets on his laptop and pulls up a map of Baghdad. Scrolling down, following the Tigris, he searches for that telltale bend, for the cluster of civilization on the river’s west bank. Now he zooms, a scout peering through his scope once more. And he finds it, or thinks he does—the very spot where he crouched beside a berm and saw that goatherd stand up and lie down for hours on end. Plimmer stares and stares at it. As if it’s his own cradle or grave. He can’t decide which.