The Magazine

Shooting to Kill

One Marine's very complicated war story.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By DAN SENOR
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Warlord

No Better Friend,

No Worse Enemy

by Ilario Pantano and Malcolm McConnell

Threshold, 416 pp., $26

On April 15, 2004, Marine lieutenant Ilario Pantano emptied a pair of M-16 magazines on two Iraqis he had reason to believe were insurgents, and placed a sign on their bullet-ridden car with a Marine slogan--a warning to other would-be terrorists. His book, Warlord, centers around this incident and the disciplinary hearing that followed. But the book also provides a much broader picture of the soldiers who are fighting this war, the constraints they face, and how we should deal with the wave of terror and sectarian strife that threatens Iraq's nascent democracy.

Pantano, who grew up in the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen, is the son of an Italian immigrant. He served in the first Gulf War as an anti-tank gunner and then later as an elite Scout Sniper. After the war, he went off to college and did stints on Wall Street and in the media. He was en route to a business meeting on September 11, 2001, when he popped up from the subway to discover the World Trade Center ablaze.

Five days later, he was on line at the Marine Corps Reserve Center on Long Island trying to reenlist, and later secured a spot at Officer Candidate School in Quantico. He was assigned as an infantry officer in the 2nd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment (called the "2/2" or "Warlords"). In early 2004, with some 1,000 troops, the 2/2 took over Mahmudiyah and Latafiyah, small cities south of Baghdad.

Pantano's recollections of his time in these towns--dubbed the "Triangle of Death"--and later, Falluja, add some frontline color to the debates among policymakers.

Take the policy of "clear, hold, build," for example. We've learned that it's not enough simply to clear out the insurgents from their strongholds. We must also maintain a presence in these Sunni towns if we hope to create a secure space to reconstruct the local economy, develop a civil society, and foster indigenous leadership. Otherwise, the insurgents return and punish whoever cooperated with us.

Pantano saw firsthand in Falluja the consequences of just clearing, without holding and building: "We left behind civilians who'd come over to our side; who'd believed in us. Who would ever trust us? Until we'd won this war, anyone who'd sided with us would be marked as a traitor." And after his Marines pulled out of a town prematurely, Pantano writes, "It was painfully obvious that a family that lived nearby, who had trusted us, who had pointed out bad guys fleeing the city, would be executed."

He also describes what seemed like a zero-sum dilemma between fighting insurgents and securing supply lines: "By mid-April 2004, the insurgents had already blown big holes out of the highway bridges, almost cutting the supply route into Baghdad and Falluja. The sudden and aggressive tactics were so effective that they prompted an irate senior Marine commander to remind his battalions: 'If we could take
G-d--n Mount Suribachi, we sure as hell better hold a f--g highway!'" And then quips: "Sure we could. It just meant everything else would stop."

During the pullback from Falluja in April 2004, Pantano had no confidence in the "Falluja Brigade," the Saddam army generals brought back from retirement to provide security. While Pantano is right that it was a mistake to hand over responsibility for Falluja to a group of Saddamists, the decision to halt the U.S. operation at that time was not so simple. It had to be weighed within the context of forming an interim government and trying to hand over sovereignty expeditiously.

Pantano also captures the disconnect between the daily lives of Americans in Iraq and citizens back home. The difference can be jarring, which he describes through his reaction to reading the New York Times (his mother had included a copy in a care package): "It would make me laugh with the zany triviality of life in New York. Debutante balls and twenty-dollar martinis. The newest steakhouse or a sale at Bloomingdale's. Meanwhile people were dying over here, Iraqis and Americans."

For those of us who continue to support engagement in Iraq and look for signs of hope, Warlord offers up some encouraging anecdotes. While early on Pantano believed that making a dinar was the only motivation for Iraqis volunteering to serve in their army, he later describes scenes like this:

A massive car bomb hit the Iraqi National Guard compound I had visited the day before. One ING soldier was killed as he tried to stop the car's advance by firing his AK-47 from the hip. His counterattack was effective--for everyone but him. He was killed when the bomb blew early, but the compound and the hundreds of ING soldiers were spared. That was heroism, honest-to-God, Medal of Honor valor.

Warlord is full of arresting scenes like this. The dramatic narrative is anchored around Pantano's killing of two Iraqis, and his subsequent hearing under the Code of Military Justice, the outcome of which could have put him behind bars for life.

The case dealt with a Quick Reaction Force raid on a house that was believed to be an insurgent hideaway according to a map provided by locals. During the raid, two suspected insurgents fled the house in a vehicle that Pantano and his Marines had to shoot at the tires to stop. Pantano had the men's vehicle searched revealing various hidden compartments and when a terrorist treasure trove was found in the house (AK-47s, Mortar and IED components, cash, ID cards and Al-Qaeda DVDs ) he then made the suspects re-search their vehicle while they were guarded at gunpoint by Pantano. During this second search, Pantano feared that the two Iraqis were quietly plotting to attack him. After repeatedly ordering them to cease talking to one another (as Pantano describes it), they began to turn toward him and, in a split-second decision, he began firing. Indeed, he unloaded two entire M-16 magazines.

It seems that 60 bullets were excessive, as was posting a sign above the blood-drenched vehicle that read "No Better Friend. No Worse Enemy!"--General Jim Mattis's slogan for the duality of the Marines' mission in Iraq.

But this was not the central question in the Article 32 hearing. Rather, it was whether Pantano should have shot to kill in the first place, which begs the more important debate: What are the rules of engagement for our military in the Iraqi theater? Who is to judge whether a soldier, after months of fighting an insurgency and witnessing bloodshed all around him, should pull the trigger if he believes his life to be in danger? When does killing become murder in war?

Regardless of where you come down on Pantano's case, Warlord is a good catalyst for this broader discussion. His story has many more gray areas than several of the similar cases that have grabbed national attention in recent months. And his experience is described with a gripping style that carries the reader back and forth from the Iraqi battlefield to the courtroom.

This book's most compelling contribution to the current debate, however, is in reinforcing the importance of American success in Iraq, achieved through the transformation from a defensive to an offensive U.S. posture. While Pantano is not likely to persuade readers that it wasn't excessive to unload 60 bullets into two suspected insurgents--and post a warning sign above their car--he certainly knocks down the charges that were the basis of his hearing, which never proceeded to a court-martial. This legal outcome was good not only for Pantano, but also for our country and the mission.

In the search for a window into what daily life is like for our troops in Iraq, Warlord provides one Marine's very vivid account.

Dan Senor is the founder of Senor Strategies LLC, a New York- and Washington, DC-based public affairs and crisis management firm. He served as an advisor to the Bush Administration in Iraq, where he was based from April 2003 through June 2004.