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 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.