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War and Remembrance

A father retraces the steps of his son, a gallant Marine who lost his life in the liberation of Iraq.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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“One team, one enemy,” is Colonel Ali’s shorthand for the relationship between U.S. Marines and his Iraqi men. “When you lose your son, I lose my friend and I lose my officer.”

A 30-year-old Iraqi second lieutenant, whose name was Hussam but whom we dubbed The Politician for a near-Barackian ability to respond to short questions with long answers, was Travis’s counterpart, learning the job of a logistics officer under his tutelage. He said through an interpreter:

“We were all getting hit by mortars. If one didn’t eat well, the other didn’t eat well. If one didn’t sleep well, the other didn’t sleep well. The only time we were separated is when we went to bed.”

He and Travis, who was an energetic debater himself, would wear out their interpreter with late-night talks over Iraqi food about The Politician’s upcoming marriage, international relations, and the purpose of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

The Politician, like Travis, comes from a military family. He was in law school at the time of the American invasion, but saw no future for himself under what he called Saddam’s “failed system.” He assumed even if Saddam died, one of his sons would take over, so when Saddam fell the way he did, it “opened a door again” that he’d thought was shut.

Another young lieutenant, who prefers his name not be used because his neighborhood in Baghdad is still dangerous, was with Travis on the day he was killed. A serious man who talks little, he was renowned among the Marines for his competence. Poudrier, an intel officer who served with him, said the Marines would have a briefing with the lieutenant about possible insurgents, and within just hours or days, the lieutenant would have rooted them out using his sources and delivered them to the Marines.

When the interpreter repeats Poudrier’s tales of his exploits, the lieutenant lowers his head sheepishly and says, in Arabic, “It is only my duty.”

The lieutenant told the story of the fateful raid of April 29, 2007, slowly and in detail. He and Tom Manion bent over a map of Fallujah. The lieutenant pointed out a house he entered on a narrow alley. Tom raised his reading glasses and squinted at the intersection. The lieutenant said he knew a big family lived there, but he entered to see plates of food suddenly abandoned, the house silent and still—a sign that the locals knew there was about to be a fight.

Precious time was lost in translating the Arabic word for “ambush” into English. It was the second time we’d heard from Iraqi officers of a translation delay that put soldiers in danger.

“Travis participated with his blood for Iraq’s freedom,” the lieutenant told Tom, through an interpreter, standing and shaking Tom’s hand for emphasis. “The American people and the Iraqis have made an investment of blood in freedom. You’re seeing the fruits of this labor.”


 

The battalion in which these officers serve is among the best in the Iraqi Army, a sort of special forces unit sent to hot spots around the country. There is no shortage of incompetent or corrupt officers in the Iraqi Army and police forces—this battalion has had its frustrations with both—but it was encouraging to hear a new generation of Iraqis talk about an open society, and the challenges inherent in becoming one, so hopefully.

As military men, they talk little about politics, though they worry openly that sectarian violence will increase if Iraqi politicians fail to work together. When asked about sectarianism, several said that in the Iraqi Army it is their duty to protect Sunni and Shia both, no matter what. They used the phrases “my duty,” “my people,” and “my country” liberally without reference to religious sect or tribe. They talked about equal treatment under the law and the meritocratic style of the American military. Some dreamed of traveling to America someday to train.

Almost uniformly, they lamented the U.S. decision to dismantle the military and other institutions after the initial invasion, saying it left a vacuum the violence filled.

As Poudrier points out, these officers have risked their lives every single day to quell that violence, often with little fanfare and without even the down time between deployments American soldiers get.

“Don’t think it’s just Americans making a sacrifice. What the Iraqi troops and the Iraqi people have sacrificed is tremendous,” Poudrier said.

Colonel Ali offered a metaphor for the chaos with a matter-of-fact shrug: “If you put your foot on a fountain for a long time, and then lift it off very fast, what will happen?” He shook his head in dismay at an imaginary geyser shooting forth from under his foot.

Captain Omar, who was born the same year as Travis and went to an Iraqi military academy, is more expansive, speaking in slightly broken English:

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