The Magazine

Shooting to Kill

One Marine's very complicated war story.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By DAN SENOR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


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.