By: Greg Mitchell
While much of the press seems to have moved on from Fallujah, as U.S. forces attack on other fronts, Knight Ridder has returned to the fray, and the ruins of the city, with a lengthy, highly revealing diary-type report from correspondent Tom Lasseter.
Embedded with the 1st Infantry Division?s Task Force 2-2, Lasseter had written daily dispatches for KR during the bloody assault on the city, but in the latest report he gets a chance to stretch out and offer one of the most compelling hour-by-hour accounts of the entire war.
Many newspapers have printed excerpts from the journal. But it is also available in full at several Web sites, including here.
The journal opens on Nov. 8, the eve of battle, and carries through to Nov. 14, when the main strike is nearly over. “This is as pure a fight of good versus evil as we will probably face in our lifetime,” a battalion commander says at the outset, but Lasseter?s story is much more nuanced than that.
Its central figure is Capt. Sean Sims, 32, commander of Alpha Company. “Sims? men would win the battle,” Lasseter writes near the start, “yet no one would feel like celebrating. Killing the enemy, they learned, was sobering. More so was the loss of friends.”
Sims, himself, “would not come back.”
Lasseter?s account is shattering after reading so many bland overviews and body counts. Reading such stories (if you can still find them) you?d think wrecking a large city to save it, and rendering tens of thousands homeless, is not such a big deal. Why dwell on it, even if, like Hue, the city’s name, and what happened there, will likely resonate for decades?
But here, thanks to Lasseter, we see a city destroyed block by block. We watch guts and body parts flying and encounter dead Iraqis who have been gnawed on by stray cats. We meet individual soldiers and hear their words (and sometimes read their thoughts). They are portrayed with much empathy but also caught in revealing conversations.
“You know we?re going to destroy this town,” says one 22-year-old.
“I hope so,” replies a colleague.
Elsewhere, soldiers admit to going “ape shit with the cannon shooting everything” or just “spraying and praying.” Others perform bravely, even heroically.
A quiet 20-year-old from New Mexico says: “I?m tired and I don?t want to be here. I don?t want to take all of this back with me, but I probably will.”
Another says, “You think that killing people for your country is cool, but when you do, it just numbs you.” Another says: “I remember every face I see out there, every moment out there. I can?t forget it. I can?t make it go away.”
But the story keeps coming back to Capt. Sims, who hails from Eddy, Texas. He loses a good friend, the company’s executive officer. Then on Nov. 13 he leads his troops into a house where a group of rebels is waiting. Coming through the door, Sims gets hit along with two others, and soon he is “lying on the kitchen floor, his blood pouring across the dirty tile.”
In one of the best reports yet written on a single moment in the war, Lasseter continues:
“A group of soldiers ran out the door, looking for revenge. Others gathered blankets.
“They couldn’t lift Sims’ body, so they called in Howard, who lugged the squad’s heavy machine gun but whose broad shoulders were sagging from the news.
“Once Sims was laid on the floor of a Bradley outside, six soldiers and a reporter climbed in, slowly at first, trying not to step on the body. Someone outside yelled at them to cram in, and if they had to step on Sims’ body, do it, god damn it, do it.
“Gunfire was pounding back and forth.
“The hatch closed. The soldiers stared at each other. The soldiers stared at the ceiling. The soldiers stared at the hatch. The soldiers stared at anything but the mound on the floor.
“Wright was sobbing and shaking. Howard had tears streaming down his cheeks.
“The Bradley dropped them off at another house, where the platoon leaders from Alpha Company had gathered in a courtyard. Their commanding officer and their executive officer were dead.
“An air strike with a 2,000-pound bomb was ordered. Men huddled around each other, hugging those who couldn’t stop crying. They passed out a handful of cigarettes.
“Smoke covered the horizon, and with a boom, a mosque’s minaret disappeared. Buildings burned.
“Spc. James Barney, who drove the Bradley that carried Sims’ body, stood by the vehicle outside, talking to himself. ‘We need to just finish it, level the whole damn city,’ he said. “I’m tired of this place, I’m tired of this shit.'”
A few days later, the death of their captain, and the killing they?d seen and done, weighs heavily on the men. The journal closes with a soldier named Laird telling his comrades that he?d just been thinking about his son, and “I don?t want my boy to know his daddy?s a killer.”
With that he picks up his gun and walks out the door.