An Excerpt from “In a Time of War”
The West Point class of 2002 was the first in a generation to graduate in wartime. Most of the higher-ranking officers they knew had spent a generation preparing for combat without hearing a shot, but these young soldiers and their contemporaries were among the first of their era, thrust into battle after 9/11 and Iraq as very junior leaders.
I thought that was pretty interesting, so I interviewed 600 people and wrote a book about them: In a Time of War…
One the officers I followed and wrote about was Dave Swanson. He lives in Texas now, but in 2004, he was a lieutenant in an infantry platoon in Sadr City, Iraq. (If you want to read more, you can find much of the book for free on Google. Or else, the whole thing is pretty cheap now -about $7 or so on Amazon. Or you can just contact me directly.) In any event, here’s an excerpt that talks about what happened to him.
Camp War Eagle
Dave Swanson’s battalion moved to a newer base in Sadr City called Camp War Eagle; the rest of their soldiers caught up with them in the first few days of April. On Sunday, April 4, 2004, his platoon was assigned to escort a civil affairs officer to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone for an early afternoon meeting. The unit they were both assigned to, 2-5 Cavalry, would officially take over responsibility for Sadr City at six p.m.
They drove to the Green Zone without incident, and since they had a few hours until the civil affairs officer was ready to head back, Dave and his soldiers decided to kill time in a nearby dining hall. A captain sitting next to them at one of the large tables wore the collar insignia of an engineer and had a 1st Infantry Division patch on his arm.
“Do you know Matt Baideme?” Dave asked the captain, realizing it was a long shot. Matt was a West Point classmate and a former H-2 cadet, but he was also an engineer in 1st ID. Though he and Dave hadn’t seen each other since graduation, they had been trading e-mails since Dave got his orders for Iraq.
“That’s my XO!” the captain said, meaning his executive officer, the second-in-command of his company. He led Dave to his unit’s living trailers, where Matt was packing to go back to Germany in a matter of days.
“What are you going to be doing in Sadr City?” Matt asked. They were walking around the trailers now, gathering Matt’s leftover food and office supplies in a big cardboard box for Dave and his guys.
“Man, we’re not going to be doing anything,” Dave said without enthusiasm. “Humanitarian missions. Sucking up the sewers.”
A few days before, four American contractors from the Blackwater security firm had been ambushed, killed, and strung up on a bridge in Fallujah, Matt told Dave. But this was Baghdad, not one of the unsettled areas of Iraq like Anbar Province and the Sunni Triangle. Fallujah was only forty miles away, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world.
Around four in the afternoon, the civil affairs soldier was ready to go back to Camp War Eagle. As Dave and his troops left the Green Zone, he started picking up traffic on his battalion’s radio network.
“Lancer Fourteen, this is Comanche Red One!” came the transmission, almost drowned out by static and gunfire. “We are in contact! We are in contact!”
The call sign identified the speaker as the leader of another platoon from Camp War Eagle. His transmissions grew more frantic. “Urgent casualty . . . Vehicles that won’t move . . . What’s the guidance?!”
It was a quick drive back to War Eagle, and when Dave reached the camp a few minutes later, his company commander, Captain George Lewis, quickly filled him in. The platoon Dave had been listening to had been ambushed. They’d abandoned their vehicles and were now pinned down somewhere in Sadr City. Other platoons were already lined up near the main gate, forming a rescue team.
“Get ready to go,” Lewis ordered.
Dave and his soldiers ditched their soft-skinned vehicles for their platoon’s armored Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The scene was mad chaos and a jumble of vehicles, exacerbated by the fact that Dave’s unit was still an hour shy of officially taking over responsibility for Sadr City. Nobody even seemed to know where the ambushed platoon was.
Just follow the vehicles in front of us wherever they go, Dave said to his driver, a sergeant named Tranquilino Pineda. The battery in the laser sight on Dave’s rifle died as they moved out; he scrounged around the Humvee for a fresh one amid gunfire and explosions. He looked at the other vehicles in the convoy, most of which lacked any armor, and felt chills. Today, Dave realized, could be his last day on earth. He was suddenly afraid of death.
Just as quickly, he forced the fear from his mind. He had his whole platoon to lead, and if he showed fear it would spread like wildfire.
The impoverished but apparently tranquil façade of Sadr City, Dave soon understood, had masked a community filled with suspicion and rage. The week before, the American administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, had ordered that a newspaper controlled by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (Sadr City was named after his father) be closed. Though Dave and his fellow soldiers were unaware of it, Sadr had given a speech in response on Friday, April 2, in which he called on his thousands of followers to “terrorize” the occupying army. On Saturday, U.S. forces had arrested Sadr’s top aide. Now it was Sunday, and the city was erupting.
“Contact right!” someone in Dave’s Humvee yelled, and the bullets really started flying. The convoy raced south from the base toward the city, taking fire as they drove on a border road alongside a soccer field. As they turned right onto one of the main streets, lined on each side by two and three-story buildings, Dave felt he was living the sequel to Black Hawk Down. There were hundreds of fighters, shooting at them with AK-47 rifles from the roofs, the alleys, and from in and behind cars. Dave’s truck was hit dozens of times.
“Sir, I got hit!” yelled Pineda, who had been driving with one hand and shooting his M-4 rifle out the open window with the other.
“You all right?” Swanson yelled back.
Pineda shook his head, and his Kevlar helmet fell off. The bullet had come through the open window and hit the helmet at just the right angle, splitting it in two. Actually, yeah, he was okay.
“You’re fuckin’ lucky, man!” Swanson shouted in disbelief. “Keep driving!”
The road was blocked now with concrete barriers, scrap iron, old cars, and trash. Dave ordered Pineda to move into a military formation called a herringbone, and the other trucks followed, getting out of the way so the Bradleys behind them could crush the barriers. But in the ninety seconds or so it took for the Bradleys to move up and blow through, the Humvees were riddled with bullets. Out the window, Dave spotted one of the men shooting at them, a scruffy guy in his thirties or early forties in a long dishdasha, or “man dress,” as the U.S. soldiers called them. Quickly, Dave moved his M-4 rifle and lined the red dot of the laser sight directly on the man. He fired several times, and the man fell backward, dead. For a split second, it hit Dave: He had just killed someone. Then he refocused his attention on his platoon. His Humvee had four flat tires by the time they were moving again. The Bradleys and intact Humvees from the other platoons took off, but with the flat tires, he couldn’t keep up. Captain Lewis’s truck pulled away.
“Floor it!” Dave yelled at Pineda as they crept along at no more than ten miles an hour, bullets ringing off the sides of the vehicle.
“It is floored!” Pineda yelled back. The noise was deafening—the yelling, the impotent strain of the engine and the crack-crack-crack of their M-4s as they shot out the open windows. Every few seconds the gunner above their heads would fire the .50-caliber machine gun, jarring and ugly. Whenever the shooting died down for an instant, the ringing silence seemed loud.
The other platoons in the convoy were long gone now, and Dave ordered Pineda to get off the main road and out of the line of fire. His new Humvee didn’t even have a radio installed yet, and he was leading five limping vehicles through a profoundly hostile city. They went up a block, down a street parallel to the road where they’d been nearly ripped to shreds, and then turned back toward the first street. As they made the last turn, they saw the remains of Captain Lewis’s Humvee, wrecked and engulfed in flames, with no sign of Lewis or the other soldiers who had been with him. Insurgents swarmed, firing at the dead Humvee and at Dave’s slow-moving convoy.
With no way to contact anyone else, and no idea where the ambushed platoon was hiding, Dave’s only option was to head back to Camp War Eagle to regroup. They retraced their route through a hail of gunfire. When they’d almost made it out of the city, the firing died down, but there was a soft sound, a lonesome little “dink-dink,” as two bullets ricocheted above. Dave’s machine gunner, a private named Riley Soden, had been hit.
Man, what the hell happened? Soden thought as his legs flew out from under him. He toppled into the truck, staring in pain at the hole in his foot. Camp War Eagle was completely chaotic now. There were four dead soldiers from 2-5 Cavalry, and more than forty wounded. There was no electricity at the aid station, and so soldiers raced their damaged Humvees and trucks there so the doctors could work outside by the glow of their headlights.
One of Dave’s soldiers ran up. “Hey, sir,” he called out, “one of our Bradleys is broken down!” Its crew was stranded in Sadr City, alone and immobile.
Rescuing the guys in the Bradley was now Dave’s number one priority. He sent one of his able-bodied soldiers to escort Private Soden to the aid station, and he ran to the motor pool to find any kind of working vehicle. On the way, he spotted Captain Lewis, who was alive after all, though covered in blood, and looking a little dazed.
Going Back Out
Lewis’s Humvee hadn’t had any armor—hadn’t even had doors, for that matter. His driver had been shot and killed just after they passed the barricades where Dave had lost them; his machine gunner had been badly wounded, and another passenger was hit as well. Then the Humvee’s fuel tank had ruptured and the truck had stumbled to a halt. They’d almost been stranded in the city like the platoon they were trying to save, but a Bradley rescued them at the last second. Lewis and the others had made it back to the base cramped in the troop compartment, with his driver’s dead body sprawled on the floor.
“Sir,” Dave said, grabbing his captain and talking as calmly as he could. “One of my Bradleys is down.”
Lewis stayed quiet.
“Sir, I’m going to get my Bradley.”
Dave and his soldiers ran to the only two Humvees that were left—both unarmored—jumped in, and headed back toward the gate.
The Bradley recovery went more smoothly than anything else so far. The insurgents apparently hadn’t found it yet, and Dave and his men hooked up a working Bradley to the dead one and towed it back to War Eagle. When they returned, around nine p.m., they saw troops lining up to head out into the city yet again.
By now a tank unit from a neighboring base had rescued the original stranded platoon. But with insurgents running wild throughout the city they had just taken responsibility for, 2-5 Cavalry had to establish control. Captain Lewis was back in charge, and although the unit had fewer than forty able-bodied troops now, they were the only soldiers available.
They rolled back out in the darkness, with the Bradley Fighting Vehicles leading the way, hauling ass to their first objective, an Iraqi police station that had been overrun by insurgents, taking rifle fire most of the way. Dave watched through the unarmored windshield of his Humvee as one of the Bradleys was hit with more than a dozen RPGs but kept going. One of Dave’s soldiers fired back with a grenade launcher through the open window as they moved, killing two fighters. It was a hell of a shot.
Dave was down to ten men now, since they’d reorganized to make up for all the casualties in other platoons. They cleared the police station, going room to room in the dark, never knowing what was on the other side of any door. His troops then hunkered inside, defending the place against rifle and RPG attacks, until they got an order around two a.m. to move on and clear yet another police station. With only six guys now, they found that place deserted as well, and all the weapons had been looted.
Night wore on. Every hour or two, they fended off attacks by men with rifles and RPGs. After a while it was clear that nobody was going to be able to overrun them, but the attackers kept coming, only to be lined up in Dave’s soldiers’ sights and cut down. It was eerie and uncomfortable. Often the sounds of gunfire and battle would die down, only to give way to the moans of the wounded and dying who lay in the street.
By morning a dozen more soldiers had joined them, and Dave found himself thinking about West Point. Enduring the academy, he realized, had prepared him to take more shit than most people. He reflected with detachment that he was able to go without food or rest in times of great stress, compartmentalizing his fears and getting the job done. Two of the senior sergeants who were with him now were dead tired, and he ordered them to go downstairs into the comparatively comfortable office of the police chief to get some sleep. They came up four or five hours later.
“Hey sir, it’s your turn,” said one of them, a sergeant named Matt Mercado.
“Yeah, whatever,” Dave replied. It was now late Monday afternoon, more than twenty-four hours after he’d seen Matt Baideme in the Green Zone, fully thirty-six hours since he’d had any sleep. But he didn’t feel he could leave his troops until either the fighting was over or he collapsed.
Another night passed, then another day. Enemy fighters kept charging the building, wave after wave. Twice a day, it seemed, the mosques would broadcast a call to arms. It was crazy, suicidal.
Finally, Dave stumbled and fell to the floor.
“Yeah,” he said to the soldiers he was talking with. “I can’t do this right now. I think I have to go sleep.” It was now Tuesday night, more than two days after Dave’s first trip into Sadr City, sixty hours since he’d last slept. Dave went down to the police chief’s office and slept for five hours.
Wednesday continued much the same, but by Thursday night the attacks died down, and on Friday nobody attacked them at all. Finally, exhausted after a week at the police station, Dave and his soldiers were called back to War Eagle. Dave got a shower, some food, and a long sleep.
The battle on April 4 was only the beginning of eighty-two straight days of combat in Sadr City for Dave Swanson and his unit, 2-5 Cavalry.
In that first week alone, Dave himself had gone through about ten magazines of 5.56-mm ammunition, which meant he’d lined up the red dot on a target, squeezed the trigger, and fired as many as three hundred times. Every day, their patrols would be ambushed, or they would be assigned to defend buildings that came under fire. Dave went out mostly in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle now, and he lost count of how many IEDs he had run over and how many RPGs were fired at them. On one day alone—it happened to be Mother’s Day—he hit ten IEDs before his Bradley started sputtering oil. He went back to War Eagle to switch vehicles and had to leave several of his troops behind there—they were shell-shocked, crying, unable to head back out into the fight.
He thought of a line from the miniseries Band of Brothers, in which another U.S. Army lieutenant, in another war, observed: “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it.”
Before long, the fighting and killing simply became normal. On one mission, Dave and Sergeant Pineda, the driver whose helmet had been split in two during their first battle, ran into a school building only to find a man aiming an AK-47 at them. Two red dots instantly appeared on the man’s chest. Dave and Pineda both fired, and the man fell backward over a ledge.
“Who gets that one?” Dave said to Pineda. “Is that yours or mine?”
“I don’t know,” the sergeant responded.
“We’ll call it a half,” Dave said.
Another night, around two or three in the morning, Dave was sitting inside the turret of a Bradley on yet another “movement to contact” mission, going out to look for the enemy so they could defeat him. Dave’s stomach had been bothering him all day—God only knew what nasty diseases you could pick up by drinking local water or somehow coming into contact with the unwashed masses of Sadr City. Suddenly, he had to go to the bathroom. Now.
His gunner could see his discomfort, and he started poking Dave in the stomach, teasing him but making things much worse.
“Seriously, don’t,” Dave said, now in severe distress. No way was he going to get out of the Bradley in the middle of the night in Sadr City, but this was fast becoming a real emergency. “I have to go.”
Fortunately there were no soldiers in the troop compartment in the back of the Bradley. Dave got down from his seat and unzipped the flameretardant jumpsuit he was wearing. He ripped open the plastic bag from an MRE and used that, crouching in the still-moving Bradley. With no toilet paper, he pulled off his T-shirt, preparing to sacrifice it as a casualty of war.
They hit an IED, and Dave went flying, holding onto the nasty MRE bag. The whole Bradley filled with dust and dirt.
“Oh my God!” Dave yelled. He stood there, naked, jumpsuit down around his ankles, one hand clutching the bag and the other feeling around his body in the dark, making sure everything was where it was supposed to be.
“Sir, are you all right?” his gunner called. “Are you all right?”
Dave fumbled with his jumpsuit and climbed back into his seat, covered with soot, still holding on to the MRE bag so it didn’t spill all over him. He popped the hatch slightly and threw the bag out onto the street. Sadr City was practically one big overflowing sewer main anyway, he figured.
As the days of fighting went on, it became clear to Dave that there were two kinds of soldiers at Cap War Eagle: those who did the fighting and those who stayed on the base. Sometimes that wasn’t a matter of choice. One day the battalion personnel officer, a lieutenant with just a few years more in the Army than Dave, came up to him before a mission and asked to come along.
“I want to go out there,” he told Dave. “I want to get in a fight.”
“You honestly want to get into a firefight?” Dave replied, almost in disbelief. By now, Dave had a reputation as an RPG magnet; as a result, reporters or other visitors to War Eagle who wanted to see combat were often sent out with him. When this happened, one benefit from Dave’s perspective was that he had to free a seat in one of his vehicles, which in turn meant that he could let one of his soldiers stay behind on the base.
Dave agreed to take the personnel officer with him. They headed to a Sadr City police station, where Dave had to try to persuade the chief to get more of his officers to show up for work each day. The police were scared, Dave knew, but, as he told the chief through a translator, “I don’t quit my job, and they’re shooting at me too.”
Within minutes, the police station was under full-fledged attack from insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and a Russian-made machine gun. An intense battle raged, with Dave’s troops laying down a massive stream of fire. At one point, the personnel lieutenant burst into the building. “I got an RPG near me, about fifteen to twenty feet away! That was pretty sweet. This is what I wanted to see.”
On the way back to Camp War Eagle, they were ambushed several times. “I killed one!” the lieutenant exclaimed as he fired out the window of the armored Humvee. He was thrilled with his accomplishment.
Among Swanson’s favorite soldiers was a short, skinny, twenty-one year-old Puerto Rican named Jacob Martir. At Fort Hood, Martir had been a problem soldier, always late for formation and usually in one kind of trouble or another. But here in Iraq, he seemed to have found his niche. He was like a utility infielder on a baseball team, Dave found, a soldier he could put in any job in the platoon. If he needed a gunner, Martir was a gunner; if he needed a driver, Martir was a driver. He tried to act tough, but he was clearly just a kid. Dave was reminded a bit of himself as a young, enlisted trooper, and he nicknamed Martir “Puss in Boots,” after the cartoon character voiced by Antonio Banderas in Shrek 2.
Martir had been on some of the platoon’s worst patrols, so Dave pushed him to the front of the line for two weeks of home leave. Martir called his mother, telling her she needed to pick up a package at the airport in Miami on a certain day in June. Of course, he was the package. When Martir came back, he couldn’t stop talking about how much fun he’d had—seeing his family, meeting girls, hanging out at the beach.
In late June 2004, the United States transferred sovereignty over Iraq from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi government itself; at the same time, Moqtada al-Sadr called for a cease-fire in Sadr City. The cease-fire held for a month, but on August 5, all hell broke loose again. Martir was on a patrol that day, driving Dave’s Humvee. Suddenly, the city seemed to clear out, just as it had in April, May, and June when they were about to be ambushed. They heard small arms fire and an RPG somewhere. Dave and Martir turned together to see a man standing no more than thirty or forty feet away, aiming an RPG right at them. He squeezed the trigger before they could react, but then nothing happened.
Both Dave and Martir watched in disbelief as the man turned the weapon sideways, looking at it as if trying to figure out what he had done wrong. In that moment of hesitation, the machine gunner in the Humvee’s turret spun around and blew the RPG man away. Over the next few days, Dave and Martir had several more close calls—IEDs exploding nearby, bullets shot right over their heads. Dave had been shot at so many times now that it was sometimes hard to distinguish one near miss from the next, but Martir couldn’t get used to it.
“There’s something with you, sir, that doesn’t allow anything to happen to you,” Martir told him. “I don’t know what it is.”
The whole of 2-5 Cavalry went out in force in August, trying to rout insurgents out of Sadr City in a major sweep called Operation Iron Fury. It was really a “movement to contact” on foot, meaning the U.S. forces would methodically march through the city until they found the insurgents. Martir nearly bought it the first morning, when a mortar round hit the roof of a building he was standing on. He walked away from that episode, and he was with Dave later in the day when a half dozen or so insurgents in an alley ambushed them.
Dave’s soldiers hugged the walls of the alley, looking for cover and firing back. One of the soldiers closest to the insurgents ran out of ammunition, and he and Martir ran to switch places so that the other soldier could reload. Martir turned sideways; in doing so, he exposed a small area on his torso where his body armor didn’t extend. A shot rang out. Martir fell back quickly into Dave’s arms.
“Medic!” Dave screamed.
The medic began working on Martir immediately, and Dave called one of his Bradleys right up to the alley, as close as it could fit. They loaded Martir in the back within a minute after he’d been shot, and rushed him to Camp War Eagle, crushing cars and anything else that got in their way.
Dave had to stay behind to direct his platoon, but he kept checking in on the radio. Soon he got good news. One of the staff officers back at War Eagle told him that Martir had survived and was on his way to the hospital.
Operation Iron Fury continued for several more days. When it was finally over, Dave walked into a government building in the center of Sadr City where the top American officers had set up a command post. It was quite a scene: the commanders and staff officers, standing around smoking cigars and congratulating one another on how many insurgents they’d killed, celebrating as if they’d won the Super Bowl. Their behavior irked Dave, especially since he felt they never faced much personal danger.
“It’s too bad what happened to that kid,” one of the staff officers, a major, said to Dave, his manner off hand. “Martin? Maytor? Something—”
“Yeah,” the major said. “You know him?”
“Yes, he was my fucking soldier. What happened to him?”
He’d been dead within an hour of making it back to Camp War Eagle, the major told Dave.
Dave was incensed. He didn’t believe the earlier miscommunication had been a mistake. He was convinced his chain of command hadn’t told him the truth about Martir because the officers were worried he would refuse to lead his men back into the city if he knew. Dave had been through so much with his troops, and he truly believed he would give up his life for them if necessary, to say nothing of his military career. But he’d already had a talking-to for taking too many risks, during which his commander had pointed out that a lieutenant was harder to replace than a private.
As he stood there smelling the officers’ cigar smoke, Dave’s love for the Army simply dissolved. As difficult as Iraq had been until this point, he hadn’t really minded the hardships. He had loved being a leader, loved his soldiers, and loved the fact that his nation’s army had given him the chance to grow, go to college, learn, and become a better person than he might otherwise have been. But now, in that stark moment, he understood that the Army was just a ruthless bureaucracy. He and his soldiers were merely “assets,” replaceable cogs in the military machine.
Just then, Dave’s battalion commander came over, questioning Dave about the circumstances when Martir had been hit.
“Why wasn’t he in the prone position?” the commander wanted to know, meaning lying down in the alley to return fire, rather than standing up. Dave took the question as a not-so-subtle jab, an attempt to put the burden of Martir’s death onto Dave’s shoulders.
“In the prone position, sir?” Dave said. The suggestion struck him as an outlandish tactic, suggesting that the commander had no idea what it was like to actually be under fire. But Dave held his tongue, knowing he was vastly outranked.