Remembering Fallujah on Memorial Day

This post was originally published on May 27, 2019.

On Saturday the New York Times published on op-ed by Elliot Ackerman, an award winning author and Marine veteran of the Second Siege of Fallujah. As a lieutenant Ackerman led 1st Platoon 1st Battalion 8th Marines through some of the bloodiest combat of the second siege, earning him a Silver Star. The subtitle of his op-ed states that “official documents can never tell us the whole story or war” so Ackerman goes on to fill in the “gaps” in the Summary of Action that was given to him, adding anecdotes and reflections to the terse narrative of the official document.

Moments of fear, confusion, and the bravery of others is what Ackerman adds, hoping that this too will be remembered along with the perfunctory praise of his leadership in the Summary. This is why I always respected Ackerman, even while I was getting kicked out of the Marine Corps for a laundry list of infractions and misbehavior. These self-effacing addenda are in perfect character with who I always thought Ackerman to be. I was in 3rd Platoon of the same battalion, although by the time we were called into Fallujah I had been moved to Headquarters Platoon for being confrontational with my senior Marines. Despite my disdain for rank and my growing disillusionment with our mission in Iraq, Ackerman had earned my respect as a person.

Although, I would add one thing to Ackerman’s maxim: True, documents never tell the whole story, but stories never tell the whole truth. Stories are necessarily perspectival, subjective, and limited in their scope. There is always something being left out. And the most obvious absence in Ackerman’s account is the Iraqi experience.

This is not an omission by Ackerman, just an absence—an absence that is characteristic of most veteran accounts of war. We really had very limited contact with Iraqis, and never without guns. There was no opportunity for Iraqis to speak to us freely, as equals, to explain to us how our operations impacted them. This is a common dynamic between an occupying army and the local population, and veteran narratives of war are often shaped by these power dynamics and the absences they produce.

Fallujah, however, is a special case. During the Second Siege of Fallujah stories became as important a weapon of war as guns or bombs. But this was not your typical war propaganda and I’ll explain why.

The First Siege of Fallujah was a hastily planned operation in response to the killing of four American mercenaries in Fallujah. On April 4th 2004 US Marines surrounded Fallujah and began laying siege to the city. However, after a month of fighting, the Marines were forced to retreat out of Fallujah because an Al Jazeera broadcast crew had managed to sneak into the city and captured on camera the civilian victims of our operation. These images garnered enough international outrage to pressure the US into negotiating a withdrawal out of Fallujah.

Of course, the US denied the accusation that it had carelessly bombed residential neighborhoods or shot civilians down in the streets. It even accused the Al Jazeera crew of being in full collaboration with the insurgents and of producing false reports. The official Marine Corps history claims that 220 civilians were killed, while an independent report counted—and listed the names of the dead—749 civilian deaths.

Immediately, US forces began planning a second operation to sack Fallujah. However, this time they would launch a campaign of “shaping operations,” accompanied by a propaganda campaign to shape the battlefield and media environment for the coming second siege in November of 2004. While the first siege was hastily planned with little emphasis on controlling the production of information on the battlefield, information operations (one component of which is propaganda) became a central effort of the second siege. This time 91 journalists were embedded with US forces to produce frontline accounts of the operation with the experience of American soldiers in the foreground, whereas in the first siege there was only one embedded journalist.

Also, the US launched a PSYOP (Psychological Operation) exaggerating the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq—and claiming that he had based himself in Fallujah, using the city as a base and a recruiting ground to build his terrorist army. There is, in fact, zero hard evidence that Zarqawi ever even set foot in Fallujah. Yet this lie became the casus belli for the second siege. US forces demanded that Fallujans turn over Zarqawi or else they would lay siege to Fallujah again—an impossible condition for peace.

This was not the only lie told about our so-called enemy in Fallujah. While there is very little English language evidence about the insurgents in Fallujah, most accounts suggest that the vast majority of rebel fighters were Iraqi nationalists, not international jihadists. Al-Qaeda appears to have had a minimal presence in Fallujah, and there were not very well liked by the local population.

Yet the story that was told in the media was that US-led forces had heroically liberated the civilians of Fallujah from al-Qaeda’s oppressive occupation. Within this general narrative were the stories of American soldiers who suffered enormous trauma, injury, and loss to rescue a population they didn’t even know. This story was part of the strategy for sacking Fallujah. It was part of the violence because the experiences of American soldiers eclipsed the experiences of Iraqis, who suffered tremendously from our “liberation,” and legitimized an operation that was ultimately about crushing a popular resistance. Bing West, author of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (2005) observes that,

The rationale for stopping the attack in April was a perception that the damage being done was too great. In the month of April, 150 air strikes had destroyed 75 to 100 buildings. In November the damage was vastly greater. There were 540 air strikes and 14,000 artillery and mortar shells fired, as well as 2,500 tank main gun rounds. Eighteen thousand of Fallujah’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Indeed, the Second Siege of Fallujah was successful in large part because US forces were able to disseminate a salient, highly-sanitized account of the operation, legitimized by lies.

A friend from 3rd platoon told me that ever since Fallujah he has had a reoccurring nightmare. He wakes up in a bed in Fallujah—a typical bed, just a foam mattress lying on the ground, like the ones we saw so often in people’s homes. We cleared hundreds of houses in Fallujah and at the end of each day we would occupy a house as a firm base for the night. There was always a rush to see who could claim the foam mattress first, and the rest of us would have to sleep on the cement floor, or our standard issued iso-mat, if we bothered to pack it. But in my friend’s dream he wakes up in this room alone and there are watermarks half way up the wall, as if there had been a flood.

Now let me tell another story about a Fallujan boy named Sami, who was seven in 2004. Unlike many who fled Fallujah to live as refugees in other parts of Iraq, Sami and his family tried to hide out in their home during the first and second siege. During the second siege, Sami watched his sister, father, and brother be gunned down in the street in front of their house by an American soldier, in that order. Any time one of his surviving family members would attempt to retrieve the bodies, they were met with a volley of gunfire. So Sami and his family were trapped in their home, pinned down by gunfire for days with little food and water, watching the bodies of their loved ones slowly rot and bloat in the street. Eventually they were able to flee the city and take refuge at a relatives house outside of Fallujah.

War stories are inherently political. They are entangled with power and violence, and they reflect and shape the biases of our psyches. But American soldiers are not absent in the Iraqi experience in the same way Iraqis were in ours. My friend had almost no contact with Iraqi civilians, and yet in his dream something is there, a mysterious flood that only leaves a mark on the wall.

Although no Iraqis are present in his story at all, the way Ackerman tells his story is exceptional. He challenges the commendatory account of his actions detailed in the Summary of Action awarded to him along with his Silver Star by humanizing himself and resisting the impeccable figure of war-hero that was being imposed on him. What more could we ask of our veterans on Memorial Day? The absence of Iraqis in his story is not an exclusion nor an omission, it’s a reflection of the reality of military occupation. But the danger of a story like Akerman’s is that when told out of context, we risk perpetuating a violent narrative that suppresses stories like Sami’s and presents an understanding to Americans that the only suffering we should be concerned with is that of American soldiers struggling with PTSD.

I often wonder what the flood symbolized in my friend’s dream, or if there’s anything to dream analysis at all. I can’t help but think that it speaks to a feeling I had in Fallujah, and maybe my friend felt it as well—that maybe we should not be proud of what we were doing in Fallujah, that maybe there was some larger truth we were unaware of, the consequences of which threatened to overwhelm us. The feeling was troubling enough to push me to look for the other side of the story.

And that’s what bother’s me so much about Memorial Day. Because the other side of the story is not just absent, it’s omitted. We content ourselves with just one side of the story, because to remember our war victims would be too difficult, too uncomfortable. We celebrate American militarism without accounting for the misery that our wars have caused abroad. This needs to change. We need to make this change. And we can start by making space for stories like Sami’s along side Ackerman’s.

Ross Caputi is a Marine veteran of the Second Siege of Fallujah and a PhD student of history at UMass. He is also a coauthor of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History.