Original publication date November 2004

‘So they allowed it to begin, having obtained for it formal assurances of help from the British Government. Yet none the less the rebellion of the Sherif of Mecca came to most as a surprise, and found the Allies unready. It aroused mixed feelings and made strong friends and strong enemies, amid whose clashing jealousies its affairs began to miscarry’. T.E. Lawrence from his book ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’

Lawrence’s words, first published almost eighty years ago appear now prophetic, as the initial zeal of the ‘shock and awe’, the ‘lighter, faster and deadlier’ pentagon doctrine has given rise to a mounting insurgency that has our military commanders asking for more troops. As the mother of a Marine now serving his second tour in Iraq I dread the thought of putting more troops in harm’s way; as George Bush Sr. reasoned in his book, our troops have become occupiers, not liberators, in a bitterly hostile land. Still, from the bits and pieces of information I glean from the all too few, emails and calls from my son, more troops are sorely needed.

Some of you have read my stories about my son, Lance Corporal John Fett, attached to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. For those who haven’t he is currently stationed at one of four forward operating bases in Ar Ramadi, the ‘Wild West’ they call it, just a few miles from Fallujah. John knows I write about him occasionally and admonishes me not to make him out as a hero so I will begin by affirming that he is a ‘grunt’ as they call themselves, just another pair of ‘boots on the ground’, an ordinary Marine fighting in an extraordinary war.

Since John’s redeployment in September he has labored under seemingly intolerable conditions patrolling the streets of Ramadi. Both on foot and in patchwork armored humvees, they patrol sometimes for 24 hours at a stretch. After a break of only three to six hours they sit on OP’s (observation post) hidden on a rooftop somewhere in the city for another 24 hours. They take caffeine pills to stay awake and because they’ve lost any circadian rhythm they take sleep aids to fall asleep. Weeks can pass before anyone gets a full day of rest and it is not unusual to see someone catching a few winks slumped over a mess hall table or sprawled in the back of a humvee. Recent news reports depict overused military equipment breaking down; it is not only the equipment that is being overused.

John, 25 and a squad leader, seems to have aged dramatically since his redeployment in September, war does that I am told and he and his fellow Marines have seen their share of action. John heading out John rarely goes out on patrol without being shot at and a picture he sent back proves that his armored humvee has saved his life more than once. The half paved, potholed streets and highways are littered with debris, garbage, weeds, shrubs and the insurgents have no difficulty hiding IEDs (improvised explosive devices). John has driven over five IEDs so far, each time they exploded in front of or behind or to the side of his humvee, or in one instance, weren’t powerful enough to penetrate the vehicle armor. Neither he nor his squad has been hurt and because he has never lost control of the vehicle John has earned a reputation for sheer nerve and good luck. Not all of his comrades have been as fortunate.

It was Halloween here in the US and John and his squad and another humvee were out on patrol. The other humvee was at John’s five o’clock and only six meters away when it hit an IED. John didn’t see the explosion but his own vehicle was hit by secondary shrapnel, rocks, dirt and blood. Marines, of course, don’t leave Marines behind and John wheeled his humvee around to provide cover, support and aid as they radioed for assistance.

By this time, John is a veteran of multiple firefights, he has seen fellow Marines die and he has stopped to reload his weapon after returning fire more times than he can remember but he is still unprepared for what he sees. The driver, a lieutenant is dead, his throat blown out and another man, bleeding profusely his chest and face a ghostly blue and yellow, is unconscious, his punctured lungs have collapsed. The smell of burnt flesh fills his nostrils. A third Marine is also unconscious the raw jagged edge of exposed bones protrudes from his pants. The two Marines still alert are behaving as you might expect from men having just suffered severe injuries, one demands morphine before they move him.

There is blood everywhere and John and his squad are soon covered with it. They help move the wounded to a support transport, provide escort to safe territory and carry them into the med office. A helicopter evacuates the Marines to a hospital. There is no time to properly clean up and they go back out on patrol, blood still stains their clothes and their humvee. John still doesn’t know if the four Marines lived or died. His voice is somber, controlled and I detect the rage he hoped to hide from me as he related this event. That John barely avoided driving over the bomb himself is never brought up.

Two weeks later, John and I are speaking, it is 5 AM in Ramadi and cold, I could hear him stamping his feet to stay warm and am relieved not to hear the strained, managed rage he last had in his voice. Suddenly he takes the phone away from his face and I hear him exclaiming again and again, ‘oh, my god, oh my god’! Someone is speaking but I cannot make out what is being said. John finally comes back on the line and explains that one of his buddies was walking to the medic and had stopped to show John the bullet wound he had just received in his back. John then continued the conversation where we had left off as if nothing at all unusual had happened; just another commonplace act of bravery in this camp full of ordinary Marines.

If John is beginning to see the daily fighting, sniping and roadside bombs as commonplace, so to are the locals. John tells how he and his squad chased a couple of insurgents that ducked into a home with hopes of escaping out the back. John and his squad followed the two men through the house, their weapons bristling, side stepping a family meal. The family’s only reaction to this thundering intrusion was to hold tightly onto their supper so that it wouldn’t be knocked over. Two months earlier, John felt awful charging through people’s homes but he claims that he no longer cares and I worry that he is losing his sense of humanity.

One news report showed a Marine sergeant stationed at one of the camps in Ramadi claiming that if any of the men were offered the chance to go home without any consequence, they would all refuse and stay. I asked John if that were true and he told me that he would stay for his buddies. After some reflection he says that perhaps his efforts and those of his fellow warriors really are keeping the battle off US soil. If that is true then he thinks that his being there is a good thing, but he sounds more like he hopes rather than believes it to be true.

When I ask him about the civilian bus that was fired on in Ramadi, John mistakes my curiosity for criticism and defends the action taken. “Everyday in Iraq a vehicle loaded with explosives ignores the warning shots and then explodes killing troops and civilians. I have fired on plenty of vehicles for the same reason”, he explains. “If I let a car bomb go by and one of my buddies was killed, I’d never forgive myself”.

As in other wars, the troops in Iraq have names for the enemy, names to dehumanize the enemy, to make it easier to kill the enemy. Pictures of John’s humvee, riddled with bullet holes and damaged by IEDs fills me with fear and I understand his anger at this ‘enemy’. Yet, I am afraid that in his weary, wariness he may forget the ‘rules of engagement’ that separate our warriors from being mere murderers and occupiers; that separate our troops from US foreign policy, and I tell him so. He snorts at me with derision as the Marines in Ramadi have been using themselves as bait in order to draw fire to identify an enemy that takes refuge by melting into the local populace. Still, I plead with him, behaving honorably now will make it easier for him to make peace with himself later.

A recent acquaintance sent me an email about the Pelopponesian War and it reminded me of a legend whereby a Spartan mother sent her son to war and said, ‘Come back with your shield or on it.’ She meant that her son should fight or die fighting honorably. An honorable death would see her son brought home on his shield and if he returned carrying it then he had done right by his fellow warriors AND his enemies. I want very much that my son come home with his shield.

‘The mentality of ordinary human slaves is terrible – they have lost the world – and we had surrendered, not body alone, but soul to the overmastering greed of victory. By our own act we were drained of morality, of volition, of responsibility, like dead leaves in the wind’. Lawrence’s words, written so long ago are prescient, still resonate true today, defining both ally and enemy. Ultimately, he declared the ally efforts in that almost forgotten siege a triumph. I hope history later views the current war in Iraq the same way.