Rules of Engagement
by William Langewiesche November 2006
On November 19, 2005, in Haditha, during Kilo Company’s third tour of duty in Iraq, a land mine planted by insurgents exploded beneath a Humvee, killing a 20-year-old Marine. What happened next — the slaughter of 24 Iraqi men, women, and children — was not entirely an aberration. These actions were rooted in the very conduct of the war.
I: One Morning in November
The Euphrates is a peaceful river. It meanders silently through the desert province of Anbar like a ribbon of life, flanked by the greenery that grows along its banks, sustaining palm groves and farms, and a string of well-watered cities and towns. Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, Haditha. These are among the places made famous by battle—conservative, once quiet communities where American power has been checked, and where despite all the narrow measures of military success the Sunni insurgency continues to grow. On that short list, Haditha is the smallest and farthest upstream. It extends along the Euphrates’ western bank with a population of about 50,000, in a disarray of dusty streets and individual houses, many with walled gardens in which private jungles grow. It has a market, mosques, schools, and a hospital with a morgue. Snipers permitting, you can walk it top to bottom in less than an hour, allowing time enough to stone the dogs. Before the American invasion, it was known as an idyllic spot, where families came from as far away as Baghdad to while away their summers splashing in the river and sipping tea in the shade of trees. No longer, of course. Now, all through Anbar, and indeed the Middle East, Haditha is known as a city of death, or more simply as a name, a war cry against the United States.
November 19, 2005, is the date people remember. Near the center of Haditha the U.S. Marines had established a forward operating base they called Sparta. It was manned by the roughly 200 Marines of Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, First Marine Division, out of Camp Pendleton, California. This was Kilo Company’s third tour in Iraq. It had participated in the invasion, in the spring of 2003, and again in the hard-fought battle for Fallujah in the fall of 2004. Because of normal rotations, however, only about two-thirds of its current members had been to Iraq before. The average age was 21. The company commander was a captain, an Annapolis graduate named Lucas McConnell, who was 32 and, like all but one of his lieutenants, was on his first tour at war. McConnell was a can-do guy, more of a believer than a thinker, disciplined, moderately religious, somewhat moralistic, and deeply invested in his beloved Marine Corps.
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