Reading Staff Sergeant David Bellavia on my way to Fallujah doesn’t exactly make me feel good about going there, but his book House to House: An Epic Memoir of War provides a gripping and necessary prologue to the state of the city today.
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He was there at the second battle of Fallujah in November, 2004, when the city had been seized by Islamist insurgents from all over the place and emptied of the 250,000 civilians who had recently lived there. U.S. Army soldiers and Marines fought house to house and at times hand to hand as they stormed in to clear it.
Some of the insurgents were former Baath Party officers, and many, if not most, were Iraqis. A significant number, though, were from somewhere else.
The fighting was grisly and horrific at best, but one house was particularly nightmarish. Insurgents had set up the perfect death trap where they were shielded behind concrete barriers. Any soldiers who entered would walk straight into the kill zone.
In the kitchen, we found drugs and U.S. Army-issue auto injectors. They had been full of atropine and epinephrine. The muj inside the house had shot the drug directly into their hearts. It acted like PCP — angel dust — and kept them going long after my bullets should have killed them.
In another section of that house, I found a pouch with a Hezbollah insignia. At least some of the six men inside were Shia, not the radical Sunni we were told were so prevalent in the Al Qaeda-dominated Anbar Province. Somebody else found documents from the Palestinian Authority amid the debris upstairs.
Before any of this was discovered, though, the house had to be taken. Bellavia’s unit casually entered before anyone realized they had walked straight into a death trap. They barely managed to escape with their lives by running out the way they came in. Bellavia was furious at himself for running away without clearing the insurgents out.
He, more than the others, was especially chagrined, and not only because he was the unit’s leader. One reason he joined the Army in the first place was because his home was invaded by burglars when he was younger, and he stood by impotently while they rummaged through the house and stole his belongings. He hoped the Army would toughen him up (and it most certainly did), and that he would never again run away from a fight.
As I storm around in the street, struggling with myself, [Time Magazine and CNN reporter] Michael Ware regards me curiously. The last thing I want right now is a journalist watching me grapple with my own demons. I turn away and pace back up the street, slipping on a couple of 25mm shell casings in the process. Another spray of sparks flares around me…
If I don’t go in, they’ll have won. How many times have we heard American soldiers rely on firepower and technology because they lack courage? How many times has our enemy said that man-for-man, they can beat us? That’s nothing new. The Germans and Japanese said the same thing in World War II.
Inside that house, I surrendered my honor and my manhood. Now I have to take both back, or live with the fact that they are right about me. That is unacceptable.
I rant and swear with abandon. Down the street, I see Sergeant Knapp taking care of my men like they are his little brothers. I want to cry I am so proud. I love these kids in a way I will never be able to express.
I see their faces. One by one. John Ruiz, Lucas Abernathy, Piotr Sucholas, Alex Stuckert, Victor Santos, Brett Pulley, Tristan Maxfield — they deserve more from me.
I stop pacing and let out a deep, rattling sigh. Only Ware remains near me on the street. Everyone else has moved away. Perhaps my display has convinced them I’ve gone mad.
But Ware is still here. The journalist. Our platoon’s unofficial intel officer. We stare intently at each other.
“Fuck it,” I say.
“Fuck it,” agrees Ware.
That settles it. I’m going back in.
You know things are not right with the world when you share a spiritual moment with a damn journalist. But there it is. Mick Ware and I are standing on the street, digesting the finality of the option we’ve just chosen.
So he and the journalist Michael Ware — whom Bellavia respects tremendously for his intelligence and his bravery — go into the well-crafted death trap alone.
Ware is explicitly told to stay back where he is at least slightly less likely to be killed. He sets up his video camera in the foyer and melts back into the shadows. It is night, the electrical grid is down, and there is little ambient light. It is unlikely he managed to catch much on the camera, but a guy has to try.
Bellavia charges the first set of insurgents as they wait behind concrete barriers with RPGs and machine guns.
Somebody must die now. There is no turning back.
I bring my rifle to the ready up position. The M16 feels right; it is exactly what I need right now. Tucked firmly against my shoulder, I have a perfect eye line over the rifle’s sights.
Across the room, I see the young insurgent standing behind the barriers. His head is down, still working on the RPG. The kid’s gotta be drugged halfway to Neptune.
I take a step into the room; my feet slosh in the water and send ripples across the flooded floor. The M16’s barrel pivots and stops when it is pointed at the insurgent’s chest. I have the sight picture. My finger is about to end him.
He looks up. He stares at me with terror in his eyes. I know right then that I have surprised him. He doesn’t have a chance, and he knows it, too.
“Jew!” he hisses in fear and spite, as if the word can protect him.
Close-quarters combat is instinctual, fought on the most basic and animalistic level of the human brain. Body language, eye contact, the inflection of a voice can turn a fight in a heartbeat. That is what happens here…
I pull the trigger and hit him right in the chest. He staggers back. I take a step to the left to move out of the doorway. The room’s carpet is so waterlogged that my boots make a sucking sound with each step.
After a heartbeat’s pause, I shoot him again. This time, my bullet goes into his pelvis. He spins completely around and falls across the barrier. Hands splayed, head draped, he gushes blood across the concrete. The water around him turns a milky crimson.
The last thing he expected was a rush through the doorway. That surprise saved my life and doomed his.
I can win this fight. I can do this.
A red heat forms on my face. The back of my neck tingles.
Where’s the second guy?
There was not only a second guy lurking in the dark. Six well-placed insurgents waited in that house. Bellavia took them all out by himself.
Something slides along the wall on the other side of the doorway. I hear breathing. Somebody is close.
“I will kill you and take your dog collar.”
It is a malevolent, accented voice, low and totally devoid of fear. Its self-assured tone triggers a memory of the Nicholas Berg beheading video we watched at our base so long ago. It took them twenty-six seconds to decapitate him, and it was horrifying to watch. They were self-assured, too.
Now my imagination conjures a scene: my severed head, a grimy hand pulling my bloody dog tags free.
That’s never gonna happen. Never—gonna—happen.
He’s mind-fucking me, this one behind the door. I can’t see him. I start to tremble. I fight it, but I can’t control my body’s physical reaction to this terror.
I can either go to pieces completely, or mind-fuck him back.
“Okay, listen up. I know you are not going to motherfucking stop. You know I am not going to motherfucking stop. La ta quiome.”
La ta quiome is my broken Arabic for “Do not resist.”
The enemy behind the door sniggers. He spits a curse in his native language. Sometimes it sounds like Arabic and sometimes it sounds totally different. Could that have been Farsi?
Am I fucking fighting Iranians in here?
“Mommy will never find your body.”
Bellavia shoots him. At least five times.
But there are more in the house. The fight isn’t finished.
He fingers his last magazine and thinks of his wife and son.
Deanna. Evan. I’m so sorry. I can’t leave this fight. This is what I am. A warrior. It is my blood oath. If I turn my back on that again, I will be nothing and I can’t face that.
I creep around the mattress, M16 at the ready. When I reach the doorway, I nearly slip. The water here is deeper and cloudy, probably with blood.
Neither corpse is in the doorway. I study the floor. Dark slicks of blood trail off into the stairwell room. It looks like one or both of them crawled into the kitchen.
Do I go finish them off and face the threat of somebody coming down the stairs again? I could get shot in the back as I go into the kitchen. Or do I go upstairs and face the bandolier-wearing Bogeyman from the closet? He’s up there, somewhere in the darkness, waiting for me to do just that.
Or do I leave, get the rest of my squad and do this right.
No! I brought this on myself. I have to finish it.
Lawson is wounded. He’s wounded because I didn’t finish this the first time. I will not risk another man.
I step through the doorway and onto the stairs. Eyes on the landing, I drop my current magazine out of the M16. I catch it and sling it into my pouch, then search for my last fresh one. I seize it and slam it home. The new mag makes a metallic snick as it slaps into place. I’ve got twenty-nine rounds in the mag and one in the pipe.
I begin to climb the stairs. There’s no turning back now.
The image of my boy in his Halloween costume tumbles through my mind again. I hear his little voice in my head. It is the last thing he said to me on the phone before I left for Fallujah.
“I am going to save you, Daddy.”
I’m sorry, buddy. I love you. I’m so sorry.
He finds the “bandolier-wearing Bogeyman” upstairs. They’re locked into hand-to-hand combat.
He clamped his teeth on the side of my thumb near the knuckle, and now he tears at it, trying to pull meat from bone. As he rages against the side of my right hand, his Adam’s apple still in my clutch, I feel one of his hands move under me. Suddenly, a pistol cracks in the room. A puff of gun smoke rolls over us. The bullet hits the wall in front of me.
Where did that come from? Does he have a sidearm?
I cuff him across the face with my torn left hand. He rides the blow and somehow breaks my choke hold on him. I bludgeon his face. He tears at mine.
We share a single question of survival. Which one of us has the stronger will to live?
I gouge his left eye with my right index finger. I am astonished to discover that the human eye is not so much a firm ball as a soft, pliable sack. I try with all my might to send my finger all the way through. He wails like a child. It unnerves me, and I lose the stomach for this dirty trick. I withdraw my finger. Something metallic hits the cold concrete flooring. It is the same hand cannon that almost took my head off. His interest in trying to grab it opens a window of opportunity for me.
As he reaches for the pistol, I slam my left fist as hard as I can down onto his collarbone. He swings wildly at me again. My helmet’s gone now. I have no idea where my M16 is. I’ve nothing but my hands left. And they’re not enough. We will struggle and exhaust each other until the stalemate is broken by whoever’s friends show up first.
I feel my strength ebbing. I don’t have much left. He kicks at me, throwing his whole body into it. I’ve got to end this. But I don’t know how.
I’m ignored. He fights on, and I can sense he’s encouraged. He’s close to getting free of me. I swallow hard and gag. My mouth is full of blood, and I don’t know whose. Both of us are slick with it; we have been bleeding all over each other. I taste bile through the blood. My body’s maxed out. I don’t know what to do.
He remembers he has a knife on his belt.
I pounce on him. My body splays over his and I drive the knife right under his collarbone. My first thrust hits solid meat. The blade stops, and my hand slips off the handle and slides down the blade, slicing my pinkie finger. I grab the handle and squeeze it hard. The blade sinks into him, and he wails with terror and pain.
The blade finally sinks all the way to the handle.
I push and thrust it, hoping to get it under the collarbone and sever an artery in his neck. He fights, but I can feel he’s weakening by the second.
I lunge at him, putting all my weight behind the blade. We’re chin to chin now, and his sour breath is on my face. His eyes swim with hatred and terror. They’re wide and dark and rimmed with blood. His face is covered with cuts and gouges. His mouth is curled into a grimace. His teeth are bared. It reminds me of the dogs I’d seen the day before.
The knife finally nicks an artery. We both hear a soft liquidy spurting sound. He tries to look down, but I’ve pinned him with the weight of my own body. My torn left hand has a killer’s grip on his forehead. He can’t move.
I’m bathed in warmth from neck to chest. I can’t see it, but I know it is his blood. His eyes lose their luster. The hate evaporates. His right hand grabs a tuft of my hair. He pulls and yanks at it and tries to get his other hand up, but he is feeble.
“Just stop! Stop…Just stop! Rajahan hudna,” I plead. Please truce. We both know it is just a matter of time.
He gurgles a response drowned in blood…
His eyes show nothing but fear now. He knows he’s going to die. His face is inches from mine, and I see him regard me for a split second. At the end, he says, “Please.”
“Surrender!” I cry. I’m almost in tears.
“No…” he manages weakly.
His face goes slack. His right hand slips from my hair. It hangs in the air for a moment, then with one last spasm of strength, he brings it to my cheek. It lingers there, and as I look into his dying eyes, he caresses the side of my face.
His hand runs gently from my cheeks to my jaw, then falls to the floor.
He takes a last ragged breath, and his eyes go dim, still staring into mine…
Tears blur my vision. I can hardly see him now, but he looks peaceful.
Why did he touch me like that at the end?
He was forgiving me…
“Sergeant Bell, Sergeant Bell, where are you?”
“Up here,” I manage.
“Sergeant Bell, are you okay? Why didn’t you stay downstairs? Are you okay, man?”
“Yeah, I’m good. I’m good.”
It’s a lie. I wonder if I will ever be good again.