A tale of two men

The experience of fighters on opposite sides of the "war on terror", marking the 700th column in this series.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 April 2015

A view from Hoboken

You are a young man in your late 20s who grew up in Hoboken, in the "garden state" of New Jersey just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Your family was blue-collar Italian and staunch Republican, and in the fall of 2001 you had graduated from high school and were planning to go to college after a year earning some money. On that Tuesday morning you were already at work at Jimmy John’s sandwich bar on the corner of First and Hudson when, just before nine, everyone turned to look at the TV as a shot of the World Trade Center’s north tower came on screen, burning fiercely as an agitated newscaster tried to explain what had happened. Half the staff rushed out across to First Street but the view was blocked by buildings. The manager saw there was no point in carrying on with trade and locked up as everyone rushed along First to the waterfront, crossing Sinatra Avenue to the small park on the Hudson River.

You were one of the first there, just in time to see the second plane hit the south tower and you all knew at once that this was no accident - America was under attack. To add to the horror you then watched with crowds of stunned and silent people as first the south tower and then the north tower collapsed. Making matters far worse, you learned later that day that one of your uncles, a New York firefighter, was among those missing. It was at that moment that you decided to ditch plans for college and join up.

With your sporting skills and high-school education, enlisting in the Marines was no problem and your training took you all through the early months of the war in Afghanistan. Like all the others in your group you were hugely determined to confront the terrorists, and the early collapse of the Taliban and President Bush’s brilliant state-of-the-union address in January 2002 gave a boost to your entire class. 

By the time you were in your unit and fully trained it was very clear that the next target would be Iraq, where the Saddam Hussein regime was part of an axis of evil, supporting terrorism and, worst of all, working as fast as it could to get weapons of mass destruction. By the end of 2002 your unit was already forward-based in Kuwait and on the following 20 March you were part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit crossing into Iraq. Within days you had had your baptism of fire as your unit, along with British and Polish troops, met full-scale opposition from Iraqi terrorists as you tried to capture the key port of Umm Qasr. 

Even so, elsewhere everything went much better and you were heavily involved in the move up the Euphrates to Baghdad, watching with delight when the president gave his “mission accomplished” speech at the beginning of May. That early experience outside Umm Qasr, though, was a taste of what was to come, and your unit was right at the centre of the bitter fighting around Fallujah nearly a year later. You were due for leave but were determined to stay on, only to be involved in one of the toughest firefights of the year when your convoy, moving to reinforce a unit in the city, was caught in a terror ambush. 

You all survived as the relief force came through but some of the injuries were horrific. You were in a Humvee hit by an RPG when one of the crew lost both legs and another his jaw and much of his face. The trauma for the whole unit was huge and everyone involved was utterly delighted when the unit commander called in AC-130 gunships that night and destroyed that part of the city.  For you, also, it was some recompense for the loss of your uncle.

You did three more tours of Iraq, including a key period in 2006 supporting SEAL Team 6 in Operation Arcadia and while peace seemed at last being restored to Iraq by 2010, you were not convinced it was over. Even bin Laden’s death was not enough since you had seen at first hand just how determined the Iraqi extremists were. You would never admit it outside your unit but you, and some of the others, even had a grudging respect for their fighting abilities and willingness to die. Perhaps your own religious upbringing helped.

After ten years in the Marines you left to take a highly paid job with a private military company - serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in a series of ultra-low-profile operations. From all your many contacts you could see that al-Qaida might be much reduced but the new threats arising in Iraq and Syria were a very different matter. You watched in horror as Islamic State was formed and took over much of northern Iraq including, unbelievably, even Fallujah.

The war started up again with the airstrikes in August 2014 but you knew they could never work on their own. To you it seemed your country was walking into a disaster, with all the efforts to turn things round in the decade after 9/11 coming to nought. Then, in April 2015, you heard that the director of the CIA, John Brennan, was restructuring the entire agency to prepare it for an extended war against the terrorists. Someone, at least, had his head screwed on and you applied to join the company. This, you knew, would be a long war, but that experience fourteen years ago on the Hoboken waterfront of watching the twin towers collapse was more than enough to motivate you. You were, and are, in it for the long term in the defence of freedom and democracy.

A view from Fallujah

You are a young man in your mid-20s and you were born and brought up in Fallujah, the “city of mosques” in the heart of Sunni Iraq to the west of Baghdad. Your family - mother, father, two brothers and two sisters - lived comfortably enough under the Saddam Hussein regime and even the sanctions that followed the 1991 war did not have too much effect, given that your father was a high-ranking municipal engineer in charge of water supplies for the whole of the city and the surrounding area, including the key irrigation systems leading south from the Fallujah barrage.

When you were just into your teens the regime was terminated by the American crusaders, supported every inch of the way by the Zionists. This was supposedly in response to the 2001 attacks even though you and all your friends knew full well that those massacres were staged by the American government to provide an excuse to go to war and take full control of Middle East oil, especially in Iraq where your leader had been the only person in the region to stand up to the Americans. The evidence was everywhere - after all, hadn’t Bush actually said that Iraq must be dealt with and the regime destroyed, even before the New York and Washington attacks, and hadn’t the Americans been absolutely clear that the whole world should follow their way and be part of the "new American century"? It was all so obvious.

Once the war had started, you watched as the resistance formed even as the city authorities tried to maintain a tolerable existence for the people. You remember your father working eighteen to twenty-four hours a day and coming home utterly exhausted as he and his staff tried to repair the damage being done by the constant bombardment of the city. You remember one occasion in particular when an American convoy was attacked by the resistance and beaten back, only for them to send in their gunships that night and destroy hundreds of houses in reprisal, killing your elder brother’s young wife, two of your closest friends and wiping out all three families.

That, alone, was enough to make you utterly convinced that you must join the fight, that the Christian crusaders were at the root of the problem and they must be expelled from the country. A few months later, though, much worse was to follow. That autumn the Americans came back with overwhelming force to take the city, and you and most of your family hurriedly left to take refuge with friends in Ramadi. Your father and eldest brother were determined to stay - your father because of the need to try and protect not just what was left of the city’s public works but also the Fallujah Barrage and the extraordinary network of canals downstream from the city that used the Euphrates water to irrigate some of Iraq’s richest croplands. For your brother, though, the aim was to fight and defend the city against the Christian invaders, killing as many as he could, even if he died. 

That was the last you saw of them and it was weeks later that you all learned that your father had been horribly burned when his Nissan pick-up was hit by a missile as he and his crew drove out in three trucks to try and repair a key part of the barrage just south of the city.  May be it was a crazy thing to do, given that they were in the middle of a war-zone, but he feared that if the irrigation system was wrecked and the land dried out it would do as much damage as scores of bombs. To the Americans, no doubt, his truck was full of “terrorists” and was probably “taken out” by a Hellfire missile fired by an F-16, or rockets fired from an Apache gunship.  He died in appalling pain three days later, trapped in the city where all the medical facilities had been destroyed.

The fate of your brother was a mystery for many months but you eventually heard that he had been wounded, captured and taken to a prison twenty miles east towards Baghdad along the old Highway 10 at Abu Ghraib. You found out that, in spite of his injuries he was waterboarded repeatedly for information by the CIA and special forces but refused to say anything. Reduced to little more than a human wreck he was handed over to the ordinary American troops and along with hundreds of others was repeatedly abused. After a few months a deep-rooted infection of one of his wounds flared up and he died of septicaemia, his body dumped in a mass grave.

The next five years were sheer hell as the Americans tried to take control of the whole country, handing over power to the Iranians and Maliki and his Shi’a lackeys and allowing them to use any force they wanted to crush your people. Resistance was strong but the Americans and the British used every conceivable method to suppress dissent, with hundreds of night raids, inevitable “kill lists”, incarceration and torture. Within a year of the deaths of your father and brother you were already a seasoned urban fighter with a growing reputation even though still in your mid-teens. Their deaths had made you fearless and your willingness to take huge risks was widely admired.  Even so, like so many of your friends who weren’t killed, you were eventually captured, tortured and ended up in Camp Bucca to join 20,000 others in one of the world’s largest prisons.

That was the making of you as the close confinement of the prison and the complete lack of control by incompetent guards gave free reign to the inmates. You had learned in school that prisons only ever function with the consent of the prisoners and Bucca was no exception. Here, though, the prisoners were increasingly organised and educated by enlightened and charismatic preachers who were brilliant at renewing in your own mind the value and supreme relevance of your religious beliefs.

You, and many hundreds of others, understood in those months and years of detention that true Islam, returning to the early days, was the only way forward and that those freedom-fighters who had avoided death or capture were now quietly building up what they called al-Qaida in Iraq, AQI, ready for the day when the Crusaders would eventually leave.

When that time came, most of the prisoners were released but several thousand who were considered dangerous were handed over to the Maliki government. You were one of them and ended up in early 2011 with hundreds more at Abu Ghraib, now a high-security government jail housing the “worst of the worst”. Conditions were appalling and the Shi'a warders brutal, but it was not to last long. By the end of the year AQI under Baghdadi had been reinvigorated, was already linking up with fellow freedom-fighters in Syria, and was embarking on a brilliant programme of prison breaks right across central and northern Iraq. This started towards the end of 2012, with Abu Ghraib a priority, and the following July you were one of the hundreds released in one of the best of all the operations.

Because of your reputation you were moved to Raqqa and took part in many operations, but within a year you were back in Iraq leading a platoon that helped retake first Fallujah and then Mosul. To see your home city back in rightful hands was one of your greatest joys, almost as good as the leader’s declaration of the Caliphate in the Mosul mosque a few months later.

As everyone expected, the Crusaders finally recognised what was happening and started their air attacks in August, intensifying them in the following months and bringing the French, British and other Christian forces as well as apostates from across the region. The air and drone attacks had little effect which is hardly surprising since there were hundreds of able officers and NCOs who had had years of experience of the Crusader ways of war. They certainly lost some, but many ordinary people were also killed, further stirring up anger directed not just at the Crusaders but the Iranians as well.

As the not-so-young man now sees it:

“Our resilience and capabilities are remarkable, born out of our complete conviction and absolute belief that ours is the rightful path. Since we are the vanguard protecting the whole of true Islam we welcome the attacks and are utterly sure that we will wear the enemy down.  Indeed much of what we do is to incite them to attack us - an element they simply cannot understand. Do they think we killed that Jordanian pilot out of sheer brutality? No, it was to provoke. For me, though, it has an added element - as I watched him I thought of my own father, also burned to death but taking three days, not three minutes, to die. This war will take many years for victory. I will most certainly not survive it here on earth but will still witness it with joy.”

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