BAGHDADMarine Cpl. Doug Carrington is an unlikely savior. But as he aimed his sniper rifle down the road on the outskirts of Baghdad, he was saving lives one shot at a time. Look at the range chart. Turn the dial. Warning shot. Bang. "That got his attention," said Carrington, pulling back his bolt. Another Iraqi civilian had been sent scurrying backward, saved from death by a sniper bullet placed just so.
It is one of the oddities of this war, perhaps the oddest sight yet as this war draws toward a close: a Marine sniper protecting Iraqi civilians from a squad of nervous, possibly trigger-happy marines just down the road. But with every marine life considered sacred and amid rumors of car bombs, this is the reality of the moment. It was impossible not to hope, even pray that each car coming down the road understood what Carrington's small, violent benevolence meant. Go back; don't take a left or a right; don't freak out and punch the gas. Just slowly, very slowly, back the car up if you want to live to see another day. Yes, it is a lot for a scared Iraqi civilian to process while under fire and fleeing God knows what. So it was amazing when some made the connection. When they did, some of us cheered. I told Carrington he was the hero of my day. He blushed. "That's the first time anybody's called me that," he added sheepishly.
Those civilians who hadn't figured out what lay ahead, or hadn't been given the chance, littered the road ahead and behind. Carrington had not been there to save them. These were the unlucky, the ones who tried to flee the day before, or in the morning, when the marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines crossed the Nahrdiyala Canal, their last barrier into Baghdad.
Marines ran across the bridge over the canal on foot, squads sprinting under Marine cover fire from small arms and machine guns. Then they fanned out to the left and the right, knocking down doors and firing into the distance. They were here to secure the route into Baghdad and they didn't want to take any more casualties; a mortar round had just landed on one of their armored assault vehicles, killing two. Marines grumbled that it appeared to be friendly fire from the mortars they had been unleashing on the other side of the canal. But that mattered little once the marines crossed the canal. Everyone was coming back from this mission alive. If it moved, pretty much it died.
The fog of war was thick and encompassing. Things would only get worse the farther we advanced. It might cost a marine life to believe what was apparent: The Iraqi troops had moved on long ago. Better safe than sorry. Better a civilian casualty than a marine. First squad, second squad, third squad, across the bridge, possibly into the jaws of death. The mortar round that hit the Marine armored assault vehicle had left marines angry and bitter. Marineseven those who said it was friendly fire that had killed their comradesmumbled under their breath about how that's what they get "for waiting" to cross the canal and secure the area. Others were near tears, or so clenched their jaws that they seemed to be chewing on their teeth.
Our small group of journalists moved with them, swarming close like flies, not wanting to be killed by Iraqis or mistaken for them as we roamed with the troops, in this house, then that, across this field. Hunker down. Dig in. The orders came as quickly as the rifle and machine gun fire, this a cacophony of discordant sound. Helicopters hovered overhead while jets screamed like thunder.
At 300 yards into Baghdad they, and we, drew an arbitrary front line, while other marines continued to clear the houses to the rear, breaking down doors and firing at what moved. Little did except for a blue van, and it soon stopped, cut down by automatic weapons fire as it drove toward the bridge. (Incredibly, it wasn't until the next morning that a terrified middle-age woman covered in a chador and her wounded husband emerged from the van, walking unsteadily toward the marines. Inside, the man's sister lay dead, the food packed for their trip to safety at her feet with the flies. The corpses of two other family members were crumpled together in the front seat.)
"Hold your fire, hold your fire, wait for the snipers to fire their warning shots!" the commander on the ground had screamed when the van was hit. But it was too late. Just as it was for the taxi that ended up stopped a few feet back, its occupants also shot dead. No one in the cars was waving a white flag, but they weren't doing much else either. In only one vehicle was a weapon foundan AK-47 resting in the bed of a pickup truckMarines later admitted, long after the other cars and the commuter bus had piled up behind. But at the time, what was in the car mattered little. In the span of 30 minutes, seven unfortunate Iraqi civilians were shot dead here. "If some civilian is dumb enough to drive into our positions," that's not our problem, said one soldier.
In a way, you understood why the Iraqis on this road had to dierumor had been passing down that Iraqi zealots might have used two ambulances for suicide missions. These things had happened at least twice before. So, the order was given to fire at any ambulance that drove toward Marine positions and did not stop with a warning shot. Why not other vehicles as well? And in some cases, why wait?
But in other ways these small obliterations of life made no sense at all; most Iraqi civilians coming toward the soldiers would not have been able to see them hiding behind beams and walls till it was too late to matter. Why no checkpoint just up from the position? Why no sign telling civilians to stop ahead? Where was the translator team with its bullhorns explaining what was going on? After several hours of watching the cars drive into death, much seemed possible.
I lay back behind a concrete wall with the soldiers, watching these cars shot to smithereens, then lay down on the ground and began to think about the teenager I passed when I ran across the bridge. I redrew him in my mind, crumpled quietly to the side, his book bag still slung across his shoulder. I added the other man splayed out a few feet forward, and the old man slung over the wheel of his delivery vehicle just across the bridge. Then inserted the burned-out remains of another person just behind, and the "running man" down the road, his blackened body seemingly frozen in flight from his incinerated car.
By the next morning, some marines had covered his head with a cloth, a small act of humanity that almost righted the fact that his legs now had been run over by what appeared to have been a heavy car. Around me, marines complained that the Iraqi tactics put innocent civilians into harm's way. This was true. Saddam's regime left them little more than chattel to be slaughtered.
But some marines also agreed that their young fearful warriors might just not be being careful enough. Nor caring enough, I thought. I was told the story of how some marines had cared for an 8-year-old girl pulled from another car after her parents were killed by Marine gunfire. I also recalled how soldiers who took cigarettes and sodas from a bombed store left money in an empty MRE [meal ready to eat] package for everything they took.
These were the images we all wanted. But a few feet away, they were being scarred by other marines. They took pictures of bodies, ogled, and talked in nervous little laughs as they looked for souvenirs. They opened doors of vehicles so bodies fell to the ground. I remembered one who had told me how a marine had used a Leatherman tool to pull the watch off a dead Iraqi a few days back. I had thought it bad form at the time but said nothing as he happily recounted the tale. I also stayed quiet now as another marine came to show me his latest trophy. "Take a look; he was shot right in the head," the marine said, smiling. Inside was an Iraqi helmet covered with flies, and a bit of the soldier's skull still left intact. "What will you do with it?" I asked. "Put it in a zip-lock bag, then dry it out when I get home," he replied. This soldier had not been here during the Marine advance, had experienced no danger whatsoever, but it mattered little to him.
The sniper, the savior, now seemed very far back, too far behind the line. I looked back toward his perch, hoping for a warning shot. But I saw no protection, for anyone at all.
Now, when marines come to use my satellite phone, I have a simple request. It used to be a trade for an MRE. Now all I want is for them to make me proud to be an American. Most often they know what I mean and shake their heads at some of what they have themselves seen. It is clear, none of us wants this to be the story of the Marines.