What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought Itby Trish Wood
The first bombs of Operation Iraqi Freedom rained down on Baghdad on March 20, 2003. Since then, roughly one million young Americans have rotated through Iraq. Nevertheless, with the facts on the ground being filtered through the media, the military, the White House, and political bias in both directions, we know shockingly little about what the American men and women… See more details below
The first bombs of Operation Iraqi Freedom rained down on Baghdad on March 20, 2003. Since then, roughly one million young Americans have rotated through Iraq. Nevertheless, with the facts on the ground being filtered through the media, the military, the White House, and political bias in both directions, we know shockingly little about what the American men and women on the front lines really experience.
With this extraordinary book, all that changes.
What Was Asked of Us is the first unvarnished, unfiltered, and uncensored history of the Iraq war-straight from the mouths of the men and women who are fighting it. Based on scores of in-depth interviews, What Was Asked of Us takes us from the initial invasion to the present. We meet soldiers who reveal in their own words their greatest triumphs, most devastating defeats, and darkest secrets-like Daniel Cotnoir, a Mortuary Affairs officer who spent his days retrieving the bodies and body parts of fallen soldiers; Seth Moulton a Harvard-educated officer who led a surreal battle amid the graves in an ancient Iraqi cemetery; Travis Williams, a Marine who lost all of his squad mates in an IED attack; and Tania Quiñones, an Army National Guard MP deployed to Baghdad, who had to deal with frustrated locals and sexist comrades.
They tell us about their lives and careers, their families back home, their days and nights, the Iraqis they've encountered, the fear and the courage and the challenges of fighting a war when the enemy is everywhere and nowhere at once. They tell us things they've told no one, not even their families.
By turns inspiring and heartbreaking, What Was Asked of Us is a landmark book, the first time our troops in Iraq have been able to speak at length about their experiences. From the thrilling highs (a spectacular rush by the 3rd Infantry Division into Baghdad) to the devastating lows (an account of what it was like to be a soldier at Abu Ghraib, witnessing the abuse of prisoners), this book lets the troops speak for themselves. As a result, it offers the most emotionally powerful and revealing account of the war and is necessary reading for anyone who cares about our soldiers and our country.
War is always a confusing and kaleidoscopic affair. What the planners visualize is always seen quite differently by the commanders charged with carrying out the plan. Likewise, the “boots on the ground” soldiers who do most of the actual fighting have a much different viewpoint. The reports by media correspondents usually are still more unlike. No wonder that the low-ranking infantrymen see themselves as isolated from everything that is going on. Their view of overall strategy and tactics may be hazy at best, but their own dangerous world is always in sharp focus. Trish Wood, an award-winning Canadian journalist, interviewed some 40 veterans of the struggle in Iraq, nearly all of them lower-ranking Army and Marine “grunts,” most of whom were typically sheltered American teenagers when they enlisted, and who left the service after returning to the US. The ghastliness of warfare is seen through their shocked eyes, spiced with the horrors particular to urban conflict with terrorists who look like the people they are trying to protect. In one sense, Wood’s choice of interview subjects is skewed toward the young and impressionable. However, in the sense of revealing just what it is like to endure endless ambushes, sniper attacks and roadside bombings, her choices could not have been better. Reports and news stories can never adequately tell the folks back home about the terror, the poignancy, and sheer revulsion felt by the young Americans who find themselves at the sharp end of the nation’s spear. Indeed, as author Wood listened to these tales, she must have experienced some combat fatigue herself. Reviewer: Raymond Puffer, Ph.D.
March 2008 (Vol. 42, No.2)
- Little, Brown and Company
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What Was Asked of UsOral History of the Iraq War by Soldiers Who Fought It
By Trish Wood
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Trish Wood
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWinners and Losers
If you ask people when the American military campaign in Iraq ran into trouble, chances are most would point to the looting and lawlessness that happened right after the fall of Baghdad. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that the actual push to Baghdad was a huge success, the product of brilliant planning by the finest military strategists in the world. According to this interpretation, nothing went seriously wrong until after Saddam Hussein's regime toppled and there were not enough boots on the ground to maintain law and order. President George W. Bush pushed that theme even further when he suggested, incongruously, that the problems besetting the ongoing Iraq campaign were the result of phase one being too successful - "catastrophic success" was the phrase the president used.
As a result, specific battles on the way to Baghdad - some particularly intense and deadly - are either largely unknown by the general public or gravely misunderstood. Nasiriya is best remembered as the place where Jessica Lynch, the most famous army private in America, was taken prisoner by Iraqi forces after her 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn - a common confusion during the invasion.
However, the marines of Task Force Tarawa remember it as the place where they first ran into heavy andsomewhat unexpected resistance on a meat-grinder urban battlefield. It is the place where a brave marine plunged directly into the maw of hell to rescue fallen comrades. (If life were fair, Justin LeHew would also be a household name.) Later in the day, that same gunnery sergeant would have to console the young survivors of a "friendly fire" aerial bombardment that wiped out still more marines. And it was in Nasiriya that it first became clear that the enemy in Iraq would frequently look more like a civilian than a combatant.
The early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom saw the first suicide bombing by an Iraqi against American forces, a phenomenon that still unsettles Americans fighting in Iraq. On March 29, 2003, just over a week into the war, four young men from the 3rd Infantry Division were killed when an Iraqi officer in a taxicab blew himself up at a checkpoint they were manning near Najaf. It was unexpected, shocking even, and news of the deaths spread quickly among the troops. The Iraqi officer's commitment to "martyrdom" suggested that, far from capitulating, some Iraqis were prepared to turn themselves into deadly weapons to keep the Americans out. In that instant, the message became clear: the liberation of Iraq was not going to run as smoothly as its planners had suggested it would.
"It went on the whole night" Thomas Smith Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Tank Battalion 2nd Marine Division March-July 2003 Invasion Force Bronze Star (for valor)
I joined straight out of high school. My neighborhood wasn't the best, so I wanted to get away from there. I figured if I stayed and went to college close by home, I'd probably get into more trouble. It was a pretty bad neighborhood. My friends were into drugs and stuff like that, so I tried to stay away from that. I mean, I would do things with my friends. I never really got in trouble. I guess you could say I was never caught doing things.
It wasn't definite until the day I left for boot camp because I wasn't really sure if that's what I wanted, if it was the right thing to do. I guess everyone feels that way, being nervous about boot camp.
If you join the military, sooner or later, if you stay in long enough, you're going to be in some kind of conflict. So I figured, you know, whether we're going there for the wrong reasons or the right reasons, we got to go. This is what we joined for, and this is what they pay all the money to train us for. So might as well go do what we have to do.
When I got to the unit, I was there for about six months. And then they let us know that there was a chance that they would send the whole battalion over to Kuwait to be there for the war. They started telling us this about November '02, that there was a chance. They started hinting at it. And then we got the word that we were going to go to Kuwait right after we got back from Christmas leave, and that was in the beginning of January.
Kuwait was pretty stressful. People started getting impatient. A month went by, and people were wondering what was going to happen. There was a lot of arguing and cursing at each other, and there was people taking people's stuff because people would run out of things.
I hung out with a couple of the guys, just the three of us usually all together, all the time. We would sneak around playing practical jokes, but no one would ever catch us doing it. Some people didn't really take going to war seriously, so they brought air mattresses out there to lie on and different things. So we'd go and pop their air mattress or let the air out while they were sleeping. There were spiders running around - we'd throw spiders on people's faces. We'd steal people's candy and just kick people's gear around and throw gear on them and hide stuff on them. There was a couple of nights where we'd have practical jokes on pretty much the whole tent we were living in. It made us feel good because it gave us a laugh, and it kind of kept our minds off of things. The higher-ranking guys didn't really like it because it bothered them, and they wanted us to act professional and stuff, but it's going to happen anyway. They could never stop it.
They didn't tell us a name of the operation, they just told us - I think it was about March 18th or 17th - they told us we were going to go. It was the middle of the night when they woke us up. We packed all our stuff up, and then right as we're getting ready to leave, someone had a radio to listen to the BBC, so we actually heard Bush talking about the forty-eight hours and what was going to happen. Then they just moved us out toward a strategic place in the desert that was a little bit closer to the border. Everyone drove in a long single-file column, and we did it at night. We were actually early, I think, about four or five hours earlier than everyone else. Our mission was to go and secure the oil fields in the south, so I think we actually went over the border first.
A lot of guys didn't have night vision goggles, so they couldn't see. They would get lost, so we were constantly going around in circles, picking people up, and it took a lot longer than it should have.
You could see the explosions. It looked like a big thunderstorm without the clouds. You just see the flashes like that. You just kept seeing that and seeing it, and we just got closer and closer to it, and for the first couple of hours was more or less trying to get organized because people were getting lost, and we were picking people up, and it got kind of frustrating. I wanted to get in there and do what we had to do, and I didn't want to keep going around and finding people. And I think it was frustrating to everyone else that not everyone had the gear they should have had. We weren't on roads at the time, and you really couldn't see. You would hear the call come over the radio that we lost a column; we don't know where the column is. Then we'd have to tell the guys not to move, and we'd go back. We'd look on the maps and see where their last position was and go around that area.
The tanks were just going through and annihilating everything. We were behind them, but by the time we got to where the tanks had gone through, there wasn't really much going on. It wasn't until we got closer to Baghdad that they got smart and let the tanks go through, and then they would hit the Humvees, knowing that they can do more damage to the Humvees than they could to the tanks.
Then the guy in charge of the logistics of the battalion decided he was going to bring the doctor up with the tanks, right behind the tanks and everything that was happening, because he figured if things were going to get hairy, at least the doctor would be right there to take care of people. You have the doctor and me, and then there was another corpsman mixed in with the tanks and stuff. I didn't have a really good feeling about what was going on. You've got all these armored vehicles, and then you've got a Humvee that technically is not supposed to shoot at anyone until we get fired at.
When you've got tanks, I mean, they don't move that fast to begin with, and they're big machines. And when you've got these big things having to double back on themselves, it's a good opportunity for the enemy to really take advantage of them. Anyway, we just filed behind the tanks, and then about ten minutes into it, we got a call over the radio that one of our lieutenants was down. Now you've got tanks on both sides of the road, and they're shooting at the enemy, and they've got their turrets swerving, and you don't want to crash into a turret because it will take out the whole top of the ambulance. We're swerving in and out of that. We're following the logistics officer in front of us. He would escort us to where we had to go and let us know what was going on.
About halfway into the call, the word came over that the lieutenant was KIA and that there was a captain that was shot in the face a little bit behind where we had already drove past, so we went back to get him. We pulled up to him, and people were yelling and screaming, telling me, "The fucking captain's down. You gotta get him. He's down. What do we do?" Guys were cursing at me and yelling at me and stuff.
I was the first one to get to the captain. There was so much blood on his face, I wasn't really sure where he was hit, so I was asking him if he could talk. I was like, if you can talk, sir, tell me where you're hit. And he couldn't really say anything, so I knew from him not being able to talk that he was either shot in his face or probably his throat. It turns out he was shot in his cheek, and it went out the back behind his ear somewhere, if I remember right.
Right as I started talking with him, the doctor came over. The doctor started treating him, and you can hear the ching, ching, ching of the rounds coming in all around us. So the captain I was with called over the radio for them to come and give us some security. Another truck pulled up, and some guys got out, and they were surrounding us in a three sixty, and they were shooting wherever the enemy fire was coming from.
We were in the middle of a street in a residential area. There was buildings and warehouses all around us, so you really couldn't see where things were coming from, because these guys would shoot through little holes in fences and stuff, or the metal gates that were down, or they would make holes and shoot through them. You'd just see little muzzle flashes and stuff. Or they'd be hiding in ditches. A lot of them-they would pour oil in a ditch and light it on fire, and they'd shoot from behind the smoke so you couldn't see them. They were kind of smart on concealing themselves, so you really couldn't see where it was coming from. You just had to shoot where you thought - where you heard the pings coming from.
We were taking care of the captain, loading him into the ambulance, and just as I was jumping in, a round came through the window and shot my driver. He was shot in his hand, and all this blood had spattered on his face and mine, and he got a little woozy, so I jumped out and pulled him out of the driver's seat, and I started driving. I was trying to drive out of the chaos. There was rounds coming in. They were bouncing off the front of the truck. There were RPGs flying over our head, over the tanks, into buildings. It was just ... All hell broke loose.
We were getting calls over the radio: "We have guys down here, guys down here." I was getting out of the truck, and I'd shoot my way to where I'd think things were coming from and get to a truck or a Humvee where someone was down and speak with them. If they needed to come into the ambulance, I'd pull them into the ambulance, and we ended up filling the whole thing up. We had one, two, three, four - we had six guys in the ambulance at one time. I couldn't even fit in the back of the ambulance to help anybody. So I just stayed outside and was security for the ambulance, and I was just shooting everywhere.
As I was shooting, I took a round to my flak jacket, and it knocked me to the ground. I thought, You gotta be kidding me! It feels like you're hit all over. So I kind of was freaking out about that. It kind of knocked the wind out of me, and then right as I was getting up they called in a helicopter, and the helicopter just came and annihilated the building that we were taking heavy fire from. Just blew it into pieces with missiles and gunfire. I was yelling and screaming. People were saying, "Fuck you. Yeah. This is great. This is great." You know, "Get some. Kill those bastards!" So it was a big morale boost when the helicopter came in and did that. They'd had us pinned down.
I was thinking, If it's like this now, I can only imagine what it's going to be like when we get into Baghdad, because that was crazy. It was just nuts the amount of stuff that was happening and people that were getting hurt. It seemed like it lasted forever, but it lasted about a half hour, twenty minutes to a half hour. It wasn't even that long. Of eight guys that we took care of, one of them was killed. Seven had gunshot wounds, and the eighth guy that we took care of, who was a 1st sergeant, was hit with shrapnel. If they were shot in the lungs, you would do what you could to help them breathe. You would patch them up to control the bleeding and just put them in a position that would make them comfortable. There was one guy that got shot in the ribs, and that was the first time I had ever seen an exposed rib before. I couldn't believe that he was standing there talking to me with his rib hanging out. That was pretty weird. I just remember asking him if he had any more ammo, because at that time I was already outside shooting, and I went in and asked him if he had any more ammo, and I remember him telling me, "Here you go, Doc." And he gave me about three of his magazines and he goes, "Go out there and do what you got to do." That kind of ... That stuck with me because it helped me get a little bit more motivated.
The 1st sergeant being killed was probably the worst thing because he was supposed to retire. His retirement was on hold, and the guy had a family. They called us on the radio and said he was down. At the time we got to him, they called, "Gas, gas, gas," so things just got a little bit nuts because we had to put our gas masks on, and this guy is two hundred fifty pounds. He's a big man. And we had to carry him. I almost passed out picking him up and carrying him into the ambulance, me and a couple of other guys, because once you get that gas mask on, it's hard to breathe. And then you've got to carry this big guy, and it just takes a lot out of you. And it was in the middle of the day. It was hot. It was a long day of shooting, and the doctor is trying to take care of him, and you got a gas mask on now, and it's just nuts. You can barely see what's going on. The doctor was trying to put a tube down his throat to help him breathe, and he can barely do that because he couldn't see the landmarks he needed to see to do it. It was a closed head wound so everything was on the inside. It was really nothing you could see. The only thing you could see was that his pupils were pinpointed, which means they were just small, and they were both fixed. So whether you put light in his eye or not, there was no change in them. So that's when you know he's got a real bad head injury. There was maybe a little bit of blood on his head, but it wasn't much. He was just lifeless, really. He just looked like he was sleeping.
I felt we could have did more if we were in a better situation to help this guy, but - it's just that everything went against him. I knew he was in pretty bad shape. I didn't think he was going to come out of it anytime soon, but I didn't think he was going to die, and he ended up dying. The guy shouldn't even have been there. He was retired, ready to go.
Later on the same night as the big ambush, not too far from where it happened, we set up a little security area where no one can get into where we were. We ended up staying for over twenty-four hours straight, and we had all the major roads blocked off, and we constantly had to deal with vehicles coming in. That was a ... long night.
Civilian vehicles were not seeing the warning shots. We would use tracer rounds so they could see it coming over their cars, but we ended up having to shoot to kill. Those were just by mistake. You know, these people didn't really realize what was happening, and they got nervous and drove right into our roadblock, and we had no choice but to, you know, but to take them out. We had to shoot to kill because we weren't sure if they were suicide bombers or not.
Excerpted from What Was Asked of Us by Trish Wood Copyright © 2006 by Trish Wood. Excerpted by permission.
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