But it was a decade earlier, during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, that Staff Sergeant Blount really learned what war was. In this remarkable novella, riveting in its action, shocking in its candor, we see through his eyes as Blount and his comrades discover that the limits of what men will do, both for good and evil, go beyond anything they ever imagined; that the line between friend and enemy is much more complicated than they thought -- and that courage and mercy come in the most surprising of forms.
At the time of his retirement as a senior master sergeant in 2013, Tom Young had logged nearly five thousand hours as a flight engineer for the Air National Guard in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and elsewhere. He is also the author of The Mullah’s Storm, Silent Enemy, The Renegade, and The Warriors.
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About the Author
Young holds degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and studied writing there and at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, among other places. Besides his five previous novels The Mullah’s Storm, Silent Enemy, The Renegades, The Warriors, and Sand and Fire, he is also the author of the Sand and Fire eBook special Phantom Fury, and the oral history The Speed of Heat: An Airlift Wing at War in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young also contributed to the anthologyOperation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
TO: Captain Anderson Sheehan
FROM: Staff Sergeant A. E. Blount
RE: After-action report, Operation Phantom Fury (8 November 2004)
UNCLASSIFIED/FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
You asked me to summarize the actions of First Platoon during the Second Battle of Fallujah, and to describe what we found in that house. To give you information for your report, the best I know to do is tell you everything I can remember in the order it happened. I don’t really like to think about the day we searched that house, but I’ll try to provide a factual account when I come to that part. To help the intel folks who might read this and didn’t go through the School of Infantry, I’ll explain the tactics when I need to.
Our interpreter, Mohammed al-Duri, joined us right before we moved into the town. We called him Snoop Dogg. Some of the guys said he looked like the rapper because he was skinny and had that same kind of mustache and goatee. I thought that was a stretch, but we had to call him something because we didn’t use his real name out loud. Couldn’t risk the wrong people knowing his identity. Snoop even wore a camo bandanna over his face most of the time so the insurgents couldn’t get a good look at him.
He handled the equipment like he’d done it all before. He’d even picked up some of our customs and courtesies like calling officers “sir,” which he didn’t have to do. So I got the feeling he’d worked this job for a while.
When we started the attack, on 8 November 2004, we knew we had a mess on our hands. Personally, I think it would have been a whole lot better if they’d let us finish the job we started with the first battle back in April. But as you know, sir, they held us back until November. The bad guys had all that time to set up booby traps, IEDs, weapons caches, and fallback positions. Nobody but a fool would’ve said we weren’t scared.
But we were mad, too. Fallujah was where those four Blackwater guys got all tore up and hung from that bridge. And we knew the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in town somewhere. Everybody had seen the video where he sawed off the head of that American contractor, Nick Berg. I can still hear the screams from that video, and it makes me sick to my stomach. We all wanted to get our hands on Zarqawi. Anything we could have done would have been too good for him.
On that first day, our platoon of thirty men staged on the northern edge of the town. Farther to the west, other platoons got ready to step off. Looking south, you could see a bunch of houses surrounded by compound walls, with antennas and oil drums sticking up on the roofs. Rain had fallen the night before, so it was wet and dreary. No traffic moved on the streets. Hardly any signs of life at all.
Just before we crossed the line of departure, we heard some kind of announcement coming from the minaret of one of the mosques. I don’t speak a word of Arabic, but it didn’t sound like the normal call to prayer. Corporal Lane sent for Snoop Dogg. We crouched behind an up-armored Humvee and watched him while he listened. He wore digital camo and a helmet like the rest of us, but that helmet was too big for him. No matter how tight he fixed the chin strap, the helmet tilted to the side of his head. And even with his bandanna, you could see his face get all serious from what he heard over that PA.
“This is not good,” Snoop said. “The imam says the Americans and Jews have come to defame Islam and steal our oil.” He listened for a few more seconds and said, “The Marines will rape our women and molest our children. Allah commands that you fight them to the death.”
Lane looked in the direction of the mosque and said, “Just keep talking your shit, hajji.”
The imam guy sounded like he was rallying the home guard. But he was preaching to foreigners, mainly. Most of the Iraqis had left their houses, and Snoop told us what to expect from the enemy.
“These are very bad men,” Snoop said. “They come from Syria, Yemen, Chechnya. Many of them have fought before.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked him.
Snoop looked at me like I scared him. I guess he hadn’t seen a six-foot, eight-inch black man before, and he didn’t know me real well yet. I didn’t know him well, either. And the Iraqis sure hadn’t given me a whole lot of reasons to trust them. We’d already lost Marines in places where the locals talk all friendly, and then the next day a patrol gets blown up by an IED in the middle of a crowded neighborhood. And when you ask your new friends who buried the IED, nobody’s seen nothing.
“I used to live here,” Snoop said. “I know these streets. Men have come here who do not belong. They speak Arabic with different accents. Some do not speak Arabic at all. Most Iraqis wish to live in peace, but these foreigners seek only jihad and martyrdom.”
“Then let’s give it to ’em,” Lane said.
We started moving into the town, and if hell has a street address, I believe we found it. Each block had twenty or thirty houses, most of them surrounded by courtyard walls made of cement or cinder blocks. Every single one of them could have served as a hardened defensive position for the enemy, and a lot of them did. Between the houses you had shops with rollup aluminum shutters and some parking lots full of rubble, derelict cars, pipes, wires, and rebar. Every few steps you’d get a whiff of garbage or sewage. Never saw such a mess.
Off on our left flank we could hear rifle fire crackling as some of the other companies made contact. Now and then you’d hear the crump of a grenade, and I always wondered if it was ours or theirs. I knew we’d get our turn, and we didn’t have to wait long.
Right before we got to the first street intersection, I heard this pop, pop, pop, pop. Everybody took whatever cover they could find. Me and Lane and Snoop kneeled at the back of a shot-up car. I had a rifle with a grenade launcher mounted underneath. Corporal Cooper dropped behind a busted-down wall with his M16. Cooper also had his M40 sniper rifle slung in a case across his back. He carried a PRC-148, and I could hear him talking on that radio to our platoon commander, Lieutenant Kelley.
“Corporal C, Hammer One Actual,” Kelley said. “What you got?”
“Hajjis in the house on the southeast corner of the intersection, sir,” Cooper said. “They got the whole crossroads covered pretty good.”
I eased up to the front of the car to see better. Caught a glimpse of a man with a gun inside the house. He wore a dark track suit and a red-and-white checkered head scarf. He fired, and a bullet pinged off the bumper. I told Snoop and Lane to stay down, and I keyed my mike.
“Hammer One Actual, Hammer One Bravo,” I said. “I see where they’re at. Got positive ID on an armed bad guy. Lay me down some covering fire and I’ll put a grenade through the window.”
I squeezed the latch on the M203 and slid the barrel forward. By the time I dropped in the round and clicked the barrel back into place, everybody opened up. You could see bullets kicking up dust all around the busted-out window where the insurgents were hiding. I laid my weapon across the hood of the car and shot the grenade.
That 40-millimeter round sailed right through the window. When it blew up, dust boiled through the window, and we didn’t hear any more firing from inside.
Lane and Snoop were yelling “Good shot” and “You got ’em,” and I thought so, too. But when we moved forward and I kicked down the door, we didn’t find a soul. Like they’d just melted away. Nothing left but their shell casings—and not one drop of blood.
Lieutenant Kelley told us to search the house. In the back room they had knocked a hole in the bottom of the rear wall, and across the alley we found another hole in a courtyard wall.
“Oh, shit,” Kelley said. “I bet those sons of bitches have punched out rat holes all over Fallujah.”
Right then I knew this was going to be a whole lot harder than we thought. They had the whole town set up for defense-in-depth.
“They have had months to prepare,” Snoop said. Talked kinda quiet as he said that.
When we left the house, we did it real careful since the hajjis couldn’t have gone far. Lane and I took a knee at the front doorway, aimed our weapons out to slice the pie and scan for threats. Didn’t see any targets, and we ran outside one at a time.
That’s when Lane got the platoon’s first kill.
A dude came running across the street with a pistol. Not one of the hajjis I’d seen before; this guy wore an untucked shirt and a pair of dungarees. And he used the stupidest tactics in the world—just ran out there in front of God and everybody, and fired in our general direction. Like he thought this was some kind of party. Lane opened up with his M16 and dropped him right in the middle of the street.
He was bleeding out by the time we got to him. The corpsman tried to seal the chest wounds, but it wasn’t any use. Pitiful sight, too. That boy couldn’t have been twenty. His blood flowing out of him mixed with that powdery dirt, so it looked like thick tomato soup had spilled all under him. He kept trying to talk, so we yelled for Snoop.
When Snoop started listening, he got this sad look on his face. He spoke to the boy real soft in Arabic.
“What’s he saying, Snoop?” I asked.
“He says the imam told him God would shield him from your bullets. But he says his sins must have been so great that the shield did not work.”
Right then I wished I could have traded that boy’s life for the imam who taught him that foolishness. Send a poor untrained fella out against U.S. Marines with nothing but a Makarov handgun and a head full of nonsense. Just a child, really. Should have been in a classroom learning something useful instead of committing suicide. I asked Snoop what he said back to the boy.
“I told him he was misguided but not damned. That Allah will forgive his sins if his heart is pure.”
I hadn’t known Snoop but for two days. My opinion of him went up right much when he said that. Maybe he eased that boy’s passing a little. Over the next few days I changed my mind a couple of times about Snoop, though, but I’ll get to that later.
Lane looked real shook up. He kept his eyes off the boy he’d killed. Just took cover behind a pile of bricks and kept watch down the street. I ran over to him and slid down on my kneepads behind the bricks. Can’t say I knew him very well, but I had taught him a few one-on-one sessions in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. A good man, I figured, and I aimed to keep him that way.
“You maintaining, Marine?” I asked him.
He just stared way off and said, “This sucks, Staff Sergeant.”
“We’re in the suck, Lane. That’s just how it is. You followed your rules of engagement.”
“Fuck the ROE.”
I could see Lane was pretty rattled, and we needed everybody’s head in the game.
“Corporal,” I said, “you didn’t kill that boy. These terrorists out here hiding behind children killed that boy. You need to pack this thing way down at the bottom of your sea bag, ’cause we got a long way to go.” I clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a shake.
“Aye, Staff Sergeant,” Lane said. I didn’t know if he was listening to me or if he just wanted me to leave him alone. But it was the best I could do for him at the time. We had a lot of blocks to clear before we got down to Route Michigan, or Highway 10. And once we started pushing the insurgents south of Route Michigan, it would get worse as we bottled them up. Kinda like herding a bunch of water moccasins into a bend in a creek.
TO: Captain Anderson Sheehan
FROM: Staff Sergeant A. E. Blount
RE: After-action report, Operation Phantom Fury (evening, 8 November 2004 into 9 November 2004)
UNCLASSIFIED/FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
The night passed pretty quiet, for Iraq at least. We took shelter in the last house and courtyard that we cleared. We took turns keeping watch, and we also set out trip flares to keep anybody from sneaking up on us. Snoop Dogg listened for announcements over loudspeakers from mosques.
We could see tracers going up whenever an aircraft passed over, but the planes and helicopters always flew with their lights off. The bad guys would hear the noise and just shoot up at it, so they didn’t hit nothing. But what that told me was they had plenty of ammunition, and they looked for any excuse to use it.
They waited for daylight to shoot at us. I reckon they didn’t have night vision goggles, or if they did, they didn’t have them good as ours. But the firing started that morning as soon as the sun came up.