THE MARINES were pressed flat on a rooftop when the dialogue began to unfold. It was 2 a.m. The minarets were flashing by the light of airstrikes and rockets were sailing on trails of sparks.
First came the voices from the mosques, rising above the thundery guns. “The Americans are here!” howled a voice from a loudspeaker in a minaret. “The Holy War, the Holy War! Get up and fight for the city of mosques!”
Bullets poured without direction and without end. No one lifted his head. “This is crazy,” one of the marines yelled to his buddy over the noise. “Yeah,” the buddy yelled back, “and we’ve only taken one house.”
And then, as if from the depths, came a new sound: violent, menacing, and dire. I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Fallujah’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.
It was AC/DC, the Australian heavy metal band, pouring out its unbridled sounds. I recognized the song immediately: “Hell’s Bells,” the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield. Behind the strains of its guitars, a church bell tolled thirteen times.
I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain
The marines raised the volume on the speakers and the sound of gunfire began to recede. Airstrikes were pulverizing the houses in front of us. In a flash, a building vanished. The voices from the mosques were hysterical in their fury, and they echoed along the city’s northern rim.
“Allahu Akbar!” cried one of the men in the mosques. “God is great!” There is nothing so glorious as to die for God’s path, your faith, and your country!”
“Allahu Akbar! God is Great!”
“Allahu Akbar! God is Great!”
The shouting continued until the houses in front of us were obliterated and the firing and the music began to die.
We broke into a trot, our boots thudding on the pavement like hooves, rounding a corner, to the right, to the left, up Tharthar Street, when a jeep, a blue Cherokee, entered our flowing ranks. The doors swung open.
I was still running and wrenching my head to see when a bunch of men piled out with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Suddenly I saw them: black eyes, pale skin, and baggy gray suits with ammo belts.
Three more jihadis died right there on Tharthar Street and two of them scampered away. A couple of kids (really-young marines) ran them down and shot them, and one of the wounded jihadis rolled over on the ground and pulled something on his jacket and exploded.
“Fuck!” the kids were yelling, running back. “Fuck! Fucking jihadi rag-head motherfuckers! They’ve rigged themselves. Fuck!”
We gathered in an enclosed area behind a brick wall, spilling into it, the clop-clop of boots and clangs of metal and heavy breathing.
There were forty of us, Bravo Company’s First Platoon, and Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson and me. More nineteen-year olds (marines) went up to the roof with their giant guns. A road lay in front of us, a six-lane boulevard, one of Fallujah’s main drags called 40th Street.
The marines opened fire at once, screaming and shooting, everybody’s guns on full auto, shouting and shooting. All the testosterone of forty young men. They clambered for space along the top of the wall where they could fire, standing on oil drums and old washing machines.
I stood against the bricks, the boots of the kids level with my head, and felt strangely safe, almost serene against the roar of the guns. The one safe place. Bullet casings tumbled over my shoulders.
Captain Read Omohundro (the34-year old stocky Texan and the Commander of Bravo Company, First battalion, Eighth Marine) was on his knee, and his radio man, Sergeant Kenneth Hudson was handing him the radio. Omohundro yelled something and the American artillery started coming in.
One shot after another landed on the building from which the gunfire was coming, one of them Mohammadiya Mosque. The artillery was too accurate to believe; American guys a mile back were dropping 155 mm howitzer shells right through the ceilings, one after the other after other, each one coming in with the whistle of a train.
I kept running, pumping, flying toward the other side as fast as I could with my seventy pounds of gear when I saw a pair of marines standing in a doorway and waving me to come on, come on.
I ran straight for them and I could see by the looks on their faces they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They were holding their arms out like they wanted to save me, and I reached them and they grabbed me by my pack and threw me through the door.
I found Ashley lying against a wall; he nodded that he was okay. Then I found Captain Omohundro, who had planted himself on the second floor. Steady as a brick. He was standing next to a window, scanning the scene, and he raised his hand over his shoulder and asked for the radio. Snapped his fingers.
“Hudson, radio,” Omohundro said.
Hudson was one of five guys hit crossing 40th Street; he lived. Sergeant Lonny Wells, of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, bled to death on the spot, right in front of us. His worried eyes looking upward as his life ebbed away.
The shooting began to fade. I looked out the window with Omohundro. We were standing across the street from the Mohammadiya Mosque, badly damaged and smoking but still resplendent with its shot-up green dome. A squad of bedraggled marines were circling the mosque, moving around and peering into the windows but not venturing inside.
The U.S. Marine Corps later announced that it won’t prosecute that Marine corporal, who was not identified, for his actions. In a statement, Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski said that an investigation including a review of the videotape of the shooting had determined that the Marine's action "was consistent with the established rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict."
According to press reports, General Natonski said that the Marine corporal involved in the shooting could reasonably have assumed that the wounded Iraqi posed a threat. The general said that the tape showed the Iraqi fighter's left arm was concealed behind his head, and that feigning death or serious injury was a common tactic among insurgents who would then continue to fight.
This operation was the second major operation in Fallujah. Earlier, in April 2004, Coalition Forces fought the First Battle of Fallujah in order to capture or kill insurgent elements considered responsible for the deaths of a Blackwater Security team.