Manning the Barricades

March 13, 2005
Nathaniel Fick

The New York Times

Cambridge, Mass. — On March 4, a car carrying several Italians including the journalist Giuliana Sgrena and a military intelligence officer, Nicola Calipari — raced along the notoriously dangerous highway leading to Baghdad International Airport. A plane was waiting to carry Ms. Sgrena home to Italy following her release after a month as a hostage. They never made it. American soldiers opened fire on the Italians' Toyota Corolla, killing Mr. Calipari and wounding Ms. Sgrena.

This tragedy resonates with me because I led Marine platoons in Afghanistan and Iraq. Standing in the dark at highway checkpoints, I've often had to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. A couple stand out.

One ended well. On the night of March 30, 2003, my platoon was one of the northernmost American units spearheading the blitz to Baghdad. As darkness fell, we set up a checkpoint on a highway north of Al Hayy, in central Iraq. Other marines were attacking from the south, and our mission was to play the anvil to their hammer, to block the escape of Baathist guerrillas. The problem, we knew, was that innocent people would also flee the American onslaught.

We strung a piece of concertina wire across the highway 100 yards ahead of our position to warn drivers to stop. Three times, I exhaled in relief as approaching headlights slowed and turned around. The fourth set of headlights was higher off the ground: a tractor-trailer. I heard mashing gears as it accelerated. At 60 miles per hour, the truck sped nearly 100 feet closer to our position every second. It crashed through the wire, still picking up speed. Even if the truck wasn't a bomb, I knew it would kill my marines and destroy our vital equipment. I ordered the platoon to fire.

Streams of red tracers poured into the cab, but still the truck hurtled toward us. I was bracing for the impact when the truck jackknifed to a halt 20 feet from our position. All night it sat, smoking, in the road. The next morning, men, women and children from Al Hayy came and danced and cheered around the bodies in the yellow truck. Only then did we know for sure that we hadn't killed innocent people. There was no satisfaction in making the ''right'' decision. It was the only decision.

Two days later, we had a similar experience, but a very different result. It began when my platoon was ambushed by Syrian jihadists wearing civilian clothes. Their bullets shattered our Humvee windshields, shredded tires and hit two marines. After evacuating our wounded, we received reports that other foreign fighters were trying to get a car bomb close to us.

Soon after, I noticed four men in a blue sedan circling our position near a small-town crossroads. Minutes later, the car turned toward us. My marines waved at the driver to pull over. The car continued forward. A short, warning burst rattled from a machine gun. The car never slowed. When it was only a second or two from our position, we aimed for the car's engine block, trying to disable the car without shooting the men. The sedan stopped, and I was momentarily grateful that we'd protected ourselves without hurting anyone. Then I trained my binoculars on the car.

A bullet had entered the driver's skull through his eye. He was pitched back in his seat, moaning and bleeding from his fatal wound. We found no weapons and no explosives in the car. The other men had no explanation for why they'd charged toward us, except that they'd been frightened and confused.
It is in the murky distinction between those two events that the significance of the Sgrena incident lies. Americans know that their troops have a right to defend themselves. But they may not know that military leaders at every level, from general to corporal, have an even stronger responsibility for the defense of those under their command. It is more than a right, it is an obligation.

The Army is conducting an investigation into this latest shooting, but I suspect that the young officer or soldier commanding that checkpoint fired at what he thought, in good faith, was an imminent threat to himself and his soldiers. The real issue is this: How can our troops address such threats without killing noncombatants?

Unfortunately, instead of helping to answer that question, the uproar after the shooting has focused on two distractions. From her hospital bed, Ms. Sgrena hinted that the Americans had tried to kill her to protest Italy's policy of negotiating with hostage-takers. Her assertion begs the questions of what the United States could possibly gain from such an act and, why, after approaching her car, the soldiers apologized and called for medical help rather than finishing the job.

More dangerous, because it sounds more plausible, is the claim that proper coordination between Italian and American authorities could have prevented the shooting. Gen. George W. Casey Jr. , the top American commander in Iraq, said Italian officials gave no advance notice of the car's intended route. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi disagrees. This dispute is a red herring. No high-level government coordination, short of an American military escort for Ms. Sgrena's car, would have changed the outcome on that highway. The pivotal players were the men on the ground.

A hallmark of modern warfare is what the Marine Corps calls the ''strategic corporal.'' The immense firepower of our troops, the haphazard nature of the Iraqi insurgency and the ever-watching eyes of the global news media combine to place decisions of strategic consequence on the shoulders of the junior-most troops. Consider the videotaped shooting of a wounded insurgent by a marine during the fight over Falluja in November, or the atrocities committed by soldiers at Abu Ghraib referred to by some in the military as ''the seven idiots that lost the war.'' The training provided to young marines and soldiers must be commensurate with the extraordinary demands we now make of them.

The fact is, checkpoint techniques can be taught. My platoon had to learn them on the fly, but that was two years ago. The lessons we and other troops learned should have been institutionalized long ago.
For example, we tried and discarded the three tactics that were used to warn the Italians as they approached the checkpoint: hand and arm signals, warning shots and shooting into the vehicle's engine block. We found that hand and arm signals were tough to decipher, and subject to different cultural interpretations. Warning shots are hard to hear or see, and frequently only panic the driver they're intended to warn. Shooting into engine blocks to avoid injuring passengers is Hollywood fantasy. Even my Marine snipers — some of the best marksmen in the world — couldn't do it consistently.

So we adapted. For example, once while driving through a town, we cut down a traffic sign — a bright, red octagon with the word ''stop'' written in Arabic — and used it at checkpoints. Who knows how many lives this simple act of theft may have saved? We also learned to shoot off highly visible smoke grenades and brightly colored flares when possible threats approached. We started putting our concertina wire at least two football fields away to give us more reaction time.

Every combat unit learns its own lessons from hard experience. The important thing is that they be passed on so they are not continually relearned at the cost of innocent lives. Americans must understand that tragic mistakes in war are unavoidable, but that every legal, moral and strategic imperative demands that they be kept to a minimum. This is our obligation to Ms. Sgrena and to Mr. Calipari's family, to the thousands of Iraqi civilians who pass through military checkpoints each day, and to the Americans who must man them and live with their decisions.

Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine captain, is a student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of the forthcoming ''One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer.''

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