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Letter from a GI in Falluja:
“This Wasn’t a War, It Was a Massacre”

by hEkLe
December 6, 2004
First Published in GI Special

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The following letter from a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq, known as hEkLe, powerfully conveys the terror of the U.S. assault on Falluja. It was published in GI Special, a daily Internet newsletter that gathers news and information helpful to soldiers and military families. You can find an archive of the GI Special updated with each new issue at hEkLe and several fellow soldiers have a Web log that they regularly update with essays at

These are ugly times for the U.S. military in Iraq. It seems everywhere you turn, more and more troops are being killed and maimed in vicious encounters with determined rebel fighters.

The insurgency is mounting incredibly in such places as Baghdad, Mosul and Baquba, using more advanced techniques and weaponry associated with a well-organized guerilla campaign. Even in the massively destroyed city of Falluja, rebel forces are starting to reappear with a callous determination to win or die trying. Many critics and political pundits are starting to realize that this war is, in many aspects, un-winnable.

And why should anyone think that a complete victory is possible? Conventionally, our U.S. forces win territory here or there, killing a plethora of civilians as well as insurgents with each new boundary conquered. However, such as the recent case in Falluja, the rebel fighters have returned like a swarm of angry hornets, attacking with a vicious frenzy.

I was in Falluja during the last two days of the final assault.

My mission was much different from that of the brave and weary infantry and Marines involved in the major fighting.

I was on an escort mission, accompanied by a squad whose task it was to protect a high brass figure in the combat zone.

This particularly arrogant officer went to the last battle in the same spirit of an impartial spectator checking out the fourth quarter of a high school football game.

Once we got to the Marine-occupied Camp Falluja and saw artillery being fired into town, the man suddenly became desperate to play an active role in the battle that would render Falluja to ashes. It was already rumored that all he really wanted was his trigger time, perhaps to prove that he is the toughest cowboy west of the Euphrates.

Guys like him are a dime a dozen in the army: a career soldier who spent the first 20 years of his service patrolling the Berlin Wall or guarding the DMZ between North and South Korea. This sort of brass may have been lucky to serve in the first Gulf War, but in all actuality spent very little time shooting rag heads.

For these trigger-happy tough guys, the last two decades of Cold War hostilities built into a war frenzy of stark emptiness, fizzling out almost completely with the Clinton administration.

But this is the New War, a never-ending, action-packed “Red Scare” in which the communist threat of yesteryear was simply replaced with the white knuckled tension of today’s “war on terrorism.”

The younger soldiers who grew up in relatively peaceful times interpret the mentality of the careerists as one of making up for lost opportunities. To the elder generation of trigger pullers, this is the real deal; the chance to use all the cool toys and high speed training that has been stored away since the ’70s for something tangibly useful...and it’s about goddamn time.

However, upon reaching the front lines, a safety standard was in effect stating that the urban combat was extremely intense. The lightest armored vehicles allowed in sector were Bradley tanks.

Taking a glance at our armored humvees, this commander insisted that our section would be fine. Even though the armored humvees are very stout and nearly impenetrable against small-arms fire, they usually don’t hold up well against rocket attacks and roadside bombs, like a heavily armored tank will. The reports from within the war zone indicated heavy rocket attacks, with an armed insurgent waiting on every corner for a soft target such as trucks.

In the end, the overzealous officer was urged not to infiltrate into sector with only three trucks, for it would be a death wish during those dangerous twilight hours. It was suggested that in the morning, after the air strikes were complete, he could move in and “inspect the damage.”

Even as the sun was setting over the hazy orange horizon, artillery was pounding away at the remaining 12 percent of the already devastated Falluja.

Many units were pulled out for the evening in preparation of a full-scale air strike that was scheduled to last for up to 12 hours.

Our squad was sitting on top of our parked humvees, manning the crew-served machine guns and scanning the urban landscape for enemy activity. This was supposed to be a secured forward operating area, right on the edge of the combat zone. However, with no barbed wire perimeter set up and only a few scattered tanks serving as protection, one was under the assumption that if someone missed a minor detail while on guard, some serious shit could go down.

One soldier informed me that only two nights prior, an insurgent was caught sneaking around the bullet-ridden houses to our immediate west. He was armed with a rocket-propelled grenade and was laying low on his advance towards the perimeter. One of the tanks spotted him through its night vision and hastily shot him into three pieces. Indeed, though it was safe enough to smoke a cigarette and relax, one had to remain diligently aware of his surroundings if he planned on making it through the night.

As the evening wore on and the artillery continued, a new gruesome roar filled the sky.

The fighter jets were right on time and made their grand appearance with a series of massive air strikes. Between the pernicious bombs and fierce artillery, the sky seemed as though it were on fire for several minutes at a time. First, you would see a blaze of light in the horizon, like lightning hitting a dynamite warehouse, and then hear the massive explosion that would turn your stomach, rattle your eyeballs and compress itself deep within your lungs. Although these massive bombs were being dropped no further than five kilometers away, it felt like it was happening right in front of your face.

At first, it was impossible not to flinch with each unexpected boom, but after scores of intense explosions, your senses became aware and complacent towards them.

At times, the jets would scream menacingly low over the city and open fire with smaller missiles meant for extreme accuracy. This is what Top Gun, in all its glory and silver screen acclaim, seemed to be lacking in the movie’s high budget sound effects.

These air-deployed missiles make a banshee-like squeal, sort of like a bottle rocket fueled with plutonium, and then suddenly would become inaudible. Seconds later, the colossal explosion would rip the sky open and hammer devastatingly into the ground, sending flames and debris pummeling into the air.

And as always, the artillery--some rounds were high explosive, some were illumination rounds, some were reported as being white phosphorus (the modern-day napalm).

Occasionally, on the outskirts of the isolated impact area, you could hear tanks firing machine guns and blazing their cannons. It was amazing that anything could survive this deadly onslaught. Suddenly, a transmission came over the radio approving the request for “bunker-busters.” Apparently, there were a handful of insurgent compounds that were impenetrable by artillery. At the time, I was unaware when these bunker-busters were deployed, but I was told later that the incredibly massive explosions were a direct result of these “final solution”-type missiles.

I continued to watch the final assault on Falluja throughout the night from atop my humvee.

It was interesting to scan the vast skies above with night-vision goggles. Circling continuously overhead throughout the battle was an array of attack helicopters. The most devastating were the Cobras and Apaches with their chain-gun missile launchers.

Through the night vision, I could see them hovering around the carnage, scanning the ground with an infrared spotlight that seemed to reach for miles. Once a target was identified, a rapid series of hollow blasts would echo through the skies, and from the ground came a “rat-a-tatting” of explosions, like a daisy chain of supercharged black cats during a Fourth of July barbeque.

More artillery, more tanks, more machine gun fire, ominous death-dealing fighter planes terminating whole city blocks at a time...this wasn’t a war, it was a massacre!

As I look back on the air strikes that lasted well into the next morning, I cannot help but be both amazed by our modern technology and disgusted by its means.

It occurred to me many times during the siege that while the Falluja resistance was boldly fighting us with archaic weapons from the Cold War, we were soaring far above their heads, dropping Thor’s fury with a destructive power and precision that may as well been nuclear. It was like the Iraqis were bringing a knife to a tank fight.

And yet, the resistance toiled on, many fighting until their deaths. What determination!

Some soldiers call them stupid for even thinking they have a chance in hell to defeat the strongest military in the world, but I call them brave. It’s not about fighting to win an immediate victory. And what is a conventional victory in a non-conventional war?

It seems overwhelmingly obvious that this is no longer within the United States hands.

We reduced Falluja to rubble. We claimed victory and told the world we held Falluja under total and complete control. Our military claimed very few civilian casualties and listed thousands of insurgents dead. CNN and Fox News harped and cheered on the television that the battle of Falluja would go down in history as a complete success, and a testament to the United States’ supremacy on the modern battlefield.

However, after the dust settled, and generals sat in cozy offices smoking their victory cigars, the front lines in Falluja exploded again with indomitable mortar, rocket, and small-arm attacks on U.S. and coalition forces.

Recent reports indicate that many insurgents have resurfaced in the devastated city of Falluja. We had already claimed the situation under control and were starting to turn our attention to the other problem city of Mosul. Suddenly, we were backtracking our attention to Falluja. Did the Department of Defense and the national press lie to the public and claim another preemptive victory?

Not necessarily so. Conventionally, we won the battle--how could anyone argue that? We destroyed an entire city and killed thousands of its occupants. But the main issue that both the military and public forget to analyze is that this war, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is completely guerrilla.

Sometimes I wonder if the West Point-graduated officers have ever studied the intricate simplicity and effectiveness of guerrilla warfare.

During the course of this war, I have occasionally asked a random lieutenant or a captain if he at any time has even browsed through Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare. Almost half of them admit that they have not. This I find to be amazing! Here we have many years of guerrilla warfare ahead of us, and our military’s leadership seems dangerously unaware of what it all means!

Anyone can tell you that a guerrilla fighter is one who uses hit-and-run techniques to attempt a breakdown of a stronger conventional force.

However, what is more important to a guerrilla campaign are the political forces that drive it. Throughout history, many guerrilla armies have been successful; our own country and its fight for independence cannot be excluded.

We should have learned a lesson in guerrilla fighting with the Vietnam War only 30 years ago, but history has a funny way of repeating itself. The Vietnam War was a perfect example of how quick, deadly assaults on conventional troops over a long period of time can lead to an unpopular public view of the war, thus ending it.

Che Guevara stressed in his book Guerrilla Warfare that the most important factor in a guerrilla campaign is popular support. With that, victory is almost completely assured.

The Iraqis already have many of the main ingredients of a successful insurrection. Not only do they have a seemingly endless supply of munitions and weapons, they have the advantage to blend into their environment, whether that environment is a crowded marketplace or a thickly vegetated palm grove.

The Iraqi insurgent has utilized these advantages to the fullest, but his most important and relevant advantage is the popular support from his own countrymen.

What our military and government needs to realize is that every mistake we make is an advantage to the Iraqi insurrection. Every time an innocent man, woman or child is murdered in a military act, deliberate or not, the insurgent grows stronger.

Even if an innocent civilian is slain at the hands of his or her own freedom fighter, that fighter is still viewed as a warrior of the people, while the occupying force will ultimately be blamed as the responsible perpetrator.

Everything about this war is political...every ambush, every bombing, every death. When a coalition worker or soldier is abducted and executed, this only adds encouragement and justice to the dissident fervor of the Iraq public, while angering and demoralizing the occupier.

Our own media will prove to be our downfall as well. Every time an atrocity is revealed through our news outlets, our grasp on this once secular nation slips away. As America grows increasingly disturbed by the images of carnage and violent death of her own sons in arms, its government loses the justification to continue the bloody debacle.

Since all these traits are the conventional power’s unavoidable mistakes, the guerrilla campaign will surely succeed.

In Iraq’s case, complete destruction of the United States military is impossible, but through perseverance, the insurgency will drive us out. This will prove to be the inevitable outcome of the war.

We lost many soldiers in the final battle for Falluja, and many more were seriously wounded. It seems unfair that even after the devastation we wreaked on this city just to contain it, many more troops will die in vain to keep it that way.

I saw the look in the eyes of a reconnaissance scout while I talked to him after the battle. His stories of gore and violent death were unnerving. The sacrifices that he and his whole platoon had made were infinite. They fought every day with little or no sleep, very few breaks and no hot meals.

For obvious reasons, they never could manage to find time to e-mail their mothers to let them know that everything turned out okay.

Some of the members of his platoon will never get the chance to reassure their mothers, because now, those soldiers are dead.

The look in his eyes as he told some of the stories were deep and weary, even perturbed. He described in accurate detail how some enemy combatants were blown to pieces by army-issued bazookas, some had their heads shot off by a 50 caliber bullet, others were run over by tanks as they stood defiantly in the narrow streets, firing an AK-47.

The soldier told me how one of his favorite sergeants died right in front of him. He was taking cover behind an alley wall, and as he emerged to fire his M4 rifle, he was shot through the abdomen with a rocket-propelled grenade.

The grenade itself exploded and sent shrapnel into the narrator’s leg. He showed me where a chunk of burned flesh was torn from his left thigh.

He ended his conversation saying that he was just a dumb kid from California who never thought joining the army would send him straight to hell. He told me he was tired as fuck and wanted a shower. Then he slowly walked away, cradling a rifle under his arm.

hEkLe is a pseudonym for an American soldier currently serving in Iraq. hEkLe and several fellow soldiers have a Web log that they regularly update with essays at  Thanks to Alan Maass at Socialist Worker.