cover story

Rules of Engagement

A year with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.
May 8, 2007


hail-and-farewell party is in full flow at a Spartan civilian restaurant in Clarksville, Tennessee. Clarksville is about fifty miles northwest of Nashville and is the proud home of the 101st Airborne Division and its 20,000 soldiers and their families. It is Friday night and, this being a military affair, everyone has arrived by the scheduled start, eighteen-thirty hours. There is no music. The floors and tables are bare.

The sound is the polite roar of voices of about fifty men and women: officers, senior noncommissioned officers, and their wives who are welcoming the new arrivals to the battalion and saying goodbye to those who are leaving before the unit deploys to Iraq in ten days. The drink of choice is American beer and it is being rapidly consumed straight from the bottles.

My camera crew and I are seated at a table next to one of the battalion officers, his wife, and his father–a retired general who has come to say goodbye to his son, a smart, likable young major who graduated as first captain from West Point. After about an hour of nonstop eating and beer drinking, the mood becomes more loquacious. The general shouts some advice over the noise to his son: “It is not a good career move to get a reporter killed while they’re with you,” he says, and then smiles. Everyone laughs and looks at me. I laugh, too. Then the general says as an afterthought, “Unless they’ve been chosen.”

The others laugh lightly. I say nothing. Another hour passes before I get a chance to sit alone with the general. The words have not left my mind. Since covering the Vietnam War, I have suspected that U.S. military personnel have occasionally gotten rid of unwelcome reporters by getting them killed or wounded in combat. It nearly happened to me more than once in Vietnam and Cambodia. Hostile officers sent me on the most dangerous missions, with reconnaissance units, for example, knowing there would probably be casualties. Once, a clearly disturbed major, a public information officer, carried his cocked and loaded .45 pistol everywhere as he escorted me on a combat operation, his eyes wild with excitement. Conscious of the danger, I stuck close to my camera crew and never let the mad major get behind me. Now I ask the general what he meant by that phrase, “Unless they’ve been chosen.” He seems embarrassed to be reminded. “Nothing I saw with my own eyes,” he says quickly. “ It’s just something I heard.” For the rest of the evening, the general does not appear entirely comfortable around me.

My British camera crew and I, soon to be known disparagingly as “the Gang of Four” by the division public affairs officer, have been invited to cover one company, about a hundred soldiers, for the full year of their tour of duty in Iraq. Until now, the U.S. Army has not allowed a film crew to do such comprehensive coverage of a unit. We are being given freedom to cover most aspects of the soldiers’ lives–professional and personal–or, as one officer says, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” We are making a documentary feature film and this is our first day of being embedded–September 9, 2005. We are funding the documentary out of our own savings so that we can have editorial control. For now, we are getting acquainted with the soldiers. The mood is cheerful, helpful, mostly trusting.

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As the camera crew rolls, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel James O’Brien, introduces each of the officers and ncos who is new or departing. (Then the soldier being given his hail or farewell has to make a speech or sing a song. One sings, Jesus Loves Me. “It’s the only song I know the words to,” he explains.) O’Brien introduces us and says, “Welcome to the team.”

The drinking escalates to straight shots of tequila. At this stage, the crew and I make our own farewell. I do not want us to be associated with the possible embarrassments about to take place. A few days later, when I next see the young major, he smiles and says, “Did you ever have such a hangover in your life?”

“Yes,”I say.

From the first day, David Green, Andy Thompson, John Callam-Anderson, and I have been welcomed to the 101st Airborne Division as if we were members of a privileged fraternity. I imagine it is something like being part of a winning college football team. With the exception of the regimental commander, who is suspicious of anyone he does not know, the soldiers seem to accept us. Some of them say they hate the press for inaccurate reporting from Iraq. Many have read a long magazine article I wrote describing this same battalion during its harrowing ambush on the way to Baghdad in April 2003, its subsequent fight for the airport, and its successful occupation of parts of the city. Moreover, they have learned that Green and Thompson, in an act of exceptional journalistic courage, were the first foreigners to reach Kuwait City during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. That they drove into the city in civilian cars six hours before U.S. Special Forces and were broadcasting live pictures of the Kuwaiti liberation celebrations long before anyone else, is considered especially praiseworthy. This regiment, the 187th, is led by Colonel Mike Steele, a warrior giant who was the Ranger company commander at Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, at the battle known as “Blackhawk Down.”

In the ten days before we take off for Iraq, it becomes clear that the soldiers are holding little back from us. On camera, they talk about their unhappy childhoods, their reasons for joining the Army (“My grandfather fought on Iwo Jima, my father fought in Vietnam, and for me there was no reason to join until 9/11”), and their determination to kill as many of the enemy as possible. At home, weeping spouses describe to us their ordeal of trying to manage their families with their soldier-husbands away at war. Even Colonel Steele, who has not allowed a reporter or camera crew near him for most of his career, considers whether to let us make a videotape of his pre-deployment briefing to the battalion. I know how explosive and politically incorrect the speech is, having heard him give it to another battalion once before. It is a powerful call to arms, a speech filled with aggression, hostility, and apparent racism toward the Arab enemies Steele tells his soldiers they will soon meet in battle. All officers brief their troops before combat, but this speech is exceptional. I think of it as a down-home, modern-day version of Henry V’s speech at Agincourt, and say so to Steele. “I am flattered,” he says with modesty. Steele is a hulking native of rural Georgia and a former lineman on the 1980 national champion football team from the University of Georgia. To get his permission to tape the speech he is about to give, I promise that if we show it in our film, we will discuss with him what parts of it are to be used, but that the final decision will be ours. The colonel agrees, though he still appears suspicious. Standing in the men’s room before giving the speech, he leans over me, his face a foot away, his jaw set in concentration. ”Mr. Laurence,“ he says, pointing a finger at my chest and drawing out the words for dramatic effect, “if you get me busted to second lieutenant, I am going to hold you personally responsible.” He turns and walks away. I have been holding my breath. After recording the speech, the crew and I are amazed at what we have on tape.

Only one soldier wants nothing to do with us. His name is Luke Murphy, a sergeant from Palm City, Florida, who leads one of the two squads in Third Platoon. Murphy is bright, funny, and cynical. The other soldiers consider him a great guy to be around, a leader by nature. He would make a strong character in the film, we realize, but whenever we try to roll tape while he is clowning with his soldiers, he walks away. The others tell us that Murphy has been ”stop-lossed“ and is angry about it. Stop-loss is the Army’s method for keeping a soldier like Murphy in the ranks even though his term of enlistment is over. The purpose is to maintain better continuity in unit leadership than was the case in Vietnam, where sergeants came and went at irregular times as their enlistments expired, sometimes disrupting a unit’s effectiveness. Murphy has already served six years in the Army, one of them in Iraq, and doesn’t want to go again. Before reporters join their unit, soldiers are ordered not to say anything negative, not to criticize the people who plan and run the war, and not to give away anything secret. “If you don’t have anything positive to say,” they are told, “keep your mouth shut.” Murphy, we discover, doesn’t want to be punished for revealing how bitter he feels.


The mood at the outset of the chartered flight to the Middle East is good-natured, polite, and optimistic. The soldiers talk, read, or sleep. The battalion chaplain hands out little collections of biblical quotes for inspiration at war. When I ask him how God can be on our side and also on the side of the Arab fighters, as they see it, he replies, “That’s a political question and I don’t have a political answer.” Later, on reflection, I think all he meant was, “I guess we’re going to find out whose side God is on.” I do not see any of the soldiers try to make a date with the attractive women in the cabin crew, as in the movie, Jarhead. They dare not. Colonel Steele has strictly forbidden any sexual conduct by the soldiers other than masturbation. For much of the long flight, stopping in Germany on the way, the soldiers are somber, especially the majority who have not been to Iraq before. Most have never been outside the United States. The flight is operated by World Airways, a charter airline that has been hauling American soldiers–sometimes in passenger seats, sometimes in caskets–to and from foreign wars since Vietnam.

Dave, Andy, John, and I are given seats in the middle row of the Boeing 777 and, with all of the gear, it is uncomfortably crowded. This is one of the ways in which the company’s first sergeant, a veteran of several wars who feels we are neglecting him for the documentary, punishes us. While he sits in business class with those he has chosen to reward with comfortable seats, we ride in the back and bite the bullet. The soldiers around us seem to appreciate this.

As long as Dave, Andy, and I have been covering the American military, going back to 1965, troops have been trying to test our physical endurance. It doesn’t matter which branch of the service it is–Marines, Air Force, or Army–they test you. It is what they do with one another, so reporters who accompany them seem like fair game. “A platoon is a pack of wolves,” Sergeant Mario Terenas says, “and if you’re not the Alpha male, they will eat you.”

Sometimes the tests are extreme. In 1990, during the training for Desert Storm, a Marine battalion commander sent my crew and me out with his armored troops on a training exercise in the Saudi Arabian desert. It was late summer and the dry heat was like an oven, around 130 degrees. The test was to ride in an armored personnel carrier across the desert for several hours in simulated battle. Both members of the camera crew became dehydrated and collapsed, a fate I avoided by drinking lots of water and doing less of the physical work. After an hour in the shade getting rehydrated, the camera and sound team got up and, despite the Navy corpsman’s advice, insisted on finishing the story. The colonel liked their determination so much that he invited us to cover his battalion when the shooting war began.

Most of the enlisted men and a few of the officers in the company are self-conscious about being on-camera. They tell us they are afraid they won’t know what to say, or will say it ungrammatically. In an effort to get them to relax around us, I tell them, “Please don’t worry. We will not deliberately embarrass you when we edit the film.” More than one of them replies, “Don’t worry. I’ll embarrass myself.” But our intentions are not to embarrass anyone. As long as they are open and candid with us, we will present them in the documentary honestly and fairly. It seems like a reasonable trade-off, not something that will compromise my reporter’s ethics. The film is not going to be a polemic for or against the war. All the decisions about what will go in the film will be made months later, when the camaraderie we are now beginning to feel with the soldiers has faded. Or so we think. I am conscious of liking most of the guys in the company, especially those who are being cooperative with us. Dave and Andy, the cameramen, tell them to try to ignore us when we are filming. “Just be yourself and don’t look at the camera,” they say. And, for the most part, through our fourteen-month adventure with them, the soldiers oblige. In some cases, when they are concentrating hard on their work, they seem oblivious to us. Our interviews with them, along with these moments of total absorption, when they are focused entirely on their tasks, provide the film’s most authentic scenes.

Welcome to Iraq

This company from the 101st Airborne–called Charlie Troop–arrives at its area of operations near Samarra aboard two massive Chinook helicopters. The late-September night is clear and cool. It is around midnight and completely dark. The soldiers are disoriented and bump into one another. Helmets, rifles, and gear clatter. We stumble across a concrete tarmac and crouch behind a high wall of sandbags while the air splits every thirty to sixty seconds with the intense boooooom! of an explosion. Bright flashes of white-yellow light illuminate the low skyline a few hundred yards away. The earth quakes underfoot. No one knows what is happening or how dangerous it is. Everyone takes cover. Each time there is an explosion, I tremble. It seems like my heart rate doubles, then triples. Dave, Andy, and John are close by, trying to keep track of the boxes of camera equipment they have hauled off the helicopter, counting them over and over. Their flashlights shine brief beams of red-filtered light at the ground.

“It could be outgoing,” Andy suggests.

“Bloody heavy if it is,” Dave replies.

Their mood is matter-of-fact, no sign of fear. John, who is twenty-five years old and has not been in combat before, takes his lead from the cameramen and crouches quietly beside them. He is trying to keep busy by helping count the gear. One of the tripods is missing.

Over the years, you learn from these experiences how to deal with the fear when it comes. After a while, it becomes automatic, although the first few days in a new war zone are nerve-wracking. The first thing is to try to identify what kind of danger you are in. Loud noises like these trigger fear responses in everyone, even seasoned war correspondents. But if the explosions are not sending shrapnel spinning around you, if no machine-gun tracers are flying over, if no bullets are buzzing past your head, and–especially–if no one is being wounded nearby, chances are you are safe. At least for now. It is time to take a few deep breaths, calm down, and try to focus on ways to occupy yourself as a reporter. The fear will continue but it will be manageable, something you can get used to. Adjusting to it is a matter of recognizing it as soon as you feel it (the easy part), accepting it (not as easy), and reasoning with yourself that it is perfectly natural to feel fear in this situation and not to be ashamed. That’s the hard part. Most soldiers try not to show panic, even though their internal alarm systems are screaming. The best reporters I have seen in combat also do not show their fear. They are busy trying to observe what’s going on, photographing it, and making notes. Or they are sitting quietly with the fear, their eyes open.

For reporters as well as for soldiers, it helps to manage fear by being fatalistic about whether this may be the end of your time alive and accepting that there is nothing you can do to change or control it. If there is something you can do to protect yourself, you do it. If it is possible to get better cover, go for it. If it helps to pray, you pray. If taking a tranquilizer helps, you take it.

And through this experience, you have a sense of being alive and aware of what’s going on around you more fully than at any other time in your life. Adrenaline and endorphins are pumping through your body. Time slows, sometimes stops. And when it is finished, when you have come through the immediate fighting alive and unharmed, you feel an exhilaration that few people know in their lifetimes. Part of it comes from knowing you are on top of a story that is going to be special. You know that all you have to do now is get yourself safely back to the rear and write it.

The problem in this case, with Charlie Troop in Iraq at midnight, is that it is too dark to observe much. Minutes pass. When everyone is off the helicopters and they have flown away, the explosions become intermittent. The camera crew and I collect our gear and join the soldiers filing toward a group of tents where we are to spend the night. The noise, we are told, is coming from a battery of 155-

millimeter howitzers. The big guns belong to the Third Infantry Division, a battalion to which Charlie Troop is now being attached. We are at the 3/69 battalion camp near Samarra, a predominately Sunni city of 300,000 about seventy miles northwest of Baghdad. Charlie Troop has been separated from the 101st Airborne and, operating as an independent company, is going in to relieve a company of the Wisconsin National Guard. Two of its civilian-soldiers have been killed and now it is going home after a year. Some of the troops from the 101st have had their nerves rattled. The explosions thunder through the night.

“Welcome to Eye-rack,” someone says.

A few days later, as the company settles in, the platoon and squad leaders drive to the center of Samarra for an orientation patrol with troops from the National Guard. Every seat in the convoy is taken, so we are left behind. A short time later, on its way back to base, the patrol is attacked. A pickup truck, loaded with explosives, drives straight at one of the Humvees in the convoy. An alert National Guard gunner opens fire on the Iraqi driver and hits him through the windshield. This causes the driver to set off the explosives ten meters short of the Humvee he is aiming at. The explosion sends the top half of his body flying through the air and it lands in the street ahead of the convoy. Several American soldiers are wounded, including the gunner on the Humvee, whose hands are seriously damaged by shrapnel. He is quickly evacuated. One civilian is critically injured, a five-year-old Iraqi girl named Zeneb. She had been playing with friends nearby. A piece of shrapnel from the truck bomb has torn into her body. A National Guard soldier, a regular police officer from New York City, carries her to a nearby American field hospital. But she dies. It is the company’s first day in Samarra.

Dave, Andy, John, and I put together the details of what happened by interviewing each of the soldiers who witnessed the suicide bombing. As a favor, one of the Special Forces soldiers from the camp makes contact with the family of the little girl so that we can interview one of them. Dave suggests that we try to raise some money for the family, which appears to be poor. I start a “Little Zeneb” fund. The company commander, Captain Sean McGee, does not want his soldiers to contribute, lest it set a precedent with the people of the city. Sergeant Terenas checks with an organization of wives at home and reports that “they’re not interested” in making donations. So, using a Web log I started to keep friends and relatives of the soldiers informed about how they are doing in Iraq (the soldiers have no telephone or e-mail service at this time), we raise $670 for Zeneb’s family. The little girl’s grandfather meets us and accepts the donation. It will allow the family to repair the damage to its house and replenish the fruit and vegetables sold from the family shop. It does not occur to us that we are getting more deeply involved in the story than we had intended.

Because attacks like the suicide bombing happen so often in Iraq, there is no need to file a news report back to the States. I have an arrangement with the foreign editor of National Public Radio to call in if something big breaks, but this does not qualify. Moreover, the only equipment I have to report with is a satellite phone, and while that was good enough to file to npr during the ground war of 2003, the sound quality of a sat phone is not good enough for any but the biggest breaking stories. We file away the footage for the documentary.

A big advantage of working on a long-term project with the military is that no one is going to expel you for your day-to-day reporting. They don’t know what you are going to say in your final story. Reporters who are writing magazine articles and books have this advantage. At the same time, if your reporting is accurate and fair, the Army is not going to take action against you for what you write or broadcast on breaking stories–even murder cases involving soldiers, the most harmful of all to the Army. Commanders want the press to get favorable stories out to the American (and foreign) public. It is part of an old alliance between the military and the media: the need to tell the stories of what U.S. troops are enduring in a foreign war. It is a process that the military accepts, at least theoretically, as one of its responsibilities in a democratic society. The commander of Charlie Troop, Captain McGee, says in a moment of candor, “I think the American Army may be the last honorable institution in the country.”

The Web log proves to be the most popular thing we do for the soldiers and their families. Using a small, mobile satellite dish we have brought with us and set up on the roof of the patrol base, I send a few hundred words every other day describing what the soldiers are doing, how they are dealing with the situation, and what their needs are. I include still pictures and keep it light-hearted. None of the information is too specific, just general news, like a letter home. I do not report the suicide bombing or the casualties, and do not reveal that the company is in Samarra. After a few days, the company commander asks if he can use the Internet connection to send unclassified e-mails to his 101st battalion commander, who is miles away and out of communication with this company. We’re happy to help. One of the sergeants asks to use the connection as well, and we agree, although it costs us $100 a megabyte. Later, we discover that this sergeant has been sitting on the connection for hours at a time checking his stocks and other investments, and making trades. After three weeks, the company’s own satellite dish arrives by convoy and is carried to the roof. None of the soldiers knows how to hook it up and get it to work. Dave, Andy, and John spend the next week, when they are not working on the film, trying to figure out how to make the satellite dish on the roof function. It becomes an obsession. Meals are missed. When I go looking for them at midnight, the soldiers say, “They’re still on the roof.” The problem is that the dish has arrived without instructions about where to aim it. The military has dozens of satellites in space and it could be any one of them. Finally, an Army captain arrives and, in a couple of days, figures out where to point the dish. At last, Charlie Troop has e-mail and phone service to the States. The visiting captain says it could not have been accomplished without Dave, Andy, and John’s engineering expertise. True Brits, they refuse to take credit for the accomplishment. But they are heroes to the troops.

In Samarra at this time, insurgents are firing rockets and mortars from the open desert north of the city into the company’s base five to ten times a day. So far, they have not hit anyone. Wanting to stop the shelling, company leaders put together a plan to surprise the insurgents by going into the area up north on a stealth mission at night. Sergeant Terenas, who is becoming the central figure in our documentary because of his original leadership of First Platoon and his candid explanations about what the company is doing, briefs his men before the mission: “We’re not bringing anybody back alive,” he says to the soldiers. “If we see those fuckers there, we will kill ’em. Kill ’em, kill ’em, and kill ’em again. Understand? If you unload thirty fucking rounds after you shoot ’em once, I am very fucking happy with that. You understand that? If we find these sons-of-bitches, they’re gonna pay for it. You understand? And I’m gonna sing ‘Allahu Akbar’ over their fucking bodies as they’re dying.” The troops grimly nod their assent. Terenas, who has been in the Army since he was eighteen and is now a hardened veteran, does not censor himself. He is a totally aggressive warrior. I think, People are not going to believe this.

But the night raid is a failure. Terenas makes no attempt to hide the fact that the Third Infantry Division vehicles that transported the soldiers took them to the wrong place, or that helicopters and reconnaissance planes sent over by the Third I.D. gave away their position. No insurgents were seen. Still, Terenas claims he and his soldiers have accomplished part of the mission by denying the terrain to the enemy. Two days later, the rocket attacks resume.

Screams in the Night

Weeks pass. The days are becoming cooler as winter ap-proaches. First Platoon takes over an abandoned hospital on the edge of its perimeter to use as an observation post. The hospital is on the other side of a compound that is headquarters for an Iraqi police unit–Ministry of Interior police commandos. Late in the day, the soldiers make ready to sleep on the concrete floors. A pile of garbage burns outside. The place stinks. I take the crew back to the company base about five hundred yards away where we can sleep in our cramped but comfortable room.

The next morning when we arrive back at the hospital, the soldiers greet us with cries of, ”Where were you last night?“ and, “You missed it!” They tell us that an incoming rocket landed on one of the houses across the street from them and exploded in the early hours of the morning, before dawn. Now they talk of little else. We have missed an opportunity to share the danger and excitement with the soldiers.

Later that morning, Sergeant Terenas is telling me in a friendly, familiar way how much he loves to go mountain-climbing and how many of the peaks he has climbed in the American West. While I listen, Corporal Cy Komanecky asks another soldier a few yards away, “Did you hear those screams during the night?” The other soldier says yes, he did, that everyone in the platoon heard them. “They got weaker and weaker,” Komanecky says. His expression is sad, as if the screaming has depressed him. “And they stopped just before dawn.”

It is one of those occasions as a reporter when you overhear something intriguing, but dare not plunge in and ask what it is all about. It is too sensitive to confront in a straightforward way. You might scare everyone from talking about it. So I keep quiet. The crew and I discuss it in private. I consider spending the night in one of the watchtowers near the Ministry of Interior jailhouse to listen for screams, but decide against it, lest it reveal what we are trying to find out.

In the days that follow, doing interviews with people on camera, we put together the story of the screaming. Soldiers who have been stationed in Samarra for many months tell us, at times with embarrassment, that the Ministry of Interior police have been torturing suspects in a little jailhouse down the street. This has been going on for months, since their arrival in Samarra at the beginning of the year. A long article has just been published about torture and murder in Samarra in The New York Times Magazine. An American soldier from another unit shows me a video on his laptop of Iraqi suspects who had been interrogated by Interior Ministry police. Their bleeding, mutilated bodies are piled in the back of a pickup truck about to be driven to the nearby river where they will be dumped. At least one of them is still alive and moving. The soldier says, “I could get court-martialed for showing you this.” He will not let me copy the video.

I ask the senior American officer who advises the ministry police, Major Phillip Durbin, a Kansas City police officer with the Missouri National Guard, if I can meet the Iraqi commander. Durbin comes back the next day and says, “Do you like Iraqi food?” I tell him that I do. “Well,” he says, “you and your crew are invited to have dinner with the colonel and his staff. He’s looking forward to meeting you.” The next day, before the dinner takes place, Major Durbin says, “He changed his mind. I don’t know what it was. He says you guys carry hidden cameras that you can take pictures with and he doesn’t want any of that.” Although I assure him it would be purely a social meeting, no interviews, the Iraqi colonel is adamant. A few days after that, his whole battalion is transferred to Baghdad. I never get to see the inside of the jailhouse or the condition of its prisoners. I conclude that the battalion commander of the Third Infantry Division, a cautious man who is not a party to our film with the 101st, has warned his Iraqi counterpart about the deceptions of the press and scared him off. Still, we have managed to get eyewitness accounts of the torture from other soldiers stationed in Samarra, though not from the 101st, and that will have to be enough for the documentary. Maybe, on another occasion, we can get a copy of the video.

Sergeant Terenas tells me he heard the screams. “There are some things we will not do,” he says. Captain McGee, the company commander, says that his soldiers will not hand Iraqi insurgent suspects over to the Ministry of Interior police, no matter what the circumstances. The National Guard unit in Samarra had done so routinely. It is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice–that is, strictly illegal–for American soldiers to hand prisoners over to allies when they know they are at risk of torture.

We tell no one from the 101st what we’re doing with the torture story, but it becomes apparent to the leaders that we are trying to dig something up. Sergeant Terenas and Captain McGee have become less friendly toward us, more formal. They no longer smile when I see them. I attribute it to the tension of being in combat. It may also be the result of an incident in the tactical operations center. One of the platoon sergeants is bragging to the first sergeant and the radio operator about what a great unit this company is, how outstanding the soldiers are, and that they haven’t taken a serious casualty in more than a month in Samarra. It is very late, after midnight, and I lose my temper, correcting him sharply. I point out that the soldier on the roof of the camp with overwatch duty at this moment does not have his night optical device, a very serious lapse in security that I had noticed while on the roof earlier. I mention three other important infractions in recent days and walk out. After that, the platoon leaders and sergeants are no longer friendly. Two days later, we film the soldiers who were guilty of the security infractions being punished.

A Sea ChangeThe crew and I fly home to the U.K. to take a break from the rigors of reporting in Iraq. It is a relief to be out of there. It is winter in England, peaceful and quiet. During this time, I worry about the torture story. I had a similar experience in Vietnam, when I chose to hold a story about the bombing of civilians in Cambodia in 1965. When I read news reports of the discovery of an Interior Ministry prison in Baghdad in which scores of Iraqi suspects have been found with evidence of torture on their bodies, I decide to write something about what was going on in Samarra, even though I am not sure where I will try to publish it. In the article, I quote Captain McGee and Sergeant Terenas about the Interior Ministry torture. As a precaution, and to be fair, I e-mail a copy to both of them and to the battalion commander of the Third Infantry Division. Their reactions are furious. The Third I.D. has operational responsibility for Samarra and its officers are liable to prosecution for allowing the torture to take place.

I am contacted by several members of the Third I.D. including its legal representative, the judge advocate general. He wants to know what evidence I have of the alleged torture. He and the battalion commander conduct a flash inspection of the jailhouse and report that they found no evidence of any torture presently taking place. The prisoners all appear to be healthy and in good condition. A copy of the report is sent to me. End of case.


Within the 101st, however, a debate begins about whether or not to allow me back in with the unit. I learn later that the Third I.D. battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, has visited the 101st company commander, Captain McGee, and brutally criticized him for confiding in a member of the press, especially anything critical of a superior officer, namely him. McGee was humiliated in front of the men he commands.

I decide to put the story on the shelf and not publish it. If no torture is taking place in Samarra presently, then my inquiries and the threat of an article have achieved their purpose. But the furor goes all the way up to the 101st regimental commander, Colonel Steele, and back down again. Sergeant Terenas and I exchange angry e-mails. He feels that I have betrayed a confidence. I tell him everything that happens is on the record. Captain McGee will not communicate with me. All seems lost.

Then I remember an anecdote from the Nuremburg war-crimes trial, where my father served as an Army officer. It is a story about the negative effect on the morale of German regular army troops who were ordered to shoot Jewish civilians on the eastern front during World War II. I tell the story in an e-mail to the bright young major who graduated as first captain from West Point. He sees the similarity between that story and what was happening to his soldiers from listening to the screams of the torture victims in Samarra. It was bad for morale. That makes my case for writing the torture story. The major, who is the operations officer for the battalion, intercedes on my behalf. The 101st relents and allows us to come back.

We return to Charlie Troop, but it is not the same. Most of the soldiers welcome us, but the leaders are suspicious, even hostile to me. After an interview in which I promise not to quote him out of context, the company commander says, “You better not. We’ll shoot you if you do. Plenty of AKs around here we can use.” He is only half joking, I realize. A new officer, one who had not met me before, spits in front of my feet whenever our paths cross. One of the platoon leaders, a young lieutenant who was present at the dressing down of McGee, openly scowls at me. In the middle of a conversation we are having, the first sergeant turns his back.

They are treating me as if I were a traitor. It is painful to be ostracized, but we carry on with our coverage. Now the troops are in Baghdad and the danger has increased exponentially. Charlie Troop is assigned to accompany Iraqi police and army units on patrols of Sadr City. The soldiers tell us that these are useless patrols because the Iraqis do almost no policing in the Shiite-controlled neighborhood. Iraqi civilians throw bricks and rocks at the American Humvees, infuriating the soldiers because they cannot fight back. The rules of engagement are so stringent that they prevent soldiers from keeping bullets in the chambers of their rifles. The workload is nonstop. The troops call their Baghdad duty “Operation No Sleep.” The cool, comfortable days of winter have passed and it is beginning to get hot again. Some of the soldiers’ remarks to us have become negative, despite the order not to be. Charlie Troop begins to take casualties. Some of the soldiers we have been covering closely–including Luke Murphy–are evacuated with critical injuries from improvised explosive devices and explosive formed penetrators.

Through all of our work in Baghdad, the company leaders continue to treat Dave, Andy, and John with respect. But they are wary of me, unfriendly to the point of being rude. Whenever I walk into the company headquarters, Captain McGee takes out his knife, then opens and closes it with a flick of his wrist, over and over. Sergeant Terenas, newly promoted to first sergeant, does the same. He has now ordered his soldiers not to speak to me about anything. When I approach them to talk casually, they find a polite excuse to drift away.

Only Colonel Steele, his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel O’Brien, and the regimental public affairs officer, Major Tom Bryant, are supportive. Steele asks me to have dinner with him at the division chow hall in Tikrit. In an emotional talk that lasts two hours, he tells me the story of “Blackhawk Down,” the battle in Somalia in 1993, where he commanded the company of Rangers in which eighteen American soldiers were killed, at the time the heaviest toll in battle since Vietnam. It is apparent as he talks, tears in his eyes, that Steele is still grieving for those lost in Somalia and that he is intensely protective of his soldiers in this regiment. Now, instead of the hundred men he led as a Ranger captain, he has 3,500 soldiers under his command. By the time he brings them home after a year in Iraq, Steele’s regiment will have lost the same number–eighteen–as those who died in one day in Somalia.

Soon the word comes down the chain of command that the soldiers in Charlie Troop are to be allowed to do interviews with us again. I finish my work about a month before the soldiers are due to complete their tour and go home. Dave Green and Andy Thompson volunteer to stay with them until the end of the tour and cover them on the flight home.

Mission Accomplished

The company flies from Iraq to Fort Campbell and is greeted in the early hours of the morning by four of its soldiers who were most critically wounded during the year. It is September again, three weeks short of a year since they left. The wounded are waiting as the soldiers come down the steps of the plane. Luke Murphy, who was stop-lossed and didn’t want to go back to Iraq, is standing on crutches. Wives, children, parents, and friends are also waiting in an airport hangar in a ceremony carefully orchestrated to give the soldiers the opportunity to feel like heroes. The division band plays marching songs. Signs saying “Welcome Home” and “Job Well Done” are interspersed with American flags. An officer of general rank is required to greet all returning soldiers with a short speech. In this case, it is the four-star vice chief of the Army staff. He talks about this being the greatest generation. We cover the welcome home with four cameras.

The next night, as the crew and I visit one of the company’s favorite bars in Clarksville, I run into two of the platoon leaders from Charlie Troop. One of the lieutenants says he has been drinking alone since three o’clock in the afternoon. He is slurring his words. The animosity from Iraq is gone. They offer to buy me a drink. Many drinks. We talk about what has happened in Iraq. They seem as friendly as they were when the long adventure began a year before. The lieutenants tell me, for the first time, the story of how Captain McGee was criticized by the battalion commander of the Third Infantry Division for mentioning the torture business to me. “It was all very professional,” the lieutenant says, “but it was brutal.”

It is a relief to be welcome in the company again, but I wonder why their attitudes have changed. Is it that their anger over my story has moderated with time? Is it that they are no longer worried about what they might say or do in front of the cameras? Is it that they are relieved of the awful tension of being in Iraq and in constant danger? Is it because Colonel Steele has been openly friendly toward the crew and me? Maybe it is some or all of that, maybe none.

But one thing is clear to me–we come from different cultures. Theirs is a violent culture with deadly physical risks and well-established rules about loyalty and honor. I had violated a cardinal principle of their warrior culture. I revealed something that could get them in trouble and, as a result, exposed their commander–a very popular one–to harsh criticism. I was doing my job as a reporter–bearing witness for American citizens in whose name this war is being fought–but to them I had betrayed their leader.

Eighteen months after the hail-and-farewell party, I call the retired general who said reporters were not to be killed “unless they’ve been chosen.” We discover that we were both born in 1939 and grew up in the 1940s within a few hundred miles of each other in rural Ohio and Kentucky. In the 1960s, coming back from Vietnam, his West Point classmates told him they tried to get reporters killed on combat operations. “You came to mistrust some journalists,” he said. “Those guys were given every opportunity to get on the hot LZs, ammo logs [combat resupply], and things like that. Some of the guys made it, some of them didn’t.” I thank the general for clarifying the issue, and we hang up.

In November 2006, the crew and I hold a special screening at Fort Campbell to show the soldiers of Charlie Troop a rough cut of the film. After it’s over, Captain McGee shakes hands and says, “It was good to have you with us.” The new company commander says, “Thank you for telling our story.” The soldiers say they can’t wait to see the finished film. They are exhausted from their year in Iraq. Almost all of them are leaving the Army. A few will be stop-lossed. Some have already gone AWOL. They have had enough. 

John Laurence is the author of The Cat From Hue: A Vietnam War Story. His documentary, I Am an American Soldier, had its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, 2007.