As the nation honors all of those who have fought in its wars this week, the veterans of Fallujah deserve a special place in our memory. It was 10 years ago that Marines and soldiers engaged in the toughest fighting Americans have seen since the Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Nearly 100 Americans were killed and more than 500 wounded while reclaiming control of the city from Iraqi insurgent forces led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the terror group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
It was not the first time Americans had died in Fallujah. On March 31, 2004, four American contractors working for Blackwater Security were ambushed in the city by insurgents. They were murdered, and then their bodies were burned and desecrated by cheering mobs of Iraqis and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
America responded with blind rage. Despite pleas from Marine commanders to conduct targeted strikes against those responsible for the deaths of the contractors, the White House issued an order to attack the town in force. Army and Marine forces responded with all the violence of which U.S. forces were capable. It didn’t work out well.
My tank battalion was next door, stationed in the town of Khalidiyah. We sent tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles to serve as part of the outer cordon of Fallujah, preventing enemy reinforcements from joining the fight and insurgents from fleeing. The fighting was intense, and the Iraqi response staggering.
Fallujah is a Sunni city in the Sunni province of al Anbar, Iraq’s wild west. There was no love lost between Iraqi’s majority Shia Muslims and its Sunni minority; the two groups would descend into civil war just two years after this first battle of Fallujah. But the full-bore American attack on Fallujah united all Iraqis as had nothing before or since. Iraqi forces cut U.S. supply lines, Shiite politicians in Baghdad protested against the violence being inflicted on their Sunni countrymen, and America’s few remaining partners in the coalition threatened to withdraw. It was a stunning repudiation of U.S. policy, and it worked.
Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis, then commanding the famous First Marine Division, was on the verge of taking complete control of the city when he was ordered to withdraw his forces. Mattis, livid, fumed, “If you attack to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Instead, America turned control of Fallujah over to the hastily formed Fallujah Brigade, a group of Iraqi Sunnis who were quickly infiltrated by insurgents. Fallujah became a cesspool ruled by radical Sharia Islamic law, a place where Americans were forbidden to enter, and where AQI manufactured improvised explosive devices and car bombs targeted both at Baghdad and at my troops in Khalidiyah.
The situation became untenable over the summer of 2004, with Fallujah serving as a safe haven for the insurgent cancer that was infecting all of Iraq. My tank battalion redeployed to Fort Riley, Kan., after a year in al-Anbar, our town and province both more deadly upon our departure than they had been when we arrived, with the insurgents in Fallujah a primary cause of death and destruction.
Safely back home, I arrived at the Pentagon days before the U.S. presidential election that reelected George W. Bush and gave him the political mandate he deemed necessary to attack Fallujah again. Days after the election, he ordered Operation Phantom Fury to clear Fallujah of insurgents and restore the city to Iraqi government control — tasks accomplished by American, British, and Iraqi soldiers and Marines, at an enormously high cost.
Now, 10 years later, Fallujah is again in the hands of Sunni insurgents. President Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, against the unanimous advice of his military commanders. AQI, now under new management, regained strength in a Syria torn apart by civil war. The terror group reemerged in 2014, rapidly seizing most of al-Anbar province from beleaguered Iraqi forces crippled by the absence of American advisers and airpower. And three days after a stinging defeat in the midterm elections, Obama doubled the number of American advisers on the ground in Iraq to prepare for another offensive to reclaim Fallujah from the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated insurgents, now calling themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
More Americans will fall in this third battle of Fallujah, to be remembered next Memorial Day and for all Memorial Days to come. And veterans of this third battle of Fallujah may be forgiven for hoping that this will be the last time Americans bleed to secure Fallujah from radical Islamists bent on terrorizing Iraq and the world. They deserve national policies and strategies worthy of their sacrifices.
John A. Nagl, headmaster of the Haverford School, is a veteran of the first two Iraq wars and author of the recently released “Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War.” He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer