Translated for CounterPunch by NORMAN MADARASZ
Laurent Van der Stockt, a photographer working for the Gamma agency and under contract for the New York Times Magazine, followed the advance of the 3/4 Marines (3rd battalion, 4th regiment) for three weeks, up to the taking of Baghdad on April 9. He was accompanied by New York Times Magazine editor, Peter Maas. Born in Belgium in 1964, Laurent Van der Stockt mainly works in conflict zones: the first Gulf War, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Africa and the Occupied Territories. This is his eyewitness account of the Marines’ march to Baghdad:
“Everything began at the Kuwait/Iraq border. I forced my way into the country and arrived at Safwan. American soldiers had seized the opportunity to tear up portraits of Saddam Hussein on the main street. They were doing this right in front of the local inhabitants, whose elation quickly vanished. The soldiers obviously didn’t imagine that it was up to the Iraqis to be doing this, or that it was humiliating for them. These were the same soldiers who would topple down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad three weeks later…
I understood that the Marines’ general strategy was to not waste any time. In the cities they crossed, the Marines had to make a show of force. Then they would resume their advance by going as fast as possible up by the east through the desert, and avoid any contact with the population. It takes an effort to picture what an army looks like as it advances through the sands. It’s an anthill. It’s more than a city on the march. It’s a world whose extremities are never seen. It’s a cutting edge, mechanical version of Julius Caesar’s army.
During the first few days, with colleagues from the New York Times and Newsweek, I tried to follow the convoys in a SUV by playing hide-and-seek. We were spending a lot of time then with the 1 500 Marines of the 3/4, commanded by Colonel Bryan P. McCoy. His troops gave us water, gas and food. In exchange for their tolerance, we respected the rules to not pass the convoy and to camp at such and such a place. We were just barely tolerated. The colonel could see that the ‘few jokers were behaving well’. He knew we had experienced more wars than his own troops.
For McCoy, we were obviously interesting right from the start. We were the ones who could tell his story. Trust settled in between us. He let us drive at the head of the convoy. The Marines are generally less privileged than the army. They’re trained to do the dirty work, the less honorary jobs. They have the oldest tanks, and the least up-to-date M16 rifles. They themselves translate ‘USMC’ (United States Marine Corps) by United States Misgodded Children, i.e. the US’ forgotten children, forgotten by God.
Their motto is ‘Search and Kill’. The ‘Kilo’ unit is nicknamed ‘Killer Kilo’. The words ‘Carnivore’ or ‘Blind Killer’ are painted on their tanks. McCoy could snap with a ‘Shame on You’ ? a smile flashing across his face ? to the sniper who had just finished telling him: ‘I’ve got eight, Sir, but only five’. Literally meaning: I’ve shot eight, but only five of them are dead.
I’ve never seen a war with so few ‘returns’. The Iraqi army was like a ghost. It barely existed. Over the three weeks, I only saw the adversary fire a few short-range rockets and a few shots. I saw deserted trenches, a dead Iraqi soldier lying next to a piece of bread and some old equipment. Nothing that really made you feel that there was a real confrontation going on, nothing comparable to the massiveness of the means at the Americans’ disposal.
On April 6, we were at the outskirts of Baghdad, facing a strategic bridge the Americans called ‘the Baghdad Highway Bridge’. Residential zones were now much greater in number. American snipers got the order to kill anything coming in their direction. That night a teenager who was crossing the bridge was killed.
On the morning of April 7, the Marines decided to cross the bridge. A shell fell onto an armored personnel carrier. Two marines were killed. The crossing took on a tragic aspect. The soldiers were stressed, febrile. They were shouting. The risk didn’t appear to be that great, so I followed their advance. They were howling, shouting orders and positions to each other. It sounded like something in-between a phantasm, mythology and conditioning. The operation was transformed into crossing the bridge over the River Kwai.
Later, there was some open terrain. The Marines were advancing and taking up position, hiding behind mounds of earth. They were still really tense. A small blue van was moving towards the convoy. Three not-very-accurate warning shots were fired. The shots were supposed to make the van stop. The van kept on driving, made a U-turn, took shelter and then returned slowly. The Marines opened fire. All hell broke loose. They were firing all over the place. You could hear ‘Stop firing’ being shouted. The silence that set in was overwhelming. Two men and a woman had just been riddled with bullets. So this was the enemy, the threat.
A second vehicle drove up. The same scenario was repeated. Its passengers were killed on the spot. A grandfather was walking slowly with a cane on the sidewalk. They killed him too (SEE PHOTO IN LE MONDE). As with the old man, the Marines fired on a SUV driving along the river bank that was getting too close to them. Riddled with bullets, the vehicle rolled over. Two women and a child got out, miraculously still alive. They sought refuge in the wreckage. A few seconds later, it flew into bits as a tank lobbed a terse shot into it.
Marines are conditioned to reach their target at any cost, by staying alive and facing any type of enemy. They abusively make use of disproportionate firepower. These hardened troops, followed by tons of equipment, supported by extraordinary artillery power, protected by fighter jets and cutting-edge helicopters, were shooting on local inhabitants who understood absolutely nothing of what was going on.
With my own eyes I saw about fifteen civilians killed in two days. I’ve gone through enough wars to know that it’s always dirty, that civilians are always the first victims. But the way it was happening here, it was insane.
At the roughest moment, the most humane of the troops was called Doug. He gave real warning shots. From 800 yards he could hit a tire and, if that wasn’t enough, then the motor. He saved ten lives in two hours by driving back civilians who were coming towards us.
Distraught soldiers were saying: ‘I ain’t prepared for this, I didn’t come here to shoot civilians.’ The colonel countered that the Iraqis were using inhabitants to kill marines, that ‘soldiers were being disguised as civilians, and that ambulances were perpetrating terrorist attacks.’
I drove away a girl who had had her humerus pierced by a bullet. Enrico was holding her in his arms. In the rear, the girl’s father was protecting his young son, wounded in the torso and losing consciousness. The man spoke in gestures to the doctor at the back of the lines, pleading: “I don’t understand, I was walking and holding my children’s hands. Why didn’t you shoot in the air? Or at least shoot me?”
In Baghdad, McCoy sped up the march. He stopped taking the time to search houses one-by-one. He wanted to get to Paradise Place as soon as possible. The Marines were not firing on the thickening population. The course ended with Saddam’s statue being toppled. There were more journalists at the scene than Baghdadis. Its five million inhabitants stayed at home.”
Interviewed by Michel Guerrin for LE MONDE, April 12, 2003.
Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz (firstname.lastname@example.org).