The Opposite of FearIn the Battle of Fallujah, a Marine platoon learns what its leader is made of
When Elliot Ackerman, A03, F03, graduated from Marine Corps basic training in 2003, the war in Iraq was on its last legs. Baghdad had fallen in a three-week invasion, and now U.S. troops were mopping up straggling resistance. At least that was the feeling going around the Corps at the time of his graduation ceremony. A senior officer encouraged him to give up a possible posting to Iraq in favor of a rapid deployment force on the West Coast. “This thing in Iraq—what are you going to be doing?” he blustered. “Peacekeeping stuff.”
Wanting desperately to see combat, however, Ackerman followed his gut to a posting to the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, which was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and scheduled to deploy to Iraq the following year. By the time he had finished his officer training, everything had changed. In March 2004, enraged Iraqis killed four American military contractors, burned their bodies, and hung them from a bridge outside the city of Fallujah. The U.S. called in the Marines, who assaulted the city just weeks before Ackerman deployed overseas.
The fight was quickly called off after photos of maimed and dead civilians began flooding the media. When Ackerman arrived in Iraq that summer, the city was chafing under an uneasy cease-fire. All the talk was about when, not if, there would be another assault on the city. “I’ll never forget being on the convoy and going down there and seeing this looming monster and saying, ‘Hey, man, that’s Fallujah right there,’ ” he says. “Everyone knew that’s where all the trouble was coming from.”
A city of more than 300,000 people, Fallujah had been a lingering threat ever since it was bypassed by U.S. troops in the initial run-up to Baghdad. One vertex of central Iraq’s so-called Sunni triangle, it was full of Baath Party loyalists who had been locked out of the early days of the Iraqi government and who formed the heart of the resistance to the occupation. In recent months, it had become a magnet for foreign fighters who rallied under the banner of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In the coming showdown in Fallujah, U.S. forces would find themselves engaged in their bloodiest battle since Vietnam—a two-week urban grind that would leave 95 Americans dead and more than 700 wounded, along with thousands of insurgents killed or captured.
A wiry 24-year-old with a lean face and soft brown eyes, Ackerman had two short months to get his platoon in shape before heading in country. At Camp Lejeune, he pushed his men hard, constantly drilling them around camp, to the snickers of Marines in other platoons. Almost immediately, the green second lieutenant clashed with his first-squad leader, Sergeant Adam Banotai, an Iraq veteran who resented being ordered around by someone who had never been in a firefight. “I had this idea that I was going to show this new lieutenant how we do things,” remembers Banotai. He deliberately told his squad to disobey marching orders. When Ackerman found out, he quietly read Banotai the riot act. “He was never the type to get in your face and scream, but he pulled me aside and said he’s the boss and I could learn a thing or two from him.”
When the platoon had its first skirmish on patrol in Iraq, Banotai realized he’d been wrong to doubt his commanding officer. “He never lost his cool,” he says. “He always seemed one hundred percent sure of what he was doing, and his was always the right move.” While Ackerman worked to evacuate a Marine who had been wounded by a roadside bomb, he turned the battle over to Banotai. “The fact that he trusted me without hesitation—that was the meshing point between the two of us,” he says. “From then on, we worked together perfectly.”
As for the rest of his platoon, Ackerman inspired loyalty with his willingness to break through the division between officers and enlisted men. While other officers relaxed in their quarters, Ackerman would sit around the campfire telling his men stories about his college days or giving advice about girls. “You are asking them to do things they can’t see the exact need for,” he says. “How are they going to be able to trust you if they don’t know you?”
Bonding with his men came easily to Ackerman. He spent most of his childhood in London, where his father was a financier and author who would later become chair of the Fletcher School board of overseers and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His mother, too, was a writer, and served as international secretary for the writers’ organization PEN. Even as a young boy, Ackerman loved history, dragging around an illustrated account of the Vietnam War wherever he went. During his teen years, he also became obsessed with skateboarding. He would often steal away to the south bank of the Thames, where he became tight with the working-class kids of the neighborhood.
There he came face-to-face with the rigidity of the British class structure that denied his friends the opportunities he took for granted. “Most of them were really smart guys, but most of them had a sense of fatalism, like ‘I am going to work in my dad’s shop,’ ” he says. “I was the only one of my group of friends who could aspire to do whatever I wanted, and part of that was because I was American.”
When he moved back to the United States at age 15, that feeling of being one lucky guy only deepened. His decision to become a Marine officer came with a characteristic mix of confidence and humility—having as much to do with looking out for working-class kids as for himself. “You look at guys in the military, and these were the same guys I skateboarded with,” he says. “Why shouldn’t those guys who are running the greatest risk be led by the guy who has been given every opportunity life has to offer?”
Unable then to do a single pullup, Ackerman worked out every day for a year to qualify for the Naval Academy. He got in, but decided to follow his first love, history, and enroll at Tufts University, which he says “gave me a broader view and exposed me to things I would never have been exposed to.” At the Fletcher School at Tufts, he wrote his master’s thesis on the use of indigenous troops by the British, a prophetic choice given the U.S. reliance on native troops in Iraq.
Because Tufts lacked its own ROTC program, Ackerman commuted to MIT for training, in the course of which he impressed his commanding officers with his combination of dedication and soft-spoken humility. “His level of talent and ability are off the charts,” says Major Phil Zeman, one of Ackerman’s former Naval ROTC instructors and a current Marine Corps fellow at Fletcher. “He is one of those people who inspire the confidence of seniors and subordinates.”
The summer before his final year at Tufts, Ackerman attended the Marine Corps’s demanding Amphibious Reconnaissance School, which meant 12- and 14-hour days in the field transmitting complex radio codes on one or two hours’ sleep. After graduation, he moved on to basic training at Quantico, in Virginia, where he was put through a tough physical regimen, all the while soaking up the Corps’s prime directive: leave no man behind. He graduated first in his class of 220.
With all that training, Ackerman was under no illusions about the difficulty of the impending fight in Fallujah. Urban combat is messy under the most favorable circumstances. “The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative,” Sun Tzu advised in the sixth-century BC treatise The Art of War. Outside of isolated examples from World War II and Vietnam, the U.S. military had little experience with such warfare. The last time they had tried it was the disastrous raid in Somalia depicted in the book and film Black Hawk Down. As Ackerman’s Marines trained in house-to-house fighting, they repeatedly kicked in the front doors of buildings to find “insurgents” waiting inside with machine guns. Each time it was the same story—huge body counts on the attackers’ side.
Ackerman’s battalion, 1/8, arrived in the palm-fringed Euphrates River valley outside Fallujah in June, setting up camp in one of Saddam Hussein’s old military airfields, Al Asad. As summer turned to fall, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were ordered to evacuate the city. A D-Day atmosphere pervaded the camp. Finally, word came down that the assault would commence in early November.
The battalion left Al Asad for Camp Fallujah, closer to the city, at the end of October. According to the attack plan, three battalions would drive into the city from the north, squeezing insurgents southward as they advanced. The 1/8 would be smack in the middle of the assault. Two of its three companies, Bravo and Charlie companies, would fight to open up an axis of advance on November 8 and 9. Then they would fall back and let Alpha Company lead the assault into the center of the city’s government complex, where the fiercest resistance was expected. Ackerman was the leader of the first platoon of Alpha Company.
In the early morning hours of November 10, the tanks and assault vehicles of Alpha Company stood, engines idling, in the arid fields on the north side of the city. Sitting in the commander’s hatch atop his hulking AAVC-7A1 assault amphibious vehicle, Ackerman felt a creeping dread, a plague of doubts about whether he’d trained enough—or could train enough—to lead all his men to safety. In just a few hours, 46 men would be counting on him to make the right decisions to keep them alive. He ran through their names—Banotai, Menard, Latva, Castelli—and privately wondered how many of them would make it through the battle.
At precisely 4 a.m., a voice crackled over the radio with orders for his platoon, cutting his thoughts short for the next five days: “All Avenger stations, this is Avenger 6. We are Oscar Mike”—Marine lingo for “on the move.”
They drove in silence toward the government complex. Leaving their assault vehicle, the Marines marched warily into the complex before dawn, only to find it strangely deserted. Keeping up their guard, Ackerman’s men moved to secure two six-story buildings on the southern side, twin structures they nicknamed Mary Kate and Ashley. Suddenly, the air was rent with machine gun fire from across the street. The men dived for cover behind the balcony walls on the upper floors of the building. Then Ackerman ordered them to fire as he called in heavy artillery to bombard the enemy positions.
In training, Marines weren’t allowed to call in artillery fire closer than 400 meters—now, he was calling in fire closer than 100 meters. Several shells fell less than half that distance away, causing windows to blow out and shrapnel to thud behind them as they huddled against the balcony walls. Ackerman yelled into the radio to Dan Malcom, a buddy who commanded the weapons platoon, to adjust his fire. There was no reply. In an attempt to survey the scene, Malcom had remained in the open a second too long and taken a fatal bullet.
There was no time to grieve. As fighting wore on, the company commander, Major Aaron Cunningham, ordered Ackerman to be ready to move out later that night to seize a triangle of buildings south of the complex. The tactic was straightforward. Ackerman would move under the cover of darkness—the insurgents had no night-vision equipment—and set up a forward base of operations for the next day of fighting. In preparation, a combat plane strafed the building to make sure it was clear of insurgents. When Ackerman arrived in the early hours before dawn, he found the pilot had done his job too well: the building had collapsed into an indefensible heap of rubble.
Rather than retreat, Ackerman made a split-second decision to push on and establish his redoubt in a building some 250 meters south, even deeper into enemy territory and cut off from the rest of the company. They set up camp in a former butcher shop smelling of “pig guts and chickens,” as Banotai puts it, which they sardonically nicknamed the “Candy Store.” It was at daybreak that Ackerman got his first look at the enemy.
After five months of facing a shadowy foe most often evidenced by the explosion of a roadside bomb, seeing the insurgents only a few dozen meters away was a surreal experience. The men roaming the streets were dressed in an irregular mix of military clothing and athletic gear, and wielded an array of Soviet-era weaponry: AK-47 assault rifles, RPK-74 machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. The only consistent feature of their uniforms was that each wore something black—the color of martyrdom. In the months between the first and second assaults on Fallujah, the city had been reinforced with legions of foreign fighters from countries around Iraq. According to news reports, many of them took methamphetamines or other drugs to heighten their endurance before battle, and most of them had sworn an oath to die.
On Ackerman’s order, his men began firing. The shots scattered the insurgents, who took to the surrounding buildings as they tried to figure out where the shots were coming from (which is much less obvious in actual warfare than it is in the movies). It took the enemy several hours to home in on Ackerman’s position. Soon enough, though, they were peppering the building with machine-gun and sniper fire from all sides. One shooter got a bead on a window and hit Ackerman’s second-in-command, Platoon Sergeant Michael Cauthon, in the helmet, knocking him out. The next bullet ricocheted off the roof and tore through the femoral artery of Ackerman’s machine gunner, Lance Corporal Matthew Brown, whose leg began gushing blood.
“We’re getting you out of here,” said Ackerman, calling in an assault vehicle to evacuate the men. The vehicle lumbered toward the Candy Store, but as it approached, it was struck by an RPG—a direct hit to the fuel tank—and burst into flames. Soon, another platoon commander barreled down the street in a lightly armored humvee, but couldn’t find the Candy Store. Banotai fired a colored smoke grenade as a signal and ran outside to flag the vehicle down. Barely pausing to think, Ackerman followed Banotai, running into the smoke as bullets whizzed all around. He waved his arms frantically to get the driver’s attention.
Brown survived, but only because his two comrades managed to summon the humvee, which evacuated seven wounded men. Asked about the incident now, Ackerman downplays it—one of his guys needed help, he says, and so he helped him. “You don’t overanalyze the situation at the moment it’s happening. It’s like if you see a car crash and you see someone hurt on the side of the road—it’s obvious you go and help the person. You just do what you need to do, and you’ll have plenty of time to analyze it later.”
It would be a long time before he’d have that luxury. As Ackerman ran back inside, insurgents shifted around to cover the only doorway out of the building. At the same time, the rest of the company had caught up with their position and was moving south. Ackerman poked his head back out the door, and dust from a machine gun kicked up on the wall beside him. “That’s suicide,” he remarked, setting off tense grunts of laughter among the men. The platoon was in an impossible position. If they ran out the door, they would be mowed down. If they waited, they would be left behind.
Ackerman turned to his combat engineer. “Can you blow a hole in the opposite side of the building?” he asked. “Yeah, I think I can do that,” came the reply. Not sure the building could withstand the charge, Ackerman bunched his men on the west end of the shop as the engineer lit the explosive. When the smoke cleared, a six-foot hole gaped in the concrete wall, and the men came pouring out.
The platoon regrouped with the rest of the company, which was moving south down two parallel alleys. Ackerman led the assault down one of them. It was a scene perfectly captured by the phrase “the fog of war.” Smoke billowed from buildings. The roar of the tank engines and the rattle of assault rifles on both sides drowned out shouted orders. One after another of Ackerman’s men fell wounded, shot in the arms and legs, raked with shrapnel from exploding RPGs, or knocked unconscious by the sonic blasts of their own tanks. As each hit the pavement, Ackerman shouted into his radio for the man to be evacuated. He made 13 of those calls in quick succession.
Finally, Cunningham gave orders to “hold firm” —set up base—and Ackerman dived into a building on the side of the road. As he regrouped the platoon, he learned that a team of men under Corporal William Long had fallen behind in another building with a wounded comrade, and were exchanging fire up a stairway with insurgents on the roof. Unable to get to the men because of the gunfire, Ackerman signaled a passing assault vehicle on the radio. “Look for me,” he yelled into the receiver as he kicked down the door and ran with Lance Corporal Carmine Castelli into the crossfire. Ackerman flagged down the vehicle and sent it speeding toward Long and his men. The AAV provided covering fire long enough for the trapped Marines to run to safety with the rest of Ackerman’s platoon. (“That’s where he really saved a lot of lives,” Banotai said later. “If he hadn’t done that, sooner or later insurgents on the roof would have gotten them.”)
Back with his platoon, Ackerman joined a contingent of men on the roof. No sooner had they taken up positions than RPGs began raining down around them. “Everyone off the roof!” Ackerman yelled. He ordered the riflemen to take aim from the more protected windows below. As for Ackerman himself, he needed the vantage point of the roof to call in tank and mortar fire. He moved to take control of the machine gun, but the gunner, Corporal Ramon “Benjy” Bejarano, protested. “I’m not giving up my gun,” he shouted.
“Fine,” Ackerman shouted back.
As grenades and bullets flew, Ackerman and Bejarano took turns marking targets for tanks, shooting lighted tracer fire into windows wherever they caught a flash of a muzzle or movement of clothing. Now and then a bullet would zing by too close, and they would crouch behind a wall for a few minutes before getting up to mark targets again. The cat-and-mouse game, with Ackerman and his machine gunner perched on the open roof, wore on for two hours.
When he came downstairs, all the exhausted Ackerman could think about was the condition of his troops. Of the 46 men he had started with that morning, 21 were now casualties, including Banotai, who had suffered a concussion from tank fire. Another squad leader, Corporal Jordan Latva, had peered around a bend in the road and been knocked out by the blast of an RPG. “Emotionally it’s tough because you are responsible for everything your team does or fails to do,” he says. “They pump that into your veins, and when you lose half the platoon, you start asking yourself some tough questions.”
Compared with Ackerman’s men, however, the enemy fared much worse. Later it emerged that Ackerman’s push down the alley had broken the heart of the enemy resistance in the center of the city, essentially cracking the toughest neighborhood in the grisliest battle of the Iraq War. “His platoon happened to be repeatedly placed in actions that were extremely important to the battle on the city,” says Captain Doug Krugman, Alpha Company’s executive officer and Ackerman’s superior. “Wherever we put them, they seemed to run into large numbers of resistance. He showed a great deal of personal bravery and leadership, despite losing most of his subordinate officers.”
Even with its losses, Ackerman’s platoon remained crucial to the assault. They fell into a rhythm over the next two days, advancing under the cover of darkness and ambushing the enemy from a forward position each morning. As the company advanced on the fifth day, however, the other platoons were held up by the discovery of weapons caches, and Ackerman’s platoon again found itself in the lead. After a few hours, Cunningham ordered him to “go firm”—that is, to take over a group of buildings large enough for the whole company to establish base. Ackerman found the perfect spot: a row of three buildings joined by courtyards. But before he had time to contemplate what might be waiting for them inside, insurgents on the roof of the first building began firing on the platoon at point-blank range.
The third-squad leader, Adrian Bessant, kicked in the door of the nearest building, and the Marines barreled inside. As they stormed from room to room, Ackerman or another platoon member would toss a grenade around the corner, and then, after it exploded, lean around with a pistol. While Ackerman and Bessant made their way up onto the roof, Staff Sergeant Ricardo Sebastian, who had replaced Cauthon as platoon sergeant, began clearing out the adjacent house. A live grenade in hand, he kicked in the door, only to make the dreaded discovery: an insurgent was waiting for him. Sebastian was shot twice—once through the wrist and once through the thigh. Still, he summoned the strength to throw the grenade, which killed the insurgent before he fell himself.
In the course of the house-clearing, another Marine, Lance Corporal David Landgrebe, was shot through both legs. Ackerman called in a vehicle to evacuate the two men, and helped drag them down the narrow alley to the vehicle. It was at that moment that an insurgent dropped a grenade from a building above him, aiming for the open bay of the vehicle. Instead, the grenade fell between the vehicle and the wall where Ackerman was standing.
As he turned to run, he felt the blast against his back. “Something hit me,” he registered, but with so much debris and shrapnel flying around, he didn’t know how badly he was hurt until he reached inside his flak jacket and his hand came back slick with blood. Several hunks of shrapnel had embedded themselves in his back—“right around the love handles,” he says now, adding that “a lot of guys took a lot worse.” Ducking for cover back inside the burned-out building they had just cleared, Ackerman called to the platoon corpsman (the Marine equivalent of a medic), who hastily cleaned the wound and bandaged it with gauze. Only minutes later, he was back on the roof assuming command of his platoon for a firefight that would last several hours before the rest of his company arrived.
In all the pandemonium, the instant that stands out was not the wound, but a quiet moment an hour or two later. As he stood resting in the stairwell, a fellow Marine offered him a cigarette. Ackerman had quit smoking in high school, but he didn’t hesitate. “Jesus Christ, yes,” he said, grabbing the offered smoke. In the next 20 minutes, he chain-smoked eight cigarettes as he and the other Marine chatted. Ackerman remembers reading about a sergeant in World War I who would always make his troops eat a meal after taking part in a raid. “Just doing the physical thing reminded everybody that they were alive,” he says. “Not to be melodramatic, but that’s just what it was like smoking that cigarette. It brought me back into reality.”
The next day, the platoon broke out of the city and into open desert. But the battle for Fallujah was still far from over. For the next two weeks, Ackerman’s platoon, like many others, performed the difficult task of going door-to-door clearing houses, aware that an insurgent could be waiting for them inside each one. The endless game of Russian roulette took a psychological toll on the troops, and Ackerman’s platoon soon helped pioneer new techniques for fighting, calling in bulldozers to buildings rather than sending a squad of men in to get butchered. Ackerman has no misgivings about the destruction. “No Marine’s life is worth a building,” he says.
In the end, Ackerman’s platoon suffered 50 percent casualties, the highest rate of any platoon in the engagement. And those were just the ones that required evacuation. “All told,” Ackerman says, “there were only six Marines in the platoon who did not receive Purple Hearts.” Yet, miraculously, not a single one of his men was killed. Asked how such a thing is possible, Ackerman furrows his brow and shakes his head: “Pure luck,” he says. “Luck, luck, luck.” Not everyone would agree, of course. “If we’d had another lieutenant, we would have come home with at least one Marine killed,” says Banotai. “It was obvious he would lay down his life for his men.”
Ackerman has always turned to history for inspiration, ever since he was a boy lugging around books on Vietnam. This time, he found his meaning in Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield’s historical novel about the battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans faced certain death to defend Greece against thousands of Persians. In that book, a Spartan commander struggles to answer the question, What is the opposite of fear? Not courage, he concludes. “Courage isn’t an emotion,” Ackerman explains. “It’s just the conquest of fear. So what’s the opposite emotion? Love. Why do any of those guys run out there and do what they do? It’s because they love the platoon, and they love the other guys. I want to do my guys right.”
In January 2007, Ackerman was awarded the Silver Star for valor in the Battle of Fallujah. Now a first lieutenant, he is back at Camp Lejeune, serving as a platoon commander with the Second Marine Special Operations Battalion.
MICHAEL BLANDING is an award-winning magazine writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Boston Magazine, and the Boston Globe Magazine.