News from the front seat: journalist Harris in seven-ton ammo truck. Photos courtesy CNN.
News from the front seat: journalist Harris in seven-ton ammo truck. Photos courtesy CNN.

Riding 'Shotgun' for CNN

An embedded journalist had a ringside seat to the war in Iraq.
Writer: 
August 1, 2003

Nasiriya, Iraq

Harris, get your ass in the truck!” barked the nervous Marine sergeant. “MOVE OUT!” There was no moon to light up the night as we raced to get out of a town that had seen a lot of fighting and a lot of dying. Military intelligence warned that enemy troops were heading our way—1,000 vehicles attached to the Republican Guard, including lots of heavy Soviet-made armor—considered overwhelming odds against the small Marine unit that had adopted me as an embedded war correspondent for CNN.

I was riding “shotgun” in the passenger seat of a seven-ton ammo truck, part of a light-armored 2nd Marine reconnaissance unit, Charlie Company, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. “You gotta duck down if I gotta shoot out your window,” said Corporal Boile Sanchez-Frias, age twenty, who grew up washing his clothes in a river in Santa Domingo before moving to Queens, New York, and easily adapted to washing fatigues in a bucket in the desert. Sanchez parked the headphones to his CD player and gripped the wheel with one hand, his M-16 with the other.

Squinting through night-vision goggles, he was pushing fifty miles per hour when the night exploded around us.

“ I can’t see a f---ing thing!” shouted the machine gunner on top of the truck, Lance Corporal William Caldwell, who raised pit bulls in Chester, South Carolina, with his wife when he wasn’t manning the “50 cal.”

“ Anything moves, just shoot it,” Sanchez yelled back. Caldwell opened up at the tree line; his gun shook the truck, white-hot shells tumbling through the hole in the roof, bouncing off my helmet and onto the floor. All around us, 25-mm cannon boomed from more than thirty light armored vehicles (LAVs) in the convoy, 81-mm mortars pounding what appeared to be the enemy positions, lobbing high incendiary “heat rounds” called “shake and bake” more than a mile, 7.62-mm machine guns hammering the night with a rat-tat-tat staccato of destruction.

Suddenly, the truck ahead of us swerved, flipping the water tank it was pulling. Sanchez weaved around it, kept going. “They told me, don’t stop for nobody,” he said.

Duty calls: Marine on guard

Duty calls: Marine on guard.

Harris on TV

Harris on TV.

Orange tracer rounds crept lower and lower, directly at the ammo truck I was riding in. I winced, my stomach suddenly churning, wondering whether it was The End. I kept the camera rolling, recording the madness as Caldwell briefly got cold feet and took refuge in the cab. “GET BACK UP THERE AND KEEP SHOOTING,” screamed Sanchez, “OR I’LL F---NG SHOOT YOU MYSELF!”

Replaying the videotape now, it is chilling, and if I ever wondered what the hell I was doing there, I know now that I had to be there, just to see for myself. If they could do it, if I could do it, chasing Hemingway.

Nasiriya sits on the banks of the Euphrates River, just a few kilometers from the purported birthplace of Abraham 6,000 years ago, steeped in biblical history, remembered more recently for the hospital where Jessica Lynch was rescued and as the graveyard of seventeen Marines—some ambushed on their way into town by Iraqis; others, possible victims of a U.S. fighter jet that missed its Iraqi target. All that happened early on March 23, hours before Charlie Company’s light-armored recon unit arrived. The Marines’ mission: hunt and destroy what appeared to be a far nastier resistance than anticipated, reinforce fellow grunts with firepower, and keep the supply lines open to Baghdad by securing key highway bridges along a six-mile stretch of road since dubbed “Ambush Alley”—and, unbeknown to us at that moment, a road that was about to become a bloody, terrifying stage for so-called friendly fire.

I’d been up and down Ambush Alley five times, taking Iraqi fire with each run, and this moment was no different, or so we thought. The shooting appeared to be coming from Iraqis under a bridge ahead of us. But the pounding became so relentless from farther away, on the other side of the bridge, that some feared Iraq’s Republican Guard had arrived faster than expected and were more determined than ever to defend Saddam and their homeland.

“GET OUT OF THE TRUCK!” yelled Sanchez as bullets kicked up dirt around the tires. “We’re about to get f---ing hit!” I grabbed my camera and jumped from the cab, my gas mask catching on the door, ripping loose as I half fell, then scrambled down a small embankment in the dark. The only solace of riding in an ammo truck, I was thinking, is that if the end comes, it will come quickly, and that, having loaded up on life insurance, I was worth more dead than alive. War can make your thinking very twisted.

That night’s firefight lasted an interminable two hours, and when the smoke cleared and the last flares floated down, their red glare indicated friendly Marines on the other side of the bridge—not Iraqis, as intelligence had mistakenly advised. We rolled by in silence, just staring at the horror. Charlie Company, my unit, had wounded more than twenty fellow Marines in the unit on the other side of the bridge who thought they were shooting at the enemy, too.

As I later learned, both units had called in artillery strikes on the other, but, thank God, the cool “arty boys” knew better—calculating that friendlies were in both coordinates—and declined to unleash any more unmitigated hellfire. Now, as daylight came, Charlie Company edged past the Semper Fi’s on the receiving end; they appeared dazed, staring vacantly as they stood beside smoldering trucks and Humvees that had been set ablaze with amazingly accurate fire. Charlie Company, my unit, suffered only one minor injury—Corporal Rey Narvais’ eyes were cut by flying glass after a round crashed through his window, broke the steering wheel, and landed in his lap. The incident was still officially under investigation when I recently checked. So was what Marine sources told me was a trigger-happy young officer, who was relieved on the spot and dispatched to a new job, guarding Iraqi POWs in a makeshift brig. “Hey,” quipped a sergeant, trying to spin the war story. “Just shows you how tough Marines are. No one blinked.”

I was able to break that story because, as an embedded journalist with the military, I was given perhaps the closest ringside seat to fighting since Vietnam. We “embeds” were promised we could get as close to the battle as we dared—as long as we didn’t jeopardize an operation—and report what we saw or learned. In other words, the Pentagon promised us war with all its ugly trimmings and, at least in my case, for the most part delivered: The unit I was with got shot at by Iraqis and shot back; they got shot at by other Marines and shot back. I talked to stunned young men elated over their first Iraqi tank kills, then moments later ashen-faced to learn that close friends had just died.

I watched as a backhoe dug two graves for Iraqi soldiers shot by Sergeant Herb Phinney, age twenty-four, of Great Falls, Montana, who made the unit’s first kills. Marines tossed in two bodies, one with a pack of unfiltered cigarettes in his green uniform pocket, then covered the graves with dirt and tagged them for later reburial by their families. Phinney was a sort of Renaissance Marine. He loved opera, read voraciously, and told me he was determined to go home a better man for his wife and two small children, one born after he deployed in January.

Like a handful of other Marines, he kept a journal. That’s where he went to be alone. “The only time I feel like I’m by myself is when I’m writing in it,” he said. Driving, sleeping, shooting, eating, he was never more than a few feet from his men. He put his sleeping bag on top of his LAV; his men slept on the ground around it. He read me the entry about drawing first blood. “As we approached two Iraqi soldiers, my gunner yelled out they had two AK-47s and he could see the banana clips. They started to run and turned around. I gunned both of them down. I know I am going to pull the trigger when the time comes again. I feel numb to the whole ordeal. I wish they would have just dropped their weapons.”

I always wondered what it would be like being there, after watching war movies growing up, arranging and rearranging guns (with no clips or firing pins) given to me by a relative who’d taken them off dead German soldiers in World War II, when he’d served under George Patton. I’d heard the heroic tales about my stepfather, a Marine dive-bomber pilot in the Pacific, and studied war at Phillips Academy under a brilliant history teacher who loved Teddy Roosevelt—and had also taught a preppy Texan named George W. Bush.

At Duke, during ROTC drills, a few anti-Vietnam war classmates hurled tomatoes at me, and a stunning ADPi—my girlfriend!—later spurned me over our different paths, hers briefly to a commune, mine to a job as a public-affairs officer afloat with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. There, as a young ensign, I gave Dan Rather his first tour of the flagship, got “early out” orders as the Vietnam War was winding down, and flew home on a KC-135 full of body bags of kids my age.

Then it was on to a brief tour at Harvard business school, a cub-reporting job at The Atlanta Constitution, freelancing for Rolling Stone, staff jobs at The San Francisco Examiner, then The Washington Post, where I worked for Bob Woodward and later became Atlanta bureau chief, before moving on to a correspondent’s job and lots of makeup at CNN. It’s been my home ever since, covering some of the big crime stories of our time—O.J. Simpson, the Olympic Park bombing, the death of Princess Diana, Oklahoma City, the Clara Harris “Murder by Mercedes” trial. Then, in January, my boss, Keith McAllister, asked if I might like a two-month camping trip in the Iraqi desert. How could I refuse? It was an honor to be asked, a dream and a nightmare of a proposition. My wife, Carol, was furious. “You volunteered, didn’t you?” she asked. “How could you?”

“ I didn’t have a choice.”

“ But you did.”

“ If I don’t do it, I’ll go through life wondering if I could have done it, why I didn’t do it, and resent it like hell.”

She made peace with it, but didn’t like it one bit. But that’s what I do, and I felt I’d trained for it all my life.

Extra eyes: poor visibility from windblown sand necessitates a guide on foot for personnel carrier


Extra eyes: poor visibility from windblown sand necessitates a guide on foot for personnel carrier.

As for training, there would be more. Eason Jordan, chief news executive, who put CNN on the map with the hardwire cable into Baghdad that allowed the network to report live exclusively during the first Gulf War, made sure anyone going to war got comprehensive war training. We spent a week with seasoned Brit and Aussie special-forces tutors who’d seen and done it all. We learned battlefield medicine; how to walk in a minefield (at least ten yards behind the guy in front, so if he sets it off, you survive); how to beat tropical diseases. We got chemical decontamination kits and top German-made gas masks—the same brand I later videotaped littering the ground around several abandoned Iraqi military headquarters.

In one exercise at a farm outside Atlanta, CNN guards dressed as guerillas captured anchor Daryn Kagan and held her at knifepoint. I tried to negotiate, buy time. I offered cigarettes to one, then looked him in the eye. Oops. Wrong move. Never look your kidnapper in the eye. They took her away. I heard screams in the woods. Er, sorry, Daryn.

More training: how to use the laptop video-editing gear, how to acquire a signal with fancy satellite dishes, how not to use infrared night vision on our cameras that could tip off a sniper. By the time we shipped out for Kuwait in February, we were almost ready. I got personalized dog tags, on chains—one to loop in a shoelace, the other to go around the neck, both with Social Security number, blood type, and name, so they’d know where to send the body.

The Pentagon promised almost total access. All we had to do was sign an agreement with the military. We could report the war—the good, bad, and the ugly, in real time or thereafter. The only catch: We had to have our local commander’s blessing, and that was sometimes a snap and sometimes maddening. From canvassing fellow CNN embeds, I learned that the Army appeared to be the most accommodating ground force, as Walt Rodgers illustrated when he raced across the desert towards Baghdad with a long line of Abrams tanks, reporting live at full gallop. And while Martin Savidge was allowed to keep cameras rolling as his Marine unit took fire and the vehicle he was riding on nearly went over a wall, other Marine units varied in their willingness to give permission to go live.

view through mounted machine gun

Arms and the men: view through mounted machine gun

Rey Narvais with photo from home

Rey Narvais with photo from home.

LAVs in transit to first engagement in Iraq

LAVs in transit to first engagement in Iraq.

New technology and the number of crewmembers assigned also made a difference in how much video we could send home. Walt and Marty, for example, had terrific cameramen and reliable videophones, as did other CNN teams. Meanwhile, a handful of embeds like me traveled solo and light, filing stories for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CNN that gave the network even more front-row seats to war in exchange for our double duty.

 

It’s going to be camping—with a twist,” quipped a Marine colonel as he surveyed several hundred journalists who had descended on the Hilton Hotel ballroom in Kuwait City for their smallpox and anthrax shots, military IDs, and lessons on how to put on a gas mask (take any longer than nine seconds and you could die), when to jab yourself with atropine if you started drooling from invisible nerve agents in the air, and how to get ready to be down-and-dirty, as in no showers for, in my case, six weeks. Then it was bye-bye Starbucks.

We boarded buses and rode two hours to tent cities near the Kuwait-Iraq border. I wound up at Camp Shoup, named after a Marine Medal of Honor winner, where sandstorms raged, stinging the eyes, and Marines kept their edge training and wrestling in the dirt—and wondering if and when they’d get the word. Then it came: Pack up, no more phone calls home. Within hours, we were near “the berm”—the DMZ, marked by giant mounds of dirt separating Kuwait and Iraq. We heard someone yell, “MISSILES…TAKE COVER!” Scuds. One exploded nearby; others, we learned later, were blasted out of the sky over Kuwait City. I began reporting live salvos of rockets shooting like giant Roman candles into the night overhead to soften up Iraqi positions across the border.

“ GAS, GAS, GAS,” shouted a sergeant. I excused myself from the show to put on my mask, then resumed my report. “Art, you sound too much like Darth Vader,” my CNN handler said. “Call back.” (Like every gas warning, it turned out to be a false alarm.)

The next morning, we crossed the berm, a bumpy open-air ride in an LAV that zoomed up and down hills, past destroyed Iraqi armor and onto a flat expanse of desert in Southern Iraq never before touched by U.S. military might. That first night, the unit parked in a wide defensive formation. Exhausted, I heated up an MRE, something like chicken tetrazzini, emptied the contents of a tiny bottle of Tabasco on it, checked for poisonous snakes and scorpions, and tossed my air mattress onto the ground. I crawled into the sleeping bag and dozed off thinking, You are in Iraq!

Then I felt what seemed like rain, but the droplets were the size of cotton balls, fatter than any I’d ever seen on a rainy night in Georgia, and appeared to be floating down in slow motion. My first thoughts—a chemical attack—an airburst of some nerve agent. I thought of my wife,

I thought of my sons, my Jack Russell named Zipper. Groggy, I tried to scramble out of the sleeping bag, reached for my gas mask, resigned that I was about to die in some convulsive horror. Now where the hell did they tell us to jab the syringe of atropine? I waited for the poison chemicals to hit my bloodstream. Only nothing happened! By God, maybe it was just Iraqi rain! Blessed water for the parched desert! “Hey, it’s raining, Art,” said Sanchez. “You may want to get back in the truck.”

There I was, crisscrossing Iraq with a Marine recon unit, the first to go into many villages to look for paramilitary and try to thwart ambushes. The unit was the so-called “tip of the spear,” and also provided highway security and backed up other Marines with an array of weapons. Since Charlie Company was fast and mobile, I had to travel light. I shot digital stills until sand killed the camera; shot video with a small Sony; wrote dispatches (often under hot ponchos to keep “light discipline” at night); then set up satellite phones to e-mail the copy and the stills and answer lots of encouraging messages, including those from families of the Marines I was with.

Through it all, I kept the camera rolling. Always on the move, I didn’t have enough time or know-how to send the images back by satellite: Cobra helicopters firing missiles at snipers on the Euphrates; firefights; Marines at war; Marines at rest; two puppies the unit adopted as mascots who dined on Italian food, slept through battles, and grew into true dogs of war.

The satellite phone was my lifeline. The Marines kept it charged with their inverters (I’d fried mine the first day). I depended on them for my safety. The least I could do was let them take turns calling home. I’d hitch a ride to headquarters, work a few sources, then go live with the latest updates on the infamous Chemical Ali, how the war was going in Charlie Company—guerillas hiding AK-47s under civilian robes to set up ambushes, a few high-ranking POWs captured, intelligence reports of foreign-trained terrorists taking up the fight, and mass Iraqi desertions. So much to talk about, so little battery time. I’d talk, until the connection was lost or the battery died, sometimes in the middle of a firefight.

“ We just lost Art,” I heard anchor Aaron Brown say one night. “We hope he stays safe.”

Getting permission to use the phone was often an issue. Sometimes the commander of the unit was away hunting Fedayeen, and those left in charge were unwilling or unable to reach him. Just saying no was often their easy way out.

So it went. I’d brief them in broad terms on what I planned to report, and then use my best judgment so as not to put the men—or yours truly—at risk. It was often frustrating. At one point, the Marines demanded we turn in one brand of satellite phone called Thurayas, saying the French had sold Iraq special codes to the GPS system inside them—so the Iraqis could use journalists’ phones to target U.S. forces we were embedded with. Unable to confirm that, I wondered whether the real reason might be to rid the battlefield of our phones and make it easier for the U.S. to target any Iraqis phoning home. I could never confirm that either. It was well known that Iraqi military and government officials used Thurayas. I surrendered mine and switched to the Iridium satellite phone that CNN had given us a backup.

Comparing notes with other embeds later, I learned that the more seasoned, senior-ranking officers were often the most cooperative; the younger officers less so—more prone to second-guessing and, in my case, initially banning the use of the unit name and even the names of Marines for the most innocuous human-interest yarns. It was a dance, initially, a nervous back and forth of who do you trust. I was able to reason with most of them, but not all.

As it turned out, there was no way I could even ask permission to go live during the friendly-fire debacle that night in Nasiriya. The Marines had already confiscated my phone—without explanation—and I was helpless to protest. It all started as night was falling. I heard the growl of an angry NCO, furious for some unknown reason. “HARRIS, GET YOUR SHIT OFF THE TRUCK! YOU’RE OUT OF HERE!”

From someplace on High, mistaken word had been passed down that I’d sinned, that I’d mentioned the names of dead Marines in a CNN.com piece, before families could be notified. That was impossible, I tried to explain. I didn’t even know the names of Marines in that specific unit—not to mention that what they were accusing me of was a sin no respectable journalist, much less an ex-Navy PAO, would ever commit. No matter, confused young Marines who had become my friends were ordered to throw my stuff back onto Sanchez’s ammo truck for my pending departure, and so they did. I reassured them it wasn’t their fault. It had to be a misunderstanding.

Still, I was stunned and angry as the convoy headed out of town. Sanchez had his orders—to drop me on the outskirts of Nasiriya, the other side of the bridge, to face an angry colonel and, in all likelihood, a one-way ticket home. Then came the friendly-fire free-for-all between Charlie Company and a Marine supply unit on the other side of the bridge. Hell was happening all around me, and there was no way I could phone home, or CNN—just keep the camera rolling, take notes, and pray.

Finally the shooting stopped, leaving some Marines almost giddy from escaping death. The convoy cranked up and started moving. Sanchez still had his orders—drop me off at headquarters.

“I’m really sorry, man,” he said, piling my gear by the roadside—cameras, rucksack, laptop, sleeping bag, tent. “Make sure you take an MRE, you get hungry.”

And off they went to refuel. I got my phone back, took a seat in the dust, and called CNN for a read-back of the article in question. Turns out, it was the Pentagon that had released the names—after next-of-kin had been notified. A senior officer had misread it, a colonel, and barked the order to send for me down the line. I was to meet him at 2nd Marine Headquarters across the bridge, so here I was.

“ Harris, WHAT are you doing here?” asked Colonel Ron Bailey, who happened to walk by and didn’t know that one of his officers was probably getting ready to send me home. Bailey, the commander of 2nd Marines, was a tough, smart, and kind man with a very dirty job. I told him what happened. He shook his head, trying to hide what appeared to be disgust. “Get back with your unit, son. THAT’S an order.”

“ I ’d like to find the colonel who gave the order and clear the air, sir, if that’s all right.”

“ Fine,” said Bailey, striding off. When I located the officer and tried to explain, he seemed unable or unwilling to grasp it. Apparently irrational from exhaustion, and overwhelmed at losing his men, he simply teared up at the mention of the dead Marines, and again accused me of releasing their names.

“ Sir,” I said, “you are wrong. I am not the enemy.” I asked him to reread the article, and he’d see that the Pentagon had released the names. I also asked him to clear the air and my reputation with the other Marine unit, and my own. He refused. “I wouldn’t go near them,” he smirked, walking away. “They are really angry at you. You never know what might happen.”

Several days later, General Rich Natonski, head of Task Force Tarawa, approached me and apologized for the incident. I shrugged it off, trying to keep perspective. After all, my duty was to report what I saw and learned—and tell their stories.

Within the hour, I rejoined Charlie Company, which now had orders to turn around and head back down Ambush Alley. Along the Euphrates, snipers hiding in burning buildings kept firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and had to be cleaned out. Single file, the LAVs paraded past their positions—“MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!” shouted Marines, as the ammo truck sat in convoy traffic. Then we were moving again, and the LAVs took cover behind walls and blasted away with 25-mm cannon, mortars, machine guns, their firepower earning them an Iraqi nickname, “The Destroyers.”

As soon as one sniper was put out of action, another appeared to take his place, until, under unrelenting bombardment, the whole building came tumbling down. The night echoed with the whine of Iraqi ambulances taking their wounded to the hospital. “Now THAT is music to my ears,” laughed one young Marine, recalling how RPGs had barely missed his light-armored vehicle and those nearby. Indeed, the Marines in Charlie Company hit peak morale when performing what they were trained to do—fight a war—and no one shied from calling in air strikes to knock out machine-gun nests hidden in the base of a mosque, where secondary explosions suggested ammunition was also being stored. At night, 500-pound bombs dropped two miles away shook the ground on our side of the river. Once I realized it was not incoming, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Charlie Company was ordered north, but never did reach Baghdad. It had other jobs to do—making sure the road to Baghdad was safe for supplies and other troops. Orders kept changing, and the company would sometimes split up and head off to different villages where paramilitary and Baath Party renegades were reported. At one house, I followed a sergeant and his five men on a search. No one was inside, said the elder, as a dozen women and children ran out the back. A house search brought out more than a dozen young men—one with Iraqi Special Forces credentials and a uniform and military web belts that, the elder explained, were for climbing date palms to harvest the dates. Handed the Arab-to-English translation card, I realized we were outnumbered, and, as several of the men smiled, I explained that the sergeant was the “mushareef.”

“ Oooooo,” the Iraqis said in unison, appearing impressed at what I hoped they’d think was the superior force and firepower at their doorstep.

Mushareef means “general.”

Awaiting deployment: at Camp Shoup in Kuwait, Harris readies for Iraq


Awaiting deployment: at Camp Shoup in Kuwait, Harris readies for Iraq.

Suddenly, one Marine came out of the house, saying he’d found no weapons, but had discovered a stash of Victoria’s Secret undergarments.

That’s when I figured we were winning the war—seeing evidence that properly veiled Iraqi ladies were collecting lacy, U.S. lingerie and, later, watching as Iraqi kids started swarming the LAVs, hawking Iraqi cigarettes, $1 per pack, $10 7-Ups, and bootleg gin. On a bridge outside Al Kut, some 400 people marched on two LAVs, ecstatic and chanting, “BUSH, BUSH, BUSH,” locals I interviewed who said they did not know what freedom felt like. Some even showed their scars from Saddam. “Biologie! Biologie!” shouted one man, pointing to his pockmarked face from what he said was a chemical attack years ago.

Panicked that they were getting too close, Sergeant Phinney fired a concussion grenade into the air, scaring back the crowd long enough for his men to lay concertina wire across the bridge. When I pulled out my video camera, the crowd came to life again, tearing up bills with Saddam’s picture on it. To join the celebration, I handed one Iraqi a $20 bill for a case of Pepsi. We waited. Two hours later, the case arrived, to much Marine jubilation. My young merchant said I owed him $20. “But I already paid your friend. You saw me give him the money,” I said.

“ But he took it,” said the Iraqi, “you owe me twenty dollar.”

It was getting ugly. I figured retreat was the better part of valor and climbed back into the LAV, Marines blocking his shakedown move—the free-market hustle. Now I knew the war was won.

With the help of a Marine translator, I interviewed Iraqis wherever possible. One father of three, who said local Baath party thugs had shot him and left him for dead when he refused to join the army, still had Saddam’s photo on his wall. I asked him about it and he tried to rip it down, embarrassed.

“ It’s okay,” I said. “I understand.”

“ They will kill you, if they think you are against Saddam, or if you don’t pay them,” he said.

I said it sounded like the Mafia.

“ Mafia?” he asked.

The translator explained.

“ Yes, yes, Mafia, Mafia,” he said. “Only worse.”

Later, I was asked, How could you live with the military and still report the war objectively? Look, when you’re traveling with the team, like a sportswriter, it’s more fun if the team wins. You’re rooting for them, of course. But if they get bloody noses or shoot one another in the foot, that’s to be reported, and we did. Unlike sportswriters, though, most of us understand we won’t be traveling with The Team forever, and so we don’t have to walk on the same eggshells for access. We’re eating and sleeping together, breathing the same air, 24-7. That naturally brings you close—and can open a window on the soul that is rare. Imagine researching The Red Badge of Courage. Except it ain’t fiction. It’s the human condition you’ve got to report. And you are there.

Toward the end of the war, Charlie Company pulled out of Nasiriya. That was the day the unit lost a Marine, Lance Corporal Brian Anderson of Durham, North Carolina. He was twenty-six. Losing even one was too many. A machine gunner who planned to reenlist, marry his fiance, and become official stepfather to three children, Anderson was the life of the party, always smiling, cracking up pals over dominoes, taking minds off the war. As we left the town, heading north, Anderson’s truck stopped at a low power line. “He thought it was dead, like the others he had been moving,” one friend told me later. Anderson reached up to lift it out of the way. The shock knocked him off the truck. His body was raced to the LAV where I was riding with “Doc,” as they called the Navy corpsman. We turned around and sped back to headquarters, Doc doing CPR all the way.

“ Hey, we got a Marine down over here,” shouted the gunny sergeant. Medics put the body on a stretcher and vanished into a tent.

Ten minutes later, the sergeant walked back to the LAV, tears in his eyes. “Didn’t make it,” he said. “Doc said the shock was too much.” Anderson’s rucksack, his personal gear, his flip-flops were unloaded, to go home with his body. I was strangely sad and tearful, mourning someone I’d barely known. We headed back to the war.

Everyone asks, What was it like? War is long stretches of boredom punctuated by adrenaline highs and a sort of nitrous-oxide terror—stomach-acid angst when you realize someone is trying to kill you that dissolves into slow-motion giddiness when you realize you’ve survived. Was I afraid? C’mon, I had nowhere to hide, except in my prayers, and a few times wondered if I’d ever see my family again. No different from the fears young Marines confessed they had—tough young grunts who made me laugh, asked me to help them write love letters home, wondered why I wanted to be there, but thanked me for it, kept me from being stupid and out of harm’s way—most were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, just a few years older than my two teenage sons. Were they afraid?

“ Mr. Harris,” a young Marine said, “I once heard a general say, ‘If you’re not scared, you’re either lying or suicidal.’ ”

So how do I feel now? Every day is different: less stressed from little things; grateful for everything. Or as one Marine put it, “Every day above ground is a bonus.” Amen.