Haunting Thoughts After a Battle

New York Times
March 29, 2003

WITH THE THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION, in central Iraq, March 28 - It troubles him, now that the battle is over. Sgt. Mark N. Redmond remembers shouting "qiff," Arabic for halt, but they did not halt. The Iraqi fighters just kept coming.

Sergeant Redmond's unit spent three days and nights fighting for the bridge at Kifl, a village on the Euphrates River about 75 miles south of Baghdad. By any military definition - the territory seized, the number of enemy killed, the mission accomplished - the unit's fight ended in victory. After victory, though, comes rest. And with rest comes reflection.

"I mean, I have my wife and kids to go back home to," he said, sitting atop a box of rations back at his base camp, whiling away a lull as unexpected as it was appreciated. "I don't want them to think I'm a killer."

The fighting around Kifl subsided today, officers here said, as it did around much of Najaf, the holy city on the Euphrates that the Third Infantry Division struggled to encircle in an unexpectedly fierce battle that began late Monday night when Sergeant Redmond's unit - Troop C, attached to the First Brigade of the Third Infantry - first crossed the river.

The division's commanders said today that the withering effects of an expanding armored ring around the city, coupled with airstrikes and artillery barrages, had at last halted Iraq's efforts to reinforce Najaf, though the situation in the city itself remains unclear.

By tonight, there was still no complete count of the enemy who died there, though soldiers and officers said there were scores, at least. And for some, like Sergeant Redmond, the memory remained haunting.

"They just came up to us," he said, describing irregular Iraqi militiamen who began fighting as soon as Troop C crossed the two-lane bridge over the Euphrates. "It seemed to me they were trying to test us, but it was suicide."

By today, only skirmishes continued. Iraqi forces fired mortars late this morning at Kifl, but ineffectively, officers said. American artillery barrages quickly silenced them.

"They learned if they get too close, bad things happen," Capt. Adam J. Morrison, the brigade's assistant artillery officer, said in the sand-infused tent where the brigade's tactical operations center is situated.

Much of the brigade's - and the division's - firepower concentrated instead to the north, firing rockets and calling in airstrikes on what officers said were artillery batteries and other Iraqi targets. The division's commander, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount 3rd, said in an interview on Wednesday that the Army's efforts were now focused on softening up Iraqi forces on the approaches to Baghdad.

In Kifl, the effort turned to the accounting.

The brigade's Graves Registration Team began to fan out across the village and its surroundings to collect the remains of Iraqi fighters, which they packed in black bags along with any personal items that might help identify them.

"Basically we did the same thing with the Iraqi dead that we would have done with American dead," said Capt. Andrew J. Valles, the brigade's civil affairs officer. For Sergeant Redmond, 26, it was a time to digest what had happened. He did not want to dwell on the details of the deaths his weapons caused.

"Other guys will tell you details - maybe even embellish them to make a better story," he said.

He joined the Army three years ago after doing odd jobs around his hometown, a four-church and no-stop-light town outside of Gainesville, Fla. He wanted to be a combat soldier, he said, but his wife told the Army recruiter that she wanted him to have a safer job - or M.O.S., in Army jargon. The recruiter suggested he become a forward observer, calling in artillery and airstrikes.

"He said I'd be close enough to the front to see it, but not in the middle of it," he said. "Look at me today."

He was in his Humvee on the bridge when the Iraqis detonated explosives underneath it - buckling, but not collapsing it - and felt the sudden, wrenching fear of isolation.

In hindsight, he questioned the decision to send only an unarmored scout troop across the bridge. He understood why. Like many soldiers here, from the lowest private to the commander of the Army's V Corps, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, Sergeant Redmond said he did not expect the Iraqis to resist so doggedly.

"I expected a lot more people to surrender," he said. "From all the reports we got, I thought they would all capitulate."

In the three days that followed, they did not, and he fired every weapon on his Humvee, including a 50-caliber machine gun, his M-4 rifle and a grenade launcher - everything except the shoulder-fired antitank missile. Many of the Iraqis, he said, attacked headlong into the cutting fire of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

"I wouldn't call it bravery," he said. "I'd call it stupidity. We value a soldier's life so much more than they do. I mean, an AK-47 isn't going to do nothing against a Bradley. I'd love to know what Saddam is telling his people.

"When I go home, people will want to treat me like a hero, but I'm not," he went on. "I'm a Christian man. If I have to kill the other guy, I will, but it doesn't make me a hero. I just want to go home to my wife and kids."

The brigade's chief chaplain, Maj. Mark B. Nordstrom, said he spent more than six hours with the troop's soldiers on Thursday after they returned from Kifl. Sergeant Redmond was among them.

Major Nordstrom belongs to a branch of the Mennonites with a pacifist theology. He has given this some thought. He cites St. Augustine's theory of just war: "War is love's response to a neighbor threatened by force."

"We're in the thousands now that were killed in the last few days," he said today. "Nothing prepares you to kill another human being. Nothing prepares you to use a machine gun to cut someone in two.

"They tell stories amongst themselves," he added of the soldiers. "When I come up, they tell different stories. It bothers them to take life, especially that close. They want to talk to me so that they know that I know they are not awful human beings."