The Battle for Fallujah

Choose your outcome. Everyone else will


Basic rule of war, always listen to the sergeants. They usually know what's happened and what's going to happen. The fate of Fallujah was spelled out clearly by the top enlisted Marine in Iraq more than a week ago.

"You're all in the process of making history. This is another Hue city in the making," Sgt. Major Carlton W. Kent told a couple thousand Marines prior to their attack on the insurgent playground on the Euphrates.

Hue was the ancient Vietnamese city on the Perfume River that in 1968 during the Tet Offensive was overrun and occupied by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. After air and artillery strikes on the city, several battalions of Marines re-took Hue from the commies but leveled the place in the process.

Hue was also the site of a rare set-piece, urban battle in Vietnam. More or less accurately and starkly portrayed in the second half of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Hue came to symbolize the Vietnam conflict's we-destroyed-the-city-in-order-to-save-it madness.

Yet Hue was also an undeniable military defeat for the communists, who lost thousands of troops in the battle while the Marines suffered around 150 killed. The outcome was clear proof to war hawks that if the U.S. could just corner the bastards, America would win the war.

The battle of Fallujah is also well on its way to proving whatever point observers would like to project onto it despite a similar imbalance in casualties. The U.S. thinks it killed about 1,200 insurgents and took some 1,000 prisoner while losing fewer than 50 troops to combat deaths.

For the war hawks the relatively swift cleansing of Fallujah addresses their grievance that the city should never have been bypassed by U.S. forces back in April. That view, of course, conveniently overlooks that 250,000 to 300,000 civilians were still in the city and the Iraqi government did not even have the 2,000 or 3,000 troops that have supported U.S. troops and Marines during the taking of Fallujah. Both developments are absolutely crucial to getting Iraqis to take control of their own country again. An American-only operation which killed hundreds or thousands of Iraqi civilians would be of little long-term help on that front.

For opponents of the war the thrust into ancient Fallujah just proves the pointlessness of it all. Terror mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi predictably slipped away and the concentration of U.S. forces in and around Fallujah prompted the rest of the country, notably Mosul, to erupt in violence. Now for a round of tale-chasing, they say. Could be.

But this overlooks the fact that Fallujah did function as a safe haven. Remove it and U.S. forces think they can eventually chase down the bad guys. We'll see.

And a final repetition of the theme. There is also a much-scaled down morality play at work in Fallujah—scaled-down, that is, from the large-scale horrors of Hue.

The Vietcong killed thousands of city residents during their brief takeover of Hue, including foreign missionaries and doctors. That went down the great war-time memory hole, aided somewhat by the shock that properly gripped America over the My Lai massacre. In Fallujah it is a Marine who shot a wounded insurgent in a mosque (a mosque? Is that bonus points?) that has moved to center stage of atrocity.

It is a good bet this window on the Dark Side of war will supplant stories of terrorist torture chambers and summary executions as the example of the depths that awful Fallujah plumbed. That might not be fair, but of course, it is war.