June 4, 2006
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Insurgents don't wear black
So there are really only two ways to find them:
They shoot at you, or somebody tells you where
The Charlie Company Marines from Connecticut
spend much of their time coaxing their enemies into
gun battles. The alternative is less physical but
more difficult. It takes communication, connecting
with the people here -- sometimes by cajoling,
sometimes by threatening, and always through the
ever-present, all-powerful interpreter.
A sheik's son kneels in his home in Fallujah, his
face toward a wall. As his father kneels nearby,
facing another wall, an interpreter known as
Sammy leans closer to the teenager, whose brothers
have been imprisoned as suspected insurgents.
``Tell him to make something of himself that his
brothers couldn't,'' Capt. Sean Miller, leader of
Charlie Company's 4th Platoon, says to Sammy.
``You're a young man. Get an education,'' Miller
adds, talking to the 17-year-old directly, reaching
for any message he can plant in the head of a youth
he's convinced will follow his brothers.
The captain is a 30-year-old Californian, an
active-duty Marine missing his surfing to volunteer
as an officer in the short-handed Plainville-based
unit. And he's already low on patience with the
people of Fallujah, as are others in the company.
``If you don't do those things, and you become a
muj,'' Miller tells the teen, ``I'm going to kill you.''
Muj is short for mujahedeen, the well-worn Arabic
word for one who struggles, in this case against
American occupiers. Miller is hoping to get lucky,
maybe find the brother who lives in the house next
door. The Marines have just found insurgent
propaganda there, though they didn't know what it
was until Sammy told them.
Outside the sheik's house, armed Marines stand
near a gathering of children and women from the
house -- the leftovers who aren't fighting-age males.
Some of the Marines, pushing their meager Arabic
to its limits, try to talk to the oldest boys.
``Ali Baba?'' one asks, gesturing around as if bad
guys might be crouching behind every pile of
stones. Ali Baba, in a literary mangling of the
Arabian Nights story about his battles with the 40
thieves, is a name denoting criminals. ``Ali Babas
Then the Marine mentions a name often used here
as a warning: ``Abu Ghraib,'' he says, naming the
notorious prison as if conjuring evil magic. The
children look puzzled and reply in Arabic. The
conversation goes on, just like thousands of
exchanges the Marines have had in their time here,
English vs. Arabic, both sides never quite making
their points, like hammering nails into water.
Inside, the captain is doing his own hammering.
``You have a large family,'' he says to the sheik, his
words translated by Sammy. ``You need to start
taking care of them.''
The captain is forceful, belligerent, and Sammy gets
aggressive, too. Sammy -- whose name is really
Salam, meaning peace -- has been in Fallujah longer
than any Marine. The 27-year-old has been
translating for U.S. forces since the early months of
the war, here in this western Iraqi city. He's seen it
all, every American tactic tried by the seven
different units he's translated for.
In Sammy's estimation, Iraqis only respond to
``They have to know we are in charge here. We
have the power,'' he says. He doesn't see Fallujah
getting any better, and the solution, in his mind, is
to earn the Iraqis' trust and respect, though he isn't
sure how to do that. ``I wish I knew. I wish I could
At the house next door, where one of the sheik's
adult sons lives, the Marines find a computer and
decide it is where the propaganda was made. So
they unplug and remove the hard drive and carry
the rest of the computer to a walled-in section of
the roof. There, the captain orders it demolished,
and a Marine trashes it with a pickax.
Miller returns downstairs and gives the
interrogation one more try, showing the
propaganda to the sheik and his young son. The
captain feels the teen is holding out, giving him
attitude. So he'll take him in for questioning.
As the boy is blindfolded and his hands zip-tied
behind his back, Sgt. John Malm of Bristol
mentions that a kid three years younger than this
one fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Marines
a few weeks ago.
``Mister, I am go where?'' the sheik's son asks the
``You are going to jail.''
``Me, school,'' the boy says.
``School of hard knocks,'' Miller replies, though he
knows the boy will only be questioned a short time
The captain turns to Sammy and asks him if
anybody else should be arrested. Sammy says no.
Sammy is a bridge.
He's one of Charlie Company's two ``terps,'' slang
for interpreters. Two men to bridge the language
and culture chasm between Iraqis and Americans.
Sammy guards his full name, for it's a path back to
his family south of Baghdad, and maybe to their
execution. The man Sammy credits with
introducing him to the job was killed in a suicide
The other Charlie Company interpreter, Mido, said
his brother -- who looked like him and was driving
Mido's car -- was kidnapped in Baghdad, beaten
and shot in the head, his body returned to the
family 13 days later.
Sammy doesn't seem to worry about his own
safety. He's confident his employers can protect
him from insurgents. ``I'm with the Marines,'' he
says. ``They can't touch me.''
Sammy plays his part with enthusiasm. The
Marines dress their terps in Marine clothing and
armor, hoping they will blend in and insurgents
won't target them. Sammy also dons dark
sunglasses and wears a handgun at his hip. He
affects an aggressiveness with other Iraqis.
His family is Shia. The people of Fallujah are
mostly Sunni. In his eyes, the Sunnis are mostly a
bad people fighting against progress. ``They want
to stop the whole process,'' he says.
Sammy saw Fallujah in relative peace at the start of
the war, and he saw it erupt in violence. He was
here for the Marines' two invasions of the city,
including the one that left it cleared of insurgents
but largely in ruins in November 2004. He calls
that invasion the best 10 days of his life.
Sammy thinks it was a mistake to give people
money to rebuild homes. He thinks the cash has
fueled the insurgency, which has returned here in
some force. ``With money, you can buy weapons,
you can buy ammunition, you can buy people,'' he
Things are getting worse every day, he says,
adding, ``We need more sources and more raids,''
citing the need for information on the insurgency,
even if it has to be paid for. ``If you can't convince
them to work with us, I think we can buy them.''
The morning after the raid, while Charlie Company
deals with matters close to the ground, the
big-picture guys face their own communication
struggles. At a Fallujah town council meeting,
generals, colonels and majors sit and listen to town
leaders make speeches, delivered second-hand in
halting fragments by the interpreters.
In one corner, in white robes, is the sheik whose
son was hauled off for questioning.
The Marines sit on one side of the conference room
and Iraqis on the other. Judging the dominant
powers in the room is more art than science. Is it
the assistant council leader whose English is the
best? Or the sheiks sitting behind the council
members? Do any of them have true pull in a city
that is under martial law, giving Marines the last
word on everything?
When Assistant Council Chairman Abbas Ali
Hussein al-Jaboori expresses doubt in the new
``unity government'' of his country -- long passages
of his speech translated into chopped English -- the
air conditioning fails in the room. As the heat rises,
he gets into a more immediate issue: establishing
which homes and buildings the Americans have
taken for their own uses, so the owners can get
Requests for money and help are among the most
common encounters between the Americans and
the citizens of the city, who line up every week
outside the U.S.-run Civil-Military Operations
Center to make claims.
More common still may be the traffic clashes, with
Marines tossing stun grenades and firing warning
shots to keep Iraqi vehicles at a distance from their
convoys and patrols. In the closest encounters,
Marines often scream profanity at Iraqi drivers --
It's not often that Marines have regular
conversations with the locals. Most of the time,
dialogue between the two sides passes through
Sammy or Mido and carries violent weight.
Charlie Company's base was hit by mortar fire the
day before, so a squad of Marines walks south,
toward the neighborhood where they think the
mortars were launched.
Adults stand in doorways, staring at the Marines
with blank expressions. Their children have another
agenda. ``Gimme money. Gimme clock,'' they say,
pointing to watches. They ask for everything they
see. Sunglasses. Pens. And the ever-popular
chocolate. ``Mister! Mister!''
The patrol slips into a few homes, the first two
occupied by members of the Iraqi police. Cpl.
Marshall Collins from West Hartford is doing the
questioning, through Sammy. Collins is a lobbyist
back home, a professional communicator, but on
this patrol, his message is the same in house after
house: If you don't tell us who is doing this, we'll
come back next time with greater force.
After speaking for a moment with three men,
Sammy turns to Collins and says, ``The problem is
they don't have any protection, any weapons.'' If
they inform on the insurgents, they could be killed.
In the next house, the men say they haven't seen
anything. ``Same speech,'' Sammy says.
"We need to know where these people are coming
from,'' Collins says, frustrated that nobody admits
the insurgents are around. If they aren't, "then who
threw a grenade at me this morning?'' he asks.
The Marines choose another house, this one with
two youths inside, maybe in their late teens. Both
keep smiling, as if they're hearing a joke, as Sammy
asks his routine questions. The Marines don't like
that. They put the youths against the walls, their
foreheads against the white paint.
``How do you say, `Don't move'?'' Sgt. Steve
Palmer, a New Milford cop, asks Sammy.
One of the teens keeps grinning.
Palmer says, ``Next time we come here, it's not
going to be during the day, and we're not going to
knock. Next time we see you, you better not be
Sammy decides a warning is not enough. He bends
the youth's arm behind his back and shoves him
into an adjacent room, shutting the door. A
moment later, Palmer pokes his head through the
door to see what's going on. Sammy emerges with
the youth, who is no longer smiling.
Back out on the street, Sammy smiles and shrugs
off his private moment with the teen. As long as he
doesn't make them bleed, it's OK, he says.
From a bunch of men at a vegetable stand, Collins
and Sammy get the same answers about the attack.
``We are going to come into this neighborhood very
hard every time we get attacked,'' Collins tells
them, adding, ``If people die in this neighborhood,
it's their fault.''
When Sammy translates it, the men's faces never
change expression, as if chiseled from stone.
At the end of the hot march, the Marines have
learned nothing more than when they started.
Palmer, who tries to use his policing skills here,
says knowing seven words of Arabic isn't enough
to conduct an investigation.
The Marines miss a lot in the language gap, Collins
agrees. But in hard moments in this hard city, the
Marines know how to get their point across. At
the point of a gun, he said, "everything translates.''