Five Fibs in Fallujah

In the July/August 2004 issue of The Atlantic, Robert D Kaplan recounts his harrowing experience accompanying a Marine unit during the invasion of Fallujah in April, 2004 ("Five Days in Fallujah", pp 116-26; not posted to the web).  I admire the candor of his report as he quotes the scatological utterances of his hosts, and sometimes himself adopts such a tone (though "cat shit" around my cot would provoke me, too).  I appreciate his use of military vernacular to lend authenticity and immediacy to the tale.  And I respect his willingness to place himself, if not in harm's way, then at least in harm's vicinity.
But Kaplan sometimes misleads his readership, contradicts himself, or betrays his prejudices in the article.  Let's explore Five Fibs in Fallujah.

Kaplan notes that gunmen are referred to as Ali Babas by local children, then proceeds to pepper the remainder of his article with the expression.  I winced as I encountered each occurrence of the epithet.  I was reminded of the last time I heard the term used: during Fahrenheit 9/11, by an American soldier saying of a tumescent Iraqi kill, "Ali Baba still has a hard-on!"

In a letter to the editor of The Atlantic, journalist and New Yorker contributor Nir Rosen points out that fighters in Fallujah are not
known as Ali Babas, a common Iraqi term for thieves, and what [Kaplan] claims the one Iraqi he met called them. They were known as Mujahedin or Muqatilin, which both mean “fighters,”

So, perhaps Kaplan's usage originated with the US military, confused by locals referring to thieves and not fighters.   Who knows.  Sounds colorful, though. 
Kaplan employs an interesting oxymoron here to lament the skyline of Fallujah as "the classic terrain of radicalism, occupied by the lumpen faithful."  What is classic radicalism?  Kaplan explains:

Islamic radicalism needs to be distinguished from Islamic conservatism.  Conservatism signifies tradition, with a high degree of aesthetics--notably represented by the venerable royal courts of Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf States
...yes, monarchies all, with not a semblance of democracy to their credit.  But they do have some gorgeous architecture and other purty things.  Unlike the "decrepit factories" of Fallujah, which bear a "Cold War, Eastern bloc aspect to them."  Kaplan here recalls the godless Communist Empire in his attempt to disparage the target of the Marines' attack.
The fact that his hosts and aspiring occupiers of Fallujah are "lumpen faithful" of their own creed appears to escape his notice.  He does concede that "The spirit of the U.S. military is fiercely evangelical, even as it is fiercely ecumenical."  He even concedes that this last point may be a bit overstated, because, "the fact is that not all races, religions, and regional types join up in equal numbers.  So [...] the martial evangelicalism of the South and the Bible Belt gives the military its true religious soul."  To wit, during an address to the troops, chaplain and Navy Lieutenant Wayne Hall likens the military's impending invasion to Jesus' "triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he broke the bonds of Hell."

This is the passage that has Marine Moms buying stacks of The Atlantic to send to their sons overseas.  Yet again, Kaplan is wrong.  They are like him.  They are like all of us.  And when we imperil them, and ask them to kill, we better have damn good reasons for doing so.  I can't do what they do, but I haven't been conditioned to function like a tactical combat automaton, to follow the dictates of a chain of command, to achieve a mission objective even if doing so entails, "Running into fire rather than seeking cover from it." 
Here, Kaplan contradicts himself in the very same sentence:  "There was zero tolerance for civilian casualties, though it was impossible to meet the standard always."  After all, you can't make an omlet without breaking a few eggs, right?  We get a taste of the military's keen intolerance in a scolding delivered by Captain Jason Smith.  He reams out a soldier responsible for a civilian death during a firefight near a mosque: 
"'Did he have a weapon?  No!  So where in the ROEs [Rules of Engagement] does it say you can shoot him?'  Everyone now became somber.  I felt bad for the Marine who had fired the shot." 
I notice Kaplan omitted mentioning his remorse for the downed civilian.  To their credit, the Marines showed some.  The two occasions when Kaplan had seen the "Marines of the 1/5 most depressed in Fallujah" included this incident.
Fawning over the "rawboned visage" of Captain Jason Smith, Kaplan imagines the unflinching, courtly Marine as "a nineteenth-century cavalry officer fighting the Plains Indians, or [...] an officer of the old Confederacy."  Interestingly, Kaplan invokes the two Great Oppressions of the American experience in his reverie, the obscene conquest of Native Americans, and the defense of slavery that pitted, if not brother against brother, a nation against itself. 
The romance of "an earlier, less complicated age" is fueled by those oil portraits of Frederic Remington and the 1001 tales of Scheherazade.  That Kaplan can be seduced by such romance lends much flair to his swashbuckling account of five days in Fallujah, but drains much of its credibility.

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