Ten minutes ago, though, the world was very simple, for it consisted solely of something that seemed like one gigantic explosion. Actually, it was three separate large explosions within half seconds of one another, but it's fairly difficult to make the distinction when you're lying on your back with your ears ringing. However, it's fairly easy to think rapidly and incoherently, which was exactly what I was doing as I lay on my back, wondering whether my hearing would return this time, and, incidentally, what in hell had just happened to me and my men.
Time, I already knew, would answer the former question without any help from me, but as the lieutenant and the unit leader, it was my job to answer the latter one, and time in this case was working against me. If you're a Marine lieutenant in a firefight, a situation that's probably as good as any as a proxy for hell, then it's your job to figure out at least 50 to 70 percent of what is going on around you so that you can make intelligent decisions, which translate into good orders, which lead to focused, effective, and decisive action. This whole process needs to be rapid to be relevant, but if you're too hasty, then you can lead your men to their deaths, all the while believing that you're leading them to safety. It's not an easy tension to manage on an ongoing basis.
However, it can be done, and to do it well you must have absolutely no concern for your own safety. You can't think of home, you can't miss your wife, and you can't wonder how it would feel to take a round through the neck. You can only pretend that you're already dead and thus free yourself up to focus on three things: 1.) finding and killing the enemy, 2.) communicating the situation and resulting actions to adjacent units and higher headquarters, and, 3.) triaging and treating your wounded. If you love your men, you naturally think about number three first, but if you do you're wrong. The grim logic of combat dictates that numbers one and two take precedence.
After the explosions, I rose, ears ringing, and grabbed for the radio handset. Once the black handset was pressed firmly against my ear, I pushed the button with my thumb and, as calmly as I could manage, informed headquarters that my eleven men and I had just been hit by several large rockets. There were probably multiple casualties, I said, and maybe some of us were dead, but I didn't know just yet. I'd call back. Headquarters squawked something in return, but, with my hearing still questionable and one of our machine guns firing full bore inside the all-concrete building, I couldn't understand a word, so I told HQ I'd be back in touch when I could sort out what was going on inside the old abandoned hotel that my eleven-man squad and I were using as an observation position.
After five minutes of running helter-skelter through the thick dust that the rockets had kicked up, I found Sergeant Leza, my squad leader, and we conferred. Slowly the pieces of the attack came together to form a coherent picture: The massive explosion, which we assumed to be rockets, had kicked off the insurgent assault. Seconds after their impact, one enemy from our southwest had fired an RPG at us but had missed, probably because one of my men had shot the insurgent as he took aim.
Simultaneously, several enemies off our southeast flank had sprayed the building with AK-47 fire, and the two Marines covering that sector had returned fire with their M-16s. They were unable to tell whether they had killed anyone. We had also taken some fire from our direct north and south, and the Marines in those positions, including my medium machine gunner, had reciprocated in spades. They, too, were unable to tell whether their return fire had had any effect. For the most part it was all pretty routine, with only two small deviations.
First off, directly across the street from our hotel, a car blazed furiously in an alleyway. I had seen burning cars before, but they were usually the result of either nearby bomb detonations or deadly machine gun fire during particularly fierce combat. I had yet to see a burning car accompanied by a simultaneous rocket attack. I pushed the incongruity aside -- the more important question was how the enemy had managed to attack us with such powerful rockets, which were almost certainly antitank weapons and definitely not man-portable. Ten minutes later, my first squad, patrolling in from the north, called in with an answer: The backseat of the burning car bore the clear remains of a home-made rocket launcher, still smoldering inside. Our attackers had simply parked the vehicle in an inconspicuous place next to the gates of a house, hoping that we would lose track of the nondescript vehicle amid the hustle and bustle of the thriving marketplace area below us. When the rest of the assault was ready, a spotter within the crowd had launched the rockets with a cell phone call.
The second small plot twist, however, was that no United States Marines were wounded or killed in this story, a very unusual thing for a Ramadi day in August, 2004. In spite of their clever plan and their disciplined execution, our enemies had failed -- we hadn't stopped our mission for even a second. Indeed, we had probably winged at least one of our attackers, although it's sometimes difficult to tell be because most people don't go down when you shoot them with our little .223 bullets. So on that day, I believed that God had been watching over us. Up to that point, even with the horrors I had witnessed, I retained my faith, if only barely. Every time events made me ready to throw in the towel, a small miracle happened -- like antitank rockets missing our floor -- or I saw something supernaturally beautiful in the actions of one of my Marines, and for one more day, it was enough to keep faith and hope alive. -- 1LT Donovan Campbell, Joker One, pp. 5-7.