The crusades usually get a bad rap. It’s hard for us to believe that Christians then got something right that we so often get wrong.During the crusades, for example, soldiers returning from the Holy Land would be expected to do penance. It was understood that even if doing their soldier’s duty was just and necessary, taking another’s life remained a sin that must be grieved over and atoned for. Such stories today are rare. We’re afraid that to suggest a soldier do penance is to suggest the cause is unjust. We’re afraid that to construe a soldier’s life in religious terms might undermine our political chest-puffing and military boosterism. The article below, from the New Yorker, shows how in our failure and fear to do so the opportunity to achieve something beautiful- and eternal- is lost.
In the early hours one morning last September, Lu Lobello rose from his bed, switched on a light, and stared into the video camera on his computer. It was two-thirty. The light cast a yellow pall on Lobello’s unshaven face. Almost every night was like this. Lobello couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about his time in Iraq. Around San Diego, he’d see a baby—in a grocery store, in a parking lot—and the image would come back to him: the blood-soaked Iraqi infant, his mother holding him aloft by one foot. “Why did you shoot us?’’ the woman demanded over and over. Other times, Lobello would see a Mercedes—a blue or white one, especially—and he’d recall the bullet-riddled sedan in the Baghdad intersection, the dead man alongside it in the street, the elderly woman crying in broken English, “We are the peace people! We are the peace people!” He’d remember that the barrel of his machine gun was hot to the touch.
Once a wild teen-ager in Las Vegas—“I was a crazy bastard!”—Lobello had become, at thirty-one, a tormented veteran. When he came home from Iraq, he bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, the weapon most like the one he had in combat, and two pistols, and kept them close at night. “You lay them on the bed, like it’s your girlfriend, and go to sleep,” he said. That had helped a little, but then he moved to California, where the gun laws were stricter, and he’d left them behind.
The marines had shot a terrible number of Iraqis that day—maybe two dozen in all. At times, as Lobello lay awake, he wondered, Whom had he killed? Who had survived? He combed the Internet for names, dates, and addresses; he pestered the members of his Marine company for details and consulted a cousin who had travelled in the region. He piled up documents. At last, the clues led him to the Facebook page of a young woman named Nora: maybe, he thought, it was the young woman he’d seen in the back seat of the Mercedes, with the bloody shoulder. And so, at two-thirty that morning, eight years after he had sprayed bullets into cars filled with Iraqi civilians, Lobello turned on his video recorder.
“It’s very hard for me to say this, Nora, but we met on April 8, 2003,’’ Lobello said. “I was with Fox Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-third Marine Regiment, and our fate crossed that night. I’m not sure if you remember, because it was so long ago now. Almost a decade.”
He turned the camera to show the documents he’d gathered. “I have been trying to learn what happened that day, I think, since that day ended,’’ he said. For nearly ten minutes, he spoke about his family and his plans for the future. He asked about Nora’s mother, whether she was alive. He talked about other marines. “Lots of the people I was with that day,’’ he said, “they don’t do too good sometimes.” At one point, he started to cry. “I’m so sorry for your loss,’’ he said, composing himself. “I just think that talking to you guys will help me out so much. I know it seems really selfish. I hope it helps you, too, but really I can’t—I can’t go on not trying to say hello to you.
“I need to talk to you, if you let me,’’ Lobello said. “I have so much to say to you. I have so much to say.”
Lobello switched off the camera and attached the video to the Facebook message. He pressed send and went back to bed.
On April 16, 2003, I was driving a rented S.U.V. through the streets of Baghdad when I spotted a crowd rushing the doors of an Iraqi hospital. Saddam’s regime had collapsed a week before, and the Iraqi capital, like most of the country, had disintegrated into bloody anarchy. Baghdad was burning; mobs were swarming government buildings; ordinary Iraqis were robbing and killing one another. I drove up to the hospital, Al Wasati, just as a doctor walked out the front door and fired a Kalashnikov into the air. The crowd backed off, but only a little.
Inside, wailing patients wandered around, clutching ravaged limbs. Doctors were treating wounded people in the hallways. There were no lights, no medicine. In the lobby, a doctor introduced himself as Yasir al-Masawi. “There is a very tragic case here, one that sticks in my mind,’’ he said. “Come, I will show you.’’ I followed him down a hallway, into a ward reeking of old bandages and festering wounds. In a corner, seated on the edge of a bed, was a young woman with blond hair, which was rare in Iraq. Her left shoulder was heavily bandaged; blood and pus had seeped through and dried in a dark-red stain. She was semi-coherent, talking one second, murmuring in a deep voice the next. In a lucid moment, she said that her name was Nora Kachadoorian.
Two women stood next to the bed: her mother, Margaret, and her aunt, Dina. They told me that, as the American forces closed in, the Kachadoorian family was living in eastern Baghdad, in a neighborhood called Baladiyat. As ethnic Armenians and Christians, they had quietly prospered on the fringes of Iraqi society, running a business that sold machinery. They did not welcome the war. “We thought of leaving Baghdad, but where would we go?” Margaret said.
Just down the road from where they lived was a secret-police compound that was one of the invasion’s big targets. As the Americans began bombing, the Kachadoorians drove to a relative’s house in Zayouna, the next neighborhood over. Then a shell destroyed the relative’s house, and the Kachadoorians decided to make a dash back home. There were nine of them, piled into three vehicles: Margaret and her husband, James; their two sons, Nicolas and Edmund; Edmund’s wife, Anna, and their infant son, Sam; Nora; Dina; and a young cousin, Freddy. The Kachadoorians drove quickly, even though the explosion had shattered the windshield of one of their cars, a blue Mercedes. They’d heard shooting, but as they turned onto Baladiyat Street, they decided to keep going. “Our home was just around the corner,” Margaret said. It seemed too risky to turn back.
In their neighborhood, a company of marines was engaged in a furious gun battle with Iraqi forces in the State Security building. As the Kachadoorians turned into the intersection, the Americans opened fire. Bullets ripped through the cars, and the three drivers—James, Edmund, and Nicolas—were killed. Nora’s shoulder was shattered, and Anna and her baby were covered in blood. Nicolas, seated next to Margaret, tumbled out of the car and into the street. “Nicky is dead!” she screamed. She improvised a surrender flag, she told me, by pulling off the baby’s white undershirt and waving it above her head.
In Nora’s hospital room, an Iraqi doctor showed us an X-ray of her shoulder. On the film was a cluster of dots where shrapnel was lodged. The bone had been splintered, the shoulder dislocated. “She will be crippled, I think,’’ he said. Nora rolled her head and called out, “Mike!” It was the name of an American Navy corpsman who had bandaged her shoulder and shielded her from gunfire. For days, she’d been calling out to him. A second Iraqi doctor appeared, flanked by two orderlies, to change Nora’s bandages. The orderlies began to snip the dressings and pull them away from the skin. Nora shrieked. The doctor said he could give her something for the pain, but the wait would be long. “Please give me an anesthetic,’’ Nora pleaded, as the orderlies kept tugging. Then she shrieked again, a long, high-pitched scream that frightened everyone. The doctor winced and left the room. Not long afterward, I left, too.
Margaret had described the unit whose members shot them: Fox Company, 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment of the U.S. Marines. A few hours later, I found the men camped in a field near Baladiyat Street. During the war, I sometimes asked American soldiers about dead civilians, and the reaction was almost always defensive, even angry. But these marines spoke in sombre tones about what had happened. The firefight had been intense—they’d shot five thousand rounds, and seen eleven of their comrades wounded. When the Kachadoorians came barrelling through the intersection, the marines thought they were under attack. They called to the Kachadoorians to stop, and then they opened fire. When they realized what they had done, they ran into the middle of the intersection—with the firefight still going on—to rescue the survivors. “I still have nightmares about that day,’’ their commander, Staff Sergeant John Liles, said.
I found the medic whom Nora had called for: Mike DiGaetano, a Navy corpsman from Las Vegas. He had asked for a helicopter to take the wounded Iraqis to an American field hospital, and his request was denied—the hospital wasn’t taking Iraqi civilians. The marines screamed and screamed into the radio, but the answer was no. So they patched up Nora and Anna and the others, and then sent them away. DiGaetano seemed relieved to hear that Nora was alive.
In the days that followed, I saw Margaret at her home in Baladiyat, and visited the graves of James, Nicolas, and Edmund, in the cemetery at St. Gregory’s Armenian Church. Margaret fed me lahmajun, a kind of Armenian pizza, and told me she’d majored in English literature at Al Mustansiriya University, in Baghdad. She had read Dickens, Melville, Faulkner, and Hemingway, she said; her favorite book was “A Farewell to Arms.” When Margaret told me that she had a sister-in-law in Canada, I let her use my satellite phone to call. I wrote a story for the Times, which ran under the headline “FOR FAMILY IN IRAQ, 3 DEATHS FROM A MOMENT OF CONFUSION.’’
After that, I tried to stay in touch with the Kachadoorians, but our connection was lost in the violence that engulfed the country. Whenever I went to Baladiyat, I asked about them, about Nora, the Armenian Christian with the blond hair and the bad shoulder. When I left the country, in late 2006, at the height of the civil war, I made one last try. No one knew a thing.
Then, this past March, I got a Facebook message from Lu Lobello, whom I’d never met: “I have been trying to get a hold of you for 10 years about. Ever since April 8th 2003.” He said that he had been a member of Fox Company. He wanted to talk about the Kachadoorians. “You could ease my PTSD,” he wrote. “Please contact me back. Please.”
As Fox Company neared Baghdad that day, Lance Corporal Lu Lobello was one of its most dedicated members. Lobello, then twenty-two, was a machine gunner in the company’s 3rd Platoon. He wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the American invasion of Iraq, and he wasn’t eager to see combat, but he took pride in his skill as a warrior, and he was determined to acquit himself well. “I was part of something big,’’ he said.
As a teen-ager at Durango High School, in Las Vegas, Lobello had done just about everything he figured he could get away with. “Drinking, smoking, doing drugs, stealing shit, getting in fights, fucking around,’’ he said. “I thought maybe I should get out of there.” The Marines transformed him, giving him discipline and purpose and a sense of loyalty to his fellow-fighters. They gave him a very big weapon, too: an M-249 machine gun, which fired a thousand rounds a minute.
Lobello had joined a reserve company, which meant that he trained and fought largely with people from the area where he lived. Fox Company’s recruits came from Salt Lake City, where many of them were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and from Las Vegas, where they had grown up around casinos and night clubs. They called themselves the Sinners and the Saints. Lobello and his buddies were mobilized after the 9/11 attacks. By the time the invasion of Iraq began, they had been training for a year.
Fox Company had crossed over from Kuwait in a blind rush, following the hasty strategy of the first part of the war. At the edge of Baghdad that day, the marines decided to leave their Humvees and trucks behind; in the more populated area, their bulky vehicles seemed a burden. They planned to walk to the big intersection just before the secret-police compound and stop there. At first, everything was calm. As they walked into Baladiyat, women offered cookies and flowers, thanking the marines for getting rid of Saddam. Some of them wore dresses, instead of burkas. Lobello spotted a woman on a balcony holding a string of rosary beads. “We were in a Christian neighborhood,’’ he said.
As the first marines of Fox Company neared the intersection, Corporal David Vidania, the radio operator, fell backward, shot in the head. There was a volley of bullets, and a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in the street. Lobello and the rest of the 3rd Platoon were a couple of streets behind and ran to catch up. When they arrived, an orange-and-white taxi sat just ahead, riddled with holes and smoking. Five roads met at the intersection, and bullets were coming from all around: from the street, from the secret-police compound, even from a mosque. Marines were getting hit, and the company commander’s radio had failed. Lobello entered an abandoned building and ran up the stairs to the second floor. At the top, he found a marine walking around in circles and screaming: “We killed a baby, Lobello! We fucking killed a baby!”
At the time, Lobello and other marines recalled, the rules of engagement, which governed when they could fire, didn’t offer much guidance about distinguishing civilians from enemy fighters. The basic rule was to spare civilians when possible, but above all to protect yourself. The way the taxi had sped across the intersection—the way it kept coming, even after the driver had been shot—led some of the marines to conclude that members of the Iraqi militia known as Fedayeen Saddam were hijacking vehicles and using them to ram the Americans’ lines. There had already been a couple of suicide attacks on American positions, and the men began to think that they were next. “We decided we had to take out any car that came into the intersection,’’ Lobello told me. He looked out the window, set up his gun, and started shooting back at the Iraqis. He saw a red Volkswagen Passat, shot through and smoldering. A Red Crescent ambulance darted across the intersection toward Fox Company’s position, and the men opened fire. “We were lighting everything up,’’ he said.
Lobello spotted a line of cars coming into the intersection a hundred yards away: a blue Mercedes sedan, a white Mercedes, a white pickup. He levelled his gun, looked down the sight. The gunfire from the Iraqi positions, Lobello recalled, was relentless. Some marines below were calling to the cars to stop, but their voices were drowned out by the shooting. No one gave an order to fire, at least not one that any of the marines could recall later. Lobello aimed at the lead car and squeezed the trigger. “I was firing at the same thing everyone else was,’’ he said.
The bullets poured into the blue Mercedes, and the driver-side door swung open. Nicolas Kachadoorian rolled into the street. His brother, James, jumped out of the white pickup and was shot dead. Then the front passenger door of the Mercedes opened. A woman leaped out. She was waving her hands and shouting, “We are the peace people!’’
A second woman emerged from the Mercedes, bleeding from the scalp, holding up a crimson baby. Lobello stopped firing, but the Iraqis kept on. A group of marines ran into the intersection. Lobello remembered seeing a third woman in the blue Mercedes, struggling to get out of the back seat. She was bleeding from the shoulder.
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