How you die matters. Ten years ago, on Memorial Day, I was in Fallujah, serving a year-long tour on the staff and conducting vehicle patrols between Abu Ghraib and Ramadi. That day I attended a memorial service in the field. It was just one of many held that year in Iraq, and one of the countless I witnessed over my 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Like many military veterans, Memorial Day is not abstract to me. It is personal; a moment when we remember our friends. A day, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “sacred to memories of love and grief and heroic youth.”
In a scene from National Geographic’s upcoming documentary series, Chain of Command, U.S. Army Col. Patrick Work addresses his command staff via video teleconference from a tent in an unnamed location in Iraq.
From day one, the November 2004 offensive to clear Fallujah, Iraq, of enemy fighters was a grueling block-by-block fight. Deadly ambushes, booby-trapped houses, and an entrenched and well-prepared force of insurgent fighters harried the Marines every step of the way forward during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Eight days into the fight, it was just as unforgiving.
Task & Purpose photo illustration by Matt Battaglia.
Sgt. Rafael Peralta was one of the first Marine Corps heroes of the Global War on Terror that most Marines had heard of. When I cycled through boot camp in 2008, his name was uttered along with a host of legendary Marines like Smedley Butler and Chesty Puller. Peralta’s battered rifle and body armor are part of an upcoming display at the Marine Corps Museum, and his story of sacrifice is often regarded as a testament to what it means to be a Marine. In the years since, it’s come to light that the story we were told in recruit training may not have been entirely true.
Is there less courage on the battlefield today than during previous wars? If you only looked at the number of awards for valor presented to service members, you might get that impression. There’s been a noticeable decrease in valor citations issued during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with previous conflicts. There are plenty of reasons for this, but a lack of bravery isn’t one of them.