Pfc. Phillip Busenlehner still thinks about his choice. Unbidden, in quiet moments, it creeps into his head.
The 20-year-old Marine from Birmingham, Ala., was standing guard at a combat outpost in central Ramadi when he saw a man 400 yards away.
“He was popping around the corner, back and forth, back and forth,” Busenlehner remembered. “He was observing the post. But that far back, how much could he really be observing?”
Was he trying to figure out if it was safe to move? Or was he plotting an attack? Hand near the trigger, Busenlehner faced the most difficult choice a soldier or Marine must make in a war: to kill, or not?
With insurgents hiding among ordinary Iraqis, that decision often must be made in a split second. The wrong choice could mean a guerrilla gets a chance to lay a roadside bomb that kills more Americans or Iraqi civilians. Or it could mean an innocent Iraqi dies at the hands of Americans and a whole neighborhood turns against U.S. forces, setting back the war effort and putting more insurgents on the street.
Busenlehner, one year into his four-year stint with the Marines, radioed his squad leader. He got permission to shoot. Now, the choice was his.
In another part of the city, near one of the most dangerous intersections in Ramadi -- the military calls it “Firecracker” -- two squads of Marines gathered in an Iraqi family’s living room. The neighborhood had seen some spectacular firefights between insurgents and Americans. It was also a prime area for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the roadside bombs that have proved deadly to U.S. troops in Iraq.
The platoon had been visiting families in the area, knocking on doors, trying to collect information and build goodwill, the first step toward trying to take the region back from insurgent domination.
The conversation wound down, but the Marines remained, waiting for other military units to move through the area. The Iraqi homeowner began flipping channels on his television. He settled on an English-language movie with Arabic subtitles. Lt. Ryan Hub, the platoon leader, turned toward the television and groaned. The TV was showing American soldiers pinned down as they were attacked by waves of men with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
“ ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ” said Hub, 25, originally from Calhoun County, S.C. “It’s not a good sign, man.”
Moments later, Marines on top of the house sent down an urgent message: They had spotted, a few blocks away, two men on another roof that overlooked the Firecracker intersection.
Hub ran upstairs. The Marines’ night-vision equipment gave them a clear view of the men. They could be IED triggermen. But the night was hot and many homes in the neighborhood had no power. Families without fuel for their generators stayed cool any way they could. Some chose to sleep on their roofs.
Hub faced a choice.
“It’s a difficult decision,” Hub said, as his Marines kept watch on the two men. “More than likely if they were to do anything, they would trigger an IED. But there is no way we could confirm that from here. We can’t just shoot these two people. And that is one of the problems of urban war.”
A poster has been hung at each of the Marine outposts around Ramadi. Titled “Roadmap to Success,” the poster outlines the tenets of the fight in Iraq, as the Marine Corps sees them.
“The Iraqi people are not our enemy, but our enemy hides amongst them,” the fifth tenet reads.
Below that line, the poster lists two corollaries.
“You have to look at these people as if they are trying to kill you, but you can’t treat them that way,” one says.
“Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” the other says.
Marines in Ramadi sometimes joke that they wish they were fighting in World War II -- the Germans at least wore uniforms. Here troops have to look for more subtle clues.
“You can tell a good person from a bad person,” said Lance Cpl. Michael Nichols, a 21-year-old member of Kilo Company from Martinsville, Va. “If they are innocent they will cross the alleyway and not look at us.”
The toughest calls are the peekers. In Ramadi, soldiers and Marines will see Iraqis peek from behind a building. Are they nervous because they’re afraid they could be shot mistakenly? Or are they up to no good? If a Marine waits too long before deciding, the next time the man peeks out from behind the building a rocket may be flying at his guard post.
“This is a thinking-man’s job,” said Nichols’ partner, Lance Cpl. Robert Dean, a 21-year-old from Elkton, Va.
Nichols agreed. “There is no set rule,” he said. “You have to have common sense. This place revolves around common sense.”
In Ramadi and across Iraq, young men, most of them barely of legal drinking age, are being asked to make what seems to be an impossible decision. The Marines’ leaders do not downplay the difficulty. But Capt. Mark Liston, the weapons company commander for the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, said the Marines under him had learned to observe closely and assess quickly.
“The 20-year-old Marine will always amaze you with his ability to put everything in context,” Liston said. “It revolves around the bright young man being able to make a decision and accept risk.”
The precise guidelines about when to pull the trigger vary across Ramadi, depending on how violent the area is -- and depending on which military unit controls the territory.
In downtown Ramadi, where there are few residents and a great deal of insurgent activity, what constitutes hostile intent is different from that in the residential areas where U.S. forces are trying to make people feel safer. It also depends on what the company commander sets as his unit’s mission. Some are trying to kill insurgents. Others are trying to make residents feel more secure.
Around the Firecracker intersection, Lima Company was trying to win over the residents, so Hub’s platoon had to tread carefully.
From where Hub was standing, there was no way to tell if the two men on the other rooftop had hostile intentions. So Hub and his platoon made a plan to move quickly and silently through the streets to try to catch the pair.
The Marines ran toward the house, but when they were less than 200 feet away a dog began to bark. We are given away, Hub thought to himself.
Moments later the platoon burst into the home. Two men were sleeping in the living room. The Marines raced upstairs to the roof. No one was there.
There were no blankets or pillows. No evidence anyone was sleeping. A break in the wall around the rooftop would allow easy access to adjoining buildings. There were escape routes and places to get a good view of vehicles driving through the Firecracker intersection.
Cpl. Thomas Wolabaugh, 22, one of the platoon’s squad leaders, developed a theory. There was a four-man team. On the adjoining roof, out of view of the first house the Marines were at, one or two people lay down watching the intersection. On the other roof were the two people spotted by the platoon. Those men were the security element, listening for dogs barking and looking for approaching troops, Wolabaugh said.
Hub nodded. The theory seemed right. But it was only theory. Hub was convinced the men were insurgents. He was also convinced he did the right thing by not having his Marines pull the trigger.
“You are so close,” Hub said. “You have everything but the concrete evidence. It is very frustrating.”
Each day hundreds of such choices are made in Ramadi. Thousands are made in Iraq.
So what choice did Pfc. Busenlehner make when he saw the man looking at the guard post?
“We had two people standing on post,” Busenlehner recalled. “He fired the first time and I fired the second time. Both shots hit. And yes, we got him.”
Busenlehner’s description was almost clinical, as if he was trying to distance himself from the memory.
“After you get the OK, you try to stop thinking of them as a person and start thinking of them as a target,” Busenlehner said. “It makes it easier.”
The more experienced members of Busenlehner’s company say once the choice is made, Marines have to think that way.
“It is a fundamentally dehumanizing act,” said Gunnery Sgt. Preston Lambert, a 38-year-old from Maryvale, Ariz. “And at that moment you pull the trigger, you can’t look at the target as a person or you won’t do it.”
Once the man is killed, Marines are trained not to think about it, to shove it into a corner of their minds. Lambert called it compartmentalizing.
Busenlehner never found out whether the man he shot was an insurgent. Officers in Ramadi think retrieving the bodies of people killed from the outposts is not worth risking the lives of Marines.
As the sun began to set over another, quieter guard post in Ramadi, Busenlehner scanned his section of the city. The ethos of the Corps say Marines do not discuss these life-or-death decisions, except perhaps to joke about them. But with the choices it is impossible not to talk about them, not to think about them.
“You really don’t try to think about it,” Busenlehner said. “But sometimes it does pop into your head and the moment plays out over and over again.”
There was little emotion in his voice, as if indulging his feelings would be dangerous. But the story flowed out of him easily, as if he had been waiting a long time to talk.