The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines take Diyala Bridge during the battle for Baghdad. Photo: © Gary Knight

The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines take Diyala Bridge during the battle for Baghdad. Photo: © Gary Knight

INVASION: THE BATTLE FOR DYALA BRIDGE 

This project started as a straightforward news assignment to photograph the invasion of Iraq in 2003 for Newsweek. It has evolved into a remembered account of events witnessed by three men who processed them differently.

The project exists as an exhibition and eventually will become a book that includes my own journals of text and images; the journals of US Marine Lt. Tim McLaughlin, who commanded a tank in the battalion I followed into war; and the words of author and journalist Peter Maass, who was one in the small cadre of journalists with whom I made that journey. 

In the winter of 2002-3—while Tim was deployed to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in their tented city a few kilometres east of the Sabriyah oil field in the Kuwaiti desert—approximately 2,000 journalists from all over the world were flying into Kuwait City and checking into air-conditioned luxury hotels to prepare to cover the looming US invasion of Iraq. Newsweek was assembling a large team of correspondents and photographers in Baghdad, Jordan, Kurdistan, and Kuwait. I had agreed with them that I would cover the war from an American perspective but that my coverage would focus on the effects of the war on the civilian population in the wake of the invasion forces. Kuwait was the obvious place to prepare for the invasion as the US had thousands of tanks and artillery stockpiled there from their first war in 1990.

I flew to Kuwait in January 2003 to join Rod Nordland and my Newsweek colleagues. I teamed up with a trusted and unorthodox friend from the Bosnian war, Italian photographer Enrico Dagnino, who became my travelling partner for the journey ahead. Newsweek rented me a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Tahoe, and we supplied it with four spare wheels, eight jerry cans of gasoline and enough food, water, whisky, marijuana, and film to last about six weeks. We stockpiled maps, satellite communications equipment, tools, shovels, and camping gear. Chris Morris had sourced me some equipment that transmitted signals on NATO frequencies so that my vehicle would be identified as “friendly” to NATO aircraft and armoured vehicles. Once prepared, we waited with a small group of journalists to cross the border into Iraq as soon as the invasion started.  

There were two options for covering the invasion that were given to the press corps. One was to be embedded in a military unit, meaning you would have the logistical advantage of being driven to the war, fed, watered, and taken care of by them but the disadvantage of no flexibility about which part of the war you would see, if any. (In the first Gulf War, embedded journalists saw almost nothing.) The other option, according to the US military press office, was to be escorted over the border after the invasion started in busses and convoys under military escort to see the war. Precedent and common sense suggested that trusting the press office to stick to its word would end in tears, and the embedding process seemed to be a gamble with poor odds. My assignment and personality demanded more liberty. With a small group of colleagues, mostly freelance photographers, I chose to go my own way. The military seemed to think none of us would make this choice.  We calculated that the chances of censure and punishment, as well as the security risk, were high, but such is the nature of covering a war. Less than twenty of us made that choice, and as it turned out, we got closer to the violence than all but a small number of embedded journalists. The folks who waited in Kuwait got nowhere.

I drove out to the border from Kuwait City every day to see how the landscape was evolving, as the theatrics in Washington and at the UN suggested war was inevitable and close. The US military weren't going to tell us when the war would start, but it was easy to identify the signs in the landscape. The intentions of giant armies are hard to disguise, and we knew what we were looking for. Roads were discreetly being closed, barriers and checkpoints were being erected at night, everyone but essential workers was being moved away from the border, and there was more evidence of US and British military police moving on the roads. 

Three days before the invasion, I moved to a farm on the border where my Newsweek colleagues Luc Delahaye and Scott Johnson were hiding to wait for the war to come to us. It was clear the entire area was about to be sealed off.  Enrico and I had covered the Chevy in oil and sand; we were dressed in a melange of British and Italian military uniforms and civilian clothing. We had NATO insignia on the roof and doors of the vehicle and were prepared to bluff our way across the border with invading forces.

Two days later, British Special Forces blew up an Iraqi ammo dump, and the border bloomed with artillery and airstrikes.

We drove up and down the border to all the crossings in the sector, trying to break through into Iraq from dawn until early afternoon. With every hour that passed, the possibility of getting caught by the Military Police increased. During this frustrating stretch of time, Enrico and I came across a few other vehicles with about a dozen other journalists who were trying to do the same thing we were. 

At some point, knowing the chances of crossing were diminishing with every hour, we made the decision to drive to the Safwan border crossing, the main peacetime land border where Route 80 crosses into Iraq, and take our chances there with the Kuwaiti Army. When we pulled up to the barrier, a young soldier approached the Chevy and asked me who we were and what we were doing. I told him we were “Civil Affairs”—we stared at each other, both knowing I was bullshitting him. Enrico and I didn’t look quite right, and the soldier asked me to wait while he went to find a senior officer. I knew if an officer came, he would turn us around or arrest us immediately and that would be the end of the war before we had even started. Instead, I put my foot down on the gas and smashed through the barrier, my colleagues following behind us. I reasoned the Kuwaitis wouldn’t shoot us, because they didn’t know who we were, and they were unlikely to chase us into Iraq. 

Our part in the invasion was on. 

Journal Entry

6th April 2003. The Dyala Bridge 

The clattering of predatory tracked vehicles and hi revving diesel engines jerks me awake at 0430 in a field in the belt of farms south of Baghdad. Its still dark and I ache from sleeping on the ground in my clothes. I went to bed late after watching tracer rounds arc across the Baghdad sky in the distance, a prelude to the battle to come. 

It takes me a few seconds to adjust to the familiar but unwelcome sound of an army readying for battle and the sulphuric stench of exhaust fumes belching from an Abrahms Tank a few feet away. 2 days before, I suppose, an Iraqi farmer would have been ploughing this field ready to scatter spring seeds, now 1000 men from the 3/4 Marines are driving and shitting all over it. On the nights we sleep the mornings are always like this. No one tells us when we are leaving and we have no idea where we are going except that some day we’ll drive into Baghdad. 

I eat, sleep, shit and drive with Enrico, an Italian photographer, unplugged son of a construction magnate. I have known him since Bosnia, I trust him and he is good company. We’ll get each other there and we’ll try to get each other home. We pack quickly and move back towards the Baghdad highway following Kilo Company half-tracks. We pass the ceramic portrait of Saddam on the traffic circle and the carcass of a man killed the day before, the dogs are already eating his face. We move fast towards an Iraqi military base, drive up the scruffy road and stop outside the abandoned Officers mess. We wait. Marine time . It could be 5 minutes and could be 5 days. Hours pass in the sun and I watch the thermometer on the dashboard rise. Its 118 degrees. The flies are sapped but even so I don’t have the energy to fuck with them, I am just trying to keep it together and stay motionless - any movement generates heat. No one save a few looters who pass by with war trophies, moves. 

Tanks splinter the palm trees on the left as they lurch to a position out of sight where the road bends before making a straight shot up to Dyala Bridge 2 clicks away. Few things sound or look as menacing as tanks on the move, they are as loud as a foundry and unlike most other military vehicles or even planes you can’t see the pilot, they are blind heavy metal monsters of war. Incoming rocket propelled grenades burst in the sky above our heads and a Marine screams that they are coming from some houses 400 yards away. The tanks explode houses and 50 cal machine guns and assault rifles splinter everything else, the smell of cordite drifts through the palm trees and the once silent grove is now smoking and animated as orders come down the radio for everyone to move. I jump out of my car with a camera and a small bottle of water in the back pocket of my trousers and run forward past the Marine command post up to Kilo and India Companies parked at a road junction firing grenades and 50 cal into houses 200 yards away. The Marines are moving forward on foot preparing to take Dyala Bridge. Marines in chemical suits run through the dust and smoke that hangs at street level, securing house to house. Plastic explosives open closed gates, Marines rush in, kick down doors and sweep from room to room, tension as they move up the stairs. Blocked door - 2 shots through the latch, sledge-hammer, door open, nothing, move to the next house. A senior NCO screams at the Marines, “move, don’t fucking bunch up – where’s fucking first platoon?”. A grenade flies over a wall, I lean into the wall as the vibrations of the grenade hit like a sandbag. Dust billows through the already smoky air and 4 Marines scamper over the wall - rounds rip through the door of the house on the other side. I wonder who was hiding inside, who lives in these houses? 2 more shots through the door and on up the street. 

It’s too hot, my eyes sting from the sweat and the cordite and my mouth is too dry to open. I am dehydrating and my head aches. I am wearing only a shirt, the marines wear chemical suits, flak jackets and helmets. I am glad I am not a Marine but wish I was 18. I can’t hear anything for the gunfire. Battlefields are always intensely loud and the only way I can operate is to put it to the back of my mind and allow in the sounds that are important. The sound of air breaking near your ears makes you wince, the bullet displaces air so fast it rips and cracks, that is the sound to tune into because someone who wants to kill you can see you. Artillery isn’t always so personal and its harder to avoid. Bullets and shrapnel travel faster then the speed of sound, so you never hear what kills you. As long as you hear it you’re fine, there is comfort in that. 

Another door another grenade. Three men clatter over the wall, weighed down heavy with gear, metal in canvas, the sound of heavy bags crashing against their bodies and the thump of boots as they reach the other side and confront three civilians cowering behind a car crying. I hope the civilians know the difference between me and the Marines but I doubt they will. Working with soldiers requires a physical assimilation that conflicts with my need for differentiation. Such is the dilemma of the war correspondent. 

3/4 fights up to the bridge, mortars take position in the charred remains of the open air street market on the canal banks next to Dyala bridge, still smoking from incoming 155’s. Gunfire and RPG’s incoming from the palm trees on the opposite bank, Lt Col McCoy calls in the artillery and an incoming RPG explodes 10 yards away, I try to bury myself in the garbage around me but it’s not deep enough, I just lie there grinding the earth trying to leave as small a target for whoever is firing at us as possible. Marine snipers shoot anything moving on the northern side, a tank takes out a house into which 2 women and a child fled moments before. The light starts to fail behind clouds of cordite and smoke. The battle comes to an end for the day, the combatants are tired, thirsty, hungry and exhilerated. Like men in war for thousands of years past I trudge back to my shelter to eat and rest - to the sound of artillery and the evening airstrikes in the city beyond. 

I stink and I have no clean clothes - I do my laundry in a garbage bag using water from a pipe coming out of the ground. Soap powder and two litres of water in a garbage bag will wash a lot of clothes. I also wash myself, naked in a line of naked men standing in the entrance to a municipal building washing the stain of war of our bodies in silence. I lay my clean clothes on the road to dry on the heat of the tarmac. Enrico and I refuel the car from the last of our jerry cans and sleep restlessly, dressed with our boots on, under a blanket in the gutter next to the car. 0430 wake up, pack the car, squeeze a foil envelope of peanut butter into my mouth, drink a mouthful of warm water, fold my laundry and drive to 20 yards short of the bridge. An APC is parked on the left of the bridge, Mortars on the right. Heavy outgoing 155’s light up the palm grove on the north side of the river, mortars and machine guns take care of the residential area on the left. The usual cocktail of overwhelming firepower before an assault. I guess they are going for an infantry assault on the bridge sometime soon and wonder when my relationship with this particular surreal dream is going to end. I choose the mortars on the right and wander over to take some photographs. Iraqi 155’s walk towards our position, rows of exploding shells moving in a line until they land right on top of us, metal flying everywhere, confusion. Incoming and outgoing, it all feels like incoming its so damned loud and so close. A Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle explodes 10 yards away, the turret flies in the air like it was a child's toy. I run across the road through a cloud of dust and black diesel smoke. 2 dead Marines on the ground, the wounded crying for help. Lucky the round landed on the AAV and not next to it, the casualties would have been higher. Marines not wounded swarm the area. The tension and anger rises. Enrico and Bob from Time Magazine photograph. 

Kilo and India companies start to move, run for the bridge, pass the dead Iraqi boy covered in flies and span the holes in the floor with boards. Infantry charge the northern banks. Everyone is shouting and bullets cut through the clouds of smoke and dust. Looks like a movie but feels real. Who killed the teenager on the bridge and why? Why the fuck did they kill the kid on the bridge? Iraqis in every possible death pose litter the street, fried to a crisp with their clothes burned off, rigor morticed, some intact - delicately pierced by a sniper round or exploded and melon red, fresh, bleeding. The road is filled with shards of metal, rocks from destroyed buildings look like a lava field - its hard to walk. 

Its quiet now, I find the silence worse than the noise, puts fear into me faster than anything, it’s not natural here. Shrapnel and concrete crunch underfoot as the Marines move house to house. An old civilian man with swept back steel grey hair lies slumped with his head rested against the steering wheel of his truck, he looks like my grandfather Dick. Dick died of a stroke at home in his bed, this man lost the back of his head and is covered in flies. I imagine his wife waiting for him to return from work the night before, still waiting. We reach the end of the block, bridgehead for the Division now secured. Kilo Company take the open ground and dig in to the dirt on the west side of the road, India Company are still moving through the palm grove on the east. Marine snipers take up positions on either side to hit anyone coming our way. Heavy air strikes and artillery are very close, one of the houses we were standing in a few minutes before evaporates as a US Aircraft takes it out. 

A blue minivan approaches from the north, from the center of Baghdad - probably fleeing the fighting there. As we watch the snipers fire warning shots it turns away. A white pick up approaches, the snipers kill the driver, a soldier in uniform. Fair game in this context but it’s uncomfortable watching men drop down like coconuts on a shy at a country fair. The blue minivan returns, the snipers fire warning shots but the Marines open up simultaneously with everything they have, the minivan splinters and shards of safety glass fall to the road like a chandelier, Captain Norton screams “ceasefire – wait for the snipers” but its too late. 5 civilians hunched up bleeding, too far away to go and help without the chance of being shot, too close to miss. Enrico and I leave the Marines at dusk and walk back across the bridge arguing about what we had seen. We faced a sleepless night struggling with the killing of innocent civilians by men who had become our friends.

The Battle for Dyala Bridge, April 6th & 7th, 2003: Photography by Gary Knight 

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Looking backwards at the war

In 2009, Peter Maass and I found ourselves at Harvard on Nieman Fellowships. Peter was researching a story about the raising of the US flag on the statue of Saddam in Firdos Square and the subsequent pulling down of the statue by the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines. Lt Tim McLaughlin was the owner of that flag. Peter went to meet Tim and started a conversation with him that touched off a collaboration between the three of us. Our project examined our experiences of the same events during the invasion. Our differences in interpretation were informed by the contrasting ways we participated in the war, the small but significant difference of angles of view, and the varying access to information we had at the time. In 2013, to mark the tenth anniversary of the invasion, we created an exhibition containing my photography, Tim’s diaries, Peter's words, and personal snapshots by the three of us.

 

Exhibition

War Diaries Exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center

War Diaries Exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center

The show is a stinging rebuke of the news media’s early unquestioning coverage as well as a window into the nature of war.
— http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/toppling-saddam-and-a-wars-coverage/

Personal Photographs: Photography By Gary Knight, MARINE LT. TIM MCLAUGHLIN and Peter Maass

MARINE LT TIM MCLAUGHLIN's War Journals

PUBLICATIONS

 

Reading List

(Includes titles on Afghanistan)

Bedrooms of the Fallen. 2014. Ashley Gilbertson

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer's Chronicle of the Iraq War. 2007. Ashley Gilbertson

WAR. USA.Afghanistan.Iraq.  2004. VII Photo Agency

Disco Night Sept. 11. 2014, Peter van Agtmael

2nd Tour Hope I don't Die. 2009. Peter van Agtmael

Infidel. 2010, Tim Hetherington

War Porn. Christophe Bangert

Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq 2005. Kael Alford & Thorne Anderson

Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq. 2013. by Michael Kamber & Dexter Filkins

War is Personal. 2010. Eugene Richards

Iraq: The Space Between. 2007. John Lee Anderson & Christoph Bangert

Testament. 2014. Chris Hondros & Alexandra Ciric

Iraq|Perspectives 2011. Benjamin Lowy

Silent Exodus: Portraits of Iraqi Refugees in Exile. 2008. Khaled Hosseini & Zalmaï

Rethink: Cause and Consequences of September 11. 2007. VII Photo Agency & Giorgio Baravalle

In the Company of God. 2005. Joao Silva

Afghanistan: The Road to Kabul. 2002 Ron Haviv

The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan. 2003, Jon Lee Anderson

The Fall of Baghdad. 2004, Jon Lee Anderson    

The Lovers. 2015. Rod Nordland

Restrepo. 2011. Sebastian Junger

The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. 2005. George Packer

Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War. 20o5. Anthony Shadid 

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. 2006. Thomas Ricks 

Imperial Life In The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. 2006. Rajiv Chandrasekaran 

The Forever War. 2008. Dexter Filkins

The Good Soldiers. 2009. David Finkel

The Yellow Birds. 2012. Kevin Powers

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. 2012. Ben Fountain

Love My Rifle More than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. 2006. Kayla Williams

Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. 2015. Kayla Williams

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. 2007. Lawrence Wright

War of the Encyclopaedists: A Novel. 2015. Christopher Robinson & Gavin Kovite 

No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post--9/11 America. 2015. Elizabeth D. Samet

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. 2013. Roy Scranton & Matt Gallagher

Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War. 2015. Helen Thorpe

FOBBIT. 2012. by David Abrams

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq. 2014. Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. 2004. Steve Coll

Thank You for Your Service. 2014. David Finkel

Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death. 2011.  Jim Frederick

Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. 2011. Matt Gallagher

My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir. 2014. Brian Turner

Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror. 2004. Mark Danner