Oh, they always know your limitations. They’ve been dealing with us for three years, they’re constantly changing. We’re incredibly slow compared to the insurgents. And it seems like they’re always inside our loop, making us react to them in a lot of situations.
—Sgt Phillip Jolly, “The Rules of Engagement” (Bonus Feature)
Part of me wants to say that God has a plan and everything’ll work out for the best. And part of me says that things don’t work out for the best. Things just happen.
—Maj Christopher Toland, Combat Diary
As the US prepares to send 21,500 more troops into Baghdad and Anbar province, it’s worth considering the effects of such deployment. If the recent past is any indication, these are long-lasting and often devastating, not only for the men and women in the service, but also for their families back home and for themselves, should they return. In this context, Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company, shot during 2005 and released late last year, seems a cautionary tale.
Structured to contrast reservists from Columbus, Ohio as they appear before their deployment and after, the documentary is less surprising than it is jarring. When the men leave, they’re excited, maybe a little naïve, not looking forward to their time in Iraq, but not exactly fearful of it, either. Most have cameras, documenting their adventure. On the plane going over, one man jokes to another, as each tapes the other: “I hope you enjoy taking a video of me taking a video of you taking a video of me, ‘cause this might our fucking last. Ooh rah.” They’re marine reservists, trained up and ready, though they can’t quite imagine what for. As one reservist notes in one of the four “Extra Footage” features, some 95 percent of Lima Company had never been in combat before.
From 28 February to 30 September 2005, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, went where they were told and did what was expected of them. The unit lost 23 of its 184 members, an unusually high percentage that makes them, tragically, “famous”. As LCpl Trevor Smith puts it, “I don’t appreciate this stuff,” meaning the extraordinary attention paid by journalists and the filmmakers. “I only want people to know about my friends and this is the only way I can do it. They were great people and they died in the most horrifying way.” In other words, Combat Diary is not about the glory of battle or the romance of patriotism. It is about the calamitous costs of war.
Composed mainly of footage shot by the men, as well as by director Michael Epstein’s crew (in Iraq, in training camp, and in Columbus, among loved ones), the film includes as well a number of post-deployment interviews, very formal, with soldiers seated alone at a table, hands folded and emotions mostly under control. Still, as the company members recall their experiences and, especially, friends who didn’t come back, they remain conflicted about “what happened” and how they’re expected to “deal with it”. Unconvinced that he needs to share the past with folks in Columbus, Sgt Guy Zierk says, “I’m starting to think it’s not important, that they know what we went through. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”
The company was sent to Al Anbar province in February 2005, described in a title card as “a hotbed of insurgent activity” (for the most part, the documentary refrains from judgments on actions or decisions, letting the men speak for themselves, in the film proper as well as the extra footage and a slide show, which comes with very personable commentary by several vets). Prior to their first mission, they expected their time would be untroubled: they’d spend time in the desert, “eat food and get fat”. Images of their early time in country shows they fooled around, playing games with one another, cooking up ways to pass time; not long afterwards, they’re sent to the Soviet-built Haditha Dam, 75 miles from the Syrian border. Here, as Cpl Andre Williams says casually, “We’ll probably discover jack shit and get eaten up by millions of bugs.” Instead, they’re instructed to “clear” the city, which means patrolling streets that “aren’t straight” and knocking down doors in search of arms and plots. “There’s no drug in the world that could ever jack you up like that,” remembers Sgt Phillip Jolly. But “once the bad stuff starts happening, you’ll have some of the worst days of our life.”
These days are marked by loss. Each story features some wrong turn, an unexpected response, or a seemingly inevitable mistake. Intentions are always good, instructions are usually unclear, and plans are typically faulty. After Smith remembers Cpl Dustin Derga at OSU parties (as you’re looking at snapshots of the boys, all smiles and bright faces), Sgt Sam Balla describes Derga’s last moments on earth, “shot in the back with an armor piercing round.” His mother Stephanie says she goes to the bar he used to frequent, to “talk to his friends, laugh, listen to music: that’s my support, that helps me get through.” Remembering moments with her son, as a child and as a young reservist on his way to Iraq, she rejects his father’s certainty that Dustin is “in heaven”. Stephanie sighs, “Bob and I, we’re not on the same page on that. I believe that he was taken much too young and he had a life to live.”
The men of Lima resist expressing any bitterness, focusing instead on the Operations they endured: Matador, Spear, Sword, Saber. LCpl Mark Camp recalls a bright day, when “little kids [were] out playing.” Within minutes, following an explosion, “my hands and my face are on fire. It was really nasty, you know.” Still, Camp worried about reaching a younger man: “I’m pretty scared,” he says, “I kept thinking, ‘This kid, he’s gotta be a lot more scared than I am.’” Back home, shopping in the mall with his fiancée Maria, Camp looks slightly baffled by the chatter about earrings, but also content. As bizarre as the mall may be, it makes sense in ways a war zone cannot. Looking back, they can’t always believe what they did. “I hate to say it,” says Sgt Steve Hicks of one operation, “We blew that city to pieces.”
LCpl James Howard opens up one story by noting the regular unpredictability of work in Iraq. “You don’t know what to expect. You could clear 1,000 houses and you don’t know what’s in that next one.” Capt Bill Brown understands with local distrust “They might have just thought somebody shot their dog,” he says, by way of explaining a civilian attack. Assigned as handler for four Iraqi Special Forces (“I don’t speak Iraqi,” he worries), he’s impressed that their searches are precise. When one asks him to burn a Britney Spears cd, he feels more at ease; the men nickname their trainees (“Beavis”) and teach them to “cuss” (tape shows the Iraqis, faces blurred out, chanting, “Fucking fucking fucking fucking pussy”).
Home from Iraq, the Lima Company survivors continue to think through their experiences. Hicks and Zierk shoot at targets: “It keeps you in practice,” says Zierk. “I’m not saying I’ll shoot my boss or anything. I haven’t seen my boss in a year.” Still, he admits, “It’s my favorite thing to do is shoot.” Fly fishing in Missoula, Montana, LCpl Travis Williams says he lives in a house with three other combat vets, their more or less shared experience enough that they don’t have to explain things to one another. “I want revenge,” he says, contemplating redeployment. “If something happens to my friends and I’m sitting back here, I don’t think I could live with that.”
For all the grief and regret voiced in Combat Diary, the focus remains on the troops’ evolving sense of friendship. No matter the politics and missteps of the war, the men of Lima find in themselves and each other a kind of meaning. That doesn’t exactly help surviving family members, who suffer in other ways, or even provide much in the way of support for new troops. But the vets must contend with particular, inescapable wisdom. As the documentary underlines, through canny combinations of images and interviews, combat survivors wrestle with guilt and confusion, trying to find their own ways back.