Portrait Of A Platoon

HOW A DOZEN SOLDIERS--OVERWORKED, UNDER FIRE, NERVOUS, PROUD--CHASE INSURGENTS AND TRY TO STAY ALIVE IN ONE OF BAGHDAD'S NASTIEST DISTRICTS

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JAMES NACHTWEY/VII FOR TIME

NIGHT WATCH: Sgt. Marquette Whiteside of the Survey Platoon, Headquarters Battery, a.k.a. the Tomb Raiders, on patrol in Baghdad

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DEC. 14: Like all the other american soldiers in Iraq, the members of the platoon have been tempered by the fires of the occupation, the raw emotions of war now forged into something harder and more durable. The news of Saddam's capture on this day is a jolt of euphoria for the Tomb Raiders, but it does little to alter their cool assessment of the perils ahead. "This country is still up for grabs, as far as these people are concerned," says Schermerhorn. "It's still going to be crazy around here for us."

Ultimately, that's where you discover the heroism of the 120,000 soldiers serving in Iraq today--not so much in their battlefield bravery or the firmness of their resolve as in their acceptance of uncertainty and the courage of their restraint. Buxton, the veteran of the first Gulf War, sits on his cot inside the Tomb Raiders' hooch. As he struggles to express his thoughts, it becomes clear that the eloquence lies in his frustration. "There is nobody to shoot back at. That's every soldier's biggest complaint," he says. "But we are not cold-blooded killers. We are not going to kill innocent civilians. That's just a part of who we are." He thinks back to the grenade attack. "A couple of us saw some guys running away and thought about pulling the trigger. But when you see a guy running through a crowd, do you spray the crowd to get the guy? If in a situation like that you can control your impulse for revenge, then that means you are fighting for something larger."

Buxton pauses. "There's potential here in Iraq. There's also stuff that needs to be done. It's slow going. But what if we did just leave? Would we really have accomplished anything?" he says. "I don't want to come back here a third time." Outside, the air is crackling with celebratory gunfire. "That reminds me," Buxton says. He gets up from his cot, walks to his door and draws a red X through the picture of Saddam. --With reporting by Brian Bennett/Baghdad, Margot Roosevelt/Los Angeles, Eli Sanders/Kent and Maggie Sieger/Chicago

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