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The Unapologetic Warrior

In Iraq, a Marine Corps Captain Is Living Out His Heart's Desire By Tony Perry

August 22, 2004|Tony Perry | Tony Perry is The Times' San Diego bureau chief. He last wrote for the magazine about reporting from Iraq.

Anyone who prefers that their military officers follow the media-enforced ideal of being diffident, silent about their feelings, unwilling to talk about their combat experience and troubled by the violence of their chosen profession should skip this story.

Marine Corps Capt. Douglas Zembiec is none of these things.

Zembiec, an All-American wrestler and 1995 graduate of the Naval Academy, is the charismatic commander of Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division. During the monthlong battle in Iraq earlier this year for the Sunni Triangle city of Fallouja, no combat unit did more fighting and bleeding than Echo Company, and during it all--from the opening assault to the final retreat ordered by the White House--Zembiec led from the front. He took on the most dangerous missions himself, was wounded by shrapnel, repeatedly dared the enemy to attack his Marines, then wrote heartfelt letters to the families of those who were killed in combat, and won the respect of his troops and his bosses.

It was the time of his life, he acknowledged later, for by his own definition Zembiec is a warrior, and a joyful one. He is neither bellicose nor apologetic: War means killing, and killing means winning. War and killing are not only necessary on occasion, they're also noble. "From day one, I've told [my troops] that killing is not wrong if it's for a purpose, if it's to keep your nation free or to protect your buddy," he said. "One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."

For his Marines, Zembiec asks for respect, not sympathy, even as one-third of his 150-man company became casualties. "Marines are violent by nature--that's what makes us different," he said. "These young Marines didn't enlist to get money to go to college. They joined the Marines to be part of a legacy."

He knows talk like that puts him outside mainstream America and scares the bejabbers out of some people. Modern America is uncomfortable with celebrating those who have gone to war and killed their nation's enemy. Maybe it's because American military hardware is thought to be so superior that any fight with an adversary is a mismatch. Then again, people who feel that way probably have not stared at the business end of a rocket-propelled grenade launched by an insurgent hopped up on hatred for America.

Or maybe, like so many attitudes of the press and public toward the military, the queasiness about unabashed combat veterans is traceable to public opposition to the Vietnam War. A cynic I know says that although Americans remember Sgt. York from World War I and Audie Murphy from World War II, the only heroes most remember from Vietnam are Colin L. Powell and John McCain. One helped fellow soldiers after a helicopter crash, the other was shot down on a mission and survived a horrendous POW experience. Neither is known for killing the enemy.

An essay this spring in Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, suggested that the ideal of battlefield bravery has been replaced by a culture of victimhood. Navy reservist Roger Lee Crossland wrote that Americans after Vietnam seemed to prefer "safe heroes, heroes whose conduct was largely nonviolent .... "The prisoner of war and the casualty, Crossland lamented, have replaced the battlefield leader as the ultimate hero. Take your own media reality-check. Which is seen more frequently: stories about the potential for post-traumatic stress among U.S. troops or stories about troops who have successfully carried the fight to their enemy?

My association with Zembiec started with his one-word answer to a question of mine. It was April 6, the second day of the siege of Fallouja by two battalions of Marines, the "two-one," and the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, the "one-five." A Marine patrol from two-one had been fired on as it ventured just a few yards into the Jolan neighborhood, and the Marines were quickly assembling a retaliatory assault to be led by Zembiec's Echo Company. Marines were piling into assault vehicles--windowless metal boxes on treads that can, in theory, bring Marines to the edge of the fight quickly and without casualties.

At the "two-one" camp, Marines were running every which way as the assault was forming up for the mile-long drive to the spot where the patrol had been ambushed. I had never met Zembiec, but by his tone and body language, he clearly was in charge. Accommodating embedded media appeared to be on no one's to-do list.

"Do you have room for me?" I shouted as Zembiec rushed past.

"Always," he shouted over his shoulder.

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