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The Witch of War: Lessons from the Global War on Terrorism Campaigns

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Sometimes, I like to revisit things that sparked my teenage interests.

Sometimes, I pick up new things I had missed before as a kid. A good piece of art can teach you something even if you’ve experienced it a hundred times. As we change, the world around us changes. As the world around us changes, our perspectives adapt. My interest in modern military history has never receded.

William Tecumseh Sherman once famously said, “War is Hell.”He didn’t say

He didn’t say how long it takes for a soldier in a combat theater to realize that they’re in Hell. There is no dedicated time frame to show them when surrounded by its fiery lava pits and vast, unending pillars of stacked bodies.

During a High School sociology class, I learned about a Marine Corps Sergeant named Rafael Peralta, who had been killed in a vicious firefight in Fallujah, Iraq. Having had a very keen awareness of the ensuing war in Iraq, this was not the first time I had heard about this notorious city. The events of “Operation: Phantom Fury” were scattered all throughout the news.

“Vicious Battle”

“Marine Corps’ Bloodiest Fight”

“Contractors’ Massacred in Fallujah”

According to the reports, Peralta and his squad were trapped in a Fallujah home with the enemy in close quarters. Ruthlessly, the Marines were fighting to clear the building of the combatants. A grenade was lobbed and Sergeant Peralta dove on top of the explosive to save his teammates and was killed in the blast.

My friends and I were engrossed in the story.

“He deserves the Medal of Honor!” we would say.

We raved about the vehemence of Marines in battle. We jeered the enemy “insurgents” who felt they could go toe-to-toe with the elite American forces. At that time, Saddam’s uniformed Iraqi troops had all surrendered or been killed. We were seeing the genesis of the counter-insurgency campaign that would carry on through to 2011 when President Obama pulled the majority of American combat troops out of the country.

Driving East over the Euphrates River to get into the city of Fallujah

A couple of us gushed about how we wanted to be there. We wanted to be in the same room as Sergeant Peralta and his teammates. How we would have snuffed out enemy insurgents one by one, with rifles, pistols, knives, or hands. It was easy to think of these things from the safety of our homes. I believed in manifest destiny. “There is no fate but what we make,” Sarah Connor proclaimed at the end of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Each Day of High School that passed by was one day closer to Marine Corps basic training. I tried to stay current with the ever-growing hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. My online social media accounts were filled with praise for our troops (particularly the Marine Corps) for hunting down and killing the nasty insurgents. The continued offensives in Fallujah were my generation's Hue City — brutal fighting from house to house. Street to street. Surely, marines and soldiers were dying, but according to the news, we were piling insurgent bodies by truckloads. For every one of ours, we took at least fifteen of theirs, and that made everything feel justified.

Fast forward to 2018. The war in Iraq has long since evolved into something completely different.

The 2013 documentary “The November War” was available through one of my streaming subscriptions. It was a documentary about the Marines that had pushed through Fallujah in 2004, a couple of years before my time there. Even though I was five years late to seeing the film, I once again found myself encapsulated by the stories of the men that endured some of the most hellacious fighting the Marine Corps had experienced in decades.

A name came up. A name I recognized. Rafael Peralta.

Some of the men in the documentary who were being interviewed had been Rafael’s squad mates. It almost felt as if I knew these men personally. We had all tread the same ground: Marine Corps Basic Training. Infantry School. Fallujah.

Then, they revealed an ugly, shocking narrative about the death of Sergeant Peralta. A truth that had been revealed before but I had not been aware of. According to some men interviewed in the documentary, Peralta had not jumped on a grenade to save his teammates. In the chaos and confusion of the close-quarters fight they were engaged in, Sergeant Peralta was shot by one of his own Marines. His corpse just so happened to absorb some of the blasts and shrapnel from a grenade that went off nearly simultaneously to his body, hitting the deck.

What? I remember saying to myself in disbelief.

I was stunned. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

This man, whom I didn’t even know, had been a personal hero. They named a US Navy ship after him. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism. His younger brother, inspired by Rafael’s action in Fallujah, did four years in the Marine Corps himself. To think that his Marines had corroborated on a cover-up wasn’t as disturbing as the idea that I (and probably hundreds of others) saw Peralta’s demise as the most valorous thing a man can do: save his team from imminent danger.

Several months ago, I was browsing a social media platform. One of the organizations I’m proud to support, The National Marine Corps Museum, posted an image of an item in their collection. It was Peralta’s rifle and armor that he had been carrying the moment he was killed. It was scarred from shrapnel. Chunks of the rifle’s hand guards had been ripped off from the grenade blast. Scorch marks and dried blood stained the dirty body armor. These grisly images brought back searing memories of broken body armor and shattered gear from my tour of duty.

The Museum posted these images on the 15th anniversary of Peralta’s death. Originally, the description on the post included part of Peralta’s Navy Cross citation. They changed it after I put up this fuss in the comments:

“I think it’s interesting that the Museum has chosen to continue the narrative that Sgt. Peralta purposefully shielded his fellow Marines from the grenade blast when it was determined that Sgt. Peralta was dead before he hit the ground, thus negating his award of the Medal of Honor. While this doesn’t take away from his valor and bravery as a Marine amid a vicious fight, there is something ‘other than honorable’ in continuing false narratives.”

To my delight, the Museum responded professionally:

“This text was taken from Peralta’s citation, which has not been officially changed. We are aware that new information has come to light in the past few years. We’ll update the post to reflect the changes. Thank you and Semper Fi.”

I was pleased with that retort.

But I was not so pleased when keyboard commandos started coming out of the woodwork, attacking my desire for the truth:

“What’s your point?”
“Why do you care? The Marine Corps will take care of the update. Goddamn, civilian parasite!”
“There is always one… and today you’re it!”
“Does it fucken matter? Give this Marine his Medal of Honor.”
“Make you feel good? Sad Bro.”
“Did you witness the incident? Nope… then what the actual fuck.”

It does fucking matter, the random stranger from the Internet. While I was not there to witness what happened on that fateful day of Rafael’s death, the public narrative of his deeds further solidified my desire to put myself in harm’s way, as I’m sure it has for hundreds of others. Hell, his brother was so inspired that he, too, chose the path of the Marine Corps and supposedly did a combat tour in Afghanistan back in 2014. I wonder if his brother knew the truth. I wonder if any of us ever will.

The fact of the matter is that Marines who did serve with Rafael have come into the public in recent years and said that the story of his death was untruthful. I cannot see any good reason for these men to make up a tale as twisted as a friendly fire incident. No one is getting rich from this disturbing recollection. Many friendly fire incidents are covered up in an attempt to deal with the shame and possible legal repercussions of such a tragedy.

Therein lies my gripe with the continuation of the false narrative. By continuing to proclaim the fabricated story, we hide the shame. We put it in a corner and hope no one sees its ugliness. We erroneously glorify the sacrifice of an individual who was, at that moment, fighting for his life. We negate the accidents and miscalculations of people we want to believe are real-life superheroes, feeling that humanizing these scenarios is beneath their grandeur.

War isn’t the beautiful statue of a goddess that the propaganda machines make it out to be. It is an ugly, wart-covered witch that coaxes us into joining her ministry. Her cabin is deep in the forest, far away from the naive villages and cities from where she pulls her martyrs. When she holds our hands and puts our faces over the steaming cauldron, we are mesmerized by things that should, in all actuality, horrify us. Yet we huff the fumes and become content with inhuman practices: Killing of our fellow man. Unjust violence towards non-combatants. Trauma that grips people and nations for decades.

The War in Iraq was a masquerade and a tactical disaster. By 2017, many veterans who served there felt rightfully duped when the sand they spilled blood, sweat, and tears on was overrun by the same insurgent groups they had been battling with for years prior. A new generation of American men and women has been dragged over the coals of the military-industrial complex by hawkish bureaucrats with short-term memories. We live in the shadow of the war in Vietnam and still insist on engaging in full-scale military operations like the ones brought about in the early years of the Global War on Terror. September 11, 2001, has dramatically shadowed our collective memories. By bearing truth unto the ugliness of war, we can help to heal the moral and mental injuries sustained by our veterans of the Global War on Terror.

Platoon of Marines in Iraq
The author and his platoon of Marines in Fallujah

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