SAN DIEGO — Shirley Parrello knows that her youngest son believed in his mission in Iraq. But as she watches Iraqi government forces try to retake the hard-won city of Fallujah from al-Qaida-linked fighters, she can’t help wondering if it was worth Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Parrello’s sacrifice.
“I’m starting to feel that his death was in vain,” the West Milford, N.J., woman said of her 19-year-old son, who died in an explosion there on Jan. 1, 2005. “I’m hoping that I’m wrong. But things aren’t looking good over there right now.”
The 2004 image of two charred American bodies hanging from a bridge as a jubilant crowd pelted them with shoes seared the city’s name into the American psyche. The brutal house-to-house battle to tame the Iraqi insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad cemented its place in U.S. military history.
Put in context
But while many are disheartened by Fallujah’s recent fall to Islamist forces, others try to place it in the context of Iraq’s history of internal struggle since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. And they don’t see the reversal as permanent.
“I’m very disappointed right now, very frustrated,” said retired Marine Col. Mike Shupp, who commanded the regimental combat team that secured the city in late 2004. “But this is part of this long war, and this is just another fight, another battle in this long struggle against terrorism and oppression.”
Former scout sniper Earl J. Catagnus Jr. fought and bled in the taking of that ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River. Now a military historian, Catagnus feels the battle has taken on an almost disproportionate importance in the American mind.
“If you watch ‘NCIS’ or anything that has a Marine ... they always say, ‘Oh, I was in Fallujah,’” said the Purple Heart recipient, who left the military as a staff sergeant in 2006 and is now an assistant professor of history at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pa. “For the new generation, it’s because everybody keeps mentioning it. And that is the battle that really made a warrior a warrior. ...
“It’s just for us as Americans, because we’ve elevated that battle to such high standards ... that it becomes turned into the ‘lost cause,’ the Vietnam War syndrome.”
In the annals of the Marine Corps, the battle for Fallujah looms large.
The fighting there began in April 2004 after four security contractors from Blackwater USA were killed and the desecrated bodies of two were hung from a bridge. The so-called second battle of Fallujah — code-named Operation Phantom Fury — came seven months later.
For several bloody weeks, the Marines went house-to-house in what has been called some of the heaviest urban combat involving the Corps since the Battle of Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. Historian Richard Lowry, who interviewed nearly 200 veterans of the Iraq battle, likens it to “a thousand SWAT teams going through the city, clearing criminals out.”
“They entered darkened rooms, kicking down doors, never knowing if they would find an Iraqi family hunkered down in fear or an Islamist terrorist waiting to shoot them and kill them,” said Lowry, author of the book “New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah.”
About 100 Americans died and another 1,000 were wounded during the major fighting there, Lowry said, adding that it’s difficult to overstate Fallujah’s importance in the Iraq war.
“Up until that time, the nation was spiraling into anarchy, totally out of control,” said Lowry, a Vietnam-era submarine veteran. “The United States Marine Corps ... went into Fallujah and cleared the entire city and brought security to Anbar Province, allowing the Iraqis to hold their first successful election.”
And that is why the al-Qaida takeover is such a bitter disappointment for many.
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Garrett Anderson’s unit lost 51 members in the city. When he considers whether the fighting was in vain, it turns his stomach.
“As a war fighter and Marine veteran of that battle, I feel that our job was to destroy our enemy. That was accomplished at the time and is why our dead will never be in vain. We won the day and the battle,” said the 28-year-old, who now studies filmmaking in Portland, Ore. “If Marines were in that city today there would be dead Qaida all over the streets again, but the reality is this is only the beginning of something most people who have been paying attention since the war began knew was going to end this way.”
On Tuesday, the site duffelblog.com posted a satirical column about two former Marines raising $1,300 on Kickstarter to go back and retake the city in time for the battle’s tenth anniversary.
“We paid for that city and we’re keeping it!” one fictional commenter tells the site.
The piece had more than 30,000 Facebook likes by Wednesday.
Lowry said the U.S. “abandoned” the region’s Sunnis, paving the way for a Shiite-led government that has “gotten into bed with the Iranians.” He adds: “There is a polarization returning between the Shiites and the Sunnis ... and it’s spreading.”
Catagnus and others say the situation is more nuanced than that.
A sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines at the time, Catagnus was gearing up to go out when insurgents detonated the improvised bomb about 8 feet away. Despite a concussion and shrapnel wounds to his face, he never left the line.
Not a failure — yet
While conceding that the battle helped change doctrine for urban warfare, he thinks Fallujah has become politicized — especially here at home.
“There’s a lot of fiery language around it,” he said. “I do not see this as the culmination of the failure of all of our efforts — yet.”
“I was always of the impression that Iraq was sort of doomed to fail no matter what we did,” said Derek Richardson of Redmond, Wash., a former Marine corporal who fought in the house-to-house action in late 2004. Now an investigator in Microsoft’s legal department, he adds, “For me, it was more about winning individual battles” and keeping his comrades safe.
David R. Franco survived a roadside bomb blast outside Fallujah in 2005. The retired Marine suffers from back pain, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other ailments that send him to doctors and psychologists regularly.
“To me, it was just a matter of time for it to happen again and for al-Qaida to go back in there,” said the 53-year-old veteran of Moorpark, Calif., who retired as a sergeant major. “It’ll be a constant thing.”