In November 2004, US Marines in Fallujah were conducting a house-to-house search for insurgents; in one supposedly vacant building they heard a menacing “click, click, click.”
Their first thought was: “grenade pins.”
“Most of the military deaths in Fallujah during the first week of the US invasion happened inside buildings like this, where insurgents hid in upper rooms and threw grenades down on marines as they moved upward,” writes Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman in his memoir From Baghdad With Love.
Pumped and primed, the Lava Dog marines aimed their weapons into the room. There they encountered a small, frightened puppy, his nails click-clicking on the bare floor as he paced.
That was the beginning of an enthralling true story of human compassion and perseverance in hell. And Iraq was — and is — truly hell, as Kopelman’s memoir quickly reveals.
“What in the heck possessed a three-tour, tough-guy Marine to try and save a little puppy in the middle of a war, anyway?” the author asks himself.
That would appear to be a pretty straight-forward question.
But it proved anything but.
The puppy, named Lava by the marines (who had trained on the volcanic terrain of Hawaii), proved to be the young officer’s guide through a quagmire of conflicting and evolving thoughts about war, duty and the meaning of life and death.
In fact, while the effort to evacuate Lava to the US provides a strong narrative thread, the book it holds together is a penetrating look into what has become a blood-sucking Mideast cesspool.
High-ranking marines warned the Bush administration of the folly of Iraq occupation, of wasting resources there, which were needed to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
And now another marine reveals what happened when the warnings went unheeded.
In order to comprehend the profundity of feeling and thinking behind rescuing a puppy, it is essential to understand the conditions in which the rescue was undertaken.
“How can you explain how lethal, how faulty, how fundamentally lousy the situation is here in general?” Kopelman cries out.
“The enemy wasn’t a soldier hired to shoot back any more; he was a civilian who hated you so much he’d down his breakfast, walk out of the house, and then blow himself up in your face.”
Meanwhile, it’s not only marines who are targeted, but other Iraqis, especially anyone who associates in any way with the occupying forces.
There are many un-won hearts and minds.
But as President Bush said: “Bring ‘em on.”
The endless carnage means that bodies are scattered around the country, neglected — unless booby trapped. The roaming packs of feral dogs fatten on human flesh, until they are killed.
Dear little Lava faced the same gruesome future.
One might hope that the US Marine Corps would cheer on youngsters who show compassion for puppies.
But the powers-that-be despise puppy rescue; in fact, they outlaw it with very specific words: “Prohibited activities for service members under General Order 1-A include adopting as pets or mascots, caring for or feeding any type of domestic or wild animals.”
In other words, you can splatter someone’s grits all over the street, but don’t give a peanut to a squirrel.
“That’s because they invested a lot of time and money into trashing your moral clarity,” says Kopelman. Puppy love takes the mind off the brutal task at hand.
“Now killing was as reflexive as answering a phone when it rang, and nothing was supposed to interfere with the process,” he writes.
“I liked not caring about getting home or staying alive or feeling warped as a human being — just him wiggling around in my hands, wiping the grime off my face.”
Lava, like all cute puppies, drew in a lot of fans. The Lava Dog marines, of course, became his first champions.
Kopelman overhears his tough comrades crooning things like, “You had yuckee little buggees all over you when we found you, huh? Now you’re a brave little toughee. Are you our brave little toughee? You’re a brave, little toughee, yessiree.”
He’s reminded that the ‘boys’ are only a few years out of ‘puppyhood’ themselves.
Not long before 9/11 they were learning to skateboard or ride bicycles.
Now they operate MK-19 grenade launchers.
They see their pals crippled and killed: For the insurgents, “targeting a convoy is easier than picking fleas off a bald dog.”
The youngsters take many risks to protect their new little charge from the senior officers, and from the insurgents.
Soon US National Public Radio reporters, animal rights activists, an Iams publicist, a private security contractor and dog handler, and a very selfless Iraqi translator all come aboard the Lava rescue project.
E-mails fly. Hope rises and sinks. Hope soars and plummets.
“I remember that nothing magical has occurred in Iraq since God took one of Adam’s ribs,” Kopelman laments at one point.
And the war wallows on.
The White House talks about the progress the Iraqi soldiers are making toward becoming a strong force, one soon capable of fighting the insurgents without the help of men like the Lava Dogs.
But Kopelman keeps encountering undisciplined Iraqi soldiers; they and their families targeted by insurgents and intimidated into accepting bribes (in Syrian money) to sell out their American “allies.”
He says the coming civil war is “rolling in like an enemy tank so poorly oiled you can hear it coming a mile away.”
He witnesses a debauched free-enterprise system supported by US interests, wasting resources and establishing graft as a standard operating procedure, in Baghdad and in Congress.
He confronts an enemy that is capable strapping explosives to children who suffer from Down’s syndrome and then sending them to visit American troops.
“I don’t care how long you’ve been in Iraq, that sort of thing kicks your ass to the curb and back.”
The enemy is hideous.
The friends are duplicitous.
The folks at home — including Bush and Cheney — are uncomprehending. And there’s no easy way out. Not now.
The marines are in Iraq trying, against the odds, to stave off a greater disaster.
Kopelman and the Lava Dogs don’t whine. They just add one more cause to The Cause.
“Listening to these guys snore around me, I really like what I am — a Marine. I like being strong. I like being brave. I like going first. I want to go first, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anyone shoot my puppy.”
It is amazing how much depth there is to this slim book.
It’s a brilliant construction, with a strong narrative momentum, searing images, and insights into best of humanity caught in one of its ugliest quagmires.
Kopelman’s riveting memoir is a gloss on the 18th-century visionary poet William Blake’s lines:
“And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love….”
The Lava Dogs have got that all figured out.
From Baghdad With Love, By Lt. Col Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth, The Lyons Press, 196 pages, $29.95 hard cover