This post is an adapted excerpt from State Department official J. Kael Weston’s book, “The Mirror Test,” which was released on May 24, 2016. His book chronicles his seven consecutive tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2010.
The embassy got its first preliminary report from me via classified email, but I had one final trip to make. I needed to find out what happened to the bodies after they had been processed at the Potatoe Factory, where the dead from Fallujah end up. Last rites for “the enemy,” you could say. Their burial, after Marines recorded what they had found on them, in their clothes, called “pocket litter.” Some, they said, had Syrian features. Others looked Saudi.
To the credit of Colonel Mike Regner, when asked during the briefing for Pentagon-based press, he conveyed the numbers that some politicians in Washington did not want to hear: “The next question, before I continue on to the tactical laydown because I brought up detainees, is yes, there are some foreign fighters in that element. Predominantly, however, most of the 1,052 are in fact Iraqis. But there are individuals that are from different countries, and I don’t really have that right in front of me at this time . . . but out of 1,052 most likely about 1,040—or 1,030—are Iraqis.”
So the foreign fighter body count based on firsthand Marine reports, the best anyone had? Twelve or a max of twenty, according to Regner, out of over a thousand counted and processed up to that point.
At the end of the following day, our Humvee stopped north of the city, near an abandoned railroad station that had been out of use for decades. I had hitched a ride with a Marine officer from one of the battalions. This was our destination, located maybe half a mile from the Potato Factory. The sun was setting, casting an orange glow across trenches. A Marine backhoe had graded perpendicular lines, several feet deep. The grid had a mathematical quality to it, the product of engineers laying out an impromptu cemetery for hundreds of dead.
I watched as black body bags were lowered into the ground. I did not consider verifying that they were all turned toward Mecca—even if I had the Muslim holy site’s GPS coordinates. It would have been impossible, and I did not want any of the soft and lumpy bags opened. Neither did the Marines. The operation had a brutal and methodical efficiency to it. It was essentially a mass grave.
Marines were in a hurry, in a race with the sinking sun. They worked in teams of three. One held the front of the stretcher with remains on top, two at the back. A row of large, green dust-covered seven-ton trucks lined up behind them.
Once the body bags were lowered, another Marine signaled the backhoe operator to drop the soil. With a loud mechanical grind, piles of earth and sand fell, creating big swirls of dust in the air. Big enough, I imagined, they could be seen by Fallujans inside the city. Our shadows grew long as the sun set and temperatures dropped. Metal poles about five feet high, sticking up from the ground like a giant iron rectangular pincushion, became the only gravesite markers. Two Marines, shoulder-high in the ground, finished their work situating the day’s final remains in each trench. They jumped up and said nothing.
One of the last bags I saw had a single white piece of tape across it that read “Joleen Dist” (signifying “Jolan/Joleen District” inside Fallujah) before it too was lowered into a trench, one of the anonymous, nameless, faceless, story-less dozens.
The sun had disappeared, so we made our way back to the Potato Factory. The gravesite was not a place anyone wanted to spend the night, no matter how well armed or armored. I opted not to have any dinner. Around midnight, I noticed the lights had been left on inside several of the large rooms, but no Marines were near. An unattended laptop blinked, strobelike, atop a card table. I peered through a heavy metal door into a reefer on one side of the hallway. It was filled with bags of potatoes and a conveyor belt. On the other side, through a door numbered 10 in bright red paint, was a room filled with bodies in body bags. Both sides of the hallway creeped me out, and I was glad to leave and find a live human being sitting in another part of the Potato Factory. We sat close but did not talk.
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