The War in the Words of the Dead

He was exhausted, but he wanted to talk to his daughter, and the only way to do that in Fallujah was to write a letter. "This war is not like the big war—there are no big sweeping maneuvers with hundreds of tanks pouring over the border and so forth," Army Maj. Michael Mundell told his 17-year-old, Erica (nicknamed "Eddie"), on Friday, Oct. 27, 2006. "It's a fight of 10 man squads in the dark, of ambushes and snipers and IEDs. When I go out to fight, it's usually with less than 20 men ... And I go out to fight almost every day."

The pace, he admitted, was punishing.

"We are weary, Eddie, so very weary. I can't tell you how bone tired I am. There are times when we get back in and ... it is all I can do to drag myself from the truck and stagger up here to take off all the junk I gotta wear ... " His tone briefly brightened as he thought of Erica's life back home, where she was a senior at Meade County High School in Brandenburg, Ky.: "Tell all of your friends and your teachers that I said hello from Fallujah. I am doing well and our battalion is considered the best in the brigade. We are fighting the enemy and hopefully winning, though that is difficult to measure." He signed off with a pledge: "Never forget that your daddy loves you more than anything and that I will be home soon." Mundell could not keep that last promise. At a quarter to 2 on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 5, 2007, he was killed by an IED while on patrol in Fallujah; the casket was closed at his funeral in Kentucky.

Never forget that your daddy loves you: As a soldier, husband, father and casualty of war, Michael Mundell is one of at least 3,230 Americans who have died in the struggle for Iraq. He was 47 years old and left behind his wife, Audrey, and four children, all under 18. By itself, Mundell's story is sad but familiar, even predictable. Wars have always made women widows and children orphans. When Mundell was laid to rest in a hillside cemetery in Irvington, Ky., he joined the solemn company of America's fallen warriors—men and women who become objects of veneration, commemorated, in Lincoln's words, as the "honored dead" who "gave the last full measure of devotion." They are garlanded and buried beneath white marble, revered but silenced.

Yet they still have stories to tell, stories that bear hearing, and remembering. In letters and journals and e-mails, the war dead live on, their words—urgent, honest, unself-conscious—testament to the realities of combat. What do they have to say to us? This special issue of NEWSWEEK is an attempt to answer that question. We have collected the correspondence of American soldiers at war in Iraq, accounts written not for the public but for those they loved—wives, husbands, children, parents, siblings. Each of the warriors whose words are excerpted here died in the line of duty. Each of their families chose to share their stories with us, and with you. "It's become very important to me that these soldiers and Marines are viewed as individuals with lives, dreams, experiences and families," says Terri Clifton, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Clifton, was killed by a mortar in Anbar province. "They aren't cardboard cutouts in shades of red, white and blue."

No matter where one stands on the decision to invade or on the conduct of the conflict over the last four years, the Iraq War is indisputably a curious thing. For the first time in the experience of any living American, we have sent an all-volunteer force overseas to advance our interests for a prolonged period, and virtually nothing has been asked of the vast majority of those who do not have loved ones in the line of fire. The bargain is hardly fair. If we take the president at his word, the men and women of the armed forces are fighting and dying over there so that you and I will not have to face mortal danger over here.

The administration may be right about this; it is impossible to know now. As wrong as the White House has been about the premise of the war (the presence of weapons of mass destruction) and about the way we would be received (as "liberators," in Vice President Dick Cheney's formulation) and about the conduct of the conflict once Saddam fell (we were unprepared for the sectarian bloodbath), history moves according to its own rhythms, not according to news cycles or presidential terms. Despite the depressing state of play on the ground, things may yet turn out better than most Americans suspect—or fear.

The families who co-operated with NEWSWEEK did not do so to make unified political statements; their views are as divergent as the broad public's. "It's not an issue of being antiwar or pro-war, anti-Bush or pro-Bush," says Larry Page, whose son Rex died in action. "The real issue is that our young people are there, and they need and deserve our support. My son said to me in one of his phone calls from Iraq: 'Dad, we've taken the fight to them. If we don't fight them here, we will fight them on the streets of America. They proved that at 9/11. We don't want IEDs and suicide bombers on the streets of America.' My son and 3,000 others bravely gave their lives so that you and I could live in liberty and freedom." That is one view; there are, to say the least, others. "The words of our fallen soldiers bear silent witness to their valiant effort to do their best on our behalf," says Paul R. Petty, who lost his son Christopher. "They have not been defeated in battle, but neither were they given the wherewithal to achieve the desired result. Ill-conceived notions of a foreign culture led us to believe we could accomplish our goals easily and on the cheap." The point that unites them is grief—and the centrality of the human story of war.

History, like memory, is selective. Reporters observe; historians imagine; aging soldiers spin threads of experience into tapestries of story. Veterans who come home and talk about what happened can never really re-create what it was like, or even what it really felt like, for, as Shakespeare noted, old men forget, and what they do not forget they tend to "remember with advantage." This is not to say that the survivors embellish on purpose. It is to say, though, that memory is not always a reliable witness. Painful details are suppressed; context is lost; events are elided, often unconsciously, in order to make the inchoate choate.

The kind of history in this issue is the most bracing kind of recollection, for it is barely recollection at all. It is more like collection, as the warriors record what is happening to them virtually as it happens. The result is a window on Iraq we have not had before: the bravery, the fear and the chaos of war, and the loves and hates and dreams and nightmares of the warriors. Things are incredibly busy, then they are not. The Iraqis are welcoming, then they are not. The war is going well, then it is not. The mission makes sense, then it does not. Here is Mundell, in late August 2006: "This will be short, as time is very short, as usual.

"The happenings of late: we continue to get mortared, with an occasional RPG shot at us thrown in for fun ... A little girl was killed yesterday in a cross fire between our Iraqis, the Marines and the bad guys. Sad.

"Folks, I am very tired. We seem to be doing little, the city is mostly trash, rubble and AIF [Anti-Iraq Forces], and frankly I am tired of being a walking bull's-eye for anyone with an AK and nothing better to do, which includes most of the populace, apparently. We have found three IEDs before they could explode under our trucks.

"Sorry this isn't funny or upbeat—there is nothing funny or upbeat to talk about right now. People are dying like flies here and I am sick of it."

The warriors whose voices you will hear are, like Mundell's, more often interested in survival than in grand strategy. "A lot of people are ready to go home," said Army Sgt. Patrick Tainsh shortly after the invasion in 2003. "They can't wait to eat pizza or have a Dr Pepper. It doesn't matter to me. Nothing matters except to do my job and bring my guys and myself home. Not for pizza and for D.P. but for sanctuary." They are unsentimental, and have little patience for frivolity. In the fall of 2006 Mundell's radio operator, Joseph R. Pugsley, read about an animals' rights protest over how Ben & Jerry's treated the chickens that lay the eggs for the company's ice cream. He could hardly believe it. "Joe feels that these people have entirely too much time on their hands," Mundell reported home. " 'God, are they stupid! Get a life'," Pugsley said. ("There was more," Mundell added, "but most of it was rather obscene.")

The violence is pervasive, inescapable. "My tank took another RPG this a.m. for a grand total of 8," Army First Lt. Kenneth Ballard wrote his mother from Najaf in May 2004. "It has turned into almost a game of sorts. They shoot, we get hit, we shoot back, killing them most of the time, only to repeat it all over again somewhere else in the city."

And so it goes on, and on, in places like Najaf, Baghdad, Fallujah and Anbar province, places that are only names on the news. It is difficult for many Americans to explain how all the pieces of the war fit together, or what separates a Sunni from a Shia, or what a stable Iraq would look like. This has been a strangely contextless conflict. There is no consistent narrative, no battles to follow or specific victories to pray for. We do not have a president to tell us these things, for George W. Bush has chosen to forgo the example of the greatest American war leader of the 20th century, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke often of the war, of its progress and its perils. "The news is going to get worse and worse before it begins to get better," Roosevelt told the country in February 1942. "The American people must be prepared for it and they must get it straight from the shoulder." Sacrifice was shared, and no one was exempt. All four of FDR's sons were in uniform, as were those of his chief political adviser, Harry Hopkins, who lost a son, Peter, in the Marshall Islands.

A year after Fort Sumter, the philosopher John Stuart Mill contributed a piece to Harper's Magazine entitled "The Contest in America." Army Maj. David Taylor, who was killed in action on Oct. 22, 2006, always carried a quotation from the essay with him; it was found in his effects after he died. Mill's argument: some things are worth dying for. "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things," Mill wrote. "A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for ... is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

What emerges from the following pages is the sense that the fallen are better men, and women. "We are really fine so long as we have each other over here," Ballard wrote home, and he meant it. Nations go to war over ideas and politics, but minds can change and politics may shift. By their very nature, matters of state are fluid and inconstant. What is constant in war is the humanity of the warrior, and the pain of those left behind, who reach for hands they can no longer touch and listen for voices they can no longer hear, except in the words you are about to read.