South of Fallujah’s Route Fran were hundreds of insurgents who’d spent months digging trench lines, emplacing roadside bombs, barricading streets, training with their weapons, reading the Koran, and watching videos of suicide bombers to inspire them for the fight to come. North of Route Fran were the roughly 1,000 men of 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, preparing themselves for the assault. Route Fran itself was a wide, four-lane highway. On November 9, 2004, the highway was wet—it’d rained the previous day—and the sky was gray and foreboding.

“You just know that this whole company crossing this road,” marine Justin Best later told a reporter, “someone’s gonna get hit.”

When crossing an open space like Fran, it’s important to have units in overwatch, shooting at locations from which the enemy might fire at you and your buddies. Most of the bullets expended in war aren’t intended to kill the enemy so much as to keep his head down while you maneuver your way to a place where you can kill him. It doesn’t always work. There were enough large buildings on either side of Fran that the marines could never hope to cover every window.

The marines started to cross—one platoon running at full speed, the others firing away, filling the sky above with bullets. Insurgents on the other side opened up as well, one of them hitting Sergeant Lonny Wells, a 29-year-old father of four children. The round tore through his leg and he pitched forward, falling to the ground. Wells, his mother later recalled, had wanted to join the military since he was young. She’d tell him, “Why don’t you try to be a model? You’ve got the looks.” And he’d reply, “Oh, Mom, I’m gonna be a marine.” Now he was facedown in the middle of an open highway in Fallujah, blood pooling around his body.

Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Shane, whose platoon had been providing covering fire, put down his rifle. As a senior leader, he wasn’t expected to be the one to recover Wells. Nevertheless, he ran out to the fallen marine, grabbed him by the drag strap on his body armor, and, along with one other marine, began tugging him to safety. After Shane took a few steps, a bullet slammed into his lower back, and he fell to the ground. Now there were two injured men facedown in the middle of the open highway, bleeding onto the wet pavement.

Everyone in overwatch had seen Wells fall, and they’d seen what had happened to Shane when he’d tried to help. They all must have known that the two injured men were now bait, that insurgents were waiting to fire on anyone else foolish enough to try to save their brothers. Naturally, marines being marines, two more of them ran out. Thanks to them, Shane would live, but they were too late for Wells. He bled to death.
This is a common sort of war story. Every war provides them—young men and women risking and sometimes losing their lives in ways that provoke a kind of entranced awe. How, and why, do they do it? In America, we have a very particular set of answers. Driving through the South, outside of churches you’ll occasionally see a Fallen Soldier Battle Cross next to a sign bearing an image of Christ and a message: they both died for your freedom. Ronald Reagan once posed the author James Michener’s question about the heroes of the Korean War—“Where do we find such men?”—only to answer it with, “Well, we find them where we’ve always found them. They are the product of the freest society man has ever known.”In this view, ours is a democratic courage, the purest reflection of the nature and quality of our society. Those men who rushed out under fire were formed by our civic body. Raised in our American democracy, with its love of liberty, strong civic institutions, and glorious past, those men would fight courageously as, in George Washington’s words, “Freemen” and not as “base hirelings and mercenaries.”

In turn, we, as members of that body from which they came, are to take heart from their example and commit ourselves with equal vigor to sustaining an American civil society that will continue to inspire such courage. When Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg, he channeled what he claimed were the democratic impulses of the Union dead, urging the nation to rededicate itself with “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” When Woodrow Wilson stood at the American cemetery in Suresnes, France, he channeled the same impulses in articulating what he called the “unspoken mandates of our dead.”
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