SAN DIEGO — The image of two charred American bodies hanging from a bridge as a jubilant crowd pelted them with shoes seared the name Fallujah into the American psyche. The brutal house-to-house battle to tame the Iraqi insurgent stronghold cemented its place in U.S. military history.
So it is no surprise that the city's recent fall to al-Qaida-linked forces has touched a nerve for the service members who fought and bled there.
Some call the news "disheartening," saying it revives painful memories of their sacrifice, while others try to place it in the context of Iraq's history of internal struggle since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. As difficult as it is to see Islamist banners flying from government buildings they secured, they refuse to accept this as a permanent reversal.
"I'm very disappointed right now, very frustrated," says retired Marine Col. Mike Shupp, who was commanding officer of 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."
"I do not see this as the culmination of the failure of all of our efforts — yet," agrees Earl J. Catagnus Jr., who was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Fallujah and now teaches at a military college. "This is just one battlefield, one city in a host of battles that has been happening since 2003. 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 over that ancient trading and cultural center on the Euphrates River certainly does loom 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, room-to-room 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 battle, likens it to "a thousand SWAT teams going through the city, clearing criminals out."
"These young Marines — 19 years old — went in every building and every room of Fallujah," says Lowry, author of the book "New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah." ''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. And they did that over and over and over again."
Around 100 Americans died and another 1,000 were wounded during the major fighting there, Lowry says, 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," says Lowry, a Vietnam-era submarine veteran. "The United States Marine Corps — with help from the Army and from the Iraqis — went into Fallujah and cleared the entire city and brought security to Anbar Province, allowing the Iraqis to hold their first successful election."
Lowry says Fallujah was "the turning point in the war in Iraq for America." And that is why the al-Qaida takeover is such a bitter disappointment for many.
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Garrett Anderson fought in the second Fallujah battle, where his unit lost 51 members. 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."
Lowry says 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 and scout sniper with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, Catagnus was gearing up to go out when insurgents detonated the improvised bomb about 8 feet (2.5 meters) away. Despite a concussion and shrapnel wounds to his face, he never left the line.
Now an assistant professor of history at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pennsylvania, Catagnus feels the battle has taken on an almost disproportionate importance in the American mind.