Battle in Najaf’s Holy Cemetery


by Karen St. John


Dick Camp’s Battle for the City of the Dead, in the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004, is a sensitive, intense and beautiful book.  It might seem odd to describe it that way, as the contents of the book is anything but delicate, subtle or delightful.  It is a book of horrific stress, death, grief, and living nightmares.  It is not a recreational read.  But the beauty of the book is in its format as a documentary. The battle takes place in Najaf, Iraq, and walks in the footsteps of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines who were after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.   The detailed day by day, almost our by hour, assault of the battle in the cemetery is a profound tribute to the soldiers who fought in the battle.  There is absolutely no mistake that when called upon to do their duty, our troops do with commitment, loyalty and focus.

Camp himself is no stranger to horrors.  He was a Marine infantry company commander at Khe Sanh, Vietnam.  He is rightfully proud of his Marine family and is currently the vice president for museum operations at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation in Triangle, Virginia.

The historic event in the Battle for the City of the Dead, in the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004,has an ominous beginning:  machine-gun fire began bursting from the cemetery.

“Well, this isn’t your momma’s cemetery!” – Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu

The Marines describe the cemetery as “a maze of tombs and above-ground mausoleums, kind of like New Orleans – but it’s huge.  It goes on for kilometers, with tunnels, weapons caches, and command and control centers.”  The Marines had never gone into the cemetery because of its religious significance to Shiites.  It was estimated that 5 million Shiites were buried in its 12 square miles.

Our troops soon discovered two types of bad guys.  The outer ring around the cemetery consisted of fanatics, the “true believers” who were willing to do anything for the cause.  The trained militiamen were closet to the mosques, sites which were off limits to U.S. troops. The Mahdi Militia (Jaish al-Mahdi) felt excluded from danger and safe.  As the fighting intensified, the Marines kept closing in.  First Lieutenant Lamar Breshears, commander of the 81mm Mortar Platoon, soon found he and his infantrymen were facing a platoon-sized enemy position.  The fighting was as close as twenty feet and “a slugfest.”  “You could smell them and their living spaces, that sort of thing,” Breshears remembered.

Many heroics took place during the battle. Lance Corporal Justin C. Vaughn ignored an order to hold his position and moved forward to retrieve a mortally wounded Marine.  The report after the action described his efforts.  “With machine gun and small arms rounds impacting directly on his position,, Vaughn stripped  — of his flack jacket, helmet, deuce gear and weapon, lifted the body in a fireman’s carry, and ran across fifteen meters of rough terrain back to his section’s position. After placing the boy on the ground, Vaughn retraced his steps to retrieve — equipment and weapon so it would not fall in enemy hands.  He carried the body over 150 meters until he collapsed from heat exhaustion.”

The book is thorough in its research.  An index of the aircraft, weapons and vehicles used is listed, as are all the various military troops who came to fight the fight with our Marines (First Cav, Ghost Battalion, Jedi Knights, etc.).   There are excerpts from Iraqi Resistance reports, tactical logistics, maps, and citations and honors awarded.   The reader walks side by side with the Marines from July 31, 2004, through each horrific day until August 27 when a cease-fire is announced and all combat operations were suspended.  Major Butler summarized, “…Sadr and his thugs escaped.”  Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu has another opinion:  “I think they’re tired of us beating up on them.”

Thank you to all the Marines who served their duty during this battle.  Honor to those who fell, and welcome back to those who survived.  May you all find peace.

To purchase Battle for the City of the Dead, in the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004, click onZenith Press or Amazon.

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