- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

WARLORD: NO BETTER FRIEND, NO WORSE ENEMY

By Ilario Pantano with Malcolm McConnell

Threshold Editions, $26, 405 pages

REVIEWED BY ROWAN SCARBOROUGH

When New York’s twin towers collapsed on September 11, Ilario Pantano was an Upper West Side yuppie. He sought to strike it rich during the day through stock trades and TV production companies. At night, he sipped white wine on the back porch with his model wife, who wondered how she ever wound up with a gung-ho former Marine.

How Mr. Pantano wound up one April dusk in the hamlet of Mahmudiyah, confronting and then killing two Iraqi insurgents in the notorious “Triangle of Death,” is the story of how America is able to fight wars. Ronald Reagan once asked, “Where did they come from,” when trying to explain the bravery of D-Day soldiers at Normandy. Mr. Pantano answers that question for all generations: sheer patriotism. He abandoned a comfortable life to rejoin the Corps, go overseas and put his life on the line for his country.

But it is the murder angle that makes Mr. Pantano’s story go from inspiring to one of the most compelling human dramas in the War on Terror. It’s the stuff, as they say, of a Hollywood courtroom drama that ends Perry Mason style, with the chief prosecution witness crumbling and the hero set free.

In his memoir, “Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy,” Mr. Pantano takes the reader through a Hell’s Kitchen childhood, a school boy’s fascination with military history, a stint as an enlisted man in Desert Storm, a zig-zag business career and then the fateful moment when he informs his incredulous wife he plans to reenter the Corps, this time as an officer.

The Marines usually do not accept 30-something recruits. But a persuasive Mr. Pantano convinced the Corps he was comeback material. Soon, he is in Quantico, Va., at officer basic school, crawling in the frozen mud with guys 10 years younger.

Next is Camp Lejuene, N.C., where now-second lieutenant Pantano molds a platoon into a cohesive unit able to survive in one of the most unsurvivable places on earth — al Anbar Province, west of Baghdad. He did not know it at the time, but his worst enemy is training alongside him, a young sergeant who grew to dislike Mr. Pantano’s fatherly coaxing and occasional rebukes.

In Iraq, relations between the officer and Sgt. Daniel Coburn grew worse. Mr. Pantano chewed him out for failing to clear an abandoned brick yard before resting his squad. The sergeant was demoted to radioman, replaced by a corporal, and given a bad performance review that will probably end his Marine career.

The simmering comes to a boil that April twilight in 2003. Mr. Pantano and a few Marines raided a suspected insurgent hideout, stopping two Iraqis trying to drive off. The house holds contraband that links the two to the insurgency. Mr. Pantano ordered the two to search their own car, and then he killed them, emptying his rifle clip, reloading and firing again.

Sgt. Coburn sees his chance. He let it be known throughout the battalion that Lt. Pantano murdered two innocent Iraqis. Based on his rumor planting, the Marines launch a probe. The sergeant got his wish. His plan was working. The Corps charges Lt. Pantano with murder.

During the investigation, Lt. Pantano expresses his disgust at being sidelined. He hears of his former battlemates wounded in battle. “Maybe,” Mr. Pantano writes, “the wretched truth in sitting here on a folding chair in a Camp Fallujah tent, while my men fought for their lives, was that this April 15 shooting investigation had saved my life.”

Saving Mr. Pantano’s life would be left up to a former Marine aviator who practices law out of his rural Virginia home. From that unlikely operating base, Charles Gittins achieved a record of getting guys exonerated when all the evidence seemed to say otherwise. But in this case, Mr. Gittins had advantages. The evidence favored his client. And the chief prosecution witness, Sgt. Coburn, was a mass of inconsistent statements.

“Warlord” speaks with two voices: Mr. Pantano’s narrative, spliced with extensive transcripts of his evidentiary pre-trial hearing at Camp Lejuene in 2004. Courtroom dramas make great TV, but they are difficult to capture in print. The exact moment a witnesses crumbles, or a lawyer assembles all the facts into an air-tight closing argument, needs to be heard and seen.

That’s why the verbatim transcripts, interspersed with flashbacks to Iraq in 2003, work so well. Readers follow Mr. Gittins’ machine-gun questions as he makes Sgt. Coburn out to be a liar. At one point, the investigative officer was forced to read the sergeant his rights as a warning that he may be admitting a crime.

No one actually saw the shooting. Lt. Pantano said he was rushed and fired to save his own life. The Iraqis were not armed. The hearing officer’s final report sides with him, not the sergeant. Lt. Pantano’s commander agrees, and drops the charges, with a new twist. In the interim, criminal investigators dug up the two insurgents’ bodies for an autopsy, which confirmed the officer’s account. They had not been shot in the back, as Sgt. Coburn alleged.

With the whiff of Haditha in the air, “Warlord” is not only a great story, but also a great way for the public to understand the strains of going door-to-door in insurgent-infested Anbar. Like Mr. Pantano, some Marines may find themselves facing murder charges for killing Iraqis, this time in Haditha.

“Warlord” also has a message for those who think the Corps glosses over such unpleasantness. It charged Mr. Pantano with murder based on the word of a shaky witness and let a hearing officer sort through the evidence. A coverup, that is not.

Rowan Scarborough, the author of “Rumsfeld’s War,” is the Pentagon reporter at The Washington Times. He can be reached at www.RowanScarborough.com.

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