This much we know: The day that Marine Lieutenant Ilario Pantano killed the two men was like any other day in Iraq. It was a year ago, though no one could initially recall the date. The afternoon was drawing to a close. Soon, it would be dark. Already, 85 Americans had been killed that month, which would become the second deadliest of the war. To Pantano’s restless mind, all this had one meaning. “All of the conditions,” he thought, “are right for an ambush.”
Pantano is, in most every way, an unlikely Marine. He was a Manhattan preppy—his mother is a literary agent—who graduated from Horace Mann and New York University. He’d charged into Goldman Sachs, rising quickly, and then into a film company, the Shooting Gallery. If he set his sights on conquest, it seemed to be in the business world, as many ambitious New Yorkers did. And yet, it turned out that what he truly dreamed of was to be a warrior—a real one.
Now, a few weeks after arriving in Iraq, Pantano’s platoon had been dispatched to a dusty house along a dirt road near Mahmudiya, in the Sunni triangle. It was an ordinary house—one story, concrete. According to intelligence, it had been taken over by “Ali Baba,” as Pantano’s young Marines called the insurgents.
The intelligence seemed good, suspiciously good to Pantano. “My senses,” he’d write later, “were fully alert.”
At the scene, Pantano divided his platoon of 40 Marines. He sent a dozen to raid the house. The remainder dispersed, guarding his flanks. As Marines approached the target, a white sedan backed out and drove away. Pantano radioed that he’d take down the car. Pantano, 32, had with him a Navy medic, George Gobles, 21, whom everyone called Doc, and his new radio operator, Sergeant Daniel Coburn, 27.
Pantano yelled for the car to stop. When it didn’t, two warning shots were fired. The occupants, a man in his thirties or forties and another about 18, both wearing “man dresses,” as the Marines called them, finally stopped and raised their hands. They were unarmed.
Pantano received word from the Marines who’d taken the house. They’d found a modest cache of arms and also some significant items, including stakes used to aim mortars.
Pantano, who earlier had the Iraqis put in plastic handcuffs, now had Doc Gobles cut the cuffs off, which he did with his trauma shears. Then Gobles marched the two prisoners to their vehicle, placed one in the open door of the front seat, the other in the open door of the rear seat. Pantano motioned to the prisoners to search the car. He ordered Gobles to post security at the front of the car; Sergeant Coburn at the rear. Both men turned their backs on Pantano and the Iraqis.
A short time later, the shots started. Gobles and Coburn spun around. Pantano, ten feet from the Iraqis, emptied his M-16’s magazine, reloaded, emptied another. Later, Coburn recalled wondering “when the lieutenant was going to stop, because it was obvious that they were dead.” Photos, souvenirs taken by a Marine, would show one Iraqi nearly embracing the backseat of the car. The other lolled on his side, his head on the floorboard.
Coburn seemed distraught. He grabbed Gobles. “What the hell just happened?”
“Don’t worry,” Gobles said to settle him. “The blood is not on your hands.”
The first time I meet Ilario Pantano is at the Harrison, the restaurant he’s chosen in Tribeca. It’s dark and getting crowded, though floor-to-ceiling windows make it appear almost airy. It’s the kind of place a young trader might have liked after a day at Goldman Sachs. Pantano is six one, with a handsome face, angled like a cat’s, and a soldier’s telltale crew cut.
“How the fuck is this my life?” he says to me. It’s the question I have, too. Out of Horace Mann, Pantano had shocked his classmates by enlisting in the Marines. He’d gone off to the first Gulf War, though he hardly got to fire a shot. Then he returned to NYU and the acceptable prep-school trajectory, with jobs in investment banking, then media, before, prompted by 9/11, he rejoined.
Now he is facing the death penalty. Nearly a year after the killings, the military charged Pantano with two counts of premeditated murder. He is the only Marine who has served in Iraq to be charged with a capital crime.
The waitress arrives. “I desperately need a Tanqueray-and-tonic, please, like if it were on sale,” says Pantano, who, I know, isn’t much of a drinker. “Are you having a two-for-one sale? I’ll take three.”
Pantano says that he initially thought, okay, the military would do some fact-finding on the shootings. They’d talk to Doc Gobles and Sergeant Coburn, who has emerged as his principal accuser. They could interview anyone they wanted. No one had actually seen how the killings started but Pantano—the others had their backs turned. “And then,” Pantano says, “the neutron bomb was dropped, and I saw it’s . . . like, ‘You’re a fucking rogue animal, and we’re going to stomp you out,’ ” he says. “I was crushed.”
Before the incident, Pantano had been considered an “exceptionally qualified” Marine. “In the combat zone, there was no one better,” one captain said. Many who knew him in New York thought him “noble.” No one, and I talked to dozens, could believe him a murderer.
Pantano glances out the window. He doesn’t intend to go into details of the “incident,” as he calls it. “War is an ugly business,” he tells me. He offers another platitude: “The worst is that the energy expended on this is all energy that should be for CARE packages.”
Pantano pauses for a long moment. He’s wrangling a lot of emotion—he’s nauseous with it, he’ll tell me later. He can’t contain it.
“You’re trying to tell a warrior in combat that these guys are not sufficiently threatening?” he asks eventually. “The only way you can paint [this] picture [is] to say that we weren’t in combat, that we weren’t in the fight.”
There is a slightly belligerent edge in his tone—he was there, I wasn’t. Pantano says he acted in self-defense. Still, I wonder about reloading. Was that, too, self-defense?
He looks away for a moment. “The moral of the story is,” he says, “to a reporter from New York Magazine who’s never been in combat, or anyone who’s never been in combat, it seems excessive.” Pantano doesn’t say this meanly, or even pointedly. He seems almost sad—a breathless, inward sadness. This is his burden now.