July 30, 2004
Who Joins the Infantry?
In the United States, we’ve become so accustomed to high-tech weaponry, so assured of our own power, that we’ve become blind to who actually does the fighting and dying. Bomb-mounted cameras were the stars of Operation Desert Storm. Special Operations soldiers directing airstrikes with lasers were the stars of Operation Enduring Freedom. Jessica Lynch and invisible weapons of mass destruction were the stars of Operation Iraqi Freedom I. In Operation Iraqi Freedom II, however, the protagonists are throwbacks: infantrymen. Twenty-year-old men who hunt other men with rifles. The problem is that unless the place of the American rifleman can be taken by his Iraqi counterpart, this war is not winnable.
The biggest mistake of Operation Iraqi Freedom I was not the decision to send young men and women into the breach to remove a despot who possessed illegal weapons. As it turns out, he did not. Yet Saddam managed to convince everyone—the Bushies, the Clintons, John Kerry, France, the New York Times—that he had them. Even Saddam’s own soldiers thought he would employ them. Here at 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, they tell the story of enemy soldiers snared in the initial invasion who were carrying gas masks. When asked if they really thought the United States would employ chemicals, the Iraqis responded, “United States? We’re worried about Saddam firing them at you.”
July 29, 2004
Private Contractors Aren’t the Answer.
In protracted wars, the balance is tipped by an army’s ability to learn, followed closely by its willingness to change. The United States is dominating the tactical battle for Iraq because its small units are doing both. The 1st Recon Battalion is one of the many infantry battalions that roared up the learning curve and now continuously adjusts its operations to keep the enemy off balance. Where enemy mortar and rockets once sailed into Camp Fallujah with pernicious regularity, today recon Marines are hunting them. Where roadside ambushes once dominated the main supply routes, today soldiers and Marines are patrolling aggressively in search of an enemy who will stick around to fight. But though the Marines are winning all the small fights, victory in Iraq will not come without a change in strategy.
Strategic adjustments are tougher. When political investment is high, decisions warp, and the soldiers doing the fighting quickly become pawns. This is not political commentary, so I offer just two observations. First, you cannot have strategic change without tactical success, so at the very least the performance of the American soldier has brought flexibility to those who run this effort. Second, if young men and women are placed in peril, those controlling the bet had better make damn sure the reward justifies the risk. The First Marine Expeditionary Force was ordered into Fallujah after four private security contractors were murdered. They designed a good plan and were executing it at steep cost when they were told to cease fire and ultimately to withdraw. Sometimes political capital is worth lives—soldiers understand this. But don’t toss in the ante if you plan to fold.
July 28, 2004
The Ghost of Fallujah.
Every infantry unit has ghosts. They are conduits to the heartbreak of war, reminders of the brutal individual sacrifice often required so that others might live. The infantry is a guild. So what happens when there are no knights to emulate? Tears of anger dry, days pass, and the ghosts—and war itself—become mythical.
Before arriving in Fallujah this February, the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion had produced no ghosts since the storied days of Vietnam, when recon Marines operating in small teams had clashed with entire North Vietnamese battalions. In 1974, the fallen were not mythical creatures but fathers and husbands and sons and friends. Alongside emulation came bugles and flags and sobs. Thirty years later, their achievements stood tall. But their collective sacrifice had dimmed.
On April 7, 2004, the ghosts returned. One gave his hands. One gave his legs. One gave his arm. And one gave his soul. Those men are no longer in-country, but Marine units are like giant families, and families do not dismiss tragedy. They embrace it. There’s a sweet-and-sour mix of pride and despair that accompanies the memory of bravery under fire.
Capt. Brent Morel had missed Iraqi Freedom I. Not that the men in his platoon really cared. Yes, most of them had seen combat, but they valued decisiveness as much as experience. And Morel had plenty of pluck. If inexperience made him a bit eager on the battlefield, that was just fine with them.
July 27, 2004
Turn off the TV and fight.
The ebb of morale and discipline starts slowly, with little things. Military leaders are not expected to stop the first incident. Rather, they’re trained to recognize these early signals and arrest the big problem before it occurs. I’m sure the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, for example, weren’t stripped naked on the first night. There was probably a poke here and a flashbulb there that was dismissed by supervisors as childish rather than criminal.
One of my former commanders used to look for signals in the Port-a-Johns. While Rudy Guiliani was tracking broken windows in New York, this officer was reading the writing on the walls. Literally. I decided to do the same thing traveling from base to base to Fallujah.
In Kuwait, at an inter-service base that serves as a staging area, the graffiti was both prolific and profane. Sandwiched between anti-war rants and political babble from all sides were crude drawings and slurs against fellow soldiers. Closer to Fallujah, the graffiti slackened. It still dotted the walls, but the mood was upbeat and ironic. “Spring Break ’04” was indicative of the phraseology. Inside Camp Fallujah, at the headquarters for 1st Reconnaissance Battalion—a light infantry unit that has seen serious combat over the past year—there was no graffiti. None. I toured the 1st Marine Regiment’s area and it, too, was pristine. These men and women have seen the worst of it. Perhaps they’re too tired to scribble. Perhaps they have better things to do.
July 26, 2004
How does a civilian get to Fallujah, Iraq?
First things first. How does a civilian get to Fallujah, Iraq? “You could try bribing a guard at the border near Safwan and just driving up,” said Dave, a goateed kid wearing a Louisiana Tech T-shirt, who was squeezed next to me on the flight to Kuwait City. “Problem is, as a civilian, you might get killed real easy. Probably beheaded.”
First-class was sparsely populated with Arab men in suits. Coach was packed with a mix of Arab families and white guys going one of two routes—jeans, Tevas, and T-shirts or khakis, cropped hair, and Docksiders. Sloppy dress and facial hair are expressions of freedom common to recent escapees from the military, so it wasn’t hard to tell private security from public soldier.
Dave had a tribal tattoo that was still shiny encircling his bicep. He was likely a recent separation, lured back to Iraq by either dollars or adventure or both. Were the rumors of incredible pay accurate? Today’s infantrymen are speaking of six-figure payouts dangled by security companies. Dave put his index finger against his pursed lips, indicating he could not speak in the company of the others. On a napkin I scrawled, “$500/day?” He pointed his thumb at the ceiling, smirked, and mouthed “tax free,” but he refused to say more. There’s an incubating firestorm of stress that will gut the military if left unchecked, and this—private soldiers earning five to 10 times what the comparable serviceman earns—is one of its fuels.