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.
November 1, 2003
Marine Corps Gazette
By MajGen Ray Smith, USMC (ret.) & Bing West
The first war fought under the new doctrine of Maneuver Warfare, with several observations and suggestions for future change.
This article will first address broadly the recent war in Iraq, and then focus upon matters most pertinent to the Marine Corps.
Geopolitics. At the broad level of geopolitics, the significance of Iraqi Freedom was an increase in what may be called “the deterrent quotient”; that is, nations antithetic to the United States will tread more cautiously. Defeat encourages aggression and victory discourages aggressors. The speed and ease of the televised American victory in Iraq impressed the global audience. Conversely, after Saigon fell in 1975, the US experienced a bout of national dyspepsia and for a period of about seven years we were challenged by the Soviet Union, by China, by Cuba and even by Iran and Nicaragua. On the other hand, after Baghdad fell in Aril, Iran, North Korea and Syria, to name but a few, reacted by avoiding actions which would antagonize the United States. Secretary Rumsfeld growled at Syria, which hastily expelled some of the Iraqi supporters of Saddam who had fled to Damascus. The military leaders of nations hostile to the US will counsel against their governments openly supporting terrorists, because they know this President has the will and possesses an array of weapons with which to strike. Iraqi Freedom abetted, rather than diverted from the war on terrorists.
September 14, 2003
Free Lance Star
NEWPORT, R.I.–Last March, I accompanied the 1st Marine Division on its march from Kuwait to Baghdad. Two weeks ago, I went back to Iraq to see how the Marines were doing. I traveled for 500 miles in southern Iraq, where the ratio was about 1 million Shiite Iraqis per U.S. battalion.
The Marines had no tanks or armor, operating instead in small patrols. No Marine had been killed since April. The Shiite clergy and political leaders wanted the Marines to stay. But their job was done and they were turning the area over to the Poles and other members of the coalition. The division commander, Major General James Mattis, told me he saw no reason for more American troops to be sent to Iraq.
I then flew to the northern city of Mosul and traveled through the 101st Air Assault Division’s area. Like the Marines, the soldiers were patrolling in small units and working closely with the Iraqis, training police, re-establishing services, and advising local leaders. The division commander, Maj. Gen. David Petreus, said he was winning the race for the hearts and minds of the people.
Those who are ambushing U.S. soldiers are the disaffected supporters of Saddam who have lost power. Most ambushers belong to local networks and are known by the local tribes. These “dead enders” are not organizing the people into political networks and do not fight to the death. They can be eliminated by using local intelligence. This requires spending time and project money with the local sheiks. While there needs to be enough presence to convince the people to turn against the remnants of the Saddam regime, more U.S. troops are not needed. Local intelligence, not troop density, will root out the local enemy.
August 1, 2003
This is a serious, scholarly analysis of geopolitics and foreign policy, complete with over 500 footnotes.
The subtitle of this book is “Small Wars and the Rise of American Power”. Actually, the subtitle should have been “A History of the United States Marine Corps”. Boot is a senior editorial writer for the Wall St. Journal and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and reviewers of his book include the pillars of the American foreign policy establishment – Brzezinski, Holbrooke, Brinkley, etc. This is a serious, scholarly analysis of geopolitics and foreign policy, complete with over 500 footnotes.
Do not be deceived. This is a lively and provocative read. Boot begins by quoting the US Marine Corps Small Wars Manual of 1940; near the end of the book, after tracing two hundred years of history, Boot returns to the Small Wars Manual. Over the intervening two centuries and dozens of small wars, among presidents and pashas, we meet many of the Corps’ colorful personalities – O’Bannon, Walker, Butler, LeJeune, Beadle, Puller, Krulak (the Elder), Walt, etc.
What is fresh and different is the context in which they are introduced. Boot is tracing a history of America’s use of power and along the way he, almost accidentally, is writing a history of the Corps from a different perspective. One comes to realize that much of the uniqueness of the Marines, and especially of their independence and willingness to take action, sprang from the logistics of movement. For most of our history, ships were the only means of reaching distant shores and, once there, the officer in charge was on his own, reporting to and hearing from Washington months after he took action.
July 23, 2003
The Wall Street Journal
How selective reporting feeds on its own negativity, which will in the long run be proven wrong.
In the doldrums of summer, a gun battle that erased the sons of Saddam has perked up the news. Uday and Qusay were the pillars of Saddam’s brutal regime, and perhaps the most feared of all its members. This intelligence and military success will surely infuse some balance into the saturnine reporting from Baghdad. The raid that led to their richly merited deaths demonstrated the unremitting pressure that is squeezing the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. So will the naysayers at last concede that we are doing something — anything — right?
* * *
The news brought celebrations in the streets of Baghdad, previously peopled, we’ve been told, only by surly Iraqis who hate our presence there. The market immediately reacted by dropping the price of oil. Yet it is hard for a reader to determine the trends in Iraq when most headlines focus solely on American casualties. Because shipwrecks make news, headlines about sinking ships are not a reliable measure of maritime safety. Late last March, the press rushed so quickly from one side of its own Good Ship Integrity to the other that it almost capsized. There were reports about U.S. forces bogged down in the desert and a flawed Pentagon strategy. While these stories were coming in, Baghdad fell. Phew, that was close.
May 30, 2003
Wall Street Journal
Book review of “Jarhead”, by Anthony Swofford. A book about a troubled man who commits criminal acts and blames them on the culture of the Marine Corps and the nature of war, which he does not experience.
There is success and then there is huge success. “Jarhead” has enjoyed the second kind: best-seller status, fawning reviews and the “relevance” that only war can bring to a book by a military man. Would it be uncharitable to question whether such success has been deserved? Perhaps. Well, then, let us be uncharitable. The author certainly is.
In the opening pages of “Jarhead” (Scribner, 260 pages, $24), Anthony Swofford says that he repeatedly stole and sold the gear of other Marines, knowing it would cost his fellow soldiers weeks of pay and poor fitness reports, compromising their future in the corps. Is he remorseful? Not a bit. And why should he be? He portrays the Marines, generally speaking, as homicidal delinquents.
The New York Times gushed about Mr. Swofford’s “searingly honest portrayal of the combat soldier,” but his combat experience was brief: He experienced no firefights and two shellings in Desert Storm, which caused him to lose control of his bladder. But “Jarhead” isn’t mostly about combat; it’s about arrested development: part dysfunctional family, part boot-camp ritual, part sex and booze, part existential angst, part high jinks and part antiwar cant — e.g., Desert Storm was fought to protect “the profits of companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House.”