Fox Company MARSOC Seven

MARSOC 001On 4thMarch 2007, a platoon of thirty Marines were being transported in a six-vehicle convoy when it was ambushed in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.  The area was notorious as a terrorist route into Afghanistan from Pakistan.  The smoke hadn’t cleared over the point of contact when the news media began reporting that these Marines had gone on a wild rampage, killing massive numbers of innocent civilians in the process.  The unit was called Task Force Violent.  In reality, it was the direct-action platoon of Fox Company, Marine Special Operations Command.  In the press, they were undisciplined cowboys who brought shame upon the United States Marine Corps.  The characterization was both unfair, and untrue.

The facts are these: Fox Company was sent into a war zone under-manned, with muddled orders, confusing rules of engagement, and un-prepared for the political environment within which they were destined to serve; they were sent to war with equipment that was inadequate to their mission.  By under-manned, there was but one mechanic to maintain 45 company vehicles.  The Marines did not even know where they were going until after they boarded the ships that would carry them into harm’s way. Their specific mission wasn’t finally communicated to Major Galvin until his company was at sea for two weeks, which was to train the Afghani security forces.

When Fox Company arrived in Afghanistan, they were assigned to a facility at the Jalalabad airfield that had been allocated to French troops.  The facility was in a state of disrepair.  Fecal matter had tainted their well-water.  The Marines were not within the logistics system, so obtaining food was a problem.  They were borrowing food from adjacent units.  The Marine Corps’ first deployment of a special operations capable infantry company was an orphaned unit.  Worse, the Army hierarchy didn’t want these Marines in-country and found themselves at odds with the command structure.

NangarharThe ambush took place on 4thMarch.  The Marines departed their base of operations at 0600 for a pre-approved three-phase mission. The patrol took them toward the Bora Bora mountains, which were snow covered.  The roads were muck.  The Marines proceeded through Bati Kot to a key border crossing.  There, they met with an army military police unit.  The patrol continued on to search for suspected insertion points along the base of the mountains.  Having discovered no clear evidence of insertion points, the Marine turned back toward Bati Kot, where they intended to meet with village elders to learn more about enemy activities in the area.

The attack, when it came, was alarming.  Entering Bati Kot, the Marines noticed several military-aged men lining the street.  A bomber driving a van packed with fuel, raced toward the convoy and attempted to wedge himself between the first two vehicles before detonating the bomb.  When the explosion came, there was a massive ball of fire that rose into the air and briefly engulfed the second vehicle.  Small arms immediately erupted from both sides of the roadway.  The Marines immediately responded in the manner in which they were trained: they fired disabling shots to get the convoy free of danger … moving meant avoiding being pinned down by enemy fire. Warning shots were fired to disperse a forming crowd.  It was, in fact, a textbook response.

Afghan witnesses, however, had a different story to tell.  They said that the Marines panicked and started killing everyone in sight. Some of these witnesses claimed that the Marines exited their vehicles and threatened local journalists who were snapping pictures of the attack.  Other Afghans said that the Marines appeared drunk.  None of these claims were true, but this was the story that appeared in the international press.

Upon return to base, one injured Marine was taken in for medical treatment.  The experience was scary, but the Marines weathered it and took it in stride.  They’d survived the mission.  They saved the convoy.  But later, in the mess hall, a television new report was reporting about the incident … claiming that the Marines had killed noncombatant civilians.

Pihana P 001
Believed to be Pihana, Photo from Public doman

The Special Operations Command convened an investigation almost immediately.  Upon order of Major General Frank Kearney, US Army, commanding the Special Operations Command, Colonel Patrick Pihana, U. S. Air Force, was appointed to conduct a fact-finding investigation.  At the time, Pihana was serving as Kearny’s Chief of Staff —and, as such, was not a disinterested party to the investigation.

Nevertheless, during this investigation, Pihana attempted to convince an Army EOD expert to recant his conclusion that in-coming small arms fire damaged one of the Marine vehicles. When the expert refused to abandon his evaluation, Colonel Pihana excluded his statement.  Ultimately, Colonel Pihana recommended charges against four Marines for negligent homicide.  In order for Pihana to reach this conclusion, it was necessary that he disregard the statements of every Marine in the convoy.

In time, Kearny, who retired from active duty in 2012 as a three-star general, would himself be implicated; not only for his repeated misconduct the handling of the investigation against Fox Company, but also in another matter involving an Army Special Forces detachment (Green Berets).  Under scrutiny, Kearny later claimed that he only convened his investigation at the request of the Marine Corps.  Pihana maintained that his investigation was properly conducted.

Within one week of this incident, the Marines were ordered out of the war zone.  Fox Company’s commanding officer, Major Fred Galvin, was relieved of his command.  A board of inquiry was subsequently convened at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to evaluate the facts … but only after Galvin suffered the shame of his relief for cause and his Marines unceremoniously dispersed.

Meanwhile, in May 2007, Colonel John Nicholson [1], U. S. Army, addressed the Pentagon Press Corps via satellite hookup from Afghanistan.  As the commander of Task Force Spartan, Nicholson had oversight of the region within which Fox Company was operating, including Bati Kot. Nicholson reported that the Army had paid claims to Afghan citizens in Bati Kot.  Nicholson opined that what happened that day was a “stain on our honor,” and a “terrible, terrible mistake.”  This is the narrative placed against the Marines of Fox Company; this is the narrative that stuck.

The inquiry convened ten months later.  The question was whether sufficient credible evidence existed to warrant criminal charges: negligent homicide being the recommendation of the initial investigating officer.  The inquiry lasted three weeks.  During this time, the press was excluded for attendance due to the presence of classified information.  Not being present to hear first-hand testimony, certain members of the media invented their own narrative.  It was a rush to judgment by senior army officers and the press.

After the board of inquiry, a Marine Corps 3-star general determined that Major Fred Galvin and his Marines had acted appropriately in combat and pursuant to the rules governing the use of lethal force … but the damage to these Marines had already been done. Galvin was not offered a subsequent command and was forced into retirement in 2014.  Fox Company Marines were cleared of any wrong-doing, but the judicial incompetence of senior officers left the Marines, including Galvin, with a stigma that has dogged them ever since 2007.  In Major Galvin’s case, his superiors constructed fitness reports that were designed for no other reason than to prevent him from advancing in rank … all of this in spite of the fact that a Navy Department conclusion rebuked those who condemned these men even before the facts were clear.

What actually happened here was an episode that unleased international outrage against good Marines, based on proven fabrications, engineered by the enemy to fuel distrust of the American military.  Their dupes were the three senior officers who “rushed to judgment.”  In other words, American warriors were betrayed by senior officers who have been “trained” to remain objective in matters relating to the administration of justice.

Murtha 001
Rep. John Murtha, D-PA Photo taken from public domain

This wasn’t the first assault upon military justice arising from a combat zone.  There was the matter of Haditha, where judgment was rendered far in advance of known facts.  In this case, Congressman John Murtha [2] (D-PA), joined by then Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Michael Hagee, condemned the Marines in the press and claimed that there never was an IED attack, that the Marines killed innocent civilians in cold blood.  Only one Marine was ever convicted from this event, one count of dereliction of duty. That one Marine, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich (reduced to private) sued Murtha for defamation, but his lawsuit was later dismissed because Murtha, in his congressional capacity, was above the law.

In another case, arising in 2011, Marines were accused of urinating on the dead corpses of Taliban fighters [3].  Then Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos attempted to interfere in the legal proceedings —applying unlawful command influence over a pending judicial matter— by firing the Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser (the lawful convening authority in the case).  Waldhauser refused Amos’ order to “crush and discharge” the accused Marines.  To make matters worse, Amos attempted to hide the fact that he’d crossed the line of proper judicial supervision and provided photographs to the press that showed Marines urinating on the corpses, which accompanied the words, “What Does America Think of Her Marines Today.”

It would thus appear that there is a serious problem within that small circle of flag rank officers within the Department of Defense.  What kind of leader conspires against his own combat troops?  In the case of Kearney and Nicholson, it may have been a byproduct of an age-old rivalry between the Army and Marines; rather that than simply a matter of inexcusable incompetence.  It may have also been a case of simple vindictiveness.  See also: MarineistanColonel Pihana’s inexcusable behavior was a matter of a senior officer exhibiting his flawed character by giving his boss what he wanted —rather than doing what was right and honorable.  And, of course, Pihana wanted to be a general too, someday.

Major Fred Galvin offered a correct analysis: Fox Company suffered the consequences of political pressure in an unpopular war.  The US military in 2007 was committed to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized protecting Afghan civilians.  A situation in which building trust and confidence with local Afghans took precedence over killing insurgents.  In actuality, Fox Company Marines did nothing beyond defending themselves against a sudden ambush.

Nevertheless, the stress attached to being investigated as war criminals, and the shame of being accused of something they never did, has been a heavy burden to bear among the Fox Company Marines. They have suffered as much as any combat veteran from substance abuse, divorce, and having thoughts of suicide. For what?  They did nothing wrong.

There was a substantial failure within the small enclave of Marine Corps leadership as well.  What kind of leader constructs fitness reports that were only written with one purpose: to force a fellow officer out of the Corps?  Major Galvin, however, never gave up his efforts to urge the Marine Corps to do more for his Marines, to set the record straight. Major Galvin kept faith with his men —the sign of a true leader.

Beginning in 2015, members of Congress petitioned then Commandant of the Marine Corps Joseph F. Dunford and later, Commandant of the Marine Corps Robert B. Neller to do the right thing.  Both of these officers “declined” to revisit the plight of Fox Company Marines.  In his letter to members of Congress, Dunford simply restated the court’s findings from years prior; he merely emphasized that neither Galvin nor his men faced any punitive measures. “Nor is there any adverse information in their military records associated with this incident,” Dunford wrote.  But Dunford was either wrong, or he was lying.  Galvin was systematically damned to failure through faint praise.

Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC) would not back off, however and as a result, Major General Frederick M. Padilla, then serving as Neller’s chief of staff, pledged that the Corps would provide counseling and such other assistance to Galvin and his men as necessary to help them recover from this trauma.  Of course, Major Galvin never heard about this until several weeks later when he read it in The Washington Post.  So much for “following up,” eh General Padilla?

Dunford, now serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon has acknowledged the Navy Review Board’s directive.  Dunford’s spokesman said, “General Dunford was pleased to learn about Maj. Galvin’s exoneration and also appreciates his efforts to take care of the Marines from Fox Company.”  Commandant Neller added, “We have a system through which Marines can try to remediate actions believed to have been unfair or incorrect.  In this case, it seems the system worked as designed, and Maj. Galvin had his record cleared. We all wish him well.”

If these were in fact Dunford’s words, they were only this: underwhelming.

I can’t speak for the Army leadership, but I can say something about the Marines.  From Amos on, the Marine Corps’ senior leadership has established a new low record of performance.  They’d better get this fixed because if we allow this squalid condition to fester, no one with a strong warrior ethos will ever want to serve as Marine, or in any outfit that won’t back up their combat leaders.  Mere platitudes twelve years after the fact doesn’t cut it.

Sources:

  1. Military Times, Task Force Violent: The unforgiven (and five-part series), Andrew deGrandpre, 4 March 2015
  2. LA Times: For a Marine Unit, the battle to restore reputation goes on, David Zucchino, 14 June 2015
  3. NewsRep:The Untold Story of the Leadership that Failed MARSOC Fox Company: Ambushed (and five-part series), Nick Coffman, 29 March 2016
  4. The Washington Post, The Marines were falsely accused of war crimes. Twelve years later, they have vindication, Andrew deGrandpre. 31 January 2019

Acknowledgment: My sincere thanks to former Marine Corps staff sergeant Carol Martin, who now serves Marines in her capacity as a Defense Investigator, who edited and offered advice concerning this article.  Additionally, my deep appreciation to Major Paul Webb Chapman USMC (Retired) for taking the time to read this post and offer suggestions, which I have incorporated.

Endnotes:

[1] Eventually achieved 3-star rank

[2] Member of the USMC Reserve (1952-1990), one of the “congressional colonels.”

[3] There is little doubt that these Marines behaved in a despicable way, and yet, few others have walked a mile in their shoes.  Combat does things to people.  We ought to worry about the effects of sending our young men into a war zone, particularly when there has never been a credible effort to win that war.  In any case, the behavior of these Marines was regrettable, and they ought to have been punished at nonjudicial proceedings, not “crushed” as their commandant suggested.

Marineistan

(Continued from last week)

By the end of 2007, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan had reached a stalemate.  A de facto border was established east of Garmsir along the banks of the Helmand River that divided British-held and Taliban controlled territory.  By this time, British forces were far outnumbered by Taliban insurgents because there was no shortage of Pakistani men with nothing better to do than fight the good fight.  Our British cousins had access to NATO artillery and airstrikes, but these, without adequate ground forces, do not a victory make.  Given this paucity of infantry forces, senior coalition officers seemed unsure about how to proceed.

Helmand Prov 001
BLT 1/6 Advances

One thing everyone agreed on was that NATO needed more ground forces in Afghanistan. In early April 2006, American Marines were sent to bolster the flagging NATO command.  The 24th MEU, which included Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/6 (First Battalion, Sixth Marines) began their Afghan tour by initiating an attack on the Taliban-held town of Garmsir on 28 April.  US Marines joined up with British troops from the Sixteenth Air Assault Brigade (16 AAB).  The Taliban, however, as they are wont to do, withdrew from the town and taken up a position further south.

After Garmsir was taken, the Marines pushed south into an area where the Taliban had, over many months, constructed bunkers and tunnels capable of withstanding airstrikes. Initially, planners anticipated that the mission would only take a few days; the operation ended up lasting more than a month.  Based on Taliban behavior, General David D. McKiernan, U. S. Army, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), determined that Garmsir was important to the Taliban, so the Marines were ordered to remain in the area.  McKiernan, concerned that the Taliban would likely reemerge after the Marines left and claim that they had run off the ISAF, changed the operational playbook.  Now the Marine mission would include both combat operations and civil affairs. Colonel Peter Petronzio, commanding 24th MEU, now faced the task of splitting his force to give attention to both of these missions.  Marines provided security to local Afghans as they began to return to their homes after having been displaced by the Taliban.  Between April and July 2008, US Marines killed more than 400 Taliban insurgents.  On 8 September 24th MEU returned control of Garmsir to British forces.

Deployed independently from 24th MEU, BLT 2/7 dispatched elements to Sangin, Gereshk, Musa Qala, and Nawzad, as well as districts within Farah Province.  2/7 worked with the Afghan National Police and Combined Security Transition Command in implementing police training and important reform programs.  Despite being deployed independently, 2/7 was also engaged in heavy fighting.  As a sign that the United States had renewed its commitment to Afghanistan, 2/7 was relieved by 3/8 and the Special Purpose MAGTF in December 2008.

Marine Corps arrival in Helmand Province was no small accomplishment.  Most people think of amphibious operations as involving a multitude of amphibian tractors cutting through the surf to land Marines on an exotic beach.  This was the likely scenario in the 20thCentury, but today’s Marine Corps has advanced its military capability —in the same way the Marines first developed amphibious and vertical assaults.

Afghanistan is land-locked.  The southern-most tip of Helmand Province is 400 miles from the shoreline of the northern Arabian Sea.  This geographic fact led some defense experts to opine that there was no role for the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan.  They must have forgotten that Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) have trained for long-range insertions from the sea for several decades.  They must have overlooked the fact that MEUs are capable of performing more than twenty special operational missions, and many of these are long-range assignments.

The way the Marines look at these missions is simple: “If one wants to tango, one has to be inside the dancehall.”  It is also certain that Marines don’t go through the trouble of a rather complex forward deployment just to come in second place.

Two combat ready MEUs (4,400 US Marines) were already poised for action when the US Central Command sent them into action.  But, why the Marines?  Because the Marines were already there, and because the Marines are always looking for a fight “at any climb and place.”  Marines and their commanders know combat and view it from a distinctively Marine Corps point of view.

It wasn’t long before the US Army hierarchy in Kabul started complaining that these Leathernecks were “going Rogue” inside Helmand Province.  It wasn’t that Marines were ignoring their senior Army commanders; it was only that the Marines have their own way of getting the job done.  Thinking outside the box is what Marines are trained to do; ultimately, it is this mindset that saves the lives of Marines and terrifies an enemy.  The US Marines know how to win battles.  They’ve been doing this for over 243 years.  They didn’t need any armchair quarterbacking from people who were, after all, not Marines.

As previously explained, Helmand Province is one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan.  By area, it is the largest (20,000 square miles).  There are 13 political districts, 1,000 villages, and just under a million inhabitants.  For all intents and purposes, Helmand Province was similar to the Comancheria: it was Indian Country.

Helmand Map 001The Helmand Province campaigns were a series of operations conducted by the ISAF against Taliban insurgents.  The Taliban intended to control Helmand Province and its opium production.  British forces and their American Marine counterparts intended to destroy the Taliban. Initially, the Helmand mandate fell to British forces as part of a three-stage expansion of the ISAF mandate to exert authority over the southern regions of Afghanistan.  Until then, Helmand Province had only seen sporadic ISAF activities.  In the spring of 2008, a battalion of US Marines arrived to reinforce the British. One year later, an additional 11,000 Marines arrived pursuant to President Obama’s authorization, as discussed in the introductory paragraphs (above).  In June 2009, British Army forces (supported by ISAF and ANA troops) launched Operation Panther’s Claw; on 2 July the Marines began Operation Khanjar. Both of these were major offensives with the goal of securing Helmand Province in advance of national elections.

There were two US/NATO encampments in Helmand Province: Camp Bastion, manned by our British cousins, and Camp Leatherneck —both of which are only a short distance from the capital of Lashkar Gah. Culturally, Helmand province dates back to the Bronze Age.  It was invaded by Alexander the Great, became part of the Indian Empire under Ashoka, and then fell under the influence of Islam [1].  Genghis Khan was not a great admirer of the Afghan living in Helmand Province —which he illustrated quite clearly in the Thirteenth Century.

Not long after Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, he ordered an additional 17,000 troops sent to Afghanistan. This deployment would include 8,000 Marines of the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB), then commanded by Brigadier General Lawrence D. Nicholson [2].  President Obama subsequently appointed U. S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal to Command the ISAF.  McChrystal’s orders were to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan.

General McChrystal’s approach was to isolate the general Afghan population away from insurgent elements, and, in so doing, he argued, improve Afghanistan’s stability as an emerging nation. McChrystal’s revamped US strategy was to focus on a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) effort based on lessons learned in Iraq.  He presented his plan to the President, recommending a troop surge to bring Afghanistan back from the brink of collapse.  In December 2009, President Obama authorized an additional 30,000 troops. The majority of these men would be US Marines.

Before BGen Nicholson’s arrival at the head of the 2ndMEB, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF [3] )-Afghanistan had laid a foundation for the MEB’s operations, which commenced on 2 July 2009.  Four-thousand Marines and several hundred Afghan National Army (ANA) troops were rapidly introduced into the major population centers of the Helmand River valley that had been previously dominated by Taliban insurgents.  BGen Nicholson orchestrated operations named Khanjar, Eastern Resolve, and Cobra Anger from July 2009 into the fall season.  In February 2010, 2nd MEB closed in on Marjah during Operation Mostarak.  Marine successes cleared the way for an Afghan government and Coalition presence in previously enemy-held areas.

American Marines also had to contend with vast poppy fields that helped to finance the Taliban insurgency.  Nicholson maintained a dynamic vision for COIN operations with non-traditional maneuverings, such as an interaction with local mullahs, the employment of female teams, and the establishment of the Joint Security Academy, a Marine Corps led police training facility.

Some of General Nicholson’s methods were considered controversial by more-senior Army commanders and State Department officials. Nicholson, however, would not be bullied into adopting tactics that he knew were foolish, wasteful, or an unnecessary risk to his Marines.  His insistence on autonomy and his doctrinal reliance on the MAGTF operations prompted his critics to label Marine Corps operations in Helmand Province as “Marineistan.”  The Marines, senior officials claimed, had gone rogue in Helmand Province; they wouldn’t do anything the Army wanted them to do.  Marines had long learned one important lesson: a dangerous enemy can be foreign or domestic.

The NATO command structure in Afghanistan was nothing if not complicated —and political.  This was necessary, perhaps, given the complex nature of saving Afghanistan from itself and the fact that the NATO command was a multi-national organization.  Overall command authority rested with the Commander, ISAF in Kabul.  He directed three subordinate formations after the reorganization in 2009.  These consisted of the ISAF Joint Command, responsible for directing tactical operations, NATO Training Mission and Special Operations, and regional commands designated North, West, South, East, and Southwest.

Regional Command Southwest was responsible for security in Helmand and Nimruz Provinces.  Regional Command Southwest included military forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Georgia, Denmark, Bahrain, and Estonia.  The southwest command also included Task Force Helmand (UK and Danish), Task Force Leatherneck (US Marines operating in northern, southern, and western Helmand Province), and Provincial Reconstruction Teams operating from Lashkar Gah (UK, Denmark, Estonia).

BGen Nicholson 001
L. D. Nicholson, BrigGen USMC

Commanding Task Force Leatherneck, of course, was (then) Brigadier General Lawrence D. Nicholson.  Nicholson was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in 1979.  As a company-grade officer, he served as a platoon commander in the 1stMarines and commanded a recruit training company at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California.  As a field grade officer, Nicholson commanded Regimental Combat Team One during Operation Phantom Fury (the Second Battle of Fallujah) where he was wounded in action, commanded the 5thMarine Regiment, 2ndMarine Expeditionary Brigade, and later served as Deputy Commander for Operations, ISAF.  Lieutenant General Nicholson retired in August 2018 after serving as the Commanding General, III Marine Expeditionary Force.

For eight years, the Obama administration believed that it knew more about fighting a war than did the senior military officers tasked with prosecuting it.  They didn’t —and no one demonstrated this better than General Nicholson and the Marines of Task Force Leatherneck.

Delaram, Afghanistan is regarded by some as the end of the earth —which is precisely where one should expect to find US Marines. It is the location of several truckstops populated by a handful of locals.  It is in the center of hundreds of miles of desert.  Delaram is so far “out there” that it had no strategic importance to senior officers in Kabul.  After all, McChrystal’s priority was protecting Afghanis in their largest cities [4].  General Nicholson had a different view: Afghan cities are best protected by destroying Taliban insurgents in outlying areas.  Controlling rural areas is essential to promoting economic development; the one-million inhabitants of Helmand Province deserved as much protection as the people in Kandahar or Kabul.

So —the Marines went to Delaram —to wage war in their own way.  The Marines pushed into Taliban-held strongholds and invited them out to the dance floor.  Next, they set up a school to train Afghan police officers.  They took with them Moslem chaplains to pray with local mullahs. They deployed teams of women Marines to reach out to Afghani women.  The Marine Corps approach was creative, aggressive, and unorthodox.  Marines don’t patrol in helicopters at 500 feet ASL; Marines patrol on foot.

Marine Patrol 001Foot patrols are a risky business, but that’s what Marines do for a living.  Patrolling on the ground allowed the Marines to interact with local populations, and it was this interaction that stabilized local communities.    These strategies soon resulted in thriving bazaars, functioning schools, and communities of people who prefer living free to dying enslaved by religious tyrants.  It did not take most Afghans in Helmand Province to align themselves with the Marines; those deciding to remain unaligned soon learned that they had made a very bad choice.

Yet, despite Marine successes in Helmand Province, Army commanders continued to resent these efforts; the Marines continued to resist arm-chair quarterbacking from Kabul.  General McChrystal, in particular, was unhappy with the Marines because, or at least it would seem to be, that the Marines had discovered the right mixture of stick vs. carrot.  This was the result of doing COIN the Marine Corps way.  McChrystal wasn’t alone.  One Washington bureaucrat moaned, “We have better operational coherence with virtually all of our NATO allies than we do with the US Marines.”  This could be an accurate observation, but Marines weren’t as focused on coherence with Army units as they were in stabilizing Helmand Province.  They did that.

These differences in strategies and combat operations are more than a simple matter of conflicting opinions.  While senior officials in the White House, at the Pentagon, and in McChrystal’s headquarters would rather have had many of the 20,000 Marines deployed to Kandahar, the fact is that General Nicholson was right, and all of those others were wrong.  Success within Helmand Province generated the perception of momentum in the U.S.-led military campaign and it caused severe uncertainty within Taliban elements.  This is exactly what the Marines should do: never let the enemy read your playbook.  What McChrystal never seemed to understand is that one increases combat effectiveness by allowing Marines to operate together, as a team; the opposite is achieved by breaking them apart and/or deploying them piecemeal.

Marines fight the way they’ve been trained to fight.  Every Marine is a rifleman.  Every Marine Corps officer is first trained as an infantry leader.  This is why Marine Corps helicopter units know how to best support the ground forces, how logistics officers know how to push supplies to forward units.  The Marines did not have to rely on Army units or depend on NATO forces to resupply them. Marine Corps units have been mutually supporting since World War II; there is no reason to change what works to something that doesn’t.

Nevertheless, General McChrystal continued to fight the Marines, eventually bringing in the White House.  He “tattled.” In early March, General David H. Petraeus, who then headed Central Command, issued an order giving McChrystal operational control of Marine Corps forces in Afghanistan —but with one important caveat: McChrystal had to obtain Central Command authority before he could break Marine infantry units apart from their air and logistical support mechanisms. The caveat limited McChrystal’s ability to move the Marines within Afghanistan.

Here’s something else McChrystal didn’t understand: when Marines move out, they do it quickly and smartly.  When they arrive in-theater, they’re ready to fight.  Army units move at the speed of molasses in January.  One senior defense official commented, “The Marines are a double-edged sword for McChrystal: he got them fast, but he only gets to use them in one place.”

The fact was that the Marines didn’t choose Helmand Province; they were asked to go there by McChrystal’s predecessor, General McKiernan.  He needed the Marines because, lacking adequate resources, the British contingent was unable to contain an intensifying insurgency.  Once there, the Marines were determined to make their deployment a success —but they would do it, as they always have, the Marine Corps way— which is how the Marines straightened out Anbar Province in Iraq. One final note on this topic: The Marine concentration in Helmand Province gave the Marines “pride of place.” They owned it —along with their successes or their failures.

Nawzad 001Nawzad is a city in northern Helmand Province.  At one time, the city was the province’s second largest.  Over a period of four years, Taliban insurgents took control of the city and its surrounding area.  All roads leading into the city were mined, along with key buildings inside the city.  The Afghan people living there moved away.  British and US Army units attempted to do something about this situation, but in the end, they found themselves confined to the city.  Anyone venturing into outlying areas was either shot at or bombed.  The Marines fixed this problem by reclaiming the town within a few weeks.  It was an outstanding demonstration to every insurgent in Helmand Province that first, the Marines owned the deed to Nawzad, and second, would not countenance any Taliban terrorizing of local citizens.

Nothing the Marines did in Nawzad corresponded to McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy. One senior Army official in the JTF commented, “If our focus is supposed to be protecting the population, why are we focusing on a ghost town?”  General Nicholson could not have cared less about what the Coalition thought.  What he did care about was what the Afghan provincial governor thought about it.  The governor approved, and so did local tribal leaders.  The people moved back to Nawzad.  General Nicholson observed, “Protecting the population means allowing people to return to their homes.  We’ve taken a grim, tough place, a place where there was no hope, and we’ve given it a future.”

Nimruz Province
Nimruz Province, Afghanistan

Next up, Nicholson assigned Marines units to control the desert to put an end to the flow of insurgents, drugs, and weapons from Pakistan.  This is where Delaram came to the fore.  From Delaram, Marines mounted further operations in Nimruz Province, which the NATO command regarded as so unimportant that not a single US or NATO reconstruction team ever went there.  NATO’s lack of attention opened that province up to large numbers of insurgents. General Nicholson was determined to clean it up.

The bellyaching of US and NATO military officials continued.  They argued that what the Marines are doing only made sense if there were not a greater demand for troops elsewhere.  Okay … so? The fact was that British diplomats and military professionals wanted to enlarge the US Marine Corps footprint. What they were doing in Helmand Province was getting results … but time was the only thing the Marines didn’t have enough of.  General Nicholson reminded his Marines, “The clock is ticking.  The drawdown will begin next year, and we still have a lot to do.”

What Taliban insurgents never quite absorbed in their dealings with US Marines were these important lessons: (1) A Marine can become a trusted ally or your absolute worst nightmare: choose wisely. (2) Never shoot at an American Marine because it will only piss him off.  (3) Marines never run from a fight: a pissed-off Marine will attack you and beat you into the ground, and (4) You can run and hide, but you’ll only die tuckered out.

If an enemy of the United States could learn important lessons about the United States Marines, so too could a few self-serving American politicians: (1) Never send a Marine into combat expecting anything less than combat; (2) Before labeling any combat soldier or Marine as a war criminal, walk a mile in their shoes —preferably while on combat patrol; (3) When it comes to combat operations, there are two ways of doing things: the wrong way, and the Marine Corps way.  Marines always complete their mission.  Reputation matters —and will matter— unless a potential enemy has a serious mental defect.

We need more senior military leaders like General Nicholson.  We need fewer boy scouts in the Department of Defense; more professionals —like the American Marines.

Endnotes:

[1] And, it’s been going downhill ever since.

[2] LtGen Nicholson retired from active duty in 2018; during his service, he held command positions at every echelon of the Marine Corps through the Marine Expeditionary Force. He participated in wartime service in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

[3] A Marine Air Ground Task Force may also be designated a “Special Purpose” mission.  Additional designations might include “crisis response” and/or “Central Command.”

[4] It is no doubt important to defend large population centers, but such operations must be in addition to controlling outlying areas.  The Army has not learned this lesson from the days when it created named forts throughout the western United States.

The Road to Marineistan

Helmand Province
Helmand Province

Helmand Province, Afghanistan is one of 34 Afghani jurisdictions. Located in the southwest of the country, Helmand is the largest province by area, around 20,000 square miles.  It has 13 political districts, which encompass over 1,000 villages, and it is populated by just under a million people. Its capital city is Lashkar Gah.

In 2001, Afghanistan became the focus of America’s 911-force, but the war in Iraq diverted significant assets away from Afghanistan.  The so-called “nation-building” efforts between 2001 and 2007 were ineffective; the America of the twenty-first century was proving itself incapable of fighting a two-front war.  Between 2005-2006, a much-revitalized Taliban were able to conduct several large-scale offensives against coalition forces in Helmand Province, Kandahar, and areas bordering Pakistan.  The Afghan government exercised only limited influence over Helmand Province and then only as it applied to the capital city of Lashkar Gah.  Within Helmand Province, NATO forces were thin; American personnel numbered around 130 soldiers who were involved in anti-terrorist missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In April 2006, a British Task Force deployed to Helmand, ostensibly to challenge the supremacy of Taliban insurgents.  The Sixteenth Air Assault Brigade numbered around 3,000 men, but only about one-third of these were combat infantry.

If the Taliban weren’t enough of a challenge, the command structure under which the British Task Force operated was a tangled mess.  As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Brits served under Major General Benjamin Freakley, US Army, Commander, Combined Task Force 76.  However, as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the British Commander also answered to the NATO regional command, southern district, then led by Brigadier General David Fraser, Canadian Army.  British missions inside Helmand Province ranged from the contradictory to the impossible.  On the one hand, the British brigade was tasked with winning the hearts and minds of local populations; on the other, they were charged to confront the Taliban and eliminating them.

The initial mission of the Helmand task force was to carry out a series of construction projects and counterinsurgency operations in the area known as “The Triangle” around Lashkar Gah and Gereshk.  The Taliban, observing the weakened condition of coalition forces, launched a series of well-coordinated attacks, seizing the Baghran District in April 2006.  On 18 May, they raided Musa Qala killing twenty Afghani policemen.  The intensity of these attacks prompted the coalition to rethink their general strategy.

The very possibility that a Taliban offensive could sweep across the entire province moved the provincial governor to demand that already limited ISAF troops be deployed to districts that were under imminent danger of aggressive Taliban operations. Sangin, Nawzad, Musa Qala, and the hydroelectric installations at Kajaki were of particular concern.  What evolved from these demands was the implementation of a “platoon house” [1] strategy; its effect was a significant weakening of lethal forces by tying them to remote locations throughout the province.  Disbursed British forces remained under siege for long periods of time and the platoon house concept placed the entire command at risk.

The Sangin Insurgency

Sangin is a town of about 30,000 people and an important trade center in southern Afghanistan, largely controlled by the Taliban before June 2006.  It was also among the largest opium markets in Helmand Province.  On 18 June, a former district chief and his bodyguards were ambushed and killed in Sangin.  The assassination may have been a clash between drug lords, but it did trigger the deployment of additional ISAF troops to Sangin.  A company of British paratroopers moved into Sangin on 21 June, supposedly to rescue the son of the current district chief who was wounded in the ambush.  In an effort to assert central authority over Sangin, President Hamid Karzai ordered these troops to remain within the city.  Initially, the city seemed to stabilize, but this changed a week later when two British soldiers were killed during an area raid.

On 30 June, insurgents launched an attack on the district center, then garrisoned by British troops.  The attack was repelled with British forces killing twelve insurgents, but the Taliban were undeterred.  They renewed their attacks every night using small arms, RPGs, and 107mm rockets; the British answered with effective automatic weapons fire, mortars, Javelin missiles, artillery, and air strikes.  Isolated, resupply of the British garrison became a critical issue.

The Battle for Musa Qala

Coalition forces were deployed to Musa Qala in much the same way as they had been sent to Sangin. Their mission was to defend the town center, which served as both police station and local jail.  As with Sangin, the crowded town center actually hampered the efforts of British composite forces to defend the town.  Afghan forces consisted of around 80 unpopular militiamen.

The first heavy Taliban attack was launched on 16 July.  British forces, consisting mainly of pathfinders, repelled the attack inflicting heavy losses on the insurgents.  Ten days later, British forces were relieved by a Danish Light Reconnaissance Squadron (The Griffins).  Taliban activity was so intense outside the city that British forces could not be extracted until 8 August.  Insurgents continued their attacks on Musa Qala until finally driven out of the town with the help of air support.

NATO pulled the Danish unit out of Musa Qala on 24 August to join Canadians in Operation Medusa. Replacing the Danes was a mixed detachment of British Paratroopers and Royal Irish Rangers —none of whom were armed with heavy weapons.  Sensing an advantaged and encouraged by the constant turnover of NATO forces, the Taliban launched a massive attack involving 150 fighters on 26-27 August. The assault was repelled, but the Taliban continued to direct mortars and rockets at the beleaguered British garrison.

By the end of September, the fighting in Musa Qala had come down to a stalemate.  The Taliban suffered heavy losses and rendered incapable of driving ISAF forces out of the town, but the coalition had also suffered combat losses and their control of Musa Qala was confined to the space inside the town’s limits.  As with Sangin, resupply of the garrison at Musa Qala became a serious issue.  The propaganda victory went to the Taliban.

The Truce

One of the city elders decided that enough was enough.  He was able to broker a truce between Taliban and British forces.  The officer responsible for this calamity was Lieutenant General David J. Richards, RA.  The agreement called for a British withdrawal from Musa Qala; local tribesmen promised to deny aid and comfort to Taliban insurgents.  Of course, after the British departure, the Taliban reasserted their control over the city, imposing fundamentalist rules over the citizens. Movement of women was restricted, citizens were taxed to support the insurgency, and the people were summarily executed for violating Islamic rules or for being suspected coalition spies. In spite of the reemergence of fundamentalism, British and Afghan forces stayed away.  General Richards wanted to avoid civilian casualties, he said.

The truce fell apart after a local mullah was accidentally killed by an American B-1 bombing mission. The Taliban claimed that the mullah’s death took place in a zone that the truce defined as off-limits.  On 1 Feb 2007, three hundred insurgents stormed the town and executed the elder who had helped broker the agreement.  The “truce” lasted 143 days.  On that same day, General Dan K. McNeil, U. S. Army replaced Richards.  McNeill favored a more aggressive strategy —but not too much more.

In early April 2007, coalition forces launched Operation Silver.  It was part of a wider operation codenamed Achilles that involved more than one-thousand troops.  After giving advance warning of this offensive, coalition forces advanced into Sangin to install a new district chief.  McNeill announced that the city was now pacified.  Sangin may have been pacified, but Taliban controlled all outlying areas.

Eventually, British engineers were able to draw the Taliban’s attention away from Sangin by constructing two forward operating bases outside the city.  These, then, became the focus of subsequent Taliban attacks.

The Kajaki Dam

Helmand British Getty
British forces in Helmand Province Getty Image

The dam was critical to Helmand Province for two reasons: providing water for irrigation in the Helmand Valley, and electricity for the entire province.  The Taliban began to display a keen interest in the damn in June 2006.  Sent to defend this structure was a mixture of Afghan policemen and security guards hired by an American contractor, all of whom were thoroughly demoralized by nightly mortar attacks.

In late June, a team of British Paratroopers set up an ambush intending to destroy a Taliban mortar team.  The Brits killed 10 Taliban and wounded two.  After this, the British deployed a permanent team at the dam.  They occupied fortified posts that had been constructed by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan.  The Taliban grew a bit more cautious, but they continued harassing fires throughout the summer months.

In February 2007, British Marines from 42 Commando launched Operation Volcano.  It was a clearing operation designed to establish a “safe zone” around the dam and driving Taliban mortar crews out of range of the dam.  Experts note that the Kajaki Dam is one of the rare occasions during the entire war where both sides of the conflict established fixed positions and where an actual “front” developed between warring factions.  The stalemate continued.

The NATO Counter-offensive

British troops prepare to depart upon the end of operations for U.S. Marines and British combat troops in Helmand
British Reinforcements Reuters Image

British forces were finally reinforced in April 2007; troop strengths increased from 3,300 to around 5,800 men.  They also received heavier equipment, such as the Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicle, MRAP vehicles, and the M270 rocket launcher system.

Brigadier John Lorimer, the new British commander ordered a series of large-scale operations designed to systematically clear the province of insurgent forces.  Operation Achilles was the first of these.  More than 4,500 British led ISAF troops were involved, reinforced by 1,000 ANA [2] personnel.  This time, however, the Taliban avoided a direct confrontation with the ISAF.  They instead implemented guerilla tactics.

Operation Achilles involved a number of sub-operations, each of which targeted specific sectors of Helmand Province:  Operation Kryptonite sought to clear the area around the Kajaki Dam.  Operation Silver employed US Heliborne paratroopers from the 82ndAirborne Division with 250 Royal Marines, and 100 Dutch assault troops to clear the area surrounding Sangin.  Operation Silicon was undertaken by the Royal Anglian Regiment (Vikings) supported by ANA, who sought to clear the area around Gereshk and the lower Sangin valley.  During Silicon, the Taliban second in command was killed near Gereshk.

With these successes, the British constructed a number of patrol bases, manned by British and ANA troops.  This gave the Task Force a permanent presence in areas where the Taliban had previously exercised almost complete control.  NATO now had a permanent foothold in Helmand Province.  A permanent foothold wasn’t sufficient, however, and the Taliban continued to control the narrative in several areas of Helmand Province.

Operation Pickaxe-handle

This operation took over where Achilles ended.  On 30 May 2007, ISAF and ANA troops advanced toward the village of Kajaki Sofle, which lay six miles southwest of Kajaki.  The purpose of this operation was to remove Taliban insurgents who threatened the security of the lower Sangin valley.  During a night assault of a Taliban compound, a CH-47 helicopter was shot down.  Five Americans, one Brit, and a Canadian were killed in the crash.  The operation ended on 14 June with both sides claiming success. Taliban claims were confirmed by local residents, who said that Taliban forces always return to threaten and intimidate local citizens as soon as NATO forces withdraw.

Several additional operations were conducted between 24 July and 31 December 2007.  These included Operation Hammer, and Operation Sledgehammer —both of which produced positive results and significant losses among Taliban insurgents.  On 1 November, 40 Commando (Royal Marines) pushed north in armored vehicles, creating a bridgehead for an important Scots Guards convoy.  Having reestablished positions around Musa Qala, the British initiated a series of reconnaissance patrols which were intended to confuse and disrupt Taliban operations and disrupt their supply routes.

Musa Qala had become a major drug trade station; it was of symbolic importance to both sides of the conflict.  On 6 December, British and Afghan forces assaulted the town.  They were supported by several hundred US troops who came in via helicopter during the night.  Taliban defenses included dozens, if not hundreds of landmines.  The 2,000 Taliban fighters inside the city were confident that they held the upper hand.  In the first day, one Brit and twelve Taliban fighters were killed; two civilian children were also killed.

On the second day, NATO troops captured two villages south of Musa Qala and advanced to within a mile or so of the city border.  Taliban reinforcements poured into the city.  On the third day, Taliban became less confident in their ability to withstand a NATO assault and withdrew from Musa Qala into the surrounding mountains.  When Afghan troops entered the city, they encountered no resistance.

By the end of 2007, the most optimistic description of Helmand Province was that of a stalemate. A de facto border was established east of Garmsir along the banks of the Helmand River that divided British-held and Taliban controlled territory.  With Taliban replacements flowing into the Helmand Province from Pakistan, the British were far outnumbered.  NATO artillery and airstrikes could only do so much.  What was needed at this point were more NATO forces.

This was when the US Marines were sent back to Afghanistan.

Continued Next Week

Endnotes:

[1] Small fortified bases defended by British forces in the towns of Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Garmsir.

[2] Afghan National Army

Phantom Fury

(The Second Battle of Fallujah)

crossed rifles 001In April 2004, Fallujah was defended by about 1,500 Iraqi insurgents with around five-hundred of these being “hardcore” guerrilla fighters and the others “part-time” employees.  By November, these numbers doubled and included virtually every insurgent group in Iraq: al-Qaeda, Islamic Army of Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna, Army of Mohammed, Army of Mujahedeen, and the Secret Army of Iraq. None of the names of these groups is important, however, because Islamists change their names as frequently as a mother changes her baby’s diapers.  One thing that does stand out, however, is that the leadership of these groups (wisely, albeit cowardly) removed themselves from Fallujah before the beginning of the Second Battle of Fallujah.

Coalition checkpoints were established to prevent anyone from entering the city, and to intercept insurgents attempting to flee.  In the run-up to the commencement of combat operations, detailed imagery was obtained and used to prepare detailed maps of the city.  Iraqi interpreters augmented American combat units.  Fallujah the battlefield was prepped by sustained airstrikes and artillery fires.  Intelligence suggested that the city’s insurgents were vulnerable to direct attack. The total of coalition forces included 6,500 Marines, 1,500 US soldiers, 2,500 US Navy support personnel, 850 British forces, and around 2,000 Iraqi security forces.

American combat forces were organized into two Regimental Combat Teams.  RCT-1 was composed of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, elements of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 and Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 23, and elements of the US 7th Cavalry.  RCT-7 consisted of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, 2nd Battalion, 2nd US Infantry, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, and 1st Battalion, 6th US Field Artillery.  Supporting elements included Iraqi security forces, coalition aircraft, and Special Operations Command snipers.  The 1st Battalion, Black Watch Regiment planned to support US troops along with D Squadron of the SAS, but British political concerns in the UK halted any involvement by British forces in the actual assault.

Ground operations began on the night of 7 November 2004.  Navy SEAL and Marine Reconnaissance sniper teams provided reconnaissance and target marking along the city perimeter.  A diversionary assault from the west and south began with the 36th Iraqi Commando Battalion (with US Army Special Forces advisors), the 1st Battalion, 9th US Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and Company A, 2nd Battalion, 72nd Tank Battalion, elements of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (Reinforced), and Combat Service Support Battalion 1. Their mission was to capture the Fallujah General Hospital, Blackwater Bridge, the ING building, and villages opposite the Euphrates River in South Fallujah.  This diversionary unit, under command of the US Army III Corps, would then move to the western approaches and secure Kas Sukr Bridge.

Fallujah 10Nov04
Phantom Fury Assault Plan Global Security Org

After Seabees from the I MEF Engineer Group disabled electrical power at two substations, RCT-1 and RCT-7 launched an attack along the northern edge of the city.  They were joined by the 2nd Battalion, 7/CAV and 2nd Battalion, 2nd US Infantry (Mechanized).  Two follow-on battalions were tasked with clearing buildings, which is an arduous task.  The Army’s 2nd Brigade, augmented by the 2nd Recon Battalion and one company from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, was ordered to infiltrate the city and destroy upon contact any fleeing enemy forces. The 1st Battalion, Black Watch patrolled the main highway to the east of the city.

Regimental Combat Teams were augmented by three 7-man SEAL sniper teams and one platoon from the 1st Recon Battalion, which provided advance reconnaissance.  Air support was provided by a detachment from Joint Terminal Aircraft Control (JTAC), USAF F-15, F-16, A-10, B-52, and AC-130 gunships.  Predator unmanned aerial vehicles assisted in gaining intelligence on suspected enemy strongholds.

After airstrikes and the employment of an intense artillery barrage, six coalition battalions began their assault in the early morning hours of 8 November.  The Marine assault was followed by Seabees, who began clearing the streets of bombing debris.  By nightfall on 9 November, Marines had reached Highway 10 in the city center.

On the night of 11 November, elements of RCT-7 (1st Battalion, 8th Marines) were attacked and pinned down by small arms and automatic weapons fire in an ally. Two Marines fell seriously wounded. Sergeant Aubrey McDade led a machine gun squad.  At that instant located in the rear of advancing elements, McDade rushed to a forward position and directed machinegun fire at the attackers.  While under intense enemy fire, McDade rescued the wounded Marines, one at a time.  A third Marine was killed during the attack; his body was soon recovered by fellow Marines. In recognition of his courage under fire, McDade was awarded the Navy Cross Medal.

According to the official after-action report, fighting in Fallujah began to subside by 13 November, but First Sergeant Bradley Kasal might disagree with that assessment. Serving as the First Sergeant, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines with RCT-1, Kasal was assisting the Combined anti-Armor Platoon as they provided overwatch for the third platoon when a large volume of fire erupted from within a structure to his immediate front.  Marines suddenly began exiting the house they were clearing.

Kasal rushed to the front and determined that several more Marines were pinned down inside the house by an unknown number of enemy insurgents.  He quickly augmented the squad forcing entry, encountered a shooter and eliminated him.  Kasal and another Marine then came under rifle fire from the second floor; both Marines were immobilized by serious wounds in their legs.  Kasal and the other Marine then became the focus of a grenade attack.  Kasal rolled on top of his fellow Marine and absorbed shrapnel with his own body.  A Navy Corpsman rushed forward to render aid but Kasal refused medical attention until his subordinates had first been attended to; Kasal continued directing the efforts of his Marines as the clearing operation continued.  In recognition of his extraordinary heroism, First Sergeant Kasal [1] was awarded the Navy Cross Medal.

Fallujah 15NOV04
Picture from public domain Fallujah, 10 November 2004

Sergeant Rafael Peralta, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, was a scout team leader assigned to Company A who, on 15 November 2004, was involved in house-clearing operations.  Peralta led his team through three houses to ensure there were no insurgents were present.  As he entered the fourth home, he cleared two rooms on the ground floor.  Opening the third door, Peralta was hit multiple times by automatic rifle fire, leaving him severely wounded.  Peralta moved to the side of a hallway to allow his team to confront the insurgent.  The Iraqi insurgent then threw a hand grenade, which despite his wounds, Peralta pulled under his body.  The grenade detonated, killing him instantly.  Sergeant Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross medal in recognition of his selfless devotion to his fellow Marines.

By 16 November, I MEF described the lingering operation as “mopping up” pockets of resistance. Sporadic fighting continued through 23 December 2004.  The Second Battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest fight of the war, and the fiercest battle involving US troops since the Vietnam War.  Coalition forces suffered 107 killed, and 613 wounded during Operation Phantom Fury.  Of these, 95 Americans were killed, 560 wounded.  Estimates of enemy dead in this one battle range from 1,200 to over 2,000. Fifteen-hundred insurgents were captured and taken prisoner during the operation.  In the aftermath of the operation, coalition forces reported that 66 of the city’s 133 mosques [2] held significant amounts of small arms, machine guns, and explosive materials.

Sources:

  1. Camp, Dick. Operation Phantom Fury: The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq. Zenith Press, 2009
  2. West, Bing. No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, Bantam Books, 2005

Endnotes:

[1] Sergeant Major Bradly Kasal retired from the U. S. Marine Corps in 2018.  It was my honor to meet Sergeant Major Kasal at the Iwo Jima memorial dinner at Camp Pendleton, California in February 2017.

[2] This fact may go a long way to explain why most Americans are unable to trust the word or motivations of Moslems.

Fish and Chips

(The First Battle of Fallujah)

Marines abhor urban warfare more than any other form of combat.  Urban settings negate the advantages of overwhelming firepower, limit the maneuvering ability of troops, and reduce fields of observation and fires. The presence of innocent civilians, the ability of enemy forces to dress themselves as civilians and infiltrate civilian populations makes urban warfare even more complex.  It is an environment within which a few well-armed insurgents are able to impede the advance of military forces while inflicting heavy casualties at little cost to themselves —particularly if they are of the mindset that death in Jihad guarantees access to Shangri-La. The urban environment offers cover and concealment of insurgents, movement through underground infrastructures, and the placement of well-concealed booby traps and snipers.

Iraq-FallujahThe city of Fallujah —one of the most religious and culturally traditional areas of Iraq, had mostly profited under the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Most of the city’s residents favored the Ba’ath party; they were Sunnis; some were employed by Saddam’s intelligence apparatus.  Generally, however, most residents had little sympathy for Saddam in the aftermath of the collapse of his government —until they realized that the Sunni regime of some 5-million people no longer controlled the 20-millions of the Iraqi Shi’ite majority.

Following the collapse of the Ba’ath party in 2003, local residents elected a town council headed by Taha Hamed, who was able to keep the city from falling into the hands of criminal gangs.  Nominally, Hamed and his council were pro-American, and their election somewhat erroneously signaled to the Americans that the city was unlikely to fall into the hands of insurgents.  Accordingly, few US troops were assigned to Fallujah early in 2003.  On 23 April, however, elements of the 82ndAirborne entered the city, and of these, approximately 150 troops of Company C, 1stBattalion, 325thAirborne Infantry set up their headquarters in the al-Qa’id primary school.  Five days later, a crowd of around 200 citizens gathered outside the school after curfew demanding that the Americans vacate the building so that it could resume its function as a school.

The company commander was not inclined to vacate the building, however.  Tactically, it was in a good place from which to direct military operations.  The people were adamant, however, and the demands of the people became somewhat heated. The population of the crowd was building, so the American unit deployed smoke cannisters as a means of discouraging or disbursing the crowd.  At some point, Iraqi gunmen fired on US troops from within the protesting crowd.  The American soldiers returned fire, killing 17 people and wounding more than 70.  There were no US casualties.

On 30 April, another protest group gathered at the former Ba’ath party headquarters complaining about the shootings at the al-Qa’id school.  Gunfire also erupted from within this group of protesters, and members of the US 3rdArmored Cavalry Regiment returned fire; three more civilians died.  In both of these instances, US forces insisted that they had not fired upon the crowd of civilians; they had returned fire.  There’s a difference.

In any case, 82nd Airborne units were pulled out of Fallujah and replaced by elements of the 3rd Cavalry and Company B, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.  On 4 June, while on a “presence” patrol, members of B Company were hit by RPGs as they were mounting their vehicles to return to their base of operations.  Six soldiers were injured, one man was killed.  3/Cavalry requested additional forces to help them quell a growing resistance to an American presence by city residents.  Relations with local citizens was not improved when 3/Cavalry began confiscating motorcycles, asserting that such vehicles were being used in hit and run attacks on coalition forces.

On 30 June, a large explosion in a mosque killed local Sheikh Laith Khalil and eight others. The local population claimed that the Americans had fired a missile at the mosque, but the truth is that this explosion came from an accidental detonation by insurgents while constructing a bomb.

By this time, the citizens of Fallujah were openly anti-American, which was further demonstrated by a 12 February 2004 attack on a convoy that included General John Abizaid (then Commander of US forces in the Middle East), and Major General Charles Swannack (Commander, 82nd Airborne Division).

On 23 February, insurgents created a false emergency on the outskirts of the city, a ploy to divert local police away from the city center. What then occurred was a simultaneous attack on three police stations, the mayor’s office, and a civil defense base. After murdering seventeen police officers, the insurgents released 87 prisoners.

During this period, 82nd Airborne units were conducting limited operations inside the city to destroy road barriers that could hide IEDs; they supervised searches of homes and schools, and this led to exchanges of lethal gunfire with local residents.

In March, I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) assumed coalition authority over the al-Anbar Province. It was at this time when insurgent forces began to seize portions of the city; attacks upon coalition forces increased dramatically.  I MEF commander Lieutenant General James Conway (later serving as Commandant of the Marine Corps) decided to withdraw all US forces from within the city. Occasional operations continued, however, in the form of combat patrols in the outer limits of the city.

On 27 March, a covert American surveillance team was compromised and had to fight its way out of an insurgent-inspired envelopment.  On 31 March, a massive roadside bomb  killed five US personnel who were attempting to clear a main supply route (MSR) of IEDs.

Four days later, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy containing four American contractors from Blackwater USA.  Without notifying the Marine command of their itinerary, these four contractors were escorting a “harsh environment food stores” delivery and decided to take a shortcut through Fallujah —which, at the time, was Iraq’s most dangerous city.  They were driving two Mitsubishi Pajero sport utility vehicles on the main thoroughfare, designated Highway 10.  They apparently anticipated that it would only take them 20 minutes to clear the city center and be on their way.

These were capable men: one a former SEAL, another, who spoke several languages, previously served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the third man had won the Bronze Star medal in Afghanistan, and the fourth contractor had served as both an Army Ranger and a paratrooper.  As the vehicles passed through the midtown area, no Iraqi police officer flagged them down or attempt to turn them back.  Moments later, insurgents ran into the street and sprayed both vehicles with automatic rifle fire.  Neither vehicle had armor plating; three of the men were killed instantly.  A fourth was badly wounded.  They never had a chance.

The assassins jumped into vehicles and sped off.  Shortly afterwards, a crowd of men and boys approached the dead men who were still sitting inside their utility vehicles.  The lone survivor staggered out of his vehicle and collapsed on the ground. The nearby Iraqi men began to kick and stomp on his body.  Others stabbed him with knives.

A young boy ran up carrying a can of gasoline, doused the SUVs and set them ablaze.  Egged on by the older men, mere boys dragged the dead men’s smoldering bodies onto the pavement and beat their remains with their shoes to demonstrate that Americans were scum under the soles of their feet.  The insurgent led mob then attached two of the bodies to a car and dragged them through the streets.  Hundreds of men cheered.  Eventually, the bodies were hung over a bridge.

This macabre show lasted for the rest of the day.  At dusk, the remains of three bodies were dumped in a cart pulled by a gray donkey for a final triumphal parade down Highway 10.  Men and boys followed the cart shouting anti-American phrases.  It was all captured on tape.  The video would become great propaganda material for later on.

This incident was widely covered by the press and caused widespread indignation in the United States; the anger seemed to get worse with each passing hour.  But in Fallujah, the people proudly greeted news photographers. Graphic footage was sold to the networks.  The next day’s headlines were nothing short of stunning: young men smiling and waving, while behind them dangled the charred corpses of American civilians.

To the Marines, this easily-avoided incident was a tragedy.  The names of these four civilians would be added to a list that already contained dozens of names of men who were killed in the past year in or around Fallujah.  But there was nothing the Marines could do or should do.  To react to this event emotionally would play right into the hands of the insurgents; the idea was to win the war, not create a larger one.

The Marines did have a plan, however.  It involved moving back into Fallujah over the next several months, on foot, retaking Fallujah district by district and bringing with them sufficient Iraqi forces to maintain control over these districts.  One problem, though, was that the Iraqi forces had disassociated themselves from the coalition effort.  There would be no reason for the Marines to march into Fallujah if there was no one to turn liberated districts over to.  I MEF believed that the Marines could coax the Iraqis back into a full partnership.  It would take time, but that was the plan.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez [1], U. S. Army commanded the Coalition Joint Task Force; Sanchez was General Conway’s boss.  Sanchez wanted swift, visible retaliation for the Blackwater lynching.  He wanted Conway to blow the bridge.  That couldn’t work because Conway needed the bridge to run resupply convoys.  In fact, every one of Sanchez’ notions ran counter-intuitive to the long-term efforts of not creating a larger retalitory war for the four Blackwater murders.  Sanchez complained to his confidantes that he felt the Marines were timid.

In the view of Marine commander, the only sensible strategy was to regain control of Fallujah gradually, leaving Iraqis —not Marines— in charge of the city and its several districts.  But Sanchez was adamant.  The Blackwater murders amounted to political symbolism. Sanchez was getting his way; President George W. Bush was furious about the Blackwater assassinations.  It was a stinging rebuke —a challenge to America.  It was a matter of national pride.  Ambassador Paul Bremer went on television promising overwhelming retribution. General John Abizaid, General Sanchez, and Ambassador Bremer were of one mind; they recommended to the President that Fallujah be seized immediately.  George Bush’s answer wasn’t long in coming: his order to CENTCOM was “go get those responsible,” no waiting, no delay.

The last time the Marines had fought street by street was in the Battle for Hue City during the Viet Nam War.  The fight had lasted a month.  Within that month, entire blocks of houses had been leveled. More than six hundred Americans died; more than 3,700 were wounded.  Civilian deaths exceeded six-thousand.  So, the Marines knew about urban warfare —they knew more about it than anyone in Washington, and they knew more about it than General Sanchez or Paul Bremer. Nevertheless, the Marines had their orders.

Fallujah Raid
Urban Warfare — the toughest of all combat. Photo obtained from the public domain

On 3 April, Marines were ordered to conduct offensive operations against Fallujah [2].  It was not what the Marine commanders wanted; they preferred surgical strikes and carefully organized raids against suspect insurgents.  Nevertheless, in accordance with Joint Task Force directives, Marines launched a major assault in an attempt to pacify Fallujah on 4 April. Two-thousand troops surrounded the city; aerial strikes destroyed four homes thought to be enemy bases of operation. All roads leading out from the city were blocked; a local radio station was seized, and leaflets were dropped inside the city warning residents to remain in their homes.

Marine planners estimated as many as 24 hardcore guerrilla factions were operating inside the city. Their armaments included RPGs, mortars, anti-aircraft weapons, and machineguns.  One-third of the city’s population streamed out of the city in an attempt to avoid the bloodshed.

As it happened, events in Fallujah set off widespread fighting throughout central Iraq and the lower Euphrates, perpetrated by Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army.  Simultaneously, a Sunni rebellion broke out in Ramadi.  All foreigners became targets of opportunity; some were captured and held for ransom, others were killed out of hand.  Elements of Iraqi police and the civil defense corps either turned against coalition forces or simply abandoned their posts.

Marines tightened their hold over Fallujah, but the rebels held on.  Air strikes frequently targeted insurgent positions; gunships attacked targets with Gatling guns and howitzers.  Marine Corps snipers became the core element of Conway’s strategy. Insurgent leaders were never sure that they weren’t being observed through the scope of a .50 Caliber Rifle. The work of snipers was supported by the Tactical Psychological Operations Detachment, who lured terrorist insurgents into the open, where an introduction to Ala was almost a certainty.  After three days of fighting, the Marines had gained control over a quarter of the city, but along with the destruction of guerrilla elements, civilian casualties increased as well.

Suddenly, on 9 April, Ambassador Paul Bremer announced that US forces would observe a ceasefire in order to facilitate negotiations between coalition forces, the Iraqi governing council, various insurgent groups, and city spokespersons.  The ceasefire did permit the provision of humanitarian aid to city residents, but by this time, six-hundred Iraqis had been killed, and many of these were non-combatants.  Iraqi insurgents continued to hold the city.

On 13 April, Marines were attacked by a group that had taken over a mosque.  An airstrike destroyed the mosque, and of course the locals were outraged.  Two days later, an F-16 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb over the northern district of Fallujah; the airstrike prompted negotiators to devise a plan to reintroduce joint US/Iraqi patrols in the city.  Negotiations fell apart, however, and the city remained a major center for opposition to the US-appointed Iraqi Interim government.  There was also a shift in the nature of Iraqi forces operating inside the city: the secular, nationalist, and ex-Ba’athist groups had lost their influence and these assets were absorbed by local warlords, men with ties to organized crime, or by adherents to Wahhabism.

On 27 April, guerillas attacked a Marine position, forcing the Marines to call for air support.  On the next day, air elements from the USS George Washington began flying sorties over Fallujah.  Thirteen laser-guided bombs were dropped on suspected insurgent positions.

On 1 May 2004, General Conway announced a decision to turn over any remaining operations to the newly formed Fallujah Brigade, a Sunni security force formed, trained, and armed by the CIA.  Within four months, the Fallujah Brigade, armed with weapons paid for by the American taxpayer, joined the Iraqi insurgency.  The treasonous behavior of the Fallujah Brigade led to the Second Battle of Fallujah.

Sources:

  1. West, Bing. No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah. Bantam Books, 2005
  2. Foulk, Vincent L. The Battle for Fallujah: Occupation, Resistance, and Stalemate in the War in Iraq. McFarland & Company, 2007

Endnotes:

[1] If there was ever a case to be made against affirmative action, General Sanchez could be it.  Not only should we question his competence, we should also question his leadership ability, particularly as it relates to accepting responsibility for the debacle at Abu Ghraib and his failure to demonstrate moral courage by standing up to an equally incompetent Paul Bremer.  This is not nitpicking; American lives were lost because of this man’s failure as an American general officer.  His post-retirement criticism of the media and political leadership is nothing if not pure cheek.

[2] Given the size of the Fallujah in terms of its area, urban structure, and its population (est. 300,000), there was no way that coalition forces could avoid a very bloody confrontation with Islamist zealots.  Ultimately, however, it would be the task of small units to implement multiple assaults in this urban setting.  This kind of warfare demands the collective efforts of infantry squads and supporting arms.  Their task involved isolating the objective, suppressing enemy threats, advancing the assault element, conducting the assault, clearing buildings, and consolidating/reorganizing the assault force. It isn’t simply a matter of clearing enemy-held buildings: military personnel anticipated fanatical resistance by insurgents, but it also involved encountering booby-traps and improvised explosive devices where they would inflict the most damage and impede any progress of an assault.  Urban warfare is the most psychologically demanding form of combat.

[3] The title of this post refers to a British colloquialism for urban warfare, meaning to Fight In Someone’s House and Creating Havoc In People’s Streets.

 

An Age of Patriotism

Burrows WW 001
William Ward Burrows I

William Ward Burrows (16 Jan 1758 – 6 March 1805) was born in Charleston, South Carolina.  He served with distinction in the Revolutionary War with the South Carolina state militia.  After the war, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to practice law.  On the day following an act of Congress to establish a permanent United States Marine Corps (11 July 1798), President John Adams appointed Burrows Major Commandant.  During his tenure as Commandant, the manpower strength of the Marine Corps never exceeded 881 officers, noncommissioned officers, privates, and musicians.  Note that by tradition, Samuel Nicholas was the first officer to serve as Commandant of Continental Marines, but Burrows was the first appointed Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps.  In history, Burrows is regarded as the Second Commandant of the Marine Corps.

After the United States won its independence from Great Britain, America no longer benefitted from the protection of the British Navy.  America was suddenly facing the arduous and expensive task of protecting its own seacoast and merchant fleet.  Few American ships were available to take on this task, and few were even capable of such a mission.  The Kingdom of France was a crucial ally of the United States during the Revolutionary War, had loaned the Continental Congress large sums of money, and in 1778, signed an agreement with the United States for an alliance against Great Britain.  In 1792, Louis XVI was overthrown during the French Revolution and the French monarchy was abolished.

In 1794, the United States forged an agreement with Great Britain in the Jay Treaty, which was ratified in the following year.  The Jay Treaty resolved several issues between the US and Great Britain that had lingered since the end of the revolution.  The Jay Treaty encouraged bilateral trade and expanded trade between the two nations, the effects of which stimulated America’s fledgling economy.  Between 1794 and 1801, the value of American exports tripled.  Not every American supported the Jay Treaty, however. Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans were pro-French and fought an alliance with Great Britain at every turn.

France and Great Britain were at war, but the United States declared neutrality.  As US legislation was being formulated for a trade deal with the British, Congress refused to continue making payments on the debt owed to France from the Revolutionary War.  The United States argued that their obligation was to the King of France.  Since there was no longer a king in France, the United States no longer had an obligation to pay this debt.

France was not pleased. Initially, the French government authorized privateers to seize American ships trading with Great Britain, taking the ships to France as prizes of war, and sold for compensation.  Next, the French refused to receive the United States Ambassador to France, Charles C. Pinckney.  The effect of this was the complete severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and France.  President John Adams delivered his annual message to Congress, reporting to them that France refused to negotiate a settlement.  Adams warned Congress: the time had come “to place our country in a suitable posture of defense.”  The so-called XYZ Affair (French agents demanding bribes before engaging in substantive negotiations with US diplomats) incensed members of Congress and the general population.

It was in this setting that the Navy and Marine Corps had their humble beginnings.  The Navy had few ships, and the Marines had few troops.  Still, six or so months in advance of hostilities with France, the War Department began recruiting and enlisting able seamen to serve as Marines aboard frigates that had been authorized by Congress to meet the French threat.  These initial units were small detachments assigned to ships of the U. S. Navy; ships that were still under construction.

During Major Burrows first several months, his principal concern was supplying men to serve with sea-going Marine Detachments.  At this time, Headquarters Marine Corps was situated at a camp near Philadelphia until the national capital in Washington was ready to receive the government in 1800.  Burrows sent a Marine guard detail to the Washington Navy Yard in March to protect government property.  Burrows and his staff relocated to Washington in late July, settling into what today is called the Marine Barracks, 8th& I Streets.

Burrows was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 1 May 1800.  The Quasi-War with France continued until September when the two countries finally settled their differences —and once these matters were resolved, Congress had no further interest in maintaining a naval establishment. Congressional attitudes embarrassed Burrows because he was trying to establish a war-ready Marine Corps on a peace time budget.  The Barbary Wars broke out soon after the end of the Quasi-War.  Adams lost the Presidency in 1801, and Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend of the Navy or Marine Corps, was inaugurated as President.  In spite of Jefferson’s lack of interest, Burrows continued his struggle to man the much needed ship’s detachments gearing up for duty in the Mediterranean.

Lieutenant Colonel Burrows’ stewardship is credited with beginning many of the Marine Corps’ institutions, most notably the U. S. Marine Corps Band (now called the “President’s Own”). To create the band, Burrows relied heavily on personal contributions from his officers.  Burrows was also a disciplinarian, demanding high standards of professional conduct from his officers.  Due to ill health, which may be related to his relocation to Washington City, then an insect infested swamp, Burrows resigned his office on 6 March 1804.  He died a year later while still residing in Washington.  He was initially buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Georgetown, but on 12 May 1892, his remains were re-interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Part of Colonel Burrows’ legacy is his son, William Ward Burrows II (1795 – 1813), who served in the United States Navy from 1799 to his death in 1813.  Lieutenant Burrows distinguished himself at Tripoli while serving aboard the USS Constitution.  He died from wounds received during an engagement with HMS Boxer, while in command of the brig [1] USS Enterprise during the War of 1812 (derisively known at the time as Mr. Madison’s War).  Burrows was buried at Eastern Cemetery in Portland, Maine, next to the slain commander of HMS Boxer, Samuel Blyth.

In recognition of his courage under fire, Lieutenant Burrows was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal [2]:

Congressional Gold Medal
Congressional Gold Medal; See endnotes for attribution.

That the President of the United States be requested to present to the nearest male relative of lieutenant William Burrows, and to lieutenant Edward R. McCall of the brig Enterprise, a gold medal with suitable emblems and devices; and a silver medal with like emblems and devices to each of the commissioned officers of the aforesaid vessel, in testimony of the high sense entertained in the conflict with the British sloop Boxer, on the fourth of September, in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirteen. And the President is also requested to communicate to the nearest male relative of lieutenant Burrows the deep regret which Congress feel for the loss of that valuable officer, who died in the arms of victory, nobly contending for his country’s rights and fame.

Endnotes:

[1] A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts.  They were fast and maneuverable and used as both warships and cargo vessels.  Brigs were among the first casualties of the age of steam because they required relatively large crews for their small size, and they were difficult to sail into the wind.  A war brig was outfitted with between ten and eighteen guns.

[2] Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Shown above is the gold medal issued to John Paul Jones, the only Continental Navy Officer to receive this award. I could not find a likeness of the medal issued to Lieutenant Burrows.  Credit for the image of the gold medal belongs to Jules Jaquemart, Loubat, J. F.  Medallic History of the United States of America, New Milford (1878).

Marine Security Guards

MSG Shield 001Marine Corps history reveals a lengthy relationship with the United States Department of State, beginning in 1805 at the Battle of Derna —the tale of this beginning is interesting.

When Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated President of the United States in March 1801, he inherited troubled relations with the Barbary States —otherwise known as the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, as well as with independent Morocco.  The United States had diplomatic treaties with all four, but tensions were high and getting worse.  Mr. Jefferson was partially responsible for this anxiety long before he became President.

Regional American diplomats wanted the assurance of an American naval presence (which given Mr. Jefferson’s loathing for the Navy, arguing that it was too much of an expense), must have been an irritation.  These early diplomats regularly urged Jefferson to bolster a naval presence, if not in exact word, then certainly of similar pleadings as from Lisbon in 1793: “When we can appear in the ports of the various powers, or on the coast of Barbary with ships of such force as to convince those nations that we are able to protect our trade, and compel them if necessary to keep faith with us, then, and not before, we may probably secure a large share of the Mediterranean trade, which would largely and speedily compensate the United States for the cost of a maritime force amply sufficient to keep all those pirates in awe, and also make it their interest to keep faith.”

As noted above, Mr. Jefferson was well aware of the situation unfolding in the Mediterranean. In 1784, Congress appointed Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin as peace commissioners.  Their task was to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with the principal states of Europe and the Mediterranean, including the establishment of relations with the Barbary States.  What these men learned was that European states had concluded treaties with the Barbary states, which involved agreements to pay them tribute, which in those days were called an annuity.  This was necessary because any merchant ship found operating in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean Sea without this protection placed itself on the mercy of state-sponsored marauders.  These raiders were also referred to as corsairs or pirates.  The peace commissioners reported this information to Congress and requested its guidance.

In December of that year, having learned that a small American brig had been seized by a Moroccan corsair in the Atlantic, Jefferson developed a no-nonsense approach to the problem.  He wrote, “Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive.  Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates.  If we yield the former, it will require sums which our people will soon feel.  Why not begin a navy and then decide on war?  We cannot begin in a better cause nor against a weaker foe.”  At this time, Jefferson believed that going to war was more honorable, more effective, and less expensive than paying tribute.

In 1786, while serving as the United States’ first Ambassador to France, Mr. Jefferson and John Adams (then serving as the US Ambassador to Great Britain), met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the Tripolitan ambassador to Great Britain. American flagged ships had already been captured by corsairs and their crews and passengers imprisoned and held for ransom.  The Americans wanted to negotiate a peace treaty that would spare their ships from pirate attacks.  Congress had been willing to appease the Barbary pirates, but only if they could gain peace at a reasonable price.

During the meeting with Rahman, Jefferson and Adams asked him why Moslems held such hostility toward the United States, a nation with which they had had no previous contacts. Jefferson later related the ambassador’s response to John Jay: the reason for Moslem enmity was that “It was written in their Koran that all nations that had not acknowledged their prophet were sinners; it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave the infidel.”  Rahman assured them that every Mussulman [Moslem] who was slain in this warfare was sure to achieve paradise in the afterlife.  After the meeting, Jefferson purchased a Koran.  Should war with these Moslems be necessary, he wanted to find out what kind of religion these people believed in.

The Barbary challenge to American shipping sparked a great deal of debate in the United States over how to cope with the aggressive behaviors of the Barbary States. Jefferson’s early view guided him in future years.  In 1786, he doubted whether the American people would be willing to pay an annual tribute (bribe), and he wondered if it would not be better to simply offer these Barbary states an equal treaty.  Should they refuse,  the United States could go to war with them.

Mr. Jefferson believed that America needed to become a trading nation.  Jefferson wrote to James Monroe, “… this will require a protecting force on the sea.  Otherwise, the smallest powers in Europe, every one which possesses a single ship of the line, may dictate to us and enforce their demands by captures on our commerce. Some naval force then is necessary if we mean to be commercial.”  Jefferson added, “And if it be decided that their peace shall be bought it shall engage my most earnest endeavors.”

John Adams favored the same approach, which is to say that he believed paying bribes would be cheaper than convincing the American people that the United States needed a navy.  Congress did decide to pay the bribes, commissioning Thomas Barclay (to Morocco) and a merchant sea captain by the name of John Lamb (to Algiers) to effect treaties.  In Morocco, the American proposal was accepted with only minor changes. Jefferson, Adams, and the Congress were very pleased because the agreement only entailed a one-time payment.

The agreement with Morocco did not serve as a template for the other North African tribes.  Algiers was more dependent on the fruits of its pirating operations: captured goods, slaves, ransoms, and tribute —so they were less amenable to a peace treaty with the United States.

In the midst of these negotiations, Barclay and Lamb learned that two ships had been captured by Algerian corsairs: The Maria and the Dauphin.  Mr. Lamb was instructed to negotiate a ransom for the captives in Algiers and to broker a treaty to prevent further attacks on American shipping, although the amount of money sequestered for this purpose was much too small to suit the Algerians.  The Lamb mission failed.

Over the next several years —both as Secretary of State under George Washington and as President himself— Jefferson made further attempts to re-start negotiations with Algiers.  Every effort failed, and the only safety accorded to American shipping came from joining European convoys.  American ships even flew European flags, which of course was illegal (not to mention dishonorable).  Nevertheless, American ships benefitted from the protection offered by the Portuguese Navy for several years.  This ended in 1793 when it was time for Algiers and Portugal to renegotiate their treaty.  Within a few months, Algerian corsairs had seized eleven American ships, ten of these in the Atlantic; more than 100 crewman and passengers were taken captive.

After Jefferson’s tenure as Secretary of State, the United States finally did secure an agreement with Algiers in 1795.  An annual tribute was part of this treaty.  A year later, Algiers released their hostages, which included a few survivors of the Maria and Dauphin.  A treaty was concluded with Tripoli in 1796, Tunis in 1797, and it wasn’t long after that when the United States appointed emissaries to each Barbary state.

America’s consuls awaited the new administration of Thomas Jefferson, but their communiques over the previous months were nothing if not distressing.  Tensions with Tripoli were high because the ever-sensitive Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli believed that the Americans had slighted him.  He threatened war with the United States. Five months before Jefferson assumed office, in October 1800, Consul James Cathcart in Tripoli received an ominous message from the Pasha: “If you don’t give me a present, I will find a pretext to capture your defenseless merchantmen.”  Cathcart dutifully notified other consuls of the possibility of hostile actions.

When the Quasi-War with France [1] ended by the convention of 1800, newly inaugurated Jefferson could turn his attention to the Barbary coast.  The US Navy was a fledgling force at this time, but new ships were coming online from contracts awarded in 1793.  Thus, in early June 1801, a small squadron of three frigates [2] and a schooner [3] sailed for the Mediterranean under Commodore Richard Dale. Dale was ordered to protect American shipping if, upon arrival, he found that a state of war existed.  In that case, Dale was to “chastise their insolence by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships where they were found, blockade the harbor of any of the regencies that had declared war on the United States, and convoy merchantmen as best he was able. [4]”  Dale was also ordered to transmit to the rulers of Algiers and Tunis letters, gifts, and tribute payments so long as no state of war existed.

On 14 May 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States.  The first assault came that very morning when the Pasha ordered the flagpole outside the consulate chopped down.  Commodore Dale arrived at Gibraltar on 1 July.  He was promptly informed that a state of war existed between Tripoli and the United States.  For a number of months, the American squadron played patty-cake with Tripolitan ships.  The only real action involved the schooner USS Enterprise in engagement with the Tripolitan ship Tripoli off the coast of Malta on 1 August.  Tripoli was soundly defeated in this encounter.  Given the speed of communications of the time, Jefferson wasn’t able to inform Congress of these actions until four months later.

Over the next three years, the Pasha’s obstinance forced the United States to devise a rotational schedule for its Mediterranean squadrons.  In 1802, corsairs from Tripoli successfully evaded American blockades to attack US merchantmen.  Nor did the blockade prevent trade among the Barbary states; it was only a minor inconvenience.   Other Barbary rulers sided with Tripoli and in late 1802, the United States was faced with the possibility of an expanding war with Tunis and Morocco.  Mr. Jefferson had other problems, too.  The challenge of Tripoli could not be ignored, but neither could he ignore America’s rising national debt.  Jefferson thus debated which would be less costly: tribute, or war?  Should the United States be practical, or principled?

EATON Wm 001
William Eaton

Secretary of State James Madison sent a note to Consul Cathcart suggesting that it was not necessary to confine himself to a single position: he might agree to pay the tribute, but neither should he exceed authorized dollar amounts; if engagements were necessary, Madison instructed, they should be kept small, if possible.  In time, Mr. Cathcart was no longer welcomed in Tripoli, Tunis, or Algiers.  Mr. William Eaton [5] had also been asked to leave Tunis.  Both men returned to the United States.  Tobias Lear assumed the duties of Consul General in Algiers in November 1803, replacing Richard O’Brien.  Lear also took over negotiations with the Pasha of Tripoli. Commodore Dale was replaced by Edward Preble.  When Preble arrived on station, he learned that Morocco was at war with the United States.

In October 1803, the frigate USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli.  Corsairs swept in to take advantage of the Philadelphia’s condition and her 307-man crew was imprisoned.  Philadelphia was re-floated and repaired, but before the Pasha could make use of her, a U. S. Navy team led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur slipped into Tripoli harbor after dark and fired the ship.  Philadelphia was totally destroyed, but the crew remained captive.  When this news finally reached the United States, the American people were very unhappy with Mr. Jefferson; the loss of a U. S. Navy vessel had happened on his watch. Jefferson requested that Congress provide two additional frigates to deal with the Barbary problem.  Congress funded the President’s request.

In 1804, the former Consul to Tunis, William Eaton, returned to the Mediterranean Sea with the title Naval Agent to the Barbary States.  Mr. Eaton had been granted permission from President Jefferson to support the claims of Hamet Qaramanli (the rightful heir to the throne of Tripoli), who had been deposed of his title by his brother Yusuf.  Eaton sought out Hamet, who was then in exile in Egypt and made a proposal to reinstate him in exchange for a mutually agreeable treaty.  Hamet agreed to Eaton’s plan.

OBANNON PN 001
Presley Neville O’Bannon

Commodore Samuel Barron, now commanding the Mediterranean squadron, provided Eaton with naval support from the USS Nautilus, USS Hornet, and USS Argus.  The frigates were to provide offshore bombardment support. A detachment of seven (7) U. S. Marines under the command of First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon [6], USMC was detailed to assist Eaton in an overland campaign from Egypt to Tripoli.  With the help of Hamet, Eaton and O’Bannon recruited 400 Arab, Turkish, and Greek mercenaries.  Eaton appointed himself a general and Commander-in-Chief of the makeshift multinational force.  The campaign took the Marines and mercenaries 500 miles across the Libyan-North African desert.  During the 50-day march, Eaton and O’Bannon had to contend with strained relationships between Moslem and Greek Christian mercenaries.

On 26 April 1805, Eaton sent a letter to Mustafa Bey, the governor of Derne, asking for safe passage through the city and an opportunity to resupply his force.  Mustafa replied, “My head or yours.”  USS Argus transferred one its cannon ashore to assist Eaton in the attack on the fortification at Derne and then joined the other two ships in a general bombardment of Derne’s defensive batteries.

With ships directing offshore fire, Eaton divided his force into two assault groups.  Hamet would lead the Arabs southwest to cut the road to Tripoli and then turn to attack the weakly defended governor’s palace. Eaton, the Marines, and the remaining force would attack the harbor fortress.  The attack began near mid-afternoon. Lieutenant O’Bannon and his Marines, along with 50 Greek gunners and the Argus’ cannon, led the assault. The fighting was bloody, and Eaton was wounded during the assault.  Once the Marines had breached the walls of the shore battery, the defenders fled, leaving behind their loaded cannon.

Lieutenant O’Bannon raised the American flag over the battery.  It was the first time the United States Flag was raised over a foreign territory.  Unbeknownst to either Eaton or O’Bannon, this one event signaled the beginning of the Marine Corps’ long relationship with the United States Department of State. Marines were subsequently called upon to serve the interests of the State Department in 1845 (the secret mission of Archibald Gillespie), the siege of the Foreign Legation in Peking, China in 1901 (the Boxer Rebellion), and upon other occasions when the need for guards and couriers were needed at U. S. Embassies, consulates, and delegations, and as security for senior diplomatic officials in unsettled areas of the globe.

Today, the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, headquartered at Quantico, Virginia, carries on this tradition.  Their motto is Vigilance, Discipline, Professionalism.  Marine Corps Security Guards, in their present form, have been in place since December 1948 as authorized by the Foreign Service Act of 1946.  The act authorized the Secretary of the Navy to assign Marines to serve with the U. S. State Department under the supervision of the senior diplomatic officer at embassies, legations, or consulates. This authorization continues today under Title 10, United States Code 5983.

Crossed Swords

End Notes:

[1] The Quasi-War was an undeclared conflict fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and France from 1798 to 1800 during the presidency of John Adams.  Following the French Revolution, the United States refused to continue paying its debt to France, which had supported it during its own revolution.  The United States claimed that the debt had been owed to a previous regime.  In addition, France was outraged that the United States was trading with Great Britain, with whom they were then at war.  The French reaction was to authorize privateers to attack American shipping.  The United States retaliated in kind.

[2] Frigates were ships with three masts and a single gun deck.  The number of guns would depend on the size of the ship.  Early American frigates were called “heavy frigates” because they were rated as 44-gun ships, but in actuality, these ships carried 56 to 60 24-pound long guns and 32-pounder or 42-pounder carronades on two decks.

[3] Schooner were rigged according to their size.  In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American schooners were two-mast vessels with fore and aft rigs with one or more squared topsails.  Armament consisted of 12 6-pound long guns, but in some cases, this was increased to 12 18-pound carronades.

[4] Commodore Dale had a total of four ships at his disposal.

[5] Sixteen-year-old William Eaton enlisted in the Continental Army in 1780 and served until 1783, achieving the rank of sergeant.  In 1790 he graduated from Dartmouth College and found work as a clerk in the Vermont legislature.  In 1792, Eaton was commissioned a captain in the Legion of the United States, retaining his commission until 1797 when he accepted an appointment to serve as United States Consul at Tunis.  Following the Second Barbary War, Eaton returned to his home in Brimfield, Massachusetts where he served one term in the state legislature.  Suffering from rheumatism and gout, and having taken to drink, Eaton died at his home on 1 June 1811, 47 years of age.

[6] A United States Marine Corps Officer most remembered for being the first man to raise the American Flag on foreign soil on April 27, 1805, during the Barbary Wars.  O’Bannon was born in Fauquier County, Virginia and named for his cousin, who had served with distinction as an officer in the Revolutionary War.  After his service in the Barbary Wars, he continued to serve in the Marine Corps, being promoted to Captain, until March 6, 1807.  He resigned his commission and moved to Kentucky.  He later served in the Kentucky State Legislature.  He is often remembered today by the words in the Marine Corps Hymn, to wit: To the shores of Tripoli.  His Mameluke sword, which was presented to him by Hamet, has become the model of all Marine Corps officer swords since 1825.  The United States Navy has named three destroyers in his honor. O’Bannon passed away on 12 Sep 1850, aged 73 or 74.  Initially put to rest in the Dutch Tract Cemetery in North Pleasureville, Kentucky, his remains were later exhumed and reinterred in Frankfort Cemetery.