Gurkha

Introduction

The Gurkha (also Gorkhas) are soldiers native to the Indian sub-continent residing in Nepal and some areas of Northeast India.  As a combatant, they are a tremendous force.  They are small in stature, but the reader will not discover a body of men possessing more tenacity and esprit de corps or less regard for their safety.  It is such that these small men appear as giants on the battlefield — or, if not that, their ferocity is enough to cause the blood of their enemies to run cold, drop their weapons, and run like hell.  The Gurkha signal to attack has caused heart attacks in twenty-year-old men.

Most military historians rate Gurkhas among the finest combat soldiers in the world.  They believe that the only way to defeat a Gurkha combat is by killing every man in his unit and then shooting them again just to make sure.

Some Background

John Watts and George White were two very enterprising Englishmen who, sometime between 1598-1600, came up with the idea of forming a joint-stock company that would focus on trade with India.  The company came into being on 31st December 1600 as the East India Company (EIC) — but over many years had several names.  Eventually, people began calling it the John Company.  In 1712, Dr. John Arbuthnot created a satirical character named John Bull, which became a national personification of the United Kingdom, generally, and England in particular.

But in 1600, no one imagined that EIC would acquire vast tracts of the Indian subcontinent.  By 1740, the English competed with the French and Spanish for supremacy inside the Indian Ocean area.  The competition was keen — there was no prize for second place.  To gain (and retain) trade advantages, EIC relied heavily on the British Army to pacify the Indian population and the Royal Navy to protect trade routes and valuable cargoes.

Since it was economically impractical to permanently assign English regiments to India, EIC created its own army — one composed of native riflemen led by British officers and NCOs. EIC used this army to subdue uncooperative Indian states and principalities and to protect its economic interests. By 1800, the East India Company employed over 200,000 native soldiers, making it twice as large as the British Army.

In the early years, company management was both efficient and economical — but over time, incompetence, mismanagement, and other circumstances far beyond the company’s control (such as widespread famine in India) led the nearly bankrupt company to request financial aid from the British Parliament.  After much debate, the government reasoned that such a commitment would benefit the nation’s long-term interests and approved EIC’s request — but not without having something to say about the company’s management.  Parliamentary regulation and oversight of EIC began in 1773.  In 1784, Parliament seized control of all Indian political policies through The India Act.

The John Company ceased to exist in 1858 when the Parliament forced it to cede all of its territories and holdings in India to the British Crown, which included massive parts of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and mid-Eastern Gulf colonies.  Before incorporation, however, the EIC managed to recruit Nepalese to serve the company as part of its private army.  They became known as Gurkhas.  It was a relationship that began after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816).

The Gurkha War

The Malla Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of the Kathmandu Valley (1201 – 1779) and one of the most sophisticated urban civilizations in the Himalayan foothills and a key destination in the India-Tibet trade route. 

In 1766, when the Gurkha King invaded Kathmandu (which at the time belonged to the Malla Confederacy), the Malla appealed to the EIC for help and armaments.  The company responded by sending an ill-equipped, poorly trained force of 2,500 men under a very young Captain, George Kinloch.  By any measure, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster.  Out of his depth as a military commander, Captain Kinloch had the additional misfortune of a malaria pandemic in the ranks.  The Gurkhas quickly overpowered Kinloch’s demoralized troops, and since dead men did not need British-manufactured firearms, the Gurkhas collected the weapons and put them to good use against their other enemies.

Gurkha aggression toward Tibet over long-standing trade eventually involved Imperial Chinese troops between 1789-1792.  It was then that the Gurkha (by then calling themselves Nepalese), in recognizing a common interest in territorial expansion, appealed to the British Governor-General for his assistance against the Chinese.  Governor-General Lord Warren Hastings had no desire to engage Imperial China, but he was never averse to exploiting regional commercial opportunities.[1]  Moreover, the company was at the center of a cash-flow problem — an issue that Hastings could resolve by selling rare wools to English markets.  Tibet was the only place on earth where Kashmir existed, and the only way to obtain it was through the mountain passes in Nepal — and this was only possible through the strategy of “political safety,” or territorial control and military pacification.

The Anglo-Gurkha War (1812-1816) involved two separate British military campaigns with seven major engagements and an extraordinary expenditure of money.  Despite Nepal’s initial interest in involving the British in their dispute with China, which was not forthcoming, certain elements of the Gurkha hierarchy distrusted the British (with good reason), particularly after the British gained control of a neighboring principality.  This event prompted the Nepalese to annex buffer territories of their own, which they were fully prepared to defend.  In preparing for war with the British, the Nepalese suffered no illusions about the stakes of such a confrontation.  One tribal chieftain advised his Nepalese lord, “They will not rest without establishing their own power and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed.  We have hitherto hunted deer; if we engage in this war, we must prepare to fight tigers.”

The Anglo-Gurkha war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.  It required Nepal to relinquish all buffer territories west and east of its formal border and accept a permanent British representative in Kathmandu.  Initially, the Nepalese objected to the treaty until General David Ochterlony offered the Nepalese a deal they could not refuse, which was that they could either agree to the treaty or Ochterlony would destroy them.[2]  It was thus that Nepal became a British-protected state.

Incorporating the Gurkhas

General Ochterlony and political agent William Fraser (1784-1835) were the first to recognize the potential of Gurkha soldiers in British service.  During the war, Ochterlony employed Gurkha defectors as irregular forces.  He and Fraser were impressed with these fighters and had no qualms about their devotion to the British cause.  Fraser proposed that Ochterlony form the Gurkhas into a battalion under a British officer and key noncommissioned officers.  This battalion later became the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles.  About 5,000 Nepalese men entered British service after 1815, most of whom were Himalayans from three ethnic groups: Kumaonis, Garhwalis, and Gorkhalis — all of which quickly assimilated into a unique Gurkha identity.

Over time, the Gurkhas became the backbone of the British Army, forming ten regiments of two battalions each.  The British called them the Brigade of Gurkhas or, more simply, The Gurkha Rifles.  Between 1857-1918, the British employed Gurkha units to address conflicts in Burma, Afghanistan, the Indian frontiers, Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China, and Tibet — with the Gurkhas serving with great distinction in each of them.

Eventually, the British raised twenty Gurkha battalions and formed them into ten regiments.  During the First World War, the number of Gurkha battalions increased to 33, totaling approximately 100,000 men.  Of these, 20,000 were either killed or wounded.  More than 2,000 Gurkhas received combat decorations for their exceptional courage and gallantry.[3]  So steady were these men that they were among the first to arrive during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign — and they were the last to withdraw.

The Gurkha fought in the Third Afghan War (1919) and numerous campaigns in the Northwest regions, notably in Waziristan. At the end of the world war, the British returned its Gurkha regiments to India, keeping them away from the internal strife of urban areas and placing them instead on the Indian frontier, where fiercely independent tribesmen were a constant source of unrest. The mission of the Gurkha along the frontier was more on the order of a constabulary: keeping the peace by confronting lawlessness among the Pathan tribes.

In 1939, there were ten Gurkha regiments (twenty pre-war battalions).  After the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the Nepalese government offered to increase the number of Gurkha battalions to 35.  Eventually, that number rose to 43 battalions, adding two battalions to each regiment and a fifth battalion to the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Gurkha Rifles (also, 1 GR, 2 GR, and 9 GR).  To accomplish this expansion, Gurkha training battalions increased to five.  The Nepalese raised two additional battalions for peace-keeping duty in India.  In total, a quarter-million Nepalese men served in 40 Gurkha battalions, 8 Nepalese Army battalions, as well as in parachute, training, garrison, and logistical units against German/Italian forces in Syria, North Africa, Italy, and Greece, and Japanese forces in Burma, northeast India, and Singapore.  Of all Imperial combat forces, Gurkhas earned 2,734 medals for bravery at the cost of 32,000 casualties in all theaters.

The pattern of Gurkha military ranks followed those of the Indian Army.  Three levels included privates, noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers.  Commissioned officers within the Gurkha regiments held Viceroy’s commissions (while British officers held King’s or Queen’s commissions).  Thus, any Gurkha holding a Viceroy’s commission (VCO) was subordinate to any British officer, regardless of rank.[4]  After Indian Independence in 1947, Gurkha officers reassigned to the British Army received King’s or Queen’s Gurkha Commissions (also known as KGO or QGO).  The Crown abolished KGO/QGO in 2007.  One notable difference between Gurkha officers and British officers is that no Gurkha can achieve a direct commission; Gurkha officers may only receive commissions through the enlisted ranks — they are all “mustangs.”

Today, Gurkhas serve in two separate armies: British and Indian.  There is one Gurkha Regiment in the British Army and 12 battalions (6 regiments) in the Indian Army.

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

The problem of rebellion began as early as 1772 when Lord Hastings started to recruit for the British East India Company.[5]  Because many Bengalis opposed the BEIC in combat, Hastings avoided them during his recruitment efforts.  He instead recruited higher castes, such as the Rajput and Bhumihar, from outlying regions.[6]  Ostensibly, the Madras and Bombay armies’ recruits were caste-neutral, but high-cast men were avoided below the surface. These caste-centered recruiting limitations continued through 1855.

The domination of higher castes in the Bengal army was one of the problems that led to the rebellion.  For example, to avoid being polluted by the unclean lower caste, high-caste soldiers in the Bengal army dined separately — a situation that works against the concept of military teamwork.  Hindu culture consumed the Bengal army, and higher-caste men were accorded privileges not extended to those of the lower-caste Bengali or the other company armies.  For example, the company exempted Bengal soldiers from any service that took them beyond marching distance from their homes.  The exemption excused Bengali soldiers from overseas service.

The final spark of discontent within the armies involved the ammunition used in the Enfield 1853 rifle/musket.  The weapons fired mini-balls, and because the bore was smaller in diameter (tighter) than earlier muskets, pre-greased paper cartridges were needed to facilitate ramming the ball down the bore.  In loading the weapon, sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the British Army) had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.  Rumors began circulating that the grease on these cartridges came from beef.  Biting into beef grease would be offensive to devout Hindus, and if the lubricant came from pork lard, another rumor, biting into the cartridge would offend Muslims.[7]  Added to these rumors was the claim that British/Company officers intended to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity.  To quell the first rumor, Colonel Richard Birch ordered the manufacture of greaseless cartridges; the sepoys could grease the cartridges themselves using whatever substance they preferred.  Colonel Birch’s common sense solution only caused many simple-minded soldiers to conclude that the rumors were true.

Unhappiness among civilians was more complicated.  Three groups of rebels were feudal nobility, rural landlords, and peasants.  The nobility was unhappy because they had lost titles and domains under company regulations that denied adopted children as legal heirs.  Landlords had lost their lands to peasant farmers due to company land reforms.  At the outset of the rebellion, landlords quickly re-occupied lost lands — without much complaint from the peasants, who oddly enough also joined the rebellion.  There was also the issue of forced indebtedness.  When peasant landowners could not pay their taxes, they borrowed money from loan sharks at high-interest rates.  Peasants lost their land to these money lenders when they could not repay borrowed money.

In the spring and summer of 1857, Indian soldiers refused to obey the orders of company officers, and native officers declined to arrest or discipline them.  Initially, it was more a matter of silent contempt than open mutiny.  However, when all but five 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry soldiers refused to accept cartridges, their British commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, ordered courts-martial.  Most of these men received sentences of ten years imprisonment with hard labor.  Before marching the convicted men to jail, Smythe ordered them publicly stripped of their uniforms and shackled.

The opening of the rebellion occurred the next morning when rebels attacked and ransacked officers’ quarters.  Several British officers were killed, along with four civilian men, eight women, and eight children.  Crowds in the bazaar rebelled by attacking off-duty soldiers, beating to death fifty Indian civilians who served British officers, and attacked the post-jail, releasing the recently court-martialed soldiers.  News of this uprising fostered other rebellions across India at Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow.

Not everyone opposed the British East India Company, and neither were the Gurkhas alone in suppressing the mutiny.  Sikh princes supported the British, along with the princes of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, and Rajputana.[8]  But the mutiny was unexpected and spread rapidly.  When the British began to deploy Gurkha forces, rebels panicked — as well as they should have.

The Gurkhas could not understand such disloyalty, and it angered them.  The last thing any reasonable person wants is an angry Gurkha standing before him.  The Gurkhas were unrelentingly ruthless toward the rebellious.  In one instance, a single Gurkha soldier chased down a dozen or more Wahhabi extremists; when the Gurkha was done with them, the Muslims lay dismantled in the gutter.

But the Gurkhas did not escape the 18-month-long insurrection unscathed.  They suffered terrible casualties.  The difference was, and what set them apart, is that no Gurkha, no matter how badly wounded, would leave his post.  Not even when offered safe conduct for medical attention would they leave the side of their battling comrades.  All other “loyal” units paled in comparison to the Gurkhas.  No one had the “jolly recklessness” of the Gurkha private.

The rebels of Lucknow paled when they learned that the Gurkhas would oppose them.  The fighting lasted for several months, but even from the first day, the rebels knew they were dead men walking.  Again — as always — the Gurkha was both relentless and unmerciful.

The Malayan Emergency

Gurkha battalions operated continuously throughout the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).  During this time, the Gurkha soldier proved again, as he had done in Burma, that the Gurkhas are superb jungle fighters.  The Gurkhas were among 40,000 regular British Commonwealth troops participating in the Malayan Emergency.  250,000 Malayan Home Guard troops augmented these men.

The Malayan Emergency was part of the post-World War II nationalist movements.  These were conflicts initiated by communist insurgents against pre-war colonial powers.  The initiating event in June 1948 was the murder of three Europeans during a communist assault on rubber plantations and the colonial government’s subsequent declaration of an emergency.

As in French Indochina, many of Malaya’s fighters were previously engaged as anti-Japanese nationalists, men trained and supplied by the British government during World War II.  Most communist rebels were ethnic Malayan or Chinese poorly treated by British colonial administrators over several decades.  The insurgents, when organized, began a series of assaults against British colonial police, military installations, tin mines, rubber plantations, and terrorist acts upon small, isolated villages.  At such time as the British had had enough of the murder and mayhem created by communist rebels, they sent in commonwealth forces, including the Gurkhas, to end it.

Organized as the 48th Gurkha Brigade (later, the 17th Gurkha Division), the British sent fighters from all four (then) existing Gurkha regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th) and expanded (modernized) Gurkha fighting units by creating such combat support forces as engineers, signals, and transportation regiments. 

The Gurkha’s arrival in Malaya was a seminal event because it marked the beginning of the end of the communist insurgency there.  Unlike the US military in their later engagement in Vietnam, Gurkhas did not waste valuable time or effort trying to win the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.  They weren’t there for that … they were there to locate communists and kill them.  It was a mission-centered enterprise.  If there were going to be a contest for the hearts and minds of civilians, it would have to be won by the government’s civil administration.  Throughout their involvement in Malaya, the Gurkhas had few interactions with the civilian population.  At no time were Gurkhas deployed to protect villages.  They were after the “killer gangs” who behaved less as nationalist patriots than the armed thugs of jungle warlords.[9]

For the Gurkhas, jungle time was slow time.  Long-range patrols typically lasted two or three weeks (a few exceeded 100 days).  Soldiers carried a pack weighing around 90 pounds; it was all he needed for the duration of the patrol.  The Gurkhas dumped these heavy packs in a cache, mounting patrols in light order to sneak and peek.  The basic patrol unit often consisted of three men but sometimes involved as many as twelve.  The largest reconnaissance in force involved company-sized teams.

There was never any micro-management from a higher authority.  Unit commanders simply told their patrol leaders to “get on with it,” which gave these seasoned fighters maximum leeway in deciding how to proceed.  One of the favored Gurkha tactics was the ambuscade; some of these lasted from ten days to two weeks.  Such operations demand an unparalleled degree of self-discipline because an ambush is only successful when there are no unnecessary movements to reveal the ambusher’s position.  In truth, most ambushes yielded nothing at all.  Gurkhas killed most insurgents through chance encounters while patrolling.

Gurkhas relentlessly pursued their enemy for as long as it took until they rounded up or killed the communists.  Psychologically, such tenacity and commitment destroyed the communist’s self-confidence.  He could run, but he could not hide from the Gurkha combat patrol.  This was part of the strategy adopted by the British forces … keep the communists on the run.  Some of these forays lasted for twenty or more days, the limiting factor being the amount of ammunition carried by each soldier (sixty rounds).

What the Gurkhas accomplished in twelve years was extraordinary within the context of the overall strategy.  There was only limited use of artillery, and although the British employed light observation aircraft to support ground movements, there were no overwhelming air bombardment campaigns.  What fighting the Gurkha did, they did with their standard issue firearm, kukri knives, and their fighting spirit.  At the end of the day, Gurkha units didn’t need B-52s, artillery, or tanks.  They were in Malaya for one essential purpose: locate the enemy and kill him — and the way to do that most effectively was to terrorize the terrorists.  This is how the Gurkha won the Malayan Emergency.

Conclusion

Presently, the Gurkha contingent of the British Army includes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, the King’s Gurkha Signals (five squadrons), King’s Gurkha Engineers (two squadrons), the 10th King’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment, the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas, the Gurkha Company, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, a company at the Infantry Battle School, and one company at the Land Warfare Center.

In 1945, Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung was stationed in a trench with only two other men when over 200 Japanese soldiers opened fire. Gurung’s comrades were severely wounded in the opening fusillade.  As hand grenades fell on the Gurkhas, Gurung tried to throw each one back one after another.  He was successful with the first two, but the third exploded in his right hand. His fingers were blown off, and his face, body, and right arm and leg were severely wounded.  As the Japanese stormed the trench, Gurung used his left hand to wield his rifle, defeating 31 enemies and preventing the Japanese from advancing. Gurung survived his wounds and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In 1949, the British selected former Gurkha soldiers for service in the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force, which replaced the Sikh unit that existed before Japan’s occupation of Singapore.  These police are well-trained and highly disciplined.  They mainly perform as riot police and as an emergency reaction force.  In Brunei, a Gurkha Reserve Unit serves as a special guard and elite shock force of around 500 men.

In 2008, Taliban insurgents ambushed a squad of Gurkhas, hitting Private Yubraj Rai.  Captain Gajendera Angdembe and Riflemen Dhan Gurung and Manju Gurung carried Rai across 325 yards of open ground under heavy fire.  The Gurkha leave no soldier behind – ever.  In 2010, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off thirty Taliban soldiers.  It took him an hour, but all the enemy lay dead in the end.  Pun received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

The highest and most prestigious decoration in the British honors system is the Victoria Cross.  The qualification for this decoration is exceptionally valorous conduct “in the presence of the enemy,” with posthumous awards authorized when appropriate.  At one time, all member states of the British Empire participated in the British honors system, but since the beginning of the British Commonwealth of Nations, many such countries have devised their own honors system.  The Australians, for example, created The Victoria Cross for Australia —which looks similar to the British Victoria Cross.

So far, British authorities have awarded 1,358 Victoria Crosses to 1,355 men.  The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for valorous conduct on a single day was 24 for individual actions on 16 November 1857 at Lucknow and Narnoul.  The most medals awarded in a single conflict was 658 during World War I.  There are five living holders of the VC: one RAF (World War II), three British Army (Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Iraq War, and Afghanistan War), and one Australian Army (Vietnam War).  Of the total awarded, 26 went to men serving with Gurkha regiments, 13 of whom were native Nepalese enlisted men.  Britain’s second highest award “for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy” is the George Cross.  Gurkha enlisted men have earned two such medals.

Sources:

  1. Barber, N.  War of the Running Dogs.  London: Collins Press, 1971.
  2. Barthorp, M.  Afghan Wars, and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947.  Cassell Publishing, 2002.
  3. Chauhan, S. V.  The Way of Sacrifice: The Rajput.  University of Toronto, 1996.
  4. Cross, J. P. and Buddhiman Gurung.  Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II to Iraq.  Greenhill Books, 2002.
  5. Masters, J.  Bugles and a Tiger: Autobiography of the life and times of a British officer serving with the Gurkha Regiment in India in the run-up to World War II.  Handley, 1956.
  6. Parker, J.  The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers.  Headline Books, 2005.
  7. Thompson, R.  Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam.  London, Praeger Publishing, 1966.

Endnotes:

[1] Warren Hastings (1732-1818) served as governor of Bengal, head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and along with Robert Clive, was responsible for the foundation of the British Empire in India.  Hastings achieved this by siding with one ethnic group against another and then conquering both — which eventually expanded British influence over the entire subcontinent.

[2] Major General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was a Massachusetts-born EIC officer who eventually served as Ambassador in Residence in Delhi, India.

[3] The number of combat decorations issued to Gurkhas is significant because traditionally, the British military is niggardly in awarding them. 

[4] A VCO lieutenant colonel was subordinate to a KCO second lieutenant. 

[5] The company recruited on behalf of three separate “presidential armies”: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal.

[6] A social stratification characterized by heredity, occupation, ritual status, and customary social interactions and exclusions based on such cultural notions as purity and pollution.  Although not confined to India, most people think of India when they think of caste systems.  Dating back 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories, and this is determined by what they were in their past life.  These beliefs persist to the present day because they are deeply rooted in the Hindu religion. 

[7] More recently, it was claimed that American PsyOps programs floated rumors among Muslims that American soldiers dipped their small-arms ammunition in pork fat before loading their magazines — thus guaranteeing that the shot Muslim would go to hell.

[8] Sikhism is a hybrid between Hindu and Islamic belief systems.

[9] Malayan communists based their strategy on the fanciful assumption that communist victory in China would in some way presage Mao Zedong’s liberation of the much-maligned Chinese ethnics in Southeast Asia.  When the communists understood that a communist China gobbling up huge chunks of Southeast Asia was little more than madcap fantasy, the morale of Malayan killer gangs and jungle fighters collapsed.  This stands in stark contrast to the Vietnam War, where the communists were ethnic Vietnamese whose singular purpose was the reunification of the nation under a communist flag.


Forward Air Control (FAC)

Introduction

It wasn’t very long after the invention of the airplane that men began thinking about how this marvelous invention might be used in warfare.  The truth, however, is that the airplane went onto the drafting table in 1480 and stayed there until 1903.

By 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had begun preparing itself for flight.  An aeronautical division was created and staffed with three first lieutenants who agreed they had what it takes to try anything once.  In 1909, the Wright Brothers delivered its first aircraft to the Army Signal Corps.  No doubt, lieutenants drew straws to see who would go first.

The first conflict to extensively use aviation support for ground forces was the First World War when military and naval aviation was still in its infancy.  Aircraft then were small, flimsy, and slow, and the effect of rifle caliber machine guns (and light bombs) offered limited effectiveness.  Even so, military, and naval aviation psychologically affected ground troops, particularly those in static positions.  Unlike artillery, the airplane was a personal enemy; even the sound of an aircraft could make an infantryman’s blood run cold.

Although slow on the uptake, military ground officers learned that aviation support required careful planning and coordination and that the most successful attacks of the war were those where ground officers took air warfare very seriously.  To be fair, however, many of these ground officers were still thinking about the Indian wars and horse cavalry.

One significant challenge to everyone (aviator and ground officer alike) was air-to-ground communications — initially limited to using hand signals, dropping handwritten messages from the cockpit, or messenger pigeons.  The first use of air-to-ground electronic signals occurred at the Battle of Gorlice by Benno Fiala von Fernbrugg, an Austro-Hungarian pilot, who sent a morse code message to an artillery unit.

The term ground commanders use to describe aviation support provided to ground troops is “Close Air Support” (also, CAS).  The Great War began in 1914, but it was not until 1916 that the aviation community developed a specific air support doctrine.  British aviators developed two tactics that fell under the heading of CAS: trench strafing and ground strafing.  These early shapers of doctrine realized there could not be close air support without forward air controllers guiding it.

In response to the allied use of aviation close air support, the German enemy was quick to develop air combat elements of its own.  When they did — allied aviation casualties increased substantially.

Navy-Marine Corps Aviation

U.S. Naval aviation began with pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss, who contracted with the Navy to demonstrate whether aircraft could take off and land aboard ships at sea.  Pilot Eugene Ely accomplished this feat in 1910.  Eugene apparently drew the short straw.

Marine Corps aviation began on 22 May 1912 when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham began duty “in a flight status” at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis, Maryland.  Cunningham was the Marine Corps’ first aviator. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. Marines employed Curtiss Falcon aircraft and Vought Corsairs equipped with radios powered by airstream-driven generators — with a communications range of about 50 miles.  Another method of communication was for the pilot to drop messages in a weighted container and swoop in and pick up messages suspended from “clotheslines” between two high poles.  Under these circumstances, Marine aviation pilots functioned as FAC and strike pilots in operations against Nicaraguan Sandinistas.  In terms of combat aviation, the Marines excel when compared to the other services because of the support rendered to Marines by Marines.  Marine Corps Aviation is a “Marine Thing.” And while the Marines may not have “invented” CAS, they certainly deserve credit for perfecting it.

Now, about America’s Marines 

The U.S. Marine Corps is a unique organization within the Department of Defense.  Marines look different from other service personnel, and they think about warfare much differently than any of the other uniformed services.

The Marine Corps’ primary responsibility is to maintain an amphibious warfare capability.  To accomplish that mission, the Corps relies on ground forces that are relatively light and highly mobile.  Lacking a heavy footprint of forward-deployed forces (tanks, for example), the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) turns to its task-organized aviation components to provide heavy fire support to its maneuver elements.  

The primary link between ground and aviation forces is the Forward Air Controller (FAC).  FACs are Marine Corps aviators assigned to Battalion Landing Teams responsible for coordinating and controlling air assault support and close air support within their assigned ground units.  FACs also assist more senior air officers (AOs) within ground units in advising ground commanders on the tactical employment (and safety considerations) required for sound air combat operations.

The Marine Corps invests heavily in training its FACs — from initial officer training and naval flight school to completion of tactical air control party school.  This training (and lessons learned throughout previous campaigns and conflicts) continues to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of CAS.  The effectiveness of MAGTFs hasn’t changed in well over 100 years.  When enemy troops hear the sound of Marine Corps CAS aircraft, their blood turns cold because they know what is left of their miserable lives must be measured in seconds.

Some History

World War II

The Marine Corps reached its peak aviation capability with five air wings, 31 aircraft groups, and 145 flying squadrons.  Guadalcanal became an important defining point in the evolution of Marine Air.  Marines learned that they must achieve and then maintain air superiority, that transport ships were vital targets, and that the Marines must be prepared to create and defend expeditionary airfields.  But, for the first two years, Marines could not support the Fleet Marine Forces in the way it had trained; instead, Marine aviators flew in support of the fleet and land-based installations.

After the battle of Tarawa, Marines began flying CAS missions in support of the landing force.  The first real close air support mission provided to landing forces occurred during the New Georgia campaign, Bougainville, and the Philippines.  In these missions, Marine Corps air liaison officers coordinated air support with troops on the ground.  These measures were perfected during the Battle of Okinawa.

During World War II, Marine aviators accounted for 2,355 Japanese kills while losing 573 of their own aircraft.  Marines accounted for 120 aces and earned 11 medals of honor.  After the war, President Truman reduced Marine aviation organizations to three air wings and further reduced funding so that the Marine Corps could only afford a single air wing to fight in the Korean War.

The Korean War

The first major surprise of the post-World War II period arrived on 25 June 1950.  North Korea invaded South Korea — and they weren’t joking.  The United Nations Command in Tokyo, headed by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Defense Department in Washington, D.C., were completely surprised.  The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at Cairo and Yalta that the Korean Peninsula should be temporarily and jointly occupied by U.S. and U.S.S.R. forces until Korea could learn to govern itself after many years of Japanese occupation.  The Americans never imagined that the Russians would launch a sneak attack to settle the issue militarily.

The expensive lesson learned by the Americans was that the USSR could not be trusted.  Ill-prepared UN and US forces were quickly overwhelmed by nine infantry divisions and one armored division of Soviet T-34 tanks.  The South Korean Army, barely a year old, only knew one tactic: run like hell.  South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, fell in three days.

In response to urgent requests for American reinforcements from the Far East Command, the 1st (Provisional) Marine Brigade was dispatched to South Korea, arriving on 2 August 1950.  The Brigade included a reinforced Marine infantry regiment and a Marine aircraft group.

The air group included Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 214, VMF 323, VMF 513, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 6, and Marine Tactical Air Control Squadron 2.  Altogether, the air group consisted of 60 Vought F4U Corsairs, 8 Consolidated OY Sentinels, and 4 Sikorsky HO3S-1s.

General MacArthur didn’t ask for an air group, but he got one anyway — that’s how Marines prepare for war.  The fact was that despite the Marine Corps’ efforts toward convincing the Army of the value of close air support in World War II, there was no Army interest in developing such a capability.  This situation only got worse once the Air Force became a separate service.  The flyboys wanted the glamor of being fighter pilots and strategic bomber drivers.  At that time, no one in the Air Force was interested in providing close air support to ground troops.  Both Navy and Marine Corps aviators are trained to provide CAS, but of the two, the Marines are better at it.  The close air support provided by Marine Corps pilots saved U.S. forces from annihilation in the Pusan Perimeter.

After the 10th Corps’ withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir, the Korean War bogged down in a slightly modified rendition of trench warfare.  The effectiveness of Marine Corps CAS had taught the Chinese Communists that they had a better combat survival rate by conducting nighttime operations.  In any case, with no interest by the U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force in close air support operations, most CAS missions performed in the U.S. 8th Army were conducted by the Royal Air Force, British Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, South African Air Force, Greek Air Force, and Royal Thailand Air Force.

Serving on call to Marine ground forces, Marine aviators continued to employ CAS during daylight operations but also began to develop radar-guided bombing techniques for night operations.  As previously mentioned, allied air forces began contributing to tactical air strike missions.  Assisting with tactical strike missions were Airborne Forward Air Controllers (also, Fast FAC), who (according to some statisticians) should be credited with 40,000 CAS sorties and air strikes that killed 184,000 enemy troops.

Despite having agreed on a common forward air control doctrine embodied in Field Manual 31 – 35 Air-Ground Operations, a turf war broke out between the Air Force and Army over FAC doctrine for the entire war.  The Marine Corps maintained its FAC operations in support of Marine ground forces.  The Navy and Air Force operated independently.  With no common doctrine agreed upon during the Korean war, forward air control systems were shut down in 1956.

War in Indochina

When Forward Air Control was revived in 1961, it reemerged as a jumble of errors — unreliable radios, inadequately configured aircraft, differing concepts of close air support, and impeding jungle terrain.  Control of Marine Corps aviation in Vietnam became a very sensitive issue from the outset of the Marine Corps’ in-country operations.

Senior Marine aviators remembered their experience in Korea, where the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing had been under the operational control of the U.S. Air Force.  They believed Air Force managers had unwisely employed Marine aircraft and aviation capabilities.  In particular, they deeply resented being denied “permission” to provide close air support to their Marine infantry brothers, which caused increased death and injury to Marines that would have otherwise been avoided.  In Vietnam, Marine aviation generals were determined not to allow a repeat of the Korean War experience.

In 1964, when air operations were undertaken over Laos and North Vietnam, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp[1] authorized General Westmoreland to designate the senior U. S. Air Force commander in Vietnam as coordinating authority since both Air Force and Navy air units were participating in these operations.  A year later, when the decision was made to “land the Marines” at Da Nang, it was natural for Admiral Sharp to direct that a similar arrangement be devised to coordinate fixed-wing aviation in support of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).

The Commanding General, 9thMEB reported to the Commander, U.S. Military Assistance/Advisory Command, Vietnam) (COMUSMACV).  Major General Joseph H. Moore, Commander, 7th U.S. Air Force, Vietnam, exercised coordinating authority over tactical air support and traffic control.  CINCPAC reaffirmed the Air Force’s authority just before assigning a Marine F-4 fighter squadron to 9thMEB — General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV intended to place the Marine squadron under the operational control of General Moore, but Admiral Sharp objected.  Thirty days later, Admiral Sharp published a directive governing the conduct and control of close air support.  Admiral Sharp stated that close air support was the chief mission of U.S. aviation in South Vietnam.

After receiving CINCPAC’s instructions, Westmoreland ordered revisions to his “air support” directive.  The new order reiterated CINCPAC’s appointment of General Moore.  The CG III MAF (LtGen Walt) retained operational control of Marine aviation, but to ensure maximum utilization of all US aircraft, Walt’s instructions were to notify General Moore (2nd Air Division) of any un-utilized USMC aircraft so that they could be used in support of non-Marine Corps MACV operations.

The CG 1stMAW, Major General McCutcheon, met with General Moore to coordinate air efforts relating to air defense operations.  Moore wanted operational control over all air defense assets — General McCutcheon demurred.  The F-4 aircraft was a dual-purpose airframe, capable of CAS and air-to-air operations.  To relinquish these aircraft to the USAF would deprive Marine ground commanders of their most important (and most lethal) supporting arm.

There was not a lot of love between the Air Force and Marine Corps Aviators.[2]  According to the former Chief of Staff of the 1stMarine Aircraft Wing (1stMAW), Colonel Thomas J. O’Connor, “The arrival of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 531 (VMFA-531) and Marine Composite Reconnaissance Squadron One (VMCJ-1) (in Vietnam) marked the end of a long period of planning, coaxing, cajoling, begging, and outright pressure to obtain space for the units to operate out of Da Nang Airbase.  During the early planning stages [for the deployment], high-level commands battled at the Pentagon, CINCPAC, and in the Far East over [the question of] who would conduct air operations out of Da Nang.  Navy and Marine Corps commands invoked the nebulous authority of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces.  Events overtook the plans.  The Air Force was there [Da Nang] — and they invoked the military equivalent of “squatters rights” — they occupied the entire east side of the airfield.  The Air Force was unwilling to move around and vacate more space for the deploying Marine fixed-wing units.  Finally, under the weight of plans approved at high levels, and with Marines, deployment dates irrevocably approaching, the Air Force finally gave in.  Some promises about future construction to enlarge their area, commitments of Marine support of various projects, and a lot of sweet talks did the trick.”

This situation described by Colonel O’Connor would not change until the Marines constructed an expansion of airfield facilities at Da Nang, Chu Lai, and Marble Mountain.

The Number of Planes

Marine Corps aviation units also increased as the number of ground units increased within the III MAF.  In March 1965, two F-4 squadrons supported 9thMAB.  In April, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16) (initially a composite helicopter air group) arrived to absorb the fixed-wing squadrons.  In May, advance elements of the 1stMAW headquarters arrived in Vietnam.  In June, MAG-12 arrived at Chu Lai; in July, MAG-11 joined the fight by assuming operational control over all fixed wing squadrons at Da Nang (from MAG-16), including VMCJ-1 VMFA-513, VMFA-542.  At the end of July, another helicopter air group arrived (MAG-36), along with a missile battalion (2d LAAM Bn).  In September, MAG-36 began operating out of Chu Lai with squadrons HMM-362, HMM-364, VMO-6, H&MS-36, and MABS-36.  HMM-363 operated at Qui Nhon.  MAG-16 at Da Nang operated with HMM-261, HMM-361, VMO-2, and two support squadrons (H&MS-16 & MABS-16); HMM-161 operated from Phu Bai.  HMH-462 arrived in Vietnam in late September 1965 and joined MAG-16.  Helicopter squadrons rotated between South Vietnam, the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and Marine Corps Air Stations on Okinawa.

The Control Factor    

General McCutcheon did not intend to deprive Marines of their aircraft, but he did understand the necessity of having one overall air defense commander.  A memorandum of agreement between the USAF and Marines highlighted the basic policies, procedures, and air defense responsibilities.  The Air Force had overall air defense responsibility.  McCutcheon designated Marine units to support the general air defense effort.

The system of CAS employed by Marines in South Vietnam was the product of innovative thinking during the island campaigns of World War II.  By 1965, the Marine air support doctrine had been continuously modified to keep pace with technological advances.  Marine attack aircraft were required to fly close air support missions against enemy troops within fifteen meters of friendly lines.  To reduce the risk to allied infantry, CAS was a controlled event by tactical air controllers (airborne) (also, TAC (A)) in high-performance aircraft, a forward air controller (airborne) (FAC (A)), or a forward air controller (ground) (FAC (G)).

Most III MAF aerial observers (AOs) performed their missions in light observation aircraft.  The AOs were also air controllers qualified to direct air strikes, artillery, and naval gunfire support.  Airborne controllers (familiar with the tactical situation on the ground) remained “on station” for extended periods.  AOs established and maintained contact with supported infantry units on Frequency Modulated (FM) tactical radios while directing attack aircraft over an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) net.  Communications for air support control was a “flexible” arrangement that depended on the circumstances and availability of ground radios.  FM radios of ground forces were incompatible with UHF radios of jet aircraft.  Moreover, UHF radios in ground units, usually at the battalion level or higher, were unavailable to company or platoon size units — where the fighting usually took place.

After the air controller relayed pertinent targeting information and mission requirements to the attack pilots on station, he then marked the target with a white phosphorus rocket or a colored smoke grenade.  Once the AO was certain the attack pilot had identified the intended target, he cleared the attack aircraft to make their firing run.  Once cleared, the lead pilot rolled in toward the target marker and dropped his ordnance.  Using the lead pilot’s “hits” as a reference, the controller furnished the second plane in the flight with whatever corrections were necessary and cleared the aircraft to make its run.  The above procedure continued until all attack aircraft had completed their mission.

The two types of CAS missions flown by Marines in Vietnam were preplanned and on-call.  The preplanned mission was a complex process.  First, a battalion commander would submit a request for fixed-wing aircraft through the air liaison officer — usually the day before his battalion began an operation.  The request would go to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) and the Tactical Air Direction Center (TADC) of the air wing headquarters at Da Nang.  All CAS requests were assimilated at that level, and orders were issued to fixed-wing air groups (MAG-11 and MAG-12).

On-call missions could be processed and executed almost instantaneously — they were flown either in support of troops in contact with the enemy or against targets of opportunity located by airborne or ground controllers.  Once the air groups received their orders, they scheduled flights and issued mission requirements to the individual squadrons.  This procedure required approximately 20 hours from the initial time of request to deliver the ordnance to the target.

In the case of an emergency (on-call) mission, the TADC or DASG could divert in-flight aircraft from their original missions to a new target.  The TADG could also call on aircraft, which each air group maintained “on call” around the clock for just such contingencies.  Marine air also provided this combat support for other than Marine Corps units.  During the battle of Ba Gia in June 1965, the A-4s of Colonel Noble’s MAG-12 took off on their first night launch from Chu Lai to support the embattled outpost 20 miles to the south.

For three days, MAG-12’s Skyhawks and (F-4B) Phantoms bombed and strafed the enemy positions around the clock.  Four months later, F4Bs from Colonel Anglin’s MAG-11 and the A-4s from Colonel Brown’s MAG-12 flew 59 sorties in support of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops at the Plei Me outpost (20 miles southwest of Pleiku in northwestern II Corps).  The air assault against the outpost resulted in a significant engagement, the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, in which the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) killed 1,238 enemies in 12 days.  In the third quarter of 1965, MAG-11 and MAG-12 flew 4,614 sorties in support of Marine units and 1,656 sorties for the ARVN units.

Marine attack aircraft performed several other missions besides their primary task of close air support.  Both the F-4 and A-4 communities flew direct air support missions.  Similar to close air support, these strikes were not conducted near friendly lines and did not require integration with the ground unit’s fire support plan, although coordination did take place at an echelon of command above that of the maneuver unit.  The aim of the direct air support strikes was to isolate the enemy from the battlefield and destroy his troops and support mechanism.  The two fixed-wing groups also played a vital role in protecting the MAG-36 and MAG-16 helicopters.

During the Vietnam War, the United States introduced several fixed and rotary wing gunships, including several cargo aircraft modified to support gun platforms.  These performed as CAS and interdiction aircraft.  The first of these was the C-47 (Spooky) — converted from the Douglas C-47 airframe (DC-3).  It was highly effective in the CAS role.  The troops loved it.  The USAF also developed the Fairchild AC-119 and the Lockheed AC-130 gunship.  The AC-130 has been around for a long time; it is one of the finest airframes ever produced for defense purposes.  Multiple variants of the AC-130 exist and continues to undergo modernization.

Usually, close support is thought to be only carried out by Fighter-bombers or dedicated ground-attack aircraft, such as the A-10 — but even high-altitude bombers capable of high-precision guided munitions are useful in a CAS role.

During Operation Enduring Freedom, the scarcity of fighter aircraft forced military planners to rely on B1B aircraft relying on GPS-guided munitions and laser-guided JDAMS.  One benefit of the high-altitude airframe, aircraft can be utilized on 12-hour in-flight missions.  The USAF employed many of these airframes in Afghanistan.  International CAS missions were flown by Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway (F-16s), the U.K. (Harriers, Tornados), and several U.S. aircraft.

Finally, using information technology to direct and coordinate precision air support has increased the importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in using CAS, laser, and GPS to communicate battlefield data.  Recent doctrine reflects the use of electronic and optical technology to direct targeted fires for CAS.  Air platforms communicating with ground forces can also provide additional aerial-to-ground visual search, ground-convoy escort, and enhancement of command and control (C2), which can be particularly important in low-intensity conflicts.

For an interesting first-hand account of the Fast FAC mission, see The Playboy Club.

Sources:

  1. Blair, C.  The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953.  Random House, 1987.
  2. Corum, J. S.  Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting insurgents and terrorists.  Kansas University Press, 2003.
  3. Dorr, R. F.  Vietnam Air War Debrief.  London Aerospace Publishing, 1996.
  4. House, J. M.  Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century.  Kansas University Press, 2001.
  5. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Naval Institute Press, 1984
  6. Tenenbaum, E.  The Battle over Fire Support: The CAS Challenge and the Future of Artillery.  PDF, Focus Strategique, Institute Français, 2012. 

Endnotes:

[1] U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., USN (1906 – 2001) served as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet (1963 – 1964) and Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Command (1964 – 1968).  

[2] Despite their carnal relationships since 1947, there remains no true love between the USAF and USMC aviation community.


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 4

Post-Korea and Beyond

Post-Korea Reorganization

For U.S. Marines, the Korean Peninsula wasn’t the only dance hall. No sooner had HQMC directed the transfer of three battalions of the 10th Marines to the 11th Marines, than the rebuilding of the 10th Marines with new recruitments and artillery training began.  In the mid-1950s, the 10th Marines played a pivotal role in the Lebanon Emergency, fleet training exercises, and deployments supporting NATO exercises in Norway, Greece, Crete, Gibraltar, the Caribbean, and West Indies. The Cold War was in full swing.

Between 1955 and 1965, Marine Corps artillery battalions trained with new weapons and maintained their readiness for combat.  No one in the Marine Corps wanted to return to the bad old days of the Truman administration.  Should the plague of war revisit the United States, the Marine Corps intended to meet every challenge by maintaining a high state of combat readiness.  Artillery Battalions trained to support infantry regiments and, as part of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, firing batteries frequently deploy with battalion landing teams (BLTs).  In 1957, new tables of organization increased the size of artillery battalions by adding a 4.2-inch mortar battery.  A new mortar was introduced in 1960, called the “howtar.”  The new M30 4.2-inch mortar was a rifled, muzzle-loading, high-angle weapon used for long-range indirect fire support.  In addition to other “innovations,” cannon-cockers participated in (helicopter-borne) vertical assault training, which given the weight of artillery pieces, was not as simple as it sounds.  The howtar, while still in service, is (to my knowledge) no longer part of the USMC weapons inventory.

Back to East Asia

In the early 1960s, the Cold War showed signs of easing.  The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) seemed to foreshadow a period of détente after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The hope for world peace fell apart with incidents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America — of which the war in Vietnam was an extraordinary event.  From 1954 to 1975, nearly half a million Marines fought in the jungles of Vietnam (See also: Viet Nam: The Beginning).

In 1962, all Marine ground units began counterinsurgency training, which was mostly exercises designed to improve small unit combat patrols and area security operations.  In June, the 11th Marines went through another re-organization.  The 1st and 4th 155-mm Howitzer Batteries, Force Troops, FMF became the 4th Battalion, 11th Marines.  Marine Corps Base, Twenty-nine Palms became the permanent home of the 4th Battalion because its weapons demanded more area for live-firing exercises.

In late July 1964, the US Seventh Fleet assigned the destroyer, USS Maddox, to perform a signals intelligence mission off the coast of North Vietnam.  On Sunday, 2 August, the ship was allegedly approached by three North Vietnamese Navy (NVN) motor patrol boats.  The official story of this incident is that after giving the NVN a warning to remain clear of the ship, the patrol boats launched an assault on Maddox.  Nothing like that actually happened, but it was enough to give President Lyndon Baines Johnson a war in Indochina.[1]

Following this incident, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander, US Pacific Fleet, activated the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9thMEB).[2]  Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis, who was at the time serving as Assistant Division Commander, 3rd Marine Division, was named to command the Brigade.[3]

9thMEB formed around the 9th Marine Regiment (9thMar), including the regimental headquarters (HQ) element and three battalion landing teams (BLTs) —in total, around 6,000 combat-ready Marines.  When the Maddox incident faded away, the US Pacific Fleet ordered the 9thMEB to establish its command post at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands, with its BLTs strategically distributed to Subic Bay, Okinawa, and “afloat” at sea as part of the Special Landing Force (SLF), Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), US Seventh Fleet.

Between 28 December 1964 — 2 January 1965, North Vietnamese Army (NVA)/Viet Cong (VC) forces overwhelmingly defeated a South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) battalion and its US military advisors at Binh Gia.  It was a clear demonstration to the Americans that the ARVN could not defend the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).[4]

Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch assumed command of 9thMEB on 22 January 1965. At that point, President Johnson ordered the Marines into Da Nang — their specific mission was to secure the airfield against enemy Viet Cong (VC) intrusions. In late February, VC forces assaulted the US base at Pleiku, killing 9 Americans, wounding 128 others, and damaging or destroying 25 military aircraft. Karch led the 9thMAB ashore on 7 March 1965.  In addition to BLTs 2/9 and 3/9, 9thMEB also absorbed Marine Aircraft Group 16 (MAG-16), which was already conducting “non-combat” ARVN support missions at Da Nang (See also: Vietnam, the Marines Head North).

Fox Battery, 2/12, attached to BLT 3/9, was the first Marine Corps artillery unit to serve in the Vietnam War.  The arrival of additional artillery units prompted the formation of a Brigade Artillery Group, which included Alpha Battery, 1/12, Bravo Battery, 1/12, and Fox Battery, 2/12.  These firing batteries employed 105-mm howitzers and 4.2-inch mortars.  The arrival of Lima Battery, 4/12, added a 155-mm howitzer battery and an 8-inch howitzer platoon.[5]  As the number of Marine infantry units increased in Vietnam, so did the number of artillery units.  The I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) was further divided into Tactical Areas of Responsibilities (TAORs) and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division (from Okinawa) and 1st Marine Division (from Camp Pendleton, California).

In the summer of 1965, most of the 11thMar departed Camp Pendleton and moved to Camp Hansen, Okinawa.  Within mere days of their arrival, 3/11 and Mike Battery, 4/11 proceeded to RVN.  Assigned to Chu Lai to support the 7th Marines, elements of both regiments went immediately into Operation Starlight.  During August, 1/11 moved to Okinawa.  Alpha Battery went ashore in Vietnam with the Special Landing Force (SLF) in December.  HQ 11th Marines arrived in Chu Lai in February 1966, joined by 2/11 from Camp Pendleton.  The battalions of the 11thMar supported infantry regiments, as follows: 1/11 supported the 1stMar; 2/11 supported the 5thMar, and 3/11 supported the 7thMar.  4/11 served in general support of the 1st Marine Division.

The I CTZ was the northernmost section of South Vietnam.  It consisted of five political provinces situated within approximately 18,500 square miles of dense jungle foliage.  The area of I CTZ was by far larger than any two infantry divisions could defend or control, so the Marine Corps developed a tactical plan that assigned its six available infantry regiments to smaller-sized TAORs.  These TAORs were still too large, but it was all the Marines could do under the rules of engagement dictated to them by the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV).  The relative isolation of combat units created a dangerous situation.  Marine artillerists were no exception

Although two artillery regiments operated in Vietnam, they were not equal in size or mission.  By 1967, the 12th Marine Regiment was the largest artillery regiment in Marine Corps history — task organized to support a larger number of infantry units within a much larger TAOR.  All artillery units were assigned to support infantry units throughout the I CTZ; tactical commanders placed these artillery units where they were most effective — fire support bases (FSBs) at strategic locations.

Although originally conceived as a temporary tactical arrangement, several FSBs became long-term (semi-permanent) operating bases.  They were quite literally blasted into existence from heavily forested hilltops.  For as much as possible, the FSB system provided mutually supporting fires, but this was not always possible.  The size of FSBs varied according to the size of the units assigned.  Typically, an FSB hosted a single firing battery (six 105mm or 155mm howitzers), a platoon of engineers, field medical and communications detachments, helicopter landing pads, a tactical operations center, and an infantry unit for area security.  Larger FSBs might include two firing batteries and a BLT.[6]

Beyond their traditional tasks, Marine artillerists were often required to provide for their own defense against enemy probes and outright assaults.  FSBs were also the target of enemy mortar and artillery fires.  When infantry units were unavailable, which was frequently the case in Vietnam, artillerists defended themselves by manning the perimeter, establishing outposts, and conducting combat/security patrols.  VC units foolish enough to assault an FSB may very well have spent their last moments on earth contemplating that extremely poor decision.  The only thing the NVA/VC ever accomplished by shooting at an American Marine was piss him off. Every Marine is a rifleman.

In 1968, the VC launched a major assault on all US installations in Vietnam.  It was called the Tet Offensive because it took place during the Vietnamese new year (Tet).  The tactical goal was to kill or injure as many US military and RVN personnel as possible — playing to the sentiments of the anti-war audience back in the United States and discrediting the US and ARVN forces in the eyes of the Vietnamese population.  Marine artillery played a crucial role in defeating attackers from multiple regions within I CTZ, but the offensive also changed the part of Marine artillery after 1968.  Before Tet-68, supporting fires were routine, on-call, and a somewhat minor factor during USMC ground operations.  After Tet-68, artillery took on a more significant fire support role.  1968 was also a year of innovation as Marine artillery units incorporated the Army’s Field Artillery Digital Computer Center (FADAC) (which had been around since 1961) and the new Army/Navy Portable Radio Communications (25).[7]

In addition to providing tactical fire direction and support to Marine Corps infantry units, USMC artillerists also provided fire support to US Army and ARVN units operating in the I CTZ.  Following the communist’s failed Tet-68 offensive, the Commanding General, 3rd Marine Division (Major General Raymond G. Davis) initiated an offensive campaign to diminish or destroy NVA/VC units operating within I CTZ and demilitarized zones (DMZ).  Marine artillery units joined with Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force attack aircraft, B-52 bombers, and naval gunfire from the U.S. Seventh Fleet to destroy enemy sanctuaries and artillery positions within the DMZ and Laos.  These overwhelming bombardments allowed infantry units to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses, reduce the size of their forces, destroy enemy defensive fortifications, and disrupt their logistics efforts.  What transpired within I CTZ was an impressive demonstration of inter-service cooperation that gave US forces the upper hand in RVN’s northern provinces.

Conclusion

Marines continue to learn essential lessons from their many past battles and conflicts.  For example, the Small Wars Manual, 1941, is still used by Marines as a resource for certain types of operations.  The expression Every Marine is a Rifleman is as true today as it was in 1775 — Marine artillerists are no exception.  During Operation Enduring Freedom, Golf Battery, BLT 1/6 performed several essential combat functions, which in addition to fire support missions, included humanitarian assistance, convoy security, area security for Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ripley, UN Team security, prisoner security, and its transition into a provisional rifle company.[8]  Given the diverse range of military occupational specialties involved, making that transition was a challenge for Battery officers and NCOs.

Marines representing a wide range of occupational specialties within a firing battery, from cannon-cockers and lanyard snappers to FDC operations specialists, motor transport drivers and mechanics, cooks, and communicators molded themselves into cohesive fire teams, rifle squads, platoons, and ultimately, a responsive and highly lethal infantry company.  The effort and result were the embodiment of task force organization.  Golf Battery formed three fully functional infantry platoons (two rifle and one weapons platoon), each containing the requisite number of radio operators and a medical corpsman.  The effort was fruitful because the individual Marine, adequately led and motivated, is innovative, adaptable, and resourceful in overcoming any challenge.

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  US Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] On 7 July 1964, the US Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate against North Vietnam’s aggression and promote peace and security in Southeast Asia.

[2] The 9thMEB was later deactivated and its units absorbed into the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).  In March 1966, the brigade was re-activated as the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB) reflecting its primary special landing force mission under the US Seventh Fleet.

[3] General Davis (1915-2003) served on active duty in the US  Marine Corps from 1938 to 1972 with combat service in World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War.  Davis was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving as CO 1/7 during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.  He was also awarded the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart Medal.  General Davis’ last assignment was Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[4] RVN had been in political turmoil since November 1963 when President John Kennedy authorized the CIA to orchestrate the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam.  Diem and his brother were assassinated on 2 November; Kennedy himself was assassinated on 22 November 1963.

[5] The 8-inch howitzer is a 203-mm gun with a range of 20.2 miles; the 155-mm howitzer has a range of 15.3 miles.

[6] Fire Support Base Cunningham at one time hosted five artillery batteries (2 105-mm, 2 155-mm, 1 4.2-inch mortar).

[7] Also, AN/PRC-25 (Prick 25) was a lightweight, synthesized VHF solid-state radio offering 2 watts of power, 920 channels in two bands with a battery life of about 60 hours.  The term “lightweight” was relative.  The radio added 25-pounds to the radioman’s usual combat load.  The PRC-25 was a significant improvement over the PRC-10.  It has since been replaced by the PRC-77.

[8] The official US designation for the War on Terror (7 Oct 2001-28 Dec 2014).


The Law of War

Some Background

Extract:

“2.  Purposes of the Law of War   

The conduct of armed hostilities on land is regulated by the law of land warfare which is both written and unwritten.  It is inspired by the desire to diminish the evils of war by:

  • Protecting both combatants and noncombatants from unnecessary suffering
  • Safeguarding certain fundamental human rights of persons who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, and civilians; and
  • Facilitating the restoration of peace.

—U. S. Army Field Manual 27-10: The Law of Land Warfare

While I agree that there must be a standard — a bridge across which no combatant should cross, such as the murder of a POW, rape, and perfidy — I also think it is essential for the American people to realize, as they send their children off to join the US military, that their government offers advantages to the enemy that it denies to their own troops.  The government calls this their “rules of engagement.”

Partial Rules of Engagement Extract

A. Rules of Engagement (ROE) are the commanders’ tools for regulating the use of force, making them a cornerstone of the Operational Law discipline.  The legal sources that provide the foundation for ROE are complex and include customary and treaty law principles from the laws of war.  As a result, Judge Advocates (JA) [military lawyers] participate significantly in the preparation, dissemination, and training of ROE; however, international law is not the sole basis for ROE.  Political objectives and military mission limitations are necessary to the construction and application of ROE.  Therefore, despite the important role of the JA, commanders bear ultimate responsibility for the ROE 

B. To ensure that ROE are versatile, understandable, easily executable, and legally and tactically sound, JAs and operators [combatants] alike must understand the full breadth of policy, legal, and mission concerns that shape the ROE and collaborate closely in their development, implementation, and training.  JAs must become familiar with mission and operational concepts, force and weapons systems capabilities and constraints, War-fighting Functions (WF), and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), and Joint Operations Planning and Execution System (JOPES).  Operators must familiarize themselves with the international and domestic legal limitations on the use of force and the laws of armed conflict. Above all, JAs and operators must talk the same language to provide effective ROE to the fighting forces. 

C. This chapter provides an overview of basic ROE concepts. In addition, it surveys Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJCSI) 3121.01B, Standing Rules of Engagement/Standing Rules for the Use of Force for U.S. Forces, and reviews the JA’s role in the ROE process.  Finally, this chapter provides unclassified extracts from both the Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE) and other operations in order to highlight critical issues and demonstrate effective implementation of ROE. 

NOTE: This chapter is NOT a substitute for the SROE. The SROE are classified SECRET, and as such, important concepts within it may not be reproduced in this handbook.  Operational law attorneys must ensure they have ready access to the complete SROE and study it thoroughly to understand the key concepts and provisions.  JAs play an important role in the ROE process because of our expertise in the laws of war, but one cannot gain ROE knowledge without a solid understanding of the actual SROE.

Our Discussion

To place these rules of engagement into their proper perspective, I’ll turn to National Review writer David French, who in December 2015 told us the following story:

“The car was moving at high speed. It had just broken a blockade of American and Iraqi forces and was trying to escape into the gathering dusk. American soldiers, driving larger and slower armored vehicles, mostly the large and unwieldy MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles), gave chase.

“They were intensely interested in the target. Acting on intelligence that high-value al-Qaeda leaders might be present, a cavalry troop — working with Iraqi allies — surrounded an isolated village near the Iranian border. The mission was simple: to search the village and kill or capture identified members of al-Qaeda. It was the kind of mission that the troopers had executed countless times before.

“It wasn’t uncommon to encounter “squirters” — small groups of insurgents who try to sneak or race through American lines and disappear into the desert. Sometimes they were on motorcycles, sometimes on foot, but often they were in cars, armed to the teeth and ready to fight to the death. On occasion, the squirters weren’t insurgents at all — just harmless, terrified civilians trying to escape a deadly war.

“This evening, however, our troopers believed that the car ahead wasn’t full of civilians. The driver was too skilled, his tactics too knowing for a carload of shepherds. As the car disappeared into the night, the senior officer on the scene radioed for permission to fire.

“His request went to the TOC, the tactical operations center, which is the beating heart of command and control in the battlefield environment. There the “battle captain,” or the senior officer in the chain of command, would decide — shoot or don’t shoot.

“If soldiers opened fire after a lawyer had deemed the attack outside the rules, they would risk discipline — even [war crimes] prosecution.

“But first, there was a call for the battle captain to make, all the way to brigade headquarters, where a JAG officer — an Army lawyer — was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His job was to analyze the request, apply the governing rules of engagement, and make a recommendation to the chain of command. While the commander made the ultimate decision, he rarely contradicted JAG recommendations. After all, if soldiers opened fire after a lawyer had deemed the attack outside the rules, they would risk discipline — even prosecution — if the engagement went awry.

“Acting on the best available information — including a description of the suspect vehicle, a description of its tactics, analysis of relevant intelligence, and any available video feeds — the JAG officer had to determine whether there was sufficient evidence of “hostile intent” to authorize the use of deadly force. He had to make a life-or-death decision in mere minutes.

“In this case, the lawyer said no — insufficient evidence.  No deadly force.  Move to detain rather than shoot to kill.  The commander deferred.  No shot.  Move to detain.

“So, the chase continued, across roads and open desert. The suspect vehicle did its best to shake free, but at last, it was cornered by converging American forces. There was no escape. Four men emerged from the car. American soldiers dismounted from their MRAPs, and with one man in the lead, weapons raised, they ordered the Iraqis to surrender.

“Those who were in the TOC that night initially thought someone had stepped on a land mine. Watching on video feed, they saw the screen go white, then black. For several agonizing minutes, no one knew what had happened.

“Then the call came.  Suicide bomber.  One of the suspects had self-detonated, and Americans were hurt.  One badly — very badly.  Despite desperate efforts to save his life, he died just before he arrived at a functioning aid station.  Another casualty of the rules of engagement.”

It is certainly true that a suicide bomber killed one of our young men, but it is also true that young man might still be alive were it not for the fact that the United States Army aided and abetted the enemy in his horrendous murder of one of their own.  On what rational basis does US military command authority place a lawyer (of all people) in a position to approve or deny a combat soldier from taking appropriate action to save his own life and the lives of the men and women serving under him?

The foregoing development was not only senseless and stupid, but it is also malfeasant.  The President of the United States forced these rules on the Armed Forces of the United States; civilian secretaries ordered such policies implemented, and flag rank naval and military officers executed them.  These are the men who have blood on their hands — American blood and they act as if such circumstances were the unavoidable consequences of war.  No.  Too many Americans have died because of these foolish policies.

The American people deserve to know that these unacceptable conditions await their children once they join the U. S. Armed Forces.  They need to understand that the US government places a higher value on the enemy than they do on their own troops — which should lead us to ask, why should any American join the All-Volunteer Force?  Loyalty, after all, is a two-way street.

To compound the matter further, the US government has aggressively charged American service members with war crimes — that weren’t — and convicted them and handed down prison sentences for doing no more than what the U. S. military trained them to do: locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.  And it was that very same government who sent them into battles, to fight in wars, that the government never intended to win.

It Gets Worse

Moreover, the United States government has become complicit in perpetuating “crimes against humanity,” if that is a case we wish to pursue.  There are several angles to this argument, at the top of which is that, diplomatically, the US government has been (a) inept in its formulation and implementation of foreign policy, (b) dishonest in announcing its national interests to justify hostilities, (c) too eager to deploy armed forces to foreign countries, and (d) too accomplished in laying the blame for violations of land warfare conventions on US servicemen, whom the US government recruited, trained, armed, and deployed to carry out its flawed foreign policies.

Numerous violations of human rights, if they in fact exist, are directly related to the behavior of nations and their allies in developing erratic and nonsensical policies that are, themselves, predicated on lies, half-truth, and “spin.”  Who are these nations?  Who must we hold accountable for human suffering in the worst places on the planet?  The list of responsible nations is too long, by far.

As one example, invading Iraq may have made some people feel good about ridding the world of Saddam Hussein, but the consequences of that adventure propelled Iran into its current leading role in the Middle East.  No one can argue while keeping a straight face that sending Hussein to hell substantially improved conditions in the Middle East.

We must also understand that Afghanistan between 1980-2001 was entirely the creation of the United States Congress, the American Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia, and its puppet, Pakistan.

In its historical context, this situation presents us with a nonsensical juxtaposition to US national interests that defies rational explanation.  Saudi Arabia is also behind the “civil wars” in Syria and Yemen, both of which are sectarian kerfuffle’s within the Islamist world that makes no sense to anyone who doesn’t own camels or goats, and yet, the US has become a full partner with the Saudis inflicting pain and suffering on people.  Most of them are the unfortunate sods caught between surrogates of both the Saudis and Iranians.

According to Andrea Prasow, a writer for Human Rights Watch, the United States is now under international scrutiny for its long-standing involvement in Yemen.  Notably, under a long list of incompetent secretaries, the State Department has facilitated the provision of arms and munitions without regard to the application of these weapons against civilian populations.  Prasow argues that the State Department may have violated US laws by providing weapons to Saudi Arabia to offer them to Saudi surrogates, which makes the US government “a global arms dealer.”  Of course, no American administration cares about international scrutiny because there are no substantial consequences that the international community could impose.

Similarly, Peter Beaumont of The Guardian (4 Oct 2021) reports that according to sources within the United Nations, war crimes and crimes against humanity are omnipresent throughout the Middle East, Africa, and some in Eastern Europe.  In the present, human rights experts claim reasonable grounds for believing a Russian private military company (The Wagner Group) has committed murders not directly involved in Libya’s internal hostilities.  UN experts also cite reports indicating that the Libyan coast guard, trained and equipped by the European Union, has regularly mistreated migrants and handed them over to torture centers where sexual violence is prevalent.

T. G. Carpenter, writing for Responsible Statecraft, asserted on 12 October 2021 that there are numerous instances where humanitarian intervention has led directly to crimes against humanity.  He cites as examples President Obama’s 2011 air war to overthrow Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  Obama publicly asserted his high expectations for a brighter future for the Libyan people.  Since then, feuding factions of cutthroats have created large numbers of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to find sanctuary while Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia have become parties to the conflict, each backing their favored to win, and each making substantial contributions to the bloodshed and chaos.

According to the UN report, “Our investigations have established that all parties to the conflicts, including third states, foreign fighters, and mercenaries, have violated international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of proportionality and distinction, and some have also committed war crimes.”  The violence, which includes attacks on hospitals and schools, has dramatically affected the Libyan people’s economic, social, and cultural traditions.  The report also documented the recruitment and participation of children in hostilities and the disappearance and extrajudicial killing of prominent women.

All of the preceding offers a stark contrast to Obama’s rosy pronouncement that “Tripoli is slipping from the grasp of a tyrant. The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”  Joining Obama, Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham jointly stated, “The end of the Qaddafi regime is a victory for the Libyan people and the broader cause of freedom in the Middle East and throughout the world.”  A short time later, McCain and Graham sponsored bills that provided combat weapons to Libya’s “freedom fighters.”  Astoundingly, these freedom fighters used these weapons to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) founded by America’s long-term nemesis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Iraq’s face of Al-Qaeda.  For a short time, Al-Baghdadi was on the target list for US and Coalition forces in Iraq until senior commanders were ordered to “back off.”

On 6 January 2017, UPI writer Struan Stevenson observed that when Obama left the White House, he left behind a legacy of death and destruction in the Middle East.  His primary foreign policy opened Pandora’s Box of conflict and sectarian strife across the entire region.  It wasn’t until it was too late that Obama realized that his “nuclear deal” with Iran and his foolish concessions not only threatened the security of the Middle East but seriously undermined the interests of the United States.  Obama, it appears, the so-called well-spoken and clean-looking Negro, wasn’t the intellectual he thought he was.

As Ted Carpenter wisely observed, “Creating a chaotic environment in which war crimes and massive human rights abuses could flourish did a monumental disservice to the Libyan people, and Washington bears most of the responsibility for that tragedy.  Moreover, it matters little if US intentions were good; the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  [All] policies must be judged by their consequences, not their motives or goals.”

How it plays out

During the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, the Associated Press reported that US Marines bombed a mosque, killing forty (40) innocent “civilians” gathered for prayer.  From the AP’s initial report, the story took off like gang-busters.  False reporting was so intense that it caused senior military commanders to order the Marines out of Fallujah.  See also: The War Crimes that Weren’t.

Throughout the war in Iraq, western news sources routinely employed Iraqis to cover firefights, battles, and clearing operations. In most cases, however, media focused almost exclusively on events occurring around the capital city of Baghdad and only occasionally in outlying regions such as Ramadi and Fallujah. As in the case cited above, these Iraqi journalists were not disinterested parties to the conflict, and their reporting was not simply flawed; they were, more often than not, outright lies.

But the principal challenges in Iraq, and the greatest American/Coalition victories, were those that the American people know least about — because news media always handpicks the things they want the folks back home to know.

Haditha

The region was known as the Haditha Triad region in Al Anbar Province.  The triad region consists of the city of Haditha and outlying towns of Haqlaniyah, Barwana, and Albu Hyatt, all of which follow the Euphrates River corridor.

The enemy was Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  Because US and Coalition leaders failed to establish an early presence in Haditha, AQI felt comfortable putting down roots there.  It was a place where new fighters could enter Iraq from Syria, along with weapons, money, and supplies.  Haditha was where these men and materials could proceed unmolested into the Iraqi interior, to other strongholds.

Haditha was also the place where defeated AQI soldiers withdrew following such battles as Fallujah and Ramadi.  Defeated or not, they became battle-hardened veterans whose embellished tales of glory in the service of Allah inspired newly arrived AQI recruits.[1]

The US/Coalition made its first attempt to establish order in the Haditha Triad in 2005.  AQI responded by decapitating several high-ranking Iraqi police officials and murdering members of their families.  To mark their territory, AQI placed the decapitated heads atop stakes at major intersections leading into Haditha.  It was a clear warning to Iraqis and Coalition forces: stay out!  AQI was so successful in their campaign of intimidation that they even established a shadow government in the region and routinely sent out terrorist patrols to keep the locals “in line.”  2005 was also when the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines (3/25) arrived in Haditha as a coalition show of force.  The battalion lost 49 men during its deployment in what became the deadliest deployment for a Marine battalion since the Beirut bombing in 1983.

At 0715 on 19 November, in this environment of decapitated heads sitting atop signposts, and in an area where 85% of the Iraqi residents oppose coalition forces, where citizens actively aid and abet AQI forces, a Marine security patrol from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (Kilo 3/1) escorted a resupply convoy along the main supply route (MSR) when an improvised explosive device (IED) composed of 155mm artillery shells within a container filled with a propane igniter erupted, instantly killing Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas.  At the instant of the explosion, Lance Corporal James Crossan was thrown out of the Humvee and was trapped under the vehicle’s rear tire.  Private First Class Salvador Guzman was riding in the back of the vehicle.  He was thrown from the vehicle, as well.  Crossan and Guzman were taken to a landing zone for emergency medical evacuation.

Subsequently, First Lieutenant William T. Kallop arrived on the scene.  His arrival coincided with the commencement of enemy fire coming from a nearby cluster of three houses.  Kallop instructed the Marines to “take the house.”  In clearing these houses, Marines employed standard clearing operations, which included the use of hand grenades and small arms fire.  During this action, Marines killed 15 Iraqis.  Lieutenant Kallop stated, “The Marines cleared [the houses] the way they had been trained to clear it, which is frags [grenades] first.  It was clear just by the looks of the room that frags went in, and then the house was prepped and sprayed with a machine gun, and then they went in.  And by the looks of it, they just … they went in, cleared the rooms, everybody was down.”

Significantly, evidence later used during an investigation of the incident included a video captured at the time of the incident by a Hammurabi Human Rights Organization co-founder, which instigated a Time Magazine Reporter’s “armchair” investigative report four months later, on 19 March 2006.  This video shot at the time of the incident strongly suggests a “set up” by AQI affiliates, a common tactic employed by terrorist factions in Iraq.  It was part of an effort by AQI to initiate an incident and use the consequences of that incident to discredit coalition forces. 

Apparently, it worked because military authorities charged eight Kilo Company Marines with violations of the law of war — four enlisted Marines with unpremeditated murder and four officers with dereliction of duty, including the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Chessani.  In the military’s rush to judgment, the lives of all these Marines (and their loved ones) were negatively affected for years into the future.

Of the eight Marines charged, a military court convicted only one individual for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice NOT connected to the Haditha incident.  He pled “guilty” for making a false statement that might have been no more than a lapse in memory.

In 2009, Colonel Chessani’s legal counsel, Richard Thompson (Thomas More Law Center), stated, “The government’s persecution of this loyal Marine officer continues because he refused to throw his men under the bus to appease some anti-war politicians and press, and the Iraqi government. Any punishment of LtCol Chessani handed down by a Board of Inquiry would be a miscarriage of justice because he did nothing wrong, and our lawyers will mount the same vigorous defense in this administrative proceeding as they did in the criminal.”

A military court eventually dismissed the charges as spurious or found them “not guilty” because the accusations — preferred against them by incompetent senior officers in their rush to judgment, who either unwittingly or intentionally conspired with Iraqi enemies of the United States, and with their enabler, Times Magazine journalist Tim McGirk — were unfounded.  The question of why military officials charged these Marines at all, particularly in light of the fact that they complied with the rules of engagement, remains unanswered — except that attorney Richard Thompson was prescient: “ … to appease some anti-war politicians and press, and the Iraqi government.”  Or could it be part of the US government’s intention to destroy the effectiveness of its own Armed Forces or convince young Americans not to join the All-Volunteer Force?

Conclusion

David French’s article (above) offered some food for thought: “Imagine if the United States had fought World War II with a mandate to avoid any attack when civilians were likely to be present.  Imagine Patton’s charge through Western Europe constrained by granting the SS safe haven whenever it sheltered among civilians.  If you can imagine this reality, then you can also imagine a world without a D-Day, a world where America’s greatest generals are war criminals, and where the mighty machinery of Hitler’s industrial base produces planes, tanks, and guns unmolested.  In other words, you can imagine a world where our Army is a glorified police force, and our commanders face prosecution for fighting a real war.  That describes our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

US military policy in the Middle East has been inept and criminally negligent.  There is no rational basis for spending billions of dollars in maintaining a powerful armed force, for spending billions more sending those troops into combat, and then, through inane “rules of engagement,” restricting their ability to defeat the enemy and then prosecuting them for doing what the US military trained them to do.  Such policies present a clear and present danger to the morale and effectiveness of our combat forces and, by extension, demoralize the nation as well.

United States foreign policy is corrupt because the men and women who devise and implement those policies are immoral and inept.  United States domestic policy, particularly as it relates to the laws and regulations governing the nation’s prosecution of war, is equally flawed.  These unacceptable conditions result in unimaginable pain and suffering among those who live in the Middle East.  They cause immeasurable anguish among the loved ones whose husbands, sons, and daughters have died or seriously and permanently injured in a war the US government never intended to win.  These Inane policies have caused death and injury for nothing.  The United States has not “won” a war since the Second World War.  The reason for this is simple: The United States has not had a moral imperative for conflict since the Second World War.  I do not understand why the American people put up with such a government.


Endnotes:

[1] Haditha was rife with AQI fighters and, according to one Time Magazine poll conducted in 2007, 85% of resident Sunnis opposed the presence of Coalition forces.

Snakes in the Grass

America’s real domestic terrorists

I suspect that few today even know who Mark Fidel Kools is — which is, perhaps, perfectly understandable.  Mr. Kools is the illegitimate son of John Kools.  John was a gangster who operated in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California, and, as a consequence of his domestic terrorism as a gangster, was sent to prison.  The State of California released John from prison in 1974 — but not before falling in with another gang, which we today call the Moslem Brotherhood — an organization funded by the Saudi Kingdom as part of their Wahhabist invasion of western civilization.  John Kools, having converted to Islam (at the taxpayer’s expense), changed his name to Akbar.

At the time of John’s release from prison, Mark was three years old.  By then, his mother had also converted to Islam and married William Bilal, also a convert to Islam.  Mrs. Bilal is known today as Quran Bilal.  With apparent pride in her former lover’s accomplishments, Mrs. Bilal changed Mark’s name to Hasan Karim Akbar.

In 1988, Hasan began attending the University of California (Davis); he graduated nine years later with bachelor’s degrees in Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering.  During his somewhat elongated college experience, Hasan participated in the Army Reserve Officer’ Training Corps (ROTC), but he was not offered a commission upon his graduation in 1997.  Deeply in debt, Hasan subsequently enlisted in the US Army.

Hasan Akbar, photo by Gary Broome

A few years later, Hasan served as a sergeant with the 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne.  In 2003, the Army staged elements of the division at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait.  In the early morning hours of 23 March 2003, Akbar cut off the generator that powered the lights inside the encampment.  He then tossed four fragmentation grenades into three tents where other soldiers were sleeping, causing numerous injuries.  In the resulting chaos, Akbar used his service rifle to kill Army Captain Christopher S. Seifert, an intelligence officer whom Akbar shot in the back.  Air Force Major Gregory L. Stone was killed from one of the four hand grenades.

An Army court-martial convicted Akbar of murder and sentenced him to death.  Having exhausted all of his appeals, he remains on death row at the disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  All that remains, in this case, is presidential authority to carry out the execution.

Nidal Hasan US Army Photo

Also awaiting execution at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is former Army major Nidal Hasan.  We all know what he did at Fort Hood, Texas.  While awaiting his execution, Hassan petitioned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for citizenship.  Whether he remains in close contact with former sergeant Akbar is unknown, but it is plausible that they offer one another comfort and encouragement since they are both confined on death row.

Carrying forward in my snake hunt, I similarly expect that few people today know who Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed is.  Mr. Mohamed has a long and interesting history working against the interests of the United States of America and its people.  He was born in Egypt in 1952.  For some period of time until 1984, Ali Mohamed served in the Egyptian army as an intelligence officer, reaching the rank of colonel.  From around 1979 through 1984, he was instrumental in training anti-Soviet fighters en route to Afghanistan.

Afterward, back in Egypt, Mr. Mohamed went to the US Embassy in Cairo, asked to speak to the CIA Station Chief.  During this meeting, Mohamed volunteered his services as an informant against the emerging Al-Qaeda organization.  Apparently, the CIA was unaware of Mohamed’s former association with the Egyptian Army or his involvement with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Despite the CIA’s suspicions that he might be an Islamist agent, they appointed him as a junior CIA intelligence officer and tasked him with collecting information about the Islamist movements.  One of his first tasks was to infiltrate a mosque with known ties to Hezbollah.  Mohamed affiliated with the mosque but soon informed the Imam that he was working for the United States as a spy.  He may have suggested that this situation would be an excellent opportunity to feed the Americans misinformation about Islamist movements.

As it turned out, Mohamed was not the only informant in that particular mosque.  There was another who informed the CIA that Mohamed was a double agent.  The CIA subsequently dismissed Mohamed and took measures to bar him from entering the United States.  However, Mohamed somehow evaded the ban and once more went to the United States.  He married an American woman, became a US citizen, and joined the U. S. Army.

After Mohamed’s initial training, he found his way into the US Special Forces.  In that organization, his leaders encouraged him to pursue advanced degrees in Islamic Studies.  They wanted Mohamed to become an instructor so that he could teach courses involving the Middle East.  They thought he was a pretty sharp tack, not knowing he was a former Egyptian army colonel.  Mohamed was a “self-starter,” they said.

Ali Mohamed Photo Source Unknown

Throughout his service in the US Army, Mohamed collected information from the Army.  He made copies of technical manuals, doctrinal publications, and training manuals to inform Al-Qaeda better how to defeat the American armed forces.  He provided information about weapons, tactical formations, and Special Forces operations.

In 1988, Mohamed took a 30-day leave from the Army and returned to the middle east.  He informed his superiors that he wanted to fight in Afghanistan.  When he returned, he bragged about killing Soviets, and to back up his claim, he showed people his “war relics.”  Alarm bells sounded in the head of his immediate commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Anderson, who initiated action to have Mohamed investigated by Army Intelligence.  Anderson’s reports went unanswered; no investigation was ever conducted (that we know about) — which led Anderson to wonder if Mohamed was part of the US clandestine services. 

Mohamed left the US Army in 1989, finding work with a defense contractor providing security at a factory that produced Trident Missile systems.  When he wasn’t doing that, he began training Middle Eastern refugees and American-born Islamists in such areas as demolitions, including those who were later associated with the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Mahmud Abouhalima and Ramzi Yousef.

In the early 1990s, Mohamed returned to Afghanistan.  He trained Al-Qaeda volunteers in unconventional warfare techniques, including kidnapping, assassination, and aircraft hijacking, which he had learned during Special Forces training.  According to some, Mohamed even trained a wealthy Saudi fighter named Osama bin-Laden and later helped bin-Laden plan the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Mohamed became the “go-to” guy when bin-Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri needed to know or understand something about the US Army.  In 1993, Mohamed toured California with Zawahiri, who posed as a Kuwait Red Crescent Society representative.  Together, the two men hoped to raise money from Islamic-American charities to fund Jihadi movements (otherwise known as global terrorism).

In May 1993, Mohamed became an FBI informant in San Jose, California.  In exchange for worthless information, Mohamed provided Al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad with valuable American intelligence.  It was also in 1993 that Mohamed was nearly arrested in Canada while meeting with a representative of Osama bin-Laden.  He escaped arrest by telling Canadian authorities that he was an FBI informant, and they promptly released him.

After the 1998 bombings, FBI agents searched Mohamed’s apartment and discovered his complicity in terrorist activities.  Such evidence included plans and scripts of Al-Qaeda training, plans to meet with Osama bin-Laden, and so forth.  On the day Mohamed was scheduled to give testimony in another case, FBI agents arrested him.

Federal authorities charged Mohamed with several offenses, including five counts of conspiracy to kill US nationals, conspiracy to kidnap, murder, and maim others outside of the United States, conspiracy to kill government employees, conspiracy to destroy US buildings and property, and conspiracy to destroy or disrupt utilities vital to the security of the United States.  Mohamed faced the death penalty, but he made a deal with the federal prosecutor.  He would plead guilty in exchange for life in prison.  To date, Ali Mohamed has not appeared in court.  He remains in federal custody at an undisclosed location.

These are the snakes among us.  How many of these snakes exist is — unknown.  What the US government is doing about the snakes inside America is equally obscure.  It would be comforting to have some indication that the United States is on top of the problem rather than unwittingly playing a role in global terrorism.  Still, I cannot comment about that possibility, either.  However, here’s what we know: all three men are US citizens, all three are Moslems, all three murdered American citizens, and all three remain alive at the taxpayer’s expense.  Pest control specialists say that if you see one cockroach, there are 50 more that you don’t see.  I wonder if the same ratio applies to venomous snakes.

In a televised interview, Ali Mohamed explained his rationale for becoming a terrorist: “Islam without political dominance cannot survive.”  If this isn’t good advice, then I’ve never heard it.

Sources:

  1. Atwan, A. B.  The Secret History of Al-Qaeda.  UC Berkley, 2006.
  2. Bergen, P.  Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.  Free Press, 2001.
  3. Esposito, J. L.  Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.  Oxford University, 2002.
  4. Mura, A.  The Symbolic Scenarios of Islamism: A study in Islamic political thought.  Routledge Publishing, 2015.

Digging Graves

Background

Kǒng Fūzǐ, otherwise known in the western world as Confucius (551-479 BC), was a paragon of Chinese philosophers and sages and, perhaps, one of the most influential individuals in all human history.  His teachings emphasized personal morality, justice, kindness, and sincerity — but his school of thought was only one of a hundred philosophical and legalistic academies during China’s Qin dynasty.  He once warned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Charlie Wilson

Operation Cyclone was the brainchild of Texas Congressman Charles Nesbit Wilson (also known as Charlie Wilson).[1]  It was the codename for a Central Intelligence Agency program to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen (1979-1989) during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  It was one of the most protracted and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.

Wilson’s idea was to funnel black money through the CIA to financially support radical Islamists who more or less worked under the control of Pakistani military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988).  We don’t know how much of this money Zia diverted to his atomic weapons project, but it may have been substantial.  Between 1980-1986, the CIA sent between $20-40 million to Afghanistan annually; in 1987, this amount increased to $640 million annually.  CIA funding continued after the Soviet Union departed Afghanistan in 1989 to support the Afghan Civil War (1989-1992).  Before Zia’s death, he successfully wooed both the United States and China into a ménage à trois — which was “just fine” with Charlie Wilson, a Democrat, who leaned in that direction anyway.

The CIA’s arms deal included the state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapon that cost around $38,000 each.  We sent thousands of these to Afghanistan to help the Islamists rid themselves of the Soviet MI-24 (Hind) helicopter.  Once CIA operatives instructed the Islamists how to employ these weapons, no Russian helicopter was safe.  How many of these Stinger missiles remained in Afghanistan after the CIA withdrew its support is unknown.  Still, at some point, the supplies diminished — driving Islamists to employ a much cheaper and easier to obtain weapon: the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG).

The RPG fires a shaped charge explosive warhead.  There are various warheads, but the most common is the high explosive (HE) round and high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round.  Either of these is devastating to helicopters.

As it turned out, the Americans instructing mujahideen on fighting a sophisticated enemy combat force did an extraordinary job.  Radical Islamists later turned these skills toward the Americans once the United States decided to replace the Russian invaders in 2003.  Americans in Afghanistan have been digging graves ever since.

Extortion One Seven

CH-47D by LCPL D. NICHOLS/USMC

Members of the U. S. Navy’s Seal Team Six assaulted a Pakistani compound on 2 May 2011, killing the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.  It was a CIA-led operation with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) codenamed Operation Neptune Spear.  Operating alongside the Navy’s special warfare group was an element of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (Night Stalkers).  This operation ended a nearly ten-year search for bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack upon the United States.

One month earlier, the US Tenth Mountain Division turned control of Combat Outpost Tangi over to Afghan government forces.  It was an interesting “turnover” since the Afghan Defense Force (ADF) never actually occupied the base, so Taliban forces took the initiative to seize it for their use.  There could be a connection here, but I hesitate to judge.  In any event, US forces continued to operate in the Tangi area.  By 2011, the number of Taliban in Tangi was significant.  On 8 June, Taliban ground forces engaged a US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter from five or six different locations with 14 separate RPG attacks forcing the overwhelmed helicopter to abandon its mission.

At about this same time, US intelligence determined that senior Taliban leader Qari Tahir might have operated from within the Tangi Valley.  Thus, the International Security Force (ISF) command group ordered American/Coalition forces working within Wardak Province to locate Tahir and capture or kill him.

Beginning around 22:30 hours (local time) on 5 August, a platoon of 47 Army Rangers departed their forward operating base in Logar Province aboard two CH-47D aircraft.  After a thirty-minute flight, the two helicopters landed near a compound believed to be the location of Tahir.  After disembarking the Rangers, the helicopters departed the area.  It was a high-risk operation.  Two AH-64 Apache gunships and an AC-130 gunship remained on station to provide intelligence, surveillance, and aerial reconnaissance of the area.  Seventeen SEALS served as a reserve force.

As the Rangers approached the designated compound, ISR aircraft observed numerous individuals leaving the compound, but the Rangers did not engage these people.  Apache aircraft did engage a different group of around eight insurgents, reporting six of these insurgents killed in action.  Meanwhile, ISR assets continued to observe the disengaged group, estimating between 9-11 fighters.  The on-site commander believed that these individuals might include Tahir.  At 0100, the task force commander directed the SEALS to engage these suspected insurgents.  The Aviation Brigade Commander took nearly an hour to approve a new landing zone for the SEAL infiltration.  At 02:00, the task force commander decided to increase the size of the SEAL Team from 17 to 33 warriors and then, to reduce transportation time, command authority loaded SEAL reinforcements into a single CH-47D; another aircraft served as a decoy that would land at a separate landing site.

While this part of the operation was unfolding, the Taliban force split into two sections.  At around 02:15, one team of three insurgents went to a stand of trees; the other group entered a building located 1.2 miles from the original compound.  Since the Apache helicopters were involved in tracking these two groups of insurgents, they could not offer security or fire support to either of the two in-bound CH-47Ds.

Six minutes out, the decoy CH-47D split off and returned to base.  The remaining helicopter, callsign Extortion One Seven, proceeded to the earlier landing zone.  One minute out, Extortion One Seven descended to an altitude of 100 feet and reduced its airspeed to around 58 knots.  A third group of Taliban previously undetected by the Americans fired 2-3 RPGs from a two-story building.  The second round fired struck Extortion One Seven’s aft rotor assembly.  Within five seconds, the CH-47D crashed and exploded, killing everyone on board.  It took the Apache aircraft another thirty seconds to report the 47’s destruction.

The official determination in the after-action report was “wrong place/wrong time.”  Such things do happen in war.  People die.  Suddenly.  But former Navy JAG Officer, Lieutenant Commander Don Brown,[2] disagrees.  He claims the US military intentionally concealed what happened to Extortion One Seven, much in the way the Army lied about the circumstances of Patrick Tillman’s death in 2004.

After reviewing all the evidence available to him (unclassified material), Brown concluded that military command sacrificed the SEAL Team through gross negligence during mission planning and covering up what happened.  As Brown understood the facts, seven ADF personnel slipped aboard Extortion One Seven without authority (a significant security breach), men who had no role in the operation.  Moreover, the rules of engagement (ROE) precluded pre-landing suppression fire within the CH-47D’s designated landing zone.  Brown argued that a pre-landing suppression fire would have saved Extortion One Seven from destruction.

On the issue of the seven ADF personnel, Brown contends that the remains of these men were flown to the United States and cremated, as reported in the Washington Times, leading Brown to conclude, “Something went terribly wrong inside that helicopter, and whatever went wrong was most likely beyond the pilot’s control.”  Brown also raises the question about a so-called helicopter black box, which the Army contends does not exist in that model aircraft.  But Commander Brown was adamant, asking why the Brigade commander sent Rangers back to the crash site looking for something that doesn’t exist.

Brown additionally claimed that the AC-130 gunship circling above the LZ spotted suspected Taliban insurgents moving on the ground toward Extortion One Seven’s designated landing site and requested permission to engage those insurgents.  According to Brown’s investigation, the task force commander denied the gunship permission to engage.  US Air Force Captain Joni Marquez, assigned to the AC-130 gunship at the time as firing officer, confirmed Brown’s assertions, and agreed with his conclusion that denying the gunship permission to engage sealed the fate of the CH-47D.

Conclusion

The cost in American lives from the US teaching a potential enemy how to kill our sons and daughters has been too high.  It is incomprehensible that any official of the US government would plant the seeds for a lethal future conflict for no other reason than to engage in an illicit relationship with a socialite.  Worse, Wilson soon had the full cooperation of the White House, CIA, and House of Representatives.

How many graves have we dug so far in the war on terror — graves that a US Congressman helped to dig?

Sources:

  1. Bergen, P.  Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden.  Crown Publishing, 2012.
  2. Bowden, M.  The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.
  3. Carter, S.  “Retired Air Force Captain says Pentagon covered up the real cause of deadly chopper crash.”  On-air broadcast, 18 April 2017.
  4. Herring, J. K.  Diplomacy and Diamonds: My Wars from the Ballroom to the Battlefield.  Center Street Publications, 2011.

Footnotes:

[1] Wilson’s motivation for starting the so-called Charlie Wilson War was his infatuation with Joanne Herring, a quite-wealthy anti-Communist crusader.  Herring, appalled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, employed her feminine wiles in convincing Wilson to take up her cause of revenge against the Soviet Union.  Joanne Herring is also believed to have had an intimate relationship with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq while serving as “Honorary Consul” at the Pakistani Consulate in Houston, Texas.  Osama bin-Laden may have been the founder and leader of al-Qaeda, but it may have been Joanne Herring who started it.  Treason, anyone?  Anyone?

[2] Brown served as legal counsel to Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was charged and convicted for war crimes.  Brown’s subsequent book Travesty of Justice: The Shocking Persecution of Lt. Clint Lorance was a major factor in Lorance’s pardon by President Donald J. Trump in 2019. 


Nawzad —2008

Some Background

Men have used spears in warfare for well over 3,000 years —and they continued using them even after the invention of firearms.  The use of spears began as implements for hunting in pre-history.  They were fashioned by burning one end of a straight stick until it had become pointed, its makers scraping the wood further to make the pointed end even sharper, which increased its lethality.

The hunting spear may have been one of mankind’s earliest technological advances, inspired by early man’s demand for food.  Scientists in Germany discovered this kind of weapon embedded into the skeletal remains of an elephant.  No one is quite sure when humans turned these hunting weapons upon one another; we only know that it was a long time ago.  What we do know is that spears were far more efficient than clubs, and likely preferable because of their versatility.  A spearman could thrust his weapon into an enemy or throw it from a distance.

Over time, hunters-gatherers became agriculturalists.  With farming came the domestication of animals and less demand for hunters.  One demand remained, however: the defense of small villages to protect loved ones and food stores.  When men learned that more spearmen were far more efficient in self-defense than one or two uncoordinated defenders, they began to develop offensive and defensive tactics.  At first, it is likely that the employment of these maneuvers more closely resembled a Chinese fire drill than a military formation, but in time someone came up with the idea that a well-drilled formation fared better in warfare than a mish-mash of stick-wielding yahoos.

The earliest formation was the phalanx, a closely packed block of spearmen.  The phalanx made the spear far more deadly in close combat; even back then there was no ribbon for coming in second.  The phalanx formation made ancient Greece into a military power with subsequent armies adopting similar formations over the next 2,000 years.

Gladius Hispaniensis

The Roman armies did such a good job of emulating Greek strategies that they eventually took over the known world.  The Roman started with the basics of Greek tactics and improved on them.  While retaining the spear (pilus) the Romans also used swords (Gladius).  Initially, Roman swords were much like those used by the Greeks, but from around the third century BC, Rome adopted the Celtiberian[1] sword; they called it Gladius Hispaniensis.  This sword was shorter in length, better made, and far more manageable for close-in fighting.  The Roman spear was especially adapted to Roman tactics, used as a kind of close-combat artillery, but constructed more on the order of a javelin.  After throwing their pilum in a single volley, Roman legions then charged into their enemy in close formation with shield (scutum) and gladius.

Rome’s demise[2], after 1,100 years of military domination, produced several hundred years of political and social instability.  The next innovation of the spear came in the form of the lance, a weapon used from horseback by mounted knights.  Knights led infantry (foot) formations (that retained the spear as its primary weapon), but it was the mounted warrior that led to most military innovation in subsequent years—such as saddles, stirrups, a longer “cavalry” sword.  Cavalry (or its earliest form) became the Middle Ages’ most important combat component.  Eventually, polearms replaced spears as infantry weapons.

The polearm provided a defense against mounted assaults —an innovation that enabled the Swiss to become the most feared military force in Europe during the Middle Ages.  The most widely recognized polearm of that period was called a halberd, a cross between a spear and an ax with a hook.  The halberd was useful in stabbing, slashing, and pulling riders from their horses.

The pike was an exceptionally long spear fielded by large blocks of men (similar in many ways to the Greek phalanx, but without shields).  Pikes enabled infantry to hold off charging cavalry.  By this time, military formations had begun to field fire arms so the pike blocks also protected musketeers while they reloaded their weapons.  When muskets and rifles became the primary weapon of field armies, bayonets became the primary means used by riflemen to defend themselves in close combat.  When attached to the musket or rifle, the two weapons served the same purpose as the ancient spear.

U.S. Marine Corps bayonet

Bayonets continue to function as a close-in weapon in modern military arsenals.  They are primarily used while searching for the enemy in confined spaces, or whenever a field commander anticipates close combat.  There are many examples of the use of the bayonet in World War II and the Korean War.  The command, “Fix Bayonets” is chilling because at that point, everyone knows that a knife fight is about to take place.

In Afghanistan

When First Lieutenant Arthur E. Karell ordered “Fix Bayonets,” the hunkered down Marines of Fox Company’s 3rd Platoon began to perspire.  The sound of Marines withdrawing their bayonets from scabbards and affixing them to the ends of their rifles was distinctive.  Click, click, click.  Lieutenant Karell’s order was precautionary because he didn’t know what to expect in the quiet darkness.  All he knew was that his orders placed he and his men at that specific spot, and that Helmand Province (later known as Marineistan[3]) is where someone high up in his chain of command had decided that U.S. Marines could do the most good.  Karell was part of the vanguard of Marines who would become predators —their prey was the Taliban.

Nawzad, Afghanistan was a ghost town.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7) assumed responsibility for pacifying this enemy-occupied but once-populated town in a remote and god-forsaken area of southeast Afghanistan.  The people who used to live in Nawzad (some 10,000 in number (estimated)) abandoned their mud-brick homes and melted away into the dusty area surrounding it.  With the departure of these simple people, the Taliban moved in and made themselves at home.  Karell’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard D. Hall, had sent Fox Company to issue eviction notices.

The fact was that Colonel Hall didn’t know much more about Nawzad than Karell; Hall had no “intel” of the enemy situation because Helmand Province wasn’t a priority for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO’s coalition headquarters in Kabul.  Up until 2/7’s arrival in Helmand Province, the ISAF had ignored Nawzad.

The quiet darkness of early morning was periodically interrupted by the sounds of distant  jackals, which was enough to straighten the Marine’s neck hair.  Karell’s Marines didn’t know what awaited them, but whatever it was, it was about to get its ass kicked.  The Taliban were dangerous, of course, but they weren’t U.S. Marines.  They may have intimidated poor farmers and the U.S. Army led ISAF in Kabul, but they weren’t going to cower Fox 2/7.  Still, neither Lieutenant Karell nor his company commander had a firm picture of the enemy situation.

The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines was initially activated on 1 January 1941 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Its world war service included Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa.  During the Korean War, 2/7 participated in the landing at Inchon, the Battle of Seoul, the landing at Wonsan, and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.  Captain William Barber received the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary courage while commanding Fox Company.  The battalion deployed to Vietnam from July 1965 until October 1970.  While based at Twenty-nine Palms, California, the battalion was deployed for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 with additional service in Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006.  The battalion deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, and again from 2012-2013.

2/7 spearheaded the return of Marines to Afghanistan in April 2008, engaging in combat almost from the very first day.  It was the hardest hit battalion in the Marine Corps in 2008.  During its eight month deployment, the battalion lost 20 Marines killed in action; 160 wounded in action, and of these, thirty amputees.

It was 15th June 2008 and Karell was seconds away from launching his first combat assault.  Most of his noncommissioned officers were combat veterans, but their previous experience had been in Iraq.  Afghanistan was a horse of a different color.  From their position in a dried-up irrigation ditch, in the pitch-black early morning, the only thing the Marines could see was the vague outline of a thick mud wall that stood higher than most Marines were tall.  The wall separated the town from a small, scraggly forest.  Up until then, it was “Indian country,” and no one from Fox Company had seen what lay on the other side.  They only knew that whenever a patrol came near the wall, someone from the other side started shooting at them.  Not knowing the enemy situation beyond the wall prompted Karell to issue his order, “Fix Bayonets.”

Karell began the platoon’s advance, stealthily creeping along in the dark with he and his platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Gabriel G. Guest, leading the way.  This is how Marines do combat: leaders at the tip of the spear.  Despite a long list of unknowns, the Marines of the 3rd Platoon had confidence in their lieutenant.  Karell possessed all the positive attributes of an outstanding combat leader.  He was calm in stressful situations.  He moved with purpose and self-confidence.  He was open with and respectful of his men.  He was willing to admit when he’d messed up.  He learned from his mistakes.  In the eyes of his superiors, Karell had additional traits: knowledgeable, thoughtful, aggressive, good at planning and even better in execution.  In short, Karell was a hunter-warrior —a dangerous predator.

As Karell’s Marines moved forward, they could hear the growling engines of support vehicles coming up behind them.  Suddenly, from behind the wall, a rocket-propelled grenade shattered the silence of the night —the explosive swooshing above the heads of the leathernecks toward the approaching support vehicles.  Marine machine guns opened up; enemy machine guns answered.  Muzzle flashes from the base of the wall revealed the enemy’s positions.

The instant before the shooting started, Karell’s Marines were nervous; an instant after, Marine Corps training took over.  The Marine’s first emotion was that they were pissed off that someone was shooting at them.  After coordinating by radio with Fox Actual, once the Marine’s machine guns shifted their fires, Karell launched his assault toward the enemy.  2nd Squad laid down a base of fire as Karell and the 1st Squad rushed forward.  Then 1st Squad took up suppressing fires as 2nd Squad advanced.  The Marines of 3rd Platoon ignored the enemy’s fire as deadly rounds snapped past them, but they were expending a lot of ammunition.  SSgt Guest began relaying ammo resupply forward. The enemy machine gun went silent and the enemy began running in the opposite direction.

Lieutenant Karell brought combat engineers forward.  After firing mine clearing devices into the area in front of the wall, they blew a gaping hole through the adobe barrier.  Karell’s platoon poured through the wall and took up a hasty defense position until the platoon was ready to pursue the enemy.  What they found inside the compound stood in stark contrast to the desolate moonscape on the outside.  It was a garden setting, complete with flowing water and a forest of fruit trees.

Karell and his Marines had no time to enjoy it; the lieutenant organized his Marines to begin destroying enemy bunkers.  Their progress took them into the light forest.  Standing before them was a white mound that rose above the trees.  Karell estimated that the damn thing was forty-feet above ground.  The skipper[4] supposed it could be a command bunker.

From where the 3rd Platoon was standing the mound looked like a stone fortress.  It was “no big deal.”  The Marines started climbing weighted down by the intense morning heat, their weapons, ammunition, and body armor.  They were looking for caves —but found none.  They expected enemy resistance —but there was none.  When he reached the top, Lieutenant Karell did a quick search of the area.  All he found were scars from artillery of some earlier battle.  Karell laughed —his 3rd Platoon had captured a huge rock.

2/7 was sent to Nawzad to train Afghan police.  The ISAF reasoned that if the Marines could train local police, the police would then be able to protect their own community.  The fly in that ointment was that there were no police in Nawzad.  Absent the police training mission, Colonel Hall queried higher headquarters about his new mission.  He was told to make it possible for the Afghan people to return to their long-deserted town.  There was no mention of how he was to accomplish this task, of course, only that the Marines needed to “get it done.”  So, Hall executed the Marine Corps plan: find the Taliban and convince him that he’s in the wrong business.

Helmand Province in Afghanistan

While it was true that the battalion’s mission had changed, little else had.  Since ISAF controlled all in-theater air assets, 2/7 would not have dedicated air support.  Marine grunts love their aviators, and this has been true all the way back to the early days of Marine aviation —when Marines began to explore the utility of aircraft for ground support missions.  For two decades, the Marines perfected air-ground operations during the so-called Banana Wars.  During World War II, Navy and Marine Corps aviation perfected the art and science of close air support.  They employed these skills in the Korean War.  In fact, it was during the Korean War that the Marines taught the Army a thing or two about on-call close air support.  In Afghanistan, however, the Marines would have to REQUEST air support through the ISAF.  Maybe they would get it, maybe they wouldn’t.  There was no guarantee that 2/7 Marines would have their USMC Cobra pilots (their combat angels) overhead.

By the time 2/7 arrived in Nawzad, the once-thriving city was already long-abandoned.  It was likely that Taliban or drug trafficking warlords had driven them away.  But Colonel Hall was resourceful and smart.  Before the scheduled deployment of his Battalion, Hall went to Helmand Province and talked to people on the ground.  He came away with the understanding that, despite his (then) stated mission to train a police force, his Marines would do more fighting than training.

A week after Lieutenant Karell’s rock climb, Captain Russ Schellhaas, the Fox Company commander, assigned Karell’s 3rd Platoon to support of his 1st Platoon during an operation that unfortunately found 1st Platoon in the middle of a minefield.  It was a horrible day for twenty-six seriously wounded Marines.  A few days after that, Staff Sergeant Chris Strickland, an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician was killed while attempting to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED).

The mission of the Marine combat engineer is to enhance the mobility and survivability of ground combat forces.  Among its several specific tasks are expedient demolition, route/area minesweeping operations, and a range of other force protection measures.  Thirty days later, it was Lance Corporal John Shrey’s duty to conduct minesweeping operations while leading Lieutenant Karell and his platoon’s 3rd Squad through a potential IED minefield.  Karell and his Marines followed him as if they were baby ducks.

Once the Marines had made it through the minefield, they concealed themselves in a grove of scrubby underbrush within sight of their point of interest —a supposedly abandoned compound with a single adobe shack.  Intel claimed that insurgents were using the compound as a rallying point, a place where they stored their gear before laying in more IEDs.  North of the rally point was a band of trees, within which was another series of compounds —in distance, about a half-mile in length.  Heavily armed Taliban occupied these compounds and used them as IED factories and safe havens.  According to the 2/7 operations officer, the Taliban were Pakistanis who had come to fight through what the Marines were calling “Pakistan Alley.”  And the Marines knew that it was only a matter of time before they would have to clear it out.  For now, though, the Karell concentrated on the immediate threat: the rally point.

At daybreak, the 3rd Squad could hear the Moslem call to prayer echoing through the northern forest.  Lieutenant Karell also detected the sound of armored vehicles bringing up the rest of his platoon.  Shouts erupted from insurgents just inside the tree line; two Pakis ran from the wood carrying RPGs.  They were unaware of Karell’s presence in the grove.

Enemy machine-gun fire opened-up against a Marine bulldozer as it barreled its way through a minefield, clearing a lane to the rally point.  An RPG was fired at the MRAP carrying Karell’s second squad.  The leader of the 2nd Squad was a young corporal by the name of Aaron Tombleson.  At 23-years of age, Tombleson was responsible for the lives and welfare of twelve Marines.  His point man was Private First Class Ivan Wilson, whom everyone called “Willie.”

Explosions began erupting near the MRAP.  Lieutenant Karell heard a loud detonation and this was followed by the giant tire of an MRAP flying toward 3rd Squad.  With none of his men injured in the blast, Corporal Tombleson quickly transferred his squad to a second vehicle.  It was already a jumbled day and it was still early in the morning.

Marines of Fox Company 2/7 in 2008          Photo credit to Sgt F. G. Cantu, USMC

The bulldozer went on to punch a hole through the wall of the compound but had gotten stuck in the rubble and tight surroundings.  A fire team from 2nd Squad dismounted to provide security for the engineers while they attempted to straighten out the bulldozer.  Willie led the fireteam alongside the MRAP toward the rear of the dozer, but incoming small arms fire began pinging the side of the MRAP.  The fire team took cover and began returning fire.  PFC Wilson on point ran to the edge of the compound and took a kneeling position to return fire.  In that instant, an IED exploded under him.  Lieutenant Karell heard the explosion, followed seconds later by a radio report that the 2nd Squad had four or five casualties with one KIA.

3rd Squad’s Navy Corpsman was HM3 Tony Ameen.  He requested Karell’s permission to move up to help attend to the wounded.  Assuming 2nd Squad’s corpsman was overwhelmed in treating the injured, Karell told Ameen he could go —but only with an engineer to sweep for mines.

With Lance Corporal Shrey leading the way, Ameen and another Corpsman, HM Jack Driscoll, and a few additional Marines to provide security, moved up.  The going was slow.  As the medical team inched forward behind Shrey, another explosion erupted, and a plume of smoke appeared behind the tree line.

“Doc” Ameen, impatient with the rate of march, bolted out of line and rushed forward.  This is what Navy Corpsmen are trained to do.  They run to their wounded Marines —and this explains why 2,012 Navy Corpsmen have been killed in combat since the Navy Medical Corps was founded in 1871.  Forty-two corpsmen lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are 21 U.S. Navy ships named after Navy Corpsmen; they have received over six-hundred medals for valor —including 23 Medals of Honor and 179 Navy Cross medals.

A few steps past Shrey, Ameen stepped on another IED.  Ameen went flying head over heel.  He lost one foot and half of his left hand.  Shrey, knocked to the ground by the concussion and bleeding from both ears, got groggily to his feet.  Despite his injury, Shrey maintained his presence of mind and shouted to Doc Driscoll to halt in place.  LCpl Shrey did not want another casualty among the corpsmen.

Meanwhile, Corporal Tumbleson and seven of his Marines —all that was left of his squad— carried Willie to the MRAP; as the Marines struggled to place him inside the vehicle, Wilson attempted to help them.  It was then that he and realized that his arm was missing.  Willie slipped into unconsciousness.  Nearby, a contingent of ISAF Estonian soldiers rushed forward to help get Willie to the Medevac Landing Zone.

Lieutenant Karell called for an airstrike, which after a few minutes destroyed the compound.  Afterward, Karell moved his platoon forward and occupied the compound.  That afternoon, during retrograde back to Nawzad, another MRAP set off an IED, but there were no more human casualties; the truck was damaged beyond repair.  When the Marines arrived back at the company command post (CP), Karell learned that Willie had died on the medical evacuation helicopter.

Even though 3rd Platoon Marines were shaken and exhausted from the day’s events, Karell assembled them to break the news about PFC Wilson.  Afterward, the Marines never spoke about the battle of the compound —they only talked about the day Willie died.  That night, Karell led an eight-man patrol from 1st Squad back to the enemy rally point.  The Marines had learned that the Taliban often returned to a battle site to assess the damage and lay in more IEDs.  No sooner had Karell and his men reached the area just outside the compound, they heard movement ahead of them.  Apparently, the enemy also heard the Marines approaching and withdrew.  Karell wasn’t looking for another fight —he wanted to get his Marines back in the saddle after losing Wilson.

Conditions in Nawzad were what one might expect in Afghanistan.  2/7 Marines were fighting in temperatures that hovered around 120-degrees Fahrenheit.  The chow sucked —but then, all MREs[5] do.  Critical resupply was continually interrupted by enemy activity along the main supply route (MSR).  There was no running water.  The constant swirling of powdery Afghan dust clogged the Marine’s throats —they were continually rinsing their mouths with water, gargling, and spitting it out.  Lack of contact with the outside world challenged unit morale, but worse than that, the Marines believed that their sacrifices were serving no worthwhile purpose.  They were sent there to train police, but instead, the Marines became the police.  And the fact was that a single battalion of Marines was an insufficient force to deal with the overwhelming number of Taliban/Pakistani insurgents over so large an area.  As a result, the Marines were spread too thin —a direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan.  There were no replacements for evacuated casualties; the Marines would have to fight with what they had.  Corporal Tombleson’s squad, for example, started off with twelve Marines, casualties reducing it to eight —a 33% reduction in combat efficiency.

The attitudes of Marines of Fox Company mirrored those of the other line companies.  Everyone believed that when 2/7 was pulled out, as one day it must, there would be no one to replace them —and they wondered, if this was true, then why were they in Afghanistan at all?  Staff Sergeant Kevin Buegel, who replaced the wounded and evacuated Staff Sergeant Guest as platoon sergeant, was pissed off.  The very idea of losing Marines for no good purpose was a constant source of irritation.  Eventually, word came down that Obama had reversed his earlier decision to withdraw all US forces.  2/7 would be replaced by another battalion landing team after all.

In late October 3rd Platoon assumed the company vanguard (the point) position when Fox Company plunged into Paki Alley to root out and destroy Taliban forces.  Hall’s 2/7 had already cleared Nawzad but clearing the Taliban from the alley would be a tough fight, as urban-type warfare always is.

Lieutenant Karell’s platoon was engaged in clearing operations; each of his rifle squads moving deliberately through their assigned sectors.  At one location, the 1st Squad encountered a Taliban shooter in the structure’s basement.  Marines called out to him in Pashtu to surrender, but he kept shooting at them with an AK-47.  Corporal Joe Culliver was an intelligence analyst temporarily attached to Fox company.  He wanted the shooter taken alive, if possible; one of the Karell’s Marines told him, “Don’t count on it.”  Nothing the Marines did convinced this shooter that it would be to his advantage to surrender.

1st Squad’s delay of advance was becoming a critical issue because the three squads moving forward provided mutual security during the platoon’s operation.  Lieutenant Karell decided that they’d wasted enough time on this one holdout.  Marines tossed hand grenades into the basement; the insurgent answered with more rifle fire.  Staff Sergeant Buegel was pissed off; he always was about something.  He rigged a C-4 explosive and tossed it into the basement.  Whatever impact the explosion had appeared negligible because the shooter continued to unleash measured fire.  Karell knew that the shooter was wounded, knew that he wasn’t going to surrender, and he knew that he was not going to leave him alive in the rear of his Marines.

Elsewhere in the Alley, the Taliban was putting up one hell of a fight.  The enemy employed mortars, machine guns, and hand grenades against the 3rd Platoon.  Karell needed to close the door on this shooter.  Marines inched down the stairwell and poured hot lead around the adobe corer into the open basement.  The shooter finally went silent.  Karell, with his pistol at the ready, entered the basement with Corporal Culliver right behind him.  The Taliban was laying on the floor along the wall on the far side of the room.  He was badly wounded.  Spread out across the floor in front of him were dozens of needles and empty ampules of morphine.  The shooter was higher than a kite, and this explained his apparent lack of pain.  As Karell approached the shooter, he suddenly heaved, reaching for his AK-47.  One of the Marines behind Karell fired twice, killing the Taliban.

Folks back home believe (because this is what the U.S. media tells them) that the Taliban are deeply religious people, dedicated to their belief system, that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of their god.  This could be true among those who run dozens to hundreds of madrassas, and it may even apply to Afghanistan’s dozens of warlords.  Taliban fighters, on the other hand, are seriously malnourished men radicalized by drug addiction.  Culturally and historically, the average Afghan is opposed to any form of government and there is nothing any western coalition can do to change that.  It is a situation that has existed since the days of Alexander the Great.  The only options available to western forces is that of (a) relieving them of their misery and sending them into whatever awaits them in the afterlife (although, with a population exceeding 36 million people, this is highly unlikely), or (b) leaving them alone.

3rd Platoon fought on.  Now, finally, with the backing of newly assigned cobra gunships, pilots[6] could see Karell’s three squads dangerously separated in the urban setting.  3rd Platoon’s fight lasted well over seven hours.  Karell believed his Marines were making progress, but that’s not what the cobra pilots were seeing.  From their vantage point, dozens of insurgents were swarming eastward toward the Karell’s Platoon.  It was only the gunship’s well-aimed rockets that drove them back toward Pakistan.

After seven hours, Lieutenant Karell was running out of daylight —and everything else— and his platoon was only half-way through the series of walled compounds.  Marine engineers destroyed several IED factories and knew more of them lay ahead.  The problem was that the 3rd Platoon was an insufficiently sized force to seize and hold the compounds.  Worse, the combat engineers were out of explosives —so that even if the 3rd Platoon did capture additional IED factories, there was no way to destroy them.  Captain Schellhaas knew that when he ordered the withdrawal of his platoons, it would be only a matter of time before the insurgents filtered back in.

Caught in the middle of all this was the Afghan farmer who only wanted to raise his poppies in peace[7].  The day following 3rd Platoon’s assault on Paki Alley, Karell led a motorized patrol to a small hamlet known as Khwaja Jamal.  In the spring, someone from this village was always taking pot-shots at patrolling Marines; since then, the insurgents there had either withdrawn or gone underground.  More recently, 2/7 Marines had established a dialogue with village elders.  Everyone in Khwaja Jamal was curious about these American interlopers.  It worked to the Marine’s advantage that their living conditions were equal to those of the poor farmers, but while the Marines —the product of 21st Century American society— enjoyed their creature comforts, Afghanis steadfastly rejected modernization in every form.

Were these villagers’ friend or foe?  A third of them were intent on selling Marines their ample supply of illicit drugs; another third wanted to know about American farming and irrigation techniques —and then there was a group of younger men who demanded to know why the Marines were in Afghanistan at all, how many soldiers they had, and how far could their guns shoot.

In December, when 2/7 was withdrawn, Nawzad was still empty of civilians.  By then, a third of Karell’s platoon had been killed or wounded.  Platoon sergeant Buegel was himself wounded by an IED, but he was one of the lucky ones.  Maybe the good Lord likes cranky people.  Relieved by Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/8, BLT 2/7 Marines returned to California to resume their lives.  Some of these men left the Corps at the end of their enlistments, some remained on active duty.  The majority of those who remained on active duty were transferred to other posts or stations.  As new men reported for duty with 2/7, replacing those ordered out, the battalion began its workup for a subsequent tour in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Karell, who was at the end of his obligated service, decided to remain on active duty.

Sources:

  1. Brady, J. The Scariest Place in the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea.  New York: Dunne Books, 2005
  2. Drury, B., and Tom Clavin. The Last Stand of Fox Company.  New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009
  3. Henderson, K. A Change in Mission.  Washington: Washington Post Company, 2009
  4. Kummer, D. W. S. Marines in the Global War on Terrorism.  Quantico: History Division, USMC.  2014
  5. Martin, R. Breakout—The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.

Endnotes:

[1] Celtiberians were Celticized people inhabiting the central-eastern Iberian Peninsula during the final centuries BC.

[2] There are dozens of explanations for the collapse of Rome, among them corruption, social malaise, and the fact that Rome attempted to incorporate barbarians into the Republic/Empire —people who were culturally non-Roman, and who therefore lacked the uniqueness of Roman esprit-de-corps.

[3] At the end of 2007, the most optimistic description possible for Helmand Province was that it was a gaggle turned stalemate.  When the Marines were sent to Helmand Province, Marine commanders decided they had had enough of fighting battles the Army way; they intended to fight the Taliban on their own terms.  It wasn’t long before the U.S. Army hierarchy in Kabul complained to Washington that the leathernecks had gone rogue; the Marines refused to do anything their Army superiors wanted them to do.  But the Marines know how to win battles.  They win battles through aggressiveness, thinking outside the box, and terrifying the hell out of the enemy.  This mindset is a significant contrast to Army careerism.  The Army began referring to Helmand Province as Marineistan.

[4] Skipper is an informal naval term denoting the Commanding Officer of a Marine company, the Commanding Officer of a Navy ship, or a Navy/Marine Corps aircraft squadron.

[5] Meals, Ready to Eat.  Also, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians.

[6] Every Marine officer is trained as an infantry officer.  A combat pilot knows exactly what his ground counterpart is facing and strives to support the grunts in every way possible.

[7] Fifty-two percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is generated by their illicit drug trade.  Given that the majority of its 36 million people are happy to remain in the stone age, one wonders how “saving” Afghanistan is in the United States’ national interests.

The Battle of Danny Boy

It ought to be comforting to the American people, in an odd sort of way, to realize that when it comes to idiotic politicians and bureaucrats, self-serving senior flag officers, and agenda-driven anti-nationalists, we aren’t standing alone in the world.  Somehow, though, this is not at all reassuring —it’s downright worrisome.  Like our own government, the United Kingdom decided to send its young men off to war. These well-trained warriors did their jobs and completed their missions and were officially recognized for their performance above and beyond the call of duty. But then the British government publicly called into question their honor and their courage on the field of battle.

What kind of people are we?

(Then) Lance Corporal Brian Wood, British Army, 1stBattalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, was called in to reinforce an insurgency attack directed against a combat patrol of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders near a checkpoint known as “Danny Boy.”  The incident took place near Majar al-Kabir on 14 May 2004.  It was one of the most ferocious engagements involving British forces in Iraq; it involved close-quarter combat against a larger force of the so-called Mahdi Army fighting to the death.

In the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, British forces were sent there to act as peacekeepers.  They were in Iraq to demonstrate solidarity with the western world, to win the hearts and minds of the local people, the goal of which was to help reconstruct the nation after the Iraq War.  This, quite naturally, was all political rubbish.  If these peacekeepers accomplished anything at all, they became the targets of a ruthless insurgency.  American and British forces were routinely sniped at, mortared, and attacked by armed extremists who were being cleverly manipulated by Moqtada al-Sadr. In this initial stage, and for the sake of brevity, we can call peacekeeping what it was: standing around looking stupid while senior military leaders figured out what was going on. Meanwhile, combat soldiers suffered the around-the-clock rocket and mortar fire,

When the leaders of these coalition forces finally decided that enough was enough, they planned several operations intending to confront the Mahdi army, locate and arrest key leaders, bomb-makers, and those who had no hesitation in sending children wrapped in explosives toward coalition camps.

Warrior Armored Vehicle 00114 May began with the usual rocket attack of the British position at Abu Naji.  The command ordered Corporal Wood and his men into the Warrior fighting vehicle; his mission: discover the location of insurgent (enemy) mortar positions. While on patrol, the Wood’s unit was redirected to reinforce elements of the Argyll Sutherland Highland, a platoon being ambushed near checkpoint Danny Boy.  As they sped to reinforce the beleaguered unit, vehicle commander Sergeant Broome provided Wood and his team with constant updates on the situation. Wood and his men, sitting in the rear compartment, had no way of observing the vehicle’s surroundings.

Suddenly, the Warrior began to receive overwhelming small-arms fire.  The vehicle commander hit the brakes and the gunner began delivering return fire. Wood and his men were completely in the dark as to what was happening outside the vehicle.  Broome evaluated the situation: there were ten to fifteen insurgents dug in some 125 yards from the highway directing fire at the Warrior. Entrenched, the firepower generated by the vehicle’s gunner is having no effect on the insurgent’s position. Broome ordered Wood and his men to dismount.  Wood said to his men, “prepare for a close-quarter assault.”  Wood informed his sergeant they were ready to go.  Broome replied, “On my mark … there’s a gully to the left, go for that, I’ll provide covering fire.”  On the count of three, Wood and his men exited the vehicle.

Brian Wood 001Woods (shown right, Royal Army photo) could see the enemy, well entrenched, their heads bobbing up and down as they fired the weapons and then took cover.  Wood realized immediately that his radio wasn’t working; there was no way to receive any further instructions from Broome.  He decided to attack the insurgents “hard and fast.”  His team of five scrambled out of the gully in team formation, running a zig-zag pattern across the open ground, stopping, kneeling, returning fire, advancing in a leap-frog pattern.  Enemy bullets whipped around them.  It was a demonstration of pure courage … and hope.

As the British team reached the trench, the insurgents seemed surprised.  What kind of crazy men were these to attack their well-manned and fortified position? Some of the insurgents began an immediate withdrawal.  Some threw down their weapons and raised their hands.  The Brits jumped into the trench, suddenly faced with dead bodies, prisoners, loosed weapons, shouting, and overhead fire.  The adrenalin was pumping.  Wood ordered those with their hands in the air to get on the ground; he ordered his men to ceasefire.  One insurgent was acting “jumpy,” as if he was getting ready to do something stupid, and the British team was still receiving fire from the withdrawn insurgents; they’d taken up a new position further back.  Wood grabbed Abu-Jumpy and threw him to the ground —for that man’s own protection, and his own.  He tied his hands with plastic cuffs, at the same time ordering his men to collect the enemy’s weapons and safe them.

Wood and his team were quickly augmented with reinforcements: two additional Warriors and a couple of battle tanks. Sergeant Major Dave Falconer made his presence known.  “Is the battlefield clear?”  It wasn’t clear.  Falconer ordered a clearing patrol, directing Wood to lead him in the direction of the withdrawing insurgents.  The two of them had just set off when an insurgent popped up and began firing at them.  Falconer dispatched him.  Another fighter stood up —but not for long before Wood shot him.  Two more Iraqis stood up, but they had their hands in the air. Wood recognized one of these men: an Iraqi policeman who had been working with the British forces.  Apparently, he’d switched sides.  It was a common occurrence among the Iraqis.  None of these people could be trusted.  Out of plastic cuffs, Wood and Falconer frog-walked these two men back to the British line.

The ordeal wasn’t over.  Falconer ordered Wood and his men to collect the bodies. It was a gruesome task and having to do these kinds of things are part of what causes combat veterans to have bad dreams.  The smell of death lingers for a lifetime.  In any case, a few days after the battle, military police conducted an inquiry of what had happened on the morning of 14 May.  Wood and his men made their statements.  As far as he was concerned, the issue was history.  In time, Wood rotated back home with his unit.

A few months later, while undergoing additional training, a couple of men from the special investigations branch appeared. They wanted to ask Corporal Wood a few more questions.  A few things needed clarification, they said.  They showed him some pictures of dead Iraqis and asked him to identify them.  It isn’t pleasant having to look at pictures of dead men, particularly men who’ve been killed in combat.  Wood didn’t recognize any of these men.  The interview lasted more than an hour.

Time progressed and Wood was notified that he was being awarded the Military Cross [1]. He received his medal from Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth.  It was an honor for Wood to have been so recognized. Her Majesty was kind toward Wood and offered him her thanks and appreciation for his service.

Phil Shiner 001In 2009, Wood learned of the so-called Al-Sweady investigation.  It had been five years since the Battle of Danny Boy.  The investigation had been initiated by a civil rights attorney named Phil Shiner (shown right, photo from the public domain).  A number of soldiers had been accused of assault, along with inhumane treatment of detainees.  One of these soldiers copped a plea and served one year in prison.  As a result of one man admitting inappropriate conduct, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) paid out £3-million to the aggrieved Iraqis for “substantive breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.”  The admission also led the liberal press to assume that human rights violations were prevalent within the British forces. A witch-hunt was started.  The Battle of Danny Boy resurfaced.

A group of six Iraqis and the uncle of Hamid al-Sweady, one of those killed at Danny Boy, claimed that they had been ill-treated by British forces in the aftermath of the battle.  They claimed to be innocent bystanders, simple farmers who were not part of the insurgency.  They were simply caught up in the crossfire.  They also claimed that the fighters who had been captured had been murdered in cold blood by the British troopers.  The MoD dismissed these allegations, but Solicitor Shiner persisted with his claims.  He suggested to the press that as many as 20 Iraqis had been murdered by British forces. In November 2009, it was announced that a public inquiry would be held to look into these claims.

Colour Sergeant [2] Wood was called to give evidence in 2013 … nine years later.  It wasn’t a trial; it was a public inquiry, but Wood was still placed in the dock and questioned by the attorneys representing the Iraqi complainers.  Wood thought the whole show was ridiculous—and indeed, it was.  Lacking any familiarity with military training or front line experience, the attorneys did not even know what questions to ask, and so they focused on the idiotic.  It was a fishing expedition: they wanted to know how long the firefight lasted, they asked Wood whether he went to the right or left when he exited the Warrior, and they wanted to know “how tightly” the plastic cuffs were placed on the Iraqi prisoners.  Was it true that Wood had denied a prisoner a drink of water?  Wood asked himself, “Why are we even discussing this?”

Wood gave his evidence and retired from the courtroom.  The result of the inquiry wasn’t announced for another nine months.  Meanwhile, Wood wondered what might happen next.  He’d not done anything wrong, so why was he now being made to suffer the stress of these unsubstantiated accusations?  And the liberal British press was having a field day. One might think that Wood was the reincarnated Jack the Ripper.

On 17 December 2014, the final report summed up 189-days of testimony from 55 Iraqi witnesses and 222 British servicemen. There were 328 statements from additional witnesses.  The final report consisted of more than 1,200 pages.  What were the findings?  “The vast majority of allegations made against British military were wholly and entirely without merit or foundation.  Very many of those baseless allegations were the product of deliberate and calculated lies on the part of those who made them, and who then gave evidence to this inquiry in order to support and perpetuate them.  Other false allegations were the result of inappropriate and reckless speculation on the part of witnesses.  The evidence clearly showed that the British soldiers responded to this deadly ambush with exemplary courage, resolution, and professionalism.”

The inquiry cost the British taxpayer £31 million. The firm called Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, a second law firm involved in cases against British troops were referred to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority.  In August 2016 Public Interest Lawyers went out of business, while the British government announced it would take steps to prevent further spurious claims against Her Majesty’s troops.  In December 2016, Phil Shiner was compelled to attend a hearing seated to consider the misconduct of attorneys.  He admitted guilt in relation to claims of wrongdoing by Wood and his men and.  The evidence against these lawyers was that they knew far in advance of the 2009 inquiry that allegations of murder and torture were false.  They knew that Hamid al-Sweady was a member of the Mahdi army —and knowing this, they allowed the allegations to go forward.

Martyn Day and Phil Shiner (and others) lost their license to practice law in 2017, but it didn’t undo the years of anguish and suffering among the British troopers and their families.

Neither Day or Shiner has ever apologized to these men.

John F. Kennedy once said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”  How does the United States and the United Kingdom honor the men who serve?

It could be argued, of course, by distinguished jurists that the legal process must begin with allegations that are either substantiated or defeated in a court of law.  But there is another point of view.  Nations spend billions of dollars training and equipping their soldiers to fight; they spend billions more sending them into combat.  Some of these men never come home.  Far more are permanently injured while fighting these wars. What right do lawyers or politicians have to constantly look over the shoulders of these men, second-guessing what goes on within the space of mere seconds in lethal combat?  What right do these people have to question the actions of these men in moments of adrenalin, fear, and their quest for survival?  More to the point, what right do they have in accepting the testimony of known liars [3] (the insurgents) over the word of the men who fought against them?

Ed Gallagher 001Presently, in the United States, another warrior is facing life in prison owing to allegations of war crimes.  According to the New York Times, decorated Navy SEAL, Special Operations Chief Ed Gallagher (Shown right, photo from public domain) has been charged with indiscriminately shooting at civilians, premeditated murder of a “teenage [4]” ISIS fighter, obstruction of justice, and bringing discredit upon the armed forces by posing in a picture next to the body of aforementioned teenager.

Ed Gallagher has achieved 19 years of honorable service. He is a trained hospital corpsman and a sniper.  He is the recipient of his country’s third highest combat decoration, the Silver Star. Now, aged 39, Gallagher is facing life in prison.  He isn’t the first combat soldier or sailor to face such accusations.

Chief Gallagher denies all charges.  I hope he has a good defense team; he’ll need one, because there are other Navy chiefs who are lined up to testify against him, now claiming that he was blood-thirsty, reckless, and out of control. But one has to wonder, if these characterizations are true, then why didn’t his officers in charge and senior enlisted supervisors take action to remove him from the combat force?  Why wasn’t he referred to medical authorities for a proper psychiatric evaluation?

We cannot now know what actually happened in Gallagher’s case.  This is why we have courts of inquiry and, when necessary, formal court-martial proceedings.  And yet, here we are, once more examining a situation in which governments send their young men into battle, and have the audacity to question them about what actually happened in the heat of combat.  Last week, we learned about the plight of Major Fred Galvin and the Marines of Fox Company, MARSOC-7. In Galvin’s case, the exalted leadership didn’t have his back, and the British government sure didn’t support Brian Wood and twenty others who were falsely accused.  Now we are witness to another set of allegations unfolding in the liberal press.

The British and Americans have a long history of the warrior ethos.  Whenever called upon, young men from these two countries have always stepped up —twice against one another.  But despite this proud history, I have to wonder how much longer anyone, in either country, with any common sense at all, will willingly place themselves in harm’s way if all they can ever expect is punishment for doing what their governments paid them to do —which, for the record, is to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.

Sources:

  1. Wood, B.  Double Crossed.  Virgin Books, London, 2019
  2. “Decorated Navy Seal is Accused of War Crimes in Iraq,” Dave Phillips, The New York Times, 15 November 2018
  3. “Lawyers in Foxholes,” Vassar Bushmills (vassarbushmills.com)

Endnotes:

[1] The Military Cross (MC) is awarded to all ranks of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army, and Royal Air Force in recognition of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.  It is an ornamental cross in silver, with straight arms terminating in broad finals decorated with the Imperial Crown.  The Queen does not usually present this decoration but may do so at her pleasure, which she did on this occasion.

[2] In the British Army, a colour sergeant ranks above sergeant and just below warrant officer.

[3] See also: Fox Company, MARSOC-7.

[4] The age, sex, socio-economic status, level of education, or the worthiness of his or her parents do not matter when someone is trying to kill you.  It is either kill the enemy or be killed by the enemy. Choose wisely.

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 took 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 very long 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.