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.

Phantom Fury

(The Second Battle of Fallujah)

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

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

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

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

Fallujah 10Nov04
Phantom Fury Assault Plan Global Security Org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

Fish and Chips

(The First Battle of Fallujah)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

 

Evaluating the Apple

A good friend recently sent me a book review by Mark Bowden, which I can only assume appeared in The Atlantic.  Bowden is best known for writing Black Hawk Down: A story of Modern War.  The subject of Bowden’s review is a book titled Eat the Apple: A memoir, by Matt Young.

Bowden begins,

“The trouble with writing the unvarnished truth in a memoir is that it requires you to be hard not only on others, but also on yourself.  Matt Young’s inventive, unsparing, irreverent and consistently entertaining [book] is that, but it is also a useful corrective to the current idealization of the American soldier —or in this case a Marine.  Patriotism and respect for the military is so high in this country that we have lately held a national debate over whether professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem.  Men and women in uniform are given preference in boarding airplanes and are so routinely thanked for their service that the expression has become rote.  Each new season brings a crop of movies and glossy TV serials dramatizing the heroics of our Special Operations.”

“[Matt] Young see’s hollowness and potential harm in this.”

“Enforcing the idea that every service member is a hero is dangerous; like creating of generation of veterans who believe everything they did was good,” wrote Young.

Bowden tells us that Matt Young wants to warn us of the dangers in creating an army of fanatics.  “[Military] service deserves respect, of course, but it does not in itself guarantee stirring and selfless acts of bravery.”

24th Marine Expeditionary Unit table 3 rifle range shootI’m quite sure that I won’t read Matt Young’s book.  I already know about military service and I might even suggest that I completed my career long before Mr. Young enlisted.  Still, some things go without saying.  Given the nature of our Armed Forces, and the fact that the military services host hundreds of occupational specialties —all of which support the efforts of front-line forces— only about one-third of our 1.4 million military service members serve in the combat arms … which is the place where we’ll find most heroes if we happened to be looking for them.  Nevertheless, courageous acts aside, very few of these selfless individuals are without sin.  A split second of bravery doesn’t make a soldier a good husband, a good father, or even a trustworthy friend.

Now about those fanatics Mr. Young is worried about.  I am unable to speak about the other services, but I can say that it is the purpose of Marine Corps training to turn every Marine into a lethal killing machine.  This is how battles are won.  If it is fanaticism, it is necessary to the success of combat units (and their combat/service support attachments).  If at some future time, as a matter of national policy, we intend to arm milquetoast youngsters with weapons and send them into harm’s way, then our nation will no longer deserve an elite combat force.

Nevertheless, the Marine Corps isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Roughly 40% of Marines reenlist after their first enlistment, which means that around 60% of everyone who joins the Marine Corps end up leaving at the end of their term of service.  Of those who end up getting out of the Corps, probably less than 20% later whine about their service as American Marines.  Once a first term Marine decides to leave the Corps, it almost isn’t relevant what it was that he or she did while wearing the uniform.  One thing does remain, however: this individual became a United States Marine —and he or she will always be a United States Marine— even if a chronic complainer.  If there is one thing that every Marine has in common, whether an officer or an enlisted man, it is the amount of complaining they do.  If you find a Marine who isn’t complaining about something, keep an eye on him —he’s probably stealing from the supply section.

Still, no matter what Matt Young says in his book, it isn’t enough to join the Corps.  Almost anyone can do that.  Moreover, almost anyone can end up in a combat unit.  What matters to me is an honest answer to these questions: Have you served honorably and faithfully in an extremely chaotic environment over an extended period of time?  During your service as a Marine, did you keep faith with your fellow Marines, past and present?

One will note that I didn’t say it was necessary that the Corps keep faith with us … only that we Marines keep faith with each other because this is the foundation of our brotherhood; this is what the Marine Corps has always been about.

MILLER JBI do have a bother, however —it is this: young Marines returning from combat, where they formed intense bonds with their fellow Marines, who suddenly find themselves isolated in a completely different environment.  Many of these young men are soon released from active duty and find themselves in the midst of a society that does not understand what they’ve just been through or the things they did for their country.  They are at a place where there is no safety net, and where no one is watching their six —a place where many young men and women struggle to maintain a sense of who they once were only a short time before.  We seem to have plenty of time for classes on gender and civility, but there appears to be no time at all for combat decompression.  Ours is not (and never has been) a good transition.  We (the Marines) could do a lot better in this regard.  Personally, I see this as a monumental failure of senior leadership.

Notes:

  1. The photograph that appears within my last paragraph is that of the iconic James Blake Miller, a Marine who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah.  The photograph was widely published in the American press; he was tagged “Marlboro Marine.”  Jim Miller suffers from PTSD and is now in recovery.  In my opinion, senior leaders in the Marine Corps deserted this young Marine when what he needed from them was the kind of leadership espoused by Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, our 13th Commandant.  We talk about this leadership annually as part of our celebration of the Marine Corps Birthday.  Apparently, modern leaders of the Corps would rather talk about it than to act on it.  In my opinion, Jim Miller and thousands of men just like him qualify as being among our nation’s greatest of young patriots.
  2. This post was previously published at my other blog, which I have since re-titled Old West Tales. Since this particular post no longer fits that profile, I’ve re-posted it here.

Poppa Fox

I have written on several occasions about the Purple Foxes. It is a Marine Corps helicopter squadron formerly known as HMM-364, now redesignated VMM-364 to reflect transition to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. The squadron’s first aircraft was the Sikorsky H-34 helicopter, and its first designation was HML-364, which stands for Light Marine Helicopter. The Purple Foxes were deployed several times to South Vietnam, remaining there until 1966 when the squadron was ordered back to MCAS El Toro to transition from the H-34 to the CH-46 Sea Knight. In October 1967, HMM-364 returned to Vietnam and participated in combat operations at Phu Bai and Marble Mountain. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, the Purple Foxes participated in the evacuation of Saigon. During the war, HMM-364 flew 70,000 hours in combat and combat support missions. HMM-364 was decommissioned on March 22, 1971.

The Purple Foxes were reactivated on September 28, 1984. Between then and now, HMM/VMM-364 has participated in numerous non-combat and combat missions, from Desert Shield and Desert Storm to Iraqi Freedom.

Poppa Fox is how the Marines of HMM-364 referred to their commanding officer. In 1969, the squadron commander was Eugene Brady who served in the Marine Corps from 1946 to 1980. While commanding HMM-364, Colonel Brady was awarded the Navy Cross:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to

Lieutenant Colonel Eugene R. Brady, United States Marine Corps

for extraordinary heroism and intrepidity in action while serving as Commanding Officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) — 364, Marine Aircraft Group SIXTEEN (MAG-16), First Marine Aircraft Wing, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 15 May 1969, Lieutenant Colonel Brady launched as Aircraft Commander of a transport helicopter assigned the mission of medically evacuating several seriously wounded Marines from an area northwest of An Hoa in Quang Nam Province. Arriving over the designated location, he was advised by the ground commander that the vastly outnumbered unit was surrounded by the enemy, some as close as thirty meters to the Marines’ positions. Fully aware of the dangers involved, and despite rapidly approaching darkness and deteriorating weather conditions, Lieutenant Colonel Brady elected to complete his mission. As he commenced a high-speed, low-altitude approach to the confined zone, he came under a heavy volume of hostile automatic weapons fire which damaged his aircraft but did not deter him from landing. During the considerable period of time required to embark the casualties, the landing zone was subjected to intense enemy mortar fire, several rounds of which landed perilously close to the transport, rendering additional damage to the helicopter. However, Lieutenant Colonel Brady displayed exceptional composure as he calmly relayed hostile firing positions to fixed-wing aircraft overhead and steadfastly remained in his dangerously exposed position until all the wounded men were safely aboard. Demonstrating superb airmanship, he then executed a series of evasive maneuvers as he lifted from the fire-swept zone, and subsequently delivered the casualties to the nearest medical facility. His heroic and determined actions inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in saving the lives of eight fellow Marines. By his courage, superior aeronautical ability, and unfaltering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, Lieutenant Colonel Brady upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.

When Colonel Brady passed away in 2011, his squadron mates penned the following poem and dedicated it to him. I am reprinting it here with the greatest respect for its authors and the Marines of VMM-364.

Flying West
Dedicated to Colonel Eugene “Papa Fox” Brady

Colonel Eugene R. Brady, USMC (Deceased)
Colonel Eugene R. Brady, USMC (Deceased)

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky,
Where pilots can go when they have to die –
A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer,
For a friend and a comrade, whose memory is dear;
A place where no doctor or lawyer can treat,
Nor a management type would ere be caught dead;
Just a quaint little place, kinda dark and full of smoke,
Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;
The kind of place where a lady could go,
And feel safe and protected, by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,
When their paining is finished, and their airspeed gets low,
Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,
And the songs about flying and dying are sung,
Where you’d see all the fellows who’d flown west before …
And they’d call out your name as you came through the door;
Who would buy you a drink if your thirst should be bad,
And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad.”

And then through the mist, you’d spot an old guy.
You had not seen for years, though he taught you to fly.
He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear,
And say, “Welcome, my son, I’m pleased that you’re here.”
“For this is the place where true flyers come,
When the journey is over, and the war has been won.
They’ve come here to at last be safe and alone
From the government clerk and the management lone,
Politicians and lawyers, the feds and the noise,
Where the hours are happy, and these good ol’ boys
Can relax with a cool one, and a well-deserved rest,
This is Heaven my son—you’ve passed your last test.”

Wings of Honor

Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, USN
Hospitalman Gary Norman Young, USN

This story begins with a young Hospital Man by the name of Gary Norman Young. Gary was attached for duty with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 364 (The Purple Foxes), one of the most decorated units in the Vietnam War. Gary was Navy Corpsman volunteer for medical evacuation missions. He knowingly put himself in harm’s way to help save the lives of seriously wounded combat Marines.

He was killed on February 7, 1969 while performing his hallowed life saving duty.

Years later, his daughter realized that her father had never received his combat aircrew wings and she wanted to correct that. She tracked down and contacted the men who served with The Purple Foxes with her father. In 2000, The Purple Foxes held a reunion in San Diego and Stephanie Hanson was invited to be their keynote speaker. During the reunion, Stephanie met the man who survived her father’s fatal crash. She also met the man who pulled his body from the wreckage.  She reminded these brave aviators that her father was still awaiting his aircrew insignia. What was needed, however, was proof that Gary Norman Young had flown the required five combat missions before his death.

In October 2002, Stephanie Hanson’s efforts on behalf of her father came to fruition; the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (Aviation) personally awarded her her father’s Combat Aircrew Wings. She also met the flight surgeon whose duty it was to pronounce her father’s death. He told her that her father’s death was instantaneous —he never suffered in his final moments of life. There was another positive aspect to Stephanie’s efforts: former Marines were able to connect with one another after 33 years.

There is more to the story.

Captain J. J. Harris, USMC
Captain J. J. Harris, USMC

Stephanie Hanson remembered a young helicopter pilot she met as part of her quest to obtain her father’s aircrew wings. The pilot’s name was Jennifer J. Harris, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Class of 1996.

On 7 February 2006, Captain Jennifer J. Harris was a pilot with HMM-364. She was accustomed to flying her Sea Knight (CH-46) helicopter into the battlefield to pick up and evacuate wounded Marines. Many of these missions were performed at night. Her final flight was a daylight mission. She volunteered to transport a much-needed supply of blood to a forward location.

Captain Harris didn’t have to fly that mission. She was at the end of her third combat tour of duty,  and Captain Harris was getting ready to rotate back home. But Captain Harris was a Marine and Marines always accept challenges. Marines always run toward the sound of guns —always. Harris argued, “I want to fly one more mission in Iraq … in the daylight.” Captain Harris’ superiors agreed to let her fly.

Her bird was carrying more than blood supplies, however. It was also flying a United States flag in honor of Hospital man Gary Norman Young, United States Navy.

During her final mission, Captain Harris’ helicopter was shot out of the sky by an enemy rocket. Radio communication reflects that Harris maintained her professional demeanor throughout the emergency, but the aircrew was unable to put out the on-board fire, and Captain Harris was unable to prevent the helicopter from crashing into the ground. All six aircrew were killed upon impact … 38 years to the day that Gary Norman Young lost his life as a member of The Purple Foxes.

Winning Battles While Losing Wars

Bing WestAn essay by Bing West

This essay addresses why America is performing poorly in 21st Century warfare. War is the act of destroying and killing until the enemy is broken morally, and no longer resists our policy objectives. But President Obama eschews the war he claims to be fighting. Our generals have imposed rules of engagement that lengthen war and increase civilian casualties. Our enemies do not fear us, and our friends do not trust us. America is fighting a war without direction or leadership.

Policy Planning

We invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq with inchoate plans and inadequate forces to establish post-war security and governance. After winning the first battle in both countries, President George W. Bush offhandedly decided to build democratic nations, a task for which our State Department and USAID had no competence or interest. By default, the mission fell to our military, also without competence but with unflagging devotion and determination.

In both countries, our true enemies were rabid warriors determined to win or die. For us, the wars were limited —fought with few forces and many restraints. When the Islamists proved dedicated to an unlimited struggle, we reversed course and withdrew. True, President Bush did increase US forces in Iraq in 2007 and that stabilized the country. However, in 2008 he agreed with the sectarian, serpentine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to withdraw all American troops by 2011. He threw away his success.

When 2011 arrived, President Barack Obama went against the recommendations of the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Instead of politically maneuvering to keep a residual force to check al-Maliki’s dark instincts, Obama pulled out all our troops. He fulfilled Bush’s foolish promise. Al-Maliki then proceeded to oppress the Sunnis, leading to the reemergence of the extremists now called the Islamic State. Obama quit, but Bush made it easy for him to do so.

Mr. Obama claimed Afghanistan was the war that had to be won. But as in Iraq, he headed for the exit. To avoid a humiliating collapse before he departs the White House, he will keep perhaps eight thousand US troops there in 2016.

On balance, the results in Iraq or Afghanistan were not worth the costs in American casualties, money, and global influence. Several policy lessons may be drawn.

First, the Pentagon should project for the president the length of time to achieve a desired post-war end state. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that meant staying for twenty or more years. From the start, Bush failed to explain this to the public. He did not even try to set the conditions in Congress and in the press for a long-term presence, as in South Korea.

Second, if our troops are killing and dying because the indigenous troops are not capable enough to stand on their own, then our commanders have the right and the obligation to select the leaders of those local forces. American diplomats chose Karzai and Maliki behind the scenes. Both choices were disasters. Yet due to unthinking allegiance to the word “democracy,” we allowed those solecistic, incompetent “elected” leaders to promote whom they chose within the ranks of the police, military, and other government agencies. Like Great Britain before us, we were a colonial power. Unlike the Brits, we did not select the commanders of the indigenous armies we were training, equipping, and paying.

Third, we granted sanctuaries to the enemy. Our military after Vietnam had vowed never again to fight such a war. But we forgot that vow. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy al-Qaeda. In December of 2001, the core of that organization and its top leaders were trapped in a mountainous region called Tora Bora. Rather than employ a nearby Marine brigade and special operations forces, the American commander, General Tommy Franks, relied upon Afghan warlords whose motley troops allowed the al-Qaeda force to move across the border into Pakistan. That was a grave, unforced military error. Then, in a triumph of legalism over common sense, Bush decided not to cross the border in hot pursuit to destroy the fleeing terrorists.

Afghanistan steadily deteriorated after that. Yet we persisted for fourteen years in fighting an enemy while giving him a 1,500-mile-long sanctuary. Similarly, we knew where the al-Qaeda safe houses were in Syria, just across the border from Iraq. But we didn’t bomb them. We granted our enemy sanctuary.

Fourth, in such countries we should influence the politics through covert means, just as we did in Europe after World War II and occasionally during the Cold War. This includes channeling money, communications channels, and ease of transportation. Politics determines who gets what, when, and why. We fight wars to shape political ends. Influencing indigenous politics during a war should be a goal, not an out-of-bounds marker.

Fifth, we decided not to capture our enemy. In the twentieth century, many more combatants were captured than killed. Today, we don’t capture anyone. The gross pictures from Abu Ghraib, the political storm over water-boarding and Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo and prosecute terrorists as criminals forced our military to turn over all captured enemies to corrupt Iraqi and Afghan officials. Most of those once in prison are now free, while the wars continue. Our troops call it “catch and release.” America has no comprehensible judicial system for war in the twenty-first century.

Sixth, we remain at war rhetorically, while refusing to fight with determination. How do we fight? The administration launches one or two drone strikes each month. White House spokesmen have bragged that the president routinely reviews dossiers and selects those to be killed. A commander in chief deciding upon a war fighting tactic calls into question management priorities. It also signals incapacity to think strategically, illustrating that he views war as a set of morally wrenching discrete decisions to kill about one hundred enemies each year.

Occasionally, the White House will supplement the drone strikes with a raid by our special operations forces, especially the SEALs. This garners huge favorable press, projecting an image of American superstar invulnerability. No wonder each SEAL vies to receive the most publicity. Distributing photos of the entire National Security Council mesmerized by the video of a squad raid encapsulates a strategic instinct to focus on the capillaries.

War is the act of relentlessly destroying and killing until the enemy is broken physically and morally, and no longer resists the advancement of our policy objectives. By that definition, Obama eschews war. He has declared the Islamic State will be destroyed. But his actions belie his words.

Seventh, our feckless war fighting policies over the past seven years have gravely diminished the respect of our adversaries and the trust of our friends. We refused to provide Ukraine with weapons after the Russians invaded. After declaring a “red line” if Assad used chemical weapons, Obama asked Russia to help him out. Now Russian aircraft in Syria are bombing the rebels Obama armed in the hope of overthrowing Assad. In Iraq, Iranian troops have replaced American troops. Obama’s retort is that both Iran and Russia won’t achieve anything more than he did. At the same time, Obama signed a nuclear agreement with Iran and lifted sanctions, without submitting a treaty to the Senate. In sum, Russia and Iran have undermined American credibility and military power in the Middle East, while China steals on a gigantic scale in cyberspace and exerts control over the South China Sea.

Currently, America has ceased to be the major power-player in the Middle East. Unless confronted by an absolute disaster, Obama will finish out his presidency without applying any more force than occasional bombing against the Islamic State. Russia and Iran will remain the more dominant military actors, along with the Islamic State. Under Iranian influence, Iraq will remain at war, divided between the Shiite and Sunni areas.

Fighting the War

We have done a miserable job at policy planning. But how are we doing on the battlefield? How do we fight that is really different from the twentieth century?

The most obvious difference is our overwhelming conventional superiority. That was clear when we took back Kuwait in 1991. It was reinforced in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. The world has never seen the likes of it. Yes, Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon … there have been numerous victorious armies and conquests. But none like this, none with such global reach and so few casualties.

What happened here, and why? In the twentieth century, the major wars were fought on an industrial scale. The combatants on opposing sides possessed the same sets of conventional weapons —machine guns, artillery, tanks, ships, vehicles, and aircraft. In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, only America could quickly, and at low cost, destroy all those weapons possessed by any other country.

Why? Because for a brief period —two or three decades?— our military technology had outstripped the rest of the world. The Soviet Union had collapsed, China had not caught up, and no other hostile nation was remotely in our technological league. Most telling was our leap forward in air-to-ground surveillance, detection, and destruction. Militaries cannot move or be supplied without vehicles. Every artillery tube, every internal engine, every human face emits heat that shines like a spotlight. Use any computer or cell phone, walk outdoors, drive down a road —and someone above is watching, electronically or physically. Our air-to-ground surveillance and firepower are astonishing.

Yet we did not win the battles, much less the wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Simple: the enemy adapted. He took off his uniform and used our morality and befuddlement as jiu-jitsu to overcome our technological advantages. By hiding among the people, he was safe from our firepower. The enemy lived in the cities and villages, or hid across the border, coming together in small groups and choosing when and where to initiate contact against our patrols. The Vietnam-era tactic of fire and maneuver has gone away. Our troops wear armor and gear weighing about ninety pounds. They cannot run a hundred meters without being exhausted. So when the enemy shoots, a patrol gets down and returns a vicious volume of aimed fire. Except you rarely see a target, because the enemy isn’t stupid. He has selected a covered position before opening fire. Most firefights last less than fifteen minutes, because once a gunship or aircraft comes overhead, the enemy is doomed. So he shoots and scoots. Thus the war goes on and on, because the enemy will not commit suicide by massing or wearing uniforms.

The Islamists in Iraq and Afghanistan did not fight fiercely and stand their ground against our troops. Our training, shooting skills and firepower were overwhelming. The enemy may have been a farm boy, a terrorist from Yemen, a former Iraqi soldier, a youth from a Pakistani madras, a Taliban from Kabul —whomever. They all learned to stay about four hundred meters away from American troops, because every grunt now has a telescopic sight and most are qualified as expert riflemen.

The suicide bomber was a threat to our vehicles and fixed outposts. But it never expanded into an enormous threat. The YouTube videos posted by the Islamic State from the 2015 battles in Iraq suggest an exponential growth. From anecdotal evidence, it appears the suicidal truck bomber is as much a threat as was the kamikaze during the Okinawa campaign in 1945.

There was no solution to the improvised explosive device (IED). There were hundreds of thousands of them, because mixing fuel and fertilizer and packing them into a plastic jug is too easy ever to be stopped. IEDs have to be tolerated on a battlefield just as is a rifle. It’s a simple tool and therefore commonplace. We shouldn’t forget that in Vietnam, we lost over 10,000 killed to mines and booby traps—20 percent of all our fatalities.

What was new in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was not the profusion of the IED/land mine; instead, it was the reduction in the number of American fatalities. Much has been written about “the magic hour,” meaning: get every wounded to an aid station within sixty minutes. True, the ratio of injured to killed dropped from 4-to-1 in Vietnam to 7-to-1 in Iraq. The underlying reason was better training in life-saving drilled into every squad, along with the tourniquet. Most wounded die from exsanguination. They bleed out because the tourniquet is inadequate. Not anymore. The modern tourniquet with its twist and snap is as much a breakthrough for the grunt as was the stirrup for the horse rider.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the doctrine of counterinsurgency prevailed. Practically, this meant our troops patrolled by walking about three miles a day in heavy gear in formations of fifteen to twenty men. The idea was to clear a populated area of the enemy by walking around repeatedly. Once the enemy pulled out or was killed, the friendly platoon or company would hold that area until Iraqi or Afghan forces were capable of holding it on their own. The local forces, in conjunction with local officials, were then to use American funds to build projects in order that the people would see a material reason for supporting their government.

Militarily, the goal was to win over the people. Thus, rules of engagement were designed to place severe limits upon the use of indirect firepower (mortars, artillery, rockets, or bombs). Even one civilian casualty caused bitter complaints, although the Islamists were responsible for three out of four killed or wounded.

On our side, there was a yin and yang to a war that had no endpoint. Over the last four years in Afghanistan, it became common for a platoon commander to say, “My mission is to get every one of my men back home in one piece.” Why risk your men when no one could tell you what defined victory? Why go across a field after taking some fire to check out the compound, when you could call in indirect fire? The incentive at the patrol level was to call in indirect fire.

On the yang side, the incentive of the senior commanders was not to allow indirect fire. The longer we stayed, the more frustrated the top command became with the lack of population cooperation. Every civilian casualty translated into some official complaining. So the more rigorous became the rules, especially in Afghanistan. It finally got to the point that the word of the forward air controller (FAC) on the ground was not good enough. The pilot was required to cross-examine the FAC before executing the mission, and a lawyer and/or another pilot back in an operations center miles away also had to authorize the strike.

Today, eight out of ten US attack aircraft return from missions over Islamic State territory without striking any target. To do so, the pilot needs the permission of a senior American officer in an operations center hundreds of miles away. This enormous caution —and expense— to protect the lives of every civilian is unprecedented in history. Only the richest country in the world can do it. However, it gravely slows down the pace of a war and allows the enemy to recuperate indefinitely.

These rules of engagement cannot be sustained when we again fight an enemy who can and does kill us. So far in the twenty-first century, our helicopters and aircraft have been almost invulnerable. Our losses have been very, very small. Similarly, our forces on the ground have not been under pressure. They are not attacked by doughty infantry in full battalions like the North Vietnamese, supported by heavy artillery. When we again fight heavy, sustained battles on a large scale, some commanders claim we can change these highly restrained rules of engagement at the snap of the fingers. More likely, the rules have sapped the aggressive spirit the high command must share with the warriors on the battlefield.

Lastly and regrettably, I must mention the growing trend of victimhood. Our society does not celebrate and single out the heroes. Instead, it tries to compensate those who psychologically or physically did not return home able to fully cope. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides some level of health care for less than half of our veterans. A minority of veterans use the VA. If all who had served turned to the VA for medical assistance, the VA system would collapse.

Yet the VA is now reporting that more 40 percent of all individuals getting out of the service after four years —and the wars essentially are over— apply for compensation for mental or physical injury. During the Vietnam War, the VA had five injury categories; today, it has seventeen. The more free money is available, the more will apply for that money. What does that do to the internal morale of a service when some in every squad put in claims, and others do not?

Summary

In summary, our enemies do not fear us and our friends do not trust us. Sensible steps can turn that around, but that depends upon the next commander in chief. So far in the twenty-first century, due to our vast wealth and technologies, we have not been sorely tested. Our beloved nation does not have a martial spirit, and perhaps does not need one. It does need a military inculcated with a warrior spirit.

Our largest deficit is national will. Consider our actions over the past decade. In 2004, we destroyed the Iraqi city of Fallujah in order to root Islamist terrorists. Then in 2011, we pulled our troops out of Iraq, despite predictions that Iraq would fall apart. In 2009, we demanded Assad leave power in Syria, but did not use military force to accomplish our demand. In the resulting civil war partially caused by our blunders, Islamist terrorists seized half of Syria and Iraq.

In November of 2015, the Islamists —now called ISIS or ISIL— massacred 130 civilians in Paris. But the American political system was unable to unite behind committing forces, as we did in Fallujah a decade ago. Why? Our commander-in-chief has rejected deploying Americans in ground combat, because he believes eternal war is the nature of the Muslim Middle East. He refuses to utter the word ‘Islamist terrorist.’ So does the Democratic contender to be our next commander-in-chief. The Republican candidates are divided. Our Congress will not even debate a resolution to authorize the use of ground forces, for fear of how the vote would affect re-election.

President Bush rashly overstepped in extending war to include nation-building. President Obama ideologically retreated by imposing restraints that encouraged our enemies. Congress proved irrelevant, lacking the cohesion to play its Constitutional role in declaring for —or against— war. As 2015 ends, a leaderless America is drifting. That should scare us all.

Bing West is a former combat Marine and an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration.  He has written nine books about war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.