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.

Building the Hive

Nothing happens in war without logistics.”

—Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

USN 001

Some Background

Navy ships cannot remain at sea forever.  Shortly after the establishment of the U. S. Navy, senior officers began planning for ports and facilities that would enable the Navy to build and maintain its vessels, warehouse stores and ammunition, and where the navy could develop training programs for the rank and file.  Included was the requirement to hire civil engineers capable of overseeing its base construction efforts.  The Navy’s first hire was a man named Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect.

Latrobe was the son of a Moravian[1] minister of French descent in Yorkshire, England, educated in England and Germany.  A widower, he migrated to the United States with his two young children in 1786.  Latrobe found the profession of civil engineering and architecture in America barely adequate but left it in the hands of careful, thoughtful, professional men.  Latrobe’s building standards dominated in the United States until the American Civil War.

In 1804, the U. S. Navy appointed Benjamin Latrobe Engineer of the Navy Department[2].   Latrobe immediately began drafting plans for the construction of the Washington Navy Yard[3].  In 1809, Latrobe drafted plans for additional navy yards in New York and at Norfolk, Virginia.  Despite his contributions to the emerging Navy Department, Mr. Latrobe was never an employee of the Navy Department; he was a civilian architect contracted by the Navy Department.  The Navy Department did not implement his plan for New York and Norfolk until long after his death.

In 1826, Congress approved funding for the construction of two dry docks (in Boston and Norfolk); the Navy appointed a noted Bostonian engineer to design and construct them.  His name was Loammi Baldwin, a descendant of Deacon Henry Baldwin, an original settler of North Woburn, Massachusetts.  Between 1826-34, Baldwin served as Superintendent of Dry Docks and Inspector of Navy Yards.  Like Latrobe, Baldwin was a contract employee with no official position within the Navy Department.

William P. S. Sanger (1810-1890) was also from Massachusetts.  In 1826, Sanger was apprenticed to Baldwin to learn the trade of civil engineering[4]; between 1827-1834, Sanger represented Baldwin during his absences at the construction of the dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia.  Although Sanger was only a temporary employee initially, he would later play a central role in the development of civil engineering in the Navy and the creation of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps.  In 1836, Sanger was appointed to serve as Civil Engineer for the Navy and assigned to the staff of the Board of Navy Commissioners, a board of three Navy captains who served as the Secretary of the Navy’s principal advisory staff.

Sanger W P S 001
William P. S. Sanger

When the Navy Department reorganized in 1836, the Board of Navy Commissioners was replaced by five bureaus intended to oversee various aspects of naval operations.  The bureau system remained in place for the next 124 years.  The first of these was the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks, which may serve to illustrate the importance placed on yards and docks by the Navy hierarchy.  Along with this emphasis, the Navy required someone to oversee yards and docks programs, which was never an easy task.  Although the Navy Civil Engineer Corps wasn’t established until 1867, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur appointed William Sanger Civil Engineer of Yards and Docks in September 1842.

On 2 March 1867, the Navy established its Civil Engineer Corps and charged it with responsibility for constructing and repairing all buildings, docks, and wharves servicing U. S. Navy ships.  Civil engineers would supervise a naval architecture, direct the activities of master builders, and oversee public works initiatives.  Civil engineers were not required to wear a navy uniform until 1881 officers.  From then until today, Navy civil engineers have worn their unique service insignia[5].

In the early 1900s, civilian construction companies worked on a contract basis for the United States Navy.  On the eve of World War II, the number of civilian contractors working for the navy at overseas locations numbered around 70,000 men.  What made this particularly significant was an international agreement making it illegal for civilian employees to resist any armed attack.  To do so would classify them as guerilla fighters and this, in turn, would subject them to summary execution.  This is what happened when the Japanese invaded Wake Island[6].

The concept of a Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was envisaged in 1934 as a war plan contingency, a concept that received the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations (then, an administrative post rather than an operational one).  In 1935, Captain Walter Allen, a war plans officer, was assigned to represent BuDocks on the war planning board.  Allen presented the NCB concept to the War Planning Board, which included it in the Rainbow Plan[7].

A major flaw in the proposal for NCBs was its dual chain of command; military control would be exercised by line officers of the fleet, while construction operations would fall under the purview of officers of the Civil Engineer Corps.  The plan for NCBs also ignored the importance of military organization, training, discipline, and creating esprit de corps within the force.  Last, at least initially, NCB plans focused almost entirely on the construction of training stations within the Continental United States (CONUS) with little attention to the deployment of NCBs to overseas locations.

Rear Admiral (RAdm) Ben Moreell was a leading proponent for Navy Construction Battalions (CBs, also Seabees).  In December 1937, Moreell became Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks.  RAdm Moreell (1892-1978) graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering in 1913.  He joined the Navy at the beginning of World War I.  Owing to his educational specialty, the Navy offered him a direct appointment to Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Civil Engineer Corps.  Moreell was assigned to the Azores, where he met and was befriended by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early in his career, the Navy recognized Moreell for his exceptional ability.  While serving as a lieutenant commander, Moreell was sent to Europe to study military engineering design and construction.  In 1933, he returned to the United States to supervise the Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland.

Moreell B 001In December 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the advancement of Lieutenant Commander Moreell to Rear Admiral, by-passing commander, and captain, and appointed him to head the Bureau of Yards and Docks while concurrently serving as Chief of Civil Engineers of the Navy.  With great foresight, Moreell urged the construction of two giant drydocks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and initiated Navy construction projects on Midway and Wake Island.  The Pearl Harbor project was completed in time to repair navy ships damaged during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941 and the Midway project was completed in time to play an important role in the Battle of Midway.

By summer 1941, civilian construction crews were working on Guam, Midway, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Bermuda.  Adm. Moreell took the decision that the navy needed to improve its project supervision.  To accomplish this, he requested the establishment of Headquarters Construction Companies, each containing two officers and 99 enlisted men.  The mission of the construction companies involved the conduct of drafting, surveys, and project inspections.  RAdm. Chester W. Nimitz, then serving as Chief, Bureau of Navigation, authorized the 1st Headquarters Construction Company on 31 October 1941; recruitment began in the following month.  The first recruit training class, quite remarkably, began at Newport, Rhode Island on 7 December 1941.

On 28 December 1941, RAdm Moreell requested authority to commission three Naval Construction Battalions.  Approval was granted on 5 January 1942 and a call for qualified recruits went out almost immediately.  The 1st Naval Construction Detachment was organized from the 1st Headquarters Construction Company, which was then assigned to Operation Bobcat in Bora Bora[8].  The Detachment was tasked to construct a military supply base, oil depot, airstrip, seaplane base, and defensive fortifications.  In total, 7 ships and 7,000 men were assigned to the base at Bora Bora.

The 2nd and 3rd Construction companies formed the nucleus of the 1st CB Battalion at Charleston, SC; these were soon deployed as the 2nd and 3rd Construction Detachments.  The 4th and 5th companies formed the 2nd CB Battalion and deployed as the 4th and 5th Construction Detachments.

Seabees 001The dual chain of command issue was finally resolved when Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox gave full authority over the Seabees to the Civil Engineer Corps.  Construction Battalions were officially recognized as Seabees on 5 March 1942.

To safeguard the location of projects in furtherance of advanced base construction, the Navy coded each project.  They were either Lion, Cub, Oak, or Acorn.  Lion 1-6, for example, primarily involved fleet bases projects.  Cub projects numbered 1-12 involved secondary fleet base projects.  Oak and Acorn projects were airfield construction programs.

In the Atlantic, the Seabees’ most complex task was preparation for the Allied landing at Normandy.  Subsequent operations took place along the Rhine and some of these involved “front line” work. 

The Navy-Marine Corps Team

USMC SealMarine Corps historian and author Gordon L. Rottman observed, “…one of the biggest contributions the Navy made to the Marine Corps during World War II was the creation of the Seabees.”  The Marine Corps, in turn, had a tremendous influence on Seabee organization, training, and combat history.

When Seabees first formed, they did not have a functional training facility of their own.  Upon leaving Navy boot camp, Seabee trainees were sent to National Youth Administration camps spread over four states.  To solve this problem, the Marine Corps created tables of organization that included NCBs.  It was through this process that Seabee companies were organized, equipment was standardized, and combatants received intensified military training through various regimental combat and advance base structures.

Early on, the Marine Corps’ requested one Seabee battalion in general support of an Amphibious Corps.  This was initially denied, but before the end of the year, Seabee Battalions 18, 19, and 25 were supporting advanced Marine forces as combat engineers, each of these being attached to composite engineer regiments (the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Marines).

In 1944, the demand for increased infantry caused the Marine Corps to deactivate its engineer regiments, but each Marine division retained a Seabee battalion in general support.  For operations on Iwo Jima, the 133rd and 31st Seabees were attached to the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions.  During the 5th Marine Division’s post-war occupation of China, the 116th Seabees accompanied them.  The 83rd, 122nd, and 33rd Seabees supported the III Amphibious Corps.

Navy Seabees were no “one-trick pony.”  In addition to combat engineering, they also participated as Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and Underwater Demolition Teams (UTDs), the forerunner of the Navy Seals organization.

The difficult we do now; the impossible takes a little longer.

During World War II, Seabees constructed 400 advanced bases across the Pacific to Asia, and from the Caribbean and Atlantic to African and European shores.  They frequently landed with assault forces, bringing with them skills in demolition operations, including places such as North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, at Normandy, and operations crossing the Rhine River into Germany.  They were builders and fighters.  In the Pacific region, they constructed 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals —and all of it completed in the heat of battle.

Service Partnerships

On 27 October 1943, Allied forces landed on the Treasury Islands group, which were part of the Solomon Islands.  US and New Zealand forces assaulted entrenched Japanese troops as part of an effort to secure Mono and Stirling Islands so that a radar station could be established on the former, with the latter a staging area in preparation for the assault on Bougainville.  By taking the Treasury Islands, Allied forces would isolate Bougainville and Rabaul and eliminate the Japanese garrison.  On 28 November, Fireman First Class Aurelio Tassone, U. S. Navy Reserve, assigned to the 87th Naval Construction Battalion, created a legendary figure of the Seabees astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy positions.  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command …

Tassone-Turnbull 001Petty Officer Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the landing of the Seabees when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, Civil Engineer Corps, USN, told him that a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance of the landing force from its beachhead.   While Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with his carbine, Tassone drove forward using his front blade as a shield against sustained Japanese automatic weapons fire.  Tassone crushed the pillbox with the dozer blade killing all twelve of its Japanese defenders.  For his courage under fire, Tassone was awarded the Navy Silver Star medal.

During World War II, Seabees earned five Navy Cross medals, and the nation’s third-highest award for exceptional combat service, 33 Silver Star medals.  They also paid a heavy price: 18 officers and 272 enlisted men killed in action.  An additional 500 Seabees died as a result of non-combat injuries while performing hazardous construction operations.

During the Korean War, 10,000 World War II Era Seabees were recalled to active service.  They served during the landing at Inchon and participated in combat activity elsewhere, performing magnificently as combat engineers.  While Seabees were fighting in Korea, others were constructing an air station at Cubi Point, Philippine Islands —a massive undertaking that necessitated the removal of a two-mile stretch of mountain foothills, which, after having removed 20 million cubic yards of soil, became a project equivalent to the construction of the Panama Canal.

Seabees deployed to Vietnam twice during the 1950s.  In June 1954 they supported Operation Passage to Freedom; two years later Seabees were deployed to map and survey the roads in South Vietnam.  In 1964, Seabees constructed outlying operational bases and fire support bases near Dam Pau and Tri Ton.  Beginning in 1965, NCB personnel supported Marines at Khe Sanh and Chu Lai.

Shields Marvin CM3 USN
CM3 Marvin Shields, USN

On the night of 9 June 1965, the unfinished Army Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai was mortared and attacked by the 272nd Viet Cong Regiment, an assault by an estimated 2,000 communist troops.  The Special Forces camp fell to the enemy the next morning.  Having been wounded by mortar fire during the assault, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin G. Shields fought alongside his Special Forces counterparts helping forward positions in the resupply of much-needed ammunition.  Wounded for a second time by shrapnel and shot in the jaw on 10 June, he helped carry wounded soldiers to safer positions, including the fallen commanding officer.  After four more hours of intense fighting and greatly weakened by the loss of blood, Shields volunteered to help Second Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams, destroy an enemy machine gun outside the perimeter, which was threatening to kill everyone in an adjacent district headquarters building.  During this fight, Williams was wounded for the third time, and Shields for the fourth time, shot in both his legs.  Although evacuated, Shields died on the aeromedical evacuation helicopter.  Petty Officer Shields became the first and the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life beyond the call of duty.  Shields and Petty Officer William C. Hoover lost their lives and seven additional Seabees received wounds that required medical evacuation during this battle.

More than 5,000 Seabees served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.  Since 1990, Seabees have provided vital construction skills in support of civil action programs across the globe, including the Middle East, the Philippine Islands, and in response to natural disasters inside the United States.  At the present time, there are six active-duty Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs), split between Atlantic and Pacific fleet commands.

There is no question whether the United States will again face a significant national emergency.  When that happens, we can only hope (and pray) that we will still have available to us a lethal and exceedingly competent Naval Mobile Construction Battalion: America’s Fighting Seabees.

Sources:

  1. Historian, Naval Facilities Engineering Command. History of the Seabees.  Washington, 1996.
  2. Huie, W. B. Can Do!  The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1997
  3. Huie, W. B. From Omaha to Okinawa, The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
  4. Kubic, C. R., and James P. Rife. Bridges to Baghdad: The U. S. Navy Seabees in the Iraq War.  Thomas Publications, 2009
  5. L. Germany First: The Basic Concept of Allied Strategy in World War II.  US Army Center of Military History, 1960
  6. Olsen, A. N. The King Bee.  Trafford Publishing, 2007

 Endnotes:

[1] Moravia was a crown land of the Bohemian Crown from 1348 to 1918, an imperial state within the Holy Roman Empire from 1004 to 1806, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1804-1867.

[2] At this time, the Navy Department consisted of the Secretary of the Navy, three clerks, and the Chief Engineer.

[3] Navy officials ordered the Washington Navy Yard fired to keep it out of the hands of the British invaders in 1814.  The essential design of the navy yard remains a Latrobe design and the main gate on Eighth Street is the original base entry point.

[4] In 1826, the only formal training in engineering was the US Military Academy.  All other training was informally achieved through apprenticeships.

[5] It was never clear that the Act of 2 March 1867 intended civil engineers to serve as commissioned officers; the wording is too brief and vague for an adequate conclusion, but as the act stated, “… shall be appointed by the president …” the Secretary of the Navy assumed that his civil engineers should be commissioned as officers of the U. S. Navy.  The Secretary did not implement this interpretation until 1 January 1869, but dates of rank were backdated to 13 March 1863.

[6] When the Japanese invaded Wake Island on 23 December 1941, 70 civilian construction workers were killed when they took up arms against the Japanese.  After the fall of the island, 1,104 civilian construction workers were taken into captivity and forced to perform labor in the construction of Japanese defensive positions.  Of these, 180 died in captivity believed starved and beaten to death by brutish Japanese guards.

[7] American war planners realized that the United States faced the possibility of war on multiple fronts, against a coalition of enemies, the Joint Planning Board of the Army and Navy developed a new series of war plans.  They were called the Rainbow Plans … color-coded plans drawn up previously.

[8] An island in the leeward group of the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

U. S. Marines in Urban Warfare

EGA BlackUrban areas (cities and large towns), are important centers of gravity —points of interest that involve a complex range of human activities.  Throughout history military commanders have acknowledged that urban areas are either places that require protection, or they are centers that demand firm control.  These are mankind’s centers of population, transportation and communications hubs, seats of government, the sources of national wealth, and concentrations of industry.  Over the past three-hundred years, humans living in agrarian areas have migrated to towns and cities in ever-increasing numbers.  In just a few years nearly 85% of the world’s population will reside in urbanized areas —which places these areas squarely in the sights of military establishments seeking either to defend or seize them.  Urban areas are also areas where radical ideas ferment, dissenters cultivate allies, where human diversity leads to ethnic friction, and where disgruntled people receive the most media attention.

In its expeditionary role, the U.S. Marine Corps is trained to fight battles within urbanized terrain.  This was not always the case, but in recent history, Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) of various sizes have been deployed to address conflicts in urban areas: Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Beirut, Granada. The acronym for these operations is MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain).  Important for Marines is the fact that 60% of politically significant urban areas (outside allied or former Warsaw Pact territories) are located within 25-miles of littoral areas; 75% within 150 miles; and 87% within 300 miles. In armed conflict, whoever controls the cities exercises de facto control over a country’s natural resources.

MILLER JBHistory demonstrates that there has been an abundance of guerrilla and terrorist operations in built-up areas: Belfast, Caracas, Iraq, Managua, Santo Domingo, Viet Nam come to mind.  Beyond the fact that the control of urban areas offers certain psychological advantages that can affect the outcome of a large conflict, Marine planners are keenly aware that American embassies and consulates are located where host countries concentrate their centers of political and economic activity.  One mission the Marines share with other naval expeditionary forces is the emergency evacuation of US civilians caught up in urban insurgencies. (Photo: Cpl Blake Miller, USMC, Fallujah.  Credit: Luis Sinco, LA Times (Fair Use asserted)).

Urban areas have dramatically expanded over the past 100 years —often going beyond well-defined boundaries into suburban/countryside areas.  Connecting the inner-cities to peripheral areas has been a parallel expansion of transportation: highways, canals, and rail systems.  Industries and markets have grown up along these connectors and there has been an expansion of secondary roadways connecting outlying farms to urban areas —the effect of which further complicates the operational planning for and execution of military operations.  It widens the military footprint needed to deal with emergencies.

Urban warfare takes place in a unique battlespace —one  that provides aggressor and defender with numerous avenues of approach and defensive fields of fire.  In essence, there are four distinct battle areas: buildings, streets, subterranean networks, and air.  These are often fought simultaneously, which makes the urban warfare effort even more complicated.

The Marine’s first urban warfare experience occurred early in the Korean War.  Since then, with lessons learned through actual combat, the Marine Corps has evolved from knowing next to nothing about urban warfare to becoming America’s preeminent expert.  As a demonstration of this transition, I will offer my readers three examples: The Second Battle of Seoul, Korea (1950), The Battle for Hue City, Viet Nam (1968), and the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, Iraq (2003-4). Stay with me; I think you’ll find these interesting and informative.

Seoul, South Korea

The North Korean Army (NKPA) seized Seoul, South Korea during its invasion in late June 1950. After US Marines made their amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, General Douglas MacArthur assigned them the mission of liberating Seoul from the NKPA force, which by then was an understrength division.  In any normal situation, the NKPA would have the advantage of defending Seoul —but in this case, the NKPA were facing American Marines, the most tenacious combat force in the entire world —true then, equally true today.

KOREAN WAREven so, the advance on Seoul was slow and bloody.  The Marines faced the 78th Independent Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Brigade, in all, about 7,000 troops.  Moreover, the NKPA decided to put every effort into obstructing the Marine advance until they could be reinforced by units operating south of Seoul.  MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, assigned responsibility for liberating Seoul (Operation Chromite) to his X Corps commander, Major General Edward Almond—who knew as much about urban warfare as he did about rocket ships to the moon.  In any case, MacArthur wanted a quick liberation of Seoul and Almond, a first-class sycophant, applied continue pressure to Major General Oliver P. Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, to “hurry up.”  To his credit, Smith would have none of it. (Photo: Marines attack Seoul, South Korea, 25 Sep 1950; DoD Photo (Fair Use asserted)).

Marines entered the city at 0700 on 25 September, finding it heavily fortified.  Buildings were heavily defended with crew-served weapons and snipers.  On the main highway through the city, the NKPA had erected a series of 8-foot-high barricades, located 200-300 yards apart.  Every one of the city’s intersections contained such an obstacle. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laced the approaches to these barricades, supported by anti-tank guns and machine guns.  The Marines had to eliminate these one at a time, which took about one hour for each barricade.  Casualties mounted as the Marines engaged in house-to-house fighting.

General Almond declared the city “secure” on the first day.  Clearing operations continued for five additional days, even though effective enemy resistance collapsed by 28 September.  In the aftermath of the Second Battle of Seoul, Korea, there was no time for the Marines to analyze the campaign —such analyses would have to wait for a later time —but here I will pause to reflect on what it must take to succeed in urban warfare: the esprit de corps of fire teams who must, in the final analysis, win or lose the contest.  Private First Class (PFC) Eugene A. Obregon from Los Angeles, California, was awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing himself to enemy machine gun fire to save the life of a wounded Marine on 26 September 1950.

Hue City, Viet Nam

In 1967, the North Vietnamese realized that their war strategy in South Viet Nam wasn’t working out quite the way they had intended.  It was time to try something else.  The government of North Viet Nam wanted a massive offensive, one that would reverse the course of the war.  When defense minister and senior army commander General Vo Nguyen Giap [1] voiced opposition to such an offensive, believing as he did that a major reversal of the war would not be its likely result, the North Vietnamese stripped Giap of his position, gave him a pocket watch, and sent him into retirement.  The politburo then appointed General Nguyen Chi Thanh to direct the offensive.  At the time, Thanh was commander of all Viet Cong forces in South Viet Nam.  When General Thanh unexpectedly died, senior members of the politburo scrambled to reinstate General Giap.

Earlier —in the Spring of 1966— Giap wondered how far the United States would go in defending the regime of South Viet Nam.  To answer this question, he ordered a series of attacks south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with two objectives in mind.  In the first, he wanted to draw US forces away from densely populated urban and lowland areas to a place where he believed the NVA would have an advantage over them.  Second, Giap wanted to know whether the United States could be provoked into invading North Viet Nam.

Both questions seem ludicrous since luring the US/ARVN military out of villages and cities was the last thing he should have wanted, and unless China was willing to rush to the aid of its communist “little brothers,” tempting the US with invading North Viet Nam was fool-hardy.  In any case, General Giap began a massive buildup of military forces and placing them in the northern regions of South Viet Nam.  Their route of infiltration into South Viet Nam was through Laos [2].  General Giap completed his work at the end of 1967; there were now six infantry divisions massed within the Quang Tri Province.

Leading all US and allied forces in Viet Nam was US Army General William C. Westmoreland, titled Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam (COMUSMACV or MACV [3]).  Westmoreland responded to Giap’s buildup by increasing US/allied forces in Quang Tri —realizing that if one wanted to dance, they had to go into the dance hall. The one thing that Westmoreland could not do was invade either North Viet Nam or Laos [4].  Realizing this, Giap gained confidence in his notion of larger battles inside South Viet Nam. But even this wasn’t working out as he imagined.  Westmoreland was not the same kind of man as French General Heni Navarre.  For one thing, Westmoreland was far more tenacious.  Besides, meeting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) outside populated areas would allow Westmoreland to make greater use of air and artillery fire support assets.

In phases, Giap increased North Viet Nam’s military footprint in the northern provinces of South Viet Nam.  One example of this is the NVA’s siege of the Khe Sanh combat base.  President Lyndon Johnson was concerned that the NVA were attempting another coup de guerre, such as Dien Bien Phu, where General Navarre was thoroughly defeated.  Johnson ordered Khe Sanh held at all cost.  With everyone’s eyes now focused on the events at Khe Sanh, Giap was able to launch a surprise offensive at the beginning of the Tet (lunar new year) celebration.  He did this on 31 January 1968.  It was a massive assault: 84,000 NVA and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers who violated the cease-fire accord and executed simultaneous attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities (including Saigon and Hue), 64 of 242 district capitals, and 50 hamlets.

Giap chose to violate the Tet cease-fire because he knew that many South Vietnamese soldiers would be granted holiday leave.  It was a smart move and one that opened the door for Giap’s early successes.  VC forces even managed to breach the US Embassy enclosure in Saigon.  Within days, however, the offensive faltered as US/ARVN forces were able to defeat the communist onslaught.  Heavy fighting did continue in Kontum, Can Tho, Ben Tre, and Saigon… but the largest of these occurred at the City of Hue [5].  It was the Marine’s longest and bloodiest urban battle up to that time.

In 1968, Hue City was the third-largest city in South Viet Nam.  Its population was around 140,000 souls; about one-third of these lived inside the Citadel, north of the Perfume River which flows through the center of the city. Hue also sat astride Highway-1, a major north-south main supply route (MSR), located about 50 miles south of the DMZ. Hue was the former imperial capital of Viet Nam.  Up to this point, Hue had only occasionally experienced the ravages of war —mortar fire, saboteurs, acts of terrorism— but a large enemy force had never appeared at the city’s gates.  Given the city’s cultural and intellectual importance to the Vietnamese people —as well as its status as the capital of Thua Thien Province— it was only a matter of time.

The people who lived in Hue enjoyed a tradition of civic independence that dated back several hundred years.  Religious monks viewed the war with disdain; few of these religious leaders felt any attachment to the government in Saigon.  What they wanted was national conciliation —a coalition where everyone could get along.

Hue City was divided into two sectors: the Old Imperial City, and the New City.  These two sectors were divided by the Perfume (Hoang) River, which emptied into the South China Sea five miles southwest of the city. On the north bank of the river stood the Citadel, a fortress extending nearly 4-square-miles, shaped like a diamond.  Surrounding the Imperial City were 8-meter high walls that were several meters.  There were eight separate gates, four of which were located along the southeastern side. A winding, shallow canal ran through the Citadel, with two culverts that connected the inner-city canal with those on the outside.

The “New City” was constructed south of the Perfume River; a residential and business center that included government offices, a university, the provincial headquarters, a prison, hospital, and a treasury.  The US Consulate and forward headquarters of the MACV were also located there.

Despite Hue’s importance, there were few ARVN defenders within its limits.  On 30 January 1968, there were fewer than a thousand ARVN troops inside the City.  Part of this was because a large number of troops were on leave to celebrate the Tet holiday with their families.

Hue CitySecurity for Hue was assigned to the First Infantry Division (1st ARVN Division), then commanded by Brigadier General Ngo Quant Truong.  The 1st ARVN was headquartered within the fortified Mang Ca compound in the northeast corner of the Citadel. Over half of Truong’s men were on leave for the holiday when the offensive commenced; General Truong’s subordinate commands were spread out along Highway-1 from north of Hue to the DMZ. The nearest unit of any size was the 3rdARVN Regiment, consisting of three battalions, five miles northwest of Hue.  The only combat unit inside the city was a platoon of 36-men belonging to an elite unit called the Black Panthers, a field reconnaissance and rapid reaction company. Internal security for Hue was the responsibility of the National Police (sometimes derisively referred to as “white mice”).

The nearest US combat base was Phu Bai, six miles south on Highway-1.  Phu Bai was a major U. S. Marine Corps command post and support facility, including the forward headquarters of the 1st Marine Division, designated Task Force X-Ray.  The Commanding General of Task Force X-Ray [6] was Brigadier General Foster C. LaHue, who also served as the Assistant Commander, 1st Marine Division.  Also situated at Phu Bai was the headquarters elements of the 1st Marine Regiment (Stanley S. Hughes, Commanding) and the 5th Marine Regiment (Robert D. Bohn, Commanding).  There were also three battalions of Marines: 1st Battalion, 1st Marines (1/1) (Lt. Col. Marcus J. Gravel, Commanding), 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) (LtCol Robert P. Whalen, Commanding), and 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5) (LtCol Ernest C. Cheatham, Jr., Commanding).

The attacking NVA force included 8,400 well-trained and equipped soldiers [7].  The majority of these were NVA regulars, reinforced by six VC main force battalions (between 300 and 600 men each).  The field commander of these forces was General Tran Van Quang.  The NVA plan of attack called for a division-sized assault on the Imperial City with other units serving as a blocking force.  True to form, the communists knew all they needed to know about their civilian and military objectives within the city.  VC cadres had also prepared a list of “tyrants” who were to be located and terminated —nearly all of these were South Vietnamese civilian and military officials.  Added to the list were US civilians, clergy, educators, and other foreigners.  The communists also knew all they needed to know about weather conditions.

The NVA plan, termed the General Offensive/General Uprising, was designed to incorporate both conventional and guerilla operations intending to destroy any vestige of the South Viet Nam government or western authority, and if not that, then to discredit their enemies and cause a popular uprising among the people. If all worked out according to plan, western allies would be forced to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.

There were a few senior NVA planners who thought that a popular uprising was highly unlikely; a few more expected that ARVN and US forces would drive the NVA out of the city within a few days —but, of course, such defeatist notions were best left unsaid. Meanwhile, the young, idealistic, and gullible soldiers believed the NVA propaganda and went in to combat convinced of a great victory.  When these same young men departed their training camps, they had no intention of returning.  Many wouldn’t.

The NVA assault commenced at 0340 when a rocket and mortar barrage in the mountains in the west served as a signal for the attack to begin.  The assault was over by daybreak and the communists began gathering up “enemies of the people” and killing them.  NVA and VC soldiers roamed the city at will and began to consolidate their gains. Responding to the attack, General LaHue rushed Marines forward with only scant information about the shape of the battle.  Company G 2/5 was pinned down short of the MACV compound.  They eventually forced their way into the compound, but in that process, the company sustained 10 killed in action (KIA).  After linking up with the handful of US Army advisors, the Marines were ordered across the river and fight their way through to the headquarters compound of 1st ARVN Division.  Overwhelming enemy fire forced the Marines back across the bridge. Company G took additional casualties; weather conditions prohibited the immediate evacuation of the wounded.

Soldiers of the 1st ARVN Division were fully occupied; the Marines engaged south of the river.  ARVN I Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam met with the III MAF commander, Lieutenant General Robert Cushman to devise a strategy for re-taking the city.  They agreed that ARVN forces would concentrate on expelling communists from the Citadel, and Marines would focus their assets in the New City.  By this time, General LaHue fully realized that his Marines were facing a large assault force.  He dispatched Colonel Stanley S. Hughes, CO, 1st Marines, to assume operational control of US forces.

Battle of Hue 1968A brutal building-by-building, room-to-room campaign was launched to eject communist forces. Untrained in urban warfare, the Marines had to work out their tactics and techniques “on the job.”  Their progress was slow, measured, methodical, and costly.  The progress of the Marines was measured in inches … every inch was paid for in blood.

On 5 February, Company H 2/5 took the Thua Thien Province headquarters compound, which had until then served as the NVA’s 4th Regiment command post.  This loss caused the NVA effort south of the river to begin faltering, but hard fighting continued over the next several days.  By 14 February, most of the city south of the river was once more in US hands but rooting out pockets of resistance would take another 12 days.  The NVA/VC continued sending rockets and mortars into Marine positions; snipers continued picking off American Marines. Operations south of the river had cost the Marines 34 dead and 320 WIA.  It had been even more costly for the communists; over 1,000 NVA and VC soldiers lay dead on the streets of the New City.

The battle continued to rage in the Imperial City.  Despite the insertion of ARVN reinforcements, their advance was stalled among the houses, narrow streets, and alley ways on the northwest and southwest wall.  The communists burrowed deeply into the walls and tightly packed buildings; they maintained control of the Imperial Palace.  They seemed to gain in strength with each passing day.  Somehow, NVA forces were regularly receiving reinforcements.

Battle of Hue 1968-002An embarrassed General Truong was finally forced to appeal to the Marines for assistance. On 10 February, General LaHue moved a Marine battalion into the Citadel.  Two days later, elements of 1/5 made their way across the river on landing craft and entered the Citadel through a breach in the northeast wall. Two South Vietnamese Marine Corps battalions moved into the southwest corner, which increased the pressure on communist forces.  In spite of this, the communists held their positions.  American Marines began an advance along the south wall, taking heavy casualties.  The fighting grew even more savage as Marines brought in airstrikes, naval gunfire, and field artillery; the NVA grew more determined to resist the bloody American assault.  On 17 February 1/5 achieved its objective but doing so cost the battalion 47 KIA and 240 WIA. The battle for the Citadel continued.

On 24 February, ARVN soldiers pulled down the communist banner that had been flapping in the breeze for 25 days.  They replaced it with the RVN national ensign.  The battle was declared at an end on 2 March; the longest sustained battle in the Viet Nam war up to that time.  ARVN casualties included 384 KIA, 1,800 WIA, and 30 MIA.  US Marines suffered 147 dead, 857 wounded.  The US Army reported 74 dead and 507 wounded. NVA/VC losses were: 5,000 communists were killed inside Hue City; an additional 3,000 were killed in the surrounding area by elements of the 101st Airborne and 1st US Cavalry.

Forty percent of Hue City was utterly destroyed.  More than one-hundred-thousand Vietnamese civilians were homeless.  Civilian casualties exceeded 5,800 killed or missing.

From these two experiences, the US Marine Corps developed a doctrine for urban warfare: Marine Corps Warfighting Publication (MCWP) 3-53-3.  Today, Marines are trained in the tactics and techniques for urban warfare. This publication was published in 1998; the Marines would rely on these guidelines and procedures when they were dispatched to Fallujah in 2003 (See also: Fish & Chips and Phantom Fury).

Warfare is both lethal and complex.  Today, field commanders not only have to employ their infantry to win, they also have to consider the non-combat impact of such operations, the health and welfare of citizens, maintaining law and order, address media concerns, employ psychological operational teams, control refugees, guard against urban terrorism, and establish “rules of engagement.”  The enemy in the Middle East may not look like much of a threat, but they do pose a clear and present danger to US combat forces.  It is also true that insurgents exasperate US forces because they so easily blend in with innocent populations.  This is the nature of war in the early 21st century.  This is the danger imposed by domestic terrorists. Islamists are not fools; this enemy effectively uses our own rules of engagement to their advantage.  American politicians have never quite figured this out.

Endnotes:

[1] General Giap defeated the Imperial French after eight years of brutal warfare following the end of World War II.

[2] The reason behind America’s bombing of Laos and Cambodia, referred to by the liberal media as America’s Secret War.

[3] Major component commands included: US Army, Vietnam; I Field Force, Vietnam; II Field Force, Vietnam; XXIV Corps; III Marine Amphibious Force; Naval Forces, Vietnam; US Seventh Air Force; Fifth Special Forces Group; Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support; Studies and Observations Group; Field Advisory Element.

[4] The United States did deploy covert and special forces into Laos at a later time.

[5] Pronounced as “Way.”

[6] Task Force X-Ray went operational on 13 January 1968.

[7] In January 1968, everyone knew something was off-kilter. Tet was approaching.  The people were uneasy.  The cancellation of the Tet Truce and enemy attacks at Da Nang and elsewhere in southern I Corps dampened the normally festive spirit in Viet Nam.  The first indication of trouble came shortly after midnight on January 30-31 —a five-pronged assault on all five of the provincial capitals in II Corps, and the city of Da Nang in I Corps.  VC attacks began with mortar and rocket fire, followed by large-scale ground assaults by NVA regulars.  These were not well-coordinated attacks, however, and by dawn on 31 January, most of the communists in outlying areas had been driven back from their objectives.

 

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.