The Bloodiest Day

An-Nasiriyah, 2003

Task Force Tarawa

Task Force Tarawa was the alternate designation of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB).  Normally, a Marine Brigade exists as a cadre command element for contingency planning and operational coordination.  When a brigade is needed for a mission-specific task, it is activated by the appropriate commander, Marine Expeditionary Force (M.E.F.), who will then direct the supporting division, air wing, and logistics commanders to provide battalions, squadrons, and other units to the Brigade for combat training and field operations.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2ndMEB was one of four major combat organizations subordinate to the Commanding General, I MEF.  In 2003, I MEF was operationally assigned to the Army’s V Corps.  2ndMEB included the following subordinate commands:

2nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT-2), formed from the 2nd Marine Regiment (2nd Marines).  Subordinate units of RCT-2 included 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2), with Company A, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion (Alpha 2ndAABn) attached, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2), 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (1/10) (Artillery), Company A, 8th Tank Battalion (USMC Reserve Forces), and a reconnaissance company (also from Marine Reserve Forces).

Combat Service Support Battalion 22 (CSSB-22).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned CSSB-22 to a general (logistical) support role under I MEF.

Marine Aircraft Group 29 (MAG-29).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned MAG-29 to provide tactical air support to the combined land force.

By the time 2ndMEB crossed the line of departure, it was operating solely as a ground maneuver component (rather than as a MAGTF) within I MEF.  The brigade’s mission was to secure bridges to facilitate the movement of I MEF northward toward Baghdad, thereby conserving the 1st Marine Division for ground combat with Iraqi forces.  Initially, at least to the Marines of RCT-2, the mission didn’t seem as if the combat team would play a major role in the march to Baghdad, but RCT-2 would fight one of the defining battles of the entire campaign.

Highway 1

Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski, commanding Task Force Tarawa, moved to his assembly point on 19 March.  The brigade’s position was on the far left flank of I MEF.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) was to the brigade’s right and V Corps on its left. The battle space was limited, so for the first few days, 2ndMEB operated within the area assigned to V Corps.

Tarawa’s first mission was to seize and hold Jalibah Airfield to facilitate logistic operations.  Subsequently, Tarawa would coordinate with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to seize the Euphrates bridge on Highway 1, 7 miles west of the city of An-Nasiriyah.[1]  To avoid the possibility of having to engage the Iraqi army in urban fighting, and because a single crossing site was deemed insufficient for the smooth flow of combat forces and their equipment, I MEF and V Corps commanders determined to open up both the southeastern bridge (over the Euphrates River) and the Saddam Canal (northeastern bridge).  Doing so would widen the corridor for the movement of forces northward.

Coalition intelligence was aware that An-Nasiriyah was the location of the HQ of the Third Iraqi Corps (III Corps), which included the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division (guarding the city), the 51st Mechanized Infantry Division (protecting southern oilfields), and the 6th Armored Division (located at Al Amarah).  The coalition was also aware that irregular forces (Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia) were operating independently of the Iraqi III Corps.  These irregular forces were untrained for conventional warfare but also known as fanatical armed thugs who suppressed the civilian population and targeted regular soldiers who, in confronting Coalition troops, decided to take early retirement.

In addition to his mission of seizing the bridges, I MEF warned 2ndMEB, “ … be prepared to” confront irregular forces, which some officers anticipated would put up the fiercest resistance to Coalition forces — they had the most to lose should the Coalition succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Task Force Tarawa crossed the line of departure on 21 March.  By mid-day on 22 March, the brigade had moved forward 93 miles, seized Jalibah, and occupied the area east of the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8.  Its only problem was its constricted battle space.  Because V Corps needed the north-south roadway, Tarawa’s forward movement was “cross country.”  Proceeding “off track” actually facilitated the rapid movement of the brigade because the Army’s vehicle load produced bumper-to-bumper congestion on the main road.  Brigade artillery silenced the sporadic enemy fire, and 2/8 accepted the surrender of 50 Iraqi soldiers.[2]

On the morning of 23 March, Tarawa relieved elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division and prepared to seize the southeastern bridge.  Meanwhile, I MEF informed BGen Natonski that the US 3rd Infantry Division had successfully defeated both the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division and 51st Mechanized Infantry Division.  This information led Natonski to believe that seizing the bridges would not entail a difficult fight.  That night, Colonel Ronald Bailey, commanding RCT-2, received his orders to seize the Highway 1 bridge no later than 0430 on 24 March and by 10:00, seize the eastern bridges.

By this time, Bailey’s Marines were sleep-deprived, and his motorized vehicles were thirsty.  Colonel Bailey asked for more time, more intelligence, and more fuel.  Unfortunately, Brigade headquarters could give Bailey none of these things.  Bailey’s problem was that he had to move his RCT an additional 50 miles on fumes — but this is what Marines do.  Bailey mounted up with Charlie Company, 2nd LAR, and led 3/2 toward the Highway 1 bridge, arriving at around 02.30.  Two hours later, Charlie Company held the bridge on Highway 1.

RCT-2 received much-needed fuel resupply early on 23 March.  At this time, Bailey anticipated only light resistance from An-Nasiriyah; 1/2 and 2/8 moved forward at 0300.  Shortly after that, the Marines began receiving enemy machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire.  Lieutenant Colonel Rick Grabowski’s 1/2 took the lead because his Marines had mechanized vehicles (AAVs and tanks).  2/8, under Lieutenant Colonel Royal Mortensen, followed in trace.

Commanding the tank company, Major William P. Peeples’ lead element began taking enemy fire at around 0700. A short time later, Peeples noted a smoking and badly damaged Humvee heading in his direction.

Intelligence Gained by Rescue

At about 0600 on 23 March 2003, an 18-vehicle Army resupply convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company (consisting of 31 soldiers) mistakenly veered from Highway 8, turning toward the city of An-Nasiriyah on Route 7.  The convoy commander was Captain Troy King, U.S. Army — by MOS and training, a supply officer with little combat training.  Iraqi technical vehicles[3] shadowed the convoy as it drove through Iraqi checkpoints adjacent to the Euphrates River.

Once passing the Al-Quds headquarters, Captain King realized he was lost and, having turned around, retraced the route taken through the city.  As the convoy turned left onto Highway 16, at around 0700, King’s vehicles began receiving enemy small arms fire.  Confused vehicle operators panicked; in the chaos, they divided up into three separate groups, each attempting to find their way southward out of An-Nasiriyah.

Group 1 made it through the Iraqi gauntlet unscathed and continued south until it encountered Marines who were moving northward toward An-Nasiriyah.  Group 2 made it through the kill zone, but their vehicles were so badly damaged that the soldiers abandoned them and set up a hasty defensive position about three miles south of the city.  Iraqi forces defeated Group 3 by snagging them in roadblocks.  Once the Iraqis stopped Group 3 vehicles, they opened fire with RPGs, mortars, and tank fire.  Eleven soldiers died, and six were taken prisoner.[4]

At around 0730, King’s Group 1 survivors contacted Alpha Company, 8th Tanks on Highway 7, about ten miles south of An-Nasiriyah.  When Major William P. Peeples, commanding the tank company, realized that a number of soldiers had fallen into Iraqi hands, he ordered his tanks forward to rescue as many soldiers as possible, which included ten soldiers from Group 2.

Captain King informed Peeples that his convoy had been ambushed, that his soldiers had taken several casualties, and that most of his element was pinned down and in need of assistance.  Peeples moved his entire company north to assist the soldiers, informing 1/2 by radio of his intentions.  En route, Peeples’ tanks destroyed some enemy artillery, one tank, and some anti-aircraft weapons.  With the assistance of Marine AH-1s and F/A-18s, Peeples rescued ten soldiers.  At the conclusion of the mission, Peeples had to return to the rear for refueling — which meant that Grabowski’s battalion would be without tank support for nearly two hours.

Meanwhile, BGen Natonski met with Captain King, later recalling that he was astounded by his account, but it alerted him to the fact that An-Nasiriya would not be a cakewalk.  Colonel Bailey agreed with Natonski that it was necessary to seize the brigade’s objectives as soon as possible, and both officers were aware that some elements of the 507th were still inside the city.  Natonski pulled Grabowski aside and said, “Do what you can to find those missing soldiers; they’d do it for us.”

Grabowski’s 1/2 moved quickly forward to assault Nasiriyah because bridge seizure would allow elements of the 1stMarDiv to pass north through the city along Route 7.  RCT-2’s lightning strike with AAVs and Cobra gunships allowed the Marines to seize the two bridges and, in the process, defeat two or more platoons of Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia.  In this heavy fighting, Marines also destroyed two anti-aircraft weapons and several mortars and artillery firing positions.

A Bloody Beginning

Grabowski’s 1/2, without tank support, proceeded with two companies abreast.  Bravo Company (mounted) occupied the right flank, Charlie Company on the left.  Two miles south of the city, 1/2 encountered a bridge that spanned a railway underpass.  Grabowski redeployed his Marines into column formation with Bravo Company in the lead.  Staff Sergeant Schielein reported seven to nine Soviet-style enemy tanks and an estimated 50 dismounted infantry waiting in the underpass.  Schielein directed his TOW and Javelin weapons systems, destroying eight of the enemy tanks.[5]

Grabowski’s attack plan was sound, but the situation began to unravel rather quickly.  The rescue of the 507th had caused delays in the game plan, and the shortage of fuel/absence of tanks had slowed 1/2’s progress even more.  As Bravo Company crossed the bridge at about 12:30, the Marines began receiving enemy small arms and rocket fire.  Lead tanks, buttoned up (poor visibility) missed the first turn to the right and took the second turn with infantry right behind.  Marines fanned out in a relatively open field that looked passable, but the Marines were deceived.  Just below the surface of the field lay a thick, gooey layer of silt and sewage several feet deep.  The lead tank suddenly sank to its axles; follow-on vehicles became mired as well.  This is when the enemy opened up — and this is when Grabowski, who was with the lead unit, lost communications due to excessive radio chatter and the presence of high-tension power lines.  There was no radio link with supporting artillery, and the battalion air controller, Captain A. J. Greene, could not vector air support.

Eventually, Bravo Company’s forward air controller, Captain D. A. Santare, was able to establish communications with on-station AH-1s to suppress enemy fire from surrounding rooftops.[6]  The Iraqis were using “shoot and scoot” tactics, but once the gunships were overhead, they realized that they couldn’t scoot fast enough.  The AH-1’s also became spotters for the Marines on the ground, who were unable to observe enemy positions or movements.

Once Captain Tim Newland’s Bravo Company had crossed the bridge, Alpha followed in trace.  The Alpha Company commander, Captain M. A. Brooks, established a perimeter around the northern side of the bridge.  Captain Wittnam, commanding Charlie Company, crossed over the bridge.  He could easily identify Brooks’ position but did not know the location of Bravo Company.  Without communications, Wittnam could not establish contact with Grabowski.  Captain Wittnam assumed that Grabowski and Bravo Company had proceeded straight down the road to the battalion’s final objective, the Saddam Canal Bridge, so that is where Wittnam led his company.  It was a good decision, reflecting his battalion commander’s intent, and, as it turned out, it was what Grabowski hoped he would do.

Grabowski established contact with this XO, Major Tuggle.  He sent Tuggle back to the refueling point with instructions to get the tanks forward as soon as possible.  Peeples ceased refueling operations and moved his tanks forward.  One tank experienced a mechanical breakdown almost immediately.  Just after crossing the railroad underpass, Peeple’s four remaining tanks engaged six enemy tanks, destroying three.  Continuing forward to Brooks’ position, the two officers established tank-infantry coordination to the detriment of the Iraqis.

Charlie Company passed through Alpha Company and raced through Ambush Alley while receiving heavy enemy fire.  Iraqi militia appeared from almost every doorway, every window, and every rooftop, firing rifles and RPGs.  Some of these militias even ran into the middle of the street to engage the Marines are point-blank range.

Bad Comm’s

Charlie 1/2 Marines responded in keeping with their training.  Exiting on both sides of the elevated roadway, Marines sought cover and returned accurate and overwhelming fire.  These same militias that had so easily decimated the 507th only hours before soon discovered that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Charlie Company Marines on both sides of the road advanced on the enemy’s positions.

Captain Wittnam also experienced disruptions to communications.  For a brief moment, Wittnam had Grabowski on the net and informed him that he’d secured the Saddam Canal bridge.  Grabowski was elated, but then communications were cut once more.  But few besides Grabowski had heard Wittnam’s sitrep and Wittnam once again lost the ability to access air cover or his own weapons platoon.

Charlie Company continued to engage the Iraqi enemy with their organic weapons.  Occasionally, Wittnam, his artillery forward observer (2ndLt Fred Pokorney, Jr.), and his mortar platoon commander (1stLt Ben Reid) went atop the elevated roadway in the center of Charlie Company’s position to gain situational awareness and identify targets.  In this way, Reid’s mortarmen were able to deliver sporadic effective fire.  Lieutenant Pokorney was finally able to establish contact with 1/10 and called in a fire mission.  Soon after, Iraqi mortars crashed into Charlie Company’s position, killing Pokorney and wounding several mortarmen.  Marine casualties were quickly loaded into an AAV and sent back through Ambush Alley to the Battalion Aid Station.  It was the only way the Marines had to evacuate their dead and wounded because the volume of fire prohibited a helicopter medevac.

This lack of communication then took a deadlier turn.  While Charlie Company held on to their position north of the Canal, Bravo Company Marines continued working their way through the streets and alleys to the eastern side of the Saddam Canal bridge.  They were in an urban fight they’d hoped to avoid.  Behind them, AAV’s and tanks were doing all they could to extract the mired vehicles.

Both the Bravo Company commander, Captain Newland, and his forward air controller, Captain Santare, not having heard Wittnam’s report, continued to believe that Bravo was still the forward element of the battalion.  They did not know that Charlie Company had actually moved northward, beyond the Saddam Canal, and was in a desperate struggle with Iraqi militia.  Similarly, Captain Greene, the battalion air officer, had no operable radios.  It was because of this that Captain Greene passed air control to Captain Jones and Santare, allowing them to direct their own air attacks.  What Green, Santare, and Newland did know was that Bravo Company was receiving a tremendous volume of fire from north of the canal.  Newland told Santare that as soon as he could air support from A-10s, he wanted them to start running missions north of the Saddam Canal.[7]  Santare understood that the situation was dire.  He went to the guard channel, which was normally only used for emergencies, and requested immediate air support.

Friendly Fire

Within seconds, fixed-wing aircraft began checking in with Santare.  Santare waited a few moments for a Marine or Navy aircraft with a forward air controller to answer, but none were in the area.  Instead, he began working with two USAF A-10s, call signs “Gyrate 73” and “Gyrate 74.”  The A-10s were part of a squadron from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.  Circling high overhead, the A-10s attempted to get a fix on Santare’s position east of Ambush alley.

The A-10s identified vehicular targets north of the Saddam Canal and passed the locations to Santare.  Santare verified with Newland that Bravo Company was still the forward-most unit.  Captain Santare could see neither the A-10s nor the targets they identified.  Both Santare and the A-10 pilots could see smoke pouring from a burning vehicle on the highway and used that as a reference point.  Neither Santare nor the A-10 pilots realized that the burning vehicle was a Marine AAV.

LtCol Grabow’s operation order, then in effect, prohibited the use of Type III Close Air Support without his personal clearance.  Nevertheless, Newland determined that the situation was critical at a time when the battalion commander was out of communications and, since air support is a “use it or lose it” asset, Santare authorized Gyrate 73 and 74 to engage anything north of the Saddam Canal.

Charlie Company, meanwhile, was still under intense mortar fire.  Unit leaders, on their own authority, continued loading wounded Marines into AAVs for medical evacuation.  Marines who had been advancing toward the enemy eventually returned to the roadway in the vicinity of the AAV positions.  First Lieutenant Seeley, commanding third platoon, did not understand why the Marines were returning to the highway.  He was told that the word from the AAV drivers was that they were “loading up.”  Before he could make any sense of the situation, the A-10s began strafing Charlie Company.

Lieutenant Seely had experienced friendly fire before during Operation Desert Storm.  He knew immediately what was happening.  A Marine standing next to him was hit in the chest and killed.  Seely shouted an order to 2ndLt Swantner, commanding the first platoon, to fire pyrotechnics.  Swantner immediately popped two red star clusters, the cease-fire signal, but the A-10s made several more strafing runs.  The A-10 pilots mistook the AAVs, loaded with Marine casualties, as enemy armor, as previously reported to them by Captain Santare.  In all, Charlie Company had lost 18 Marines killed and 19 more wounded due to friendly fire.  Five AAVs were completely destroyed, and two more had to be abandoned.  Captain Wittnam lost half of his company and half of his officers.

The fight for control of the An-Nasiriyah corridor on 23 March 2003 turned out to be far tougher than anyone in Task Force Tarawa (or the MEF) expected.  Inadequate intelligence was part of the problem; hardly anyone anticipated stiff resistance from the Iraqi militia.  General Natonski had been told that the US 3rd Infantry Division had defeated the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division and that any remaining Iraqi forces would melt away or surrender.  In fact, the 11th Iraqi had not been defeated, nor the 51st Mechanized, nor even the Fedayeen or Ba’ath militia.  If part of the battle plan was knowing the enemy, none of the planners for the march into Nasiriyah knew that particular enemy.

The engagements of 23 March 2003 were successful because Marine officers, NCOs, and rank and file were well-trained, competent, courageous, well-coordinated, and highly motivated.  Mistakes were made, but that is part of the business of warfare.  What matters under such circumstances is how our warriors respond to those mistakes and mishaps.  The Marines of RCT-2 responded professionally, as we expect our Marines to respond.  There were also a few important lessons learned, particularly with regard to close air support (See also: special note (below)).

Special note:

Understandably, Marine survivors of the friendly fire incident were angry/bitter about what happened.  They may still harbor that anger.  The larger picture appears relevant, however.  The A-10s were receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire, which necessitated attacks from high altitudes.  This made target recognition difficult.  It also meant that they had to rely on the ground forward air controller to give them a correct picture of the ground battle.  In this incident, they were cleared to release their weapons by the Bravo Company forward air controller.  The pilot’s failure to recognize the “cease fire” flare could have just as easily been confused with tracer rounds being fired.  No one could help the loss of communications which disconnected the key leaders from one another.  Captain Santare did his best to confirm that Bravo Company was still the lead element of 1/2.  Moreover, because the city was designated as a “restricted fire” area, there was no preplanned air support for Task Force Tarawa’s assault.  When FACs are forced to improvise, the chances of something bad happening increases tenfold.

A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that the primary cause of the incident was Captain Santare’s violation of the battalion commander’s standing order not to use Type III CAS without his express permission.  But Marines were being killed by a stubborn enemy who was determined to resist the Marine assault.  Captain Greene authorized Santare to establish direct contact with overhead fixed-wing aircraft, which given the circumstances of poor communications, Santare was forced to do.  Captain Santare acted in what he perceived as the best interests of his fellow Marines, an effort to save their lives — and yet, in doing so, caused the incident.  It wasn’t a matter of neglect or incompetence; it was simply gut-wrenching war.

Sources:

  1. Andrew, R.  U. S. Marines in Battle: The Battle of An-Nasiriyah.  HQ USMC, Washington, 2009.
  2. Lowrey, R. S.  Marines in the Garden of Eden: The Battle for An Nasiriyah.  Berkley Press, 2006.
  3. Livingston, G.  An Nasiriyah: The Fight for the Bridges. Caisson Press, 2004.
  4. Pritchard, T.  Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War.  Presidio Press, 2007.

End Notes:

[1] An-Nasiriyah was the point at which all Army and Marine Corps ground combat units would enter Iraq from Kuwait.  A railroad, several highways, and two major waterways converged in or around the city.  There were two sets of bridges spanning the Euphrates River in the southern section of the city, including the Saddam Canal, which ran along the city’s northern border.  Since the route of march would take coalition forces through the most densely populated section of the city, I MEF planned on opening up a second corridor.

[2] A congested MSR is asking for serious trouble.  The Army has not figured this out since the Korean War.

[3] Also, Non-standard tactical vehicles (NSTVs) (usually pickup trucks with weapons mounted in the rear bed or on the roof of the operating cab.

[4] Prisoners included PFC Jessica Lynch, Specialist Shoshana Johnson, and PFC Lori Piestewa.  Piestewa died of her wounds.  Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for being a blonde chick, and Johnson sued the Army because she didn’t get a medal, too. 

[5] Tube Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile (TOW) (M-220); Javelin (FMG-148) is a man-portable antitank system.

[6] Each rifle battalion in Task Force Tarawa had one air officer and two forward air controllers; two of the three rifle companies had their own forward air controllers.  Captain Jim Jones was attached to Alpha Company; Captain Santare was assigned to Bravo Company.  The battalion air officer was Captain Greene. 

[7] There are three types of close air support, usually expressed as Type I, Type II, and Type III CAS.  Type I is when the air controller can see both the attacking aircraft and its target.  Type II is when the FAC cannot see the attacking aircraft or the target or when the attacking aircraft cannot acquire the target prior to the release of its weapons.  Type III is when the FAC can see neither the aircraft nor the target. 


Gurkha

Introduction

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

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

Some Background

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

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

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

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

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

The Gurkha War

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

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

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

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

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

Incorporating the Gurkhas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Malayan Emergency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Forward Air Control (FAC)

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navy-Marine Corps Aviation

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

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

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

Now, about America’s Marines 

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

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

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

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

Some History

World War II

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

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

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

The Korean War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War in Indochina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Number of Planes

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

The Control Factor    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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


The Perdicaris Incident

Introduction

Admiral Mahan

Few Americans stand out as much as Alfred Thayer Mahan as one of the foremost thinkers on naval warfare and maritime strategy.  Some even say that Mahan was THE leading thinker on sea power and the conduct of war at sea.  Admiral Mahan was respected as a scholar in his own time, served as President of the American Historical Association, and is remembered as the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.  Mahan’s studies examine the role of navies in determining the outcome of wars fought by the great European powers during the period between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries and remain valuable for their insight into sea power and strategy.

Admiral Mahan was also a student of international relations and attempted to apply the study of history toward an understanding of foreign policy and strategic problems of his day.  For a quarter of a century, he was a visible scholar and was sought by news outlets and public figures for his insight and advice.  Theodore Roosevelt was his friend, Franklin Roosevelt was a student, and Woodrow Wilson sought to silence him.  In President Wilson’s opinion, no good could come from military or naval officers who could think for themselves.

Mahan was, himself, a student of Thucydides — placing a high value on understanding the strategies pursued by the ancient Greeks, but he was dubious about the ability of states to promote cooperation by employing international law or the organization and political activity of peace societies because arbitration agreements among states, or the establishment of norms for conduct in the international arena were likely to work only so long as the issues at stake were limited in importance.  Once a great power’s vital interests were threatened, Mahan believed that international agreements to promote cooperation would give way to armed forces searching for security.  Mahan had no faith in the ramblings of liberal globalists who thought that agreements between nations would ensure peaceful relations — and as it turned out, Mahan was right.  In Mahan’s view, the best way to prevent war was for a country to be so well-armed that potential adversaries would be deterred from risking a conflict.

Paying very close attention to Mahan was a young politician with so much personal energy that he made others nervous.  It is fair to say that Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of Admiral Mahan, but it would be a mistake to argue that Roosevelt owed Mahan for all his brilliant pragmatism.  Theodore Roosevelt was no shrinking violet in the study of history — and one wonders how much influence Roosevelt may have had on Mahan.  In 1879, while still an undergraduate at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt began his study of the War of 1812, which became a prodigious effort.  In his research, what may have struck Roosevelt was that the American Navy had been unable to gain command of the sea despite its successes.  This revelation may have driven him toward a keen interest in what Mahan had to say about sea power.

A few years later, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt participated in the opening of the Minnesota State Fair in Minneapolis, where he was asked to deliver a speech.  He called it his “National Duties” speech.  Historians suspect that few people were paying much attention to Roosevelt when, toward the middle of his talk, he said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — and you will go far.” Roosevelt borrowed this phrase from an African proverb. But in short order, Roosevelt began to address questions of international relations in the context of “big stick” foreign policy. Nine days later, Theodore Roosevelt would become President of the United States, and while assuring McKinley’s cabinet that he intended to continue their president’s policies, Roosevelt was an ardent imperialist who made the McKinley cabinet a nervous wreck.

Background

In 1826, a young man from Greece arrived in the United States for studies.  He was the son of an influential medical doctor and politician named Anthony Perdicaris. Anthony’s father, Licinius, was a physician to the Ottoman Sultan and later named a Count of the Republic of Venice for his services.  The Republic of Venice later beheaded Licinius for essentially the same reasons.

In 1822, during the Greek War of Independence, Ottoman forces attacked the city of Naousa and began killing all males and enslaving all Greek women and children.  Anthony gathered up his family and fled into the mountains.  Gregory was around twelve years old at the time.  Within a short time, Gregory had learned that his two brothers-in-law had been killed and that his mother and four sisters were taken captive and sold into slavery.  After his separation from his father, Gregory made his way to Jerusalem, where he met and befriended Pliny Fisk, an American missionary who helped arrange his passage to the United States.

Gregory was no slouch.  He learned English well enough to attend studies at Washington College (now Trinity) in Connecticut and graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree.  He later taught Greek and wrote several influential essays about the plight of the Greeks within the Ottoman domain.  In time, Gregory Perdicaris would become a naturalized American, and he would marry a young woman named Margaret Hanford, the granddaughter of William DeWitt, sister-in-law to Governor David Williams.  Hanford, although an orphan, came from a prominent South Carolina family.

Gregory returned to Greece in 1837 to serve as U.S. Ambassador.  When he returned to the United States in 1845, he resumed his life as an academic and a lecturer.  Politically associated with the Democratic Party, Gregory Perdicaris became an early investor in the Trenton Light Company and later served as one of its directors.  By 1852, he was also the Trenton Mutual Life Insurance Company president, with substantial investments in utility companies in Charleston, South Carolina.  In 1858, Gregory sent his son, Ion, to London, England, to study art.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s nephew, Henry McIver, began to demand that Ion be returned to South Carolina where he could participate in the Civil War.  Gregory had no intention of recalling his son from Europe.  On this basis, McIver sequestered the Perdicaris investments in South Carolina, which in 2020 value amounted to just over a million dollars.  In 1867, Gregory Perdicaris and several prominent Americans established a charitable fund for Greek refugees.  One of these investors was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the man who would become president.

Ion Hanford Perdicaris was born in Athens in 1840, grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, but fled to England at his father’s insistence to avoid participating in the American Civil War.  This prompted Henry McIver (a signer of the Ordinance of Succession) to confiscate the Perdicaris fortune, of which 1300 shares belonged to Ion.  To prevent the sequestration, Ion renounced his American citizenship (which was not permitted until 1868).  The issue of sequestration of the family’s wealth eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877.

Still a U.S. citizen, Ion traveled back and forth to London as a journalist for The Galaxy.  He was young, unattached, and somewhat of a playboy.  In 1870, he began attending supernatural rituals with Cromwell F. Varley (an electrical engineer) and his wife, Ellen.  Cromwell’s profession required a good bit of travel back and forth between the United States and the United Kingdom — and because he and Ellen had four children, it was not practical that his wife should accompany him on his trips.  During these business trips, Ion Perdicaris and Ellen Varley began having supernatural seances of their own.  When Cromwell discovered the infidelity, he promptly divorced Ellen.  Ion, striving either to do the right thing or avoid scandal, promptly married her (1873), and assumed responsibility for raising the children.

Ion H. Perdicaris

In the late 1870s, Ion Perdicaris purchased a substantial home and estate in Tangier, where he collected exotic animals, dabbled in the arts, and maintained ties to influential people in the United States.  Ion and Ellen moved (with her children — two boys and two girls) to Tangier in 1882.  Ellen Perdicaris (and her children) retained their British nationality.  In Tangier, Ion became active in the fight for the rights of the Moors, led several civic commissions, and, as a de facto spokesman for the foreign community, argued for recognition of Tangier as a free port city.  Ion retained business interests in England and the United States throughout this period with frequent visits to both countries.

In 1886, after Perdicaris strenuously objected to the treatment offered to a native Moroccan by the American Minister in Tangier, a man who Consul General Felix Matthews accused of rape, the Moroccan government arrested Perdicaris and fined him for interfering in a legal matter.  Subsequently, Perdicaris filed charges against Matthews, and the Consul was removed from his post and ordered back to the United States.

In May 1904, despite his reasonable efforts on behalf of the Moroccan people, Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (also, Raissoulli) kidnapped and held for ransom Ion Perdicaris and his step-son, Cromwell Varley, Jr.  A Hollywood film about the abduction was released in 1975 titled The Wind and the Lion starring Sean Connery, Brian Keith, Candace Bergen, and Steve Kanaly.  The film, while entertaining, completely misrepresents what transpired during the so-called Perdicaris Affair.

The Raissoulli

 Ahmed al-Raissoulli was the leader of three Moroccan tribes near Tangier.  In 1903, the Moroccan government arrested and jailed five of Raisuli’s men, no doubt charging them with brigandry — because that’s what they were.  That same year, Raisuli learned about the Stone Affair, where Bulgarian revolutionaries kidnapped an American Missionary and held her for ransom.  A quick study, Raisuli promptly kidnapped a newspaper correspondent named Walter Harris and held him for ransom.  This worked out so well for Raisuli that he then targeted Ion Perdicaris, assuming that the wealthier American would net a larger ransom.

The Incident

Ion, his wife, and stepson Cromwell Varley, Jr., relocated from their townhome in Tangier to their summer estate, Aidonia, on 16 May 1904.  Late in the afternoon of 18 May, Raisuli and a band of ruffians abducted Perdicaris and his stepson from Aidonia.  The number of ruffians is unknown, but estimates range from nine to 150.  Raisuli’s men cut telephone wires and assaulted several of Ion’s servants, leaving Ellen unmolested at the house.  She later contacted authorities, including the U.S. and British Consul and Moroccan officials.

American Consul Samuel Gummeré notified the U.S. State Department: 

Mr. Perdicaris, the most prominent American citizen here, and his stepson Mr. Varley, a British subject, were carried off last night from their country house, three miles from Tangier, by a numerous band of natives headed by Raisuly. . I earnestly request that a man-of-war be sent at once. . . the situation most serious.

Raisuli carried Perdicaris by horseback through the Rif Mountains.  Raisuli demanded $55,000 (later $70,000), the removal of all government troops from the region, a promise to end all harassment of the Riffian people, and the removal and arrest of the Pasha of Tangier (then part of the Ottoman infrastructure) and several other government officials.  He also demanded that the United States and Great Britain “guarantee” these demands would be met.

When the State Department received Gummeré’s communiqué, the Secretary of State, John Hay, was out of town. When notified of the incident, President Theodore Roosevelt resolved that the United States would not pay the ransom.  The mantra that evolved was “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead.” Under-Secretary Francis Loomis dealt with the crisis by diverting seven of sixteen U.S. Navy ships from the Mediterranean to the port of Tangier. Admiral F. E. Chadwick was ordered to send a ship from the South Atlantic to Tangier.  Simultaneously, the British dispatched a Royal Navy vessel from Gibraltar.

Al-Raisuli

On 21 May, the Sultan’s representatives were sent to begin negotiations with the Raisuli.  Two days later, negotiations were in the tank.  On 29 May, Raisuli threatened to kill his prisoners if his demands were not met within the next two days.  Raisuli’s threats revealed internal tensions: the foreign minister of Morocco allied himself with Raisuli’s enemies.  The Sharif of Ouazzane was credited with progress in the negotiations.  The Sultan sent a messenger to Raisuli, but upon the messenger’s arrival, Raisuli had his throat cut.  (Pictured right, Ahmed al-Raissoulli).

The Navy Department ordered Admiral T. F. Jewell to send three additional ships on that same day.  The armored cruisers USS Brooklyn and USS Atlanta reached Tangier on 30 May, and Admiral Chadwick conferred with the Sultan’s representative.  Two additional gunboats arrived on the following day.  France assured the United States that they would do all they could to rescue the prisoners.  On 1 June, Raisuli increased his ransom demand to $70,000.00.

Admiral Jewell arrived with USS Olympia, USS Baltimore, and USS Cleveland a few hours later.  With ships at anchor, Jewell appointed Major John Twiggs Myers to overall command of the ship’s Marine Detachments.  Washington ordered Jewell to keep a leash on the Marines until he was specifically authorized to employ them against Raisuli.  Roosevelt did not want to risk the possibility of Raisuli executing his prisoners.  The only Marines sent ashore was a team of four (4) men carrying sidearms, ordered to protect the U.S. Consulate and Mrs. Perdicaris.  On 8 June, two additional Marines were dispatched to protect the Belgian legation.

The State Department intended that if Morocco did not meet the United States’ demands, American Marines would seize Morocco’s custom houses, which supplied much of the country’s revenue.  Secretary Hay wanted the Sultan to persuade Raisuli to release Perdicaris; if not, or if Perdicaris or his stepson was harmed, the Marines would enter the fray.

On 30 May, Secretary John Hay learned that there was a question about Perdicaris’ citizenship.  Hay was given to understand that Perdicaris was a Greek.  President Roosevelt’s resolve weakened, but he decided to stay the course and attempted to get Britain and France to join the U.S. in a combined military operation.  Neither country was interested because they worked with the Sultan behind the scenes, urging him to accept Raisuli’s terms.  Tensions rose substantially on 2 June when an Italian warship dropped anchor in Tangiers harbor.

The international aspects of the Perdicaris Affair increased on 6 June two when two Spanish warships dropped anchor in Tangier.  Spain’s concern was that the U.S. would attempt to force Tangier into giving the American Navy portage rights.  HMS Prince of Wales arrived two days later.

On 8 June, the Sultan granted Raisuli’s demands by appointing Herid el Barrada as the governor of Tangier.  The appointment angered tribesmen, who raided the home of an Englishman.  Negotiations dragged on as the Sultan removed his troops from Raisuli’s province on the following day.  Tribesmen were still not happy.  On 14 June, an attempt was made to kidnap the Italian Consul.  On 15 June, Raisuli increased his demands to control six (rather than two) Moroccan political districts.  Four days later, the Sultan accepted Raisuli’s demands, and 21 June was the date agreed for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson.

On 20 June, a hitch in negotiations occurred when a man named Zelai, governor of an inland tribe, refused to act as an intermediary.  The ransom money was deposited on 21 June.  On 22 June, Raisuli demanded that the Sultan place another district under his authority.  Although a settlement had already been reached, a cable from Samuel Gummeré accused the Sultan of holding up negotiations.  At the Republican National Convention, Secretary Hay stated, “We want Perdicaris alive, or Raisuli Dead.” There was no doubt that Roosevelt would get the Republican nomination, but Hay’s declaration electrified the convention.  Raisuli released Ion Perdicaris on 24 June.

Afterward, Perdicaris and his family moved to Turnbridge Wells, England  Raisuni used the money he gained from ransoming Perdicaris to build his palace, known as the “House of Tears.”

It was an interesting incident in history.  But the movie was better.

Film Clip: The Wind and the Lion

Marine Corps Artillery — Part 4

Post-Korea and Beyond

Post-Korea Reorganization

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

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

Back to East Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Sources:

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Law of War

Some Background

Extract:

“2.  Purposes of the Law of War   

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

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

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

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

Partial Rules of Engagement Extract

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

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

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

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

Our Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Gets Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How it plays out

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

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

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

Haditha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


Endnotes:

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

Operation Al-Fajar

The Enemy

In April 2004, coalition forces in Iraq estimated around 500 hardcore non-state actors living in the city of Fallujah.  Within seven months, however, that number increased to around 3,500 armed insurgents representing just about every extremist group in Iraq, including al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI), the Islamic Army of Iraq (IQI), Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of Mohammed (AOM), the Army of the Mujahedeen, the Secret Army of Iraq, and the National Islamic Army (1920 Revolutionary Brigade). Assisting these committed extremists were an additional 1,000 part-time insurgents.

Within that seven months, the insurgents prepared fortified positions in anticipation of another coalition forces assault.  They dug tunnels, trenches, spider-holes and set into place numerous IEDs. They also set in the so-called Jersey Barriers, creating strong points behind which they could fire on approaching enemy. In some areas, they filled empty homes with bottles of propane gas, drums of gasoline, ordinance, and wired these materials for remote detonation should coalition forces enter those buildings during clearing operations.

Thanks to the liberal proliferation of U.S. manufactured arms, the insurgents were heavily armed with M-14s, M-16s, body armor, western-style uniforms and helmets, and handguns.  The insurgents also booby-trapped vehicles parked alongside roadways, streets, and alleys.  They bricked up stairwells to prevent coalition troops from getting to the roofs of buildings and established avenues of approach to deadly fields of fire.

According to coalition intelligence reports, in addition to the Iraqis, the insurgents included fighters from Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria — and perhaps a few from the U.K. and U.S.  As is true in almost every armed conflict, civilian residents began fleeing the city.  By late October, around 80% of the citizenry had vacated their homes and businesses.

The Coalition

In October, the U.S. and Iraqi military forces began establishing checkpoints around the entire city to prevent anyone from entering and to intercept insurgents attempting to flee — many of whom disguised themselves as members of fleeing families.  Mapping specialists began to capture aerial imagery to prepare maps of the city.  Iraqi interpreters joined coalition ground units.  While these tasks were underway, coalition forces began to deliver airstrikes and artillery fire on areas known to contain insurgents.

American, British, and Iraqi forces totaled around 14,000 men.  Of these, 6,500 U.S. Marines, 1,500 U.S. soldiers, and 2,500 U.S. Navy personnel.  Coalitions forces formed two regimental combat teams.  RCT-1 included the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1), 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (NMCB-4), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 23 (NMCB-23), and the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment (2/7CAV).[1]

RCT-7 included 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8), 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3), Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines (Charlie 1/12), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 2nd Infantry (2/2INF), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 12th Cavalry (2/12CAV) and the 1st Battalion, U.S. 6th Field Artillery (1/6thFLD).  Around 2,000 Iraqi troops integrated with the RCTs during the assault.  The forward elements received air support from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rdMAW) and other available Navy and Air Force fixed-wing air units.  Additional Army battalions provided artillery support, and the U.S. Special Operations Command provided snipers.

The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment (1/BWR) assisted coalition forces with the encirclement of Fallujah, designated Task Force Black.  D Squadron, SAS prepared to take part in the assault and would have, were it not for British politicians who reneged at the last minute before the assault.

The Fight

Ground operations kicked off during the night of 7 November 2004 when Marine reconnaissance teams and Navy Special Warfare teams (SEALS), moved into the city’s outer perimeter. 

With U.S. Army Special Forces Advisors, the Iraqi 6th Commando Battalion, supported by two platoons of mechanized infantry from the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, breached the city perimeter from the west and south.  Additional support elements included a platoon of Army tanks, Marine light armored vehicles, and elements of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines (1/23).  Initial successes included capturing the general hospital, Blackwater Bridge, and several villages on the western edge of the city next to the Euphrates River.  In the south, Marines from 1/3 entered the western approach securing the Jurf Kas Sukr Bridge.  Coalition commanders intended these early movements as a diversion to confuse the insurgent command element.[2]

Once Seabees disabled electrical power at two sub-stations at the northeast and northwest sections of Fallujah, RCT-1, and RCT-7, each supported by SEAL and Recon teams and augmented by 2/7CAV, 2/2INF, and Joint Tactical Aircraft Control (JTAC) elements assaulted the northern edge of the city.  Four additional infantry battalions followed the assault element as the second wave. Their mission focused on clearing operations and the seizure of significant buildings and intersections.

Augmented by the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Alpha Company 1/5, the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team infiltrated the city, searching for and destroying fleeing enemies wherever they could find them.  1/BWR set up patrolling operations in the eastern sector.  Overwatch aircraft included USAF F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, B-52s, and AC-130 gunships.  Air Force assets included MQ-1 Predator aircraft for air surveillance and precision airstrikes.

By the early morning hours of 8 November, six U.S. and Iraqi battalions began a full assault behind massive artillery and aerial bombardments.  The coalition’s initial objectives included the central train station, which was used as a staging point for follow-on assaults.  Marines entered the Hay Nib al-Dubat and al-Naziza city districts by early afternoon.  As the Marines advanced, Seabees bulldozed buildings and cleared streets of battle debris to clear the way for other coalition movements and support mechanisms.  Before dusk, the Marines had reached the city center.

Most of the heavy fighting ended by 13 November, but a series of determined enemy strongholds continued to resist coalition forces.  Marines and special operations had to flush these isolated teams, described as “mopping up” operations, which lasted until the 23rd of December 2004.  Once the city was “mostly” clear of insurgents, coalition forces shifted their efforts toward assisting residents returning to their homes — many of whom could not believe the damage inflicted on their city.

Military historians claim that the Battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest of the Iraq War and the worst battle involving American troops since the Vietnam War.  Coalition forces suffered 99 killed and 570 wounded.  Iraqi units lost eight dead and 43 wounded.  Enemy casualties are only estimates because of the lack of official records.  Coalition and Iraqi forces captured 1,500 prisoners and killed an estimated 2,000 insurgents.[3]  Considering the number of explosives deployed inside the city, a high casualty rate is understandable.  The 1st Marine Division fired 5,685 high explosive artillery rounds.  The 3rdMAW dropped 318 precision bombs, fired 391 rockets and missiles, and unleashed over 93,000 machine gun and cannon rounds.

The damage to Fallujah’s residences, mosques, city services, and businesses was extensive.  Once known as the “City of Mosques,” coalition forces destroyed 66 of 133 mosques — those primarily defended by insurgents and those used to store arms and munitions.  Of the roughly 50,000 buildings in Fallujah, between 7,000 and 10,000 were destroyed in the offensive; half to two-thirds of all remaining buildings had notable damage.  Before the attack, somewhere around 350,000 people lived in Fallujah.  Of those, approximately 200,000 were permanently displaced.

Despite the success of the battle, it proved to be less than a decisive engagement.  Important (non-local) insurgent leaders escaped from the city before the action commenced leaving mostly local militants behind to face the coalition forces.  This was a well-established trend among Islamist leaders: stir the pot and then run for it.  At the beginning of 2005, insurgent attacks gradually increased within and around Fallujah, including IED attacks.  Notable among these was a suicide car bomb attack that killed 6 Marines.  Thirteen other Marines were injured in the attack.  Fourteen months later, insurgents were once more operating in large numbers and in the open. By September 2006, the situation in al-Anbar Province deteriorated to such an extent that only the pacified city of Fallujah remained outside the control of Islamic extremists.

A third push was mounted from September 2006 until mid-January 2007.  After four years of bitter fighting, Fallujah finally came under the control of the Iraqi military — that is until ISIS pushed the Iraqis out in 2014.  This began a new round of fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic militants.  Iraqi military forces reclaimed Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in 2016.

Courage Under Fire

The U.S. government cited the following individuals for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the operation:

  • Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, U.S. Army — Medal of Honor
  • Sergeant Rafael Peralta, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Staff Sergeant Aubrey McDade, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Corporal Dominic Esquibel, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross (award declined)[4]

Sources:

  1. Bellavia, D. C.  House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.  Free Press, 2007.
  2. Kasal, B.  My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story.  Meredith Books, 2007.
  3. West, B.  No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah.  Bantam Books, 2005
  4. O’Donnell, P.  We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah.  Da Capo Press, 2006
  5. Livingston, G.  Fallujah With Honor: First Battalion, Eighth Marines Role in Operation Phantom Fury.  Caisson Press, 2006

Endnotes:

[1] NMCB = Seabees

[2] Two Marine engineers died when their bulldozer collapsed into the Euphrates River.  Forty-two insurgents died in fighting along the river.

[3] Some of the dead may have been innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the battle.  The International Red Cross estimated 800 killed civilian deaths. 

[4] Fighting alongside Dominic on the date of the cited action was LCpl David Houck, his closest friend.  Esquibel was cited for carrying two wounded Marines to safety under a hail of gunfire.  On the following day, Houck was killed in action.  Esquibel would not accept the Navy Cross because he felt that those Marines, who lived, would have done the same for him.


Snakes in the Grass

America’s real domestic terrorists

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

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

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

Hasan Akbar, photo by Gary Broome

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

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

Nidal Hasan US Army Photo

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

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

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

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

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

Ali Mohamed Photo Source Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

The War Crimes that Weren’t

We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now, and we’ve finally found them.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them.”  —Colonel Lewis B. Puller, Commanding Officer, 1st Marine Regiment, November 1950.

Colonel Puller’s comment was motivational to the Marines of the 1st Marine Division in the Korean War, suggesting to the American press of his day that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  Now, however, seventy years later, the American people no longer know who the enemy is — and this is probably because there are too many candidates to choose from.

The oath of office and enlistment reads:

  • For officers

“I, _________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.  So help me God.”

  • For enlistees

“I, __________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  So help me God.”

One will note that these obligations specifically stipulate “all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Who are the enemies of the United States?  Is it, for example —

  • The politician who is so invested, financially and professionally, in the war industries that s/he has never seen a war that they didn’t absolutely love?
  • The politician that sends young Americans to war, and then ties their hands so that they cannot fight it, cannot win it, or cannot survive it?
  • The politician that sends young Americans into a combat zone, and later labels them as war criminals — and through such labeling, utterly destroy them as American servicemen.
  • Fearful and incompetent senior officers who will not make a momentous combat decision without first consulting with a lawyer?
  • The journalist or media manager who collaborates with the enemy?

An aside: is there any substantial difference between the politician who sends young Americans to war, and the Islamic goombah who wraps teenagers in bomb vests and sends them out to do the most harm?  The difference between the two, or so it seems to me, is that the Islamacist proudly admits to his behavior, while the self-perpetuating American politician wraps his baloney in the American flag and national interests.

We frequently hear presidents and members of congress lecturing to us about our national interests, but they never seem to get around to explain, in detail, what those national interests are.  What, for example, were the United States’ interests in invading Afghanistan or Iraq — and why is our military still in Afghanistan twenty years after the attacks on 9/11?  One further question: if sending our young men and women to the Middle East to engage in lethal combat was or continues to be in our national interests, then why does our government prosecute our combat troops for doing what they are trained to do?

During the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, the Associated Press reported that US Marines bombed a mosque, killing forty (40) innocent “civilians” gathered for prayer.  From the AP’s initial report, the story took off like gang-busters.  False reporting was so intense that it caused senior military commanders to order the Marines out of Fallujah.

A few questions:

  1. If the battle for Fallujah was a critical objective to begin with, then why would “bad press” force senior military officials to back out?
  2. Note that the formal definition of “civilian” is someone who is not a member of the armed forces or a law enforcement organization.  By what justification, then, do we regard any Moslem a civilian who picks up an AK-47 or RPG with lethal intent?  Two principles of warfare come into play.  First, humanitarian law governing the use of force in an armed conflict requires belligerents to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  Since Moslems with AK-47s are combatants, they cannot also be civilians.  Another important principle of warfare is proportionality.  In the legal use of force, belligerents must minimize the harm caused to civilians and civilian property consistent with the advantages of military objectives.  Non-uniformed combatants who use civilian property as firing points or defensive structures become legitimate military targets.

The fight unfolded on video taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle.  The UAV followed a Marine infantry company as it engaged armed enemy (civilians) in the city streets.  The Marines were in a tough spot because the “civilian” insurgents were laying down accurate fire from the minaret of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarai mosque.  During the fight, “civilian” insurgents moved in and out of the mosque, either to bolster their defenses or resupply the insurgents with ammunition.  What made this a critical situation was that the stymied Marines could not keep pace with other advancing elements of the assault force, and this in turn exposed the flanks of the advancing elements to enemy fire.

The battle raged for two hours (all recorded on video).  Meanwhile, five Marines were wounded and evacuated.  Rules of engagement precluded the use of heavy machine guns but small arms fire wasn’t getting the job done.  The company commander radioed back to his higher headquarters asking for assistance.  The battalion commander couldn’t decide about “next steps” until first consulting with a team of lawyers.  While the legal meeting was going on, the enemy continued to inflict casualties on the Marines.  Eventually, higher authority authorized the use of a hellfire missile to take out the minaret.  The aircraft launched missile missed the target and slammed into the ground with no effect on the enemy.  The company commander then requested an airstrike.  Another meeting took place.  Two 500-pound bombs opened a wall in the mosque and the Marines were able to advance and secure the mosque.

The UAV camera captured the explosion.  While opening one wall, the building remained intact.  There were no bodies … live or otherwise … near the point of detonation.  There were no casualties inside or around the mosque.  In fact, when the Marines entered the mosque, all they found was spent casings from rounds fired.

But that didn’t stop the news assault on the Marines.  Associated Press reporter Abdul-Qader Saadi, provided an “eyewitness account” of the incident.  He reported, “A U.S. helicopter fired three missiles at a mosque compound in the city of Fallujah on Wednesday, killing about 40 people as American forces batted Sunni insurgents, witnesses said.  Cars ferried bodies from the scene, although there was no immediate confirmation of casualties.  The strike came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers, witnesses said.”

Saadi’s story was entirely fictitious.  Nothing even remotely similar to this story happened, but that didn’t stop the press from repeating it across multiple outlets, including BBC, and Agence France-Presse.  Then AP modified their story to include a statement by an unnamed Marine official who “confirmed” the alleged 40 dead worshippers.  This too was a lie.  No Marine officer confirmed anything of the sort.

What did happen was captured on video.  The video, however, having been taken as part of a classified system, could not be released to the press — but a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Tony Perry, witnessed the event as an “embed.”  Reporter Gwen Ifill interviewed Perry and the conversation follows:

            Ifill: We did hear today about an attack on a mosque that killed anywhere from 40 to 60 people.  Were you with that unit and can you describe what happened?

            Perry:  Yeah, I’m with that unit right now.  The first reports are a little misleading.  What happened here … there are several mosques that have been used by the insurgents as places to either gather or strategize or even fire at Marines.  One particular mosque had about 30 to 40 insurgents in it.  They had snipers.  They wounded five Marines.  There were ambulances that drove up and the Marines let them come in to take the insurgent wounded away.  But instead, people with RPGs jumped out of the ambulances and started fighting with the Marines.  Ultimately, what the Marines did is call in airpower.  A helicopter dropped a Hellfire missile and then an F-16 dropped a laser-guided bomb on the outside of the mosque, put a huge crater outside the mosque.  There’s sort of a plaza outside the mosque.  And suddenly, the firing inside stopped.  But when the Marines examined the mosque and went in and went door to door in the mosque and floor to floor, they found no bodies, nor did they find the kind of blood and guts one would presume if people had died.  Now one or two things must have happened: either the people died inside and were carried off somehow — and there is a tradition of the insurgents carting off their dead very quickly; or, two, frankly, they escaped before the bomb was dropped.  We cannot confirm that anybody actually died in that mosque.  The Marines were quite willing to kill everybody in the mosque because they were insurgents.  They had been firing at people, at Marines.  And as the lieutenant colonel who ordered the strikes said, this was no longer a house of worship; this was a military target.”

There appears no major difference in the way the western press handled this fictional story from the way Al Jazeera handled in a few days later, adding to the story, of course: “The bomb hit the minaret of the mosque and ploughed a hole through the building shattering windows and leaving the mosque badly damaged.”

What appears missing here, as the battalion commander observed, is common sense.  If Moslem insurgents intend to use mosques as defensive positions to fire at Marines, a reasonable person should expect to have the entire building blown to hell and everyone inside the building killed.  That’s the way wars are fought.

Going back in time a few generations, collaborating with the enemy was (and should remain) a capital offense.  So too was providing aid and comfort to the enemy.  If the media decides to hire an enemy non-combatant (Saadi) to do their reporting, then media managers and editors should anticipate biased reporting.  The issue then becomes an exercise in logic.  If the effect of reporting fabricated stories provides aid or comfort to the enemy, if false reporting benefits the enemy, then the media is an enemy collaborator.

The net effect of this fraudulent reporting, given its impact on lily-livered commanding generals is that it caused the flag rank officers to abandon the operation — and this in turn produced a win for the enemy.  In the long term, a second battle would become necessary, and even more people would die or suffer life-changing disabilities.  Where was the honor in that?

The Battle of Fallujah was not the first or last instance when the press manufactured stories about American and Coalition forces.  The entire spectacle of the Haditha Affair, which morphed into the most expensive court-martial in American history, produced no convictions for murder, mayhem, illegal assault, or war crimes — and yet, because of this fraudulent reporting, the lives of several good and decent men were outrageously and unforgivably changed.  No one associated with the media was ever held to account for their scandalous behavior, which in my view, classifies these people as “enemies foreign and domestic.”

Sources:

  1. Connable, A. B.  Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, (2009)
  2. Department of Defense Law of War Manual, 2016. (A 1,236 page document).
  3. Witt, J. F. Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Free Press (2012)

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.