Friday, September 19, 2008

Number Five and all Alive


The Marine battalion that has been to Iraq more often than any other returned home this week, and unlike previous trips to that combat zone, not a single leatherneck was lost.

"It was a pretty smooth tour," said Maj. Kevin Norton, second-in-command of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. "I think a lot of these Marines would rather have gone to Afghanistan."

The battalion was among the units of the 1st Marine Division, based in Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, that took part in the invasion of Iraq. They were the Marines who helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square, the moment that effectively marked the end of offensive combat operations in the invasion.

On this seven-month tour, there were no fatalities and only a handful of wounded. One Marine was injured badly enough to be sent back to the United States early.

This was made possible by a nearly total reversal of the level of violence in Anbar province, which for a time could not be mentioned in a story without the term "restive" in front of it. But the tribes of Anbar changed their way of thinking in the last year or so, and decided to side with the Americans and fight the foreign jihadists who had brought fear, intimidation and death by beheading to both the Americans and the local Iraqis.

Known as the "Awakening" movement, the decision by the Sunnis of Anbar, aided by money from the Americans, has meant a precipitous drop in violence in that region, which is west of Baghdad and stretches to the Syrian border. It includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, once two of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Welcome home, 3/4. I hope the era of the absurdity of five combat tours in five years is almost over.

One of the reasons behind the "Awakening" movement in the Sunni Anbar Province was the knowledge that the strongest tribe wins and the local tribes wanted to be on the winning side. There's a lot more to it, of course, but it's a factor.

Bing West (site, bio) has a new book out called "The Strongest Tribe". Here's some excerpts from a review by the Austin American-Statesman:

West, an infantry officer in Vietnam who has written two prior books about the Iraq war, finds abundant evidence of wisdom and bravery among American warriors and faults the press for focusing on mistakes instead of heroism. Yet he finds a corresponding level of incompetence among U.S. civilian leadership — led from the top by an uninvolved and credulous president.

George W. Bush, writes the author, forfeited a president's role to hold civilian and military leaders accountable and rewarded loyalty above performance. [...]

In giving Franks, Bremer and Tenet our highest award, West concludes, Bush "rewarded loyalty to the president rather than national achievement, smacking of self-justification for the principals in a mismanaged war far from won."

West's critique of the conduct of the war echoes that of Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco," although that devastating analysis was published in 2006 and thus doesn't recognize the turn in the war. And where West trumps Ricks or any other journalist is in his knowledge of tactics and strategy and his passion for ordinary soldiers and Marines.

West artfully describes "the stack," in which a dozen Marines line up outside the courtyard wall of a house, shouting and stomping rhythmically, trying to provoke insurgents into firing prematurely.

"Usually they didn't," writes West:

The marines then breached the iron outer gate, ran across the tiny patch of grass, and flattened themselves along the wall next to the front door. On signal, the door would be smashed in and four marines would rush into the front room, each pointing his rifle toward a different corner, each betting his life that none of the others would freeze or not shoot quickly enough.

You push open the door and rush in, pivoting to cover your sector when there's a flash and the firing hammers your ears. You can't hear a thing and it's way too late to think. The jihadist rounds go high — the death blossom — and your M4 is suddenly steady.

That takes balls, training, discipline, and faith in your fellow Marines. That's why the Marines were sent to deal with Anbar in the first place. Give the worst situation to the craziest motherfuckers.

As an Iraqi colonel said to him in 2004, "Americans are the strongest tribe."

Please read the rest of the review.

I saw General West on TV the other night. He doesn't get into the 'coulda, woulda, shoulda' part of actually starting the criminal clusterfuck in Iraq, just that we are where we are over there. He focuses on the military and political realities. I've read his two other books about Bush's War and they were about the troops and their bravery, and how Bush's politics got a lot of them killed, particularly in Fallujah.

I am ordering this book right away, and I will recommend it to you sight unseen on the basis of his previous work.

No comments: