Thoughts on the military and military activities of a diverse nature. Free-ranging and eclectic.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

By Thomas E. Ricks

As the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle was heating up last fall, Lt. Col. Steve Russell was dealing with a new wave of attacks in which bombers were using the transmitters from radio-controlled toy cars: They would take the electronic guts of the cars, wrap them in C-4 plastic explosive and attach a blasting cap, then detonate them by remote control.

So Russell, who commands an infantry battalion in deposed president Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, mounted one of the toy-car controllers on the dashboard of his Humvee and taped down the levers. Because all the toy cars operated on the same frequency, this would detonate any similar bomb about 100 yards before his Humvee got to the spot. This "poor man's anti-explosive device" was "risky perhaps," Russell writes in a 58-page summary of his unit's time in Iraq but better than leaving the detonation to the bombers.

As one of the biggest troop rotations in U.S. history gets underway in Iraq, with almost 250,000 soldiers coming or going, the seasoned units that are leaving are doing their best to pass on such hard-won knowledge to their successors, in e-mails, in essays, in PowerPoint presentations and rambling memoirs posted on Web sites or sent to rear detachments. And in the process, these veterans of Iraq have provided an alternate history of the Army's experience there over the past nine months -- one that is far more personal than the images offered by the media and often grimmer than the official accounts of steady progress.

Taken together, these documents tell a story of an unexpectedly hard small war that has been punctuated by casualties that haunt the writers. At the same time, they show how a well-trained, professional force adjusted last year to the first sustained ground combat faced by U.S. troops in three decades, relearning timeless lessons of warfare and figuring out new ones.

"We had to learn the hard way," Capt. Daniel Morgan, an infantry company commander in the 101st Airborne Division, writes in an essay that is rocketing around military e-mail circles.

Like most of the 28 documents reviewed for this article, Morgan's is relentlessly specific. One the most striking lessons the 1992 graduate of Georgetown University passes on: Every soldier in the unit should carry a tourniquet sufficiently long to cut off the gush of blood from major leg wounds. "Trust me," he writes, "it saved four of my soldiers' lives."

Morgan also emphasizes to incoming soldiers that they need to be ready to kill quickly yet precisely. "If an enemy opens fire with an AK-47 aimlessly, which most of these people do, you should be able to calmly place the red dot reticule of your M-68 optic device on his chest and kill him with one shot," he admonishes. "If you do this, the rest will run and probably not come back."

That no-nonsense conveyance of small but crucial details permeates the commentaries, in which today's Army talks to itself in blunt, sometimes ugly language. There also is a life-and-death urgency to many of the commentaries. "There was too much crap I saw over there that guys just don't understand, and it meant soldiers' lives," Capt. John Wrann, a 4th Infantry Division engineer, writes in an essay that was posted on, which began as a private Web site by and for junior Army officers but is now sponsored by the Army and has semi-official status.

Although some of the commentaries argue that progress is being made, as a whole they tend to paint a harsher picture than the public statements of senior officials. In his advice to incoming troops, Capt. Ken Braeger, a company commander in the 4th Division, which is headquartered in Tikrit, in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, states that "what they have to understand is that most of the people here want us dead, they hate us and everything we stand for, and will take any opportunity to cause us harm."

In part because of unvarnished comments such as that, the documents are provoking controversy within the military. Some senior officers at the Pentagon argue that by bypassing the chain of command, the authors may violate security procedures and could tip off the insurgents in Iraq.

Others dismiss those concerns. "I have seen so many of these that I have lost count," said retired Army Col. Johnny Brooks, an expert on infantry training. "I see them as newly indoctrinated young men, having done something of which they are proud, trying to help out their comrades who are getting ready to deploy."

Officers in Iraq said the documents tend to be useful, especially because they are more up-to-date about conditions there than are official publications. One officer based at Balad noted that after reading Morgan's essay he made adjustments in a convoy he was organizing for an operation in the Sunni Triangle. "Our troops are in down-and-dirty fights in the streets of the Fallujahs of this country, and mostly the Army still trains for the Big Fight," he said in an interview. "So we definitely need these informal debriefs."

The documents run the gamut from inarticulate to polished, from dull to action-packed, from heavily technical to highly philosophical. The stunning summer heat of Iraq provides the backdrop for many. "It is the most horrible environment that you could ever imagine," warns Capt. Mike Titus, a former commander of a 101st Airborne maintenance company in Iraq. "Prepare for the worst -- heat, dust, sandstorms -- the elements are as much your enemy as the Fedayeen."

Five subjects dominate the new veterans' discussions: the nature of the foe, the need to adjust tactics and equipment, the ways to keep troops sharp and, again and again, how to run a safe convoy. And then, less as a lesson than as a warning, there is the impact of casualties.
The Adversary
"There is no textbook answer for what you will encounter in Iraq," warns Lt. Jessica Murphy, a military police officer. "The enemy does not play by a set book of rules or tactics -- they literally change every week."

Likewise, Braeger cautions that troops need to remember they are under continuous observation. "The enemy is getting smarter," he writes. "He watches us and makes adjustments accordingly."

Maj. James N. Williams, the executive officer of a military police battalion, writes: "Fortunately, most Iraqis can't shoot worth a damn." But then there are the bombs.

The insurgents' tactics showed a growing sophistication over the course of 2003. At first, many units suffered direct attacks by rocket-propelled grenades, not unlike those they faced during the March-April war. Then came the roadside bombs -- at first, crude ones controlled by wires, then more advanced devices detonated by cell phones or other remote controls.

In the late fall, reports Russell, the infantry commander in Tikrit, "we began to see many varieties of explosive devices. Doorbell switches became a favorite, followed by keyless locks, toy cars and in one case a pressure switch."

Likewise, the placement of roadside bombs has become more sophisticated. The latest twist is to put a large bomb, such as one built with an artillery shell, in the open so that U.S. troops will stop short of it -- and then hit them with a string of hidden bombs along their stopping point.

In the face of such an innovative enemy, U.S. troops responded with adjustments of their own.
Under Fire
As Russell's use of the toy-car controller indicates, exotic new high-tech weaponry seems to play almost no role in these reports, noted Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution. When equipment is mentioned, he said, it tends to be very low-tech -- "less fancy, new stuff than adequate amounts of the best body armor, vehicle screens against RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and the like." This, he added, "should be a sobering point for proponents of defense transformation and the purported revolution in military affairs, who tend to focus more on high technology."

Sometimes the solutions in the field are painfully simple. Lt. Matthew Mason reports that during a firefight in the northern city of Mosul, his unit suddenly found that its mounted Squad Automatic Weapon, a light machine gun, could not be swung to shoot at the sixth story of a building. In the midst of combat, his men removed the rear pin on the gun mount, enabling the weapon to traverse to a higher angle of fire. But in the process, he said, they lost "precious seconds in which we could have closed with and destroyed the enemy."

The most effective counterbomb tactic has been the low-tech sniper, Army officers say. U.S. troops have learned to hide and spy on spots such as traffic circles where bombs are likely to be emplaced. "Anyone who comes out in the middle of the night to plant an IED [improvised explosive device] dies," a senior Central Command official explained in an interview.
Running Convoys
Highway overpasses have become the Iraqi equivalent of ambush points on jungle trails during the Vietnam War, with much thought being devoted to how to approach them. The current wisdom: Always move toward them with care, and swerve from lane to lane at the last minute.

Some studies also recommend that a "gun truck" -- that is, a big vehicle with a mounted .50-caliber heavy machine gun -- speed ahead of the convoy and train its weapon on the bridge while the convoy passes under it.

One of the most heavily studied subjects for the U.S. military in Iraq over the past nine months has been how to safely operate a convoy of trucks and Humvees, the Army's modern version of the jeep. The core conclusion of several of the studies is that the most vulnerable convoys are small ones of three or four vehicles -- especially those in which weapons are not held visible and at the ready.

Capt. Robert McCormick of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment found that in east Baghdad, "the vehicles that seemed to come under attack were that of soft skin and did not have any weapons noticeable or present." A more official military study warns that when a small convoy is hit, it "cannot produce enough firepower to fend off attacks or deal with casualties."

"When possible, travel in large convoys," cautions Maj. Eric Estep, based at the big supply depot at Balad.

Estep's PowerPoint study of insurgent tactics against convoys also noted that they tend to attack the rear of convoys. To counter this, he and others recommended putting heavy firepower there.

The need for this aggressive posture is repeated often. "It is true that the 'meaner' and more prepared you look that you can return immediate fire, the more likely they'll think twice about attacking," writes Wrann. He writes that some National Guard troops were so slovenly that they invited attack: "We've noticed the convoys that get hit more often are one with soldiers out of uniform -- the Guard guys usually travel in flak vest and t-shirt -- and do not pull security when they stop."(Wrann's comments were removed from the Company Command Web site late Friday after this newspaper sought elaboration from him.)

A Marine summary of Army lessons notes that in the lead truck in a convoy, the driver and gunner are too busy with their tasks to adequately scan the ground for roadside bombs. It recommends that a third soldier, equipped with binoculars and night-vision goggles, be posted in that vehicle -- and be trained to take over the machine gun should the gunner be hit.

Many of the convoy lessons are extremely specific. Morgan, the 101st company commander, trained his driver to take wide right turns in major intersections because, he explains, "On turns, most IEDs, if not all, are placed on the inside turn."

But several commanders warned in their reports that one thing worried them even more than roadside bombings or convoy attacks: complacency among their troops.

"Complacency is the no. 1 killer of soldiers," reports Murphy, an MP. "This is the one that bites most units." She said that even units being shot at can start treating missions as routine.

"Safety gets as many or more guys injured than enemy contact," concurs Braeger. "Come with your game face on and keep it on."

To keep that edge, Capt. Paul Evangelista, an engineer in the 10th Mountain Division, sought to make sure that all soldiers went on missions outside the base -- that is, beyond "the wire." (To a surprising degree, support troops, such as mechanics, cooks and clerks, tend not to leave their bases.) "I felt it was important to get soldiers outside of the wire regularly," both to remind them of where they were and to sharpen their combat skills, he writes in another report posted on the Company Command site, where many of the documents discussed in this article are posted.
Suffering Losses
Wrann said that the image that will remain with him is watching a burly platoon sergeant cup the head of his wounded medic and quietly tell him that his left arm was gone. Wrann's grim message to the incoming troops: "Guys get hurt and guys die."

The inevitability of casualties and the need to train for them is a recurring theme. But there are fewer lessons and more personal memories.

Lt. Brendan O'Hern, a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne, writes that after one of his best soldiers was killed in a barrage of rocket-propelled grenade fire one hot day last summer, "I did not really eat or sleep for six or seven days, but just laid around blaming myself in private." Eventually, he adds, "I hit a very low point and realized I'd better get some help or I would be in trouble."

Capt. Rich Smith, commander of an infantry company in the 101st Airborne, cautions fellow officers in his posting to be ready for moments such as one that stays with him, of covering the body of a sergeant he had known for years. "I never knew how hard command could be until I lost those guys," he writes.

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