Just what you need, right? Another 9/11 story. But trust me … this one is going to be fun. And it has one of those always popular “now what?” endings.
The Wired website has a great piece, “How the CIA Became ‘One Hell of a Killing Machine,’ ” about how the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks triggered the transformation of the CIA from an impotent bunch of federal check cashers into killers.
I would argue the impact of 9/11 led to an equally dramatic transformation of U.S. ground forces – the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps.
In the early days of the Iraq invasion, I watched the army struggle to re-invent itself as it went from fighting a conventional war against Saddam to fighting an insurgency.
The pre-9/11 army was a bulky force designed to stop Warsaw Pact forces from coming through the Fulda Gap and invading Western Europe, or to fight a land war on the Korea Peninsula.
Post 9/11, the army has gotten faster, leaner and smarter under both the Bush Administration, and especially under President Obama.
It’s an historic transformation, and America is safer for it. But watching the incredibly slow evolution was painful – and often funny for those of us who savor black humor.
From August to October, 2003 I worked in and around Baghdad as a reporter for European Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Department of Defense-financed daily newspaper.
For several months, I went unit to unit – from the the 82nd Airborne Division and 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fallujah to to the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad.
It was pretty clear everywhere I went that no one had a clue.
My favorite day was at the sprawling Victory Base at Baghdad International Airport base when 1st AD major comes up to me and says, “Boyd, you aren’t an electrical engineer by any chance?”
I thought he must be talking to another Boyd, so I’m looking around to see who else has my surname.
When I figured out he was talking to me, I said, “Negative, sir. I’m a reporter. And I have no idea how electricity even works.”
“Bummer. So, what are you doing this afternoon?”
I looked at the ground and said, “Well, you know, there’s this occupation I’m supposed to be covering.”
“Negative, Boyd. You’re coming with me. We’re going over to the reservists and see if we can find some engineers. We have this power plant we blew up, and now we have to fix it.”
“Well, major, I guess I thought maybe you guys would have brought some civilians along for the ride who could fix the infrastructure.”
“Goddamit Boyd, this is the army. We kill people.”
Which is far easier than fixing broken Arab countries. (Thank you, Gen. Powell.)
The army circa 2003 didn’t have the personnel, equipment or training to do all the nuanced jobs they were tasked to do in Iraq – war fighting, reconstruction and security – all while chasing phantom weapons of mass destruction.
The intel was a joke. There weren’t enough good translators. No one in the military understood Iraq or Arab society or Islam. Too many battalion and brigade commanders retreated to the Tactical Operations Centers, insulated from what was going on at the squad level.
There weren’t enough Air Force communications personnel, or ETACs, who could connect soldiers on the ground to close air support. There was no creative use of drones as missile platforms, so important now in Afghanistan. The all-important rules of engagement were baffling and inhibiting.
Under ROE, I saw soldiers denied use of weapons such as the Mk-19 grenade launchers in urban areas because they were too “destructive.” No kidding.
Predictably, by the time I was back in Iraq a few months later, there was still no electricity.
Al-Qaeda had emerged as the main insurgency force, shoving aside the Saddam loyalists.
But … I was embedded with the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, and I have to say I saw a whole new level of expertise.
I was with 1st Cav scouts, who just stayed out all the time, watching and killing, often teamed with Operational Detachment Alpha teams from Special Operations Group.
Iraq was still all screwed up. But 1st Cav had started to learn that light forces stalking insurgents was far more efficient than trying to lure the Iraqis into recreating the Battle of the Bulge.
Where the 1st AD had conducted slow motion raids using tanks, only to find the quarry long gone, the 1st Cav and SOG boys would swoop into towns with no warning, a light force relying on helicopter gunships for support.
As Iraq and Afghanistan ground on, the most dramatic change I saw was the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command operators doing more and more of the heavy lifting, which so many reporters have noted.
But what no one seems to pick up on was morale boost working with SOCOM boys gave the lowly 11 Bravos (infantrymen) in ForceCom units.
All of a sudden, Snuffy was excited about attaining new levels of skills when it came to clearing rooms, doing cordon searches and, above all, marksmanship because the SOG boys do this stuff. Oh, and getting to wear those cool black wraparound Oakley sunglasses like the secret squirrels.
Garden variety army units got schooled up on Arab culture and learned some Arabic. And they were getting a lot better at intel.
The Marines, meanwhile, also were getting strong, slicker and more successful. In 2006, I met Lt. Col Todd Desgrosseilliers, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment commander in Al Anbar Province, where the Marines had gotten anti-insurgency religion.
Desgrosseillers was making it up as he went, but really making progress. This is from a 2004 story I wrote:
“The more unorthodox and unconventional we are, the more successful we’re going to be,” said Lt. Col Todd Desgrosseilliers, 3-2 commander at Habbaniyah. At the core of the tactics — chiefly drawn from the 66-year-old Marine Small Wars Manual — is striving to understand the enemy, not only to kill him, but also to contrast the U.S. stabilization mission against insurgent anarchy and cruelty. Many Marines immerse themselves in counterinsurgency literature. Desgrosseilliers has the Marine Small Wars Manual bookmarked and underlined. He’s read “The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century,” the seminal book about the evolution of modern insurgency by retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, as well as books by Arabs inside the insurgency. “I read everything I can get my hands on,” Desgrosseilliers said. During the last three months, his Marines have begun using bold counterinsurgency tactics, putting companies on the streets of insurgent strongholds where they fight while finessing locals. Some small teams slip from house to house, paying families to put them up for brief periods.
Invading Iraq was a massive policy blunder. But it has made U.S. ground forces bold, intelligent and dynamic.
The big question now is, will civilian leadership in a post-Iraq/post-Afghanistan world allow war fighters to slide back into being single-dimensional forces?
Keeping 800,000 men and women trained up on two skill sets – conventional warfare and asymmetrical counter-insurgency – is expensive and demanding. The anti-spending Republicans say all the right things about the military, but it’s going to be tough to maintain budgets while cutting granny’s Social Security and Medicare checks.
The Democrats always seem to have a distant distrust of the military, in which few have served.
The only constant in is, there’s always someone bad out there who wants to destroy America.
Sadly, my money is on whoever runs this country during the next decade forgetting everything the army and Marines accomplished and we enter another post–Vietnam–like era of neglect.