Allcon- This was written by David at the end of his tour in November. I've waited to post it for almost three months. Several retired Marine Officers took this email in all its honesty and made sure the chain of command *cough*Commandant*cough* received it in early January.
I'm not trying to air the Corps' dirty laundry. We post AARs here from Marine Corporals occasionally and some have ended up as resources at Army Training Centers and for Commanders and Sergeants headed to Iraq.
It's long and valuable. And I've waited long enough to ensure OPSEC wouldn't be truly violated (this has been posted on some open forums already) and actions could take place. Thanks to several retired USMC Colonels (still mean, still green, just not as lean) and Corporal Seamus for sending various copies of the AAR.
...and, David, when your next tour in Iraq is over in 2009, look me up. I've got a job for you.
My name is Corporal David XXXX. I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2004, and armed with a history degree took a job in Florida negotiating commercial property insurance claims stemming from Hurricane Charlie. I found success but little pleasure in it and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in May 2005. I am currently assigned to TOW Platoon, 2nd Tank Battalion, which I deployed with from April 6 - October 30, 2006 as a Humvee Driver, Dismount, and Turret Gunner. I deployed again with TOW Platoon April 20 - November 2, 2007 as a Vehicle Commander, Assistant Section Leader, and eventually Section Leader. My platoon provided MSR Security along a well known highway in AO Raleigh, in Anbar Province Iraq. Our platoon was divided into four sections of four Humvees (and later MRAPs), each composed of 14-19 Marines plus corpsman. Between the two deployments I have been on over three hundred combat patrols, and the issues I discuss below stem largely from these experiences. I am scheduled to finish my enlistment with a third tour in the fall of 2008.
There has been tremendous change in AO Raleigh (Fallujah) over the course of and between my 2006 and 2007 deployments. In 2006 my platoon directly encountered approximately 155 IED emplacements (found or detonated) over the course of our seven months in theater. In 2007, tasked with the same mission in the same AO, my platoon encountered about 15 IED emplacements. The concern of most Marine grunts headed to Iraq these days is whether or not they will get their combat action ribbon. I have been told that only about a quarter of the platoon commanders from a recently returning infantry battalion that was stationed in AO Raleigh received their CAR (Combat Action Ribbon). Although I would not argue that this metric from the officer perspective is indicative of combat intensity, it is certainly instructive. Marine grunts are largely getting put to sleep in Anbar, with interesting unexpected side effects.
Provisional Security Forces (PSF) work! PSF started showing up in our AO around mid to late may 2007 around one particularly well known access road off of the MSR we patrolled. They fashioned a checkpoint and began to check every vehicle coming through. This example spread quickly and suddenly there were checkpoints popping up everywhere being manned by locals whose sheiks were pro-Coalition. More than the language barrier, these men are from the areas that they police, and therefore know who should and should not be driving through their checkpoints. They are worth their weight in gold. At first PSF checkpoints would be rudimentary, with unshaven men wearing civilian clothes carrying rusty AK-47's milling about. Despite their appearance, the PSF managed to eliminate IED culvert bombs (thousands of pounds of homemade explosive [HME] packed under the road) completely from their immediate area. We saw the difference and quickly made it a point to introduce ourselves and give the PSF concertina wire, glow belts, water, coolers, and just about anything else we could steal. As the deployment went on, PSF developed started making checkpoints in conjunction with the IP's all over the AO, to the point that nearly every major access road leading to our MSR had a checkpoint. PSF acted as an amazing force multiplier that denied the enemy freedom of movement in a manner we could not. Areas in 2006 that were enemy safe havens have been taken back by the PSF. AQI's presence on the ground is no longer felt in most areas we operated, either by the Coalition, ISF, PSF, or Iraqi civilians.
Rules of Engagement/Escalation of Force (ROE/EOF) hinders freedom of action, is run by lawyers who do not understand the combat reality on the ground, but is absolutely essential to our COIN mission in OIF. I hate ROE and EOF. Every grunt does. Once a month we would have classes by our platoon commander and a Navy lawyer (a LAWYER!!!) telling us about different examples of when/what you can or cannot shoot, what constitutes Hostile Act/Intent, and the necessity of Positive Identification (PID). The RCT required us to carry a wallet-sized ROE/EOF card with us on combat patrols at all times, as if during a firefight I would consult it. The entire program is run in a somewhat demeaning manner toward the grunt that is allegedly too stupid to understand what is going on around him. Its presentation is so flawed that the underlying message is largely discarded by those whose reality it effects on a day-to-day basis. This is a shame because restrictive ROE/EOF saves civilian lives, and the war on the ground in Anbar now is less about killing the enemy than not screwing up and antagonizing the local population. We are in a war where an errant warning shot can ricochet and accidentally kill a sheik's daughter in the backseat of a car with dire consequences. It is important to show self-restraint. I remember reading an article by Nate Fick in the Washington Post along these lines. No one likes having a loaded gun pointed at them, and if avoiding accidents means I have to present my weapon, wave a flag, fire a flare, then a warning shot, then a tire shot, then a grill shot, and finally a kill shot, then so be it. But if you are going to insist on these rules, than accordingly it should be explained how in the long run they are actually benefiting that Marine who in the short term takes increased personal risk in showing restraint for the sake of the mission. Most Marines that I know are disdainful of ROE/EOF procedures because this benefit is not properly described. More importantly the long-term positive trends of the past year are sometimes difficult to quantify within the individual Marine's universe. We should be doing a better job of connecting the dots for those on the ground outside the wire between extreme self-discipline in a dangerous environment and the positive developments that such action allows...
...Military bureaucracy stifles positive developments and hinders our capabilities on the ground. When we first arrived in theater this last deployment, AQI was packing culverts full of thousands of pounds of explosive, and detonating them as our vehicles drove over. This happened repeatedly. It took more than a month, several concussions, a couple of destroyed vehicles, and a security contractor's right arm before the engineers finally got the go ahead to weld grates to the culvert openings. At the time we (the sections going out on patrol) kept insisting, "Why don't we just bury the entrances in dirt?" (The Iraqis won't let us), "Why don't we put claymores inside?" (A child could get killed), etc. This problem had to allegedly go all the way up the MEF ladder before we received permission to weld these grates. In the meantime I would tighten in my seat as we drove over one of nearly 50 culverts in our AO almost every day.
Similarly, when PSF started popping up in May, our company level command (our company commander was on his first deployment to Iraq) was clueless about PSF. They did not understand the positive effect they were having on our mission because they did not witness it day-to-day, only in the abstract academic sense could they conceivably grasp the enormous change that was happening. We could not get supplies for the PSF, such as clothing, HESCO barriers, bulletproof glass, better weapons, food, C-Wire, etc. What we gave them we stole from base, and probably would have been punished if caught. These PSF checkpoints were very primitive and vulnerable in the beginning, and took losses that were unnecessary because they did not have the support or equipment that very easily could have been given to them to help. The early lack of cooperation from USMC toward PSF on the company level probably delayed their influence and success in certain areas. Also, I don't think it is too much to explain to the squad leader on the ground that the non-uniformed, raggedy 20 year-olds wielding AK-47's on the side of a road at a rudimentary vehicle checkpoint are a part of something, what that something is, and how it effects us. What I knew about PSF and the Awakening I got from the (alternative) media, and having the good fortune of talking to a senior MEF civilian tribal expert early in my deployment.
The nighttime flare recognition debacle is another instructive example of administrative malfeasance. Usually at night we would have our lead gunner identify an oncoming convoy in the opposite lanes. If Coalition or Iraqi, we would have our lead gunner flash his Surefire flashlight three times from the turret. Their lead gunner would do the same, then flash two times, then one. This was banned by MNF-W rather suddenly, probably for the increasing POG (Person Other then Grunt) supply convoy blue-on-blue incidents. In its stead the nighttime flare recognition method was imposed from above: An oncoming convoy approaches, you halt then fire a red flare into the sky. The opposing convoy halts, and fires a green flare into the sky. We had six-hour patrols on the main east-west highway in the country. Besides turning every night into the Fourth of July, draining our pyro resources, and leaving us halted and potentially exposed to attack, this brilliance let the enemy know our exact position, and also made red flares (once reserved for dire emergencies) become the military equivalent of a car alarm that everyone ignores. Infantry units uniformly ignored the flare guidance and kept doing the 3-2-1 flash anyway.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)/Force Protection is counterproductive to COIN ops. The latter is, I think, a now widely held view amongst "experts". Excessive PPE not only inhibits movement, but it sends the wrong message to locals. By excessive, I mean wearing glasses, gloves, and a face mask at all times. I understand the justification for wearing these things in certain situations, but otherwise I ignored it. If you are an Iraqi civilian, you are already probably intimidated by a Marine wearing a flak jacket with helmet and rifle. But being able to see my face humanizes me and makes me more accessible to the civilian on the street. I would almost never wear gloves and never when shaking a man's hand or giving a child a high-five. It's insulting to them and counterproductive. Risk mitigation is necessary but excessive and rigid PPE guidelines can hurt more than help.
During one patrol in June our section had to stop and turn around on the same lanes and drive through the oncoming civilian vehicular traffic that had built up in our wake (we don't allow civilians to pass in either lane). As the rear vehicle we were providing security as the section turned around and began come back around. I got out of my Humvee without my rifle, walked up to the side of the road, and began to wave the vehicles through in the right lane (ours were passing by in the left). And as they came up within feet of me, they honked, waved, smiled, and offered me cigarettes, and I even got a few rock concert fist pumpings. What they were applauding, I am sure, was the fact that I felt confident enough in them to approach weaponless. My gunner had an overwatch position for me anyway. When you are going outside the wire every day it is easy to lose your humanity. The patrol becomes your life and primary if not sole reason for existing. Events become statistics and every Iraqi civilian is viewed as a potential threat. Interacting with the Iraqis and seeing them in a human light that day was the defining moment of my deployment, and I would like to think that being treated like people instead of threats left them with a similarly good feeling.
The best way to stay alive is to think like the enemy. In both deployments in all my successive billets (Driver, Dismount, Turret Gunner, Vehicle Commander, and Section Leader) I would play and encourage others to constantly think, "How would I kill me?" Enemy TTPs changed gradually to deal with our own changing TTPs, and I encouraged everyone to literally spend each patrol thinking how we were vulnerable, and imagine as an insurgent how I would implant an IED to kill us. How would I use a decoy IED hoax for a sniper shot? Would a secondary IED emplacement be effective? How about laying a 122 mm shell painted white lengthwise over a white stripe in the highway at night? Gaming the enemy's probable courses of action should be at the forefront of every grunt's existence in Iraq. This kind of thinking is too often neglected by junior Marines whose seniors do not encourage creative thinking. We were able to dodge some new IED developments because we had thought about similar possibilities in advance. Unfortunately too many Marines are dead from not constantly thinking about the possible threats they face. Getting shot for standing still outside, having improper geometry of fires, setting up negligible OP perimeter defenses, having bad comm. equipment, and not being familiar with geographic specific IED threats have all killed Marines and will unfortunately continue because units do not game all the possibilities, however improbable they might seem.
Reservists are a mixed bag. Infantry reservists are universally bad, while POG reservists are much better than their active-duty counterparts. Marine reservist grunts hardly ever deploy and possess neither the training nor innate desire to perform as an active duty grunt. The reservists I know say it is difficult to take seriously one training weekend a month when you are at parade rest the other four weeks. Active-duty affords better training opportunities, and a more realistic idea of what a deployment environment will feel like. You live and work with your unit and get to know personality quirks, as well as individual strengths and weaknesses in a way that periodic, piecemeal training cannot.
POG reservists such as engineers are fantastic. Their civilian jobs are usually very closely related to their MOS and they usually surpass their military counterparts in technique and proficiency. In the civilian world they have to be good at what they do otherwise they get fired, sadly an option not available in the military. It should be.
SLOW DOWN!!! Our huge bases with a notionally small force require constant supply by convoy. Gas, food, and other supplies have to be driven to base from somewhere, and this has to be done every day. And for some reason, convoys of all sorts insist on driving too fast. Our section maximum speeds while on patrol were 20-25 mph during the day and 10-15 mph at night. Especially at night, when visibility is greatly reduced, driving over 15 mph for any reason other than Medevac/Engagement is asinine. Yet every night patrol I have ever been on (well over a hundred) has been filled with convoys passing us in the opposite or left/right lanes because presumably we were driving to slow. It was our job to move to contact to find the IEDs that kill these convoys! And they insist on going around us because we are going to slow! Driving too fast at night is probably the number one cause of getting hit by IEDs, and the easiest thing to stop. Drive slower, stay alert, and treat every suspicious curb, piece of trash, dead dog, whatever as if it were an IED. I would institute a MNF-W nighttime speed limit of 15/20 mph for most non time-sensitive convoys, with certain exceptions. I guarantee even now that lives would be saved at little cost other than annoyance of having to drive slowly. If a nighttime speed limit had been set in 2006, dozens and possibly over a hundred Marines would be alive. Driving slow saves lives.
Blue Force Tracker has the potential to be a great tool but as employed is nothing more than an expensive toy. All units have icons that pop up on the Blue Force that move on the rolling map as they travel (it is updated by satellite every few seconds). Every convoy leaving the wire should update its Blue Force to state their radio frequency, full unit name without abbreviations, convoy commander, number of vehicles and personnel, where they are headed from and to, what their mission is, and what their status is.
There should also be an RCT/MEF section whose sole purpose is to evaluate current conditions on the ground and constantly update Blue Force to reflect on a daily basis. For example, IEDs show up as a green circle icon, but they stay up for months on the screen after the event. Current IEDs should be given one color, and old IEDs or obstacles should be given different colors based on how old they are. Furthermore all IED icons should have a detailed description of the type of round/attack, exact emplacement method and area, what time of day it was found and by who for contact information. Telling me that there was an IED/Booby Trap three months ago with no further information is not very helpful. We need somebody to police what icons go on the Blue Force to minimize clutter, and the icons we have should include much more detailed descriptions of events happening. This is another example of a theoretical good idea where somebody throws money at a problem and we get a useless technological mess. I could have operated a section without Blue Force Tracker the entire deployment and it would have been 95% the same without any major hindrance or loss of ability. That is a shame and a waste. Lack of user feedback to update the software is keeping this possibly invaluable tool from reaching its potential. Technology is the domain of the young and I bet if you put three 19 year-old lance corporal technogeeks in charge of revamping Blue Force Tracker the system could be overhauled in about a month for the better.
JERRV/MRAPs are advantageous but nowhere near as useful as the initial hype. I understand why USMC has backed off their initial plan to completely replace the Humvee with MRAPs. It just is not practical. The vehicles are monstrous and provide excellent protection/comfort at the expense of visibility and mobility. EOD and route clearance units have been using MRAPs for a while now, but 2007 marked their first widespread use among regular units. My section actually went on the first MRAP non-EOD patrol for MNF-W. Murphy's Law went into effect as to be expected; one of the MRAPs broke down and had to be towed back to base. Once the kinks were worked out it became obvious that MRAPs provided protection against the most dangerous threats in the AO at the time: Huge SVBIED's and the aforementioned culvert bombs. If you wanted to check out a possible IED on the side of the road you could literally just drive up to it and peer out the window. If traveling down a dirt road, a convoy could place an MRAP as lead vehicle and thus virtually eliminate the threat of buried pressure plates on the rest of the convoy. The vehicles are relatively quick considering their size, have great creature comforts, and the class III large variants we had have seating for eight plus one gunner in the turret. If need be in a pinch I could easily fit a squad and probably in a dire emergency around two dozen Marines with full gear inside. I would recommend modifying the class III as a convertible medical vehicle; one large MRAP could fit up to four litters while having two corpsmen provide medical care without interfering with operation of the vehicle at all.
MRAPs are not without severe limitations. The largest variant weighs 40,000 lbs. During the summer dry months, and on a paved MSR, we had little problems. However during the winter rainy season, it remains to be seen how well these tremendously heavy vehicles can trudge along through the mud without getting stuck, leading to the next problem. An MRAP cannot be towed by another MRAP, you have to call Regiment and get the engineers out with a wrecker to tow it once stuck. This is immensely time consuming and leaves the crew/convoy potentially vulnerable. If a Humvee breaks down outside the wire, you can hook it up to another Humvee with chains, a tow bar, tow strap, etc. The hooking up and towing process should take less than a minute or so when time is of the essence. Waiting for the engineers to come tow your MRAP can take hours. What is the expected number of MRAPs to break down per day and how long will the average wait time be in the future? I envision these vehicles getting stuck in the mud all the time and having maintenance issues once they have had some serious miles put on them. Furthermore, MRAPs can simply not travel down certain dirt roads that are too narrow or too unimproved. Once our platoon moved to half MRAP vehicles it became evident that we simply did not need a 100% MRAP force. Having two Humvees mixed with two MRAPs in a four vehicle section allowed us to negate the IED threat while still maintaining mobility. I was told by an officer allegedly in the know that the original plan was to replace almost 90%+ of RCT-6 Humvees with MRAPs by the end of 2007, and I'm glad to see that the MRAP full replacement policy has stalled in light of the decreased violence in the province, in addition to the issues mentioned above.
M4's are great weapons, however at much past 400-500 yards their shorter barrel becomes a hindrance. I have experienced this firsthand in Iraq, and more recently at my latest rifle range last week at the 500 yard line (needless to say I still shot expert). All turret gunners should be equipped with A4's, and definitely I would not want a squad with all M4's for the exact same reason.
In Iraq pistols have become a vanity weapon for Officers and Staff NCO's. If we are going to have pistols at all, which is a whole other question, I recommend going back to the .45. A 9mm bullet is even less effective than the 5.56. But really, why are pistols being issued at all? I can see pistols being effective in close quarters battle in an urban environment, but this is not being done by the Officers and SNCO's who are the ones primarily being issued these things in the first place! I really have no problem with senior officers being issued a pistol for practical reasons, but I will say that when the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps spoke at Camp Fallujah he was carrying an M4 not a pistol, and he did so the entire time he was at base. If we are going to issue pistols at all, make them .45 caliber, give them to the squads going out on patrol who might conceivably use them, and make junior officers lug around all seven lbs. of their M4 around base.
The 5.56 round is not effective against insurgents who are doped up. My section has slugged it out with insurgents who were as fearless as their methamphetamine pills made them. Increasingly AQI/insurgents will get all doped up on whatever pain relievers/narcotics are available, and then go out in a blaze of glory. Some light was made about the ineffective nature of the 5.56 during the siege of Fallujah and how units were picking up discarded AK-47's for that little extra oomph. The same problem is true today. Its hard to believe that a human being can get shot 5 or 6 times and keep on ticking, but I have had seen it happen one too many times to remain blind to the fact that the 5.56 is simply to weak a caliber against a drugged out enemy. The 7.62 bullet will blow the barnyard door out of the back of an insurgent's chest, but for the grunt on the ground the problem of increased weight/reduced ammo capacity remains. I would argue that we should be looking at the 6.88 caliber round for M16 variants, which I believe the Aussies have used with great success. It's a good compromise between weight and stopping power. I am not arguing for automatic weapons at all; I have never used the burst setting on my M4. I just think that our enemies in the near future will continue to be irregular and use every advantage possible, such as narcotics. Drugged out insurgents/terrorists/paramilitaries are the wave of the future that we will be facing and our primary rifle caliber should be able to tackle them and reflect this reality.
From experience, I would mandate that every Marine outside the wire should have a 10 magazine load at all times. Every grunt unit develops their SOP for what they should be carrying outside the wire, and the standard issue is 7 magazines, this obviously lessens or increases with each unit and what particular patrol is being conducted. I carried a minimum of 12 magazines at all times on my person, and at one point was even carrying 18. This is a out by experience for doing so.
The MK-19 is the make or break weapon of the CAAT/MAP section/convoy. It is the most intricate crew-served weapon in our arsenal, the most likely to not function in combat, and the most devastating if employed. The MK-19 should be manned by the most senior gunner, and I would even have an otherwise experienced vehicle commander as the MK-19 gunner just so I know that it would be ready when necessary. This weapon constantly malfunctioned outside the wire during situations where its presence would have ended events rather quickly.
I would like to bring back the M-79 Vietnam Era Thumpers. The MGL (A revolver-like 6-shot 40MM weapon) is a nice tool but a little too bulky to carry around in addition to your regular weapon. You still see Special Forces carrying old M-79's around and senior fire team and squad leaders have M203's, but the M203 lacks the speed, portability, and easy aiming of an M79.
All Humvee turret gunners should have a SAW as a secondary rifle in case their primary weapon goes down. Ideally it should be already side-mounted (this is what I had last year as .50 cal gunner) but a lot of the newer turrets render this nearly impossible.
Automated turrets are a bad idea. The video recognition system is apparently good and the aiming system works fine, but nothing can replace having a human being in the turret. A turret gunner can hear where a gunshot is coming from, smell leaking gasoline from a fuel tank that has been sniped, and most importantly feel the situation as it develops. As a turret gunner there were times that I just felt something wrong and was able to anticipate what happened next.
The larger point about automated turrets, Blue Force Trackers, MRAPs, etc. is that technology is not a panacea. All the technological advances in the world will not prevent poorly trained personnel from killing themselves and others. My Humvee had a Chameleon CREW anti-IED device for the non-existent RCIED threat that we would regularly not use because it completely ruined our radio communications. We also had a Blue Force Tracker that provided virtually 0% strategic capability. I had a Boomerang audio sensor that could track what direction and how far away a sniper shot was coming from that was used sparingly and that any good turret gunner could emulate. Finally, I had a video camera with zoom function that could extend to a height of about 20/25 feet for monitoring...something---I never put it to good use. This is hundreds of thousands of dollars of useless technology. I would rather have the USMC spend that money developing better trained Marines who understand how to think for themselves in a rapidly changing environment. Or maybe raise salaries to entice better people to think about enlisting. I am aware of no technology or combination of technologies that can on the whole replace a quality man on the ground. I would rather minimally augment the well-trained grunt with some gadgetry than completely submerse the poorly-trained grunt with the latest technologies.
We have no lightweight fast infantry anymore. Here is another situation where technology has improved our casualty situation at the extreme expense of our killing ability. Thousands of troops are alive because of their flak jacket and body armor, but how many more thousands of enemy are alive because the Marine wearing 50+ lbs or armor could not chase the insurgent more than 500 yards without having a heart attack? I consider myself in pretty good shape, but having a flak jacket with ESAPI armor plates, side SAPI plates, a Kevlar, a standard magazine load, and rifle is very cumbersome. I could not conceivably chase down a determined insurgent who wanted to run away over any appreciable distance. The body armor situation I think represents a microcosm of larger trends happening in society and/about the military. Our society has placed so much emphasis on protecting the troops that our military has acceded to it. My job is to defeat the enemy, not protect myself. Although I have no way of proving it, I am willing to bet that if we had adopted a lighter weight form of body armor (even at the expense of protection), increased mobility would have offset increased casualties with the killing of more enemy. When you fail to kill the sniper because you cannot run his position down, he returns to kill more of your friends the next week. When you fail to kill the AQI cell leader because you cannot climb over a wall in your body armor, he lives to organize a SVBIED that detonates on your friends along an MSR several days later. Our sense of force protection projected from the top-down is so misguided and permeates every aspect of our training, fighting, and mission. It disgusts me. I accept that I am expendable so why can't everyone else?
All units need to coordinate movement on the ground better. Every convoy traveling anywhere should submit an online itinerary of pertinent details that should be forwarded to every command through which they will be traveling, and this information should be forwarded through radio or Blue Force to the boots on the ground. It will save a lot of confusion and more than a few lives. These convoy lead vehicles should always be a MRAP or a Humvee with rollers.
Every Marine should know how to operate a .240 medium machine gun. This needs to become an annual training requirement immediately. It is the crew-served weapon of choice for turret gunners and, being essentially a 7.62 SAW, the easiest to use.
Company Commanders in Anbar are largely dictating on the ground policy just in the same way that first term corporals are implementing it on a day-to-day basis. This is a huge departure from the past. I remember reading Michael Yon's suggestion for aspiring journalists coming to Iraq: Talk to the battalion commanders to find out what is going on in their battle space on the ground. His reasoning was that in Iraq the fighting has devolved so far down that it is no longer a division or regimental fight but a battalion fight, and therefore the Battalion Commander in charge of his AO is most likely to know the most about the area and situation and give the most frank assessment. I would take this one step further, at least in regards to Anbar, and argue that the infantry Company Commander (Captain) has widely become the most important rank/billet in Iraq. Company Commanders in AO Raleigh have their own personal fiefdoms and control entire suburbs of Fallujah. They are responsible for organizing local ISF and coordinating civil projects in addition to maintaining security.
There are too many troops in Anbar right now. AO Raleigh is the most dangerous AO in Anbar, and is immeasurably better than in 2006. Ramadi has been pacified to the point that Camp Ramadi, I have been told, is a saluting FOB. Saqliwiyah, Zaidon, and even to some extent Karma (AO Raleigh suburbs of Fallujah) have been largely pacified. I am not a policy expert, but by the time we left in November 2007, virtually every grunt unit I talked to saw boredom as their primary adversary. It seems to me that we could draw down significantly in Anbar in probably every AO with little effect on the security situation. Marines could be better used elsewhere.
On the other side of the coin, we have too many support troops doing absolutely nothing in Iraq. There was an article in the Marine Corps Times about how the average Marine now gains 10 lbs in Iraq and their cholesterol shoots up tremendously. I found this funny, as I lost 25 lbs. in 2006 and 15 lbs. in 2007. This weight loss is typical of most other grunts I worked with. The weight gain, however, is coming from support troops who are staying on base living a sedentary lifestyle and doing not much at all. There are ways we can trim the fat of our total force in Iraq without suffering any ill effects by eliminating these support troops who are doing nothing. Walking around Camp Fallujah or any main FOB will open one's eyes to the excess personnel we have in Iraq. Similarly, I see little point in transforming the USMC from 180,000 to 203,000 troops unless the bulk of those troops are combat arms. As is we are only adding essentially one regiment of grunts, and these are the troops who are overworked and over-deployed. We need more grunts!!!
The amount of violence in Anbar is indirectly proportional to the level of garrison nonsense imposed by higher. In 2006, Anbar was very violent. Accordingly, my platoon stationed aboard Camp Fallujah (one of very few infantry units stationed on base) issued ourselves the moral authority to ignore whatever BS was coming from the top about petty issues. If someone (read: POG SNCO) decided to "hawk" one of us for not having a haircut or some equal nonsense, you could pretty much get away with telling him what you did that day on patrol and asking him when the last time he went outside the wire was. (My personal favorite riposte was asking them how many bodies they had on their pistol, that always shut them up real good.) In 2007, because of the perceived and real drop in violence, more and more stupid rules and garrison "stuff" seeped into life on base. For support troops this is of minimal importance, their life in Iraq is largely the same as back in the US. But having the Headquarters Battalion Sergeant Major tell me how to properly clear my weapon upon my return from a patrol in which I faced considerably more danger than the errant paper cut is more than demoralizing. It is sad. The joke is that CF is actually called Camp Flejeune. When I talk to Marines about redeploying, the biggest worry is not about the enemy but how stupid the garrison mentality will be when we return. There is something wrong with that picture.
The notion that current luxuries afforded troops in Iraq is somehow different from past wars is wrong. Occasionally I read about how the troops in Iraq have too many luxuries, how great our food is, how we have internet, etc. The tone of these comments is generally disdainful, and suggestive that we could minimize our convoys and exposure if we would just live a more Spartan lifestyle. I readily concede that we have great food and internet access in Iraq, both luxuries unavailable in say, Vietnam. Of course we do not have cold beer, women, and big time celebrities on the USO tour. Imagine going 7 months without a cold beer or companionship. It is not fun. Every war is different, but they are universal in their misery. I would ask veterans of past wars to cut current troops some slack on this account. Besides, largely these luxury benefits are least available to those who deserve them most, those who are stationed (like we often were for weeks at a time) at Observation Posts and Firm Bases scattered throughout the AO. This, as I have been told, is unchanged from past wars.
Kids uniformly love the troops. We shower them with candy, cold water, and toys, and have secured their loyalty. Beyond the superficial, kids are going to new schools, playing outside, and often receiving coalition medical outreach care. They will remember it. Like most Arab countries, Iraq is young, and the children of today will be the leaders of the next generation. On this subject, we got it right from the beginning. The most positive reactions I got on patrol were inevitably from children of all ages and both genders.
Negative comments from politicians played over television have a dramatic effect on morale, especially on troops who are otherwise indifferent and disdainful of politics in general. I cannot tell you how many times I have overheard Marines and soldiers talking about various inconsiderate comments made from the likes of John Kerry, Murtha, Reid, and Pelosi about how we cannot win, how we should be brought home, etc. The Kerry comments really cemented his reputation with the troops and upset people more than anything else. It is unnerving to volunteer for service during wartime hoping to be deployed and having to listen to a politician explain how the troops need to come home, especially when we clearly have not finished what we started. There is a widespread perception amongst the Marines I know, even those uninterested in politics, that the Democratic Party does not want us to win in Iraq for whatever reason. This is true even amongst Democrats who still maintain the party viewpoint on almost every other issue but the war. Morale is always a tricky issue to deal with, and it is difficult to tell a Marine to buck up when he sees important people back home undercutting his primary reason for existing at the moment.
The news cycle in the mainstream media is about 4/6 months behind events on the ground. The evolution of the IED threat is a perfect example. I remember seeing an article in the Marine Corps Times about a new "speed bump" IED appearing in Iraq. This was about 6 months after we first encountered them. Likewise there was an article in the Washington Post/MSNBC about pressure plate IEDs several months ago that made it seem like this threat, which had been around for over a year, was somehow new. The same thing is true with the effects of the surge. The most accurate news reporting on the ground in Iraq is coming from bloggers and the alternative media. When I was in Iraq I would read Michael Yon and Michael Totten when possible for great stories on what was really happening elsewhere around the country.
Every returning unit from Iraq should be given uncharged "basket" leave for post-deployment. Even if you have to offset the cost by taking out money of the paycheck elsewhere, this would have a huge positive effect on morale. I earn 30 days of leave per year and between pre-deployment and post-deployment leave in 2006 and 2007 there is none left should I so desire to take some time off. My unit is an extreme example with back-to-back-to-back deployments, but this problem exists everywhere. Marines are burned out and should be able to spend 20 days with their families when they return home from Iraq, regardless of their MOS.
The Iraqi Army (IA) and Iraqi Police (IP) in Anbar are tremendously better than they were in 2006. The IP's in particular are much better in AO Raleigh. In 2006 they were infiltrated by insurgents and AQI and could not be trusted. The ones that could be trusted were afraid to leave their bases and do any policing, which to be fair essentially amounted to military style patrolling. The IP's are now out on the streets, proud and unafraid. They look more professional, have better weapons and vehicles to include flak jackets, interact with a grateful population that respects them (the old Sadaam-era civilian disdain toward police officers has evaporated), and will not back down from a fight. In the city of Fallujah, the IP's are largely running the security show and the US presence has been reduced to MITT/PTT teams and essentially one company of grunts. They more and more act and gradually look like a professional force, largely because they are becoming one. IP's maintain an overwatch position in front of the main exit of CF and guard the most important bridge in Anbar for coalition convoy traffic. These jobs could not have been provided in 2006, and I would have laughed should someone have suggested them. My 2007 deployment was in many ways emasculating because of increased ISF presence, and I could not be happier.
The weakest link in the USMC right now is the Staff NCO. Most joined before 9/11, and do not share the post 9/11 enlistee's motivation to enlist: knowing he will probably be going to war. Many if not most are stuck in a garrison mindset of the late 1990's: Med-Floats and West-Pacs which hold little meaning now with Iraq at the forefront. The strategic first-term corporal/sergeant is in charge on the ground. He made his bones in Iraq not stateside at a training evolution. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks and the current lot of staff sergeants, gunnery sergeants, and even some first sergeants are stuck in a peacetime mindset. Over the next two years many of the first crop of post-9/11 re-enlisters will be picking up staff sergeant and things will slowly change for the better. Some examples I have experienced would be comical if people's lives weren't at stake. Maybe my viewpoint is radically different than others. But the trend of inadequate SNCOs seems to permeate the ranks of combat arms amongst almost every unit I have become acquainted with. Rank is not an indication of talent, and many senior Marines, both enlisted and officer, have confused the two.