Shootdown highlights our weaknesses
By Karl Nugent
The writer, a master sergeant, is an infantry small-unit leader with 22 years in the Marine Corps.
November 2 will be frozen in time forever.
At 9 a.m. that day, an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter carrying soldiers headed for leave was blasted out of the sky over Iraq. The toll was 16 soldiers killed and 20 injured. It was the worst single attack on U.S. troops since the end of offensive combat operations in Iraq.
As I sat on my couch watching the news that Sunday morning, I became more and more upset. I suppose the weight of this loss hit a little too close to home.
Over the previous several weeks, Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 had been supporting the expeditionary airfield at Twentynine Palms, Calif., during two Combined Arms Exercises.
We spent a significant amount of time and effort on force protection and air base ground defense. I had numerous conversations about techniques and tactics that could be employed to combat a squad-size element trying to disrupt air operations.
But there are questions we have been unable to answer to everyone’s satisfaction: How many people does it take to protect a large airfield from two motivated individuals prepared to die to complete their mission? How do you fight people who believe throwing their lives away to take one American with them is a tactical success?
I have learned one thing: When it comes to tactics, there is no right or wrong answer. You make your choices, and the Marines in your charge live or die by those decisions.
Leaders make decisions based on their education, training and experience. Every leader begins by learning doctrine from a book. Now, I know I am going to take flak for saying that. Throughout my career, people have told me to throw the books out the window because they don’t work in the field.
I have a slightly different attitude toward books and make certain assumptions about them. One is that field manuals are written by leaders who have gone to war in many different climates and conditions, where they made decisions that cost men their lives. In order to prevent more needless deaths, they recorded the techniques and tactics that worked into a training manual covering such things as military operations in urban terrain, attacking a fortified position and maneuver warfare.
I don’t know what it is like to make a tactical decision that costs a Marine his life, but I am sure it is difficult to get beyond. Field manuals are written to pass on to the next generation of leaders those lessons — lessons learned the hard way. When you know nothing about a particular tactical problem, it is important to learn all you can, from any source. Once you have a working knowledge of the subject, it is time to begin tough, realistic training. We have done this for years.
Take a look at the execution of the offensive combat operations in Iraq. We have practiced maneuver warfare so often that we are to the point where everyone believes it should be nearly bloodless.
But the next chapter of warfare in Iraq has been written many times at our embassies around the world: combating terrorism. We have not mastered force protection as we have mastered maneuver warfare. Many times, this collateral duty is shoved down to the newest Marines, after a once-a-year anti-terrorism brief.
We need to re-read the anti-terrorism manual. The people executing guerrilla operations or terrorism against us in Iraq are using military training, education and planning. You can call them guerrillas or terrorists, but you cannot assume their acts are random violence with no coordination.
Extremists in Iraq are engaged in a military offensive operation of their own, using their strengths against our weaknesses in order to achieve a political victory, not a tactical one.
We have given them something they have spent a lifetime pursuing: access to Americans. We moved into Iraq, set up shop and established a routine. Our forces are under constant surveillance, and our weaknesses are being exploited by small groups.
Is it a coincidence that roadside bombs blow up our vehicles? Was it luck that two people with anti-aircraft missiles were in the right spot to hit a slow-moving helicopter?
If I were a terrorist fighting in Iraq, I would be thinking, “If I can kill one or two Americans a week over the next year, that could be enough to elect a new president, and the result of that could mean an American withdrawal from Iraq.”
As we draw nearer to the next presidential campaign, it is a tactic that might work.