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Embedded

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Bing West and Ray L. Smith.
The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the First Marine Division.
Bantam Books. 289 pages. $24.95.

By rough count, there have been about a dozen books published by media organizations, individual reporters, and military historians on coverage of the Iraq campaign. There also is a collection of oral histories from reporters. This bibliographic pile will grow higher, no doubt. The instantaneousness of modern communication seems, reflexively, to require the more durable medium of a book to validate a conspicuous event.

Among the publications about the short and audacious Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign, The March Up is notable for its informed reporting on the combat. It is a coherent and vivid narrative that focuses equally on the fighting and the individual Marines who were doing it — a gritty and intimate focus. It is unabashedly a gung-ho account. While the Iraqi campaign was integrally a joint operation, The March Up concentrates on the Marine campaign from Kuwait into Baghdad. The Army’s critical participation provides context for the two-pronged U.S. offensive to capture Saddam Hussein’s capital.

The book’s title recalls the Anabasis and compares the Marines who fought in Iraq in 2003 with those “tough characters bound by an unflinching warrior code” in 400 bc. The “tough characters,” as the authors characterize the 10,000 Greek hoplites, were the troops hired by Cyrus the Younger in his unsuccessful war against his brother — and who then survived harrowing odds to return home.

Bing West and Ray L. Smith were, and were not, “embedded” — the Pentagon term for reporters assigned to specific military units for the Iraqi campaign. The authors were signed on by the Marine Corps as “unpaid consultants” and, at their own expense, were allowed to roam the First Marine Division’s area of operations.

 

Despite initial reluctance at Headquarters Marine Corps to credential the pair, their case was obviously helped by their military backgrounds. Bing West was a Marine officer in Vietnam and wrote a classic of that messy war, The Village (Harper & Row, 1972). He was a special assistant to the secretary of defense when Saigon fell and, in a later administration, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Retired Major General Ray L. Smith on one of his Vietnam tours commanded a rifle company during the bloody battle for Hue and was known to some of the younger Marines in Iraq by his Vietnam nickname, “E-Tool,” from the small entrenching tool with which, legend has it, Smith assaulted a North Vietnamese machine gun after his rifle jammed.

Whoever in the Pentagon had the coruscation to “embed” reporters did a good day’s work. Actually, the notion likely evolved from the logic that abrasive experience at some point will make ineluctable.

After complaints from reporters and editors that they were hog-tied during the first Gulf War, there was obvious need for improvement in that testy atmosphere of civil-military relations. Confined for much of the 1991 campaign to coalition headquarters, most of the heavy battalion of reporters and technicians did not present a pretty picture. The 1991 briefings elicited increasingly tendentious questions.

“The Persian Gulf press briefings are making reporters look like fools, nitpickers and egomaniacs; like dilettantes who have spent exactly none of their lives on the end of a gun or even a shovel; dinner party commandos, slouching inquisitors, collegiate spitball artists; people who have never been in a fistfight, much less combat; a whining, self-righteous, upper-middle-class mob,” wrote Henry Allen, a Washington Post reporter who also served in Vietnam as a Marine. “A lot of them seem to care more about Iraqi deaths than American deaths. . . . They don’t always seem to understand that war is real.” A few enterprising reporters during Desert Storm did not merely cavil and carp: Michael Kelly went off on his own and wrote a memorable book of that campaign, Martyrs’ Day (Random House, 1993). With the shattering irony that lurks in history, Kelly was killed while covering the Third Infantry Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The acrimonious mutual distrust between soldiers and reporters, the legacy of Vietnam, is now diminishing somewhat, if for no other reason than that two decades have passed. In addition, military professionals did not have to be Clausewitzean to realize how dramatically the informational environment had changed since Vietnam: Indicative is that Pentagon “war-gaming” now includes a “cnn factor” — shorthand for being alert to the potent influence of real-time press coverage.

Thus, after September 11 and the growing probability that the U.S. would be the agent of “regime change” along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, it was apparent that news coverage would not be like that of previous expeditions. The decision to embed reporters with military units was received generally as a useful technique, though the acquiescence of the press was hesitant. Having reporters so intimately on the ground with troopers would put the pressies in a gritty environment that was stunningly new to most, and they would, some feared, “lose objectivity.”

Once the embedding decision was made, the military, with its disciplined energy once given marching orders, began acculturating designated reporters. Short “boot camps” were held to give them a sense of what they would encounter in combat; they were marched briskly through the boonies and put under simulated fire and the stress of being in an unfamiliar, unpredictable, and dangerous arena.

The plan of the U.S. invasion was to move fast, maneuver rapidly, and bring massive firepower to bear against the enemy — in contrast to Desert Storm, with its extended air war against Saddam Hussein’s forces before ground troops were committed. “There were disagreements about timing and tactics, leadership mistakes, foul weather, and staggering logistical challenges,” West and Smith write. They are referring to the First Marine Division, but obviously this was the case throughout the invasion, the “fog of war” that is the nature of battle.

The authors are deeply impressed by the Marines, these “eager young men.” “It is a mystery why some are called to be grunts, to carry a rifle and an eighty-pound pack, to chew tobacco and swear and sweat and shoot and be refused a beer because of being underage. . . . The eighteen-year-old infantryman goes to work each day preparing to kill other men, not an ordinary job,” the authors note — a dismal reality of warfare that is neither generally appreciated nor understood in a society today where so relatively few of its young men and women serve.

The troopers of the First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, West and Smith write, constituted “a killing machine, a thousand young men who shaved each day, said ‘sir’ to their elders, . . . cleaned their weapons five times a day, checked the links on the ammo belts, and tapped the magazines against their [helmets] to make sure the cartridges were seated. And practically every one of them wanted to shoot a fedayeen.”

“This is a perfect war,” a Marine non-commissioned officer remarked, referring to the Islamists’ willingness to die fighting the infidels. “They want to die and we want to kill them.” Marines are trained with one objective — to destroy the enemy — and the usual media euphemisms seldom convey this unadorned.

Other facts of Operation Iraqi Freedom were the brutal physical discomfort of the fierce desert weather and the concern that Saddam Hussein would unleash chemical weapons, requiring frequent donning of gas masks and cumbersome chemical-protective suits. The wind-whipped dust was constant as the division surged forward. “Most of the men . . . suffered through ‘the crud,’ that . . . period when the dust particles first infect the membranes of the lungs, choking off the vocal chords, causing constant coughing and the hacking up of enormous wads of yellow pus [before] the body adjusts to the dirt-filled air.”

The authors begin their report of the 20 days of combat with members of the first squad of the third platoon of Charlie Company of the Seventh Marine Regiment and its squad leader, Corporal Shane Ferkovich. A 20-year-old from Missoula, Montana, an orphan who was a restless high-school student and part-time lumberjack before enlisting, Corporal Ferkovich was leading one of two squads assigned to capture intact the “Crown Jewel” of the vast Rumaylah oil fields — a vital pumping station that if destroyed by the Iraqis would require a year to resume operation. The meticulous planning and practice involved is impressive, and the mission was neatly accomplished. West and Smith round off their account with the squad victoriously atop the roof of one of Saddam’s palaces after the three days of close combat in the streets of Baghdad.

 

D-day was March 20. The U.S. forces moved out of Kuwait and into Iraq. The Army’s v Corps was 60 to 100 kilometers west of the Marines, with British and Marine units closer to the Iranian border to seize the Faw Peninsula and take Iraq’s second-largest city, Basrah. Speed was all 10 commandments for the assault.

The Marines were organized as the First Marine Expeditionary Force. This was built around the First Marine Division, commanded by Major General James M. Mattis, and organized in three Regimental Combat Teams (rcts). Each rct consisted of three infantry battalions, plus supporting tank, artillery, and engineer units and specialized units such as reconnaissance. Its 20,000 Marines moved in 8,000 amtracs, Humvees, and other vehicles. Each day the division consumed 45,000 to 65,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of water, its vehicles gulping 200,000 gallons of fuel.

The Marines launched their assault “log lite” — lightened logistics, gear pared down to an absolute minimum. The Duke of Wellington, one biographer wrote, worried incessantly about logistics, rare in his era, so that “his dreams were dreams of army biscuits.” The Marine Corps was equally obsessed with biscuits, as it were, in a campaign in which speed was the imperative. Realizing the problematic nature of resupply by vehicle and aircraft, the Marines rigged “gypsy racks” to carry extra water and fuel on thousands of Humvees, with fuel bladders on the division tanks. Ammo was crammed into every spare space. The division also carried fuel conversion equipment to replenish its gas tanks from Iraqi commercial depots along the way.

And it was logistics that was the principal interservice snarl midway in the campaign, with the Marines 60 kilometers from Saddam’s capital. It caught the Marines by surprise, and they reacted with chagrin. On Sunday, March 23, the third day into the battle, the debacle at Nasiriyah left six Americans captive (including Army Private Jessica Lynch, whose support unit had taken a wrong turn and been ambushed), more than 20 dead, and scores wounded. The next day 34 Army Apache helicopters were shot up. The Army’s v Corps was in a sharp fight, and on Tuesday a fierce dust storm had swept the battlefield. By Wednesday, the Army’s Third Infantry Division, having expended much fuel and ammunition, paused for supply, and the commander of v Corps, Lieutenant General William Wallace, said that planners had not anticipated the “bizarre” behavior of Iraqi fighters while weather and overextended supply lines would likely lead to a longer war.

“Not since the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, thirty-five years earlier, had the press reported such a sudden apparent reversal of fortunes befalling an American army in the field,” write West and Smith. “In the field in Iraq, different perspectives and different agendas were fueling contradicting views about whether a pause was needed. Since it is shipwrecks that make the news, the First Marine Division wasn’t in the news,” its units still in attack mode. In the United States the Army’s need to pause generated a “sense of setback . . . abetted by what Vice President Dick Cheney called ‘the generals embedded in the tv studios.’”

There were anxious dispatches from some embedded reporters that the troops were “alarmingly low on water, and in danger of running short of food.” National newspapers were speculating that the campaign had been severely set back. “The cumulative effect of these stories — not seen at the [Marine] rct level — painted a grim picture and conveyed the tone of a ground offense that was struggling and that could not continue” without an interlude.

That was not the case with the Marines. “There had been no request from the First Marine division to stop to resupply. Its regiments needed and expected no pause.” But they were ordered to halt in place, though the authors contend that the order was unnecessary and the Marines could have continued the assault toward Baghdad. Since the Army’s v Corps was designated the “Main Effort” in the campaign, the Marines also had to pull back their most advanced units to consolidate.

While West and Smith are fairly even-handed in recounting the decision to pause (by Army Lieutenant General David McKiernan, who General Tommy Franks designated Coalition Forces Land Component Commander, Army and Marine), their clear implication is that the Marines could have and should have continued to Baghdad. However responsibility is apportioned, the “spectacle of the American military bogged down in the desert would endure long after the seizure of Baghdad.”

In the first days of the invasion, West and Smith hitchhiked, so to speak, from unit to unit within the First Marine Division. They then commandeered an Iraqi general’s abandoned yellow Pathfinder and roamed the Marine battlefield, observing much of the intense combat. They drove past kilometer after kilometer of empty bunkers topped with fresh sandbags “as though the entire country had conspired to fool Saddam by digging a Potemkin village of extensive defenses that no one had intended to use.”

For the most part, “The Iraqis had ample weapons, but they did not have the will to use them. The plain fact was that in the countryside the Iraqi army had not consistently shown up to fight. . . . Overall it had been a paramilitary fight, meaning that the Iraqis lacked military organization.” But men died — 30 Marines and Iraqis, including some civilians — and hundreds were wounded. The March Up is dedicated to one of the dead, First Sergeant Edward M. Smith.

 

A friend of the reviewer, a retired Marine and veteran of Korea and Vietnam, said recently that he is often asked whether today’s Marines are as good as “the old Corps.” He responds that it’s a no-brainer of a question: “They’re better trained, smarter, and better equipped.” That is evident in this book.

The embedding experiment on the whole worked well. The reporters sent home prose of intense starkness. Bing West and Ray L. Smith, however, have written an account that also presents texture and tension — which only “reporters” who have been to war can compile.