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John T. Reed’s review of Nate Sassaman’s book Warrior King, Part 1

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright by John T. Reed

Nate Sassaman was the quarterback of the Army football team and led them to their first-ever bowl victory (it was the first bowl Army was allowed to play in). He graduated from West Point in 1985 and was a battalion commander in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He retired from the Army after 20 years as a result of an Article 15—roughly the equivalent of a serious traffic ticket to which you plead guilty. A couple of his soldiers decided to jerk two Iraqis around by throwing them into a two- or three-foot deep pond. One supposedly drowned, but no proof was obtained that the body offered was the individual in question. At least one intelligence source said the guy who supposedly died was, in fact, alive and well. Sassaman says using dead bodies to demand, and get, compensation from Americans is a standard fraud nowadays in Iraq. Sassaman told his men not to say anything about throwing the Iraqis in the water and later admitted having done that.

Sassaman says he did, “...what was right in view of the circumstances, as opposed to blindly making his men walk the gangplank.” Not valid. His men needed to take responsibility for what they did and Sassaman needed to take responsibility for not preventing it. However, acccording to Sassaman’s account, nothing of note happened. Once he covered up the forcing men into the water detail, he needed to take responsibility for that. His circumstances/gangplank explanation is an excuse and we were taught at West Point to say “No excuse,” not to make excuses. He needed to prevent shenannigans and be truthful about them after they happened, but if Sassaman’s account is correct, this incident was roughly the equivalent of a schoolboy prank, not anything for anyone to get excited about.

Based on what I read in his book, I like Sassaman. He sounds like an excellent officer in general—superlative in Iraq combat when allowed to do what he thought was best.

I think his trouble that ended his career happened because of Abu Ghraib and would not have happened given the same facts were it not for Abu Ghraib. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, the Army wanted to be seen as tough on any mistreatment of prisoners. The Army that I know ignores similar stuff routinely. I don’t agree with that, but Sassaman’s main “crime” seems to be that he failed to detect a shift in the political winds in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib. The Army felt they needed to make an example of the next guy to be around mistreatment of prisoners and seemingly innocuous events cast Sassaman in that role.

Man out of time

Sassaman also called himself a “man out of time.” That apparently means a man who was good, but who looked bad because he was born too soon or too late.

I don’t think he was born too late. Had he been born earlier, he would have been with me in Vietnam. Commanding men guilty of throwing two Viet Cong or NVA soldiers into a pond such that one allegedly drowned would have produced about the same result back then. Whether his behavior will turn out to be considered OK in the near future remains to be seen, but I see no reason to believe that will be the case.

In fact, he was punished and his career ended for getting caught, not for the behavior of his troops or the cover-up. The military does crap like that on a daily basis and covers it up. The Pat Tillman incident is another recent example where they got caught—although little punished. The U.S. military is absolutely in favor of everything Sassaman did, but when one of their own gets caught doing that which they want, they shamelessly and hypocritically claim they are “shocked, shocked” that he covered it up and they punish him for public-relations purposes.

Sassaman says much the same thing I say in my various articles designed to inspire the U.S. military to reform. Since he is an Iraq vet and was a battalion commander there, he is able to add detail about that conflict and that level of command that I did not experience.

Male-female relationships

Sassaman talks at some length about the male-female relationships stressed or destroyed by the military. There was a great episode of the TV documentary Carrier that did a great job illustrating those stresses and break-ups. Young people entering the military do not sufficiently appreciate those stresses and probabilities. The military does too little to ameliorate them.


Sassaman also devotes much space—maybe most of the book—to what he refers to as the SNAFU and FUBAR nature of the U.S. military. SNAFU is Situation Normal All Fouled Up—a saying of military personnel that dates back to World War II. FUBAR is another informal military acronym Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition. I translate them loosely and with an eye toward cleaning them up for a family audience.

Incompetent, corrupt, etc.

Put bluntly, the U.S. military is not the super skilled force that is depicted by the military itself and many Hollywood movies and TV programs. In fact, the military is profoundly screwed up, corrupt, incompetent, and extremely dangerous to its members and the nation. This is primarily due to its federal government bureaucracy, Soviet-style central planning, and the poor quality of many of its recruits and the relatively poor quality of those who choose to stay in the military as a career as a group. Generally, the best young enlisted personnel and officers leave the military at the earliest possible opportunity leaving a less appropriate group of people to get promoted and run the operation.

Career military personnel dispute that vehemently. Tough. They are what they are. No one need rely on my comments or theirs to judge them. Their record speaks for itself. Sassaman’s book is now part of that record and it is yet another in a long line of military memoirs that reveal what the military is really like, not what is depicted by recruiting brochures, military public relations personnel, Hollywood myth, and the memoirs of top generals.

Homeless hitchhiker

For example, Sassaman was sent to Iraq to be a battalion commander. That’s normally about 500 men. He says he had 800. Either way, it’s kind of a big deal.

Yet when he arrived, there was no one and no instructions on how he was to get from Kuwait to his unit in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. He had to hitchhike using military aircraft and motor vehicles from Kuwait to the location of his unit. I had to do the same in Vietnam, but not to get to my initial assignment. There, I was promptly sent to a replacement depot where I got jungle uniforms, military scrip money, and so forth. Then I was transported to my unit—II Field Force HQ—by military vehicle. At II Field Force, they promptly sent me to my unit. I do not recall sleeping more than one night in the replacement depot and my next night’s sleep was in the hooch where I was an officer for many months.

I was a 1st lieutenant then. Sassaman was a lieutenant colonel and slated to take over command of a battalion. Most lieutenant colonels never get that honor. Yet he was essentially homeless and dedicated transportationless from when he arrived in the Middle East until he found his way to his unit. He spent one night sleeping on a pallet outside a concrete shack next to an American operated runway. His final-leg plane was hit by ground fire as it was landing! The current U.S. military is apparently even more SNAFU than when I was in, which is saying something.

Not trying to win the war

Most importantly, Sassaman says we were not trying to win the war, just trying “to put the best face possible on” it. Apparently, that part of the U.S. military has not changed since Vietnam. I made that same comment about my experience in Vietnam. See my various articles at A 21st century West Point grad said she had the same impression in Iraq. No one trying to win the war, just “pay your debt to society” then go home.

“Looking good was tantamount to doing good,” says Sassaman on page 3. “...all very much surface stuff... little or nothing to do with the root of the mission...”

I have repeatedly said the same thing: that the U.S. military, including my alma mater West Point, is too content to talk a good game and look the part and insufficiently interested in correcting the problems that led to defeat in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and likely in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are focused on process and not focused on results. See my article on that. Such a focus is typical of and almost the definition of bureaucrats, not warriors as the military lately likes to call themselves.

Sassaman says the best top officers are those who have been in actual combat. That’s logical. And it describes Sassaman’s resume. The problem is it also describes the resumes of General William Westmoreland who lost the Vietnam war, and the many generals who were relieved for incompetence in the Civil War and World War II. It does not describe the generals who were relieved for incompetence in Vietnam because the incompetent generals were not relieved in Vietnam. They were promoted. It also fails to explain the success of generals who never saw combat close up as troop commanders like Jomini, Marshall and Eisenhower.

In fact, although logic supports the conclusion that the best generals have been in combat as soldiers or combat leaders, theempirical evidence does not support that conclusion. Successful generalship apparently does not require, and may not even benefit from, front-line combat experience. West Point taught Sassaman logic and the scientific method better than that.

Sassaman says he has always been optimistic but that “...Iraq sucked much of that out of me.”On page 207 he says,

For a while it had seemed as though there was real purpose to our work, but much of that spirit of nobility had been drained by now. In my heart, I questioned whether it was possible to turn things around.

I went through that same sad metamorphosis, although again it was during my first ten days with a U.S. Army unit, the 101st Airborne Division. I was jaw-dropping appalled at the incomptence, sloth, and not-even-batting-an-eye corruption. It’s been so long since my time with the 101st that I barely remember why I loved the Army before I met the Army. Reading books like Sassaman’s and David Hackworth’s About Face remind me of the noble notions I had of the Army and the Hollywood images I had of what Army officers do. Being an Army officer could be a great career. Sassaman, Hackworth, and even I had moments when it lived up to our pre-active-duty notions about what it would be like. But they were fleeting and anomalous. The overriding, vast-majority-of-the-time and controlling fact is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where careerists thrive and idealists are shredded.

All family and tribe

According to Sassaman, and others I’ve read, the Iraqis are loyal to their relatives and tribe and other parochial groups in ascending order of closeness to them. They are not loyal to any principles. It’s all rule of man, not rule of law. They are not interested in democracy, capitalism, etc. When Sassaman’s men got into a firefight with insurgents who fired on them, a civilian mother of a young child was wounded. The Americans tried to med-evac her, but the Iraqis put her on the front lawn of her relatives’ house where she bled to death. The sick bastards to whom she was related then let her baby starve to death solely because he was the son of a woman killed by the Americans! They refused to pay any attention to the fact that the woman was killed in a crossfire instigated by the insurgents and that the Americans had no desire to kill the woman nor any knowledge that she was where she was at the time.

Not suited to 9 to 5

On page 42, Sassaman says he considered “the private sector” when his five-year obligation was up, but after a few interviews, he realized that he, “was completely unsuited to the suffocation of the nine-to-five world; and that remains true to this day.”

Gimme a break! For starters, his division of the world into the exciting Army and the “nine-to-five cubicle private sector” is childlike. The Army is eight-to-four except for rare periods like combat assignments and occasional field training. One of Sassaman’s jobs was in admissions at West Point. Why was that not a “suffocating 9-to-5 cubicle assignment?” Furthermore, the Army is a federal government bureaucracy. It offers the excitement of hurry up and wait, SNAFU, and shoe shining infinitely more than its Hollywood image of non-stop combat.

The civilian world is infinitely varied. You can work anywhere in the world, indoors or out, nine to five, five to nine, nights, weekends, intermittently, 16 hours a day, etc. The civilian world is real. You compete as Sassaman did on the football field on a daily basis in the civilian business world. I would recommend he become a football coach, which I understand he is now doing part time. That is civilian and it is not nine-to-five although you do often have a cubicle and if you are a high school teacher in addition, it is an eight-to-four working hours position. If the entire civilian world is nine-to-five cubicles, what exactly does he plan to do now that he is out of the Army and has declared the entire civilian job market beneath his action-figure self!

I suggest he admit his “suffocation” pronouncement was bullshit coming out of the mouth of an ignorant, arrogant, narrow young man and get real with the rest of his life.

Non-combat combat officers and non-coms

Sassaman says career officers were “climbing over each other” to get into Desert Storm. Why? He says they wanted a combat patch for their right shoulder. He further says they had no interest in actual combat per se, they just wanted to set foot in the combat zone so they could get that patch.

In the Army, you wear the patch of your current unit on your left shoulder. You normally wear no patch on your right shoulder. But if you were ever in combat, you can wear the patch of the unit you were in during your combat tour on your right shoulder. When I was in the Army, during the Vietnam war which ended in 1973, almost everyone had a combat patch on their right shoulder, and those who did not did not want one. But I am not surprised my what Sassaman says because when Desert Storm happened in 1991, few career soldiers had such combat patches. See my article on whether military personnel all earned their medals.

Sassaman further says that those who did not get to serve in Desert Storm got out in droves because they figured they could no longer compete with those who did for promotions. They were wrong about that. Would that the Army were so logical.

He repeatedly accuses many non-coms and fellow officers of cowardice and aversion to combat and activities that might lead to combat like patrolling outside the wire (the border of the base camp). I am surprised to read this. I recall few such reports in Vietnam other than some of our foreign allies and some rear-area officers who were reluctant to even visit the front.

PhD in military history

On pages 52 and 53, Sassaman names a general whom he says was the only active officer with a PhD in military history. I guarantee you there is more than one civilian with such a degree. Typical of the U.S. military that it would send zillions of officers to study less relevant subjects. One of my classmates got a PHD in philosophy paid for the Army. International relations is big, in spite of the fact that killing foreigners is a more accurate description of the military’s job than relating to them. Granted, such relations are tangentially helpful, but they are not military. Military history is.


On pages 54 and 55, Sassaman reveals that generals are shameless politicians. Well, that’s what I always heard when I was cadet at West Point. I am surprised Sassaman did not learn that until he worked with a general closely.

Family stress

Sassaman often expresses poignant thoughts about the effect of his military career on his wife and kids. It seems pretty awful, but like most career military families, they grin and bear it. To me, life is too short. I doubt military families would be so compliant if they had ever experienced adult civilian life. That is probably the main reason the military recruits teenagers and promotes only from within. Grown-up civilians who knew better would never put up with the way the military treats families.

Sassaman also says that many career military people like being separated from their families. I agree. I saw that, too. But those guys should not have families.

However, I must note the Clintonesque nature of Sassaman’s protestations that he did not like being away from his wife and kids. Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana, but said he did not inhale. Sassaman admits much separation from his wife and kids, but says he did not like it. Either way, they did it. I did not. Neither did the vast majority of people. Sassaman did not have to do it. He could have gotten out of the military. He could have made assignment choices within the military based in his family being first. Instead, he made those choices based on his career being first. Actions speak louder than words.

America is not trying to win the war in Iraq

According to Sassaman, the U.S. is not trying to win the war in Iraq. I believe him. He offers numerous facts as proof. They are persuasive. I saw the same stuff or slightly different variations of it in Vietnam.

Unless they are forced to do otherwise, the U.S. military will feather their combat area nests. The tendency of today’s military is not to win wars but to increase their creature comforts the longer they are in country. There will be an officer’s golf course in the green zone if the U.S. stays in Iraq long enough. I do not believe the Army or Marines built any golf courses in Europe or the Pacific between 1941 and 1945.

Sassaman severely criticizes his superior in Iraq, a brigade commander. He describes him as a guy suited to be a commander of a brigade not in combat. Since the whole purpose of an infantry brigade is to be in combat, and stateside brigades can be sent into combat on a few days notice, Sassaman is saying the guy was not fit to be a brigade commander at all.

Inconsistent approaches
Sassaman says the various battalion and brigade and division commanders were allowed to do their own thing even when their own thing violated military best practices like aggressive patrolling and when the inconsistencies between predecessors and successor units were detrimental to any plausible mission definition and where inconsistencies between adjacent U.S. units, like Sassaman’s infantry battalion and nearby Civil Affairs units, were undermining each other.

Sassaman says his infantry brigade commander repeatedly said to him, “If you never patrol, no one will ever get hurt.”

The alternative to patrolling is to stay inside your base camp except when ordered out. Failure to patrol gives the enemy freedom of action and increased ability to set ambushes, fire mortars, intimidate the civilian populace, and so on.

Someone once said that a ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for. The same is true of infantry and armor battalions.

The basic idea of military personnel risking their lives in battle is that more Americans will die in the long run if we violate best practices and principles of war like the best defense is a good offense and taking the initiative to avoid casualties in the short run.

During his tour in Iraq, Sassaman had to switch to another area. When he returned to his old area, he found that in just two weeks of absence, the progress had begun to crumble because the other American unit that replaced him did not maintain the security of the civilians thhe way Sassamon’s unit had.

Arrive and leave as a unit

Today, as in World Wars I and II, U.S. soldiers arrive in the war zone as a unit and depart the same way. In Vietnam, we all arrived and left as individuals. Not doing that is supposedly one of the lessons of Vietnam. In fact, both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage of the Iraq approach is one unit gets to know the local people then gets yanked out an d the new American unit knows nobody and nothing and blunders in and undoes all the good created by the relationships built by the prior commander and his men. Probably the best approach would be an overlap such that the old unit could show the new unit around and introduce them to the locals and the new unit could observe the old unit for a while. That would cost more money and have more troops in country, but it would apparently be a better approach than the current yank-the-band-aid off, reinvent-the-wheel, again and again approach we are currently using in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years
Sassaman says the typical duration of being a battalion commander was two years. Wow!

In Vietnam, it was six months because they were trying to let as many lieuutenant colonels as possible get their combat zone battalion commander ticket punched. Such short tours—either six months or two years—suggest the Army has priorities higher than winning the war—namely taking care of the careers of high-ranking officers. My impression of what we did in the Civil War and World War II was keep you in your present command until you either scrwed up and got fired or did really well and got promoted. Of course, we won those wars.

Advice from prior commander
Sassaman says his predecessor as commander of the 1/8 infantry mattalion was very generous with his time helping Sassaman get acclimated. He also says this is very unusual in teh Army. He said some officers refuse to even speak to their successor. Actually, he said being, “so benevolent to a successor was rare.” I have trouble imaging a civilian executive pulling such a stunt.

Really!? They ought to be shot. Men can die from that refusal to facilitate a smooth transition.

As with David Hackworth’s book, albeit to a lesser extent, this book contains a number of practical suggestions that could be extracted to create a text book on infantry tactics. At my age, I’ll never need it, but it reminds me fondly of why I wanted to be a career army officer back when I was a teenager.

Civil Affairs
Sassaman was beside himself with anger at Civil Affairs—a group of Army officers not under his command. Sassaman tried to win coopeation of Iraqi locals with various carrots and sticks inculding construction projects. But the Civil Affairs guys would come into his area, ignore him and his approach and had out gobs of “carrots” to Iraqis who had not cooperated with Sassaman, thereby undermining Sassaman’s approach.

Sassaman says the brass liked spending money on construction projects because they gave the generals something to show off when VIPs came to Iraq for a tour.

Vague missions
Sassaman complains frequently about vague missions and objectives. Arguably, no military mission should ever be vague because the military kills people and destroys property. Neither of those should be done based on vague criteria.

Don’t poo poo destroying property. Liberals are big on dismissing the importtance of property. But in third-world countries like Iraq, the people have almost no property. If you destroy some of it, they do not just buy another or file an insurance claim. They may never replace it and may suffer greatly for its lack. In Vietnam, many peasants owned a water buffalo which was their meal ticket. American often killed them accidentally and, I suspect, for the hell of it. Camels seem to play a similar role for some families in the Middle East. And many die at the hands of the Americans.

Sassaman was big on handing out Army Achievement medals—2,000 of them. I do not know how that compares to normal or other units. But it brings up a point I made in my article on whether the military deserve all the medals they award to each other. I said that some units gave out more medals than others which often led to retalitory medal awarding by the units who feel they are being left behind. Such medal inflation competition tends to act like a rachet. That is, once instigated, it does not subside, because no one wants to waste their precious political capital on anything that will not benefit them personally, like restoring the awarding of medals to their statutory criteria for the medal in qusetion.

Speaking of medals, Sassaman tells of an officer who ordered a stupid blowing up of an empty bunker and got a Purple Heart for getting hit by some shrapnel from his own explosion. You’re only supposed to get Purple Hearts from wounds inflicted by theenemy. John Kerry reportedly got one of his there Purple Hearts for the same thing. In Vienam, getting a third Purple Heart got you out of Vietnam and Kerry used his third one for exactly that purpose after only four months in country.

Freedom of action
Sassaman says he gave his subordinates freedom to “march to the sounds of the guns” whenever there was a fight. That is, if a unit of 1/8 Infantry comes under fire, all other 1/8 units in the vicinity can go there to help without asking for permission. I like that, although it could be used against the unit by the enemy if it was a lockstep pattern. For game theory purposes and to avoid setting a pattern, I would think he would have to modify that order somewhat to make his battalion’s response to attacks somewhat of a mystory to the enemy. Otherwise these predictable conversions could be used to draw them into an ambush.

No smaller than platoon
Sassaman also operated in units no smaller than platoon (about 30 to 40 guys). Makes sense. That assumes that the enemy never operates in units bigger than a squad or platoon. But from what I have read and heard, that is, in fact, the case.

Public relations
Sassaman frequently complains that the Army was drying to put a good face on everything, successes and screw-ups alike. Welcome to Vietnam. Some things never change.

IED avoidance
Sassaman came up with a somewhat effective anti-IED tactic. His men often had to travel on a four-lane divided highway. He had them straddle the line dividing the lanes to stay as far away from each shoulder as possible because that’s where the IEDs were hidden.

However, this backed up Iraqi traffic because the military convoys went at about 40 mph and the Iraqis wanted to go 65 or 70. The brigade commmander ordered Sassaman to go back to driving in one of the two lanes. Sassaman ignored the order on the grounds that it would risk his troops. He could have been court martialed for that. No doubt the boss would give him a worse and therefore career-ending efficiency report for not following that order. If the boss was worried that the order might not look good, he would simply use some subjective negative comment to punish Sassaman for defying him.

We were taught not to be predictable in ranger school. Sassaman, who is also a graduate of ranger school, knows that and mentions it. He attributes one attack that was successful for the enemy to his boss insisting on his men following a predictable pattern of movement every day. I agree.

But the book tells of many other behaviors that also strike me as patterns. For example, Sassaman says the men in his battalionalways went charging toward the scene of any fight that broke out. He cites it as evidence of the appropriate aggressiveness of his men. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it is nevertheless a pattern.

In addition to graduating from Sassaman’s two alma maters: West Point and ranger school, I have also coached 15 football teams. In football, I used and advocated game theory which, in the extreme, means to make decisions like play calling randomly. If I were a commander in Iraq, I would strive to be unpredictable in everything that could be perceived by the enemy, including our response to ground attacks against my men. The welfare of the men is your second priority after the mission. But neither the welfare of the men in general nor the accomplishment of the unit’s missions are served by being so predictable in your response to an ambush that you set yourself and your men up for a much larger ambush. Sassaman was a star football player, but that is a very different perspective from a coach.

In Vietnam, we had Vietnamese civilians in our camps every day during daylight hours. As with Iraq, we knew some of them werespies for the North Vietnamese, but as in Iraq, we did not know which ones.

My superiors there had a pattern. They paid the troops on the first of every month starting at 6AM. The Vietnamese spies among us saw that there were long lines of men standing outside waiting to receive their pay at that time. Consequently, the enemy would fire three Katyusha rockets at us on the first of every month at 6AM. You could set your watch and calendar by them.

That was also a pattern for the enemy. We probably should have had aerial observation on the radius of those rockets every pay day starting around 5:30 AM then counterattacked the location from which they blasted off instantly from the air. The idiot enlisted men also could have gotten their pay automatically deposited into their checking accounts instead of getting paid in cash—a type of funny money called scrip in Vietnam and World War II. Whenever I was pay officer, I chewed out every single troop for not getting automatic deposit. “I don’t have no checkin’ account, sir.” “Get one.”

Anyway, in our case, the rocket attacks against us never hit anyone. The biggest problem they gave us was that one was a dud and that screwed every thing up for hours while the demolition guys screwed around with it. Those attacks stopped when we invaded Cambodia in April, 1970. Before that invasion, I heard outgoing artillery being fired about weekly and incoming about monthly or a little less. After the invasion of Cambodia, where the enemy had sanctuary, I never heard another shot fired in anger by either side. (We are now letting the enemy have sanctuary in Iran, Syria, and Pakistan.)

Sassaman’s basic approach was to make the enemy regret actions against his men. I agree. He said it was more law enforcement than military action. It also reminds me of the statements I made to my high school football players and their parents in initial meetings. It went something like this.

If your son breaks a team rule, I will punish him. I will punish him sufficiently to cause him to regret what he did and to cause him to vow never to break a rule again. I will punish your son severely enough so that the other boys on the team are glad they did not do what your son did and resolve not to break any rules in the future if they had previously been considering doing that. Basically, I use recidivism as a gauge of whether my punishments are too lenient. If there is recidivism by the boy who broke the rule or imitation by another boy breaking a rule, my prior punishment was apparently too lenient. I throw recidivists off the team. Over time, my punishments have become more severe because I found teenage boys are tougher to keep in line than I originally thought. But I learned my lesson. If I seem to harsh to you, it is what I call grandparent syndrome. That is, you only saw the latest violation, not the prior ones that caused me to ratchet up my punishment level. There is also parent-versus-coach syndrome, that is, we coaches coach thousands of boys and gain huge amounts of experience from it. Parents typically only have two or three boys at most and therefore have far less experience with tenenage boys.

I think that roughly describes how Sassaman’s battalion dealt with any defiance of his authority by Iraqis in his area of operations. He also had a tit-for-tat policy. If the enemy shot at Sassaman, he shot back and attacked with massive force and artillery. If hostile kids threw rocks at his men, they threw rocks back at the kids. [Note to non-baseball-playing countries: We Americans throw much better than you soccer players.]

Iraq is a game-theory situation and game theory researchers have generally found the tit-for-tat approach, combined with a sort of statute-of-limitations forgiveness, is the most effective. I don’t believe they teach game theory at West Point or in the Army, but Sassaman seems to have figured it out by himself. I do teach that in my football coaching books particularly my most recent one:The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. Game theory also tells you to be unpredictable. Sassaman also did that but was ordered not to on a number of occasions by his idiot brigade commander resulting on one occasion in the enemy killing one of the sergeants to whom Sassaman was closest. They do teach not establishing predictable patterns in Army Ranger School, although I doubt the teachers there have ever heard of game theory.

It may surprise some, but Sassaman said these tit-for-tat tactics generally won the respect of the local populace. I am not surprised, They do the same with most football players and their parents including some of the misbehaving kids. An older coach once commented with regard to my initial nice-guy, lenience in coaching, “You are being tested by some of the kids and you are flunking the test.” In other words, he said I needed to respond to the teenagers’ mbisbehaving more like I did with my soldiers when I was an Army officer. Take off the kid gloves and focus on getting the job done, that is, do whatever it takes to get our reasonable team rules complied with. Same applies to locals in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will test you by breaking your rules to see what you do about it. Acccording to Sassaman, most U.S. commanders in Iraq are flunking the test.

Civics and economics classes
Sassaman said much of what he had to do along the lines of nation building was taught to him, if at all, only in high school civics and a college economics course. He also said they got no guiidance whatsoever on how to approach this. Just figure it out for yourself, colonel.

It is obviously dead wrong to expect military officers to accomplish suchh tasks with military training and equipment. Obviously, if we are going to get into the nation building business, which we should not, we have to provide the people responsible for doing it with appropriate training and equipment. Expecting a bunch of guys who were trained to kill people and yell “huah” to engage in nation building in a culture as foreign as Iraq is stupid on its face.

25 years or more
Sassaman estimates what we are doing now is going to take 25 years or longer. If so, get out now. The American people are not now, and never were, interested in 30 years of expensive fighing and nation building in Iraq.

Bottomless pit of ‘resources
At various places in the book, Sassaman says we did not put enough “resources” into Iraq. As a civilian entrepreneur who only gets to play with his own life-savings “resources”—the ones I get to keep after Sassaman’s prior employer, the U.S. government, gets done taking them—I never cease to be amazed by the total lack of financial perspective and sense of proportion of those military “leaders” who have spent their entire lives since teenagehood in the U.S. military.

Someone once asked union leader John L. Lewis what he would ask for if his union got all the things it was asking for. “More!” he said. Same with the military. In Vietnam, General Westmoreland kept asking for more and more and more. Yet he was fighting against a third-world army wearing flip flops. and he still managed to lose the war.

Does it ever occur to military officers like Sassaman that the American people gave them thousands of lives and a trillion dollars to use to win the war? To this day, Vietnam vets claim we lost because the civilians did not support us. Jesus H. Christ, they gave us 58,000 lives, twelve years, five million men who served there , and something like a trillion 2008 dollars! How the hell much do you guys need? Where the hell do you think all that money comes from?

I know the problem. I was in Vietnam. We had a trillion dollars worth of men and materiel, but the military was so SNAFU that 85% of our trucks were deadlined for lack of parts, lack of motivated mechanics, lack of mechanics tools, lack of mechanic training.

People trained as A were used as B and vice versa. (I was a ranger, radio officer, satellite communications officer, who could speak Vietnamese, which was a very rare skill in the U.S. Army. I volunteered for jobs where those skills would be used. Instead, they made me communications platoon leader of a heavy artillery battalion. Two-thirds of my platoon did things—wire communications and radio repair—I would have been trained for at the Fort Sill communications officer course that I did not attend. Even then, I only had that job briefly. I spent most of my tour in Vietnam in other jobs where I was the assistant to guys who were not authorized to have an assistant. Your trillion tax dollars at work training then paying me.)

President Gerald Ford once said that if the government made beer, a six-pack would cost $80. I would add that it would also taste like crap and you would have to stand in line to get it.

And if the government made war, it would cost three trillion dollars to defeat a bunch of barefoot, fourth-grade dropouts armed only with AK-47s, RPGs, old artillery shells, and cell phones. The government’s military organization and approach—Soviet-style central planning and Kafkaesque bureaucracy—is so inept, dysfunctional, and inefficient that the U.S. military is easily stalemated by rag-tag, disorganized, third-world, six-man cells of untrained, barely-equipped criminals.

To read more about how the U.S. military gets mind-boggling quantities of taxpayer resources and squanders them criminally ineffectively while still sincerely feeling that we did not give them enough, see my articles on process orientation versus results orientation, Does the U.S. military really have any expertise?, The U.S. military’s 30-year, marathon, suck-up tournament or How Americas chooses its generals, and military integrity.

Protection money
Sassaman says that U.S. military commanders pay protection money to Iraqi sheikhs to get them to use their influence to stop the violence. $10,000 to 50 different sheikhs (page 119). I have noted that seems to be what’s happening in other articles I have written at this Web site about Iraq. If that’s what the American military is about, I have no idea why anyone wants to be part of it. I also said I thought we learned our lesson about paying bribes to Middle Eastern poo bahs in the Barbary Coast War.

They were capturing our merchant ships and kidnapping our sailors. They said they would stop if we paid “tribute” or protection money bribes to them like the European powers did. Initially we did. Then, in 1800, one political party adopted the slogan “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” We subsequently kicked their butts militarily, and the Europeans followed our example. The event is memorialized in the Marine Corps Hymn line “from the shores of Tripoli.”

The only legitimate purpose I see for paying bribes to Iraqi sheikhs is analogous to using a man in motion in football to diagnose the opponent defense. In football, you put a man in motion before a play. If one ofthhe defenders follows him, they are in man pass coverage. If several defenders shift positions inthe direction of thhe motion man, they are in zone pass coverage.

Similarly, if you pay a sheikh to stop violence, and violence stops, he is a criminal and should be incarcerated or killed. If the plan of the U.S. government in Iraq is to bribe the head criminals there into behaving in ways that serve the public relations purposes of the administration, we should not be in Iraq. If I understand correctly, that is Sassaman’s conclusion as well.

On page 164, Sassaman says “highly regrded by the press” General Raymond Odierno, current head U.S. military commander in Iraq, ordered his subordinate commanders to “Spend money.” That is not the role we were trained to fill at West Point. Nor is it the role for which we enrolled in West Point. But it apparently was one of the few things the shameless U.S. military was able to use to achieve progress in Iraq.

Pilots and snipers
Sassaman highly praises chopper pilots and snipers. I agree, I have already praised chopper pilots and medics highly in other articles I wrote at this Web site, e.g., “Did U.S. military personnel really earn all their medals?”)

I have not previously written about snipers and only know what I see in the media, but they sound like the real deal. They have true skills, not just Hollywood or Pentagon PR hype. When the situation fits their skills, I think they are highly effective. But as with rangers and SEALs, the public and the military leadership seem not to recognize that, great as they are, snipers have many, many limitations. They have to be hiddden. They must have some way of telling good guys from bad guys when selecting targets. They are not supermen who can do anything and everything better than soldiers who have not been through sniper training. They are not “elite” in a general sense; only in a sniper skills sense.

Please go to part 2

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