Review of the book We Were One (second battle of Fallujah) by Patrick K. O’Donnell
Posted by John Reed on
This is a super book. Read it if you have any interest in what’s going on in the “front lines” in Iraq.
I saw the author interviewed on C-Span and made a mental note to get the book. Later I saw it in a book store and read it.
The author is a historian. He wanted to see what it was like in actual combat in Iraq and wangled his way to do exactly that. His time there culminated in accompanying a Marine platoon that was in the thick of the fighting in Fallujah in 2004.
He was independent, not an accredited journalist or government employee. He paid his own way to Iraq.
He was right with the guys in combat. He is very lucky he was not killed. On six occasions, he almost was.
The book provides a number of insights about current-day war.
I never was trained in urban warfare nor did I experience it in Vietnam. But as I said in my article “Is there any such thing as military expertise?” I question whether current military training on MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain) passes the common-sense test. Reading this book convinces me my first instinct was correct. The way the military trains its men to fight from building to building and room to room is a bunch of bull that is getting men killed unnecessarily.
On page 8, O’Donnell describes training where Marines were learning, “the proper techniques for clearing enemies out of buildings.” I immediately wrote in the margin, “Is there such?” In other words, has anyone really figured out how to do that in any definitive way?
O’Donnell’s next phrase confirmed that I was not the only one wondering that.
Clearing is more an art than a science...
That’s the understatement of the year. By the end of the book, you get to know, then mourn, a bunch of guys who died because the military’s training on how to clear a room is a bunch of bull. Big brass pretending they know what they are talking about when they don’t.
They need to offer a variety of techniques that have worked on occasion and describe them as such. Then they need to leave the lieutenants and sergeants alone and let them do it their own way. Ultimately, that’s how the Marines in Fallujah ended up doing it, but only after they lost a bunch of men trying to do it the brass’s way.
A little farther down page 8 O’Donnell gives the details of how the Marines entered a room that might contain enemy. I wrote in the margin, “Thanks for the play book. Yours truly, al Qaeda.”
I’m not knocking O’Donnell for revealing the procedure. I have seen it a dozen times on TV. I am knocking the military for having a set way to do it that seems not to have benefited from much common sense or experience, as well as for letting that set procedure become public, and therefore enemy, knowledge.
As if to buttress my point that the military training on house clearing is nonsense, the Marine company commander in We Were One, Captain Brian Heatherman said,
I don’t think any of us really knew how to fight through those houses until we did it.
Tell me again how much money and manpower we spent training our military how to fight in “urban terrain.”
My training in Ranger School emphasized never being predictable. I agree. On page 9, O’Donnell quotes a Marine sergeant as saying, “you didn’t want to set a pattern so the enemy could anticipate how we clear rooms.” Amen!
In my article on why we need a draft, I lamented the lowered quality standards required to maintain the current all-volunteer military. O’Donnell’s book puts names and faces on the statistics I cited in the draft article.
One squad leader had just been busted for drunken public urination outside a Taco Bell. No doubt, this would bring mirth to a room full of soldiers and warm the heart of a screen writer wanting to do a movie about this colorful group of men. I am not amused.
My dad was reportedly a great guy with a great future when he was drafted into the Army in 1942. By the time he got out in 1945, his Greatest Generation GI “buddies” had turned him into an alcoholic, which ruined his life and mocked his great promise.
Alcohol abuse, often learned while in the military, has ruined millions of lives and adversely affected the lives of millions more who only experienced “second-hand alcoholism” by living in the same house with the “party hard you’ve earned it” veteran or who happened to be in the wrong place when the drunk vet was driving.
In addition to excessive alcohol consumption, it sounded like most of the Marines in the book smoked cigarettes and/or chewed tobacco. I love that. The military, especially the Marines, prides itself on physical fitness. Ha! Then they also pride themselves on getting drunk and smoking, I guess because it lives up to some Greatest Generation image of a GI.
As fit as a drunken, chain-smoking Marine
They can’t have it both ways. Either the military is in favor of physical fitness, which they darned sure better be given the nature of war, or they are a bunch of slobs who do great harm to their health with alcohol and tobacco. In fact, they are schizophrenic about it. Lifting weights and running at times and “party hardy” at other times. The Marines and other “elite” military units are in half-ass physical shape because their approach to physical fitness is half-assed.
My son’s Ivy League football team, which won relatively few games and drank too much, would kick the asses of virtually every Marine or “elite” Army unit in any physical competition. Why? Because they avoided tobacco and worked out religiously in the weight room and on the track. The military talks a good game when it comes to physical fitness. College and pro athletes actually walk the talk. (Note: A couple of the Marines in We Were One had been successful high school athletes and one, Lance Corporal Derick Lowe, was described as an all-state middle linebacker who was expected to start for the University of Washington before he dropped out of college and joined the Marines. He was wounded in Iraq.)
Another Marine in We Were One had previously been court martialed for going AWOL. On page 12, O’Donnell says,
Several members of 1st Squad also had criminal records. One Marine was bluntly told by a judge, “You have a choice, jail time or the Corps.”
This is great Hollywood stuff, but as a former military officer, I am appalled and outraged by this. Defending the country is arguably one of the most important jobs there is. I would have told that judge to put the son of a bitch in jail. I didn’t go to West Point to become a probation officer. I would have invited the judge to resign from the bench and become a military officer so he could try to lead such men.
Did these guys do their jobs bravely and well and in some cases die in Fallujah? Yes. But as I note elsewhere in this article, it is likely that a group of higher quality guys, the kind you get from a draft rather than limiting service only to volunteers who had not been convicted of crimes or stopped their education after high school or joined the Marines for immature macho reasons, would have done better. By that I mean fewer casualties and perhaps more efficient accomplishment of the mission. Also, the problems with former criminals as soldiers or Marines do not arise during heavy combat. Rather, they arise in all the other situations military personnel experience.
I am probably the only one who will say it, but having criminals for subordinates or colleagues is one of the reasons many good enlisted men and officers get out of the military before they originally intended to. Movies like the Dirty Dozen glamorize former criminals as soldiers, but criminals are criminals. There are no civilian businessmen recruiting employees for responsible positions at the criminal courts building or the jails.
Should they be written off for life because of a youthful crime? No. But they should have to prove they can behave themselves for a reasonable period of time as civilians after they do their time before they are allowed to enlist. Sending a man straight from the courtroom where he was convicted of a crime to the military is outrageously disrespectful of the military, its role, and importance, and the safety of his future military colleagues.
In recent years, American and the military have been disgraced by numerous incidents of criminal behavior by American military personnel including murders, torture, and rapes. There is a direct line from enlisting criminals and arming them to the teeth to criminal behavior by those same military personnel in America’s name.
The only error I saw in the book was O’Donnell saying that, as a result of body armor and long sleeves, the Marine’s body temperatures on a patrol in 115-degree heat in Iraq were 130 degrees. I’m sure they were quite hot, but 130 degrees is impossible.
According to http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/phys_agents/heat_health.html, a body temperature of 41 degrees centigrade which is 106 degrees Fahrenheit is a symptom of heat stroke, which can be fatal and is if that temperature lasts more than a brief length of time.
Food is heated to 140 degrees to Pasteurize it. Pasteurizing is raising the temperature to the point where all the living organisms in it, namely bacteria are killed by the heat. Humans are living organisms.
Friendly fire near miss
One of the Marines featured in the book was wounded by friendly fire when he and another guy drove around in a civilian car trying to collect intelligence photos. An adjacent American unit was not told of the car. They opened fire on it. The Marine company commander was reportedly relieved as a result. Better freaking late than never.
The military does far too little to prevent friendly-fire incidents. Apparently this Marine captain was never trained in the need to coordinate such an operation, or he was not trained enough.
His replacement was a rare Marine who had graduated from Army Ranger School. I learned what I knew about avoiding friendly fire at Ranger School, but not from instruction. Rather, we opened up on our own guys (with blanks) twice during the school. In both cases, the guys we fired on were not where they were supposed to be. In one case, the guy knew it, but failed to warn us. In the other, the guys we shot just got lost and turned around the wrong direction. They were blasting away at us as we blasted away at them.
Rules of Engagement
I wrote an article at this Web site about the need to change the Rules of Engagement (ROE). As you read through this book, the ROE problem comes into high relief. The book recites some of the insane ROE in Iraq as well as the angry reactions of the Marines to them.
See my forthcoming novel The Unelected President for a commander in chief who gives the military the correct rules of engagement.
On page 52, in a paragraph that starts with the word “Absurdly,” O’Donnell describes one ROE that prohibited using artillery or air bombardment on enemy positions before attacking them. The U.S. military personnel were required to wait until the bad guys shot at them first before they could call in artillery or air.
Because of this particular ROE, the enemy worked, “with impunity,” on their trenches, berms, and other defenses in plain view of the Marines who were about to attack them. The Marines could not get clearance from higher to shoot at them.
Why not? Did higher figure the guys building the defenses were innocent civilians?
‘Blood is on someone’s hands’
The paragraph ends with a senior officer angrily saying, “Blood is on someone’s hands.” He was referring to the guy who set the ROE and I agree. But I would also say that blood is on the senior officer’s hands to an extent for not enough raising hell about the ROE to get it changed or ignoring it.
Who is the senior officer? I don’t know. But I am an investigative journalist and my best guess would be that the “senior officer” in question is the most senior officer that O’Donnell was in the physical presence of and quoting elsewhere in the book when that officer was saying things less likely to harm his career.
On page 148, we learn, “Once an enemy soldier uses a civilian as a human shield, the Marine rules of engagement (ROE) consider the civilian to be a combatant.” Hooray! I recommended just that in my previously written article on ROE in Iraq.
Ignoring idiotic orders
Is ignoring an idiotic order illegal? A manifestation of lack of discipline? It’s subjective. Military personnel can ignore or countermand orders if they are illegal or obviously wrong. For example, if you are ordered to capture certain coordinates and they turn out to be in the middle of a lake, you cannot get court martialed for not charging those coordinates.
Se my web article http://johntreed.com/blogs/john-t-reed-s-blog-about-military-matters/68973251-the-morality-of-obeying-stupid-orders.
There is also the issue of whether a commander has a moral obligation when confronted with a choice of possible court martial versus getting one or more of his men killed to choose the possible court martial. Or the officer could substitute himself for the soldier or Marine in question when the order from on high that should be overruled locally involves unnecessary risk to the point man.
When was the last time an officer was court martialed for not ordering his men to engage in some suicidal action? I do not recall any such court martial. I think our officers are too obedient to stupid orders from on high both in garrison in the states as well as in combat. A line often heard in the military is, “You don’t think. I do the thinking for you.”
While that is correct in many cases, it is not correct in all. Military officers and enlisted men need to think for themselves more often, especially in life-or-death combat situations. There is generally a low-casualty way to accomplish the mission and that way should be the one chosen including when higher has specified a more dangerous way. Higher should be assigning objectives, not methods for achieving them. The methods should be left to the guys on the scene.
Hire, fire, but don’t interfere
Occasionally in my coaching career, higher started specifying how I should coach. My reaction was generally along the lines of, “If you know better than I do how to coach this team then you coach it. Otherwise, leave me alone. You can hire me and fire me but you cannot interfere with me.” On three occasions out of the 35 teams I coached, when they would not leave me alone, I instantly resigned on the spot.
Officers cannot resign on the spot in combat, but they can and sometimes do tell the big shot on the other end of the radio to go screw himself when he issues some idiotic order. You see that scene in movies from time to time. I have also heard of actual instances of it in the military. If the big shot wants to relieve him of command, he can, which has the same effect as resigning on the spot.
Can’t shoot at unarmed enemy
Another ROE in Fallujah was that the Marines could not shoot at unarmed civilians. The enemy knew it and responded by putting caches (pronounced “cash” by the way, not “cashay”) of weapons and ammunition in a series of houses. They would fire at the Marines until it got too hot. Then they would walk out the door unarmed, secure in the knowledge that the Marines could not shoot them, stroll to another house a block or so away, go inside and start blasting away at the Marines with the weapons in there.
Thankfully, I got the impression from We Were One that the Marines in Fallujah decided to ignore that ROE before the battle ended.
We Were One reveals a number of things I was not aware of about Fallujah. In that battle, the U.S. was outnumbered by about two to one. You might think that ratio was reduced as the Marines killed the enemy. But the enemy was killing 70 Marines and wounding 700 of them at the same time, and I read of no reinforcements in the book, so the ratio actually got worse from the perspective of the Marines as the battle progressed.
On the other hand, it must be said that the U.S. side had more powerful weapons at times in the form of tanks, artillery, and air power. However, again from the perspective of the Marines, no such weapons were available to the Marines O’Donnell wrote about much of the time. Those weapons were busy elsewhere. When the Marines could not get tank, artillery or air, their weapons (grenades, assault rifles, satchel charges, “bazookas”) were about equal to those of the enemy who outnumbered them.
Marine espirit de corps
I was surprised at all the mentions of things the Marines did to build espirit de corps in the book. Whatever works I guess. Although to an Army guy, it seems a bit much. For example, before the Fallujah battle, the Regimental Combat Team commander Colonel Michael Shupp said to his men,
One day, when we go to the Marine Corps ball or a pageant, Fallujah will be something that you remember for the rest of your lives.
Say what? The Marines psyche themselves by salivating over the bragging rights they will have at a future pageant?
We are the greatest
The Marines apparently spend a lot of time expressing their admiration for Marine exploits of the past and convincing themselves that their about-to-occur exploits will be admired by future Marines.
Oookay. In the Army, the attitude is pretty much do your job and shut up about it. The airborne and Rangers try to do a little educating their new guys on the history of the unit, but I thought the airborne could have and should done more. Even then, however, I don’t think I would push it as much as the Marines do in We Were One.
The repeated telling each other how great the Marines were and are reminded me a little of a scene in the movie Stir Crazy starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. The two play ordinary guys who are sent to prison. Hoping to dissuade the other inmates from messing with them, they ostentatiously say, “We bad. We bad.” over and over as they walk past the veteran prisoners.
At one point, on November 10th, in We Were One, during the Fallujah operation, the platoon leader goes around saying “Happy Birthday” to all his men. What birthday? The birthday of the Marine Corps.
I know the birthday of my alma mater West Point, which is no slouch in the espirit de corps department: 3/16/1802. I’m going to the annual Founder’s Day dinner next week to celebrate the 205th anniversary of it. But I do not recall anyone at West Point or in the Army ever wishing other West Pointers “happy birthday” on March 16th.
As far as the birthday of the Army is concerned, I’m not even sure there is one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an illegitimate birth the exact date of which is obscured by lack of records and an ambiguous situation at the time. After all, we had an army before we had a country.
I was also struck by the high percentage of Marines in We Were One who were the sons and grandsons of Marines. Such family traditions are generally regarded as a great thing. When I tried to dissuade my three sons from going to a service academy or into the military, they all quickly responded, “Don’t worry, dad. We’ve heard enough of your stories to know we don’t want any part of that.”
I have taken a few of my West Point classmates who sent their kids there to task. “How could you do that to your own kid?” What I meant by that, and my classmates knew without explanation, is that a service academy is such a Godawful ordeal and provides very little advantage to its graduates in the long run. Why not just go to a civilian college and get a good education and have college kid fun instead of worrying about getting demerits because your toothbrush is pointing the wrong way?
One of my classmates who sent a son to the Air Force Academy said he would not have recommended it had his son not been a recruited lacrosse player there. Intercollegiate athletes at service academies ought to have an asterisk on their diplomas. For example, it is considered a cardinal sin among service academy athletes to ever march in a parade. There are three parades a week in the fall and spring at West Point. Then I have to listen to TV announcers at service academy games say things like, “These Army guys are not like college football players at civilian colleges. They have to do all the same stuff as the other cadets.” Bull!
Warn them away
Anyway, the typical Marine gets misty-eyed about the friends he lost during his combat experience. He may have been wounded. Most would admit to nightmares and such. Why would anyone want their child to risk dying or getting maimed, to have his buddies die in his arms, or to subject his son to a lifetime of nightmares? It seems to me that a family tradition of serving in the Marines requires the prior generation failing to warn the new generation away from a situation that has a high probability of harming their child psychologically, if not physically.
How do such Marine dads or grandads feel if they persuade their son to join the Marines and he later comes home in a body bag?
Sure, it’s nice to have service to be proud of. Draftees do. I told my three sons that if there is a general war and a draft that they should go if called. But I also told them they should not volunteer.
To be sure, I got the impression that many of the young men in We Were One were the sons of Marines who did not want their sons to join the Marines and who were married to wives who did not want their sons to join the Marines. Why not? Because of the obvious extreme danger.
But the kid joined anyway, perhaps because of the “do as I say, not as I did” contradiction between the father’s life and his advice. I also think the dangers of serving in the military go beyond combat and include things like increased chance of becoming an alcoholic or drug addict or dying or being injured in some bozo accident. I heard that 1,100 members of the U.S. military die a year as a result of “training accidents.”
I also am uncomfortable with America being defended by a separate warrior class whose members serve in the military generation after generation. America should be defended by all of its citizens and families, not just the families of a few. A draft would ensure that. Lack of a draft results in a disproportionate number of military personnel being from families with a tradition of service and thereby permits other families to have a tradition of non-service. That’s not right.
The Marines loved the AC-130U gunships. We loved them in Vietnam, too. That’s 40 years of love. The military ought to have far more of them. The one in We Were One was commanded by a woman pilot.
War correspondents run from the war
In this battle at least, O’Donnell says “the reporters bugged out” whenever the going got the slightest bit tough. I guess some of them, too, are more interested in looking the part in their safari jackets than in actually walking the walk. It must be noted that other journalists have stayed in the thick of combat and many have died or been wounded.
I got the impression from We Were One that the engineers assigned to assist the Marines were more effective on a casualties-per-block-of-Fallujah-cleared basis than the Marines themselves. If I am right about that, it is probably because the engineers’ training and equipment was more appropriate for the particular situation at hand. Basically, the engineers blew up or bulldozed buildings containing enemy fighters; whereas the Marines entered them. Entering was a very dumb and unnecessarily dangerous way to clear the buildings. On page 81, O’Donnell says,
While the Marines’ training and technique improved the odds, clearing was inevitably reduced to a high stakes game of Russian Roulette. Kick the door and see what’s inside: either it’s empty or there’s a machine gun pointed at your head.
O’Donnell comes close to stating the obvious, but seems reluctant to go all the way. I will.
The Marines’ training on how to clear buildings was mindless and suicidal. Their superiors ought to be ashamed if not disciplined or court martialed. Men died, including men in the unit O’Donnell accompanied, because these tactics and the equipment supplied to these men was inadequate for the task at hand.
Sergeant James’ death
On page 84, O’Donnell reports on Sergeant William James getting shot fatally in the face the moment he stepped into a room in a house they were clearing. I do not know why we had to lose him, why we had to have him go into that room. Explosives or periscopes (for seeing around corners) or scout dogs or some other way could have been used to either ascertain whether bad guys were in there or to kill whomever was in there, if anyone. Were we trying to save money on grenades? Or periscopes? Or dog food? Were we more worried about damaging the room than the sergeant? Sounds like it.
And there’s another possibility. It may be that the Marines needed to do it themselves so they, not the engineers, would get the credit, to prove their manhood or their Marinehood, to live up to the iconic images of Marines of the past charging up the hill blasting away with their rifles.
We Were One does not give any hint of what was in Sergeant James’ mind when he went through that door, but the book does give me the impression that the Marines as a group had at least some desire to do some of the clearing themselves for the reasons stated above even when alternatives like tanks and engineers were available to make it less dangerous.
For example, Lance Corporal Michael Hanks is quoted early in the book as saying that he insisted on only being in the infantry portion of the Marines because, “I wanted to take hills and shoot people.” The Battle of Fallujah, which was his third tour in Iraq, killed him.
Lance Corporal Nick Larson joined the Marines to become a Navy SEAL. In high school, he had a photo of every SEAL who had ever died in combat on his bedroom wall and had memorized their stories. Had I been his platoon leader and heard that, I would have privately told him that he should have studied some of the ones who served well in combat and survived as well. He was killed in Fallujah.
Private First Class Nathan Wood told his buddies he joined the Mariners to become a man. He was attracted by the Marines tradition of toughness. His parents begged him not to enlist. He was killed in Fallujah.
Stopped charging in later
I must say that the Marines in We Were One seemed to outgrow a need to prove their manhood by the end of the Battle of Fallujah. But it would have been nice if they had had it trained out of them before the battle. I suspect most of their dead comrades would still be alive if they had been less macho and more willing to use the safer, but at least as effective, alternatives to charging through doors into rooms containing unknown booby traps and/or enemy fighters.
On page 107, they figured out that they should use rockets (like bazookas) and Bangalore torpedoes to “go where we shouldn’t.” But they first had to engage in the extremely dangerous business of figuring out which buildings had enemy inside “...because they did not have permission to level every building on the block.”
So give them permission. Why should men die to save unreinforced masonry boxes? If you built such a house in the U.S., the local government would condemn it as unsafe and tear it down if the owner failed to.
On page 141, Sergeant Hackett says, “We are not entering houses anymore without prepping with grenades or rockets, minimum a grenade.” Amen.
On pages 158 and 159, when a Marine commented on how effective the rockets, Bangalores, and satchel charges had been, Company commander Heatherman said, “Do whatever it takes to get the job done. I don’t want to lose anyone else.” Amen again.
On page 185, Heatherman says,
We’re no longer in the business of clearing houses with Marines. Lay suppressing fire down on the houses and put a rocket in it first No Marines go into houses without getting it rocketed first. D-9s follow.
I wish these Marines had been trained to use those methods beforehand and had not had to lose so many men to learn them as on-the-job-training in combat. In view of the primitive World War II nature of the tactics and weapons used in Fallujah, why was this lesson not learned over 60 years ago? Actually, it no doubt was, but no one thought it was important to remember it and teach it to later soldiers and Marines.
On page 186, O’Donnell indicates that the Marines had been charging through doors suicidally to “minimiz[e] the damage to Fallujah.” Men died to avoid damage to buildings? Unbelievable! How’s about we let the idiot empty suits and brass who make these politically-correct decisions lead the real-estate-preserving charge into the dark rooms?
The book says they did not have enough of two of the engineer’s most effective weapons: Bangalore torpedoes and D-9 armored Israeli bulldozers. Because of shortages, they had to make improvised Bangalores out of C-4 explosive and wooden stakes. They used burning fuses instead of electrical detonators like some freaking cartoon show bomb. Even on D-Day in World War II they had electrical detonators for the Bangalores. There is a scene where they set one off that way in the movie The Longest Day.
I suspect I speak for the Marines and others in Iraq when I say, “Thanks for putting a ‘We support our troops’ ribbon on your car, but we would rather have more Bangalores and D-9s.”
They also used satchel charges, which are a quasi engineer-infantry explosive.
World War II tactics and weapons
The author noted, and I agree, that much of the weaponry and tactics used in the Battle of Fallujah were either identical to or very similar to those used in urban battles in World War II. I think that must be interpreted as a rather profound and serious criticism of the military leaders for spending too much money on gee-whiz technology like nuclear aircraft carriers and M1 tanks and not enough on the dirty, but currently predominant, business of clearing urban settings of bad guys. World War II ended 62 years ago, yet our troops are still being forced to use World War II weapons and tactics now because their leaders have committed gross negligence with regard to improving or even preserving the best tactics and equipment for such fighting.
I have seen a great deal of film of Marines in action in World War II. The fact that you are reading this Web page indicates that you probably have seen that film, too. Word War II Marines did not have to clear buildings of fanatical Islamo-Facscists, but they did have to clear caves of fanatical Japanese.
How did they do it? Watch the films. The fired flame throwers into the caves. They also fired explosive direct-fire weapons like bazookas and tank guns into the cave entrances. An they threw grenades and satchel charges into the cave entrances.
The Marines in Fallujah had a couple of other sensible options, namely, indirect fire weapons like mortars and artillery, which are effective against buildings, but not caves; helicopter and jet air-to-ground fire; smart bombs; non-lethal weapons like focused extreme noise generators and lasers that heat the body uncomfortably.
What have I never seen a World War II Marine do? Charge into a cave containing enemy soliders shooting his rifle at them. Why not? Because World War II Marines were not so dumb or so eager to prove their manhood that they were willing to do it posthumously. Today’s Marine leadership need to explain why the Corps got so much dumber in the 62 years since Marines cleared caves intelligently.
New weapons for urban warfare
I saw some ineresting Israeli weapons for urban warfare on the Military Channel. Two blew doors in from some distance away—as opposed to kicking the doors in. Plus these did not harm the occupants as a general rule. One was called the Matador; anoter the Simon. I also saw the AA12 automatic 12-guage shotgun. They sound like they would have been useful in Fallujah.
I was surprised to learn that the U.S. used psychological warfare against the enemy, namely playing music like The Flight of the Valkyries and various sound effects like cackling laughter over public address speakers during the battle. This seemed to psyche the Marines, O’Donnell did not interview any enemy which was an omission in the book. Writers like Gordon Prange damned near interviewed every participant from both sides in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway in his books on those actions. (At Dawn We Slept and Midway later made into the movies Tora! Tora! Tora! and Midway.)
I was surprised to read in We Were One that the enemy fighters were generally high on drugs including adrenaline that they injected into themselves with syringes of the stuff. Virtually every house the enemy used had syringes lying on the floor.
This gave the enemy fighters extraordinary ability to keep going and going like malevolent Energizer bunnies. On a couple of occasions, the engineers blew up a building containing enemy. As the Marines approached the rubble, it would begin to move and three-quarters dead enemy fighters would rise up from it trying to kill the Marines. In one case, they put 17 rounds into a guy and still had to put an eighteenth into his brain to stop him. One Marine said you almost had to remove their brains from their skulls to get them to die.
The North Koreans and Chinese used drugs for such purposes during the Korean War, too.
Another sergeant got killed in a mortar attack. It happened at a T intersection. O’Donnell said they figured the enemy had previously zeroed in that spot. That means they figured in advance out the settings on the mortar that would hit that intersection. This has been standard artillery-mortar technique since probably World War I. It is the artillery-mortar equivalent of speed dialing.
I don’t know that I would have recognized that a T intersection would be a likely pre-planned mortar target, but upon reading what happened, I was not surprised. The Marines were surprised. I suspect their training should have covered the need to avoid stopping at prominent terrain features and intersections that may have been zeroed in by enemy mortars or artillery.
One Fallujah building was booby trapped, but the Marines spotted the wires and did not go in. Another booby-trapped building blew up in a secondary explosion when the engineers blew it up without entering. On another occasions, the enemy left a pristine new rifle which a Marine grabbed as a souvenir. It was booby trapped and he was severely injured.
When I saw the movie Platoon in a theater when it first came out, a GI in the movie reached for an ammo box in a room that had just been vacated by the North Vietnamese. The word “No!” involuntarily came out of my mouth because of our booby-trap training decades before.
Sure enough. The enemy had pulled the pin on a grenade and placed it under the ammo box so that lifting the ammo box would allow the handle to pop off the grenade thereby starting the burning fuse. In the movie, it exploded and the soldier lost both arms. I do not recall whether he died, but I think so.
On a number of occasions in the book, Marines and O’Donnell himself were saved by a sixth sense that told them something was wrong and caused them to either stop or back up. Invariably, in the book at least, lives were saved as a result.
I experienced that once during Vietnam. My platoon sergeant and I were driving down Route 13 near the Cambodian border before the U.S. invaded Cambodia. There was elephant grass on either side of the road right at the road’s edge. I remember thinking, “There could be an enemy tank barrel two feet from my nose and I wouldn’t see it.”
As we passed the occasional clear area, we could see elevated platforms (above the elephant grass which was about ten feet high) each with one South Vietnamese ally soldier on them. Or at least I hoped they were South Vietnamese. It occurred to me that it would be relatively easy for the enemy to kill the South Vietnamese and replace them with North Vietnamese soldiers. Indeed, the South Vietnamese soldiers usually had a look of bewilderment on their faces when I saw them. I only saw one North Vietnamese soldier: a POW. He had a look of fierce hatred on his face. The guys in South Vietnamese uniforms on those platforms off of each side of Route 13 that day had that fierce, mean look.
The whole scene creeped me out so much I stopped talking to my platoon sergeant who was driving. Then I did something I never did before or after in Vietnam. I took out my .45 caliber pistol and loaded a magazine into the handle and chambered a round. I remember wondering exactly what I had in mind since that pistol was notoriously inaccurate. And I only had two magazines of bullets.
When we arrived without incident at our destination, we learned that a convoy behind us had just been ambushed where I loaded the magazine. There is a little more detail about that at my military home page.
Like the Marines We Were One, I could not put my finger on the source of the feeling, but it was powerful and warning in nature. The 2006 book Blink! by Malcolm Gladwell is mainly about the fact that many people with experience can sense things that they cannot articulate, like a fake work of art. Gavin De Becker wrote a book called Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence. It was about crime, not combat, but I expect most of it applies to combat as well.
Lesson learned from my experience and that depicted in We Were One: listen to your sixth sense. Such Zen-like feelings are generally not part of military training. Although at Fort Benning we did get some Zen-type training called “Quick kill” during the Vietnam War. The basic idea was that you could shoot your rifle amazingly accurately if you shot from the hip quickly. They proved it to us by having us shoot small disks out of the air with BB guns. Ever since I have thought that Annie Oakley and the like were using Zen, not aiming, when they performed similar tricks.
Note to the U.S. military, as far as I know, you are not teaching military personnel to listen to their sixth sense and fear in battle. Start.
In my article on Ranger School, I write about U.S. Army scout dogs, which I hate for behind-enemy-lines patrolling. However, I love them when you are not hiding from the enemy.
I suspect that scout dogs would have done a fabulous job in Fallujah of detecting enemy fighters in houses without either the dog or the Marines having to go inside the house. That would have saved a lot of livesmaybe most of the men who died there. Why did the Marines not have such dogs?
18 different countries
Marines in Fallujah identified enemy fighters from 18 different countries including Chechnya.
Over 2,500 bad guys were captured in Fallujah. Half were released within 72 hours of the end of the battle of Fallujah. Why? In order to hold each individual, two signed affidavits had to swear that the individual in question was an enemy combatant. No such affidavits were produced, according to O’Donnell, because the Marines lacked “the time or manpower to do the paperwork...”
Ah, that’s the U.S. military I remember from my service in the Vietnam War. Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. U.S. Marines died to capture the prisoners who were promptly let go for lack of affidavits!
Could we have the names of the brass who decided to let the Fallujah bad guys go unless the Marines could produce two affidavits on each? I didn’t think so. They probably have since been promoted.
I salute and thank the brave men whose story is told in We Were One. I feel bad for the friends and relatives of the dead and wounded. The standard ritual is to profusely honor the dead and refrain from laying blame. And that habit is probably why there were so many dead. Too little blame laying and too much blather about the glory of dying for one’s country.
Many, if not most of the Americans who died in Fallujah appear to have done so because of a mixture of poorly-thought-out training, an early bias in favor of frontal assaults, a shortage of needed weapons and bulldozers, lack of trained scout dogs, inadequate training and other measures to prevent friendly-fire casualties, and rear-area-generated suicidal rules of engagement that place a higher priority on public relations and questionable politics than American lives.
It is one thing to die as one of the irreducible minimum casualties in the dangerous business that is war. It is quite another to die or suffer severe wounds because your superiors have their heads up their ass. It appears that most of the U.S. casualties in Fallujah were of the latter category.
Physical courage, yes; moral courage, no
I particularly note the near total absence of moral courage with regard to orders from above that should have been strongly objected to. The various people O’Donnell was with made no secret of the anger about some of the orders and rules of engagement TO EACH OTHER. But there is no mention of them complaining about those same outrages to higher headquarters. Marine careers and pensions were preserved in Fallujah; lives of U.S. Marines, less so.
I’ll tell you the kind of moral courage that would have impressed me. A full colonel who was in Fallujah overriding the ROE or policies against preparatory bombardment or other abominations to the point of risking his future promotions and even his pension. No such thing happened there as far as I can tell from We Were One. As far as I know, it has never happened in the history of the U.S. military with the exception of General Billy Mitchell. Shame on the U.S. military for that.
Not one Marine was disciplined for fighting against stupid orders or rules from above. Had any done so, it is likely the fewer Marines would have died. The fuss made by the protest would have likely caused the brass to reconsider and reword the stupid orders or rules.
The quality of the troops and their leadership may have been a factor. There is no indication of that per se in the book, but it is impossible to compare the road taken with the road not taken (a higher quality military via a draft). Higher-quality enlisted men and officers might have resulted in a faster learning of the lesson about avoiding human charges through doors to unknown dangers as well as other improved performance.
If Patrick O’Donnell or any of the Marines who participated in this battle read this, I hope they will contact me and point out any errors or omissions in it. I will take appropriate action.
Patrick did call me and we talked at great length about the book and the battle.
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