ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Monday, April 25, 2005

Journalism Today

This NYTimes article discusses the equipment shortages expieriences of the Marines after they took over from the FL National Guard unit in Ramadi. Based on what I've seen of the units in Iraq on TV coverage, the NG units were the poorest equipped and least able to handle serious threats. So, this NYTimes story caught me by surprise (how could a Marine Company be less prepared than a NG unit?)

Bloodied Marines Sound Off About Want of Armor and Men
By MICHAEL MOSS

On May 29, 2004, a station wagon that Iraqi insurgents had packed with C-4 explosives blew up on a highway in Ramadi, killing four American marines who died for lack of a few inches of steel.

The four were returning to camp in an unarmored Humvee that their unit had rigged with scrap metal, but the makeshift shields rose only as high as their shoulders, photographs of the Humvee show, and the shrapnel from the bomb shot over the top.

"The steel was not high enough," said Staff Sgt. Jose S. Valerio, their motor transport chief, who along with the unit's commanding officers said the men would have lived had their vehicle been properly armored. "Most of the shrapnel wounds were to their heads."

Among those killed were Rafael Reynosa, a 28-year-old lance corporal from Santa Ana, Calif., whose wife was expecting twins, and Cody S. Calavan, a 19-year-old private first class from Lake Stevens, Wash., who had the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, tattooed across his back.

They were not the only losses for Company E during its six-month stint last year in Ramadi. In all, more than one-third of the unit's 185 troops were killed or wounded, the highest casualty rate of any company in the war, Marine Corps officials say.

In returning home, the leaders and Marine infantrymen have chosen to break an institutional code of silence and tell their story, one they say was punctuated not only by a lack of armor, but also by a shortage of men and planning that further hampered their efforts in battle, destroyed morale and ruined the careers of some of their fiercest warriors.

The saga of Company E, part of a lionized battalion nicknamed the Magnificent Bastards, is also one of fortitude and ingenuity. The marines, based at Camp Pendleton in southern California, had been asked to rid the provincial capital of one of the most persistent insurgencies, and in enduring 26 firefights, 90 mortar attacks and more than 90 homemade bombs, they shipped their dead home and powered on. Their tour has become legendary among other Marine units now serving in Iraq and facing some of the same problems.

"As marines, we are always taught that we do more with less," said Sgt. James S. King, a platoon sergeant who lost his left leg when he was blown out of the Humvee that Saturday afternoon last May. "And get the job done no matter what it takes."

The experiences of Company E's marines, pieced together through interviews at Camp Pendleton and by phone, company records and dozens of photographs taken by the marines, show they often did just that. The unit had less than half the troops who are now doing its job in Ramadi, and resorted to making dummy marines from cardboard cutouts and camouflage shirts to place in observation posts on the highway when it ran out of men. During one of its deadliest firefights, it came up short on both vehicles and troops. Marines who were stranded at their camp tried in vain to hot-wire a dump truck to help rescue their falling brothers. That day, 10 men in the unit died.

Sergeant Valerio and others had to scrounge for metal scraps to strengthen the Humvees they inherited from the National Guard, which occupied Ramadi before the marines arrived. Among other problems, the armor the marines slapped together included heavier doors that could not be latched, so they "chicken winged it" by holding them shut with their arms as they traveled.

"We were sitting out in the open, an easy target for everybody," Cpl. Toby G. Winn of Centerville, Tex., said of the shortages. "We complained about it every day, to anybody we could. They told us they were listening, but we didn't see it."

The company leaders say it is impossible to know how many lives may have been saved through better protection, since the insurgents became adept at overcoming improved defenses with more powerful weapons. Likewise, Pentagon officials say they do not know how many of the more than 1,500 American troops who have died in the war had insufficient protective gear.

But while most of Company E's work in fighting insurgents was on foot, the biggest danger the men faced came in traveling to and from camp: 13 of the 21 men who were killed had been riding in Humvees that failed to deflect bullets or bombs.

Toward the end of their tour when half of their fleet had become factory-armored, the armor's worth became starkly clear. A car bomb that the unit's commander, Capt. Kelly D. Royer, said was at least as powerful as the one on May 29 showered a fully armored Humvee with shrapnel, photographs show. The marines inside were left nearly unscathed.
Read the whole thing, but first - can someone please explain to me why this NYTimes reporter gets paid for this unreadable pap? I mean, how many single sentence paragraphs does this joker use? And the timeline of the story is all over the map - I can't tell if it's Aug 2004, April 2005 or Aug 2003 at times. The excerpt above is better than the rest of the story... The quality of writing just declines steadily, as if the writer knows that no one will read past his first few paragraphs where he pushes the "not enough armor" meme.

As with many stories in the Times, they organize the story in a muddled way in order to highlight the aspect that they're interested in (troops didn't have enough armor) while confusing the reader about other aspects (production of armored humvees increased while these guys were in the field, the troops got better at spotting IEDs, but were caught by surprise initially). Also, they leave out aspects of the story that they either didn't bother to investigate (if the Marines faired worse than the NG, what did the NG do that was more effective) or decided might detract from their agenda.

ARC: Brian points to this blog post from Countercolumn, from one of the FL NG soldiers that was relieved by the Marine company (referred to as 2/4 in the blog post). While he uses acronyms, etc, I'd have to say that his writing is much more coherent. The problems experienced by the Marine company that relieved his unit might be explained by the Marine company's leadership (or lack thereof), as demonstrated here:
4.) Why it is that the 2/4 took such a large number of dead after we left is a constant topic of discussion around the 1-124th's officers and NCOs, still. My own assessment - and this assessment is shared by most people I talk to in the 1-124th, as well as my sources on the First Brigade, 1st Infantry Division staff who are still in contact with me - is that the 2/4's problems began with the collapse of the super human intelligence network that the 1-124th was able to build over the months.

Our Bn S-2 was very proactive at working with and through the Iraqi police and some of the other tribal heads. Our company commanders were also building sources at the grass roots level, and we even had informants coming to the gates asking for platoon leaders and NCOs. They didn't want to tell information to anyone else, other than the officers and NCOs these informants had relationships with and had built up a level of trust.

Well, because of the abbreviated relief in place operation, the deep personal connections the 1-124th had built up were lost when the follow on unit came into town. Plus, the Iraqi Police Chief, Chief Jarda'an, had a close working relationship with the 1-124th's battalion commander, LTC Hector Mirabile, who is himself a career police officer in the Miami-Dade police department. The two spoke a common language. Chief Jardan also had a good relationship with CPT Rick Roig.

When the new unit came to town, though, Chief Jardan came calling. The 2/4 sent him away. He had lost his connection to the Americans. And when he lost his connection to the Americans, he lost his power base and his leverage with his constituents. And so he was forced to cut deals with the insurgency in order to survive. The 2/4 got wind of these and were forced to arrest the police chief themselves.

The transition also hurt the redevelopment effort deeply. One of the blessings of going to war with a Guard unit is that all of us have day jobs and careers in the real world. Since LTC Mirabile is a city cop, and Treasurer of the Miami Dade Police Department, he had a very keen understanding of how municipal politics work. He also read up a lot on Iraqi tribal society in the early weeks of the war, and drew heavily on that knowledge. Our front man for running the reconstruction effort was a Captain with over 20 years in the Army who was also a construction project manager in civilian life. Between the two of them, they knew how to keep constituents and crews happy.

As a result, the contracts were carefully divided up among the different clans, so that each clan was dependent upon the others to play ball in order to continue performing the services. If my neighbor's clan screws up with the foundation, I don't get to build the brick walls, and my cousin's clan doesn't get to do the painting, etc.

Each sheikh therefore had a vested interest in maintaining peace and order in his neighborhood. If his area became inoperable, he would lose out on his ability to provide money and jobs for his people. And so when there was trouble in a given sheikh's area, we could go to him and say "Someone's making trouble for you. Find out who he is, and drop him on our doorstep within three days."

And very often, that's exactly what happened.

When the 2/4 came in, though, they regarded the 1-124th's system--well imbedded in municipal politics in the U.S., to be unethical, and forced an open-bid system.

Penny wise and pound foolish. Yes, they saved a bit of money, but at the cost of freezing out the smaller clans who got frozen out of the work. Boom. Vested interest in success gone. These clans became prime targets for terrorist recruiting, and their areas became nearly inoperable within weeks of the 2/4 taking over.

Further, the Marines operated in smaller elements. A couple of them were actually overwhelmed before the marines could bring effective reinforcements to bear. The Army traveled and operated in groups not less than a platoon.

Also, when we were briefing the 2/4's leadership on the rotation and manpower requirements we were using to man the front gate and the outposts on the bridges, some Marine officer looked at our S-3 and said "We can do that whole thing with five Marines."

Well, that caused a bunch of snickering among the Army troops in the TOC.
Interesting that the NG units seemed to have a better understanding of how to make sure the various tribes in the city had to rely on each other - and that the Marines just let that collapse once they took over responsibility for the city. Read the whole Countercolumn post for additional insight (and criticism of the Times' article).

I have a feeling that the number of casualties experienced by the Marines isn't totally due to their inability to engage the local tribal chieftans, nor the lack of armor (as they were similarly or better equipped than the NG troops they replaced). It was likely the result of increased activity in the area by the insurgents in addition to these factors. It's a shame that the New York Times can't provide the depth of coverage that one would expect from a newspaper... They wonder why their readership is in decline... hmmmm

Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler