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The Snake Eaters

Counterinsurgency Advisors in Combat

About The Book

“Every deploying adviser, and every American interested in how we are fighting our wars, should read Owen West’s gripping and important book” (Max Boot, The Wall Street Journal).

FROM 2005 THROUGH 2007, the battle for the poisonous city of Khalidiya became so intensely personal that an Iraqi battalion, its American military advisors, and the insurgents they hunted knew one another by name. A third-generation U.S. Marine, Owen West was one of those combat advisors. This is his gripping account of how a team of underprepared reservists built an Iraqi battalion from the ground up and with them plunged side by side into a mystifying insurgency. Revealing war as a series of human acts, West makes the young American and Iraqi soldiers on patrol and the local townspeople come alive. From the bighearted American medic stalked by a sniper, a tough Iraqi major who is respected by the Americans because he likes them the least, and an enemy who blended into a population that dared not speak the truth, the characters in The Snake Eaters are as complex as the war that changes them.


The Snake Eaters 1
Into the Haze

September 2005
Hunched over the steering wheel of his Humvee, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Chris Watson, 26, cursed. His was the last of four vehicles in a tiny convoy headed into Khalidiya. Watson turned on the wipers to brush away the dust stirred by the heaving troop carrier barely visible ten meters ahead.

Through the scratched Plexiglass of his bulletproof windshield, Watson could see a dozen Iraqi enlisted soldiers, called jundis, packed tightly against the troop carrier’s sandbagged walls, their AK-47s swaying like cattails as the big vehicle heaved. Two jundis were perched dangerously on the tailgate. The Iraqi privates were either too junior to claim shelter against the leaking sandbags or too fatalistic to care if they lived, Insha’Allah, to fight again tomorrow.

It was September 16, 2005. Watson was part of a ten-man advisor team of Army reservists that had deployed to Iraq expecting to teach jundis basic training on a secure, sprawling base with a Burger King, a Green Bean coffee shop, and a fitness center. Their combat tour, they thought, would consist of posting cell phone videos of AK-47 shoots and barracks antics on YouTube. Instead, they were embedded in 3/3–1—the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Army Division—and ordered to remake themselves as infantry combat advisors in Khalidiya, living and fighting as Iraqi soldiers.

The lead vehicle was a sputtering white Nissan truck carrying the Iraqi patrol commander and his bodyguards. Behind it were two armored troop carriers filled with jundis and driven by U.S. National Guardsmen stationed on Camp Habbaniyah. Last came Watson’s Humvee, which was occupied by two fellow combat advisors. The convoy roared out of the barbed-wire gates of Camp Habbaniyah into “Indian country,” soldierspeak for enemy territory since the Dakota Wars of the 1860s when U.S. cavalrymen from isolated forts pursued indigenous tribes. Watson knew from the single predeployment class he’d had on Iraqi religion that there were Sunni tribes in his area and that they hated the Shiites, but that was about it. He was more concerned with the awful road conditions. Death came three ways in Iraq: sniper shots, roadside bombs, and suicide car bombs, which were the most catastrophic.

An Iraqi car swerved to the side of the road as the convoy bore down the highway. Watson could barely see it through the cloud of dust. For a moment he thought the shifting image was a car bomb, but then the troop truck full of jundis barreled right past the idling car and Watson followed tight in its contrail, squinting at the expressionless civilian driver while his own heart hammered.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a cult favorite of Special Forces advisors, describes British gunboats, a century before, bombarding a dark green African jungle—a metaphor for the gulf between two civilizations. In Iraq, the Humvee had replaced the gunboat. In the hot, dusty haze, Watson could barely see through the four inches of armored Plexiglas.

In the Humvee, Sergeant Shawn Boiko, 24, could see better. Standing on the gunner’s platform above Watson, his torso poked through the hole in the roof where the turret was mounted. A wet cotton T-shirt wrapped over his mouth, Boiko surveyed the bouncing pile of jundis over his 7.62mm machine gun. They were younger and skinnier than he expected, and it scared him. Everything about the mission did.

On paper, Boiko was expected to “advise” the jundis on how to fight like U.S. soldiers. Like the rest of his teammates, he was only a part-time soldier—a flooring manager from California. He figured that before he passed whatever soldiering skills he had on to the jundis, the first order of business was keeping his teammates alive.

This was only his second trip into Khalidiya. On Boiko’s previous journey, a handover ride with the outgoing advisors to give the newcomers an overview of their area of responsibility, they had heard the dull crump of a distant explosion, followed by high-pitched shouts over the radio. Advisors patrolling with a different Iraqi battalion two kilometers away yelled of casualties as they traded rounds with insurgents.

One of the experienced advisors conducting the turnover had said, “Khalidiya. Biggest city in the area. It’s a very bad area. People hate our guts. Couple days and it’s all yours. Can’t say I’ll miss it.”

This time, Boiko was no longer a spectator. He grasped the hand wheel that swiveled the heavy machine gun, cranking like a yachtsman turning the winch on his sail. The wheel’s teeth bit into the turret base ring, shifting the half-ton steel doughnut fluidly to let Boiko’s barrel sweep over one car after the other as Iraqi drivers peeled off the road to let the three trucks of jundis and the Humvee pass.

As the up-gunner, the Humvee’s only defense, Boiko figured he had about two seconds to decide to open fire if one of the hundreds of erratic Iraqi motorists suddenly sped directly at the Humvee. He pointed the jiggling front sight post of his gun at one car, then another, and slightly depressed an imaginary trigger finger for the fifth—or was it the fiftieth?—time.

The convoy was on Route Michigan, the most heavily mined road in Iraq, averaging a dozen firefights and twenty roadside bombs every day between Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and Fallujah. On the route-planning maps it was labeled “black,” or closed to logistics convoys, but not to combat patrols like Boiko’s. Anbar itself, which is larger than North Carolina, was held by just twenty-two thousand U.S. soldiers and Marines dispersed over twenty thousand square kilometers. That was just 20 percent of the total U.S. force in Iraq, yet Anbar was responsible for almost half the American deaths in the entire country.

Boiko didn’t know the statistics. He just sensed that Khalidiya, which was halfway between Ramadi and Fallujah, was bad news because of the local vibe. Vehicle patrols were Iraq’s version of safari. Boiko and his fellow advisors had been told to memorize the web of roadways into Khalidiya, but it was hard to keep his eyes off the people loitering along Route Michigan, the mustached men in dirty knockoff designer sweat suits and the women hidden inside abayas who scurried nervously into doorways as the convoy passed. There was an air of impending doom.

“Don’t let some jackass crash into us,” Chris Watson shouted.

“I’d say ‘watch for IEDs,’ but I doubt it’d do any good,” Sergeant First Class Mark Huss, 36, yelled up to Boiko over the engine roar.

As the senior advisor on the patrol, Huss sat in the right-hand seat next to Watson. Looking out the blast window, he was horrified by the mounds of trash that hemmed them in on both sides. They had been told by a stateside trainer to look for anything out of the ordinary, but there was enough garbage littering the macadam to conceal a hundred bombs. Besides, everything here was “out of the ordinary.”

“If they want to hit us,” said Huss, “there’s not much we can do about it.”

Except react. But the three rookie advisors did not know how they would react under fire. They hadn’t experienced combat, and they were not infantrymen, or even regular soldiers. Watson was a cop from Virginia. Huss ran a plumbing company in Iowa. Since being activated, Watson and Boiko were his new direct reports. With the team’s other seven teammates back in Camp Habbaniyah—including his team leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Troster, a DEA agent—Huss felt a crushing weight of responsibility. He vowed never again to be stressed by a call about a burst pipe.

By the fall of 2005, reservists like Mark Huss had become, haphazardly, the main effort in America’s exit from Iraq. President George W. Bush had explained the strategy earlier that year in an address to the nation, saying, “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”1 The New Iraqi Army was being built from scratch, so that they could take over control of the country, but the “new” jundis were mostly poor volunteer recruits with little military experience, and the officers—many of whom had served in the “old” Iraqi army under Saddam—had neither the experience to lead troops in the absence of ruthless conscription nor a plan to break the insurgency in their own country.

Hundreds of Iraqi units in various stages of development needed to be mentored by U.S. advisor teams. Many Iraqi units were still in training and required basic classes that mimicked American boot camp. A few, like 3/3–1—one of the first New Iraqi Army battalions—were in the fight and needed experienced combat advisors to show them how to defeat insurgents firsthand and link them to U.S. medical and fire support.

The U.S. military had few trained advisors. Although the Army’s traditional counterinsurgency instructors, the Special Forces, took great pains to select and train advisors in three-year training blocks, many of their teams had been assigned to raiding units designed to kill or capture high-level insurgents. Even if they were reassigned, the Special Forces had enough teams to fill only 10 percent of the billets. Conventional active-duty infantry commanders, in turn, desperately avoided the mad scramble to embed small groups of Americans in fledgling Iraqi units. They didn’t want to break their units into autonomous parts, effectively ceding control of their men to Iraqi colonels. So the advisor mission fell to reservists.

Confusion over the mission pervaded the highest ranks of the U.S. military. Advising was considered basic training in garrison instead of building counterinsurgency skills in combat. The Army handed the advisor assignment to its two reserve institutional training divisions, the 98th and the 80th, which specialized in classroom education and static training. Neither unit had deployed since World War II, and even then the 98th saw no combat. Selection for advisor duty was not rigorous. Soldiers could not be overtly prejudiced, handicapped, or too fat to deploy. Infantry training was not required, and combat experience was scant among the seven hundred reservists in each division. The soldiers in the 98th were given forty-two days of stateside “advisor training,” where they drilled for a tour training jundis on a giant forward operating base (FOB), a theme that reflected the confusion at the top.

The 98th was the first division to ship out, in the fall of 2004. The advisors posted to Iraqi Battalion 3/3–1 included a lumberjack, a T-shirt salesman, and a trombone player in the U.S. Army band. They soon found themselves in combat. After graduating from training in December 2004, Iraqi Battalion 3/3–1 was ordered into Mosul, north of Baghdad, to fight alongside an American motorized infantry battalion. The advisors went wherever their host unit went. They were classroom instructors no more. The ten-man team was expected not only to teach the fledgling Iraqi battalion how to defeat insurgents, from the jundis all the way up to the commanding officer, but also to manage the relationships their protégés formed with nearby U.S. units and even local sheikhs. It was widely considered the trickiest job in Iraq.

Because of the flawed selection process and the brief, misguided training program, performance of the advisors was uneven. Many teams failed to adequately progress their Iraqi units. Complaints about the underprepared reservists stretched from the battlefield to the high command in Baghdad, where one colonel threatened to write a book titled Blame It on the 98th.2 The general in charge of the military advisors, a former Special Forces commander, doubted the reservists had the requisite skills for advising.3 Even the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, criticized the decision to assign the advising mission to reservists. “We didn’t give you the best and the brightest,” he told Lieutenant General David Petraeus, who in the summer of 2004 had been brought in to run the entire Iraqi security rebuild. “We put the third team on the field.”4

Huss’s 80th Institutional Training Division replaced the 98th in September 2005. Recipients of the same misguided training that had plagued the 98th a year earlier, Huss’s ten-man team had two additional obstacles to overcome upon being assigned to Iraqi Battalion 3/3–1: The Iraqi unit had six months of combat experience and required tactical advice that was a step above other Iraqi units emerging from training, and they were stationed in Anbar Province, which meant tough combat and interservice friction. Anbar was sometimes called “Marineland” because it was run by Marines. There were only two other Army advisor teams in the entire province, the vast majority being Marine teams. Several members of the original advisor team from the 98th assigned to 3/3–1 in 2004 had been forcibly replaced, including the team leader, an Army major, who had been replaced by a Marine captain.

When Huss’s team reported to Camp Habbaniyah in September 2005, their Marine bosses tried to comfort them by saying they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. They just had to “keep up the mentorship,” a senior advisor told them, and “unfuck the Iraqis.” What that meant exactly, the rookie advisors did not know. They were average Americans handed an extraordinary mission. Somehow they had to build confidence and competence in the Iraqis to take the lead in the war, and ultimately defeat the insurgency, so the Americans could leave. With little understanding of the situation, no doctrine or training on advising to lean on, and zero combat experience to provide rules for staying alive, the rookie advisor team had been shoved into the dragon’s mouth.

Lieutenant Colonel Troster, the advisor team leader, hoped to lean on the nearby U.S. “partner unit.” The plan to have the Iraqi security forces take over the war was not limited to advisors. Each Iraqi battalion was partnered with a conventional American battalion for logistics and medevac support, and to operate alongside in combat until they were ready for independence. This way the jundis could mimic regular U.S. infantrymen on patrol as well as their few advisors, and the advisors could supervise the relationship between the units and reinforce the salient day-to-day lessons.

In Habbaniyah, 3/3–1’s partner unit was an ad hoc U.S. National Guard task force called Task Force Panther, built around the 1–110th National Guard infantry battalion from Pennsylvania. TF Panther had arrived in Iraq two months earlier, in July 2005, as a mishmash of National Guard units that included tanks from Vermont, artillery from Utah, infantry from Michigan and Pennsylvania, and dozens of individual augmentees from across the United States. Panther deployed with only three undersize infantry companies in part because many of the guardsmen balked at the original activation order. Only a handful of guardsmen had been activated during a decade of war in Vietnam. Few expected to be called to fight in Iraq after just two years of war.

Troster, Huss, and the rest of the 3/3–1 advisors were, in turn, surprised that their Iraqi battalion was partnered with a Guard unit. Why in the world, they wondered, was a skeleton National Guard battalion that should have been sandbagging a river in Allegheny County assigned to one of the toughest combat zones in the country?

The Marine command in Fallujah regarded the situation in Camp Habbaniyah with deep skepticism. The Pentagon had placed National Guardsmen from Pennsylvania—who had no training in counterrevolutionary warfare—into the heart of the Sunni insurgency in July. Following them in late August were Iraqi soldiers who had no armored vehicles, no tactical sense, no discipline, and could not even shoot straight, yet had been labeled the critical factor for stability. And who had arrived in September to train the most important troops in Iraq? Army reservists like Mark Huss who, one weekend a month—and two weeks in the summer—satisfied his reserve duties by teaching soldiers how to maintain laundry facilities.

As far as most Marines were concerned, the totem pole was clear enough. At the top were Special Forces teams, then the Army Rangers, Marine infantry, and the famous Army units like the 101st Airborne. In the middle somewhere were Marine reservists and the Army units they’d never heard of. At the bottom were Army reservists and National Guardsmen.

Expectations were not high for an Iraqi battalion partnered with a National Guard battalion and advised by Army reservists.

As they motored down Route Michigan, the wind whipped hot across Boiko’s sweating face, goggled like the Plexiglass on his Humvee. Every gust swirled up to his turret the stink of piss, feces, garbage, and the wet rotting fur of dog carcasses—the fate of unlucky strays nosing in the sewage and trash for dinner, hit by Iraqi motorists, or blasted by bombs. They, too, didn’t know where the explosives had been buried overnight.

The city of Khalidiya, home to twenty-five thousand Sunnis and a couple hundred besieged Christians and Kurds, seemed to swallow the patrol. A dozen minarets marked the mosques that divided Khalidiya’s endless cluster of two-story concrete houses into neighborhoods. Many of the imams at these mosques were Takfiri—a Sunni Muslim sect that claimed the right to punish kuffars, or nonbelievers, as well as Iraqi soldiers who had committed apostasy by serving the Americans. The elder imams called for “resistance” against the Amerikee occupiers and their puppets. The popular up-and-coming preachers called for bombings and beheadings.

In their training, the advisors had been sternly lectured to avoid the topic of religion. It was considered too highly charged for the U.S. soldiers to broach with their protégés; in the Iraqi ranks, the jundis were poor Shia, and the officers were a mix of well-connected Shia and career-military Sunnis. Some of the men in the advisor team did not know one sect from another.

It hadn’t rained for months, but soon the tires were dripping wet from the exposed sewers. Boiko swiveled his machine gun at the shadows cast before every house, every pedestrian, every alley; Watson, at the wheel, tried to avoid hitting the throngs of shoppers in the narrow streets; Huss stared at the map on his lap, their way into town highlighted in yellow marker.

Huss puzzled over the map. Either he couldn’t figure out where he was or the convoy had taken a wrong turn. Should he ask the Iraqi lieutenant in the Nissan or the National Guardsmen driving the two transports?

They were lost.

Boiko cranked his machine gun turret to the rear, toward a street that the shoppers had suddenly vacated. The Humvee slowly followed the trucks into a dark alley. Webs of dangling power lines, like thick ropes of cypress trees, drooped onto the jundis from above.

The soldiers used their rifles to hold up the live wires to form an arch so the convoy could crawl under without snagging too many lines. A handful of boys darted across the street in front of Boiko’s gunsight, bounding over the trash heaps, brown shimmers in the heat mirage.

“This sucks,” he shouted down into the Humvee. “I think we’re gonna get hit.”

The two U.S. troop trucks lurched to a stop in front of an empty schoolyard. The only sound Boiko could hear was the light splatter from dripping water tanks atop the roofs. Then the Iraqi lieutenant gave a sharp order, and jundis slowly got down from the trucks, like senior citizens stepping off a tour bus.

The National Guardsmen driving the heavily armored troop trucks felt a different sense of urgency. As soon as the jundis were down, they roared out of Khalidiya, leaving the Iraqi Nissan pickup, the advisor Humvee, and three squads of jundis alone on foot in a town that wanted them dead.

Where the hell are they going? Huss wondered.

Throughout Iraq, standing rules required American vehicle convoys to have a minimum number of vehicles—usually four—in case of the total destruction of one by a mine followed by a small-arms ambush on the others. Huss figured because his team was embedded with Iraqis, these rules might not apply—the entire 3/3–1 battalion had only three armored troop trucks, which broke down constantly, and a handful of Nissans that labored under the thinnest sheets of welded steel. With two vehicles, he felt marooned in a foreign city. He could try to raise the National Guard transports on the radio and call them back. One duty of the advisors was to act as liaison between Iraqi battalions and nearby U.S. conventional units like the guardsmen, who were also stationed on Camp Habbaniyah and were supposedly the 3/3–1 “partners.” But in training, the instructors had emphasized that the Iraqis were in charge. If the patrol order called for the U.S. trucks to drop off the jundis and bolt, it wasn’t something Huss was going to override in the field.

“Let me guess,” said Watson. “The Guard left us and this ain’t the drop-off spot.”

“Correct,” Huss replied as he unsealed the battle-locked five-hundred-pound armor door of the Humvee and headed toward the Iraqi lieutenant.

It was the first rule they would break. The outgoing advisors had told them the armor would keep them alive and to avoid getting out of a Humvee in hostile territory.

Huss approached Lieutenant Qatan, the 22-year-old Iraqi platoon leader in 3rd Company (Iraqi soldiers used just one name for fear of being outed as American puppets and assassinated). Qatan spoke a little English. Huss had received three nights of Arabic classes in the States. The advisors had no interpreter.

“Hey! This the right place or the wrong place? Good or bad?” asked Huss.

“Bad,” said Qatan. “One kilometer.”

Huss looked down the vacant street, increasingly annoyed that Qatan had let the National Guard trucks leave.

“One klick. Not too far. Okay, let’s walk down Route Michigan,” said Huss.

Qatan looked stunned. To the American, a grid coordinate on a map was of the most vital importance. To the Iraqi, the map spot was just another unexpected change to accept, like the weather. They were where they were. That was enough.

“No,” Qatan said. “Michigan too dangerous. Patrol from here.”

Huss didn’t like it. He didn’t know where they were going, so he couldn’t accurately alert the advisor radio net back at Camp Habbaniyah. Idling on Khalidiya’s deserted streets felt as reckless as walking along mined Route Michigan, but it was his first day and he didn’t want to get off to a bad start with Qatan.

Qatan shouted and his men began clomping up stairs to get to the rooftops, where they could watch over the town. The residents said nothing. Huss figured the last thing the patrol needed was an American inspecting bedrooms while mothers muttered and children shadowed him, so he turned back to the truck.

Boiko stood up in his turret, motioning for Huss to avoid the gutter, convinced it was about to detonate. He remembered the chubby instructor during training who made it sound so easy—all you had to do to spot the mines was look for the suspicious wires, the teddy bear, the fluorescent flags. Right. All Boiko could see were blocks and blocks of chipped-up pavement, sewage-filled potholes reflecting the sun, and heaps of trash.

“Get back here, Huss!” Boiko yelled. “They’re lighting fires on the roofs.”

Coils of kerosene smoke spiraled up from the rooftops. Morning meals? Signal fires? Boiko couldn’t decide. Movies remind Vietnam vets of the war they fought decades ago. For Americans new to combat in Khalidiya, war reminded them of their DVD collections. Was this like the beginning of Black Hawk Down?

Watching the jundis, Boiko was surprised there was no solidarity between them and the Khalidiya residents, who brushed off all requests for information. Wasn’t the whole point of putting the Iraqis, rather than the Americans, in the lead based on the fact that shared language and country would lead to better cooperation from the civilians?

Huss retreated to the Humvee and again sat in the right-hand seat, sealing himself inside several thousand pounds of armor. Some jundis, frustrated by their inability to connect with the local Sunnis, wandered back to their flimsy Nissan with the thin steel slats welded on the sides. Others stood in the deserted alleyways, smoking nervously and watching the Humvee, wondering what the hell the Americans had gotten them into this time. That it had been the National Guardsmen, not the advisors, who had taken the wrong turn didn’t really matter. After all, the advisors were supposed to coordinate with fellow Amerikees.

Inside the Humvee, Huss pondered the opposite. Why is this on me? In training, the advisor team had been told, “If the Iraqis see your CamelBak, you’re wrong!” Meaning: Never get out in front. The U.S military strategy in Iraq had been made crystal clear to them—transition the war to the Iraqis. They were to lead. Advisors were to, well, advise somehow.

Stay in the Humvee, Huss thought. It’s their war.

He watched a tired jundi amble over to the Nissan where he used the bumper as a boot rest. Huss and his teammates had not been selected for their skills, trained to a standard, or given a defined role. It was up to them to decide how to fit in. The former lecturer on laundry facilities knew little about urban infantry tactics and, despite a crash course, even less about advising. But he’d worn the U.S. uniform for thirteen years and he now understood what he had to do. The advice about staying inside the Humvee’s armor was just plain wrong.

Huss popped open the heavy Humvee latch.

“Where are you going?” yelled Boiko.

“Where do you think I’m going?” answered Huss as he stomped back toward Lieutenant Qatan.

Huss was acting on a hunch, but it was a smart one. Special Forces have long followed the dictum “Lead from the rear of the front.” Huss wasn’t SF, but he knew he had to share the dangers with his foreign protégés and give his best impression of a seasoned urban infantryman. He adjusted his body armor and ammo and trotted toward the jundis at a quick, alert glide, like a ballroom dancer. Keeping his rifle tight in his shoulder, he splashed through sewer water, darting among the parked cars and staying as low as possible without blowing out his back, occasionally taking a knee and springing back up. Wherever his eyes went, his rifle barrel followed. When he reached the jundis, his trousers were mucked up to the knees.

The jundis didn’t seem impressed. He didn’t realize that they culturally deferred to pomp, not grunt work, whether that was a highfalutin sheikh, a well-fed colonel, or an American advisor out on his first real mission.

“You men find some cover,” Huss said to the jundis surrounding the Nissan. “And get your weapons outboard.”

The soldiers smiled and nodded politely. They didn’t understand a word. Lieutenant Qatan walked up.

“Let’s get outta here, Lieutenant,” said Huss. “We’re in the wrong area.”

“No trucks,” said Qatan.

“Well, let’s get out on Michigan and speed-march.”

“Michigan too dangerous,” the lieutenant repeated.

“This is dangerous,” said Huss. He didn’t want to insult Qatan by being overly demonstrative, so he checked his motions and voice, like a batter mumbling under his helmet to an umpire.

Huss turned around, convinced he had won the argument. Qatan might have imagined the same thing. Huss trotted back to the Nissan, tapped on the window, and gestured for the Iraqi driver to maneuver the truck so that his rear machine gunner could cover the street. The Nissan crept back fifty meters in the direction of Route Michigan but stopped short of geometric efficacy, where it could cover the rear avenue of approach with bullets. Huss waved his arms like a traffic cop. The driver smiled, shook his head, and refused to move.

In the meantime, after a desultory search of the nearby homes, the jundis had abandoned any pretence of military discipline. They chatted idly to pass the time like vacationers stuck on an obligatory condo tour, oblivious of the dangers lurking in the street. Lieutenant Qatan had entered a house, but Huss had no idea what he was doing in there.

If they understand that this is a bad place, why don’t they leave?

Ten minutes later, Qatan walked back out to the alleyway. Relieved, Huss went to meet him halfway. Just as he began to speak, a hunk of shrapnel whizzed like a buzz saw between him and Qatan, smashing apart the wall behind them.

His ears throbbing as if they’d been hammered, Huss was knocked flat by the explosion. The mine had gone off next to the Nissan, right where he had just stood, and the alley was whirling in smoke. Jundis howled like wounded animals, but in the haze he couldn’t tell who was hurt. When his ears cleared, Huss heard cries of “Wounded!” and “Dead! Dead!”

Jundis were screaming at Huss in English. In their six months in Mosul they’d taken some casualties. Third Company had come out of it with the nickname “Unlucky Company.” They didn’t speak English, but they knew how to call for American medevac.

Huss sprinted back to the Nissan. Three jundis inside the blood-splattered cab moved. The soldier behind the machine gun had a deep gash across his chest, just above the body armor plate. He was dead. Another jundi slumped against the curb, moaning and holding his blood-soaked arm.

Bullets snapped the air. With his blown eardrums, Huss could hear only faint cracks. His pulsating skull was fuzzing his vision. But he could see a nearby jundi shouldering his AK-47 and firing blindly into town.

“Spread out and take cover!” Huss screamed. “Hold fire until you have a target!”

The jundis watched Huss, who at six feet and in full battle gear waddled like a football center. Deciding the American’s size afforded them the best protection, a few soldiers huddled behind him and peeked out. Others decided to capitalize on the idea as well and began running toward him, only to be turned away when his hand began swiping at the sky.

“Spread out!”

Perched in the Humvee turret, Sergeant Boiko, the flooring manager, couldn’t believe how calm Huss was. Bullets continued to chip at the neighboring houses while jundis trailed behind Huss, darting like a school of fish, mimicking his every move.

Boiko had heard of the Iraqi “death blossom,” but here it was playing out. Jundis fired at everything, the way a porcupine sheds quills. Some revolved in a full circle, shooting at everything and nothing.

Boiko ducked into the Humvee below his waist.

“I can’t see what they’re firing at!” he shouted to Watson, the cop, who urged him to stay down as he eased the Humvee forward.

Watson parked next to Huss, who was helping a wounded jundi out of the Nissan.

“Dude, they’re trying to kill us!” shouted Boiko. “You okay?”

“Setting up a casualty collection point here,” Huss said.

Fisting a radio mike, he called for tank support from TF Panther. A tinny voice replied that the tanks were busy watching a suspicious Iraqi man walk down Route Michigan.

Huss would have to rely on the Iraqi quick reaction force (QRF) coming from their base about three kilometers away on the edge of the town dump. The QRF was the battalion’s 911 force, an on-call group of jundis who would blast out as reinforcements in whatever vehicles they could cobble together.

“The dude in the back of the truck did a somersault when he got hit,” said Watson.

“Want me to help him?” asked Boiko. He was the closest thing to a doctor on the team. He had served as a paramedic before landing the flooring gig.

“That jundi is dead,” said Huss, grabbing several smoke grenades. “Get to Michigan, set up a blocking position, and guide in the QRF. I’ll stay here.”

Watson and Boiko drove away. The Humvee began to take fire, but Boiko couldn’t see the shooter. He might have been up high in the minaret a block away. The sergeant couldn’t unleash his belt of rounds without positively identifying the sniper in the mosque. There were dozens of rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq, including advisors, but none as strict as those dealing with mosques. Knowing this, guerrillas often used mosques as weapons caches and shooting hides.

Tearing onto Michigan, their Humvee stood at the entrance to the village across the street, Abu Fleis, a sprawl of large ornate homes and farms that was favored by wealthy Baathist retirees of Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat secret police force.

A crowd of men in sweat suits, dark trousers, and cheap Western-style dress shirts began to form, a silent jumble of crossed arms and brazen stares. An Iraqi sedan careened out of the alley behind the crowd and sped onto Michigan, pounding along the median and scattering the wild dogs before slowing toward the Humvee.

With a whole fifteen minutes of experience in the turret to draw upon, Boiko picked up his M-4 rifle and fired into the oncoming car. The driver swerved wildly, then slowed and clawed west, toward Ramadi and a group of Army vehicles rushing toward them, coming to a halt.

“I think you got him,” said Watson in his Richmond cop’s drawl.

“Hell yes I did.”

Boiko looked over his gunsight at the mob. They watched him back, then watched the immobile car.

Why had the driver suddenly come closer to a firefight? What was he thinking? Was he thinking at all? Boiko asked himself.

The crowd did not reveal an opinion. They didn’t shout. They didn’t spit or throw rocks. They just stared.

The loudspeakers attached to the walls of one of the town’s five minarets sprang to life, the imam’s sharp words echoing through the rank urban canyons.

It’s going to be a long tour, thought Boiko.

Like most firefights in Iraq, this one ended in less than two minutes. The Iraqi QRF scooted away the five wounded jundis. Qatan kept the dead man with them, wrapped in sheets taken from a nearby house. He gathered the remnants of his patrol, shushing the occasional outburst of tears. All stole glances at their new American chaperones.

Huss didn’t know Arabic, but he understood that Qatan was blaming the outsider, the new advisor who didn’t know how to do his job. It confused him. He didn’t think he’d screwed up. By the time the troop trucks arrived to take the jundis back to base, Huss was feeling guilty. Perhaps if he had stayed out of sight in the Humvee the whole time, the jundis would have walked around for a while and left town without incident.

When a big Marine wrecker arrived to take the smoking Nissan to the car graveyard, Qatan reacted with stiff pride. “We will take the Nissan back the Iraqi way,” he said. “We don’t need them.” He backhanded the air with his hand.

“Well, who the hell called for a wrecker, then?” asked an annoyed Marine corporal. The Marine tow crew was stationed in the nearby American air base TQ, where false alarms along deadly Route Michigan were not easily forgotten.

Huss knew Qatan was just reclaiming the leadership that had slipped in the moments after the bomb went off, when the jundis had huddled behind Huss. He pulled the Marine aside. “I called for the tow. We lost a man today. Now it looks like the Iraqis want to clean up the mess. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make a big deal of it.”

The Marines in the wrecker took in the whole sorry scene and shrugged.

“You one of their advisors?”

“Yeah, I am.”

“Good luck, man. I mean it.”

The jundis ran large tow straps from the back of a truck to the broken axle of the crumbled Nissan. Qatan shouted confidently to move out. The three advisors watched from their Humvee. In one of their classes they had been taught the T. E. Lawrence gospel: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”5

Iraqi trucks dragged the broken Nissan along Michigan like a fallen rider towed by a horse. The U.S. Humvee trailed, each of the advisors wondering if they should put a halt to what they called a goat rodeo. Small sparks emerged from the heated axles of the Nissan, then ribbons of aluminum peeled away. Less than a kilometer from Camp Habbaniyah, the spark shower was so hot that even the hungriest strays gave up the chase. The air reeked of scorched rubber and the madness of it all.

Boiko ducked his head inside the Humvee. “Jesus, it’s gonna catch fire!”

Flames curled up toward the Nissan’s fuel tank. The jundis jumped from their truck, sawed through the tow straps, and fled in all directions. Fire reached the fuel and flared. Watson threw the Humvee in reverse.

“Man, they are all kinds of stupid,” said Watson. “Look at ’em run. Bet they got ammo in there!” He wondered how he could look out for men who could not look out for themselves.

The ammo inside the Nissan cooked off like popcorn. It started with a single pop, reached a crackle, and rose to a crescendo, with bullets zinging in every direction while the jundis tried to press themselves into the ground.

It took an hour for the fire to burn out. After five hours and one death in 100° heat, the exhausted patrol limped back to Camp Habbaniyah. The advisors faced a twelve-month tour. To a man, they wondered why they had volunteered for such lonely, frustrating duty and whether they would hold up. They were all close to tears but not one cried.

As was common in battle, their future civilian lives suddenly burst with potential. They wouldn’t sweat the paycheck. They would be better fathers. If they could just survive three hundred more patrols in Khalidiya.

Three hundred.

Their first simple patrol had been FUBAR—fucked up beyond all recognition. Was it going to be like this every day?

As the Humvee rolled into Camp Habbaniyah, the rest of the team came out to greet the advisors returning from patrol. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Troster, who was in charge of the advisor team, gave the downcast Huss a half hug. For the 44-year-old reserve infantry officer, this was an enormous gesture. He wasn’t a coddler, but he knew the toll exacted by helplessness in a climate of relentless violence.

Troster had joined the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1988, after a stint as a cop in Richmond, Virginia, during the nationwide crack cocaine epidemic. He had raided the stinking dens and seen the strung-out bodies, baked minds, and ruined lives. Troster’s civilian job had prepared him to face an urban insurgency far better than any military course. He joked that twenty years of lies had robbed him of his head of hair, which he now kept shaved.

He patted Boiko on the back of the neck. It was dusted with dry sweat.

“It’s serious out there, Troster,” Boiko said.

“I know it is.”

Troster was no martinet. He allowed his subordinates to call him “sir,” “Colonel,” or even “Troster” so long as they avoided his first name. Looking over his exhausted men, he was sick with guilt that as the team leader he’d missed the patrol.

But Troster couldn’t go on every mission. He needed three men to accompany the Iraqis, plus another three to stand by as a QRF. That left only four men to train four seventy-five-man Iraqi infantry companies; track the patrols outside the wire; inspect the supply, logistics, and hospital sections; attend endless meetings with the Iraqi brigade staff; recover from the last patrol and plan the next one.

With only ten men, something had to give. So Troster constantly tried to flatten the rank hierarchy like Special Forces commandos do. Everyone on the team did every chore, period.

Military manuals preached the virtue of decentralized decision making, but the wartime reality was that most superiors overcontrolled their subordinate units, minimizing both casualties and junior initiative. Twenty-first-century radios and tracking devices made it even easier to micromanage.

Troster knew that reservists were more relaxed than full-time soldiers by nature. They spent most of their professional lives interacting with civilians. Even when they donned their weekend uniforms, rules were different from those guiding the active-duty force. There was no contractual bond with a specific unit. If reservists decide you’re an overbearing jerk, they often vote with their feet, joining another unit.

Once activated, however, the men under his command could not flee Habbaniyah. But Troster knew their pride and grit could abandon them. And if that happened, they were in for a year-long sufferfest.

“We lost a jundi today,” said a dejected Huss.

“You can’t control random death,” said Troster.

“I’m not sure what we did wrong,” said Huss.

“You did good,” Troster said. “Go get out of your battle rattle. We’ll clean up.”

The rest of the advisor team relieved the three men back from patrol. Like a pit crew, they stripped and oiled the machine gun, tossed the spent water bottles, washed the windshield, and scrubbed blood out of the seats, leaving the cushions to bake dry in the sun. Boiko and Watson paced alongside their seven teammates, telling them the story, and everyone listened.

Troster encouraged this locker room–style banter. The team greeted every returning patrol to learn the small details of the day’s contact, helping the soldiers overcome feelings of isolation and giving them a nod of accomplishment that comes from peer recognition.

War tends to make men sentimental. Troster refused to let soldiers returning from outside the wire to be met with silence that turned bravado into self-pity. If that happened, Khalidiya would sense it. And when the people sensed it, the enemy sensed it, too.

Inside his concrete barracks room on Camp Habbaniyah after the patrol, Mark Huss took a long pull of cool water and stripped the sweaty armor from his body. He hung it on pegs where it dripped into pools. The rooms hadn’t been upgraded in fifty years. More salt wouldn’t matter.

Five hours ago, Huss had fancied himself a teacher watching his new pupils during recess from the schoolhouse. What a joke. Now he understood that to be an advisor, he had to set the example in combat, showing the jundis leadership without showing up the Iraqi officers.

The 3/3–1 officer cadre was a mix of Sunni and Shia career soldiers, with several veterans of Saddam Hussein’s elite special units among them. They treated the jundis—the junior enlisted men—like mules. It had little to do with religion. The old Iraqi Army was built around patrimony. The closer you were to Saddam’s circle, the better the pay. Influential Shia had always been a part of Saddam’s officer corps. The Shia conscripts, however, had been born into Iraq’s underclass and had no bloodline connection to the elite. The caste system was stark. Officers sometimes used pistol bullets as corrective action.

Huss was a senior enlisted man, a noncommissioned officer (NCO) with decision-making power, the backbone of the U.S. Army. He showed deference to officers, of course, but he expected respect. In the New Iraqi Army, as in Saddam’s Army, the officers made all the decisions for the jundis. He knew that no advisor could ever change that, and he suspected that the Iraqis resented taking advice from enlisted men, American NCO or not.

Huss was determined to be an older brother to the jundis. Although the Iraqis had been in combat for months, while the Americans had just arrived, they needed serious help. They lazily walked the battlefield, clustered up as a defensive instinct, and fired blindly. That included Qatan, but Huss had to protect the lieutenant’s reputation if he was going to break through to the other officers. Officers tend to be professionally defensive, no matter their nationality.

Huss was too tired to eat so he slept hungry. After sunset, he fought the grogginess and a sharp headache, pulled on his muddy boots, put a loaded 9mm pistol in his pocket, slung his M-4 across his chest, and trudged across the camp to the memorial ceremony for 3rd Company’s fallen man.

Unlucky Company, his company.

A few candles flickered near a photograph of the fallen jundi. It was quiet except for a few jundis sniffling in their bunks and some grainy Arab music spun from a cassette player. It smelled of strong tobacco. The Iraqis watched him, wet eyes reflecting the light. Huss had the feeling he should say something, but of course he didn’t speak Arabic, so he stood there with his hand over his heart. On the laminated Iraq country card the Army had issued him, a cultural sheet of dos and don’ts that included a few Arabic pronunciations like “Good Morning,” and “Stop! Hands up,” the hand-over-heart gesture meant either a promise or sincerity, Huss couldn’t remember which.

An angry Lieutenant Qatan approached.

“The jundi Hussein was a very good soldier. The men are very sad.”

Meaning Hussein would be alive if I hadn’t insisted on moving the Nissan, Huss thought. “I’m here to honor Hussein,” he said.

Qatan softened and translated for Unlucky Company’s commander, Captain Walid. He was a thin, bald Iraqi who wore the same thick mustache as every other officer. Huss had been warned that Walid was lazy and rarely left the guarded wire walls of Camp Habbaniyah. But now he was every inch the indignant warrior, glaring up at the massive Huss while barking at him in Arabic so all could hear.

“Captain Walid is angry because the trucks left us at the wrong place,” said Qatan. “And because you wanted us to walk on Michigan.”

All on me, Huss thought.

“That’s war,” Huss said. “You go where you’re supposed to go and do what you’re supposed to do.”

Qatan translated. Walid said nothing, but the jundis seemed to accept this. They had been fighting for eight months and Huss had been fighting for about eight hours, but the American projected authority.

Huss stood there for a few awkward minutes listening to the sad music, nodded politely, then walked back to his room where he tried to flush the day’s memories so he could sleep, a pistol on his nightstand. Huss wasn’t worried about the loyalty of the jundis; he feared their ability to secure the area. Insurgents mortared Camp Habbaniyah several times a week. The team lived with the 3rd Iraqi Battalion right next to the perimeter concertina wire. The week before, several insurgents had sidled to the guard post and shot a jundi to death. When an advisor to the 2nd Iraqi Battalion, Marine Sergeant Brian Dunlap, had rushed forward to fight, the attackers ran away.

That night, AlertNet, a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, posted the blurb: “Four Iraqi soldiers were killed and five were wounded when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle in Khalidiya, 85km west of Baghdad, policeman Mohammed Abbass said.”6

There were no police in Khalidiya, but that did not stop the concocted story from being repeated on leftist American websites like Common and, and eventually reprinted on, a well-respected site used by U.S. reporters and soldiers to track battlefield trends.7

In the space of a few hours, the killing of jundi Hussein and three ghosts from the 3rd Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Division was read around the world.

When Huss left the Unlucky Company barracks, Captain Walid and Lieutenant Qatan walked over to the officers’ mess, where Qatan told the story of the failed patrol.

“Sergeant Huss was like a hyena,” concluded Qatan. “He was strong in the battle but clumsy with his mind.”

“We will find out what he does in America,” Walid offered.

The other Iraqi officers, who sat riveted throughout the story, turned to hear the appraisal of their battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Falah, a smart, trim officer in his early forties whose youthful looks masked a cruel streak. “It is important to learn the information of their real jobs,” Falah said. “I am surprised the Americans again sent us reserves. We are Special Forces and our advisors should be Special Forces, especially here in Anbar.”

The others nodded in agreement. Several of the officers had served in Saddam Hussein’s elite infantry units, but even they were still digesting their deployment to Habbaniyah, where they were fighting for their lives.

If the advisors entered Habbaniyah as underdogs, so did Battalion 3/3–1. They had arrived at the camp only a month earlier as one of three elite battalions in the Iraqi 3rd Brigade. For a week they gingerly probed the Euphrates-fed farm hamlets surrounding the base with a few two-hour patrols, and then the entire 3rd Battalion had gone on an eleven-day leave. They returned to orders from their Iraqi brigade headquarters—which was advised by a team of Marines—handing them sole responsibility for Khalidiya, the poisonous capital of the Habbaniyah area and its only real city, two kilometers west of Camp Habbaniyah. It was devastating news. The 3/3–1 officers had assumed that Khalidiya, whose urban box land was ideal landscape for snipers and bombers, would be patrolled by all three battalions in the 3rd Brigade. Worse, the previous advisor team had given way to yet another group of rookies, for the third time in twenty months.

Iraqi Battalion 3/3–1 had rolled off the assembly line in the fall of 2004 and fought acceptably well during its initial six-month tour in Mosul. Their reward for this trial run was a transfer to Habbaniyah. When they heard they were going to Anbar Province, dozens of jundis deserted rather than face what they saw as a death sentence. Many had hoped to redeploy to Baghdad, where they could defend their own neighborhoods. Instead, they had been ordered to help the Americans bring the Habbaniyah region to heel. The local Sunnis—especially the hard-bitten, uneducated ones in the wasteland towns surrounding the moldering British air base—were seen by the Shia soldiers as a lost tribe, ungrateful for help, unwilling to abandon murderous traditions, and unworthy of salvation. Even the Sunni officers were fearful of the “crazy hicks,” as they called the Anbar tribesmen.

No man personified the local fanaticism more than arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who declared war on the Shia a week after the 3/3–1 arrived in Camp Habbaniyah.8 Two kilometers west on Route Michigan in Khalidiya, Zarqawi stationed about a dozen AQI lieutenants. They were aided by a half dozen radical imams who arranged housing for foreign Arab fighters—Sunni jihadists from other countries who had come to kill Americans or Shia—using Route Michigan as their main thoroughfare between Ramadi and Fallujah. Three hundred U.S. soldiers and Marines had died in the corridor.

AQI also relied on several hundred cooperative Sunni tribesmen as part of the “honorable resistance”—men who earned money by fighting and were morally reinforced by their sheikhs and imams, no matter the collateral damage involved in attacks. None of these warriors wore a uniform. Most lived at home, from where they were summoned to snipe at American soldiers, plant roadside bombs once or twice a month, and otherwise act like a street gang.

It wasn’t uncommon for AQI and their confederates to build a bomb, pay a local digger to plant it along the highway, recruit a different lookout to detonate it by remote control, and then drive home for dinner at a farmhouse ten kilometers away, where they could watch it all play out on a DVD delivered by a hired cameraman.

AQI controlled the everyday lives of the Habbaniyah tribes. It sold the fuel and taxed the trucks that used it to move along the highway, charged protection fees to the rare business that wasn’t shuttered, and coerced imams to skim for the mujahideen, or freedom fighters, contributions made in the mosques. AQI operatives married tribal women to insert themselves into the traditional hierarchy and murdered any sheikh who objected to the practice.

Americans occasionally strung barbed wire across the highway so they could check the faces of travelers against grainy, grimy Xeroxed photographs of suspected terrorists. In early 2005, a small caravan carrying Zarqawi encountered an American checkpoint near Khalidiya. According to the Americans, the wily Zarqawi jumped from his truck, leaving his laptop in haste.

Local Khalidiyans remembered it differently. Zarqawi calmly got out of the backseat of the car while the Americans sorted through the queue. He stopped to piss by the side of the road and then slipped down a back alley. The villagers hid him while Americans searched between houses.

To protect a fellow Sunni was the duty of every Khalidiyan. Even if they didn’t love AQI, they were socially connected to, and literally enriched by, the local insurgency. In the same way small Texas towns follow their football teams, everybody in Khalidiya knew an active resistance fighter and kept score. The Americans promised security but had brought a hurricane of damage. They passed through Khalidiya in their armored trucks like tourists on glass-bottomed boats admiring exotic fish.

The Khalidiya sheikhs, a title loosely used in Anbar for any man with influence, implored the AQI fighters to remain cautious. If they paraded in their black balaclavas too prominently in town, mugging for pictures on al Jazeera, they would draw the attention of Marine headquarters in nearby Fallujah. It was best to inflict some casualties on each American unit that rotated through the area—enough to keep the Americans on the defensive but not so many that the Marines would mass their forces to crush the city, as they had done in Fallujah in 2004.

Khalidiya had perfected this war of the flea: A sniper shot on Monday, a roadside bomb on Tuesday, a street protest of the disproportionate American response on Wednesday, soliciting medical supplies from the Americans on Thursday, an attack in Ramadi early enough on Friday to return for noon prayer, a mortar attack on Camp Habbaniyah on Saturday, and planning to rout incoming transients on Sunday.

Since September 2003, when the first U.S. battalion took residence in Camp Habbaniyah, Khalidiya insurgents who pretended to be civilians had steadily taken American lives while bolstering their own influence. Now it was September 2005, and a battalion from the New Iraqi Army had arrived. AQI and its local social network of bombers and shooters planned to give the Shia soldiers and their Sunni puppet officers the same bright welcome they’d given the maladroit American units that had shuffled in and out for the previous two years.

About The Author

Courtesy of the Author

Owen West is a former Marine major who served two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of two novels, including Sharkman Six, which won the Boyd literary award for best military novel, and his work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Playboy, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 14, 2013)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451655964

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