Fight Club

A bout eighteen months ago, the U.S. Army produced an important new manual on counterinsurgency that, when implemented last year in Iraq, helped American troops greatly improve the security situation there. Retired lieutenant colonel Nathan Sassamans recent memoir, Warrior King, is the mirror opposite of that documentit is, effectively, the anti-manual. And it should be required reading for anyone who is deploying to the war in Iraq, or who wants to know how we dug so deep a hole there in 2003 and 2004.

Warrior King is a blueprint for how to lose in Iraq. Of course, thats not how it is presented by Sassaman, who commanded a battalion of the 4th Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle during the wars first year. (Full disclosure: I am mentioned, neutrally, in the book.) In Sassamans mind, hes a winner who understood that prevailing in Iraq meant breaking some furniture. A former West Point quarterback, he tended to see the civilian population not as the prize in the war, but as the playing field on which to pound the enemy.

At the heart of this book is Sassamans conviction that he knew how to win in Iraq, but was surrounded by softies and cowards. In fact, he really only knows one fairly narrow way of war: “My philosophy (and I still think its sound) was to crush the ant with a sledgehammer.” Or, as he memorably put it to the New York Times while he was still in Iraq: “With a healthy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.” Officers who disagreed with that, he believed, simply lacked “the will to win.”

A lot has changed since Sassamans time in Iraq. American commanders there have come to focus on the “fence-sitters,” the broad middle of the Iraqi population that might be persuaded to support the Americans. Nowadays, U.S. patrols reach out to those people, offering them protection and helping them get essential services such as water, sewer, and electricity. But back in 2003 and 2004 Sassaman was having none of that. In his view, those who were not with him were against him. So when some villages didnt explicitly help his soldiers, he sent loudspeaker trucks to blast “these ungrateful places” with music fromha-hathe Village People.

What gives the book additional pungency is that Sassaman left Iraq so embittered that he names names as he tries to make his case as clear as possible. This is unusual in a modern American military memoir, which as a genre tends toward extreme discretion. Not here. He calls out, for example, the commander of a sister unit: “Lt. Col. Ryan Gonsalves, who appeased the Iraqis and generally avoided fighting the insurgency to limit collateral damage.” Elsewhere, he accuses Gonsalvess outfit, the 1st Battalion of the 66th Armored Regiment, of being “virtual cowards.”

Sassaman had a spectacularly bad relationship with his brigade commander, Colonel Fred Rudesheim, who he thought was a wimp. “I neither trusted nor respected him,” he writes. Rudesheim repeatedly instructed Sassaman to operate less aggressively and with more care for the population, but Sassaman blew the colonel off: he became insubordinate, and even violated explicit orders about getting clearance before using artillery fire. The evidence Sassaman piles up against himself is so striking that one wonders why he wasnt relieved of command months earlier.

Eventually, his obvious indiscipline and simple-minded aggressiveness did get him into trouble. After Sassamans battalion lost two soldiers in 2003, he stepped up the violence. A patrol led by one of his platoon leaders, Lieutenant Jack Saville, threw detainees into the Tigris River, where one allegedly drownedinformation appropriately reported up the chain of command by Gonsalvess unit, which Sassaman doesnt mention but may account for some of the animus here. Saville later testified at a court-martial that he had been told to go after certain Iraqis and not bring them back alive if they were captured, another point Sassaman omits. This incident, coming after two men were killed, made me wonder how Sassaman might have reacted if he had commanded, say, the 1st Battalion of the 26th Regiment, which lost an agonizing total of thirty-one soldiers in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007.

Rather than get to the bottom of the Tigris River matter, which was his clear duty as a commander, Sassaman chose to help his soldiers obstruct the investigation. In the end, his division commander, then major general Raymond Odierno, found him guilty of “criminal” actionbut inexplicably left him in command of his battalion for more than another year. (Odierno has learned a lot more about counterinsurgency since then, and performed extremely effectively last year in Iraq as General David Petraeuss top deputy.)

Warrior King suffers from odd minor mistakes. Sassaman twice misspells the name of an officer who served in his own division, Colonel David Hoag. He refers to the “503rd Infantry Division” when he means “Regiment.” He thinks the Muslim Sabbath is Saturday, when its Friday. In one small but telling error, he asserts that his boss when he served a tour of duty in Korea was the only Army officer then on active duty who held a PhD in military history. I know of at least five officers who hold such doctorates, and who are so senior they would have been on duty then. This inaccuracy is striking not only because it goes to Sassamans ignorance of his own service and profession, but because it was precisely one of those soldier-scholars, Colonel H. R. McMaster, who in Tel Afar in 2005 conducted the first successful large-scale counterinsurgency campaign of the war. In explaining his approach to retaking that northern Iraqi city from al-Qaeda and its allies, McMaster, who commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said to me: “What is immensely important is to lift the pall of fear off the population.”

What a sharp contrast to Sassaman, who believed that “we had to convince the Iraqi people that they should fear us more than they feared the insurgents.” But then, McMaster knows his stuff. He has been a successful combat commander in two wars, and also wrote a well-received book on the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. His professional expertise, combined with a healthy dose of empathy, showed the way forward in Iraq. His campaign in Tel Afar provided the model for Petraeuss new population-oriented strategy in Baghdad last year.

Petraeuss approach is built around protecting the population, parleying with hostile tribes, and cutting deals with insurgents. When Sassaman saw fellow commanders trying out such tactics, he denounced it as “appeasement.” Yet there was ample evidence at the time that
his own tactics were counterproductive, turning the population against the Americans and, indeed, driving Iraqis into the arms of the insurgents. “We had broken the code on how to win the war, and indeed we were winning,” he believes. He never comes to see that he was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

“Id been a winner my entire lifehow could everything have turned out so badly over there?” he asks plaintively near the end of the book. In 2006, long after Sassaman left Iraq, the U.S. Army, led by Petraeus, began asking itself the same question, and came up with the answer that Sassaman never sees.

Warrior King is only the most recent report from the losers in the Iraq War, by which I mean the officers and officials whose skills, strategies, and methods propelled this country to the brink of defeat in 2006. L. Paul Bremer and retired general Tommy R. Franks led the way with two of the dullest memoirs I have ever read. Earlier this year, Douglas Feith, the former Pentagon policy chief, topped them with an even more soporific and less insightful account of bureaucratic infighting, little of it having anything to do with how the war was actually conducted. Scott McClellan, the former White House mouthpiece, popped up recently to announce that the critics were correct all along.

A companion volume to Sassamans is retired Army lieutenant general Ricardo Sanchezs Wiser in Battle, a defense of his time as the U.S. commander in Iraq in 200304. He is scathing in his criticism of the Bush administration, but about two years too late to be newsworthy, since it is now widely accepted that the handling of the war from 2003 through 2005 was a fiasco.

Sanchezs volume is another report from the old, pre-“surge” U.S. Army that never really understood what it was doing in Iraq and believed that whatever the problem, the answer probably was more firepower. (Im also mentioned in Sanchezs booknegatively, as supposedly emblematic of an incompetent and biased media in Iraq.) Sanchez is, however, more self-aware than Sassaman. He has a clearer understanding of what went wrong during his time in Iraq. Most notably, he doesnt just blame civilian leaders, and sees that his army was part of the problem.

Even so, he doesnt really get it either. Sassaman writes, “Force was the only thing that seemed to work the only thing the Iraqis seemed to understand.” Sanchez comes to a similarly wrongheaded conclusion: “Force seemed to be one of the few things that Iraqi insurgents clearly understood.” But these are the voices of ignorance. Neither man seems to understand that when force is the only way American forces can communicate, it will be the only thing Iraqis will hear.

Another point of congruency in these two tales by losers is that they both slam the Bush administration and the war. Sanchez accuses the Bush administration of “gross incompetence and dereliction of duty.” Sassaman is even more emphatic. “Bring the troops homenow,” he concludes. “Start today Its the right thing to do Let [the Iraqis] fall into civil war and fight through this on their own.” Given the source, that should make any advocate of leaving Iraq quickly think twice.

Thomas E. Ricks is the Washington Posts senior military correspondent and author of several books, most recently FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

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