The Magazine

Reconstructing Iraq

With the Marines in the south and the 101st Airborne in the north.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Not the least of their achievement is that no Marine has been killed by hostile fire since May 1, when President Bush proclaimed "major hostilities" at an end. Almost 70 Army soldiers have been slain in that period. This success isn't a result of flooding south-central Iraq with soldiers. Mattis never deployed more than 8,000 Marines, along with some Army civil affairs, psychological operations, and military police units, to control an area the size of Missouri.

There is no doubt that the Marines' task was made easier by the fact that the Shiites suffered under the old regime and welcomed their liberation. But few analysts predicted in May that Shiite holy cities like Najaf and Karbala would emerge as strongholds of pro-American sentiment. Much of the talk back then was of Iranian infiltration and Lebanese-style terrorism. That hasn't happened, at least not against Americans, and every single Marine I met was convinced that the reason had to do with their approach to peacekeeping, which they believe superior to the more heavy-handed methods employed, at least initially, by Army units that occupied Baghdad and the Sunni area to the immediate north and west.

The Marine strategy was based on three principles. First, do no harm. That meant not alienating Iraqis by violating their religious or social customs. Women, for instance, should not be subject to intrusive searches. When talking to Iraqis, Marines were instructed to point their firearms away and take off their sunglasses. Above all, it meant using as little firepower as possible. As Mattis put it: "If someone needs shooting, shoot him. If someone doesn't need shooting, protect him."

The Marines showed restraint when dealing with hostile crowds. They did not have a single incident like the one that occurred in Fallujah in late April, when the 82nd Airborne opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing at least 12. Marines were more likely to greet hostile crowds with free bottles of water than with bullets, on the assumption that someone can't be too angry with you if he's just accepted some water from you.

The Marines' second guiding principle was to win hearts and minds. The Marines repaired schools, distributed candy, handed out free medical supplies, set up Rotary clubs, and undertook myriad other charitable tasks. This earned them goodwill among the community leading to increased intelligence about troublemakers.

Their third principle was to be ready to win a 10-second gunfight. While wanting to be as open and friendly as possible, all Marines were told to be ready to open fire at a moment's notice. When Army supply convoys get attacked by fedayeen, they speed away, I was told. When Marine convoys got hit, they were supposed to stop immediately and disgorge infantrymen to pursue the attackers. Mattis insisted that even convoys carrying the Marines out of Iraq retain a robust offensive capability.

It all adds up to Mattis's widely publicized slogan: "No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy" than a U.S. Marine. To see how this yin-yang policy was carried out, we toured some Marine units just before they headed home.

OUR FIRST STOP was in the desert southwest of Baghdad, home to a giant Army logistics base called Dogwood. This area is different from the rest of the Blue Diamond Republic because it's primarily Sunni, not Shiite, and it's experienced some of the same security woes that have plagued the Sunni Triangle. In May and June, Army convoys operating here suffered nonstop guerrilla attacks. During one two-week period in May there were 51 ambushes.

Although this was an Army base, it was in the Marines' area of operations, so Mattis set up Task Force Scorpion to clean up the mess. Composed of the 4th Force Reconnaissance (the closest the egalitarian Marines come to having Special Forces), the 4th Light Armored Regiment, some Army civil affairs soldiers, and a couple of Marine infantry platoons, the task force never totaled more than 1,000 soldiers.

But with aggressive patrolling, it managed to capture a number of terrorists and reduce the number of attacks. Just before we arrived they had nabbed a Republican Guard general and a four-man team that had been mortaring Dogwood. The successful operations impressed the local people, who flooded them with unsolicited tips. Based on that information they staged surgical raids that usually involved no gunfire and resulted in the surrender of a suspect. While aggressive against suspected terrorists, the task force's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Pappas, regularly met with local sheikhs.

As we were being briefed on Scorpion's operations, an officer volunteered that they were planning a raid that very night. Would we like to go along? Sure, I said, little suspecting what I was getting myself into.