One of the wars behind the war in Iraq—the fierce rivalry between the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps—was settled this week. The outcome: Both sides lost.
Last winter, when the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was tapped to replace the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Fallujah, Marine officers boasted that they knew how to run the occupation in smarter, subtler ways than the ham-fisted Army.
The Army at the time was calling in airstrikes to suppress insurgencies in the Sunni triangle. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st MEF, told the New York Times’ Michael Gordon, “I don’t envision using that tactic. … I don’t want to condemn what [Army] people are doing. I think that they are doing what they think they have to do.” Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, went further: “If [the insurgents] choose to fight, they are going to regret it, but we also believe that part of the physicians’ oath that says, ‘First, do no harm.’ If to kill a terrorist we have got to kill eight innocent people, you don’t kill them.”
Speaking on background to the Washington Post’sThomas Ricks, one Marine officer was blunter still: “I’m appalled at the [Army’s] current heavy-handed use of air and artillery in Iraq. Success in a counter-insurgency environment is based on winning popular support, not blowing up people’s houses.”
Yet, over the past couple of weeks, this is precisely what the Marines have been doing: calling in air power, killing (unavoidably) innocent people, blowing up people’s houses.
One lesson of Fallujah is that neither the Army nor the Marine Corps is particularly well-suited for counter-insurgency warfare. The Army, with its premium on armor and artillery, has never much tried to be good at it. (Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who rose through the ranks of special-operations forces, is attempting to shift its focus to “low-intensity conflicts,” but such wholesale changes take time.) The Marines are inherently oriented to lighter, lither modes of combat: In Vietnam, their “combined-action platoons“—which lived among the people and trained them in self-defense—were widely considered more successful than the Army’s “search and destroy” tactics. Shortly before heading to Fallujah, Marine commanders spoke of using the CAP as a model for counter-insurgency in Iraq. But Vietnam was a long time ago; the institutional memory has vanished, as has the necessary training. Besides, as several Army officers have since noted, the CAP work only if the broader environment is fairly secure, which Iraq certainly isn’t.
It’s a sad, unsettling chronicle, this past month-and-a-half in Fallujah. Before their deployment in mid-March, Marine commanders said they would adopt a “softer” approach than the Army. The ranks of the 1st MEF were ordered not to curse, wear sunglasses, or wave with their left hands (all considered offensive in the local culture). Over 400 Marines received intensive language instruction. Everyone learned a few useful Arabic phrases. Marine Corps commandant Gen. Michael Hagee told the House Armed Services Committee that their training had drawn on “procedures used by the Los Angeles Police Department for neighborhood patrolling in gang-dominated areas,” as well as best practices from other small wars and peacekeeping operations.
But from almost the moment they arrived, the Marines in Fallujah came under fire. Seven Marines died in their first 10 days of deployment. On March 27, the commanders took the offensive. They closed the highway to Baghdad, sealed the most dangerous Fallujah neighborhoods with tanks and armored cars, and sent 300 Marines out on foot patrol. At once, the Marines were surrounded by insurgents armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. One Marine died in the ensuing battle. On March 31, the same day when insurgents mutilated the four American private security guards, they also killed five Marines.
The next day, Gen. Conway told reporters that he still wanted to pursue the “soft” approach but not until “we can work the streets, feeling safe and not risk being attacked.”
So out came the sledgehammers that Conway and other Marine generals had recently chided their Army counterparts for employing—a crude siege of the city, followed by gunships firing howitzers, and fighter jets dropping 500- to 1,000–pound bombs. Insurgents were killed and their hideouts were destroyed, but so were civilians and their homes.
It may well be that this destruction—and the prospect of more—accelerated negotiations, which were also proceeding, between some insurgents and tribal elders. (Then again, it may have hampered or delayed the talks; the situation is not yet clear.) In any case, an interesting development has occurred. The Marines appear to be withdrawing (or, in U.S. parlance, “re-positioning”), and 1,100 carefully selected soldiers from the old Iraqi army—commanded by a well-known, former Baathist general—are stepping in to provide security. If this step (which was reportedly proposed by the Iraqi general) succeeds—if the Fallujans accept the unit as legitimate—it could serve as a precedent for establishing security elsewhere in Iraq’s Sunni areas and as the basis for an American exit strategy. But neither the U.S. Army nor the Marines will be the force that establishes the peace.