I’d never been assertive. Even though I was an officer in the Army Reserve, I still allowed myself to be led, instead of being a leader. In short, I caved in to authority.
That was my MO up until the first week of July 2003 in Iraq. That’s when everything changed for me. People in positions of authority had made stupid blunders, blunders which caused the death of one of my colleagues, and the wounding of 2 of my own soldiers. I emerged from that week a completely different person, one who had no qualms about questioning the decisions of those above me, especially if those decisions were stupid. Stupid kills.
I remember one incident when I locked horns with a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer. Kind of like the hit TV show, but nowhere near as glamorous. This Army lawyer was a lieutenant colonel, or one rank above me: a lowly major. Technically (and legally) I wasn’t allowed to mouth off to him, but I did. This guy was slightly built, not so tall, and I’m convinced he had Napoleon’s Syndrome. In my head, I gave him a nickname: Hash Brown. He was small potatoes.
Hash Brown was trying to get my Civil Affairs soldiers to do his job for him, probably because he was afraid to venture “outside the wire” AKA: leave the security of the base. The Army was trying to expand the western perimeter of Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). That was because the insurgents operating out there were using innocent civilians and their dwellings as cover during their mortar and rocket attacks on the base. The plan was to buy out these civilians-or kick them out- and have them relocate. That way, if the insurgents were still foolish to fire from there, there would be nothing stopping the military from blasting them with artillery. I couldn’t fault the Army brass for this plan; I wanted to nail the bad guys too.
Hash Brown wanted our soldiers to evict these farmers from their property while skipping the payments altogether. He told them to ask the farmers for proof of ownership of their farms. If there was no proof, there would be no moola, and they would be forced out.
What this JAG officer conveniently “forgot” was that Iraqi farmers didn’t have the same proof of ownership like property owners in the West. They probably didn’t have deeds recorded or on hand, and they certainly did not have homeowner’s insurance with a 2-lamb deductible.
He wanted my Civil Affairs troops to meet with these Iraqis (mainly because CA troops deal with civilians as part of their duties), ask them for proof, and eventually evict them. My soldiers would then have targets on their backs for the rest of the deployment, as the farmers and their families would be alienated, and probably look the other way if my guys were attacked by the insurgents. And any goodwill that we had with the populace would evaporate.
As the second-in-command of my CA unit, I had an obligation to run interference for my soldiers. I met with Hash Brown and told him, with all due respect, that my soldiers were not in his chain of command, and therefore would not be doing his bidding.
He didn’t care for that.
He pushed back, and hard. Started calling me insubordinate, and generally not a team player. By this time, I had lost my military bearing, and responded:
“Sir, with all due respect, behind the silver oak leaves, the West Point class ring, and the fancy law degree, to me you’re just another mouthpiece.”
To make a long story short, he won the argument and my troops still had to do something that was not in their job descriptions. These actions led them to be targeted by the insurgents. The civilians looked the other way. Just like I predicted.
The curious thing is that after I stood up to him, Hash Brown acted like he was my buddy.
I half expect him to call me today and ask if I want to go camping.
Fast forward about 3 months: I get a call on the satellite phone. It’s a fellow major working in the planning section of the Army division I worked for during the tour. I’d always suspected him as being kind of a dolt. What I heard over the phone confirmed this:
“We’re sending a Civil Affairs team to Fallujah. You and 4 of your soldiers.”
Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past 15 years, you know ALL about that town.
Fallujah = Bad
See also: Not good
I’m pretty sure their Sister City is Newark.
Fallujah was where American troops had taken fire during a riot in April 2003. The soldiers had shot back in self-defense, and some civilians had been killed and wounded. The local population-which was mostly Sunni Muslim and had been loyal to Saddam Hussein- were already resentful of the American presence in their city. This incident REALLY didn’t help. It was obvious that the insurgents had deliberately provoked the Americans into firing back. The full-scale battles fought there by the Marines and the Army were still a year out, but Fallujah at this point was still no Disney movie. I decided that now was a bad time to just roll over and get hit by the Good Idea Bus. For the sake of my troops, if not for me.
I mean, what’s the worst he could do to me? I’d already lost a friend and had to watch 2 of my men be evacuated due to wounds.
Could he have me sent home?
Don’t threaten me with a good time…
Me: “Um, no. That’s a really stupid idea. There are too many bad guys there.”
Major Dolt: What do you mean? That’s what you Civil Affairs soldiers do, right? You go in there and meet with the locals and convince them to turn in the bad guys.”
Me: “It’s not a permissive environment! There’s fighting going on there all the time. We can’t meet with the locals if we’re involved in a firefight. We’d be nothing more than infantrymen.”
Major Dolt: “But that’s how it works, right? Win the hearts and minds and all that stuff!”
Me: “No this is how it works: you go in and kill the bad guys, and then we eat pita bread and hummus with whoever’s left and turn them into good guys. But first, you gotta go kill the bad guys.”
Major Dolt: “Oh, alright. Forget it, then.”
It was at that exact moment that I decided that I would leave the military as soon as I was eligible to retire. I still had another 3 years before that date (and I had to survive the deployment). The thought of somebody THAT uninformed and idiotic overseeing my destiny made me nauseous.