In 1972, Marine captain Francis “Bing” West published an unadulterated account of a Marine Combined Action Platoon in Vietnam. The Village was and remains the seminal account of the Marine Corps Combined Action Program. Born out of lessons learned in the Banana Wars of the early 20th century, the Combined Action Program paired a Marine rifle squad with Vietnamese Popular Force militiamen and assigned the combined platoon responsibility for protecting a village or hamlet. West’s chronicle of fifteen Marines who lived, fought, and died alongside their Vietnamese brothers for 485 days in Bing Nghia offered a trove of lessons for military advisors fighting a brutal counterinsurgency.
Forty years later, Owen West, a Marine reserve major and Bing’s son, has published his own gripping saga of a modern day variant of the Combined Action Platoon – the Military Transition Team (MiTT) – fighting a similarly brutal counterinsurgency in Iraq. The Snake Eaters follows the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division (3/3-1) of the Iraqi Army and their American military advisors – known by their all-too-appropriate radio call sign, Outcast – during the dark days of 2005-07 as they attempt to defeat an insurgency and win the allegiance of Khalidiya, a village halfway between Fallujah and Ramadi. It’s a raw account of a motley crew of reservists called up for duty to fight a war for which they were ill prepared, ill equipped, and ill supported. Through force of bravery and grit, Outcast and their Iraqi brothers-in-arms overcome the enemy and, sometimes, their own chain-of-command.
In a sense, Outcast was lucky. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Troster, the team leader during the hard days of 2005-06 and a Drug Enforcement Agent when he wasn’t moonlighting as a reserve infantry officer, instinctively understood both advising and counterinsurgency – many MiTTs had leaders that didn’t. Troster understood the necessity of constant patrolling. He also knew his MiTT needed to accompany 3/3-1 on every patrol in order to gain credibility so that their advice would be heard and heeded. He knew that in order to run constant patrols with a ten-man team, normal rank protocol went out the window. He flattened Outcast’s hierarchy – every man did every job. The military hadn’t trained him for this, but he knew what needed to be done and did it.
Troster led a team varied in complexion; it was a typical group of reservists. Sergeant First Class Mark Huss ran a plumbing company in Iowa and spent his reserve weekends “teaching soldiers how to maintain laundry facilities.” Sergeant First Class Eliezer Rivera, the team’s senior non-commissioned officer, was a post office supervisor. Specialist Joseph Neary was “a heating technician by day and a rock-and-roll guitarist by night.” Sergeant Shawn Boiko was a flooring manager. None had infantry training.
Once teams like Outcast were assembled, the Army and Marines had to train them. Here too, efforts fell far short. But as West incisively notes, much of this was a result of the divide between ground truth and Washington fantasy about the war’s progress and the nature of counterinsurgency. Early advisor teams received, as they described it to West, “forty five days of ill-conceived classes crammed into ninety.” The classes at Camp Atterbury were taught mostly by people who had never been to Iraq and who had never been advisors. The entire training program was premised on the notion that the advisor teams would be living on large, American run Forward Operating Bases, training Iraqi soldiers in basic soldiering skills and staff work. “It was as if Atterbury was preparing the advisors to defend a log fort against a Sioux attack in 1863,” West writes.
As Outcast brutally discovered in late summer 2005 upon arriving in Iraq, their training had been worthless. The Snake Eaters, the name 3/3-1 gave itself, were coming off six months of hard combat and expected more as they were newly responsible for of the more dangerous areas of Anbar Province. The Iraqis didn’t need classroom teachers – they needed combat advisors.
Outcast shouldn’t have succeeded; at least, not on paper. A disparate group of ten reservists with no infantry training or combat experience is a perfect metaphor for America’s efforts in Iraq. But Outcast conducted over 1,500 combat patrols. Team members like Sergeants First Class Huss and Rivera each logged more than 450 combat patrols in a ten-month deployment. Outcast hit fifty improvised explosive devices. Seven of the ten were wounded. One died.
And yet they persevered, overcoming the normal aspects of hard combat and a Spartan existence on a small combat outpost, devoid the normal accouterments found on the larger FOBs, and even a lack of support from their own side. Outcast looked to Task Force Panther, a National Guard unit – who, it should be noted, was also ill prepared and ill equipped for the mission and fight they were given – that was supposed to “partner” with 3/3-1 and support the advisors. But Panther and its higher headquarters didn’t get it. First, there was the order mandating the Iraqis patrol in armored vehicles. Think about that one for a second. Then there was Panther’s refusal to conduct joint patrols with 3/3-1. And as if Outcast’s existence wasn’t Spartan enough, Panther removed the main generator providing power to Outcast’s small outpost. With insightful vignettes like these, West demonstrates one of the main challenges advisors often face is the U.S. military command.
By the end of the book, it’s clear that many of the lessons gleaned forty years ago were either discounted or forgotten when the U.S. military scrambled to field advisors to the newly rebuilt Iraqi Army in the summer of 2004. This inability to retain lessons learned is somewhat surprising. Combat advising is not a new concept – the United States has been in the business of training foreign militaries for at least 100 years. The Marine Corps, as noted earlier, has a long heritage of partnering with and advising foreign militaries. As all Marines are steeped in the Corps’ history, there is institutional memory and widespread awareness of Marines as advisors. The U.S. Army institutionalized combat advisors by creating the Special Forces; however, the pernicious effect of this decision was to insulate this mission within this small community – regular Army units and commanders came to despise the mission. Since their inception in the early days of the Cold War, the Green Berets have been the principal force for advising foreign militaries. They spend years training, and when it comes to advising, the Green Berets are the best the United States has to offer. Regrettably, the task of building and advising the new Iraqi Army after it was disbanded in 2004 vastly exceeded the capacity of the Green Berets to do alone. The Army and Marine Corps were thus forced to field advisor teams like Outcast.
Unfortunately, the services did so with little understanding or appreciation for the task in front of the MiTTs. As West notes:
Our generals are uncomfortable prescribing advisors as a solution to these twenty-first century wars. Advising a foreign military requires nontraditional training that takes years; soldiers need a wonk’s cultural awareness, the rudimentary language capability of a border cop, a survivalist’s skills, and the interpersonal savvy of a politician. Military hierarchy is built on control, so it feels unnatural for the leadership to dispatch these small bands of advisors, who on paper cannot give orders, to live among foreign, sometimes hostile soldiers in an effort to stabilize their countries.
Indeed, being an advisor requires patience, understanding, and tact – three traits not normally emphasized in military training and culture. Throw in an organizational culture that disdains advising as an inferior mission and promotion policies that delineate a career path to the top – advising is, uh, missing – and the result was an advisor selection and training program that emphasized quantity, not quality.
Advising is a mindset. An otherwise outstanding officer might be a terrible advisor, and the most incompetent infantry corporal might be incredibly effective. It’s less instruction and more persuasion. The Army initially turned to reservists like Outcast and later adopted the Marine Corps model, meeting its requirements by pulling individuals from disparate units across the fleet, which sometimes incentivized commanders to send underperformers. West, in his typically blunt manner, notes, “Selection for advisor duty was not rigorous. Soldiers could not be overly prejudiced, handicapped, or too fat to deploy.”
In his history of America’s involvement in Vietnam, Summons of Trumpet, retired Army Lieutenant General Dave Palmer writes: “Another unchanging reality of advising is the more or less constant cocoon of frustration enveloping the advisor. Adjusting to advising is a greater individual challenge than can be easily imagined by anyone who has not done it.” The challenges an advisor faces over the course of a combat deployment are impossible to overstate. Owen West succeeds simply by telling Outcast’s tale. But what really sets The Snake Eaters apart from the other advisor memoirs* to come out of Iraq is his sharp, evocative prose – “a group of jundis who were watering the pavement with spent brass casings” – and his thorough account of the various challenges Outcast faced and their relation to the strategic direction of the war.
When the American military was fielding advisor teams like Outcast in 2004-2005, they could almost be forgiven for forgetting lessons learned from successful advising concepts from wars past. After all, the military did an exceptional job of purging the lessons of Vietnam during the late 1970s and 1980s, and by 2004 Vietnam was but a distant memory. The same cannot be said for our advisory efforts in Afghanistan.
As a part of our campaign plan in Afghanistan, the U.S. is beginning the transition out of the lead for combat operations, just as we did in Iraq. As combat units rotate home, they will be replaced by what the Army is calling Security Force Assistance Teams (SFATs). The good news is that these SFATs will be composed primarily of officers and senior staff non-commissioned officers pulled from the same brigade staff, so there will be a level of familiarity with one another not found on teams like Outcast. More good news is that the SFATs will spend five weeks at their home station focusing on individual and team military skills like land navigation, weapons usage, and patrolling techniques. The bad news is that the pre-deployment training repeats many of the same mistakes from 2004. After the SFATs complete training at their home station, they’ll go to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk where they’ll receive – wait for it – three weeks of advisor training. Three weeks.
Given the spike of so-called “green-on-blue” incidents in the last six months – 22 ISAF deaths in 2012, or 13% of total ISAF KIA, have come at the hands of Afghan security force personnel turning on their advisors – the lack of cultural, negotiation, and language training is troubling. Like the advisors sent to Iraq in 2004-05, the SFATs are not getting the proper training. Green Berets spend years learning how to advise foreign militaries. Even the Marine Corps puts its MiTTs through roughly five months of pre-deployment training, with a heavy emphasis advisor skills like best practices for speaking through an interpreter and cultural do’s and don’ts. These are reinforced throughout the training program so that they become second nature. Of course, this training isn’t perfect, but at least the USMC MiTTs are being set up for success.
The story of American military advisors in Iraq and Afghanistan is not well known. Should Americans read The Snake Eaters and learn more about a little known aspect of the savage wars less than one per cent of their fellow citizens have been fighting, great. But the audiences who will gain the most from reading West’s book are mid-career officers attending the Army and Marine Corps staff colleges in Fort Leavenworth and Quantico. Outcast is a testament that advisors can succeed even when the armed services do not appreciate their mission. The advisor needs robust, appropriate training and the full support of his command as soon as his boots hit the ground because as long as we continue to wage counterinsurgencies as a third party, advisors are our saving grace. As West notes, “No matter how we enter these murky twenty-first century wars, all roads out lead through the combat advisor.”
* Here are the three other memoirs about the military advisor experience to come out of Iraq. Interesting that all four are written by Marine officers.
Folsom, Seth. (2010) In the Gray Area: A Marine Advisor Team at War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.