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Violence Escalates Against U.S. Marines

August 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


WOMAN: I didn’t want him there, and I definitely did not want him to be a part of this.

KWAME HOLMAN: These are days of loss and sorrow for families of a group of Ohio Marines.

MAN: We consider him a hero.

KWAME HOLMAN: Twenty-one members of the 3rd Battalion-25th Regiment — all reservists — have died in Iraq within the last week. One [Columbus]-area unit alone, Lima Company, was hit especially hard with 11 killed.

Until May, when Lima lost four Marines, the unit had not had even one “killed-in-action,” earning it the nickname “Lucky Lima.” Their good fortune already was a memory when news came yesterday that nine more Lima Marines had been killed. They were among the 14 Marines killed yesterday when a massive blast ripped apart their AMTRAC, an amphibious assault vehicle like this one, the bomb so powerful it picked up the 50,000 pound armored carrier and flipped it. A civilian interpreter also died in the attack. One Marine survived.

On Monday, six snipers from the Ohio battalion were ambushed and killed in the same area of western Iraq, bringing a toll of 20 U.S. personnel deaths in two days, evidence of the sudden, sporadic lethality of the ongoing insurgency. Over the first four days of August, 24 Marines have been killed during operations in western Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Yesterday at the Pentagon, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham said Anbar remains a prime focus of counter-insurgency and stability operations. The Marines have been tasked with preventing foreign fighters and supplies from entering Iraq from Syria and traveling down the Euphrates River corridor to reach insurgents operating in Anbar and beyond. As part of that effort, the U.S. reportedly is establishing a base near the town of Rawah.

BRIG. GEN. CARTER HAM: I think there’s been a thought for some time that that line has been used in transit of personnel, perhaps weapons, money, and perhaps ideology along that line as it feeds into Baghdad.

KWAME HOLMAN: The effort has had varying degrees of success, but the insurgents also appear to be honing their bomb-making skills.

BRIG. GEN. CARTER HAM: We have seen over the past few months a general decline in the number of improvised explosive device attacks. In volume they’ve decreased, but the lethality has remained very, very high. We are seeing larger amounts of explosives.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ham was asked about the Marines’ mode of transport, the amphibious assault vehicle, which is lightly armored.

BRIG. GEN. CARTER HAM: Clearly, an AAV does not offer the same protection as a tank does. So there is — there’s clearly some difference.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ham also said there had been no requests for Marine reinforcements in western Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Now the challenges the Marines face in Iraq, as seen by, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, who is co-authoring a book on the inside story of the Iraq War; and retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, who led a unit during the first Gulf War in ’91 and is the author of “Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights.”

General, all a part of war, or is — do the Marines have a special problem right now in Iraq?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): No, I think it’s part of the war; the area that they’re in, Anbar Province, is one of 18 that makes up Iraq, and it’s probably the toughest neighborhood in the country. For one reason, it borders on both Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. And Highway 10 is kind of a rat line that comes from the border all the way through places like Ramadi and Fallujah that we’re familiar with, and into Baghdad.

It goes through that route that some of these foreigners coming through, but more than that it has become kind of the focal point of the insurgency, that they have good routes of egress and access, and when we go into one area, they’ll simply — they’ll fight and then they’ll drift away and go into other towns and villages. So it’s a thing that you’re always chasing after them and they will only resist you and annoy you and harass you and then they’ll back away from you, and then you have to go through the whole process again. It’s a tough business.

JIM LEHRER: Tough business, Colonel, but do the Marines have a special problem here, are they properly trained and equipped for this?

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): Well, I think they do have a very tough mission, there’s no question. This is the toughest neighborhood in Iraq, and the Marines have done a great job given the circumstances. But the Marines do lack certain capabilities that they’ve needed for I think a long time. They lack mobile armored fire power.

They need tracked armored vehicles that carry automatic cannon, serious fire power that can also integrate Marine infantry, that is provide protection from Marine infantries that moves into certain areas, or fighting power that operates well off road, that allows them to be stealthy, surprise and assault the enemy with great fire power and protection. They don’t have it. The inspector general put together a report talking about the shortages of fire power and armored protection in the Marines. It’s a serious problem.

JIM LEHRER: Serious problem, and just so people understand what we’re talking about, the amphibious vehicle for instance on which these Marines were killed, were riding when they were killed, is an amphibious vehicle, it’s not an armored vehicle, it’s not a vehicle that’s firing at anybody; what you’re suggesting is the Army has these big armored vehicles, that the Marines should have them as well, or that the Army should be doing this instead of the Marines?

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): Well, no, first of all, the Marine Corps is always being, contrary to popular belief, a general purpose force. If you go through the history of the Marine Corps, it has always done whatever the nation needed, really, it’s designed to be amphibious, but it does everything.

The Marine Corps needs this kind of capability, but they don’t necessarily need the same equipment as the Army’s got. We can actually provide newer, better equipment today that the Marine Corps could use on the ground in Iraq that will provide the armor protection and fire power. We need to do that: Integrate new technologies, hydroelectric engines for fuel economy and so forth.

JIM LEHRER: General, Ed Wong of the New York Times was on this program last night and he was talking about this, the tragedy there, and he said that some of Marines were complaining that they were getting hand-me-down equipment from the Army, and that’s one of the reasons that they were having problems over there. Does that make sense to you, General?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): No, it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, the Marines will always bitch about always getting the hand-down. And I don’t think we should get wrapped around the axel so much on equipment. The sort of explosives that the insurgents are using today, they’ll blow up an amphibious tractor as they did, a 25-ton job. But they would have blown up a Bradley fighting vehicle. They would have —

JIM LEHRER: Which is heavily armored —

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Much heavier.

JIM LEHRER: Much heavier.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Yeah, and would have done the same thing to our best tank, the M-1 thank. The hole that this thing left was six feet deep and seventeen feet wide; there isn’t an armored vehicle that we have that can withstand that. The key is not the equipment. The troops, Marines fight on foot; that’s the way they always do. Doug, I know, is an armored officer so he thinks in those terms. I’m an infantry officer, I think in terms of boots on the ground.

The key though is to get intelligence on the insurgents. And the only way you’re going to get that is from the people. The technology can help you in terms of sensors that can spot these things on the ground, but they always manage to stay one step ahead of our capability to sense some of these weapons. But if we have the intelligence, which we can only get from the people so, that we know where the danger is, then I think we can handle it, whether we have a lot of heavy equipment or not.

JIM LEHRER: Not the equipment, the general says.

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): Well, I like this big guy, but, no, I don’t agree. First of all, yes, intelligence would be nice if it were better. We had an old saying in the cavalry, intelligence is always wrong and you are seldom going to get what you need. And unfortunately that’s been the case almost from the beginning in Iraq.

You are not ever going to build an armored fighting vehicle that can withstand everything. But can you build armored fighting vehicles for land warfare that can withstand 90 plus percent of the IEDs. This particular IED was bad. What would it have done to a tank or a Bradley? We can speculate, but it would not necessarily have had exactly the same impact.

JIM LEHRER: So you disagree with the General on that?

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): Yeah. I would tell you that if you build something to swim, it’s not going to perform very well on land in close combat. And the Marines need more fire power, they need it with them, armored fire power, good stable platforms that will protect them and integrate with this infantry operation as the General talked about.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to your first point, General, about this whole area, this Anbar area and how difficult it is, and et cetera. Is the strategy, just from a military standpoint, forget the politics of this, but from a military standpoint, are the Marines and whoever is giving them the orders going about this in the right way?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Well, it’s always in flux. I mean this is sort of a game, it’s like a football game, the offense and defense, and both sides are constantly trying to outmaneuver the other and the tactics that we were using a year ago we’re not using now, nor are those of the insurgents. So you go back and forth and you try to be innovative and create in the sort of things you do.

But the point is, it’s a large area, we don’t have enough troops out there. That doesn’t mean that I would advocate that we send out more Marines or more American troops of any sort. But you can control the various population centers, because you don’t have enough boots on the ground, then these people can do what I have indicated. We need more people, but ideally we would have more Iraqis to pick up the slack.

JIM LEHRER: Forgetting the equipment argument, Colonel, what do you think about the strategy here, and picking up on the Colonel’s point, the Marines have been in this area before, they’ve been fighting off and on in there, but they go in and then they leave, and then the insurgents come back. Is this any way to fight a war?

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): No. I don’t know what the strategy is, and I’ve never seen any evidence for a coherent strategic design. These operations are being directed from a very high level. We essentially ignored most of the border for almost two years. Now we’re finally addressing –

JIM LEHRER: This is the border with Syria –

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): Right. We’re now trying to seriously address this, but remember we conducted these sweeps in and out. That usually doesn’t work very well on counterinsurgency operations.

First of all, you’ve got to isolate the place, you’ve to go and eradicate the people that are the true enemy that you want to get rid of, then you put in a permanent presence, that permanent presence can initially be you and then ultimately be supplanted by local constabulary or Iraqi forces or something. But you can’t move in, kill people and leave. And the other problem on a large scale —

JIM LEHRER: Which is what we’re doing, is that what you’re saying?


JIM LEHRER: And you agree with that, General.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Yes, indeed, this was a mistake that Westmoreland made in Vietnam, it’s the same sort of thing. You’ve got to go in and you’ve got to control the area and the only way do you that is with people. Now, whether they’re Americans or Iraqis is secondary.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): But the other aspect is that when you conduct these large-scale operations, what we’ve seen over the last several months and we saw it last year, it’s not a new phenomenon, when you go in with thousands of troops, you inevitably end up disrupting lives of people that are not necessarily your friend, but they may not be your enemy, they may simply be neutral, then you accidentally kill or wound people that you didn’t want to kill or wound.

You incarcerate people on suspicion of being an insurgent who may have nothing to do with it. By the time you pull out you’ve alienated large numbers of people and ultimately recruited for the very enemy that you’re trying to defeat.

JIM LEHRER: General, do you agree with that, first of all?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Well, basically yes, there always is a danger, if you overreact, which is something the insurgents want us to do, then you make enemies out of the people that you want to be friends, but that’s just one part of the equation.

JIM LEHRER: General, it may be an unfair question, if it is, just don’t answer it. But I know you’re plugged into the leadership of the Marine Corps. How is this going down, with the Marine hierarchy, who is not really calling the strategic shots, but is having to implement all of this?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Grim determination, they’ve got their mission. And they are pretty much left to themselves to figure out how they want to do it, given the resources that they have. And so it’s kind of a decentralized approach. You know, you put the guy on the ground and say you’ve got the buck, and you’ve got to run with it and you do it as you see fit and we’ll give you as much support as we possibly can.

Are they discouraged, no; are they frustrated, there’s no question about them being frustrated. But as I say, I think the best way to describe it is grim determination to solve this problem insofar as it can be solved in Anbar Province.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Colonel?

COL. DOUGLAS MAC GREGOR (RET.): The Marine Corps has done a superb job; they’ve made serious sacrifice to achieve objectives in the region. They’re undermanned, they’re under-equipped. If this area is the area we know it to be, really the foundation for the opposition for the rebellion or the insurgency, whatever you want to call it, why don’t we have twice the combat power in there that we do today?

JIM LEHRER: We will end with that question. Thank you both very much.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Thank you, Jim.