RANGER AGAINST WAR: April 7 Marine Reconnaissance Ambush <

Friday, April 07, 2017

April 7 Marine Reconnaissance Ambush

--Fallujah this week.
That Fallujah, the city a senior Iraqi Commander
declared definitively free of ISIS in June 2016, 
 the week after ISIS killed dozens execution-style in
that once-darling city of the United States, 
now abject sump 

I fear I'll do some damage
One fine day
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers 
--Still Crazy After All These Years,
Paul Simon 

The earth is not earth but a stone,
Not the mother that held men as they fell 
. . .
To live in war, to live at war,
To chop the sullen psaltery   
--The Man with the Blue Guitar, 
 Wallace Stevens    

 And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.' 
Percy Bysshe Shelley 

This is a review of a 7 April 2004 ambush of a group of U.S. Reconnaissance Marines on an operation near Fallujah, Iraq.

The History Channel ran a documentary of the action on Veterans Day 2016. Of course, it was hailed as a great act of valor. And the men, as always, were valorous.

From History.com, "(t)he Marines fought their fears to stay calm and fought on--making 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, Bravo Company, 2nd Platoon one of the most decorated platoons for heroism in a single action in the War on Terror."

But the mission was a flub-up, the type of mistake executed far too many times in the 15 years of the current Wars on Terror. A military does not thrive on failures, yet we do not learn from our mistakes. So we make documentaries and sit transfixed before the simulated firepower, unaware of the depth of failure which we behold.

Ranger's Infantry mind railed against almost every aspect of the action presented.

The 7 April ambush did not have to happen, but it did, and it is not an isolated event. Several errors ensured the wounds and loss of Marine lives that day. We will look at a few:

The mission was to send a convoy of 3 to 5 up-armored Humvees down a road, doing something. The Platoon leader was a Captain (common in recon units to add some experience to the mix); the NCO's were heavily-weighted with combat experience.

The lead vehicle commander suspected an ambush, feeling he was in a potential kill zone. Hunches in combat should be dealt with as judiciously as those in civilian life, for mistakes can last a lifetime. Alas, the ambush hunch manifested.

According to the lead vehicle commander, their standard operating procedure was to stop in the kill zone and assault the hostile element, which of course, has them in a well-executed beaten zone. It is never good to start a fight from the one-down position ... not a winning proposal, even for representatives of a Superpower. 

Some questions:

  • Why did they not stop when their gut told them to?
  • Why did they have only direct-fire machine guns mounted and not 40 mm guns to put out suppressive fires? (It is not as through these are not in the TO&E.)
  • Why did they not put out flanks security in the suspected ambush site?
  • Why did they not have  artillery concentrations planned at danger areas, especially when moving in hostile territory on habitually-used roads? That is why we have organic unit -level mortars.
  • Why were there no gunships flying convoy cover?
  • And the OBVIOUS question: why not break OUT of the Kill zone, seal the near and far approaches and roll the ambush from the flanks or shoulders?

You do not stop in a beaten zone ... do NOT! (Unless you want to be on the take-out menu.)

The April 7th ambush did not have to happen. Moreover, sadly, it was not a unique event.

Setting a pattern is the kiss of death. The hostile forces knew the route of march, number of troops and assigned weapons before the Recon Marines had their chow call that morning.

Operation security (OPSEC) is vital, even in elite units. When a leader suspects anything is not right, he must take a proper unit protective posture -- even if this contradicts time schedules of the movement.

Time schedules are not worth the loss of life and limb of unit members. 

[7 April Ambush, pt. II, next.]

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always I read your analyses of these combat situations with great interest and try to learn from them. I'm eager to see part 2 and maybe my question will be answered there, but if not, I have a question and a comment.

The comment -- at least from the civilian side (and I assume civilians made this documentary) what troubles me about the documentaries is that they're the "serious" version of war porn-style Hollywood movies. Even if everything had been done properly, as you say it was not, then we've got a documentary that's praising the tactical level without questioning anything higher than that. I imagine it's easier to tell the story of this ambush, or Roberts Ridge, etc., than it is to explain the bigger questions of why and whether those battles should have happened in the first place.

Second, the question -- why were they driving through territory that clearly was either held by an enemy force or at least was not clearly secured by our forces?

Perhaps the answer is simply because most of the country was that way in 2004, or perhaps this is just normal and I'm ignorant (which you can tell me frankly, if it's the case). However it seems to me that some elementary steps of pacification and supposed "nation-building" were clearly skipped in order to get these men into the position they found themselves in.

Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 1:05:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

i think this is avedis, and my answwer is focused on him, b/c we have a long term dialogue on the differences in USMC and US Army reactions in combat.
here we go.
i saw this docudrama on a motel tv and it mad my blood run cold.
i was killing time before going to my Veterans day dinner in Chardon Ohio.
i immediately wrote this piece and it's been sitting for a while.
i'm reluctant to discuss soldiers and marines in situations that have resulted in death.
it's bad enuf to lose good men, only to have the action questioned
in all my essays i constantly verbalize that valor never reeplaces good planning.
valor can only complement a fine tuned plan.this ambush just seemed like a hey you action.
it was lacking in many repects.
thee results were predictable. in combat a unit can make the same mistake repeatedly until such time as the opposition forces see the advantage and jump in with both shower shoes.( i doubt the local fighters had a full kit of western style goodies.
all they had was the home court advantage with active and passive support from the locals.

Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 3:03:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

i think that these docudrama things are so flag waving because that sells every thing from plastic jesus's to flag lapel pins.
simply put the usmc ain't gonna let any one do a question piece on their tactics.that just won't happen. if u want cooperation you must cooperate.
also the people doing the documentary seldom are trained in the gentle arts of spec ops.
here's a thought=it's taken me a life time to look at these actions and to evaluate them in a balanced manner.
this unit was not nation building or pacification.
they were arrayed for deadly combat, and thats what they drove into.they lost the toss, and they didn't even know that the coin two headed.
they followed the old formula. when things are really screwed then hand out awards to soften the sting of the blow.
it's all too sad , if one has any emotions left to spare for a few marines.

Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 3:14:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

This is avedis. Anon above was not me. Someone else.

However, I do think there is a difference between Army and USMC doctrine, ethos, etc concerning how to carry out these missions and how to react when contact is made. And you're right; no one is gonna tell the Corps to question their tactics. Ethos again, storied history, sands of Iwo Jima, etc.

Force Recon units are the toughest of the tough. They've got jump wings (a rarity in the Corps and an airborne attitude on top of being Marines. What you saw in the documentary might be SOP for these guys these days (In VN it was more about sneaking around and observing the enemy and *not* engaging unless absolutely necessary as I was told many years ago by an NCO who had been in a recon unit in VN).

Is it smart? I dunno. It is what it is. The more modern Force Recon Marines seem to take a perverse pride in doing it that way. Honestly though, I'm with you on this. Maybe I've got a streak of yellow running right through me, but I see no reason to get wasted needlessly; nor would I feel to good about getting Marines in my command wasted like that. That's why I went to grad school, got a masters degree, got an actuary cert and work in the boring world of insurance economics.



Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 6:34:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous David said...

Hi Jim and Avedis,

That was me. I hope it doesn't affect your answers too much; that was just laziness in posting on my part. Sorry if it did. On the questioning soldiers bit, that wasn't my intention. I tried to word it specifically for that reason. I rely on people like you to educate me on things like basic principles of military tactics and operations.

My point is, when you put your time into producing documentaries about the experiences of small units like this, you avoid the more serious higher-level questions that civilians (like me) without personal experience in this actually might be able to understand and have intelligent opinions about. This is mid-2004. The first parliamentary election is only a few months away. High-level policy and planning on Iraq is premised on the notion that the country is in the advanced stages of a rapid transition to stable democracy. Yet this is occurring on the ground.

Possibly if the high-level policies were not being written in fantasy lands, some more thought might have been put into appropriate management of the situation on the ground. Hence my wondering why they were out there in the first place. If you're on the verge of a national election campaign and it's not possible to drive five trucks down a road without risking an ambush by a heavily armed enemy, then there are some very serious problems whether or not the Marines have their act together in preparing and responding to the attack.

Granted I suppose part of the reason small units need to have proper professional tactics is so they can come home alive despite the fact that higher levels of military and civilian leadership are behaving like idiots.

Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 7:14:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger mike said...

The comments by Avedis' friend regarding recon Marines in Vietnam jibes with my recollection. They snooped on NVA and VC units while avoiding contact if possible. They operated in extremely small teams of four to 12 men with light weapons and radios. To my limited knowledge they never conducted 'reconaissance by fire' missions. It was the same for either the Recon Battalion at Division or the Force Recon Company at MEF level, except Force Recon guys went deeper.

Force Recon never was incorporated into Special Ops Command until 2006, so in 2004 they were still considered a surveillance asset and NOT special operators. In 2003 and 2004 Fallujah was a tough nut. Almost everyone in town backed the resistance. This went back to 28 April 2003 when 82nd Airborne troops returned fire on protestors who fired on them in the city center, killing 17 and wounding 70. 3rd ACR troops killed three more protestors two days later. Over the next year 35 Americans in the city were KIA and hundreds more were WIA. At least three helos were shot down including a Chinook.

On 12 Feb 2004 insurgents fired RPGs at a convoy in Fallujah carrying CentCOM John Abizaid and 82nd Airborne Commander MG Swannack. They got away on rooftops and thru a mosque. Two days later they attacked an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps police station killing 15 Iraqi policemen and wounding 30. In March a JSOC team came under heavy fire and had to shoot its way out of town. And then on the 31st the four Blackwater contractors got machine gunned, grenaded, burned, and hung from a bridge.

On 3 April General Conway's 1st MEF received a written order from JTF-SWA to move up to Fallujah and commence offensive operations. Marine Commanders argued (and lost) for looser orders that would allow them to conduct surgical strikes/raids against the Blackwater killers. Ops commenced. 600+ Fallujans died as reported by al Jazeera. So 1st MEF was pulled out after just 27 days and turned over ops to the Fallujah Brigade, an Iraqi Sunni unit formed by the CIA. That turned out to be a terrible joke as most of the brigade members joined or were forced into joining the insurgents along with their weapons. That was a lesson that should have been learned. Unfortunately it was not as the CIA repeated that farce with the FSA in Syria a decade later.

Sunday, April 9, 2017 at 1:27:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Avedis + Mike.
i'd guess that in RVN the force recon types were division and corps assts. additionally i'd guess that strategic recon was a more limited mission since the enemy situation was fairly clear in I corps.
SOF assets usually are theater assets.
the whole idea of SOF was that conventional cdrs often misused the special troops, ergo put them under specialized control.

Sunday, April 9, 2017 at 9:44:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Mike points out, Force Recon wasn't under Spec Ops Command in 2004, but I'll bet they were trying out for it already at that time. I know nothing spec ops other than what I read and am told. However, it seems to me that the macho attitude that goes along with the patch these days is the source for a lot of the issues you discuss in your after action analyses.

We're finally having sunny weather and I went for a walk and was ruminating about my life, decisions I made, etc. and somehow found myself thinking about this topic. I really like the point you keep making about valor being no substitute for tactics and strategy. Iwo Jima was the battle that cemented the Corp's imagine - and rightfully so at the level of personal and unit valor, Semper Fi do or die, etc. - but, arguably, it wasn't even a necessary battle. Ditto Peleliu, in which the 1st Marine Division was almost decimated. So as not to exclude the Army from this critique, the huge loss of life on Omaha Beach was equally cruelly frivolous. There is no reason that Thunderbolts, Mustangs, Lightenings could not have been flying parallel to the beach and strafing, bombing, rocketing, napalming the German positions with the Higgins boats coming in on the fires with a smoke screen. Instead it was "Put the men's backs to the sea and they'll have no choice but to go forward." At least the Normandy invasion was necessary to win the war, assuming one believes that the US should have been involved in the first place. Those are just a few larger examples that come to my mind with when considering your most excellent and all too often unconsidered point.


Sunday, April 9, 2017 at 1:22:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous fasteddiez said...

To anonymous that is not Avedis. ist comment
"why were they driving through territory that clearly was either held by an enemy force or at least was not clearly secured by our forces?"..... Because that is what they do in war. There are no places outside the fobs and other bases (routes, rivers terrain) that are controlled 24/7 by the so called good guys.

"However it seems to me that some elementary steps of pacification and supposed "nation-building" were clearly skipped in order to get these men into the position they found themselves in." ...... Because that shiite is OBE and unnecessary since this action. is post the killing of the contractors in such cinematic fashion. Also, it takes place before the battle od Fallujah No.1, a battle that was stopped before completion by the supreme Army commanding officer of the Iraq fuck story, probably because the forces attacking the city were not found to be sufficient to go further. The Jarheads were pissed but they always are; fuck em' if they can't take a joke.

AS soon as Dubya was inaugurated for his 2nd spin, the start of Fallujah part Deux began. It began with Army participation especially in the Panzer department; with the city being taken (as Rubble) This hoedown kept the COIN BS spiked in urban in the Al Anbar fun zone. This begat the urban combat scene (Shiite/Sunni areas) grew, tapering off a bit until 2010, and taking off and expanding until today, "hells' bells" to as far as the eye can see.

ban combat Light, medium & heavy)

Friday, April 14, 2017 at 8:27:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous David said...

You can of course describe policy as overtaken by events, although in this instance anyone with even a vague knowledge of history could have predicted more or less what happened when we tried to change regimes with forces a fraction the size we used to occupy countries like Japan, where we (a) kept regimes more intact and (b) didn't face an insurgency.

If the country outside of our bases was considered essentially a war zone, then the occupation was a fool's errand. The purpose of training and equipping soldiers as best as possible was simply to give them the best change of coming home alive from a losing effort.

This is my takeaway from that war, which seems pertinent given the steadily increasing drumbeat for interventions in Syria and/or Korea.

Sunday, April 16, 2017 at 10:12:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

istm that there's a lot of psychology working on Pres. Trumps head.
he is exactly like Bush 43 after being given the 2000 election by a 1 person vote.or should i say by a 5 man vote?
both 43 and Trump were elected without a mandate.
43 used 9-11 to lay claim to legitimacy and Trump will follow in these hallowed footsteps.
he will create a mandate and who won't stand behind a warrior Potus, or should i say CinC?
that's my take.
as for Korea- when did South Korea become any thing worth risking a nuclear war over?
look at the corruption that just took place in their Presidents office?
So. Kor has never been a beacon of liberal thought.

Monday, April 17, 2017 at 7:45:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous David said...

When was any official rationale for war actually something worth fighting for?

How many Brits do you think cared deeply and intimately about the sovereignty of Poland in 1938, or the neutrality of Belgium in 1913? How many Americans would have said they wanted to die to restore the king of Kuwait in 1990? If not South Korea, what about control over some artificial islands in the South China Sea, or perhaps the assassination of an Austrian prince?

All rhetorical questions, but you have to admit that it doesn't seem to take much to get at least a critical mass of civilians onboard with a war effort.

If we had conscription, people might suddenly turn out to be a whole lot less willing to put up with these deadly games.

Monday, April 17, 2017 at 3:23:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger NaRong said...

When was any official rationale for war actually something worth fighting for?
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Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 7:52:00 AM GMT-5  

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