The Crown Jewel
With 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment
Northern Kuwait, a few kilometers south of the Iraqi border
20—21 March 2003
With gas masks on, Ray Smith and I, along with all the Marines in 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment (1/7) were sitting in shallow fighting holes, hacked out of dirt as hard as concrete, feeling a bit frustrated. For the fourth time that morning the gunnery sergeant had stood on top of the command Amtrac [Picture 1] hollering “Lightning! Lightning!”–the code word that there had been a SCUD launch–and the Marines had hopped back into their holes, the bulging eyes of their masks resembling giant bugs from the black-and-white horror films of the 1950s. Cruise missiles had struck Baghdad around dawn, after the CIA had told President Bush it knew where Saddam was hiding. Now the Iraqis were shooting back with long-range missiles, and one had narrowly missed the headquarters of Lt. Gen. James Conway, the senior Marine in the Kuwait-Iraq theater.
We were in a pre-attack “assembly area,” a dust bowl a few kilometers behind the Iraqi border, assigned to one of the Amtracs in the battalion. We were hitching rides because of the unusual route we had taken to get to the battlefield. Back in December, Ray and I decided to write a book about the upcoming war in Iraq, describing the changes in tactics between the fight in Hue City in 1968 and the projected fight in Baghdad City in 2003. Although initially reluctant to have a retired general and a former assistant secretary of defense on the battlefield, Headquarters Marine Corps kindly issued us orders to serve as unpaid consultants in support of a Marine Corps public affairs film crew, at our own expense. Once we were in Kuwait, the Marine Corps allowed us to go forward with two stipulations; first, that we were on our own, and second, that we keep a low profile because, as a senior Marine said, “we want to keep the focus on the young Marines, not us old guys–so don’t get yourselves killed, because then you would be a story.”
So here we were, traveling with an infantry battalion as it prepared to cross the Line of Departure into Iraq. Thousands of years of relentless winds had swept the sands from Kuwait and Iraq, leaving behind an ankle-deep cover of powdery dust which swirled like fog in the slightest breeze. In this featureless, bleak landscape, the two hundred vehicles of 1/7 were aligned in three neat, long lines, appearing as a mirage to any Bedouin tribesman wandering by on his camel.
The U.S. high command was convinced that chemical warheads would strike U.S. troops sooner or later. So the gas masks and the hot, tightly woven chemical-resistant bib overalls and jackets we all wore were reasonable precautions. Still, the war wasn’t supposed to open this way, with the Marines waiting behind the lines, gas masks on, gas masks off, like pebbles washed back and forth by the waves.
Like everyone else in 1st Battalion that morning, members of the first squad of 3rd Platoon of Charlie Company sat and fretted, ducking when they were told to do so by their squad leader, Cpl. Shane Ferkovich. Ray and I had joined battalion 1/7 for its attack on D-Day in order to follow Ferkovich and his squad on their multibillion-dollar mission to seize the Az Zubayr oil pumping station.
A big, rangy youth from Montana, Ferkovich had bounced from high school to high school, preferring part-time work as a lumberjack. Motivated by the challenge, he had decided to join the Marine Corps, but was turned down because he hadn’t finished high school. Ferkovich went back to school for another year, then was accepted. After boot camp he volunteered for 29 Palms, a remote base along the Nevada-California border where Marines train for mechanized warfare.
As we walked over to talk with the squad, the men exchanged glances. During the long days back at the 1st Marine Division’s isolated staging base, we had introduced ourselves around the regiments and battalions. Many of the troops had heard of Ray, and they called him “Sir” or “General” to his face and “E-Tool” when talking over the radio or in the chow hall.
There was another cry of “Lightning!” and another quick donning of gas masks. When the all-clear sounded, Corporal Ferkovich asked Ray the question that seemed to be bothering them all.
“Sir,” Ferkovich said, “that cruise missile strike this morning–do you think we got
Saddam? We’ll still go to war, won’t we?”
The squad members didn’t want their mission snatched away on the last day by a cruise missile. They had trained in the heat and mud, withstood mental and physical torments, endured months in an isolated camp sustained by the vision of carrying out a dangerous and valuable task. They had invested almost a year of their lives preparing for one day. They wanted Ray to reassure them.
In boot camp the squad had heard about Ray’s exploits in Vietnam with an entrenching tool, or E-tool, a small, collapsible shovel. One instructor had told them that Ray’s M-16 jammed during a night attack, and he had continued down the trench line swinging an E-tool, later remarking that a shovel doesn’t jam. A different version had it that he had assaulted a North Vietnamese machine-gun position with an E-tool. Whatever the story, he was known in the Corps as “E-Tool.”
Maybe the cruise missile had squashed Saddam, Ray said. But the campaign was to remove an entire regime, not just one man. A few missiles weren’t going to change the squad’s mission.
The eighteen-year-old infantryman goes to work each day preparing to kill other men, not an ordinary job. Shane Ferkovich could have gone to a community or four-year college, as half his classmates from high school did. Or he could have stayed in the logging camps, working outdoors in the land of the Big Sky, earning enough money for a good set of wheels and hanging out with two or three buddies. If he wanted to enlist, there were twenty or thirty military fields that would teach him a skill useful for later civilian employment, like satellite communications, the military police, or computer hardware.
Instead he chose the infantry. Each year only one out of four thousand physically qualified young men joins the ranks of the Marine infantry, yet Ferkovich’s squad still reflected a cross-section of the nation. Of the twelve Marines, one was an immigrant applying for U.S. citizenship, one was African American, and four were Hispanic. Two came from self-described upper-middle-class homes; the rest were from working-class families. Ferkovich was an orphan, raised in foster homes. As diverse as they were, they had several traits in common. All had graduated from high school. All were volunteers. They had worked together as a team for over a year and were anxious to perform.
We asked them why they had chosen to join the Marines. They said that they wanted to do what was tough. Most mentioned they needed more discipline, and everyone knew what happens in Marine recruit depots: the drill instructors either shape you up or throw you out. Lance Corporal Answitz, twenty-four, had served in the Spetnatz, the Russian special forces, before emigrating to the United States. Spetnatz had pushed the recruits harder physically, he said, making them exercise in T-shirts in subzero weather, but the Corps was mentally tougher; those Marine drill instructors got inside your head.
A corporal mentioned a popular Super Bowl TV commercial, where a young guy climbs a mountain and fights a dragon with a sword. After slashing it in two, he turns into a Marine in dress blues. The others laughed, agreeing that was cool. Ray said that the commercial was about the transformation that takes place, as he put it, “when a lowly civilian earns the title Marine.” The men laughed.
I asked if the squad members bought that, saying I thought the commercial was over the top. Did they really like it? These macho young men hesitated to answer. Finally Ferkovich spoke up. “Absolutely, I believe it,” he said softly. The others then nodded or openly agreed in a variety of ways: “I’m different,” and “Back home, everyone says I’ve changed,” and “Yeah, I guess so.” We pulled on the thread a little more. “How about being an infantryman? Why did you choose that?” A couple said they didn’t choose, the Corps chose for them, but most indicated that they wanted to be infantrymen.
Once you decided to be a Marine, they agreed, you might as well be infantry–that’s the real Marine Corps. Only 15 percent of all Marines belonged to the infantry. Not many of their high school classmates had joined the military, and practically none were in the infantry. So being a Marine rifleman meant belonging to a small, exclusive club.
There were two squads assigned to seize the oil pumping station and the other squad leader, Cpl. Alejandro Garcia, nineteen, joined his friend Ferkovich for the final review. Garcia, as tall as Ferkovich, had a looser approach to life. He was from L.A. and on weekends drove there from the base to go dancing, he said, while “Ferk stays in the barracks and studies tactics.” The squad members nodded and laughed and Ferkovich, still serious, asked if we knew Colonel Boyd and about his theory.
Col. John Boyd, U.S. Air Force, was a fighter pilot who theorized that battalions and divisions could win battles the same way fighter pilots did: by turning inside the enemy’s OODA loop. In order to shoot down another aircraft in a dogfight, Boyd wrote, you have to Observe what is going on, then Orient yourself in the battle, then Decide what to do, and lastly Act before your opponent has completed his OODA loop. According to Boyd, a fighter pilot didn’t win by faster reflexes; he won because his reflexes were connected to a brain that thought faster than the opponent.
Marines like Ray were much taken with the theory. Getting inside Saddam’s OODA loop, Ray told the squad, was the key to a quick victory. Make him fight your fight; don’t get suckered into reacting and fighting his fight. For the squad, it should be the same. The mission of the squad was to seize the oil pumping station before Saddam’s men blew it up. If things seemed off kilter once the squad was inside the station, don’t wait for orders from anyone else. Secure the key elements–the manifolds, pump and power house. Every year about $15 billion in oil exports went through that station. So don’t hesitate–grab control and Colonel Boyd would be proud of them. Hell, Ray might be proud of them.
Ferkovich’s squad sat in the dirt and went over the attack plan one more time while we listened. In all his firefights, Ray said that he had developed the habit of mentally running a video through his head, picturing what he expected to see. There was the least confusion when every rifleman had imagined–had thought through–exactly what he was going to do.
Ray and I felt at home sitting in the fighting holes with these tough, eager young men. It is a mystery why some are called to be grunts, to carry a rifle and an eighty-pound pack, to chew tobacco and swear and sweat and shoot and be refused a beer because of being underage. Although we didn’t know it then, in the march up to Baghdad, the chances of becoming a casualty were one in 150 among Marines like this squad. In the U.S., the chances of a police officer becoming a casualty last year were one in 8,000. Being in the infantry was fifty times more dangerous than law enforcement. In March of 2003, it was the most dangerous job in America.
Some of this danger was due to neglect in the Pentagon budget. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was constantly talking about “transforming” the military to be more high tech and agile, apparently unaware that a dramatic transformation had taken place since Vietnam. In preparing to attack Iraq, the Department of Defense possessed more combat aircraft than infantry squads and more combat pilots than infantry squad leaders. The “smart” bombs one aircraft dropped on one strike cost more than the equipment for an entire squad. In World War II, the physical risk to a pilot and to an infantryman were almost the same. Going into Iraq sixty years later, the rifleman was vastly more at risk. Technology had done little for him. Ray and I chatted with the squad and hefted their equipment. If we had the stamina, we could have picked up any pack and rifle and trudged off with them, forty years after Vietnam. No pilot from forty years ago would dare hop into the cockpit of a plane in 2003.
Less-than-cutting-edge equipment, though, did not faze Corporal Ferkovich and his squad. As far as they were concerned, the Marine Corps revolved around them. They believed they were the top tier of the Corps. Infantry was the billet most sought by Marine officers, and many were turned down. There were not enough spaces for the number of volunteers. The prior Commandant of the Marine Corps, General J.L. Jones, had even signed his e-mails as “Rifleman.”
Such prestige, however, did not translate into money. The average policeman in Indianapolis, for instance, earned $36,000 after two years on the force. Corporal Ferkovich was earning $20,000 after two years. But for Marines like Ferkovich, the opportunity to seize a multibillion-dollar pumping station was prestige enough, and he didn’t want any cruise missile to land on Saddam’s head and take away his squad’s mission.
Now it was mission time, which meant proving time. We asked if everyone was set to cross the Line of Departure–to cross into Iraq itself. Nods and grins all around, except for the corpsman who said that he’d rather be back at the hospital. He had been sent to the squad three days ago and would stay because the squad might need him. But he hadn’t signed up to be a rifleman and wouldn’t mind if they called the whole war off.
“Well,” Ray said, “one of us has some sense.”