At a time when the United States debates how deeply to involve itself in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Col. Michael Zacchea, USMC (ret.), holds a unique vantage point on our still-ongoing war. Deployed to Iraq in March 2004, his team’s mission was to build, train, and lead in combat the first Iraqi army battalion trained by the US military. Zacchea tells a deeply personal and powerful story while shedding light on the dangerous pitfalls of training foreign troops to fight murderous insurgents. The Ragged Edge is the first American military memoir out of Iraq or Syria that features complex Arab and Kurdish characters and that intimately explores their culture and politics in a dispassionate way. Zacchea’s invaluable lessons about Americans working with Arabs and Kurds to fight insurgency and terrorism come precisely when such wartime collaboration is happening more than at any time in US history.
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About the Author
Lt. Col. Michael Zacchea (USMC-ret.) led the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis of the Iraqi Fifth Battalion and their US advisers. He won two Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, and Iraq’s Order of the Lion of Babylon. A veterans’ advocate with VoteVets.org, he has appeared on NPR, CBS News, and elsewhere. Ted Kemp is senior editor in charge of CNBC Digital’s foreign desk. Major General Paul Eaton (US Army-ret.) commanded allied coalition training efforts in Iraq. He is active with VoteVets.org and is a frequent contributor for outlets ranging from MSNBC to HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
Read an Excerpt
The Ragged Edge
A US Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion
By Michael Zacchea, Ted Kemp
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Michael Zacchea and Ted Kemp
All rights reserved.
The closer I got to home, the more I felt myself coming apart.
On the last day of February 2005, I stared hard out of a speeding Humvee, eyes squinting beneath the brim of my helmet. My rifle was packed away for shipping. For the first time in a year, I was unarmed. The thundering vehicle quaked and rattled, the squeaks and squeals of thousands of dry steel parts protesting against our momentum. We tore down the one open road into Baghdad International Airport. The deadliest stretch of highway in the world. I trained my eyes on the scenery through the windshield. Rough roadsides flitted past. Everything wanted to be an IED: The carcass of a dog, ripped at by skinny canines still living. A dead mule, sideways and inflated like a black surgical glove. A smolder of ochre earth — I gazed at it, gripped the frame of a window. Why is that heap there? Why is that there?
The Humvee's shocks and frame yelped through the bouncing. The heat from the big American engine rose up through the seats and put our crotches on a slow burn. I removed my helmet, reached for the orange cooler of ice water we always kept inside, and poured a little over my head. An odor like shit mixed with grilled meat came through the open windows.
"Fuck," I said. The water cooled me, but only for a few seconds. "Just let me be smelling that for the last time."
Get me through this, and let that be it. Just let this be it. But who was I asking?
Pay attention, Michael.
Speed was our best defense. The road to Baghdad International Airport snapped past like a high-speed conveyor belt. We shot and bounded over it, on toward more of it. Always more of it. We bounced on our seats. Behind us, Iraqis floored trucks, trying to keep up.
This was my last convoy in Iraq. My final out. Every pile of dirt, every drift of garbage on the side of the road looked like an IED. Each seemed to bear the marks of our enemies' hands. And the country was full of garbage. I sat clutched by the anxiety of movement.
I tried to consider the men who shared the Humvee with me, a handful of the Americans I had led for months. Following us, in one SUV and two white Nissan pickups, were a squad of Iraqi soldiers and a handful of officers: my friend Ahmed Nu?uman, the quietly intelligent Mohammed Najm, my interpreters Arkan and Abdallah. I knew they were there but did not look back at them.
Zayn. For a moment I almost managed to focus on Zayn. I hope you prayed for us today, Major Zayn. And then something ragged and brown came toward us on the roadside to pass the Humvee, next to the death seat, and I couldn't think about anything until we had passed it. And we did.
Zayn had been my friend since the beginning. He'd taken me into his tribe, for fuck's sake. This is ending, I thought. This is actually ending. It's been a year, and it's ending right now.
But I couldn't attain that level of perspective on my own experience. I could not summon context. My mind was full of spiders, and they leaped and trembled and loosed themselves in silent bafflement into the open windows' hot gales.
Zayn had asked to ride in my vehicle, but we couldn't displace an American for him. It's hard to tell your friend, your brother, that someone else holds more tactical value than he does. It had been hard for me at the time, less than an hour earlier. Fuck it. Let somebody else tell him, I thought then. That old barrier, sometimes visible over the last year, sometimes not, had again come between us. He accepted it with grace. Again. Zayn took the SUV.
I should say good-bye. But the whole concept of "should" got sucked out the windows of the Humvee. So did everything else. It surprised me how quickly things drew away. I have cared enough. I am done caring. My calculus was brutal and irresistible: I just need to stay alive all the way to the airport.
The drive felt interminable, seeming to slow as we drew closer to Baghdad International, despite our speed. Finally, we entered the gates and crossed to the airport's far side. We piled from our vehicles into the staging area that would suck me up into the sky.
When the explosion came, most of us were out on our feet. Even at a distance of more than a mile, I felt its concussion ripple through my chest. A wave good-bye. You're not out yet, Raed Zakkiyah.
The wave came from the direction of buildings beyond the airport. Not the road. I knew: The blast wasn't planted on the highway. It was a vehicle-borne IED. Somebody just drove it to that place. The banner of some miserable life just came to its final unraveling.
The vehicle-borne IED birthed a brown-and-gray swarm of smoke, dust, and earth that unfurled upward and outward, pushing at the sky. It slipped out of earthen coils and showed itself to us, stretching. More than a mile away, it was like a giant rising directly before us. It loomed over me liked a cowled, deathly figure.
We were all silent for a few moments. Sergeant First Class Brown, whose knack for understatement never eluded him, spoke first.
"I am glad," he said, "that we dodged that."
We all agreed.
"Poor fuckin' bastards," said another American. "Poor fuckin' bastards."
Somebody spit onto the asphalt. The cowled figure kept climbing, uncoiling. It was looking at us.
I stopped myself and looked around. Arkan, my interpreter (or 'terp), a big man for an Iraqi, approached with his eyes on me. Mohammed Najm stood steady behind him, his uniform crisp by Iraqi standards. Abdallah, another of my 'terps, kept a professional distance, hands clasped behind his back. Zayn had not left the SUV.
There was nothing to do about the IED. As always, time for reflection was limited. I still had to check in with the American manifest noncommissioned officer (NCO), show him my orders, and get my seat assignment on the plane that would carry me away.
The good-byes were awkward to the point of embarrassment. Even earlier that morning, while I was still in command, we never ran out of things to talk about, to joke about, pithy smart-ass comments to get a laugh, the 1,001 things that you say to run a battalion on a daily basis. But now, words dried up. We shook hands. We embraced. I glanced at the SUV. Zayn stayed inside. His shoulders shook; he hid his face in his hands.
That's the first time I've seen an Iraqi ashamed of crying. Zayn, I can't walk over there to you, my friend. I'm done, Major. It'll only make this worse.
He kept crying. Christ, fuck it. Sever it all. Feel for a phantom limb later.
We stood in front of a trailer; next to it was an improvised gateway that the others could not enter, at least not until it was their turn. The gateway led to the manifest NCO and my out-processing from Iraq. My gateway back to the world. The others said final farewells. I didn't hear them really, but I knew that's what they were doing. The Americans and the Iraqis boarded their vehicles and whipped around the corner of the trailer, out of sight.
In that instant, I inhaled, but it wasn't full or cleansing. Something remained clenched in me. My mind was nearly shattered. I didn't know what neurological lash-up was holding me together. I was waiting for a plane. The idea that I would be walking in the United States in a matter of hours was unfathomable. I no longer possessed context for that world. I might as well jump into a time machine to 1916. Or 1258. I tried to make myself understand that it was over. But I could not.
And anyway, it wasn't. Now I know it never will be.
I have written this memoir so you can understand the Iraq War as it really was, and as it really is. Because it is ongoing. If you're like most Americans, really grasping the Iraq War will require you to rethink a lot of assumptions. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is learning, to its shock, that the Iraq War didn't end as we supposed it did when we pulled out. Instead, the war birthed a wildly radical religious enemy that our country still fights. The administration of Barack Obama decided to go about that fight by encouraging Kurds and Arabs to work together and defeat that enemy for us. Now Donald Trump, still waiting to assume office as these words go to print, touts the benefits of having other people fight in Iraq or Syria. I've seen that strategy before. I lived it. The Bush White House wanted the Arabs and Kurds to "stand up" so "we can stand down." I was one of the very few military advisers who was to execute that mission. I am writing this book to illustrate, in the most personal way I know, that this strategy will not succeed now if we try it the way we did then.
I am in a unique position to know these things. As a US Marine Corps major, I led the small group of Americans who trained the first unit of the new Iraqi Army that managed to hold together through sustained combat. That unit was designed explicitly to include every major population group in Iraq: Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, and others. We fought the direct precursors — in many cases, the very same individuals — who later formed the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. I intimately know the men who formed ISIS, and the Kurds and Arabs who now fight them. I killed members of the first group and commanded members of the second.
I do not idealize the Iraqis or Muslims or other Arabs. I also do not, like the sharpshooting hero of American Sniper, consider them "savages." At the root of Americans' misunderstanding of Iraq (and Syria) is a tragic, incorrect assumption that the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds of that region all want to be just like us. We think they want to be inclusive, pluralistic, merit-driven, and maybe even secular. They do not. They never will, and that's a hard thing for Americans, on both the left and the right, to accept. However, Iraqis also don't want endless war or theocratic tyranny in the form of the Islamic State. And we don't want terrorists from a barbaric caliphate only as distant as a commercial flight or a recruiting website.
I am not writing this book to present solutions to our ongoing war. I do not have them. Perhaps they exist, but they're not mine to give. I am a former Marine Corps officer who fought in the Middle East and Africa over a twelve-year career. I understand people, and I understand war. I understand enough to be disgusted by the stories Americans tell themselves about the Iraq War. I do not find our heroic Iraq War books and movies — almost none of which feature Iraqi characters — instructive on any level whatsoever. There is, however, a reality to explore, one our country both encountered and created. That reality is not going away. The American war in Iraq will not end with the current presidency, nor the next one, nor the one after that, unless we stop looking at the Iraq War as we wish to see it and start looking at it as it is, in all its awful and amazing complexity. We also need to look at ourselves, we Americans, as we really are. Otherwise, the conflict that we started in 2003 will be a multigenerational war.
I want you to have an unsparing look at the Arabs, the Kurds, ourselves, and our shared war so that we can form a starting point for real debate. I'm going to take you back and place you in that war with me. I want you to live my year in Iraq too. The lessons I learned there are as relevant today as they were then. I guarantee that parts will disturb you, no matter who you are or what your politics may be. That's as it should be. Everything you are about to read was real — the unflinching truth as I knew it. That's why I've written this memoir. It's my duty, and it's what I've got to give, to you and to my country.
The United States rolled into Iraq on March 20, 2003, with a total strength of almost 150,000 troops. The Army and Marines swept north out of Kuwait, up along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers toward Baghdad. Forty-five thousand British troops invaded Basra in the south. Kurdish fighters from a militia group called Peshmerga — the name means "one who confronts death" — launched attacks with US Special Forces in the north. A sequence of Iraqi cities fell to the main American force: Nasiriyah, Najaf, Karbala, and finally Baghdad. The conventional fighting was over in about three weeks. On May 1, Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the strongest voices in favor of the war, told a gathering sponsored by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation that the recent fighting was "one of the most successful military campaigns ever waged." He credited "a new American way of war." Later that day, President George W. Bush put on a flight suit, flew to the waters off San Diego in a Navy warplane, landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and stood before a giant MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner to declare the end of major combat operations.
That new American way of war that Cheney spoke of came about largely through the political efforts of Donald Rumsfeld, the sixty-nine-year-old, Princeton- and Georgetown-educated secretary of defense. The so-called Rumsfeld Doctrine called for more use of technology in the military, heavier dependence on airpower, and a reliance on native troops who coordinate with relatively small groups of Americans. Rumsfeld's formula worked well to dislodge the Taliban from its strongholds in Afghanistan. Critics of Rumsfeld, both within the military and without, argued that the light American "footprint" his doctrine called for in Afghanistan was part of the reason Osama bin Laden escaped after the US invasion. Other critics, like US general Anthony Zinni, pointed out that the Rumsfeld Doctrine didn't address how a country like Afghanistan or Iraq was going to be secured and occupied. Zinni knew from experience: he trained the South Vietnamese Marine Corps in the 1970s and had just retired as commander of the US Central Command, which oversaw the Middle East.
But the Rumsfeld Doctrine carried the day, largely because the military thinking behind it fit neatly with the political thinking of most of the Bush administration. On the national security side, the Bush administration had adopted the confrontational ideology of the "neocons." On the economic side, it had adopted the belief that more of the US government should be privatized — including a lot of what our military usually did.
Most of the high-ranking members of the Bush White House identified with the neoconservatives, a group whose name the US news media like to repeat a lot without ever really explaining what it means. Neoconservatism concerns itself with the way the United States projects power in the world. It calls for the active use of US military force in order to prevent geopolitical threats. If necessary, it calls for fighting to take place before threats arise. Generally speaking, neocons believe in the practical efficacy of military confrontation, they emphasize that the United States must be willing to act unilaterally, and they don't trust diplomacy. They also tend to exhibit a conviction that the United States is a power of good set in natural opposition to the powers of evil. They view the world in black-and-white moral terms.
Before the turn of the twenty-first century, many neocons had begun calling for the active promotion of democracy in places where it didn't exist — especially in the Middle East — on the grounds that established democracies rarely go to war with each other. In contrast, George W. Bush had campaigned for president denouncing so-called nation building as idealistic and impractical. But he changed his position as president, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001. He followed the lead of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the other neocons surrounding him. On January 29, 2002, Bush first used the term "axis of evil" to refer to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The three nations didn't have much in common except, Bush argued, that they all wanted weapons of mass destruction. He singled out Iraq for his most threatening language, saying it was led by a "regime that has something to hide from the civilized world."
"I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer," Bush said. Iraq would be the first point on the axis to feel American wrath.
Excerpted from The Ragged Edge by Michael Zacchea, Ted Kemp. Copyright © 2017 Michael Zacchea and Ted Kemp. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Authors' Note vii
Foreword Major General Paul D. Eaton (US Army-ret.) ix
Abbreviations, Terms, and Order of Infantry xvii
Part I Kirkush
1 Bird Dog 3
2 Kirkush 28
3 Green Zone 51
4 How Training Worked 75
5 Wasta 90
6 The Other Side of the Wire 107
Part II Taji
7 Sovereign 119
8 Taking Command 139
9 Abducted 161
10 "The First Bullet Will Be for Me" 170
Part III Fallujah
11 The Road to Fallujah 193
12 Before the Breach 215
13 City of Mosques 241
14 RPG 254
15 Al-Hadra 264
16 Rules of Engagement 275
Part IV Taji
17 Blooded 299
18 Lion of Babylon 317
19 Irhabi 330
20 Going to See the Wizard 349
21 Delivered 365
About the Authors 379