The armed forces are much alike in many respects, but the differences can be truly telling – even within the naval service. And although I’ve had the opportunity to serve and train with Marine infantry embarked aboard amphibious ships, I’ve never gotten ashore with them: My flight boots remain largely undusted. So I read Marine Lieutenant Thomas Daly‘s “Rage Company” with more than a passing interest.
As a young First Lieutenant, Daly was boots on deck in Ramadi, the capital of Sunni Anbar Province, Iraq at the very turning of the tide. He was an artillery officer assigned to Rage, a reinforced rifle company from 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. His Camp Pendleton based unit embarked aboard the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in September 2006 for their third deployment to Iraq. Arriving in theater in November, they received two extensions, the second in February of 2007, to form a part of President Bush’s surge of forces to Iraq.
1LT Daly’s narrative begins in late November, with Rage Company assigned to the tactical control of an Army unit: 1st Battalion, 37th Armor. The arranged marriage between the soldiers and Marines begins inauspiciously: Within the first few pages of the book, a joint Army/Marine day patrol into the heart of Ramadi takes fire, a Marine lies grievously wounded and Daly – the senior remaining Marine officer aboard the Army Combat Outpost – is denied permission by the Army captain in command of the COP to take the remnants of the Marine platoon in support. Adding insult to injury, the Army captain declines to surge an armored QRF to the casualty collection point – the patrol is forced to man-carry the wounded Marine 500 meters to a casualty evacuation point. Under fire, in daylight, with a cunning adversary maneuvering to advantage.
1/37 wasn’t a visitor in Anbar however, and the Army officer’s hard won wisdom was made clear in the evening, as Daly prepared a night patrol to go in search of the insurgents that had fired on his Marines. After a confirmation brief in the COP, the Marine notices a red circle around an intersection. He asks the Army captain what it signified.
“That’s where the insurgents would have ambushed our casevac if I sent ‘em to pick up the casualty earlier,” the Army officer replied, adding, “The insurgent’s wet dream is to cause a casualty, because then you, the injured dog, become predictable. Wounded, you pick the quickest way out, and at that point where the casualty meets vehicle he is always waiting. He has already calculated where he wants to shoot you, so that you use his ambush point as the casevac. Lieutenant, never take the easy path.”
As a fighter guy who thinks that 10 nautical miles is too close to any enemy you haven’t already committed a missile on, the scale of ground combat never fails to amaze me. In an urban environment, the fight is rarely more than a few hundred meters broad or deep for platoon level operations. A company is assigned responsibility for a few dozen blocks. Young officers lead even younger Marines in this cramped, nightmare landscape, steadied – as ever – by the example of senior NCOs. Fear is an ever present companion, the only distinguishing feature for those under fire, or under its threat, being the skills used to cope. Raw language and toilet humor are common, but at an age where a naval aviator is still in flight training, fresh faced officers lead teenagers in a deadly fight against a mostly unseen enemy. Boredom turns rapidly to maelstrom, and lives depend upon instantly executing training under actual fire. It’s heady stuff to read about, and no doubt even headier to live through. Daly does an excellent job relating it to a generalist audience.
From November to January, Rage Company is shifted first TACON to another Marine battalion – 1/6 – and then back to the Army’s 1st Battalion, Ninth Infantry. They execute night patrols and raids, seeking to round up high value individuals and clear weapons caches. On a good night they capture a few HVIs, only to have them released in a counter-intelligence plot gone south. The terrified residents of Ramadi quail before the dangerous Marines in their full battle rattle searching their homes, and the greatly more dangerous insurgents who watch from a distance, always ready to torture and murder anyone believed, on whatever evidence, to have aided the coalition forces.
There is always friction between varying command elements, and a surprising degree of back talk on tactical comms, at least from an aviator’s perspective. Orders are issued and – remarkably – declined. Deference is always due to the on-scene commander whose forces have skin in the game. But deference is not always given, and the results are sometimes chaotic. Daly relates a fascinating anecdote to illustrate this point vividly: An Army helicopter takes RPG fire, and evades. His wingman spots a blue bongo truck rushing from the scene. A Marine platoon waits until the truck is in range with a clear lane of fire and disables it, killing two or three occupants, others escape. The truck rolls into an open field in broad daylight. Which is where it gets interesting.
The platoon leader is ordered by an out-of-sight company commander to do a sensitive sight exploration of the truck and its contents. With one glance at the surrounding villages that menace the open terrain, the lieutenant declines the order, recommending that a night action be taken instead: The Marines own the night. But the company CO reiterates the order, battalion ops is insistent. Against his better judgment, but splitting his platoon into mutually reinforcing fire teams, the platoon leader ventures out towards the truck. Which is where all hell breaks loose. (You’ll have to read the book to find out how it ends – I can’t give everything away.)
The Marines discover in time that al Qaeda has made a safe haven out of an entire neighborhood, Qatana. Ramadi residents live in fear of what goes in and out of that enclave. The coalition surrounds the neighborhood, locks it down and then clears it block by block, street by street, methodically. It is bloody, dirty work; firefights, snipers and improvised explosive devices are everywhere. But the tide starts to turn, and by Chapter 10 of Daly’s book a group of Saddam era soldiers – and quite probably, former insurgents – show up at the Marine’s combat outpost looking for work. These are the “scouts” of the Thawat al Anbar, the first foot soldiers of the Sunni “Awakening” movement. To drain the swamp of an insurgency, the counter-insurgent first of all needs intelligence – who are the murderers that swim in the sea of people? – Thawat al Anbar provides that intel and their force of arms as well. The rest is history, keeping in mind that the wheel of history never stops moving.
Rage Company is a gripping read from the on scene level. It was not, however, a wholly unalloyed pleasure. Daly has an almost Bidenesque preference of the word “literally,” an adjective for which literalists like your host prefer a narrower, more literal usage. And I have to remind myself at times that he was a very young man in a very difficult environment. He allows himself “amazement” at the Arabic script on the wall of a re-purposed house. In Iraq. There are sufficient small jealousies – he twice allowed himself to get exercised when an ANGLICO element was chosen to supplant him as fires coordinator – and waspish observations on the competency and behavior of his fellow junior officers that at times I almost wanted to kick him. Early in the book – a mere two weeks into his narrative – he declares on what seems to me insufficient evidence that “our ability to defeat al Qaeda was apparent.”
As Bing West notes in his foreword to Rage Company, 1LT Daly had a front row seat to great tidal forces in history: Bush’s surge and the Anbar Awakening happened more or less contemporaneously, people will always differ, I think, as to which was the chicken and which the egg. Those looking to resolve great questions of strategy will look in vain to find their answers in Rage Company, and the book – written as a war diary more than a strategic retrospect – ventures a little out of its depth when its author attempts to grapple with these weighty issues. But for those who want to know what it felt like to be in Indian Country at the platoon level when – for the first time – a whiff of victory blew over the bitter stench of grinding, mutual slaughter it’s a wonderful read.