THE DEPTH OF THE UGLINESS OF WAR
In July 2003, after major ground combat operations in the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom had ended, Task Force (TF) 1-66, 4th Infantry Division (4th ID) established a forward operating base (FOB) in Samarra. Because of increased insurgent activity in Samarra and the surrounding area, the 4th ID conceived Operation Ivy Blizzard in November 2003. Its purpose: kill or capture the enemy and return control of Samarra to Iraqi security forces. Operation Ivy Blizzard began on 17 December 2003, but key enemy leaders had fled Samarra in anticipation of H-hour. By February 2004, many insurgent leaders had returned to Samarra to regain their influence in the city.
For nine months, Lt. Col Nate Sassaman, USA (Retired), experienced “the depth of the ugliness of war,” as he commanded the Fighting Eagles of 1st Battalion, Eighth Infantry, 4th ID, in four major operations in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 during the “best and worst” year of his life. His unit played a key role in Operation Ivy Blizzard. During their deployment in Iraq, the Fighting Eagles captured or killed over 1,100 insurgents (nearly 60 percent of the entire brigade’s total. The other five battalions captured or killed a total of 800 insurgents). Sassa man lives in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, area and agreed to meet SOF and Steve Schreiner as they passed through on their return from the NRA Wittington Center.
SOF You were in Operation Ivy Blizzard, which DOD describes as an operation designed to eliminate insurgents, secure control for the local governing council, and leave Samarra secure under the watch of Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and police elements. They selected your battalion because you were the hard charging assets.
NATE We were the main effort.
SOF What puzzles me is that you guys were so successful, so why didn’t [Major] General [Raymond T.] Odierno question, ‘Why are the rest of my battalions not performing in the same effective manner?’
NATE I think there was one other battalion that was similar to ours. We had three brigades. You had to have at least nine combat battalions. We may have had more than that because they were also using the artillery battalion and the engineer battalion. Two of the battalions were aggressive.
SOF That is what confuses me. If I were he, I would have said, ‘Why aren’t the rest of my people performing?’
NATE I think part of it was the battalion cultures. Tank battalions have a certain culture to them and artillery battalions have a certain culture to them. Certainly among the infantry battalions, we all should have been operating at a pretty aggressive level. I think that scenario was true for the whole war.
The 4th Infantry Division was very aggressive, as was the 82nd Airborne Division. When [Major General David] Petraeus was in charge, he was operating at a very low level of aggressiveness, so even within theater you had commanders that were kind of fighting the way they saw it. Some were very aggressive and some were not at all. It was kind of ‘win the hearts and minds,’ so it just depended on each individual commander and area. That is one of the flaws that will come out of this war. There was no common strategic theme or focus on how we were supposed to fight as battalions and brigades. It was left up to the guy on the ground to figure it out.
My unit was responsible for Balad Air Base, the largest supply base for the U.S. Army in Iraq. It was foolishly located around the dangerous vegetation-rimmed runway snug against the Tigris River, shielded by a triple-canopy
A WAR LAUNCHED ON A WRONG NOTE
NATE The war began on a wrong note. We were successful in capturing and deposing Saddam, but the ‘smokescreen’ of weapons of mass destruction was a dishonest excuse for the war. President Bush should have said that we were there to ‘liberate a persecuted, tortured, powerless majority of people.’
We made serious mistakes in Iraq, strategic and philosophical mistakes at the highest level of military and political command, the effects of which trickled down inevitably and tragically to the battlefield, resulting in casualties and the failure to accomplish a mission and complete what should have been an overwhelming victory.
SOF You reamed your brigade commander, Col. Rudesheim. Did you ever get feedback from what you wrote?
NATE Nothing yet. Several folks that have worked for him said spot on report. I tried to soften the book up three or four times because a couple of people commented while reading the early draft, ‘You’re way too harsh on Col. Rudesheim.’ I said, ‘I am probably not harsh enough, because when you are in battle and you see your men killed because of poor decisions at senior command level, that’s harsh.
SOF Who was the division commander?
NATE General Raymond T. Odierno.
SOF What did you think of him?
NATE I thought he was fair, I thought he had the right approach to the war because he continually encouraged us as battalion commanders to become more lethal in our combat action.
SOF Did he not see how inept Rudesheim was?
NATE We were spread out so far that I don’t know what kind of contact Odierno and Rudesheim had. If I look back on it, I should have brought it to Odierno’s attention sooner that I was having problems with my brigade commander. But I was trying to win a war on my level and I wasn’t spending a lot of time focusing up. I was pretty much focusing down, and it wasn’t until like October or November 2003 when I began figuring out that my brigade commander was not over here to win the war; he was over here to get promoted to general. [While serving on the Joint staff in Washington, Colonel Frederick Rudesheim was nominated to the grade of brigadier general in August
SOF That was so true in ‘Nam 35 years ago, where you had numerous self-serving, medal-seeking commanders.
NATE But it took me four to five months to figure that out.
FATAL FLAWS OF THE IRAQ WAR
SOF One of your major criticisms is that there was no coherent policy, but the means to obtain any objective were left to each brigade. If one looked at three or four brigades, they were all doing things differently.
NATE They figured that each area was different because the insurgents were going to go the path of least resistance,
but I never saw it that way. I don’t understand that, because we were all there to destroy the enemy. So I didn’t follow that line very well; I just knew that I had to fight to win. Silly me—I actually thought that we could win.
Disbanding the Iraqi Army was one of top three major policy blunders of the war. Also, disillusionment with American unfulfilled promises for rebuilding or reconstruction and how incredibly insignificant the aid to the populace was resulted in the Iraqis turning on us.
The Shia are the winners in this deal and the Sunnis are the triple losers: they lose Saddam, they lose their Baath party card, and they lose their economic and political status. So the fundamentalist Sunnis hated our guts. The Shia are cool as long as we do what we said we were going to do: provide security, set the conditions for rebuilding, and then leave.
Every day we were in Iraq, the war became more political, and both Shia and Sunni saw us more as occupiers. I told a couple of CIA operators, ‘This [Muqtada al] Sadir guy is really becoming vocal; why don’t we just put ‘one shot, one kill’ on this guy? He is going to turn the Shia against us.’
Sure enough, in May or June ’04, they killed 80 Americans in two months in Sadr City. This, to me, was the turning point in the war. Now we have the Shia trying to kill us in cold blood in the streets, when twelve months earlier they were praising our presence.
SOF What did the CIA operatives tell you?
NATE They said that the hit was on for two weeks in October, then they took the hit off. That was a sad, bad decision.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld must accept a significant share of the responsibility for what went wrong in Iraq. He totally ignored the cultural and human endeavors of combat by suggesting that we could win the war in a ‘shock and awe’ with cell phones and F-16 fighter-bombers and a handful of Special Forces troops riding camels and donkeys through the desert.
SOF My view is it wouldn’t take a strong gust of wind to blow Iraq up if we pulled out of there now. Compare it with Yugoslavia, which was ruled by an iron-fisted dictator who kept all the ethnic groups in line. You saw what happened when he passed. Saddam kept all these groups under his control, and once he was gone, they did the same things they were doing the morning before he took charge.
NATE Right. When we first got over there, the Iraqis would tell us, Ramada, Fallujah, and Samarra would be the three most difficult cities to subdue, and I was in Samarra. Saddam could never control them. Saddam would use his money to pay those three cities off because they did not want anyone to be their boss.
I’m different. When you are raising kids, you’ve got to start off hard; then you can always back off. But if you start off easy, you can never go back that other way. Some of us were aggressive and had success; then the U.S. forces pulled back into these large bases and suffered through this malaise in 2005 and 2006. I kind of like the surge’s tactics. We were using small units, squads and platoons in the cities fighting the insurgency day to day, but it had to go this full circle to go back there.
THE LIBERATORS ON PATROL
SOF You patrolled?
NATE With platoon-size units
SOF What is to prevent the bad guys from saying, here comes the platoon? What is achieved by the physical presence of a patrol?
NATE Initially we were the liberators. I wanted a visible presence to provide security and stability and gain trust with the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and police. We would do kind of partnership patrols. We had to establish that we were the American Army, which means no firing, no attacking, and we needed to set up conditions for rebuilding. We needed to establish our legitimate authority, yet make it obvious that we would not tolerate any open defiance of our authority.
SOF When you are talking about taking mortar fire and you have Q-36 or Q-37 radars, within maybe 30 to 45 seconds they could track the origin point to us and have that firing data ready to go.
What was the range, normally?
NATE It was usually between three and seven thousand meters, because we were getting mostly 120mm. It wasn’t 82mm and they kept moving it out because we were having success.
SOF You got what you called ‘counterbattery,’ but you got a dispersion pattern. What did you call the counter firing? Your four 81s or what?
NATE Four 120mm mortars. 81s are organic to light battalions; 120s for heavy mechanized battalions . . . we had the 120mm mortars under my immediate control.
SOF What is your dispersion pattern on the 120s?
NATE About 50 meters. It wasn’t bad. We had that Spiderman, spider web drill. I would immediately send units out to key locations and set up hasty ambushes on escape routes, and we would pound the living daylights out of the area. I wanted the whole world to drop on them and I would bring in F16s and we would unload within minutes everything we had in there. We would get the rats and kill them as they came out.
SOF I sense a cynical attitude regarding this crippling over-concern about collateral damage.
NATE Every war from now on is going to be fought under a microscope. There is going to be immediate feedback. You saw more graphic photos of American dead and wounded being carried to a Huey helicopter in the ‘60s and ‘70s on television. Not that we need to do that, but now if you see a couple guys splattered from an IED on TV, it would get folks pretty fired up. You are only seeing the casket with a flag on it. If some of the actions had been seen on TV early on, it would have helped us end this thing a whole lot faster. No one wants to see their boys getting blown up or torn apart from these IEDs. In this war, we are not going to show gore. It is a sanitized deal, and that is a change from Vietnam.
SOF When you were there, did the Army have squad designated marksmen?
NATE No. But we did have a sniper section attached to battalion. I liked snipers as a force multiplier, but I was nervous because they are not well protected. They are out there on their own. I only had one or two that were trained at the U.S. Army Sniper School at Benning. I just wanted to know, ‘who are the hunters?’We had them go through our own battalion and brigade marksmanship program, but I was very nervous. They had to have constant dual communications with the battalion and also with the company whose area they were operating in. If I ever lost commo, we brought them back in.
Some of the guys had trouble shooting insurgents with shovels; they wanted me to be responsible for it. Curfew was usually 2200 until 0400, so anybody that was doing anything along the road was a legitimate target. I had a couple of guys who came back and said, “Sir, is it OK to not shoot?”
‘’Take the target,” I replied.
If you saw any kind of weapons being sold, or visible, those are targets. A couple of times I had guys kill weapons dealers in the market. If you want to talk about collateral damage, these guys are all over the place. They would be in a market environment and laying their weapons out on their blankets. I said “eliminate the target,” and all hell would break loose because they would kill a guy in a market place.
A WAR THAT HAS ALREADY ENDED WINDS UP SLOWLY
SOF What are your projections
NATE Obama will pull us out. It will take at least two years to pull us out
SOF Why so long?
NATE Because of the way the ships are set up and the way we can get things logistically out of there on the boat and get back here. There are not enough air frames and ships to get everyone out. They could very well put a division equipment set down in Kuwait or somewhere on the Doha. I would hate them to leave a division in there.
Whatever is left will be gobbled up by the Iraqis within seconds or minutes, not hours and days. When we had to un-assemble our FOB Beast, by nightfall every piece of plywood, every wire, every piece of plastic they had left behind was GONE. It was like a swarm of locals that are so poor that they strip the entire base by nightfall.
In all my travels to different countries as an Army officer, I have found that the core desire in every human being is that they have a voice in their future, a hope to have a voice in their own governance. We have set the conditions. We have trained hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces. We have spent billions of dollars to rebuild or install infrastructure in that God-forsaken country. I think it is time for us to pull away. If they kill each other, they will figure it out by themselves.
They are going to have to figure out how they want to rule themselves. They can either go back to a secular state like under Saddam or to a theocratic regime like Iran, or they can come up with some kind of Muslim democracy that does not look anything like ours because there is no separation of church and state and their economics and religion and politics are all intertwined. It is not our right to force our version of democracy on anybody.
They are no dummies. If the U.S. is going to continue to give them billions of dollars and provide the security, they are just going to sit back and take it year after year after year after year. It’s like a handout, like a meals-on-wheels program. At some point we are going to have to start pulling out and they are going to have to start shouldering the load.
I am actually tired of our boys coming back in body bags and if they kill each other for a while, so be it, they will have to muck through that mess. What democracy has not had to muck through a mess to figure it out? There have been a lot of civil wars in a lot of countries. I see no sense in continuing to fight this war with all of the restrictions on our forces.
Nate’s military career came to a tragic, abrupt end after he made a bad judgment call in how to respond to a fateful incident that became a notorious case plastered all over the media. Several of his men forced curfew-violating Iraqi civilians to jump into the Tigris River at gunpoint. One of the Iraqis reportedly drowned, although his body was never recovered. Nate retired from the Army after he received non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ for the 2004 incident near Samarra.