Back to Iraq
A hardened Army 3rd Infantry Division prepares for an unprecedented third combat tour.
In the thick pine forests of southern Georgia sit dozens of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, part of the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart. The unit is part of the "surge" of five brigades being rushed to Iraq as part of what some call President Bush's last-ditch effort to reverse that country's spiral into bloody sectarian war. The 3rd Infantry Division, or 3rd ID, has been to Baghdad twice in the past four years. It is the first Army unit to return for a third combat tour. The division is being sent to Iraq piecemeal, by brigades, self-contained combined units of about 4,000 soldiers.
The soldiers of Col. Terry R. Ferrell's 2nd Brigade are in final rehearsals before shipping out in May. Typically before a combat deployment, the 2nd Brigade would have loaded its tanks and other vehicles onto rail cars and trekked cross-country to the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. To save time, the trainers and Iraqi role players traveled this time from the center to Fort Stewart, and in the pine forests they have re-created scenarios designed to prepare soldiers for what they will face in Iraq.
Ferrell led the 3rd ID's charge to Baghdad in 2003 as commander of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment. But today, his soldiers are undergoing a very different type of training than they did before invading Iraq. Back then, the squadron's tanks and Bradleys ranged the NTC's open deserts in simulated high-tempo mechanized warfare. That was the old Army. The new Army is trying to embrace the skills of counterinsurgency warfare. They are more complex and subtle than those of the conventional war the Army has prepared to fight for the past half-century.
This time, the 3rd ID heads to Iraq to provide security for a population wracked by four years of constant bloodshed since the American invasion. The new Iraqi government has proved incapable of protecting its citizens from terrorist car bombs and brutal sectarian killings. Now, it's the U.S. Army's job. Ferrell preaches to his soldiers the virtues of patience and of listening, and the perils of using weapons among a civilian population. "Every soldier is an ambassador," he says, "and they must understand how critical and catastrophic it can be if you do the wrong thing in that environment."
By the wrong thing, he means the killing or abuse of innocent Iraqi civilians by nervous, frightened American soldiers thrust into a culture they find alien and intimidating. The hundreds of Iraqi-Americans now at Fort Stewart play the roles of Iraqi civilians and insurgents to simulate for the soldiers the confusion and chaos they'll encounter on Baghdad's crowded city streets.
Capt. Joseph Inge is about to leave on his second tour to Iraq. Describing his upcoming mission, he sounds as much like a diplomat as a soldier. The soldiers from his tank company walk the streets of a mock Iraqi village in the Georgia forests. They are on their way to meet with the town's mayor, an Iraqi actor brought in from California. Inge's tanks sit out of sight. His soldiers are learning the art of soft power-negotiations and compromise-instead of rolling into town with their 70-ton weapons. "I'm teaching soldiers how, not what, to think," says Capt. Jeff Lewis, an Iraq veteran and trainer from the NTC. "It's really a self-discovery exercise." It's all about crafting thinking soldiers, not conditioned to react in certain ways, but to adapt and adjust to changing situations, he says.
On the other side of sprawling Fort Stewart, another tank company commander, Capt. Stephen Capeheart, talks about the fundamentals of counterinsurgency. "My job is to help the Iraqi people understand that my tanks are there for security. But I don't want to tear up their roads and make withdrawals from the love bank." Keeping money in the "love bank" has become the soldier's new mantra, a metaphor for a hearts-and-minds campaign aimed at the majority of Iraqi fence sitters who could be tipped either toward the Americans or the insurgents. Capeheart's job: keep them from falling the wrong way, toward providing support that the insurgents need to remain hidden among the population.
Capeheart has been to Iraq twice before. First, it was with the 1st Armored Division, which arrived shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Capeheart had expected another peacekeeping mission much like Kosovo, where he had spent nearly a year. But Iraq was no Kosovo. "By June, the smiles were gone," he says. Iraqis began asking the Americans why they were still there. "Our first [improvised explosive device] was in July," he says. Capeheart spent 2005 in southern Baghdad, working as an intelligence officer and then a tank company commander. Now, he talks about the importance of fixing sewer lines and paving roads to improve the lives of Iraqis one neighborhood at a time.
A quiet revolution is shaking up the U.S. Army. Led primarily by young officers returning from multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army slowly is beginning to swing its focus away from large-scale conventional battles toward irregular warfare. Rather than a broken force, left in tatters by back-to-back combat tours, these officers envision units honed to levels of proficiency and combat effectiveness unseen in the Army for many decades. Officers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are challenging "a general officer corps that is immersed in a culture based on the mythology of World War II: Fight with massive firepower," says retired Army officer Col. Douglas Macgregor, who has written extensively about the Army's need to transform itself for the 21st century. Younger officers view the current leadership as products of 1991's Desert Storm, a very conventional war.
In Baghdad's urban canyons or the mountains of Afghanistan, young officers learn firsthand that warfare is undergoing one of its periodic upheavals. The Army went to war in Iraq entirely unprepared for irregular warfare. The U.S. military spent the 1990s preparing to re-fight Desert Storm. America's enemies did not. The new generation of officers realizes that the daily ambushes and small-scale firefights in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be viewed in isolation, but rather as a continuation of American military experience over recent decades in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Desert Storm was the anomaly-an interstate conflict that stopped at internationally recognized boundaries. Far more common is warfare waged by nonstate actors such as tribal militias, warlords and terrorist organizations.
The Army published a new counter- insurgency manual earlier this year. But officers preparing to go back to Iraq see it as too theoretical and of little use in preparing troops for what they'll likely face, says Col. Tom James, who commands the division's 4th Brigade. Instead, the 3rd ID printed up its own "battle books," filled with tips and techniques gleaned from veteran soldiers and geared specifically for Iraq. "The counterinsurgency manual is largely seen as a think-piece document, rather than a how-to manual," James says.
Voices across the political spectrum and within the Army leadership warn of declines in the service's readiness as soldiers must serve second and third combat tours and equipment and personnel grow short.
Opponents of the increasingly unpopular war point to multiple combat tours and questions of readiness as yet another reason to begin the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A recent report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, is a good example. Titled "Beyond the Call of Duty: A Comprehensive Review of the Overuse of the Army in the Administration's War of Choice in Iraq," the report lists those Army units being deployed for second and third tours to overseas combat zones. But it provides little evidence of a decline in readiness beyond stating that the Army's heavy combat brigades have not carried out large-scale, force-on-force training exercises at the NTC.
During last year's battles over submission of the 2008 Defense budget, the Army's top leaders repeatedly raised alarms about readiness, and called for additional funding. In January, Army Chief Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker told the House Armed Services Committee that he had "concerns" about Army readiness, though he was quick to add that all units deploying to combat zones do so fully trained and equipped. He said the Army typically pooled equipment from units stationed in the United States to "equip soldiers deploying in harm's way." He then called for additional funding to plug "holes in the force."
Ready for What?
Amid the alarm bells about readiness, there is little discussion of the logical next question: Ready for what? When pressed, the Army's deputy chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, told reporters in January, Army units "are not trained to the level they should be at, and so, therefore, they are unready for high-intensity combat." In other words, those Army units based in the United States, either returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, or preparing to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, are not at the level of proficiency required to wage a high-intensity war along the lines of Desert Storm.
Reorientation from the high-intensity focus is long overdue, says Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who now is president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that advises the Pentagon. He says the Army is being forced to deviate from the course it embarked on in the late 1990s, which envisioned a future dominated by high-tech weaponry, robots and wars fought from a distance. Iraq and Afghanistan have challenged that view, showing the importance of having infantrymen on the street. "To create a world-class ability in irregular warfare, you won't have the kind of confidence you traditionally had in conventional warfare," he says. "Where is this big new conventional force that we're supposed to fight?"
Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, the 3rd ID's assistant division commander, says that repeat tours walking Iraq's city streets give experience in a very complex style of warfare. At least 60 percent of the soldiers in the 3rd ID are returning for a second or third deployment. He has noticed one difference about this trip to Baghdad: Soldiers are asking whether there is a plan to finally secure the city, or they should plan to return a fourth time.
The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is small-unit combat, a skill learned by the Army during Vietnam, then lost once it reoriented toward big battles on the central European plains. Army officials used to believe that if soldiers mastered the skills of high-intensity conflict, they also could successfully wage the smaller wars.
"That's pretty well been debunked," says Cardon. "The idea that if you just train high-intensity conflict then you can go to Iraq and do counterinsurgency-everybody realizes that was wrong."
Cardon says the regular Army is becoming more like the Special Forces. Five years ago, the weapons and gear carried by regular soldiers today on the streets of Baghdad were provided only to special operations forces. As the current wars place a premium on small-unit, individual infantry skills, the Army has responded by better equipping soldiers. Cardon believes today's American infantryman is probably as good as Special Forces were in Vietnam. "You have some of these sergeants that have done 400 cordon and searches in Baghdad. That's as many as special operations forces used to do." Special Forces units also are racking up combat tours, raising the experience level ever higher, he says.
Repeated combat deployments and the focus on irregular warfare are changing the Army culture, Cardon says. He sees a ruthlessness among noncommissioned officers, the sergeants considered the Army's backbone. Their attitude is "either get on the team or get out." For them, along with much of the young officer corps, the realities of combat and survival have become much more personal. They want experienced soldiers beside them when they raid a suspected insurgent safe house in the middle of the night.
Like Special Forces, the regular Army soldiers now are more likely to be unmarried, Cardon says. And those who miss the adrenaline rush of combat more often engage in "adrenaline-producing behavior," he says, such as buying and racing motorcycles.
"What I worry about as the Army continues to morph," Cardon says, "[is] will these guys stay in once this all stops. Because I don't think going to the NTC once a year will do it for them."