This is the JoCo Unravelling podcast, Episode five with Darrell Cooper and me, JoCo Willink, where we leave off.
Daryl, you were going home and Iraq was just starting to come apart at the seams.
You and your boys took down Sadr's lieutenant.
The Shia rose up down in the south. We had to redirect forces down there to get them under control, which was a problem because at the same exact time, we had problems with the Sunni population in the west, out in Anbar, in Fallujah, four Blackwater contractors got lynched, mutilated, tortured and hung up on display by a cheering crowd of of people there. A few days after that, we sent a guy named Mattis and his Marines into that city to retaliate.
And if you tell the Marines that there's people in that city that killed a bunch of Americans and mutilated and tortured them and hung them up on display, go do something about it. You better provide very specific orders because the Marines are going to tear somebody up. And and they went in hard and they went in fast. And the Arab language press just had a field day with that start spreading out all over the Middle East, all over Iraq. The Americans are killing civilians.
They're destroying indiscriminately. And this is going on right at the time that the Shia uprising is happening in the south. And so we are split up all over the country.
You seem to focus a lot on the Shia uprising on the south, which was definitely a real problem. But when the first thing that pops into my mind when you talk about the Shia uprising is Baghdad is Sadr City, that's the first thing I think about. Maybe that's because I was in Baghdad.
But but also there was this is what I remember I remember that Sadr City like was immediately there was a lot of heavy casualties in Sadr City, in and around Sadr City, to the troops that were out there like right after we went and got Yaqoubi.
So part of it's because it was more visible to me. Part of it's because this is another big thing that that is always was always evident was things that happened in Baghdad got a lot of press because it was Baghdad, the Green Zone.
You know, you'd walk around the Green Zone, there was reporters and there was normal. You know, there was all kinds of press in the Green Zone. And that means they're there 10 yards from from Baghdad. They're in Baghdad. And things that were going on in other parts of the country wouldn't receive as much press.
And, you know, Fallujah had less press. Ramadi had even less press. When when by the time we get to Ramadi in 2006, there was very little press out in Ramadi, almost none.
I didn't really start to get an idea of what was going on out in Ramadi while you were there until maybe 2009, 2010, before I started to read, like some of the longer pieces that start to come out about what happens. And I was following it pretty close and I knew there was some fighting going on out there. The stuff that you would get in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. But it took a while for people to really process what had happened out in Anbar.
Yeah, and that's so. So Baghdad was Baghdad went south real quick. Baghdad got bad real quick after you know, that April and again, that's about the time we're going home now. You know, we did we did some turnover ops with the guys that relieved us. And they were all pretty straightforward. You know, it wasn't they weren't looking around going, hey, everything's going to change for us.
The IED threat had escalated, but it was still it wasn't even close to what it turned into.
You know, there is a reason that I I tend to focus on the South a little bit. And you could tell me if I'm a little off base here. But this is this was always my perception.
This is right around the time. So let's see. Back in August 2003, just before you first showed up, that was when al-Qaida in Iraq hit the U.N. They hit the Jordanian embassy. All the NGOs leave the U.N. evacuates the country. And they're really working hard to do two things. One, not make this a coalition war. You know, where the U.N. is present and overseeing what's going on. This is the Americans in there against the Muslims, against the Iraqis.
Right. And so and they accomplished that in 2003 in a lot of people's minds. And at the same time, they start hitting indiscriminately Shia holy sites, trying to foment a civil war. So now the Americans are just caught in this maelstrom. Right.
So that happens back in the fall before you get there, you're going around hitting targets, doing your thing. And we're trying to clean this stuff up as it's starting to escalate. But we don't have a full grasp of what's going on yet. We think that it's remnants of the regime who are doing this kind of stuff. We don't have the idea yet, really, that there's an insurgency forming an organized insurgency.
We get up.
March, March 2nd, 2004, maybe March 11th, I'm sorry, I don't have in front of me and the Spanish train, the Madrid train bombing happens, hundreds of people are killed. Two thousand people are killed because al Qaeda in Spain hits a train. This is a couple of days, three days before the Spanish general elections.
And it went from a candidate who was the front runner, who was supporting America, who was on board. And it just swung immediately over to the anti-war candidate in Spain. Was the hell out of there, right. You would had this movement, like you said, every war, every conflict. There is going to be a piece of the population that just says no and there's going to be a peace within that group who doesn't just say no, who says who has the idea that we are the bad guys here?
Right. And those those people are pretty tireless and they're going to keep working.
As the war starts to go on and things start to happen and we start to lose control, those people start to make inroads. Into, you know, the rest of our own domestic population, their side starts to grow in Europe, it's already stronger than it is here in America. The Madrid train bombings happened. More Europeans start to say, I don't know if we really want to be a piece of a part of this.
And when the when you guys took down Giacobbi in Najaf at the time I mentioned this in the previous episode, you know, we because it was a little bit more pacified down there with the Shia, we had the Bulgarians, the Poles, a bunch of our allies, coalition allies down there, and they start getting hammered by Sadr's forces and they're getting overrun. They're getting pushed back.
And so that's more of our European allies were like, this is getting a little bit uglier than we thought and we're getting a little more isolated. And then we've got to redirect forces that maybe properly ought to be out in Anbar keeping you know, this is a time where al-Qaida in Iraq is starting to consolidate their control over the rest of the Sunni insurgency. Right. But we've got to redirect to go support our coalition allies in the south now. And it's funny because, you know, I just I look at maps of Iraq and stuff.
I didn't realize that Najaf is a five hour drive down there. You know, I think it's maybe 150, 200 miles or something. But, you know, we're not all driving on Interstate five. Yeah.
And again, you're talking about driving in Humvees and they're they're slower. You know, they you know, we're going usually fifty five miles an hour, you know, that's like flat out, you know, maybe we get to 60, but pretty much you're going fifty five. Sixty miles an hour. Right. And also there was you know, you'd have you'd have to do some checkpoint stuff along the way. We, we'd go and check with the battlespace.
So you know, the two hundred miles, you know what, going 50 miles an hour, you know, that's a four hour drive. You make a stop for fuel, you make a because you know, we're not going to we're not going to drive our vehicles until they're out of fuel or low on fuel. So we'd stop some at some fob somewhere, get a refuel and, you know, check in with some battlespace commander somewhere. So that that brings it out.
That stretches it out there. Next thing you know, you're looking at. Yeah, you're looking at five hours.
OK, so we get to the point now where we've got are already a force that our military brass already thinks is a little bit too low or really a lot too low to keep up to provide overall security in the country. Now, we're split up over here in Anbar, down to the south in the Shia areas, our allies, because of Madrid, because of them getting hammered in the south right now, because of the marketing of the anti-war movement in the west, are already starting to lose faith in us.
And then in April, as the country is starting to spiral, we know what's coming there. That's when Abu Ghraib happens. And that's kind of the frame that that I put it in, is that we're starting to lose control of the domestic conversation, not only in America, but within our European, you know, with the European allies as well, with the rest of the world. And to the extent that this becomes an American war, you know, an American crusade against the Muslims and we lose the rest of the coalition, the whole complex, the whole the whole constellation of the war starts to change.
And were you aware of any of that?
Like was was that in your head at all as you were starting to get ready to leave there in April?
Yeah, well, you know, it's a good indicator, and I mentioned this on the last episode, that when there's the CPA in the joff is getting overrun. So so think about what that means.
The CPA is getting overrun.
Let everybody know exactly what that means for the Coalition Provisional Authority. It's the it's the kind of makeshift government that's running Najaf. You know, there's different civilian authorities there, Iraqi and American. And they're trying to, you know, trying to rebuild some kind of a government. And this gets attacked and is about to be overrun, meaning that it's going to get taken over.
And the guys that were there was a lot of actually it's a lot of contractors that were there. They they were able to defend the situation.
But when that's happening again and I said this on the last episode, they called me and my guys in Baghdad.
So there is a multitude of these foreign, you know, foreign military units down there on that road. There's like a road that goes from Baghdad to Najaf. And along that way, you know, when I talk about stopping at checkpoint, you know, these are like different nationalities, different countries. You would have their little base, we'd pull in there, get fuel, whatever. And some of those people had armor.
And instead of sending any of that who are an hour away, 40 minutes away, two hours away, they take a group of guys that are in Baghdad with fit with thin skinned Humvees to drive five hours together who had just returned from driving five hours down there, executing an op, turning around, getting home.
And now you're getting. Yes. And you're the best option.
Yeah. And we're the best option. And, you know, it's it's complimentary. Great. Thank you. You know, I appreciate it. But from a. Tactical perspective, you are well, I mean, General Patton himself says a good plan executed now is better than a great plan executed in a week, right? Well, guess what?
Even if I go right now, it's five hours when when it when it when a building or a compound is under the threat of being overrun, you're not thinking that they're going to make it five hours.
You said yesterday you use the term. Was this what they told you said we need you to go down there to RF like you were the quick reaction. We were like, you are here five hours away.
We're five hours away. So, you know, that's an indicator. OK, well, and it was one of those things where, you know, look, you're in you're in the military, right. And you're thinking yourself, what are these? What is what is the chain of command thinking? They don't get it. They don't understand what's happening. Whatever will do our job, maybe we're not seeing everything that they're seeing.
So but yeah, as I said, as I mentioned on the last episode, as I'm standing in a tower, looking out at the highway and I see multiple burning vehicles, I hadn't we hadn't seen that. We had not seen that type of thing at all. We'd see a vehicle somewhere. You wouldn't look out on the horizon and see five burning smoking vehicles that had just been hit with IEDs or RPGs and are now now under attack.
So, yeah, I could tell it was getting bad. And again, as I said on the last episode, if you asked me March 1st if I would ever be coming back to Iraq as a as a combat leader, I would said probably not to be mopped up. If you asked me April 15th, I'd say we might be back here.
When did you have a sense of and I would understand if this was in the case, did you have a sense of the public mood shifting, especially when Abu Ghraib happened? Like did you have a moment when Abu Ghraib happened where, you know, were you just so in the military world at that point where you were just like, what are these guys doing? What are those MPs thinking? Or did you have a sense of like, oh, this is not good?
I knew it was not good. Yeah, I knew it was not good. There had been some things that had taken place where.
Where some things got caught up by the media, got captured by the media, and it was bad.
I had a couple of incidents that happened where we, you know, we didn't look good and absolutely tiny in comparison.
But enough that I said, OK, if this if this caused a cause, this much backlash, then what's it what just happened in Abu Ghraib is not going to be good.
Were you. It sounded like when we talked about it yesterday, you had some experience like that, you must have been in country at the time because you talked about the mood of some of the Iraqis, like seeming to shift when that happened.
Was that something you got when you returned in 06 or you're saying that the the mood had shifted with the with some of the Iraqis you were interacting with?
Yeah. You could you could feel it somewhat.
It also was very regional dependent. Right. Depending on where you were. And it was that was like one of those just creepy things. You know, you go through a certain town, certain village. And I remember we went we actually we were on our way. I think we were actually on our way to Najaf and we went through a town. You got a map there of Iraq. So I think there's a town called Hillah. It's on the way down there.
And we went through there. And Hilla. Yeah, yeah. So there was Hillah. We started driving through there and there was people. There was people.
As we started coming into the city where we hear them, they're blowing whistles and like you're just thinking and then they're giving you the the the look of we don't like you.
And, you know, we get the traffic, we get caught behind traffic and we're we're dismounting this is before we had armored vehicles. So when we would stop the vehicles, almost every time both vehicles were held up, we dismount and get away from the vehicles. Could the vehicles were kind of bullet magnet and RPG magnets.
So, you know, we'd come to a stop and we would patrol with foot patrol along with the vehicle so the drivers would stay and the gunner would stay and everyone else would dismount and we would foot patrol so we could get a little space.
If we were to get attacked, we'd be able to react in a much better way because the vehicles are our basically you're in a traffic jam during a traffic jam.
So I remember and that is where you would notice different areas. You'd get a different vibe from the people. And and yes, as time went on, the vibe shifted earlier. It was more positive.
And as as as we rolled into April and this is in a Shia zone, you're talking about the downtown Hilla has definitely, definitely a Shia zone.
So now when we were down there for you afterwards, like we were, we were not getting nice looks from people.
Coming from I was in the States at the time, I was in the Navy, but we weren't engaged right.
In Iraq or anything like that, and we are experiencing something. We're experiencing Abu Ghraib when it hits something like the civilians experienced it. Right. So I can speak from that perspective. There were people who had been starting to starting to come in all along who said this is going to be another Vietnam, and they didn't just mean by that, that we were going to get bogged down and our mission wasn't going to be accomplished.
You know, there was a moral kind of commentary being made on what we were doing over there and those people who had been making the argument that America is this imperialist aggressor going over there in this unjust preemptive war to attack the Muslim world out of rage or 9/11 or whatever it is.
The Iraq war in March 2003 had a 74 percent approval rating in a Gallup poll.
Now, part of that is people people like to win. They expected to win. And if we had just cleaned it up, it would have stayed even if Abu Ghraib had happened, if we had just cleaned up the war and won it. I think, you know, people like to win. It would have stayed that way. But as it starts to seem like we're losing control of the country and in an election year, that's a big part of this as well as in 2004, as you know, six, five months, six months before an election, a presidential election, those pictures hit the news.
There are a lot of there are a lot of moderate people, not hardcore anti-war people or anything like that, who start to ask, wait a second, not only we seem to we seem to be losing control of the country over there. What are we doing?
It seems like we're losing control of of ourselves.
And when I think it was I was only two weeks after that. I believe that. Yeah, I was two weeks after that news hit that Zarqawi put out the Nick Berg tape and all of a sudden the American people. This is the first American that was beheaded by al-Qaida in Iraq over there. And all of a sudden, Americans are they're thinking of the war in very different terms rather than thinking of it as a liberation operation that, of course, there's civilian casualties.
There's going to be some messy things that happen. There's even going to be some soldiers that do some things that they ought to do. Now, there seems to be this situation where there is some very, very dark things going on in this incredibly chaotic place.
And we are just that we're starting to get caught up in that and that we're just one element of darkness in this dark place, because I think Americans, they didn't want to they didn't want to think or believe that about themselves.
And when you see those pictures, you know, they are incredibly shocking for people who are just civilians. I mean, I think they're probably shocking for people who have seen violence as well, because there's a certain there's a certain McJob aspect to a lot of them.
And the casual nature with which some of those reservists were were posing with some of those inmates. And I happened to be I don't know where you fall on this.
I can I I happen to be of the of the mind that I Abu Ghraib makes me enraged at the the high level political people who set the conditions for that place to happen.
I don't I don't I don't give myself the right to draw harsh judgments on the soldiers and the MPs who were there, the ones who actually got punished. I wasn't there. They were I'm not saying it was right or justified or anything like that. I'm saying that you had this this group of reservists from West Pennsylvania who were put into a situation that they're absolutely not trained for. They were trained as combat support MVP's. They were not trained as prison guards.
And they were put into in an absurd situation under incredible stress in a prison that is in a combat zone. You know, Abu Ghraib is between Fallujah and Baghdad. Right. Right in there somewhere.
It's sort of north of the airport. It's sort of north. So so it's so it's northwest of Baghdad. And it was a bad area. Yes, you're right. It wasn't a combat zone taking fire at the prison.
And now maybe as somebody who is over there and had to be responsible for your behavior and for the behavior of your men, you can feel more comfortable coming down straight on directly on the people who were involved. I just don't I don't like to do that. I wasn't there. I don't justify it, but I don't know.
What do you think? What do you think?
I think I would assume that obviously you talk a lot about leadership. And so the people who set the conditions and created those conditions are going to be important. But I would maybe I would just assume, because I know other people who served in Iraq who do hold the people who were directly involved with those things, the soldiers there, the MPs very responsible because, yeah, I was over there in Iraq, too. There were times that I wanted to beat the hell out of somebody or do this, but I didn't.
And they did. And that's on them. And look what they cost us. And I get that. And I don't gainsay I don't contradict them and say, well, what about these? That's their right to have that view.
And I don't give myself that. Right. But I mean, tell me what you think.
Well, yeah, you called it when when I see some frontline troops doing something that they shouldn't be doing. Sure. They shouldn't be doing that. Whose fault is it that they're doing that? It's easy to say it's their fault, sure. But as leaders guess what if. If you have troops, you're responsible for their actions. That's the way it is. That's the way it is. And if you have to understand people well enough, that's what I talk about human nature all the time.
You're going to tell me you're going to take nineteen, twenty, twenty one twenty two year old kids from western Pennsylvania that are reservists that have very limited, limited military training. And what you're going to do is you're going to take them and put them in charge of the detainee that a bunch of detainees that they think are terrorists while they're being attacked on a daily basis.
I don't think if you if you can't see what could unfold there, you're you're not having you don't understand human nature very well. So what does that mean? You as a leader, you respond to telling everyone, hey, this these are the rules. This is what's in place.
This is why it's important if Al Jazeera sees us and I'll use Al Jazeera, I think they're there.
And you probably well, I know you probably will understand their arc of of the way Al Jazeera has.
What Al Jazeera has been, because Al Jazeera kind of started as a as a sort of almost like a secular kind of anti like extremist broadcast the way Al Jazeera English still primarily is.
I've got Arabic speaking friends who send me over stuff. It's very, very different in the Arab language version.
So so the the at the time, what Al Jazeera was to us was they're going to take whatever we do and they're going to spin it to anti-American, you know, in an anti-American way. So that was always my kind of like a warning to guys, look, if Al Jazeera sees you doing something, it's going to be a it's going to be a massive, you know, strategic hit.
A little tactical move that you make could be a massive negative strategic hit or negative to to what goes on in the war.
So when those guys are doing that, when those male and female detainee handlers do that. Yeah, they are sure. Do they deserve some punishment? Absolutely. Could that have been prevented and should it have been prevented? It absolutely should have. And I had you know, we we were running detainee operations as well.
So my SEALs would go and capture someone and bring them back and put them in a in a temporary holding facility and we would stand watch on them.
That's what would happen. This is also not a smart idea.
You know, you you you I'm going to go back after you was just shooting. You're trying to kill us now. We get a hold of you, we bring you back. And now now we're responsible for your safety and comfort. That's not a good plan. It's not a good plan.
There needs to be a level of detachment there. So, yeah, that's that's a leadership issue. And you've got to understand, this goes back to the conversation that we had about, hey, you got a sadist in your platoon and you got to have that consideration. You've got to you've got an asshole in your platoon. You know, you've got an asshole. You're you've got twenty five people that are that are guards at this prisoner. One of them is going to be an asshole.
One of them is going to say, hey, if I get the chance, I'm going to slap one of these guys around. Hey, if I get the chance, I'm going to abuse these people. That's what I'm going to do. You've got someone on the other end of that spectrum that they they'll they'll get it and they would put a stop to that. And you've got everyone else in the middle. And so when that guy is not one, the good guy is not a watch.
This shit happens.
Well, yeah, there is that.
But I, I tend to think of Abu Ghraib as the as the culmination of a lot of the bad decisions we talked about yesterday, not being able to provide security in the country, not having which leads to not having enough intelligence, which leads to General Abizaid saying, I need more intelligence, go get me actionable intelligence. And so you have all the stuff with, you know, the 4th ID going out there and just doing mass roundups and bringing people in whole villages that they're bringing in because we got to we don't know the difference.
We don't have any human intelligence yet. They're all getting sent to Abu Ghraib because we don't have anywhere else to keep them. Abu Ghraib is the prison that is like the symbol of Saddam's brutal power.
Right. This an execution chambers torture. This is where you got did not want to get sent if you were under Saddam's regime. We start sending all of these people there. Huge number by the but by the Army's own estimate, 70, 80 percent of them ended up free of charges, didn't need to be there.
They get in there.
And a lot of people don't know the whole story of Abu Ghraib. They get stuck on the the grotesque pictures and everything. These reservists from western Pennsylvania, they get sent into this place.
It is vastly overcrowded and undermanned to, you know, in I believe in September of 03, they basically got the number of guards that they were going to have until the next spring.
Meanwhile, the population of the prison doubles and then it doubles again. They don't have the manpower to do this. You've got these 18, 19, 20 year old kids who they walk into this situation and they people are already being stood on boxes naked by military intelligence. They're already being, you know, pinned up against walls and dressed up like in stress positions. This is already going on when they arrive. Right. And so I try to put myself in this situation where.
You know, yes, you're supposed to disobey an unlawful order, right, if you see something that's going on, there's an open door policy and you're supposed to go on. But if you're a 19 year old or 20 year old, I don't know anything about war. I know what I've seen on TV. Right. And so I show up the first day and this stuff is already going on. They didn't invent this. It wasn't these little group of guys that, you know, that went completely off the rails and nobody knew about it.
It was this dark thing that happened occasionally, like at nighttime, you know, the famous picture where you have the pile of naked guys. That was the screensaver on the computer in the in the military police office. Everybody knew what was going on. There were times when these kids would go to medics, go to other people and show them pictures and be like, is this authorized? Can I do this? And they're like, well, the famous picture of Lynndie England, the female who was not supposed to be on the block, by the way, she was dating one of the guys on the block.
She's from a completely different area. She's not cleared to be there. Gives you an idea how the discipline had broken down. Right. But she's coming just to hang out with her boyfriend every night and they're goofing around with the prisoners. And there's a famous one where she's walking the naked guy on a leash.
So we would end up we ended up in Abu Ghraib with a bunch of people who were mentally ill. Right. There wasn't like a bunch of psychiatric prisoners. The prisoners. Yeah. Yeah, right. The prisoners. There weren't a bunch of functional psychiatric mental health facilities all over Iraq at the time. And so we would be out there and a lot of time these people who were mentally ill would give our soldiers problems. And, you know, we would be OK, this guy as a problem, take them in and we would take them in and then they would get into the general population.
Just to even clarify that more, when you say give them problems, this is just someone that's not doing what you're telling them to do because they don't understand. They're they're scared. And you're you're a twenty two year old soldier. And you look at the guy go, you know, I can't judge what's happening, but this guy is not doing what I tell them to put zip them up and we bring the guy in.
He's unmanageable in the general population. So we sent him over to the hard site where we actually have individual cells and we put them in there and they're trying to get this guy. He's spitting on people. This guy in question, the one in that picture, he's spitting on people. He's throwing feces at people. He takes off his own clothes. They didn't strip him back. And he goes and gets a tie strap for from a Humvee and he puts it around his shoulders to, like, walk this guy over.
And the guy goes down on his hands and knees and the strap comes up around his neck. So it looks like a leash. And they're walking him to the place that they're trying to bring him. And he actually the guy, Graner, who's like kind of he's supposed to be the real sadist in the group. And he has some sadistic tendencies. There's no question about that. He took that picture and he took it to the medics and he explained the situation of what happened and said, is this like this is what happened?
Is this OK? And they gay they said, well, you know, under the circumstances, you know, I mean, that seems fine. And so.
You know, this this was the environment that these 19, 20, 21 year old reservists who are not trained to be prison guards are finding themselves in here.
And I think one of the other things that blows me away, it just blows me away that this is how it is, is that, you know, the military intelligence folks, the interrogators, they wanted to be able to kind of play some good cop, bad cop and, you know, be the kind of be able to build a relationship with some of these people.
They're trying to interrogate in various ways, depending on who they are. And it was the military police who were in charge of kind of setting the conditions in the place and making sure that the prisoners were in a sufficient level of discomfort so that when they went in to be interrogated, the military police, the military intelligence guys, the interrogators could kind of play that good cop side.
So you have now that is something you're supposed to walk this fine line between, you know, setting conditions to make people properly uncomfortable and abuse like that fine line.
And that is something that should require extraordinary training and discipline, right? That is a hard, hard thing to do, especially when you're talking about unsophisticated 20 year old reservists who are dealing with jihadis. You're dealing with guys who are, you know, maybe he was a colonel in the in Saddam's army. And you got to think of, like, what kind of, you know, just adaptable, savvy cockroach you got to be to survive that long, you know, under Saddam and make your way through the system.
And now I am a guy who doesn't speak Arabic, and I've got to figure out how to make this guy do what I want him to do. And I have no ways to control this guy who's looking at me. He's just not taking me remotely seriously. And I can sense that. And I have no way to control this guy other than force in order to make him respect my authority and comply with what they're just they were they were absolutely not prepared to be in that situation.
And I blame the people who put them there and who created the conditions for that to happen. I don't know. I don't know.
I don't know what group of 20 year old reservists you could have put into a situation like that that would have handled it well, what they have done, what they did.
I'll tell you what group, a group that had a good leader. You have you have a good leader that explains what's going on. These things, an American soldier, reservist, active duty doesn't matter. You you put good leadership over those individuals and they will do what they're supposed to do. That's what happens. And I've seen this over and over and over again in my time in the U.S. military, working with soldiers, working with Marines, meet an 18 year old kids, 20 year old kids that if if you lead them correctly, they will absolutely do what they are supposed to do.
If you don't if you don't, well, then they're going to they're going to go where nature takes them.
And, you know, another thing we have to remember is and, you know, this was my sort of initial reaction was like, oh, whatever, you know, when I joined the SEAL teams. You know, it was a it's a very, very violent culture and a very hard culture to be a part of and, you know, we got hazed. We got we got hazed significantly. And and that's just the way it was. So every single one of those pictures, I was like, oh, yeah.
You know, we I've been I've been around, you know, I've been that guy. I've been beat up. I've been been taped up. I've been hung up. I've been all those things, you know, that that's that's normal every day. And then you take it one step further. You look at the whole Navy. Oh, when I went through the Shellback ceremony, it's not quite as bad as a SEAL team hazing, but it was a big authorized hazing.
And then I was like, oh, what about SERE school? Well, what happened to me at your school? Oh, guess what they're doing to you in your school. They're slapping you around. You know, you're you're naked, you're you're being abused.
That's the way it is. You're freezing. They're putting you in stress positions. It's all the same stuff. So from my my my initial reaction was like, yeah, well, whatever these are, these are terrorists. And by the way, you you contrast that against the fact that Zarqawi's soiling people's heads off. Right. And I'm like, wait a second. The enemy is sawing people's heads off. And I'm supposed to be mad at this reservist because she walked the guy around with a leash.
Look, that's that's. And you know what?
That is actually the reality that that's the reality. That's the reality of what happened.
Well, when you compare what was going on in there to what was going on in there under in that same facility under Saddam.
Yeah. A year and a half. Here's the deal.
Even though that's the reality of what happened. It didn't matter. It didn't matter. Everything I just said had no had no. It did nothing to paint to clean up the picture that got put out by the insurgent and the the Al Jazeera media and really and our own media that posted these pictures over and over again with no explanations.
And and, you know, you show that to an Iraqi. This is what the Americans are doing to us. In Abu Ghraib, in Abu Ghraib, this is absolutely what this this added. This is why I said on the last episode, this is what added so much fuel to the fire that it became.
Yeah, this is this is this is a turning point. And that is why from a leadership perspective, everybody on your team has to understand that their tactical decisions can have strategic impact.
And that is an example I use all the time at Echelon front of a tactical decision that had strategic impact on an entire war, that that's like, you know, you want to look at Bremer and you want to talk about, you know, disbanding the Iraqi police, the Iraqi military. Yeah, that's a strategic blunder. And it had strategic implications.
But this is a tactical blunder committed by front line troops, e 3s and E force that had a massive strategic negative impact on the war.
There's a lesson to be learned from that all day long also. And I'll go back and forth with people on this as well. You know, how could I have been responsible if I was the if I was the if I was the company commander, if I was the battalion commander, if I was in charge of how can I be responsible for what those frontline troops do?
And that right there is just where everything falls apart, because the minute you have people saying, hey, it's not my responsibility what the frontline troops do, this is complete wrong answer is the complete wrong answer. You have to do the proper training.
You have to give them the proper understanding of what the mission is. You have to give them an understanding of what the impact of their mission is, what the parameters of that they have to understand.
You as a leader are absolutely responsible for that.
And when we fail to lead, this is the kind of thing that happens.
I agree and I and I agree that it was ugly when people started scrambling for cover rather than taking responsibility after it happened, although there's evidence that they were getting political pressure put on them to do that. Remember, this is an election year. And I mean, to me, like the idea that nobody in the upper echelons of the Defense Department resigned their position over Abu Ghraib just blows me away.
But the Bush administration was in a point where we're in the middle of a close election. This we have to just put this on, you know, these twos and threes and fours on the ground and like wash our hands of this. When there was a lieutenant colonel in the prison who knew what was going on, there were JAG officers who came through that prison. And, you know, there was an incident where Graner that, you know, the main kind of the main ringleader guy, he had this game where he would have hooded prisoners and he would like to just jokingly kind of walk them around and get him to surrender and then walk them into a wall.
And one of them got a bloody nose. And so, you know, medic saw it and clean him up and everything, and they decided they needed to counsel Graner over, give him a counseling chit. Right. And now, normally for non-military people out there, a counseling shit is like sort of a reprimand. Right? We have this counseling shit's it's been you know, it's been printed in newspapers and stuff. It's not at all it just kind of says like, hey, you're doing a great job.
If you need any kind of clarification on the rules or anything or if you're under too much stress, make sure you talk to us about it. But keep up the great work.
And, you know, this was after a guy had just walked a prisoner into a wall and made his nose bleed, which, again, like in the context of al-Qaida, in the context of Saddam, is not in the context of being a new guy in a SEAL platoon.
Right. So if I if I got away with just a bloody nose and walk into a wall, I'd be pretty stoked.
So the fact that the fact that that was your initial reaction, this is interesting.
The fact that that was your kind of initial reaction and I think it was a lot of people's initial reaction is like, well, OK, yeah, but we're still not them.
It tells me, though, that at this point in the war, we still did not realize that we were fighting. We were running a counterinsurgency.
I think you're right that we didn't realize and I don't think we were. I think that this is what this is what this is what solidified the insurgency. OK, this this is what turned it from, hey, some Iraqis that, you know, you take you take 20 Iraqis that the month prior still had that American flag in their back pocket for when the when the tide changed, all of a sudden they were like, oh, no. And, you know, ten of those twenty three that American flag away at that point, I found it interesting.
Someone I've heard somebody say one time, I don't remember if it is in the context of Abu Ghraib or not. They were talking about, you know.
You don't need you don't need sadists for something like this to happen, you have a bunch of inexperienced people under extraordinary stress who are not trained to handle the situation that they're in and from even from the political level, from the administration, because it's in the press, people are watching the news that there's a debate going on. Should torture be allowed where it should should we move the definition of torture over a little bit or not?
So that's in the air that there's some permissiveness going on. They walk into a situation where everything that we saw in those pictures was already happening and they're told this is what military intelligence wants. I'm E two. I just showed up to the war. Am I going to be like, well, I don't know any better.
I'd say, OK, I know what I've seen in movies and on TV, but I guess this is real war and this is how real war actually is.
So I'm not going to say anything. And they get into that situation. But it's not it's you don't have to have people ordered to do it.
You don't have to have you know, all you need is a certain amount of permissiveness. And the way the person put it was, if you think there, imagine if there was a bar in San Diego or Los Angeles where it was just you could go in there and there was a person and you could just go punch them and insult them and whatever. So you get get done with work and you can just go home and have a beer. You and your buddies, you had a stressful day and you go in there, you could slap this guy around and not everybody would do it, but that place wouldn't be empty.
It wouldn't be empty and just just by making it aloud and not having I mean, there's a reason that the army is that the military is an institution of discipline. Right. Is you are gearing people up to go face an extraordinarily difficult task, which involves killing and being killed, 19 year old kids who were working at a at a mechanic's garage four months ago.
You know, and you have to get them in the mindset that they can deal with killing somebody and with people trying to kill them and with their friends being killed and where this is not a distant reality, where, you know, smart bombs are taking out Iraqi high value targets. While we're kind of over here in Kuwait, Abu Ghraib is getting hit with mortars all the time. And so it's right there going on. And the people that they're processing into this prison, they're being told these are the people who are firing those at you.
These are the people who if they overrun this prison or if they get loose and there's like a prison break or something will chop your head off without a second thought. And that was true of some of them. Right.
And these 19 year olds have to figure out how to be the authority figure in a situation like that. And it is just, you know, all of the decisions from, you know, this is the reason I said it. You know, the decision to go in with too few troops against the advice of the military so that we couldn't control the country and we didn't have the all of those decisions are why those kids ended up in that place under those conditions, you know?
Yeah. And it's also, again, it's a lack of understanding of human nature. Yeah, right. What's that what's the famous experiment at Stanford where they, you know, the prison experiment. Yeah, the prison. The Stanford Prison experiment. Right.
Does everyone not know that if you put people into a position of authority, they're going to start to abuse their power? And now you set the conditions like you just said. These are these are terrorists in my mind. You know, these are terrorists and I'm a good guy. They're bad guys. And I'm being told actually to make sure they're uncomfortable. Cool. I got this.
What do you think that's going to end up? Where do you think that's going to end up?
Especially if you're not trained? I mean, just think about like if you are in charge, say, the Stanford prison experiment, you don't need sadism. Right. To explain it. Like, just I'm in an authority position. There's a person over there on the other side who's telling me to fuck off.
And now I got to figure out how to make him compliant. Now there's ways to do it.
But if you've got to be pretty sophisticated to do that, to do it without resorting to force or coercion, you can do it. But you got to be pretty sophisticated. You know, you've got to be kind of an alpha personality. You have to have ways to do it. They were not they were not given any of those tools. They were just told, be the man, control these people. These are terrorists. And when these people got noncompliant, they don't have any tools to handle these guys except for force and humiliation.
And those are the tools that they have, you know, and it was just it was it was an awful, awful situation when it happened.
And and it became pretty clear very shortly after that that we were looking at something like an insurgency.
As I said very quickly, in my estimation, that event and the way that it got portrayed absolutely solidified the insurgency without without a doubt in my mind. And and if you kind of look at that look, there was there was the insurgency was starting to gel a little bit, right?
A little bit. You know, you had pockets here. You had pockets there. You know, you were just talking about what was happening in Najaf, what was happening in Sadr City, what was happening in Fallujah. Like you had stuff going on, but there were still Iraqis that were like, you know, I hope the Americans can pull this off.
And when that happened, yeah, all that all those little pieces that were floating around all of a sudden started to gel.
Were you you know, you had been taking out a lot of criminals, gangsters, people like that during your first tour.
Had you seen enough by that point that when the Nick Berg tape came out in May of 2004, that that did not surprise you?
Did you already have an idea of that, that these are the people we were kind of dealing with?
I think that the Fallujah bridge that was there that was to me was the first indicator of, OK, I see where this is going. And then Nick Berg was an excellent exclamation point on that.
When you are I mean, you were processing back right by that point to start your tours. The admiral's aide.
I mean, were you just like, screw that semi back, turn me loose on these people? Yeah, I mean, it was really hard. The it was it was a real it was when I when I was.
When I was pleading with my boss to plead with his boss, to plead with his boss to let us go to Fallujah and and and help in that situation, and we got stood down, that was a hard pill for me to swallow.
I was very I was very disappointed about that. You know, I was very disappointed about that. And it kind of left a mark and.
Yeah, that was that was a hard. That was a hard one, you know, and actually those guys, OK, so one of them, Scott Helvenston, was it was a seal and those guys had come to my compound.
We stayed in a compound in in Baghdad, those contractors, yes, OK, those contractors came to my compound and they had kind of just shown up, at least that's the impression that I got, was that they had just shown up. And so we had a conversation with them and.
I remember like I was like talking with some of them, remember, I said my my platoon chief was like an off road guy and and so he was all dialed on vehicles. And and so we're sitting there talking to him.
And I remember asking him or either that or but it was probably my chief asked him because he was had the mindset of vehicles and he was like, do you guys have run flats because they had these armored these armored like Ford Explorers, which was kind of what everyone was driving.
The armored Ford Explorers were crap. They they didn't all they did was add armor like the the minimum kind of armor. But there was no adjustments to the suspension. So they were just kind of crap.
And I remember my my platoon chief asking. I was pretty sure it was him saying, do you guys have run flats? Meaning if you get a flat tire, can you keep going? And their answer was no. And so, you know, you had it you kind of had a bad feeling. And this is now that when you're asking me this question, which you you seem to want to know if I sensed the escalation, this is one of the things where, as I think back on it, I this is where we knew things were escalating because we were looking at these guys saying, hey, do you guys have run flats?
Because if you're going into Fallujah, we knew where they were, where they were going, and they got ambushed and they got ambushed. And I'll have to I'll have to actually go back and ask my platoon chief if it was that crew.
But I'm almost positive. And again, forgive my memory, man.
This is this is what's happened between now and a lot's happened between between now and then. And I'm glad we're talking about it.
But there was contractors that were not prepared.
And three months prior, you could run around in Baghdad however you wanted to and you'd be fine. Two months prior, you'd be running around in Baghdad. You might want to check yourself a little bit, you know, starting to get into March. You'd be like, OK, we need to think about this now. In April, we're looking at these guys going, do you have run flats in case you get a flat tire? Because if you get a flat tire, you lose your mobility, you're going to lose your survivability.
So that is what that is the kind of thing that we were thinking about and then seeing those guys.
You know, strung up from the bridges, from the bridge and then Nick Berg, it was like, OK, yeah, this is this is this is going to get worse. That's the only that's the only one of those videos I've watched. I made myself watch the Nick Berg one when it first came out, and I after that, I was like, I, I don't need to watch another one. I've seen it. I thought about watching the Foley one when it came out.
But, you know, Nick Berg, by all accounts, is a great kid. He's a little eccentric. And, you know, he reminds me of in certain ways, if you've ever read the book or seen the movie into the Wild. Yeah. About Chris McCandless, he kind of reminds me of that guy where he's a little bit naive. Maybe he's idealistic, just like those contractors, though, who had no idea apparently what country they were in.
And a lot of people didn't yet.
Yeah, that was another thing. Like you'd see contractors. And at this point, look, I'm not we were by no means like battle hardened, you know, guys, because our our first deployment, we got in a few firefights playing the game on guard mode.
Yeah, we were. But we had done a lot of operations and we were good we were good at what we're doing. Like when you saw our convoy, you know, when you saw our convoy maneuver through the streets, we were really good. You know, if we had a flat tire, we look like a NASCAR pit crew. You know, again, my platoon chief, you know, running guys through drills, my my leading petty officer running guys through drills, the guys in the platoons just locked on and.
So we you know, we all, like I said, we weren't battle hardened, but we've done a lot of operations and we'd see it's like the classic.
You know what I talked about?
This was some of the guys I've had on my podcast or even just any of the Vietnam guys, that classic scene that you see in the movies of the new guy getting off the plane in Saigon and, you know, with his brand new clean cammies on and, you know, a fresh haircut and freshly shaven Creedence playing in the back, Creedence playing in the background. And then, you know, who does he come across? He comes across the long haired, hardened thousand yard stare gear, totally trashed, not even trashed, but broken in.
I remember looking at these contractors and, you know, they got brand new Web gear. They got brand, you know, they got brand new set up. You can tell that they haven't worn it very much. You know, they might have done some shooting drills or whatever. So you're you're a little bit nervous when you see guys like that.
And because this is a different time, too, as you get into 08, 09, a lot of those contractors are former special ops guys.
These are a bunch of guys with experience totally. These are contractors. And a lot of these contractors were guys that had been in, you know, been in the military, been in the SEAL team's, been in the Green Beret or whatever, you know, for how much experience could they have had? Well, yeah, that's what I'm saying. Like, they were they were a Green Beret in the 90s. They were a SEAL in nineteen eighty seven, you know, I mean, I met I had lunch with guys.
I remember having lunch with guys, you know, like ten guys, you know, and they're your bros and they're fired up to be over there because you know, as much as I talked about wanting to be in combat and had the luck of going getting to be in combat and I talked about guys that had been in for 30 years that never were well, those guys got out and all of a sudden an opportunity came for them to lock and load their weapons and go do God's work.
And they took that opportunity. But, you know, it's I met plenty of guys, especially because this is this is the actual time, you know, this is the time when Blackwater and the rest of the the rest of the contracting gigs, you know, this is like twelve hundred fifteen hundred bucks a day. That's how what that's what the demand signal was and the demands and it was we want guys that were special operations, you know, because they had at least have more training.
And it was, you know, you fast forward three, four years and it was like, hey, we'll take pretty much anybody, especially because pretty much anybody, if you were in the military, you know, you had run convoys and you knew how to handle yourself, it feels like with contractors always describing it, that they it doesn't sound like they had the same kind of overarching leadership structure that was like looking after them, that they had like a looser leadership structure, that I mean, the idea that they were going into Fallujah with, you know, when they couldn't run flat and just all that, like who's making that decision to allow them to do something like that?
Yeah, it was that experience for me that, you know, fifteen hundred bucks a day, you couldn't have given me enough money to take those jobs because I was just looking at them going, man, like I'm you know, I'm literally standing there looking at a guy that has, you know, or whatever whatever dumb gear set up he had where you're looking at he's got his he's going to get in a vehicle and he's got his pistol, like, you know, whatever, in a position where he's never gonna be able to get that thing out or whatever dumb thing they had.
And you're looking at him thinking like that sucks. And then you're looking at, you know, over at one of my guys who has everything completely dialed in can make things happen, you know, immediately.
You know, I had my assistant platoon commander at the time was just one of those kind of kind of gear gearheads, you know, and everything he was testing all the time. And I'm looking at him going, you know, this guy, you know, my guy is so eminently prepared.
And I'm looking at this contractor going, Chiche.
And what kind of comms are you guys have? You know, there's a question that I'm going to ask, right? That's you know, my my platoon chief is going to go, do you have run flats? I'm going to say, hey, what kind of comms do you have?
Because I was a I was a radioman, so, you know, see opportunity. That was how I was raised. And and I'm the guy that's asking what kind of comms do you have? And they you know, you get the response of who we have in our squad radios. For, you know, the two cars so we can talk to each other. Oh, what are you going to do if you get in trouble? Well, we have what was it?
Whatever satphone know, satellite, civilian satellite communication thing.
Who are you going to call you on with us? This is just all bad.
It's all bad.
And that's why, you know, when you when we saw that unfold, it was you know, it was horrible to see. It was horrible to see.
And it caught them off guard because contractors had been running around the country doing all kinds of work.
Good work, good work, good work. Providing security, you know, running convoys for people. They were they were doing good work and necessary work and saving, you know, the government money, because even though those guys are getting paid fifteen hundred bucks a day, at the end of the day, that's way cheaper than hiring. Or then bring it, you know, bringing in an enlisted man to go through the training and be on the VA for the rest of his life.
Like there's a there's a cost benefit to it and there's a cost benefit to them because they have the opportunity to make money. So they were doing good work.
But when things started to escalate and you're and, you know, if you're Blackwater and you're bringing in contractors, you know, you're bringing in contractors in in whatever, four or five months earlier, hey, give me a little training.
Cool. Go on. A convoy. They put their military experience with their you little training. They just got they got a couple of guys that have little experience. You're good to go. They make it happen. You fast forward to sending men to Fallujah and you see the results.
Yeah, people didn't have they didn't have an idea of what kind of war we were in yet. And I mean, Nick Berg is a perfect example of that. I mean, he was a you know, he would have gone to Kosovo to do what he did. So he was 26 years old and he had a business.
He was kind of an adventurous kid, cross-country bike rides, that kind of thing. And he had a business where he would fix high rise like communications and transmission equipment. He would dangle 600 feet up in the air and do repairs, electrician repairs, and he was good at it. Did he want to start his own business? He had actually done some work in Kenya before where he would go down and he would kind of do humanitarian work and also like pursue some business opportunities in his mid 20s, which is kind of fascinating kid.
Most people aren't doing that in their mid teens. If he would have gone to Kosovo and done something like that and, you know, the bad guys would have come across him there.
They might have held him for a while. They might have he might have, you know, caught a stray bullet or something like that.
But they weren't just looking for Americans.
And if they find you, they're going to kill you and publicize it. It was just a different kind of it was a different kind of war and a different kind of enemy. And I think people didn't realize that that was the kind of war we were in yet.
And there's no mistaking it after that Nick Berg tape came out watching Zarqawi read that statement and then murder him himself in such a grisly way. And it took so long.
That especially with it coming right after Abu Ghraib, I think people just started to get a very dark view of the war and things only started to deteriorate in the country in many ways from then, because I I'm pretty pretty sure that this is around the time when we didn't really exactly know what we were dealing with. We didn't exactly know who this enemy was or where they were.
And so we just kind of pulled back. It was an election year. We didn't want a lot of casualties. And we just started to pull back into our bases and kind of did this. You know, Petraeus called it drive by counterinsurgency, where we're just raced in our convoys through an area and going back to our bases. And meanwhile, wide swaths of the country are just being taken over by al-Qaida.
And, you know, there was a well, there was a strategic decision that was made arguably for what were a lot of political reasons having to do with domestic politics. And also, I think because we just didn't we didn't expect to be in this war, this is not the war that we planned for. We had people. Right, just like this happens and a lot of wars, we had people who knew what kind of war this was and they were ready to fight this war.
You know, Petraeus had been up by himself in Mosul with the 101st all this time. Mosul for everybody is another map. Iraq is way, way, way up in the north, far away.
So he had some level of autonomy from what was going on in Baghdad and everything.
And this is a guy with a Ph.D. who literally wrote the book, Right, on counterinsurgency. And in he and he's the man I mean, he knows what he's talking about. He studied this stuff and he was handling Mosul in a very different way. He understood the hearts and minds aspect. He understood the fact that we have to win over this population if we're going to actually, you know, provide any stability and build something here.
And, you know, the particular enemy that we had al-Qaida so dark, you forget about flying planes into buildings, OK? I mean, that's a that was an evil act and everything, but something like that, I can honestly just put it as a you know what, this is a terrorist action. But they're attacking a symbol of American power for their sort of broad strategic reasons and find the kind of interpersonal savagery that al-Qaida in Iraq was engaging in to the point where eventually, you know, Osama bin Laden said we need to pull back from these guys.
That they gave us this opportunity. It was it would have been just on a silver platter to say to the Iraqi people, look, this is your other option. We're the good guys here. We're going to make mistakes. Some of our soldiers are going to do some bad things. But, you know, Saddam was here and now these are your other options. We're the we're your best option here. And, you know, because of Abu Ghraib and because we had this lack of understanding and we were trying to make up for those early mistakes for a couple of years.
Right. We just we it took three years until 2006, you know, before we really started to put some people in charge who knew what was going on. And we're ready to take action and take risks, you know, and that's we're going to get into that next episode here.
I want to talk about, like, just what a huge gamble Ramadi was and how, you know, people think the American military is like, well, it's really just a matter of focus.
Like as soon as we decide we want to go do something, you know, we might be have we might be making bad decisions for political reasons. We might have a muddled mission or whatever. But if we actually decide to go do something, then it's over and we'll just go do it. Right.
At the time it was there were people who thought the Ramadi mission was suicidal, that there was no way you guys were going to pull that off.
And there was so much riding on it because if you hadn't pulled it off and it hadn't gone the way that it went, I mean, the surge wouldn't have happened. No.
You know, and as you're back home and you're watching the news, I mean, you must have had and hearing stories from guys who were coming back and guys who were over there, you must have had sort of this this creeping understanding coming up that like when you go back to a you're going back and B, when you go back, like it's going to be on.
Let's talk about that on the next episode, because there's a whole story behind that.
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