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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Snake Eaters’
When the United States invaded Iraq and toppled its government, it also made the tragic mistake of disbanding Iraq‘sarmy. The Iraqi army was a corrupt and largely ineffective force, but an army nonetheless. This meant that we had to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces from scratch. In the heady days following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the plan to build this new Iraqi army envisioned the use of retired drill instructors as contract trainers. Initially, the new army of Iraq was forbidden to have a domestic role and was to be used for defense against external invasion only. That plan was quickly torn to shreds by the rise of an unexpected insurgency.
By early 2004, it had become obvious that counterinsurgency advisers were needed, and the Defense Department ordered the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps to provide them. But where would they come from? The special forces were far too small to build an entire army. Both services turned to improvisation, and that meant dragging officers and enlisted men out of the reserves, the supporting establishment and the service school houses. The author’s father, Bing West, and I were asked to be part of a group tasked to help the Marine Corpsdraft an advisory school curriculum. We had to go to the Marine Corps historical branch to find Vietnam-era instructional materials to use as a guide.
Owen West’s “The Snake Eaters” is the account of one team of advisers in Iraq, but the author skillfully uses it to tell the story of the entire advisory effort. Team Outcast was a group of advisers with the 3/3-1 Iraqi Battalion, the Snake Eaters of the title. The advisory team was made up of reservists, whose civilian occupations ranged from Drug Enforcement Administration agent to flooring manager.
The author joined the group rather late. His day job is as a Wall Street trader. The group received totally inadequate training to prepare them for the delicate job of advising host nation troops. There was a presumption among those who trained Team Outlaw that the team would live on a large, fixed base and simply hold classes for their Iraqi students. Instead, they ended up living and fighting with those Iraqis they were assigned to mentor.
To make matters worse, the National Guard unit designated to support Team Outlaw failed to do its job and treated the members as true outcasts. But like so many similar advisory units, Team Outcast succeeded in spite of the enormous challenges it faced. The team operated in one of the most hostile cities in the most dangerous province in Iraq in those days. It was fortunate in being partnered with Maj. Mohammed, an Iraqi officer who may not have liked Americans but knew that he had to work with them. Mohammed made up for much of the cultural training that Team Outlaw should have had but did not. With the team’s help, the Snake Eater battalion eventually earned the respect, if not the love, of the city’s population. It also became the first Iraqi battalion to take control of its own battle space.
Owen West is a Marine Corps reservist who has written some fine fiction. The book reads like a novel and points out some lessons that should be learned in preparation for future conflicts but probably won’t be. When the Vietnam War ended, there was a virtual stampede to forget its lessons, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, we paid in blood and treasure for that shortsightedness. History may repeat itself.
As the author points out, some of the skills needed in a good adviser are often the opposite of those treasured by the regular army establishment. Original thinking and informal small group dynamics are important in the adviser’s world but are not at all prized in the regular combat brigades that made up most of the combat strength in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the homegrown Sunni insurgents and the foreign jihadists of al Qaeda were dangerous, the real enemy that Team Outcast faced was careerism. Although the advisers were the real ticket home for the Americans in Iraq, as they are in Afghanistan, regular military establishment doesn’t often look at advising as a career-enhancing posting. Fortunately for the United States, there was a wide pool of reservists and active duty soldiers who would rather be in the real war than sit behind the wire at a forward operating base getting fat at Burger King. Owen West has done a superb job of telling their story.
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