The Marines’ Perfect War

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2003

In 400 BC, the Athenian general Xenophon led 10,000 hoplites in a march up the Tigris and Euphrates valley—Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, which today is called Iraq. The Greeks defeated every army that challenged them, including the 100,000-man force that the Great King of Persia sent against them. Xenophon entitled his account of this campaign the Anabasis, “the march up,” which became the bane of many a young student of Greek.

Now two old Marines have given us a modern-day Anabasis—an account of the march of the 1st Marine Division from Kuwait to Baghdad, which mirrored the route taken by Xenophon’s hoplites some 2,400 years ago. The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division by “Bing” West and Major General Ray “E-tool” Smith, USMC (ret) provides a remarkable description of a campaign conducted by some truly remarkable young Americans.

The Marines permitted West and Smith complete access to the battlefield—as long as they kept out of the way. Like the embedded journalists, they spent time with the Marine infantrymen, tankers, and artillerymen who raced toward Baghdad, but they were also free to move around, to hitch rides in helicopters or on amphibious tractors (amtracs). At one point, they were given use of a commandeered Baath-party official’s SUV. All they had to do was find gasoline for it.

But while the reports from the embedded journalists have been described as akin to the “view through a soda straw,” West and Smith were able to visit mobile Marine headquarters and listen in as commanders briefed their subordinates. West and Smith thus had the context that embedded journalists, no matter how riveting their reports, usually lacked.

In the pages of The March Up, the commanding general of the storied 1st Marine Division, Major General James Mattis, emerges as something of a latter-day Xenophon. An innovative leader who also led the task force that seized an advanced airbase in Afghanistan at the opening of that campaign, much to the chagrin of Army officers (see my article, “Marines Turned Soldiers“) Mattis “led from the front.” He clearly had prepared his command well and it responded to his style of leadership.

His “message to all hands” issued at the outset of the campaign contains echoes of Henry V at Agincourt. “While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression… Demonstrate to the world there is ’No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.”

West and Smith write that military theory suggests

that the ideal location for the general is one where he can observe the battlefield firsthand, gauge the fighting condition of his troops and the enemy, and still communicate with his key subordinates so that he can exploit what he is observing… By being on scene during this battle, Mattis was employing what theorists call the coup d’oeil, when the commander is able to select and focus on the battle’s key elements. He could see that the Marines, although tired, were continuing to press forward, while the enemy had retreated into the town. He could see with his own eyes that his troops had the initiative.

On one occasion Mattis offered some water to a tired Marine passing his vehicle. “The Marine refilled his canteens, took a deep gulp, and patted Mattis on the shoulder. “Thanks, man,” he said, trotting off, apparently unaware that he was talking to his division commander.”

The fact that West and Smith praise Mattis is a tribute to his leadership. These are two men who are not easily impressed. West was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam where he commanded both a platoon and a company. He was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration and is the author of several books, including the recent, well-received novel, The Pepperdogs.

Smith is one of the most-decorated Marines since World War II. He commanded a company during the fight for Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968. He began the battle with 146 men. Thirty-four days later, only seven of his men had not been killed or wounded. He was an adviser to the South Vietnamese Marines during the 1972 Easter Offensive. He commanded a battalion during the Grenada operation and later a division.

My daughter asked about his nickname. “E-tool” is an abbreviation for “entrenching tool,” military jargon for the small shovel that soldiers and Marines carry for digging their fighting holes. Trying not to be too graphic, I explained Smith’s nickname by paraphrasing his own words: “Unlike a rifle, a shovel doesn’t jam.” As is the case with most legendary characters, the story of how he earned his sobriquet has many variations. Let’s just say that the incident involved Ray Smith, a small shovel, and one or more North Vietnamese soldiers.

The March Up doesn’t sugarcoat the campaign. After all, even the best plan founders on “friction,” e.g. map-reading errors, failures to communicate, unexpected enemy actions, and the like. As well-trained and well-led as they were, things often went wrong. Leaders made mistakes, but they learned as they went. Rumors about Iraqi car bombers and deceptive surrenders spread quickly, adding to the anxieties of the young Marines who would pay the price for complacency or a lack or vigilance. The authors’ account of the fight for Nasiriyah is particularly harrowing.

As one might expect of two men who have led Marines in combat, West and Smith demonstrate a deep and abiding affection for the young Marines who fill the pages of this book. West and Smith understand the bond that develops among men at war. They experienced it. “Jobs—staying alive—determined a Marine’s family on the march up, not rank or ethnicity. Those you lived with were those you fought with and who would keep you alive.”

The Marines faced some sharp fights on the road to Baghdad and more once they arrived. They encountered Iraqi soldiers of all kinds: soldiers of regular units, some of whom fought and some of whom didn’t; militia, who preferred not to fight but sometimes did because they were intimidated by Saddam’s fedayeen; and foreign jihadis.

The jihadis asked no quarter and the Marines gave them none. The Marines

knew the difference between these jihad fighters and the militia. Consequently the Marines shot them in the ditches and in the field. They threw grenades into the bulrushes and shot the fighters when they ran out. They threw grenades into the drainage pipes running under the road… A few of the foreign fighters surrendered, but most did not—they had come to Iraq to die, and die they would.

As one Marine put it, this was the perfect war. “They want to die, and we want to kill them.”

The March Up, like the Anabasis, is destined to be a classic.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.