March 19, 2003
The Kuwait-Iraq border- Precise location unknown.
The above picture was taken just after the Iraqi surrender in Baghdad. I am still a bit stunned by what I had experienced and just glad to be alive. The job had started about twenty five days earlier in the sand just before the Iraqi border. The following series of posts is my attempt to explain what happened twenty years ago.
March 19, 2003
The Kuwait-Iraq border- Precise location unknown.
It was a bright starlit night in the middle of the vastness of the desert. I was looking up at the night sky in a bemused wonderment and asking myself how I had arrived at this point in my life. A desert sky has none of the reflected glare of towns and cities, no ambient light, just blackness with brilliant points of light so near that you feel you could just reach up and touch them. It humbles the soul in comparison with its majesty. The night sky on a day before a war makes you feel that you are, exactly what you are insignificant under glimmering stars and the occasional natural streak of light.
We were all sleeping outside. The same as the rest of the Battalion that we were very much embedded with. We had been living alongside them for ten days now as the clock counted down. Every minute brought us incrementally from peace to war. The American politicians would call it ‘Shock and Awe’. I can remember clearly seeing the first thundering roar ripped across the night When the natural light of the cosmos was disturbed by human-made comets as cruise missiles streaked low and fast over us and towards a distant Baghdad.
The war that the American war planners had named “Operation Iraqi Freedom” had started. We heard the distant rumble and crump of the explosions as cruise missiles fired by warships hundreds of miles away destroyed targets hundreds of miles over the border. We were all looking up at the night from our Army issue camp beds discussing how it would end. During the next twenty-two days in the cauldron of modern warfare, I would have ample time to find out.
How did I manage to get myself into this one?
But at the end of it, I would have gathered some answers to some age-old questions. I would have also learned more about both me and human nature in general. I would have picked out some little glimmers of hope from the senseless carnage of modern warfare. This short post will also try to dismantle some of the comments about the rights and wrongs of the conflict from someone who witnessed some of the worst of it.
By 2003 I had managed to survive a full twenty-four years in Britain’s Royal Marine Commandos although my life and my career had always been totally haphazard and unplanned. My progress through the complications of living had been a set of upended dominos that had all been placed a little bit too close together so that one unintended action had led to the cascade of consequences and series of events that had led me to that desert staring up at the stream of outgoing American ordinance. Lives changed forever in the Kuwaiti desert that fateful night for thousands of people. This post is as much for me as it is for anyone reading it. Sometimes you must record things to understand them. Looking up at the sky that night I repeated the question.
How did this happen?
I had left the Corps in 1997 and picked up a bodyguarding contract with a prominent Arab Royal family. The job lasted four years before I lost it. After that period of pandering to some of the most spoilt people on earth I was sacked after I had managed to put the Sheik’s favourite wife on the wrong train- we missed a flight- both embarrassing and career-ending. In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. As one boss sacked me with a phone call another old mate who I had served with in The Royal Marines an ex-mountain leader, phoned me with a job offer.
“Do you fancy a job looking after a Kuwait-based American New Team that is stood by for this war that’s never going to happen?” Thanks Paul R from Centurion.
The was outline was simple. I would go out to Kuwait, stay in a good hotel, and run a hostile environments training course for the American News network, NBC News. I would join another good friend from the Corps, who was also a great bloke, a top personality, and an ex-Corps RSM. I jumped at the chance and one week later I was in Kuwait City and meeting the News team. The training was successful and led to an in-house security job, where I and my colleague Keith adopted the then unofficial role of military/security advisors. As the thought of an actual war moved from unlikely to ‘Get packed, we are embedding with the US Army’ a coin was tossed, and I was the one selected by lady luck to invade Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division of the US Army while my mate handled the rest of the news teams. The Adventure had begun!
I hope the following post will give you an idea of what I thought about the war then and what I think about it now. But more importantly, it should tell you why my opinions changed. It should also serve to put a different perspective on the second Gulf war from the view of the ordinary mortals involved in it. From the excellent infantry and tank soldiers of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and the thoughts of the News media team that I was looking after. It will also dispel some myths about the Iraqi Army. The views emanating from the battlefield were totally different than those of our politicians in their very brittle ivory towers at home or what our families thought.
The German military genius Clausewitz said that war is just, the continuation of politics with other means. But politics mean nothing to the average infantryman. All he cares about is his country and his fellow soldiers in arms and I have learned that’s the same whether you are a Brit, an American, or an Iraqi soldier defending your country.
What I also learned ‘Life is precious but fragile!’
A Royal Marine Commando is basically a highly trained light infantry soldier that deploys with what he can carry on his back. The journey through those first 22 days changed my perceptions of what I had considered warfare. We had been trained to operate against the Soviet war machine. The Iraqis used Soviet-era kit and I was a cold war soldier and prepared for the weaponry deployed against us. Before the war, the Iraqi Army was a well-organized and disciplined force and the largest in the Middle East. It also had recent combat experience in the Iran/Iraq war and was confident that it could defend its territory so should it have performed better.
So, what went wrong with the Iraqi Army?
When people at home looked at pictures of Iraqi soldiers giving up the fight, they might have assumed that they did not want to scrap at all but that is not the whole story. What people at home do not see is modern US weaponry at work. A US mechanised Infantry Division is an awesome and deadly machine designed to move at speed with excellent communications with all elements coordinated with precise global positioning. The truth is, the Iraqi Army didn’t really have a chance.
The News Team I was with was usually positioned at the rear of our armoured column with the medical staff. For the first week before the sandstorm that stopped the advance, we passed dead Iraqis who had tried to fight and had been totally obliterated. You cannot fight an airstrike or an MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) missile with a 100 KG warhead with an AK47. It was sometimes a very spooky experience driving past Iraqi soldiers still in trenches and at battle readiness that looked untouched but killed by the concussive effects of the blast.
It was a sad sight, some of those men were very young.
The Iraqis also fought hard when they could. We witnessed that bravery on occasion.
In the next post, I will explain those circumstances.