Assault of an Outpost?

Polar_bearI have been listening to the television coverage of the ongoing search for several men of the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division south of Baghdad in the Mahmoudiyah area.  The regiment’s badge is at left.

The latest I have heard indicates that these eight men were in an observation post consisting of two up-armored HUMVEES surrounded by concertina wire and that the position was attacked at 0400 (CNN Barbara Starr) from four sides, that the assaulting force breached the wire and overran the position.  According to CNN, the "patrol" had been in that oupost for five hours.

If that is so, then this was not a patrol.  It was an outpost placed there to watch for the emplacement of IEDs (on a road presumably).  The battalion appears to have had other such outposts out that night.


– Had this same position been occupied on other nights any time recently?

– Did the squad have adequate night vision equipment and were there adequate fields of fire and observation?

– Were supporting mortar and/or artillery fires plotted in a "box" around the position.  Was such fire available?  What about armed helicopter support?

– How long did it take the squad’s "back up" (500 yards away?) to get moving and to arrive?

– An armored HUMVEE is basically a big "jeep" with a ton of armor hung on it.  Each has an M2 .50 cal. machine gun on it.  The armor on this kind of vehcle will stop small arms fire (maybe) but nothing else.  Were these men well enough equipped for the job?

– Were radios relied on to an excessive degree in this situation?  Hand held pyrotechnics should always be included in a signal plan for this kind of operation.

A  CNN military analyst said yesterday that this kind of disaster "in detail" results from having to do "too many things with too few troops."  One of the captured soldiers’ mother said today, "we need a miracle."

They were both right.  pl

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69 Responses to Assault of an Outpost?

  1. Nicholas Weaver says:

    If the goal is spotting IED emplacers, why do you need an outpost for it, given that the US owns the sky?
    (and if we don’t own ENOUGH of the sky, 2-seat Super Tucanos or similar armed/reconissance aircraft are ~$4M apiece)

  2. walrus says:

    May God have mercy on all of them.

  3. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Lamentably (great word)airplanes come and go and are usually not around when things are happening. In this case guerrillas listen for airplanes. and abstain from emplacing IEDs when they ar around. That’s one of the reasons why our people often don’t catch them putting them in. pl

  4. W. Patrick Lang says:

    For those inerested, the Polar Bear in the crest represents the campaign in Siberia against the Bolsheviks after WW1. pl

  5. anna missed says:

    I always thought an OP relied on being hidden to avoid contact — or am I thinking of an L(istening)P. Seven men in two up armored humvee’s conspicuously parked alongside a road for the night hardly qualifies as an LP. But would, as an obvious target (minus the blinking neon sign). At any rate, there should never be any such outpost that doesn’t have support/rescue structured into its function — and doesn’t take into account the much higher profile of big vehicles. You just can’t transfer infantry procedure into mech. without making adjustments. I’ve always thought this “happy motoring” method of warfare used in Iraq as stupid.

  6. The media reference to a “patrol” is clearly misleading here. An outpost this poorly set up was a tragedy waiting to happen. A very useful and distressing posting.

  7. Grimgrin says:

    RE: How long it took backup to arrive.
    Here’s the AP account of the attack. If that can be believed, a drone was on site 15 minutes after communication was lost, and backup arrived an hour later. According to this followup, two units sent to the scene encountered roadside bombs en route, which is why it took backup an hour to arrive.
    Re: Guerrillas listening for aircraft. Prior to the development of radar this was the best way to detect aircraft, especially at night. On the off chance people here haven’t seen them, some wonderful looking devices were created to listen for aircraft.This page has pictures of the German ‘ring horn’ acoustic detector, as well as other neat gear.

  8. W. Patrick Lang says:

    We, the US have been spending billions of dollars on technical solutions, modeling and systems analysis trying to catch people emplacing IEDs. None of it has really worked. Why? Because the solution lies in none technical appraoches. See “The Missing Factor” on “The Athenaeum.” pl

  9. JoeC says:

    What does establishing this kind of position say about the level of threats that have been common for this unit – or its experience in this operating area?
    Is part of the issue here that these kinds of positions have been routinely established and having not been effectively attacked before became SOP?
    Alternatively, are the local insurgents getting smarter about attacking this kind of position? Was this a snatch operation intended to get the ensuing huge media coverage??
    Of interest is a report today on Iraq Slogger that two participants in this action have been captured and have stated that they are not insurgent group members, but rather they were contracted for this operation.

  10. Grimgrin says:

    Col: You’ll get no argument from me there.
    What I found disturbing about the idea the units dispatched to help had run into roadside bombs was the chance that that the attackers had planted those bombs. It seems to add another layer of sophistication to the attack, since it implies they know the routes the American forces would take.

  11. Fred says:

    “The solution” Col., doesn’t the solution to the war (re:GWOT) rely on ideas not technology or firepower?

  12. jonst says:

    They wear a patch predicated on that intervention? Whew….

  13. W. Patrick Lang says:

    The 31st Infantry Regiment and the 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds) were both in that campaign.
    You have a problem with fighting Bolsheviks?
    Army regiments have crests not patches.
    The 31st Infantry Regiment was wiped out in the Bataan campaign and in Japanese prison camps thereafter. pl

  14. Nicholas Weaver says:

    Col Lang:
    Or heck, a remote camera on a tethered balloon?
    What would happen if you stuck the Predator’s camera and communication package on a large weather balloon with a dangling solar panel and radar reflector and left it tied up floating at 10,000-20,000 feet?
    There is no technological silver bullet, but there has to be something better than having 8 people exposed like this.

  15. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Would you not have to defend the point(s) at which the balloon(s) are tethered?
    And how many balloons would be required? pl

  16. walrus says:

    At the risk of being a broken record yet again, the American armed services are uniquely ill equipped for fighting counterinsurgency.
    I do not doubt their courage, intelligence and patriotism, but they have the wrong equipment. The wrong training. The wrong mindset.
    The equipment is still designed for fighting against standing armies. It is nice, but too complex and requires too much support, that means that the “Teeth to Tail ratio” is too low.
    The tactics are just plain wrong on so many levels. WTF are Commanders thinking? You must always assume you are under observation and you never ever do the same thing twice.
    You also use deception plans.
    You don’t establish an effing OP to guard against insurgents planting IED’s anyway, WTF are two Humvees, immobilzed in a sea of razor wire, going to do anyway???
    If you want to guard against this type of activity, you establish ambushes – something I have not heard, in the entire war so far, of any American unit doing successfully.
    You have to take the initiative away from the insurgents, something you cannot do driving around in a helicopter, Humvee, Stryker or whatever confounded armoured vehicle you have. You do it on foot, and at night, you patrol quietly, you set ambushes, so that insurgents never know where you are going to pop up next. You use deception plans, at least one Australian patrol started with a company leaving its base in trucks with swimming gear and beach towels and no weapons.
    I read somewhere else on the internet of a soldier complaining about IED attacks on his unit “we have to do a resupply convoy every two days, and this time they got us.” Who trained this idiot?
    I expect that the insurgents are now gnashing their teeth that they didn’t rig IED’s in some of the houses near the position with a few fake blood trails as well to take out more of the rescuers.
    Sorry for the rant, but I am afraid that this is the beginning of the end for Kagan’s “surge”.

  17. walrus says:

    P.S. The mission was pointless anyway. If you are an insurgent, and you know an outpost is occupied, you simply plant your IED somewhere else.

  18. whynot says:

    While I find every lost soldier in Iraq a tragedy which should never had happened, the search for them reveals the futility of the occupattion.
    If the accounts I’ve been reading are accurate, there have been 4,000 soldiers searching for the 3 missing men. Now, if I’m an insurgent and I see the type of resources placed into finding these men, I would certainly begin devising plans to capture soldiers and keep countless resources occupied on search missions rather than the actual mission (whatever it may be).
    At every turn the cluelessness of our leaders, both military and civilian are laid bare.

  19. Kes says:

    I continue to be amazed by the shock with which everyone is treating this incident. During 2004, my unit conducted this type of operation EVERY DAY outside of Samarra. As part of Gen. Batiste’s undermanned 1st ID. We patrolled a 10K strip of highway using 4 humvee’s on an eight hour rotation. We’d split the platoon in half with two trucks in the north and two in the south. We didn’t use wire as that would hinder our mobility, but we’d spend as many as two consecutive hours stationary at the same set of half a dozen ops every day. There were only so many locations with line of sight and standoff distance from VBIED’s attacking us by veering off the highway. I estimate that during the four or five months that these tactics were applied by us, about 15 RPG’s were fired at our recon troop’s vehicles. Fortunately, none of the rockets hit their mark. Two weeks before we handed over the sector, my two truck patrol fell victim to a complex ambush. As the trial vehicle, I had just passed through our turnaround point and the lead vehicle was already out of the killzone. We took small arms from both sides of the road and atleast 5 RPG’s were fired, all missing. As the driver, I gassed it out of the killzone while my gunner attempted to suppress. It took at least three or four minutes for the other two trucks in my platoon to reach us and air support (apaches) took about twenty. With air cover, we creeped back into the killzone, but the enemy was long gone. Had any of those RPG’s met their mark, I’d either be dead, or captured like the three now MIA. Sometimes I think back about what we could have done differently. However, given the manpower and vehicles at our disposal, I’m at a loss. The roads must be protected, or we can’t supply the guys fighting in the cities. However, it continues to amaze me that the enemy wasn’t more effective. With only limited coordination, they could have placed land mines or IED at our frequently used OPs. Also, rather than one shot pop and run RPG attempts, complex attacks would have killed us easily. In regard to Col. Lang’s comments at the beginning, even though we were Forward Observers in the Artillery attached to scouts, there were no preparations for indirect fires, even though howitzers were within range. I believe this was a conscious decision due to the proximity of local inhabitants, not a act of negligence. Otherwise, without the bodies available to seriously control an area, its proven all too easy for the enemy to take the initiative. We were solely a preventative/reactionary force. I chose to write not because I felt that my unit was “chewed up” or that our situation was unique, but because I genuinely believe that these ad hoc SOP’s were and continue to be used throughout Iraq by countless company sized units. Though inherently risky, the only alternative is to leave the routes completely unguarded and thus invite catastrophic losses when attempting to bring in supplies.

  20. JfM says:

    It appears this was a multiple classic text book case of violating basic principles of the old FM 100-5. After the incident the position over-run was a generously defined as an ‘outpost’ or OP. It was terribly undermanned for what the force was asked/directed to do even if it was occupied on an ad hoc or temporary basis. A key to a successful OP is good fire support planning first, then active patrolling and, at night or during hours of darkness, establishment of listening posts or LPs. LPs are positions forward or out of the wire from the OP itself that serve as early warning to the greater OP. The LP should be at least sufficiently out of the wire as to provide the OP enough time to react to any enemy force approaching the OP. The bottom line on the LP, usually three or so troops, is that the LP may be sacrificed to provide the OP enough time in case of an impending assault to prepare an adequate defense to protect the larger force in the OP.
    Simply stated there were not enough troops to protect themselves in the event of any large scale attack from a determined, well-organized enemy force in the first place. This sort of deployment is war on the cheap. It’s putting insufficient troops in a single position hoping to catch the enemy in oneys or twosies planting an IED before sunrise and not considering that the enemy’s objective that morning was the anemic force itself out there to get them vice planting IEDs in the road. ‘But they had done it like this before, and never got stung.’ Yeah, well guess what…the enemy ain’t stupid. And as any Fort Benning IOB student knows too well, hope is not a course of action. The company commander of this patrol on up thru brigade was woefully negligent. The old combat adage ‘that he who screws up must pay’ is again proven true.

  21. JfM says:

    Mr. Nicholas Weaver, you’re question is a good one and seems to beg a modern technological answer. But fifty years ago in his 1963 history of the Korean War, This Kind of War’, T.R.Fehrenbach’s blunt but eloquently expressed assessment is, if anything, more pertinent today.
    “You may fly over a land forever, you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life–but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.”
    I am the Infantry, follow me.

  22. Cold War Zoomie says:

    “On Point,” a NPR radio program, covered this last night for an hour.
    You can listen here:

  23. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Thanks to the soldiers “old” and serving who have written on this.
    The very worst thing about this from the point of this “dinosaur” is that this little force was put out there without any effective possibility of fire support or reinforcement in the face of an enemy who is both clever and methodical.
    I have done quite a lot of COIN work and I know all about the “hearts and minds” but the first rule of warfare is that you must do everything you can to survive. Sometimes the bear eats you in spite of your best efforts, but these, surely, were not our best efforts.
    No fire support because civilians might get hurt? My men always came first. Always pl

  24. Chris Marlowe says:

    This may be a naive question, but why aren’t there special forces teams fluent in Arabic going on ambushes, at night if necessary, to ambush and go after the guys who set the IEDs?
    After four years of “occupying” an Arab country, is that too much to ask for our tax dollars? Instead of having ordinary troops sitting out there like ducks in a shooting gallery?

  25. W. Patrick Lang says:

    We don’t have such people. I used to teach Arabic. We will never have many such people. The lahguage is too difficult for most people.
    Besides, this was a mission that “ordinary troops” as you put it are trained to do. pl

  26. jCandlish says:

    Perhaps quiet airplanes do not cost enough to be interesting for the DoD.
    Aircraft that are acoustically undetectable above the ambient have been around for awhile.
    re: the YO-3A Quiet Star.

  27. W. Patrick Lang says:

    The point is that no kind of aerial device will provide continuous coverage of all needed points in Iraq. pl

  28. TR Stone says:

    Per your comment about “…we will never have many such people. The language is too difficult for most people”, perhaps the US should only invade English or Spanish speaking countries. The opportunity for success would be much better!

  29. Leila A. says:

    Normally I don’t follow this sort of tactical story in such detail, and my mind still rebels, but now I have a personal interest. A family member by marriage has signed up with the National Guard, requested cavalry (light cavalry? I’ve forgotten the term), completed training last year, went back to college for a year, and is now back at the base in CA, with orders for Ft. Dix and then Baghdad.
    The kid is 20 years old. His mother, my relative by marriage, spent Mothers Day with us weeping. She has been against war since before the kid was born, but he has his own ideas. He thinks this war is just and right. She doesn’t.
    She had to go down to the lawyers last week and sign his living will with him.
    I have known this kid since he was eleven; he’s a good boy – a man now – and I wish him all the best. My heart is in my mouth. And now that I am the mother of sons, I understand this other mother’s fear and heartache.
    I think cavalry in Baghdad is about as dangerous a job as a young man can pick, is it not? And it seems these young men are outnumbered and their superiors don’t really know what they’re doing.
    God help all of them.

  30. Grimgrin says:

    I’ve always wondered if the US army might try applying a ‘market solution’ to the problems of a lack of native speakers. Offer an extra $x/month for people who have language skills in the languages of nations it’s hostile to, or in the languages of places it has bases. Offer free classes in the language on all major bases. Increase the pay increase with greater proficiency in the language.
    Probably wouldn’t result in hordes of fluent Arabic speakers, but I don’t think it could exactly hurt either.

  31. Montag says:

    The Russian Intervention 1917-19 was similar to Iraq in that the goals were ever-changing and you couldn’t tell the enemies without a scorecard–also the “Coalition of the Willing” left in defeat. John Cudahy, an American ambassador, wrote this haunting summation:
    “When the last battalion set sail from Archangel, not a soldier knew no, not even vaguely, why he had fought or why he was going now, and why his comrades were left behind, so many of them beneath wooden crosses.”

  32. arbogast says:

    There certainly appear to be two tiers of enemy forces.
    One seems to be pretty amateurish, the other seems to be very capable.
    I would say that given the constraints of our deployment, every time we meet the capable tier, we will lose. Militarily.
    Tell me why this should continue?
    Who benefits from our defeat?
    Does AIPAC really and truly think they can produce mass conscription in the US with enough defeat on the battlefield?

  33. Yes that was a mission for “ordinary troops.”
    But Mr. Marlowe’s question isn’t as naive as all that. I’ve had a lot of dealings with U.S. troops over the years and they’ve nearly always been disastrously bad at “foreign languages.”
    I’m not sure that the culprit is Arabic’s difficulty per se I think the problem is cultural and is deeper than that. – In general Americans don’t see the need to learn any language other than English or indeed to take note of how other people do things.
    (Yes I know that’s very broadbrush.)
    There’s a proverb in Irish:
    “Cé nach bfhuil láidir, tá ar a bheith gloic.”
    “He who isn’t strong needs to be clever.” and the U.S. forces have consistently been neither strong nor clever in Irak.
    Pity help those young men. I hope and pray the rescue mission succeeds.

  34. jonst says:

    Me personally? I have a problem intervening in the affairs of nations that are none of my business. Whether or not I tend to agree with the style of govt being imposed by the people themselves. Given our nation’s history….and how many nations opposed our revolution, I find it, the campaign in Russia, somewhat ironic. So, yeah, I got a problem with it. You bet.

  35. Alex says:

    I’m reminded of Frank Kitson’s memoir, where he describes the search for a Malayan Communist guerrilla group in his battalion sector. According to his intelligence, the guerrillas would have to cross a road at some point to move between their jungle hideout and – well – anywhere else, for example to collect taxes , conduct an attack, or propagandise.
    He posted OPs – really small ones – placed to confirm which of the possible crossing points weren’t in use.
    This seems to be an example of the reverse – especially Kes’s description, which sounds like the insurgents were using a Kitson counterinsurgency playbook on the counterinsurgents.
    It’s also a classic of getting the scale wrong – not enough force to fight, too much to be inconspicuous.

  36. confusedponderer says:

    jCandlish, Weaver,
    there are wonderful gizmos that are effective and nice if they are at the right place at the right time. My favourite would be the OV-10D Bronco, quieted, with exaust cooling and a new self defense suite, and an RMK-30 turret.
    But however good the weapons applied are, they don’t necessarily win the war. Think of Germany in WW-II.
    To bring another example, I find the fulminations against the Stryker vehicle on the web hysterical, just like the Gavinista’s calls that the stupid and corrupt defense department should instead re-issue the proven M-113. Yeah! I read something thoughtful about use of armor in counter-insurgency recently:

    The Canadian Forces recently deployed tanks in Afghanistan. Arguably, the rationale for using Leopard C2s is similar to the one that determined the Americans to keep M1 Abrams in Iraq after Sadam Hussein’s military defeat: to exploit the tank’s armoured protection.
    The simplest argument against using tanks in small wars and insurgencies was revealed by a senior Canadian officer in an interview with a journalist from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC): ”…the enemy can always build a bigger bomb.” In other words, in guerrilla warfare, when it comes to protection, the difference between a cab and a tank becomes relative, depending the size of the IED used against it.

    That in mind, a Stryker or M-113, it doesn’t really matter as long as both protect you against small arms, and splinters and to a degree against RPGs. The supposed advantage of the M-113 in cross country mobility is moot in the checkpoint/ road control business.
    It might make a difference for reaction forces dashing to find out what happened at an outpost gone quiet. And that only if indeed the 50 year old M-113 has a mobility advantage. I only know that second hand, but after a half-hour cross country dash in an M-113, consult an orthopedist.
    There is no hardware fix for Iraq. Humans fight with their mind. Advantage in technology is only a limited surrogate for manpower, or compensation for the lack thereof. Best sensor in Iraq is probably the trusty Eyeball Mk-1 networked with with the unbeatable supercomputer Brain Mk-1.

  37. Chris Marlowe says:

    Actually, the US is best-positioned for invading and occupying other non-English speaking countries, as long as the country is willing to trust minority immigrants from Arab and other countries. If you go to Detroit, you can get as many Arabic speakers as you want…
    The trouble is that these Arabic speakers often have their own agendas because they have relatives in the area, and might be Sunni or Shia, and take sides appropriately.
    I have never believed in the argument that in order to become an American, someone has to become stupid and ignorant of all other cultures. With the American melting pot of immigrants, in theory at least, Americans should be at a considerable advantage over other countries.
    Now, as a result, the poor white and Hispanic kids who have no language skills get fed into the meat grinder, sitting in Humvees surrounded by concertina wire waiting to get picked off by very experienced and by now, well-trained insurgents or, as most Iraqis would call them by now, freedom fighters.
    Now, if most Americans do not see something wrong with this picture, then I give up…

  38. bg says:

    COL Lang:
    Another question you forgot to ask. How does this event differ from the soldiers who were ambushed and killed in the same area last fall? There was huge fallout from that attack, did we already forget our lessons learned?
    This is at least the third very well coordinated kidnapping raid conducted by insurgents in the area (two in Babil, one in Karbala where the insurgents drove up in SUVs). I suspect the same group probably pulled off all three attacks based on the level of sophistication, lack of any videos and localization. If we are going to discuss tactics, instead of playing Monday morning QB and having outsider discussions about UAVs and ground tactics, we should instead be asking if a task force is being assembled to specifically identify, hunt down and kill or capture this specific group of insurgents. In addition, someone must recognize that these types of attacks are prevalant in this area of operation and additional mitigations specific to this area of operations should be taking place.

  39. Leila A. says:

    re: the language problem – my young Cavalry soldier referenced above grew up in a household of Iranian immigrants; and then for the last decade he has been the much loved step-relative of a Lebanese immigrant who is crazy about Arabic and would have been happy to help the kid learn the language. Sept. 11 happened 5 years ago. The kid has been in college two years. He has had enough time to take Arabic levels I and II.
    He has a lifelong obsession with military tactics and he studies those. If he knew four years ago he wanted to go to Iraq to fight, and was preparing himself militarily, why didn’t he (or someone advising him) pursue Arabic as well? Especially since he could have had an immersion course through his family connections.
    No language is impossible to learn if you immerse yourself in it. Arabic can be heard on satellite television; Arabs abound in the area where my young friend lives.
    And Arabs manage to learn English pretty well…
    Col. Lang, I think the problem with Americans learning Arabic is just fundamental lack of interest. If the culture were interested in Arabic, then individuals inside the culture would get it. I have seen Americans who go to the Middle East learn the language just fine. Maybe not fluent like a native, but they manage.
    The other issue is that most Arabs in this country (and particularly their offspring, legacy speakers) see how futile and miserable and fatal this Iraq project is. THere is no amount of money that would induce any of my Lebanese-American cousins to go to Iraq to translate. If they earned a quarter of a million dollars in a year but lost their lives, what good would the money do? Since my cousins are all well-educated, they don’t need to embark on such horrible jobs. The ones without US residency get great jobs in Dubai. THe ones with US citizenship/residency get great jobs here in the USA.
    What are you going to do, shanghai all legacy Arabic speakers in the country? Not going to happen – even if it did, wouldn’t be efficient.

  40. Montag says:

    On language skills, there’s the case of the Cajuns in Louisiana who in 1916 were forced to go to English-speaking public schools where the attempt was made to BEAT their language out of the children. They were even told that it wasn’t even a real language and that the French would laugh at their gibberish. Fast forward to WWII, Cajun G.I.s arrived in France and found that the French (especially in rural areas where the language had changed less) could understand them just fine. In fact the Cajuns were in demand as military interpreters. They kind of got the last laugh.

  41. W. Patrick Lang says:

    It is true that majority US culture has a difficult time with the idea of actual cultural difference. (See my article “What Iraq should tell us about ourselves” in “Foreign Policy” on line) I have been struggling with that for 40 years. Nevertheless, it true that Arabic is a much more difficult language than several of you seem to wish to believe. The US Army has been trying hard for five years to produce soldiers who have usable Arabic, and are not succeeding. Comparison to people who have lived for extensive periods in Arab countries or Arabs who live here is simply wrong. Many diplomats, immigrants, etc. never learn to speak more than the “pidgin” versions of either Arabic or English depending on the case.
    My former students at West Point are all excellent Arabists. I guess they must be genetically different from the rest of their countrymen.
    I note with interest the usual anti-American crap in some of these messages.

  42. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Your comments with regard to the past record of events in the area of the attack are valuable.
    I do not accept the “old boys club” nonsense about not criticizing commanders in the field. You know as well as I that given a chance comanders in the field and their higher headquarters will not act to enforce better performance. The fear of associated blame is too high in a system that metes out rewards and punishments on a “zero defects” basis.
    I say what we are going to discuss on my blogs.
    The obvious failures in planning and execution in this operation must be examined.
    Was this failure the result of insufficient resources or was this just an example of shoddy work? pl

  43. Tim G says:

    English is a language that one can speak poorly and still communicate.
    After a year of classical Arabic I went to Jordan and discovered I could amuse small children. Once I learned the local dialect I could do better. Fluent? Not really, and I’ve been at it for 25 years.

  44. mikeyes says:

    I may have missed the outcomes, but what has been the fate of other kidnapped soldiers in Iraq?
    We had the case a number of months ago in which a soldier was kidnapped by Sadr militia while visiting family (I think that was the case) and we send in troops to extricate him until the Iraqi government forced us to stop.
    Have there been other kidnappings?

  45. mlaw230 says:

    Col. Lang and others, I have two questions which I
    hope that you will answer;
    1) What coordination role can an active duty three star “Czar” realistically play when his charges out rank him?
    2) Have American forces ever conducted a successful counter insurgency operation in a non English speaking region?
    Last, although I know little about the military, it appears to me that fluency in language depends quite a bit on ones mode of thought. Americans understandably tend to learn Latin, or German or French, far more easily than Asian languages or Arabic. In addition to technical differences which are obvious including a different alphabet, and the common root the flow of thought seems quite different as well.

  46. confusedponderer says:

    Brief thought: Maybe it is really trivial. Maybe there was one of the usual troop rotations. The experienced soldiers went out at the end of the tour, and were replaced by some who had maybe heared the lesson but had not internalised it – whereas the enemy had a chance to build on previous expertise because despite attrition he had years to learn.
    Perhaps even repeated tours are insufficient? Maybe the US need some folks who are ‘doomed’ (and preferrably unmarried) to stay much longer and ensure continuity.

  47. bg says:

    COL Lang:
    My intent to discourage Monday morning QB is not intended to stiffle debate or criticism of ground commanders nor would I presume to tell you what type of debate you should post on your blog.
    Your questions are very valid, but I am more concerned about what will be done with the answers. I am suggesting that it is more useful to determine the disease, not the symptoms, as you stated in your reply, was this an issue of poor planning or poor support? What are the systemic causes of the tactical failure? If they didn’t have night vision or good coms, or if it is an enduring checkpoint, what steps were taken to ID the hazard and mitigate it. What obstacles prevented the mitigation of hazards? Did the intel officer predict this type of attack and was it wargamed? What steps are being taken to prevent a future tactical failure of this type?
    Your questions are very valid, and I am 100% certain they are being asked, my main concern is what will be done with the information and lessons learned. Obviously, we did not learn from last June’s attack in the same area, because it appears that it basically happened again.
    Here is a link discussing the previous attack last June:;_ylt=AkMWalLydQBeQmh9_0pyanGs0NUE
    But I did not agree with the CNN analyt’s comments about “too few troops.” This is too broad of a statement and it implies a solution that more troops would fix the problem.

  48. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Lute will speak in the president’s name, not his own.
    I suppose there will be the usual dissent but I would nominate:
    -The Phillipine Insurrection.
    -Several campaigns in Latin America in the sixties (which I participated in)
    There are others but time presses. pl

  49. Fred says:

    Chris Marlowe,
    Your comment” If you go to Detroit, you can get as many Arabic speakers as you want…The trouble is that these Arabic speakers often have their own agendas because they have relatives in the area, and might be Sunni or Shia, and take sides appropriately.” This seems to be the Bush administration’s rather racist view of American citizens of Arab descent; untrustworthy because of both race and religion. Numerous Arab American’s applied for work as translators with the FBI and other agencies and were turned down or otherwise given the run-a-round.
    As for enlisting in an upopular war,GWB’s own children won’t sign up and he’s not asking them or anyone else to do so. The basic truth is that if you were to sign a four year enlistment today you would be guaranteed two tours in Iraq and a stop loss order, which would give you another. It is a complement to the men and women who do enlist that they are willing to put service to this country above purly self interest, something our politicians and their children appear unwilling to do. Too bad the election is still 18 months away

  50. pbrownlee says:

    Surfing the surge:
    “Baghdad bridge attacked as al Qaeda abducts 23 men
    “For the second time in less than a week, a bomb was activated near a bridge in southeastern Baghdad on Thursday, killing two civilians and injuring five, police said.
    “Last Friday, a large fuel truck approached a checkpoint at the new Diyala Bridge and the driver blew up his vehicle, killing over 10 people, police said. The bridge, which crosses the Diyala River, was damaged, setting fire to police and civilian cars that had been driving across during the attack. Since then, the crossover has been closed to traffic and Iraqis have been walking across it, toward central Baghdad, the AP reported.
    “At 7:30 a.m. local time Thursday, a roadside bomb went off near the entrance to the bridge, killing at least two Iraqi pedestrians and wounding five, police said.
    “Meanwhile, new information also emerged about several attacks in Iraq on Wednesday. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, some 10 gunmen hijacked a bus in Baqouba that was travelling from Baghdad to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, police said. The attackers took 20 women and an unknown number of children off the vehicle, then left with 23 male passengers as hostages, apparently heading toward a nearby al-Qaeda in Iraq stronghold, police said.
    “An apparently co-ordinated attack by five suicide car bombers and scores of gunmen backed by mortars and bombs killed four policemen in the northern Iraqi city Mosul on Wednesday night and injured 30 other people, including 14 police officers, police said.
    “The attacks started after 7 p.m., when two suicide bombers detonated car bombs near the police station in Mosul, 360 kilometres northwest of Baghdad. Another two suicide car bombers blew up near the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan in another area of town, said Wathiq al-Hamdani, provincial chief of police.
    “Another suicide car bomber targeting police was shot by guards before he could reach his target, al-Hamdani said.
    “The series of attacks killed four police and wounded 30 other people, police said. Police fought back, killing 15 gunmen, al-Hamdani said.
    “Also Wednesday, mortar rounds landed inside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone for a second day, killing at least two people and injuring about 10 more. Some a dozen shells crashed into the 3.5-square-mile area of central Baghdad about 4 p.m., news reports claimed.
    © 2007 Al Bawaba (
    Seems the “bad guys” are getting rather better at this sort of thing – “an apparently co-ordinated attack by five suicide car bombers and scores of gunmen backed by mortars and bombs” – delicate use of the word “apparently”.

  51. CJ says:

    Hey Pat –
    I think, given our isolated geography, it isn’t entirely surprising that language skills aren’t more widespread. And culturally, aren’t we more insular than other empires have been? During their turn at empire, the English seemed to produce characters like Burton and Lawrence in higher percentages than we do. Generalizations perhaps. And just to give a quick flog to the MIComplex – when General Dynamics can figure out how to charge 20 million per trained translator, then we probably will have the language skills we need on the ground. Couldn’t resist.

  52. bg says:

    They’ve been several kidnappings over the last year. The one you are referring to was an Iraqi-American who was kidnapped while visiting his wife in Eastern Baghdad. He is still unaccounted for.
    In June 06 three soldiers were kidnapped in a very similar attack to this month’s, their remains were found. At the end of 2006, soldiers were kidnapped during a meeting in Karbala. So this is not a new trend. The unusual thing about all of these kidnappings was not a single one of them resulting in a “Daniel Pearl” video. (which in my minds takes away the possibility that Al Qaeda were involved because that is their M.O.)
    Confused, your point is a real issue that every unit faces when they enter theater, how to retain lessons learned from the previous unit. Some units have embedded soldiers or contractors that overlap tours to offer continuity. As you suggest, the enemy does get smarter and more experienced with each rotation of US troops which usually results in the US troops being very reactive instead of proactive (or reactive using previously attempted methods that are less effective than the first attempt).

  53. Chris Marlowe says:

    Many who have commented here are advocates of the US government spending more on human intelligence, instead of multi-billions on hi-tech devices which cannot get into the hearts and minds of the opponents America finds itself now fighting.
    I find it very ironic that these same people say that Arabic is a very hard language to learn (something I have no reason to doubt). But don’t they realize that by perpetuating this argument, they are feeding the very argument of the military-industrial complex whose influence they are trying to curb?
    If the US can cure polio, put men on the moon, and make many other contributions to ALL of humanity, I simply cannot accept the argument that Arabic is too hard a language to learn. Today, there are 400 million Chinese learning English every day, and I have not heard a single Chinese complain about how English is too hard to learn because of its conjugation, irregular verbs, etc.
    For this reason, I’m forced to the conclusion that the decision not to learn foreign languages is an outdated way of thinking which is baked into American society so deep that it is very hard, if not impossible, to get out.

  54. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Anent Arabic language:
    Our country has been engaged in the Middle East one way or another for some two centuries. We founded educational institutions in the region
    in the 19th century such as American University in Beirut, AU in Cairo, and the old Robert College in Turkey.
    Arabic is the second most popular language at one of the institutions at which I teach. Students at another institution at which I teach are seeking ways to learn Arabic on an intensive basis such as through study abroad in educational institutions in Morocco, Lebanon, and Egypt.
    Here are some facts on the situation from DOS:
    “Demand for Arabic Language Education Rises in the United States”
    and another, same source, “More Americans Tackling “Super-Hard Chinese, Arabic Languages”:
    As students undertake Arabic studies, their perspectives on the Middle East are expanded, something that concerns some elements of the US Zionist lobby. SST readers should be aware that there is an organized effort by hardline Zionist organizations to close down an open intellectual environment on campus when it comes to the Lobby’s pet issues. One org in the machinery is “Campus Watch” created by Neocon Dan Pipes:
    check the Pipes, Rubin, etc. bios at:
    There are similar orgs targeting journalists:

  55. W. Patrick Lang says:

    It is true that Arabic study provides all the benefits that you mention, but its difficulty ensures that few will “master” the “tongue of the angels.” Does anyone test cadets leaving VMI for actual proficiency in the language? Pl

  56. Fred says:

    I don’t think you understand why American children don’t ‘need’ to learn a foreign language. If you grow up in Virginia and drive south to Georgia, guess what, everyone speaks English. Go north to New York, still speaking English; move West to Ohio, Michigan, even California, yep, still English. However if you grow up in France and go East you’ll be speaking German, then Polish and eventually Russian; go North it’s Dutch, South Spanish. Just crossing one border on a 200 mile drive and you have a new language and a new culture. In the US you don’t experience that change – other than colloquial language and local culture issues. The ‘need’, and the incentive, to learn a foreign language is not as great as in other regions of the world, especially as English is still the international language of business and will be for at least another generation.
    As for education, it is our country’s tradition to have local control of schools, from funding to curriculum. Virginia, at least when I grew up there(just after de-segregation), funded French, Spanish and German language offerings in elementary school; when I moved with my family to Florida they had no language choices in elementary school and only two in high school. . In Texas (where I lived for a couple years recently) you’ll find million dollar football programs in high schools and almost no foreign language choices other than Spanish. In Michigan, which is losing its manufacturing base to communist china (perhaps a good topic for the Athenaeum) the funding is getting cut across the board. Again, local funding and local control.

  57. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    PL, Will check with the language department per any final proficiency test for graduating students. Cadets moving on to federal service assessed incoming.
    There are four years offered of standard with what I would imagine are the normal oral-written grading procedures during each year. Instructors are Moroccan academics with other native speakers, such as Iraqi, rotating in as adjuncts. VMI offers a very intensive and effective Summer Language Program at the ALIF institute in Fez, Morocco and it draws students from around the country. ALIF also teams with Dartmouth.
    Students at Washington and Lee University can come next door to VMI to take Arabic. (VMI students can go to W&L for Chinese.) An increasing number of my W&L students are doing this and some add the Fez summer program. One of my students is taking the Middlebury Summer program this summer. As another example, a female student of mine at W&L has done VMI plus Fez and now has a two-year summer internship in federal service in the counter-terrorism field.
    VMI cadets wanting to take a semester abroad have enjoyed their time at American University Cairo, for example. Other cadets have taken semesters abroad or summer programs in Jordan and several this fall will be in Morocco. Still others have been downrange in Iraq. Cadets returning from Iraq have indicated to me that even the most basic prior familiarity with the culture in the region was helpful.
    As a relic of the 1940s, it is quite heartening to me to see the enthusiasm and sincere interest of these young students with respect to the region, its culture, and its problems.

  58. Sid3 says:

    Just my opinion…the polar bear on the Crest is an enormously powerful symbol…if you are working and moving among the people of Siberia. But if I were an Iraqi insurgent, then do you know what I would do when I saw a crest with the symbol of a polar bear? I’d smile and say, “A polar bear can never live in Iraq. Americans are out of place. They cannot adjust.” So I’d point to the Crest in front of all the other militia in the hood and then I’d say, “God is Great”.
    Again…I simply offer the following for speculation, but if I were in Iraq (and I am not) then I think I would design a crest with St. George on it and I’d even put it over the crest with the polar bear to see if that would help matters. If I got in trouble with the “superiors”, then so be it. In fact, it would not be beyond me to try to learn a hymn in Arabic that venerates our Lady of Fatima. Why? Muslims venerate the Virgin Mary and Fatima is the name of the daughter of the Prophet.
    The above is simply offered to provoke conversation.

  59. Margie Burns says:

    Former CIA officer Larry Johnson: “It was not an ambush”

    Still working on zeno’s book, but this is passed along from former CIA office Larry C. Johnson:
    “It Was Not An Ambush

  60. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I know quite a lot about the Arabic progran at VMI. I helped them set it up based on my experience of creating a similar program at West Point.
    It is, of course, very useful to know something of the language in acquiring a “feel” for the culture, but that is not the same thing as aquiring real capability in Arabic as a speaker, reader and/or writer.
    It is completely unrealistic to think that any young person would leave VMI or any other college after university study of Arabic and then be able to function in the field in the language without a lot more experience and practise.
    Incidentally, I used to “inspect” the DLI Arabic Departments. They taught elimentary Arabic and “listeners.”

  61. W. Patrick Lang says:

    The US Army does not change the regimental insignoa of Regular Army units to suit the taste of whatever might be the enemy of the time. pl

  62. Sid3 says:

    Thanks. Dalrymple’s book “Holy Mountain” seems to give us some symbols that may act as a window between East and West. Looks like to me that the symbol of language simply is going to be too difficult to master. So I thought I’d take a few of the symbols mentioned by Dalrymple and mention ’em to see what would happen.

  63. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Pat, I agree entirely that exposure to just standard Arabic over four years in an academic setting removed from the region is quite insufficient for operational purposes in the field. I think this applies to other, less difficult, languages as well and certainly to harder ones like Chinese. With Arabic there are all the regional variations in the spoken language, dialect, etc.
    Yes, considerable field experience in the language as it is spoken (wherever) is required. Serious study abroad in the region is a necessary step for students with long range professional goals. The whole process for Arabic takes as you know much better than I, years.
    What we can do at the undergraduate level is to give an introductory grounding in languages and to give encouragement for serious study abroad and for an open-minded engagement with the cultures and areas concerned. After that, students must have a strong personal drive, and must have the ability, to develop professionally.
    As an example of a foreign program with local dialect content, the Lebanese American University at their summer institute offers Lebanese dialect along with standard and also offers further specialization just in Lebanese dialect.
    There are no quick fixes. We have lost capability nationally through reduced funding in the recent past of valuable area studies programs at the university level. It is going to take time to gear up. There are new federal initiatives but meanwhile…

  64. frimble says:

    This seems to fit the pattern we’ve been seeing for five-years. Too little, too late, over and over again. We’ve had since 2001 (six years ago!) to train arabic speakers – enough time to develop competent (if not eloquent) speakers in any language or dialect. We’ve known since 2001 that we would be engaging with one particular dialect of Arabic.
    In terms of the OP, the pattern repeats. This method worked early on, when most of the resistance’s recruits were raw. But instead of looking ahead and funding ahead, we’ve left our troops underfunded and undernumbered. New tactics have been slow in developing by our leadership. We’ve allowed ourselves to become training targets for their soldiers. And now we are stuck.
    Everything with this war is like that – putting in the minimal possible amount, ignoring the possibility of improvement and adaptation by the enemy, waiting until they’ve overcome our methods, and then minimally, incrementally adapting ourselves. That only ratchets up the violence and never gives us the opportunity to actually win – the situation deteriorates and we barely keep a lid on it.
    Where does that always end? Is that in anybody’s interest? That’s what we get for an MBA president – look at the next quarter. Never, ever think in the long term. Leadership by intimidation rather than strategic thinking.
    This isn’t even pro-war or anti-war. Left-wing or right-wing. Or even Pro-American or Anti-American. It’s just pro-stupidity or anti-stupidity, pro-competence or pro-incompetence. And the buck doesn’t stop with anybody.

  65. Charles says:

    Apropos the crest of the 31st, 4th Battalion, whose missing men and families we pray for, I am minded of the actual bear.
    In the Arctic, the ice shelf is melting and retreating every year. In Spring, each year awakened Polar bears must swim further out to feast for a few weeks only on the fat-laden seals critical to produce and sustain larger litters until next hibernation. For the next generation.
    Polar bears will be extinct in the wild before the end of the century.
    They are Immaculate, yet haven’t a prayer.
    Your troop’s families have mine, as they are of no use to the bears in any event.
    Unless I am wrong in my cosmology, and a miracle delivers the soldiers; whereupon I beg you all to begin praying like hell for the Polar bears.

  66. Cold War Zoomie says:

    After reading some of these posts, it still amazes me how little my fellow sillyvillians understand the military culture. Reminds me of how my friends all had this Rambo-Hollywood view of Uncle Sam’s Armed Forces, and thought for sure that I would have become some super-badass apon my homecoming from Air Force basic training and tech school. Yes, Air Force. IBM in Blue. Not really the baddest of the bad, you know. To be fair, how would they know? It’s not their fault. You don’t learn about it until it’s too late and you’ve signed the dotted line!
    People make fun of Bush’s Air National Guard days, but at least he had to wear a uniform at some point while in flight training. Somwhere along the way he got his head shaved and a guy with chevrons on his sleeve screamed at him.
    That’s more than most these days. I’m glad to see more vets are getting elected into Congress. Maybe they can counterbalance the voters who don’t understand how this machine works.

  67. Herb Thomas says:

    Colonel Lang:
    I appreciate your blog and your (unfortunately rare) appearances on PBS’s News Hour.
    As to the fate of the Fourth of the 31st’s patrol or OP, or whatever it was, God have mercy on them.
    How long before a reasonably definitive statement of what happened is released? Longer than it took for Pat Tillman, I’ll bet. The Army and the Bush administration may keep this incident obfuscated, because it raises questions about the efficacy and sustainability of the surge.
    Americans’ inability/unwillingness to learn hard languages seems a separate subject, and the Bush administration’s reluctance to trust Americans who are native speakers is another issue in itself. I don’t question your description of the difficulty of Arabic for one second. I tried another semitic language, Amharic, and found it stunningly complex. Chinese, by comparison (after 88 weeks at FSI and in Taiwan) was pretty easy to speak and not impossible to read.
    You suggest the difficulty of understanding a serious conversation in rapidly spoken Arabic, much less participating in such a conversation. That’s true for Chinese too, and most other hard languages, I suppose. It is beyond the ability of a level-3 speaker.
    Herb Thomas

  68. Leila A. says:

    Clifford said “VMI cadets wanting to take a semester abroad have enjoyed their time at American University Cairo, for example. Other cadets have taken semesters abroad or summer programs in Jordan and several this fall will be in Morocco. Still others have been downrange in Iraq. Cadets returning from Iraq have indicated to me that even the most basic prior familiarity with the culture in the region was helpful.
    “As a relic of the 1940s, it is quite heartening to me to see the enthusiasm and sincere interest of these young students with respect to the region, its culture, and its problems.”
    I think this proves my point. NEcessity makes it more possible for young Americans to learn Arabic. Sure, it’s hard, but they can do it if they really want to. These fine young cadets know they are really going to need it – knowledge of Arabic might save their lives at some point. So the difficulties of the language are not insurmountable.
    Another question – why aren’t we offering ARabic to children under twelve, when the brain pathways are so much more ripe for new languages?
    After all, we’re going to be in Iraq for a very long time, and Bush says the war on terror will last indefinitely. Might as well start training Arabists when their language processing is most pliable.
    I’ll tell you why- in my opinion. Here in the Bay Area, yuppie parents are falling all over themselves to get their pre-schoolers lessons in Mandarin, Spanish, and French. I even had the same idea for my five-year-old (we live in a Chinese neighborhood) but have yet to act on it.
    But only Muslims are bothering to teach their children Arabic.
    I respectfully suggest that American Muslims are not going to be future CIA translators in huge numbers.
    Why aren’t upwardly mobile Bay ARea parents paying for ARabic lessons for the kiddies? Because, I suggest, Arabic is associated with a culture that has been denigrated, dismissed and ignored in this country. THere’s no glamor in Arabic. Arabs=terrorists even in the supposedly cosmopolitan Bay Area.
    This is what I mean about the cultural influences on the study of Arabic. If it were perceived as a desirable language, parents would be buying their kids the BBC Arabic-For-Kids DVD set (my dentist’s office had the flyer for BBC Spanish, French and German for kids). Parents would be signing up for Arabic Dish Satellite and letting their kids watch Lebanese pop-music shows and old Egyptian movies. With that kind of exposure, the vaunted difficulties of Arabic might not be so incredibly daunting to a young Arabic scholar.

  69. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Leila, Pacific Basin geography and California demographics may play a role in those Chinese/Spanish choices.
    On the Arabic side in a civilian context at Washington & Lee, there has been strong interest in Middle East studies, language, and study abroad. Students here, generally from middle class and above families envision careers in business, in particular, in federal service, or in NGO’s. The Department of Politics in which I teach is housed, interestingly, in the Commerce School which has just celebrated its 100th. The original mission of this school included “international commerce.”
    Many students are looking toward a career in international finance and international business and are open to living and working in the Middle East (or in Asia.)
    Over in the religion department, a new full time professor has been hired to cover Islam owing in no small way to the significant increase of student interest in the Muslim World and their requests for such instruction. As a practical example, one of my students talked to me yesterday about an NGO program she is interested in that would take her to rural areas in Indonesia to teach English and assist with computer learning.
    I am quite convinced that student interest in Arab Studies and in the Muslim World generally is rising across the United States. I am also confident that many, who see current US policy as a disaster, would like to contribute to a constructive engagement in the futue.

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