So, General, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by us today. Today is January the 11th, 2012, and we are in the offices of the Center for Oral History with Major General Robert Abrams—Abe Abrams, as you’re called, right?
Most of the time, we ask people if they come from military families; we don’t need to ask you that question—we know you do. But tell us what it was like to grow up with such a legendary Army figure as your father.
Well, you know, when you’re growing up, when you’re a kid, you don’t really know any different. You know, that was my norm, and to be honest, totally candid, I just thought I was just like any other kid growing up. It wasn’t till much later in life that I realized that clearly I had a much different upbringing and environment to grow up in than any of my peers. I am the son of a soldier. What most people don’t know, though, is both my brothers are soldiers. All three of my sisters married soldiers.
And, you know, of course my mom was an Army spouse for, you know, 38 years, and then, of course, after my dad died she stayed connected with the Army. So it is—it’s everything about me. Since the day I graduated high school, I already had my appointment to the Military Academy and came here, and so this is sort of my life’s work; this is what I’ve known. It’s all I’ve ever known, really, in terms of serving our nation and defending our—what we believe in.
So— but back to your original question so I didn’t think any differently. But I had some unique opportunities as a kid growing up that others didn’t.
Where did you arrive in your father’s career? What was the—
He was the Commanding General of the Third Armored Division. And, you know, in the old, original Cold War— in the deepest, coldest parts of the Cold War. Right before I was born, we had the crisis in Berlin, so there was a lot of challenges. And, you know, I was born overseas, traveled back and forth a couple of times.
Where were you born?
97th General Hospital, Frankfurt, Germany. And—
And your father was the—
Third Armored Division Commander. So he left command; we went back to the States. He served on the Army staff and then went back, commanded Fifth Corps there in Frankfurt. And then, you know, we went back to the States and he was the Vice Chief of Staff, and then—
What did you learn from him?
Well, clearly he was incredibly well-respected based on his personal engagement, his personal experiences, his wartime experiences. I had a unique opportunity. The summer of 1969 I was entering into the third grade. My mom and my two older sisters who lived with us there in Thailand traveled back to the States to care for a sister and sister-in-law who were both having babies that summer. And so I spent two and a half months that summer with my dad in Saigon.
And I tell people that and they go, “How’d that work out?” It worked out great, ’cause I had a unique opportunity that none of my brothers and sisters ever had: I had one-on-one time with my dad for two and a half months.
But he must’ve been incredibly distracted—I mean—
Yes and no. I mean it’s all about what you expect is for norm, but I had an awful lot of contact with him. I saw him just about every day for lunch, ’cause he’d come home and have lunch, and that was his physical fitness time. And then I’d have dinner with him every night, and sometimes there were big groups with his staff— sometimes it was one-on-one time. You know, I learned about commitment. I learned about selfless service.
I tell people today—we talk about the tempo of the Army that we’re under. Year on, year off, the stress on families, and so forth. I tell people, “My dad was in Vietnam five straight years.” And they sort of look at me— “Is that—was that allowed?” Yeah, it was.
Your brothers were with you when you were there?
Yeah, both my brothers. Both brothers were in Vietnam in 1968 with my dad. ’68 was a bad year for my mom. Your husband and two of your sons are in Vietnam in harm’s way, and both my brothers were in serious harm’s way.
So your brothers are older.
They are, yeah.
You’re the youngest.
I’m the youngest of six.
Yeah. Now let’s back up for a minute and go to— you’re eight years old, I guess, when you’re there.
What’s an eight-year-old vision of Saigon in 1969?
It was pretty normal, and yet again, I had unique opportunities. During the day I would be able to travel downtown with one of my dad’s enlisted aides. Go to the PX complex, other things—spent a lot of time at the gym.
You must’ve been under a lot of security, though.
Can you imagine that today?
No, I can’t. And I thought about that in a number of scenarios, that—no. And I did. I learned how to shoot when I was there. My dad’s protective service detail, CID agents, about once a week they’d go out to the firing range to keep their skills up. They took me out, and pretty soon I became a pretty good shot. It was just a unique—it was a unique opportunity.
What did you see that made it clear that you were in a war zone, even as a child, though?
Well, right outside there’s bunkers for indirect fire attacks. You’d hear the air raid sirens— a constant stream of jets taking off and landing at Tan Son Nhat Air Base at all hours of the day and night. Of course I read Stars and Stripes every day. I didn’t read the front page— I was more focused in the back at the comic book page and so forth, the funnies.
But it was clear, and there was many of the people on my dad’s staff—there was a sense of purpose. It was clear. I was there during a couple of conferences that he held. Of course, I wasn’t in the room—I was off—but—
Your dad was not, at that point, a Commanding General, was he? It was Westmoreland.
Yeah, he was.
When did he succeed Westmoreland, then?
Summer of ’68.
Okay, so it was earlier than I thought—okay. So he was pretty busy, then.
He was. So—but it was—and many of the figures that we all know publicly, that I didn’t really understood who they were then. They were these are just—I saw them as friends of my father’s; you know, coworkers.
Like who were you thinking of?
Ellsworth Bunker was, of course, the Ambassador, right?
And William Colby, is that what you said?
Was he the former CIA— or the future CIA Director, I think, I guess.
He was. These were all— these were all notable people. People on his staff we had known as family friends for a long time. Don Coles, you know, General Weyand, you know, he was the Deputy, COMUSMACV—he lived in the same compound.
You had quite a vision on history, then.
I did. And I didn’t realize it until much later in life, really the gift I had to watch all of these figures operate. So now the truth be told, though, is that after my dad passed away, there was a vacuum in my own life in terms of—
Time would’ve been early 1970s— ’74.
So I was a freshman in high school, and both my brothers were busy in their own careers and so forth. And frankly, everybody was kind of hands-off, ’cause they were all— everyone was concerned over what people might perceive as trying to influence what might happen with me. So I was kind of left to my own devices.
Where were you living then?
Well, we moved out of Fort Myer and moved into our family’s home in Falls Church, Virginia.
And you went to a public high school there?
No, I went to Bishop Ireton High School there in Alexandria. It was—at the time it was an all-male Catholic high school. But the family had already planned to put me in there. I was already enrolled and in my freshman year—my first week of school, my dad passed away. Because we knew that at the end of my sophomore year, he was going to retire—he’ll be at the end of his four-year term as the Chief. He had no aspirations to do anything else. We knew we were going to retire to the home, and this would allow me to go to the same high school for four years and give me the best opportunity.
This is part of your dad’s plan for you, then.
It was. Well, both my parents’ plan. So—
But your dad died of cancer, am I right?
Yeah. And that was a long, drawn-out bout with cancer, or was it pretty quick?
Six months, and, you know—
What kind of cancer was it?
Lung, and then got into his lymph nodes. So he had a lung removed and several lymph nodes removed, and was on the road to recovery. He was back semi-at work, working out of the house, and then it—now, this was seems like ages ago. But the medical technology—we just weren’t there. If he’d have contracted the same sort of cancer today, I suspect he probably would’ve lived a lot longer, but—
You were about 13, 14, when he—
Must’ve been a terrible blow at that age to lose your dad, who’s been a role model.
But since you mention that, my mother was a strong personality in her own right. She was a force to be reckoned with.
She lived quite a bit longer. What, she lived into this century.
Absolutely. She passed away in January of 2003. And she was a tough, strong, resilient—she had raised, you know—while my father was busy serving his country and spent a lot of time deployed in tough jobs, she was really the figure who ran the house and raised these kids. So she was—there was no downturn in parental involvement, if you will. But it was—
She was a strong figure, there for you as you needed her to be.
She was, but I mean clearly it was, she had lost the love of her life, and when you lose your spouse, it’s hard to deal with. But she and I persevered and so forth. But where I was going—I didn’t have a real clear idea what I wanted to do. I casually mentioned one summer that maybe—well, I don’t know. Maybe I want to join the Army. And that was my own volition.
Did you have any choice? I mean, when you looked at your brothers—
Oh, I did, absolutely—that’s where I was going. I—
You really thought you could do something else.
Hey, look, I could—oh, I absolutely could have done everything else. And both my brothers had sort of backed away. No one was trying to influence me. No—
MG R. Abrams:
They were. No one—they were both Majors. So I casually mentioned this, and my mother and I were taking a trip to Germany to visit one of my brothers, who was stationed there. And he said, “Well, if you’re really interested, you probably ought to get a taste for it before you go any further.” So he was an Operations Officer; an S-3 of a tank battalion in Gelnhausen, Germany, and we were going to be in Germany for about six weeks. He said, “Okay, I’m going to take you for two weeks. I’m going to assign you to a tank platoon. Got this Second Lieutenant, Bill Hewitt, and he’s going to sort of sponsor you, and you report for duty and do whatever he tells you.”
How old were you then?
15—16. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. So I trotted off and met Lieutenant Hewitt, and I reported for duty in his tank platoon. They were getting ready for an annual general inspection by the Division IG, and so they were working really long, hard hours in the motor pool, getting their tanks and all their equipment ready and soldiers ready and so forth.
And so I’d report in there bright and early every morning, put on my coveralls, get to work, and work like a private all day till I was exhausted. Then I’d be released at 7, 8:00 at night, go to my brother’s quarters and have dinner and fall asleep, get up the next day and repeat. At the end of that two-week experience, I told my brother, I said, “Okay, I really like this. I really—I want to do it.”
What did you like about it? What was the thing?
Oh, I—clear as a bell—camaraderie, teamwork, a sense of purpose—even then. Now, this is the Army of the, you know, mid-’70s, which was not—
The nadir of the Army, really, right?
I mean it’s the low point of the Army.
It was. We had a lot of challenges in our army.
Did you see that in your little two weeks?
Oh, absolutely. You—
What did you see—morale problems—
It wasn’t morale. You could see that there was a lack of purpose. There was the difference between—we had just transferred, become an all-volunteer force, so you still had some who had originally been drafted and then decided to stay on—the senior NCOs—clearly a difference between those. There was some racial tension, and that was clearly evident. The—
You saw this in the interaction—
Absolutely, because I was—I was just down there in this tank platoon. So I could see it firsthand, but I could also see the power of leadership, effective leadership, ’cause there was some leaders in that platoon that were really strong, and there were others that were terrible.
Do you remember the strong ones and what you saw in them?
Sure, absolutely. You know, they had a sense about them. They had competence, confidence. They clearly treated others with dignity and respect. I mean these are words that we apply today for coaching young leaders. It was not part of our culture back then.
How, for instance, did they deal with the racial conflict in a way that demonstrated their leadership?
Oh, it was just a matter of just their personal interaction—treating everyone equally—and they clearly had those that didn’t. So—and that was really a function of the time.
And you picked up on that as a 15-year-old.
Absolutely. I was fortunate, because when my dad was in Vietnam, I went to an international school in Bangkok for five years. 36 nations represented in this international school. I didn’t know it at the time—it was my normal. I didn’t know any different. When I came back to the States, though, and went to a public junior high school where the demographics were much different, there was a lot of racial tension in Arlington County, Virginia, in 1972.
I distinctly remember my third day of school, coming out of the school and the entire junior high was surrounded by about 40 squad cars from Arlington County Police Department. There had been a huge racially-motivated fight at the high school about an hour previous, and they didn’t want it to spill over to the junior high. And I was—and the junior high I went to was—Caucasians were the minority. There was a large African-American populous, and there was a pretty growing Asian-American.
And this was strange to you because you’d been in this diverse high school in—I mean your school in Thailand.
In Thailand, where there was never any issue. ’Cause there was a lot of embassy kids who went to the school, and you know, there’s all sorts of people who lived in Thailand. So for me to see that now in high school. So now fast-forward into what I experienced in this tank platoon. I had already been given the life skills on how to deal with diversity. Many of them obviously had not, and—but what I told my brother, I said, “If I’m going to do this, though, I can tell you right now,” I said, “I need to be a leader, because we, frankly—there’s stupid things going on down there. I’m going to be a junior in high school, and I can figure it out.” And that’s what sort of set me on a course for becoming an officer.
When the Abrams family gets together and you talk about Vietnam, and your father’s role, and the history of that conflict, what is that exchange like?
Well, to be honest with you, when the Abrams, when all the Abrams kids get together, first off, it’s infrequent, which is unfortunate. We’re not—none of us are very proud of it. It’s just hard to get all six of us together. Of course I’m still on active duty, so I’m moving around. Three of them live in Northern Virginia; one lives in Buffalo, New York; one lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee. So getting us together, it’s got to be a significant event.
They were all present when I was promoted and assumed command of Third Infantry Division. The next previous time we had all been together was my mother’s funeral in January of 2003, so eight years had transpired. We can get four together, we can get five together, but getting all six together is difficult. But when we—
But I mean not so much technically, but just—
But when we do—
We rarely talk about that experience in Vietnam—I’ll be honest with you. It’s not—it’s not—mostly what we’ll talk about is those experiences of our lives, growing up in the Army with our parents, where we were together and there was something fairly significant or humorous that occurred, so that we can capture it.
You know the histories here, now—you know that there is at least one faction of historical opinion about Vietnam; that the war is broken into two sections, really: your father’s, and General Westmoreland’s; and that the first was a failure and the second was on its way to success, but Congress pulled the funding out and down it went. Is that the way the Abrams family looks at it? Is that the way you look at it, personally?
No. I think that would be—
What would your history of Vietnam be with respect to your father’s role?
I think that our—my own personal view is that it was a work in progress, and clearly there was a change in—that’s well-documented. I didn’t realize it at the time, but of course, we all know it now. There was a clear change in the strategy to put the Vietnamese in the lead. To coin a current phrase—
By the time your father got there, you mean—
Or sort of roughly shortly after your father got there, it switched to be—
Putting the host nation’s security forces in the lead.
Which, you know, is pretty topical today.
And that we just finished in Iraq, and of course—
And it relates very much to your experience in Iraq.
And—absolutely—and in Afghanistan today. So, our memory is, and my own personal recollection is is that there was a lot of progress being made. I mean, there’s a lot of our nation’s blood and treasure, and in our own family, investment. The fact that my father was there for five straight years really, for us, is that that’s his commitment to what our nation needed done.
And to provide our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and Marines—’cause it was a joint force—the best leadership possible, and the continuity towards our objectives.
But was he an architect of this shift, do you think? Was he a prime mover of this shift of doctrine from the way it had been under General Westmoreland to the way it was under his leadership?
And where did that come from—what was his—did he ever share with you his—
No. No. I was too young to—I mean I can read about it now.
But the—but no. I was too young to have been able to render any opinion. I’ve done a lot of study about it, and clearly that was, this was his vision. So—but that’s sort of our recollection. For us, as a family, our—it was the real commitment, ’cause it really fractured our family in terms of geography and contact and so forth to have both parents in Southeast Asia for five straight years, while you got other children in varying stages in their lives, all over, moving in, moving out.
Two of the brothers had already participated in the campaign, and were back doing other things. So it’s a—that’s our—from a family aspect, that’s sort of our perspective. Then, of course, afterwards, for us, it’s really the formation of an all-volunteer army. I mean that was his vision, and that’s where he was going.
And why do you think he wanted that, or you must know why he wanted that.
Well, he recognized the value of a professional force that was committed. We knew we were going to have to downsize anyway, but the inherent value in a professional army made up of volunteers—and remember, he’d been doing this for 36 years when he became the chief, and—
He’d been through, really, several chapters of the story of the American Army, if you’re going back before World War II and going forward to Vietnam.
Absolutely. I mean his first duty assignment, he was in the Horse Cavalry—Seventh Cavalry; Fort Bliss, Texas. And so much of that shaped his view. If you look at his service as a Battalion Commander in the Thirty-Seventh Tank Battalion in the Fourth Armored Division in World War II, and you study the characters inside that outfit, he knew the inherent value of the difference between those who were professionals and those that were—had just been drafted.
So when you look at the army that you’re serving in, and the one that you served in in Iraq, and you look at two of the most significant characteristics of it—a highly professional force, dedicated in this case to a strategy that understands the nature of civil conflicts, supporting and putting forward the indigenous forces—those are two enormous pieces of your father’s legacy, right?
They are. There’s—as the cliché goes, those that refuse to read history are condemned to repeat it. So much of this ground’s been plowed before. Sometimes we just have difficulty sort of applying it to the current operating environment, the current conditions of the day, but there is a lot of parallel.
Tell me about Iraq, your service in Iraq.
Well, if—I had served in Desert Storm, and so that was a completely sort of a different experience. It was a great experience that—
That’s your first combat experience?
Yeah, that was, as a company commander, and in the First Cavalry Division. And—great leader development opportunity. Things were much, much different—much more austere, where we were. A lot of planning, building, training in preparation, and then all to be, violently executed in a short amount of time, and then sort of our retrograde back. But an incredible experience nonetheless. I learned a lot on that particular experience in terms of empowerment of our junior leaders.
What do you mean by that?
Well, there’s a lot of talk written today about, in a counterinsurgency environment, that these are, centrally-planned, decentralized execution. We’ve got to have a—create a culture of empowerment of training and trusting our junior leaders to act. Tactical actions have strategic impacts.
My own personal experience since I’ve been in—and I’m in my 30th year—to be honest, that’s not much different than what I experienced as a lieutenant serving in the Cold War Germany with a border mission. When I was in the Third Armored Division in support of the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment up on the East-West German border, and serving up at OP Alpha, and it certainly wasn’t any different than my experience as a company commander in Desert Storm—as a HHC company commander and responsible for ensuring that really the sustainment stance of the Battalion Task Force met the needs of the Task Force commander as part of the Brigade’s construct, I had a great deal of authority and autonomy within the commander’s intent to be able to meet that.
What does that do? What is it about providing that kind of respect and autonomy to junior officers that makes the force stronger?
Everyone can—when that occurs, and there is this trust—higher to lower and lower to higher—then it allows multiple, multiple actions to occur simultaneously that create incredible synergy towards achieving your objectives. If subordinates always have to ask, “Mother, may I?” or ask permission, or vice versa; that commander always has to call to direct; you will move, you will do things sequentially. You won’t do them simultaneous.
But what about the other flip side of that it would seem to me, that you have this potential for somebody going off the reservation.
Well, you do. That’s this whole notion of building trust. And there’s three things, really, that you can’t rapidly produce in a unit to get them ready for operations, for combat operations, for deployment: trust, fitness, and discipline. Those three things all take time. You can’t—there’s no magic formula. You can’t put it in a bottle, break it open, sprinkle it on a unit, and out they go the door and suddenly it’s there. Trust happens over time through a number of settings. It happens in training events. It happens in running the Army at echelon in meetings, to sustain yourself to meet our minimum requirements. It happens in personal interaction. It happens socially. This is a big aspect of our culture as an army, the social aspect—this feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself.
Again, I go back to my own experience growing up. I mean that’s one of the things I remember from my parents, and certainly my brothers and sisters. That was always a part of our Army life, was the social aspect. So all of that is to say when you ask, “What’s the—” this is about trust. And so I had earned the trust of my leaders, Battalion and Brigade Commander, and then I trusted that they would underwrite any mistakes that I may make in pursuit of their objectives.
Can people go off the reservation? Sure. And those, I say, you can find those out pretty early in their career: those that are self-serving vs. selfless.
Well, it would seem to me also that this is one of the attributes of a all-volunteer professional army, right? I mean because you have the time to train these people. And you have a volunteer force that’s committed from the action of even joining.
That is one of the inherent benefits of an all-volunteer army. They all voluntarily swear the oath. They may not know when they start what they’re getting into—they may not. Most of them don’t, to be honest—my personal experience, they don’t. But once they’re in, yes, there is a general sense that everyone’s going to give way together towards a common objective. And working together, shoulder to shoulder, being part of a team, has an incredible sense, gives you an incredible sense of self-satisfaction, ’cause you’re part of something much, much bigger than yourself.
Let’s go to your company commander experience in Desert Storm. Did you see any combat during that time?
Well, I guess combat’s relative. So, you know, as an HHC company commander, I wasn’t up on the front lines. The Task Force certainly saw direct-fire contact and direct-fire contact, and I was responsible for providing support to it. There was—I had plenty of opportunities. I’m grateful that we didn’t have any soldiers killed or wounded, but we certainly had more than our fair share of opportunities to get into some scraps.
But the First Cavalry Division was a—was the strategic reserve, and then got committed there at the very end. But they had their role to play, so yes; yes, and no. Yes, I experienced it; no, I didn’t. Probably the most dangerous thing I had to do was drive through unexploded ordnance from the multiple—45 days of bombing that occurred. And you had all these bomblets laying around the battlefield, and I was in a little thin-skinned Humvee. And then dealing with a lot of soldiers—Iraqi soldiers who had been stranded and were just trying to make their way to be captured. That was sort of unnerving; when you’re a single Humvee and it’s just you and your driver, and you come across 30, 40, 50, 60 Iraqis.
What’d you do?
Oh, we detained them, got them under control. I didn’t speak Arabic at the time, and—
Do you now?
I speak a little bit, and I was much better when I was in Iraq. But there wasn’t any fight left in these guys, and there was assorted other issues that a young company commander gets to deal with. But again, I was given a great deal of autonomy to support to ensure the Task Force was sustained. As part of the assistant XO senior sustainer, troubleshooter for the battalion. And it was an incredible experience. But I was lucky—I’d been in the same battalion for four years before we deployed. I’d served as a staff officer, and then I’d commanded a tank company for 20 months.
Let’s fast-forward, ’cause our time is limited.
To your experience in Iraq in this war. You were deployed there when?
2004 and 5, so—
And you saw a lot of experience with Mahdi Army, if I remember correctly.
Yeah, we did, and it’s well-chronicled. There’s a couple of things that we weren’t really sure where Iraq was going in 2003, but we knew we were going to be there much longer than we originally had planned. So when the Division—the first—
You were there after the invasion.
That’s right. The First Cavalry Division had been off-ramped. It was part of the original troop list. And I was at the Army War College when that occurred; when the war started. So Secretary Rumsfeld had off-ramped army divisions for a lot of reasons that are well-chronicled, and so it became apparent by late summer of 2003 that we were going to have to—we weren’t going to keep units there forever. We were going to have to rotate forces. So the First Cavalry Division was alerted, and at that point in the campaign, there was a clear desire to transition to stability operations. We were done with decisive operations—we now want to transition to stability operations. So to set the conditions I was commanding at that time the most modernized, digitized, heavy brigade combat team, modular Brigade combat team in the Army—and not fully modulized, but certainly modernized.
And so the word came, “Hey, you’re going to go.” And then we were well into our train-up, and we found out about three weeks before our NTC rotation that we were not going to be able to take, we were not going to be allowed to take all of our combat vehicles. So we were allowed to take two Bradley company’s and one tank company’s worth of tanks—16 tanks and 30 Bradleys.
And you didn’t think this was enough.
Well, we didn’t know, to be honest. We didn’t know if that was wishful thinking on the—I mean, look, there were great, great leaders who were on the ground in-country who were making these assessments and recommendations. And as I’ve always said, it’s easy when you’re back here sitting in a—the armchair to second-guess and—
Although there was a lot of pressure from the civilian leadership, too.
There was. But again, I’m a believer of—if we’re going to—when we’re deciding what’s really going on on the ground, we probably ought to trust the commander on the ground. And if you don’t trust the commander on the ground, then replace him. Put somebody in there who you can trust, who’s going to give you an honest, candid assessment.
But wasn’t part of the tension at that moment that the fellows on the ground were communicating something to the Defense Department. The Defense Department really didn’t want to do that.
I think that—to be honest, I don’t really have visibility one way or the other as to what was, at that point, in fall of 2003, what was being communicated and what the Defense Department assessed. I know what our mission was. And there was a clear desire to transition to stability operations for all the right reasons. So we changed our training—I had to reorganize. Two tank companies became motorized infantry—“dragoons,” we call them. One of our artillery batteries had to do the same thing. One of the infantry companies had to become motorized, two of the engineer companies. It was quick transformation, but, again great leaders with the right mental—the right framework to operate from—quickly made the transition, recognized it. Looked for ways to maximize and so forth.
We spent a lot of time on language and culture, and to prepare ourselves, we did a lot of contact. I was fortunate; I was going to backfill a unit who—the commander I’d known for a very long time—who had a close personal relationship as the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. Then-Colonel Brad May was the Regimental Commander. So—and then we went and visited in January, and again, I’m a—those that were there on the ground, they have the best understanding of the environment, not someone who’s been there as a tourist for six or seven days. We certainly came away with our own impression. But that was the—so when we arrived there in late March of 2004, this was a— that’s what our plan was.
What was going on in Iraq in 2004 when you got there? How would you characterize the point—
Well, it all—it’s all about timing. And by mid-March when the brigade had arrived in Kuwait, before we had moved up to Iraq, it really had started to turn really bad. And there was three things that occurred that were really bad from my perspective. I was going to East Baghdad, Sadr City, 9 Nissan, everything east of the Tigris River, which, up to that point, had been the quietest, least enemy SIGACTS—least amount of direct-fire contact, quietest AO in all of Iraq without question—and certainly in Baghdad. We had a closure of the Housa newspaper, which was sponsored by and endorsed by the Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement, or the Sadr Current.
Closure—what do you mean by closure?
Ambassador Bremer closed it and said, “Hey, you’re inciting, you know, anti-coalition rhetoric, et cetera, et cetera. You guys got to change your ways or I’m shutting you down,” so he shut them down. So that was number one. In response to that, the Sadrists formed a protest and marched across the bridge to the Green Zone—about 20,000 people—to protest, and that was fairly peaceful. But some rocks were thrown and some other things.
And unfortunately, some soldiers felt threatened, and we had a U.S. soldier kill two protestors. So that was the second significant event. And then, there wasn’t a lot of public apology and so forth. Of course, there was, but it wasn’t public, and it certainly wasn’t strong enough, and they wanted the soldiers tried, and there was this whole investigation that was ongoing.
And then the third thing that happened was there were members of those that were loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr—key advisors—who had already been put on the kill or capture list. I mean they were legitimate targets. And one of them was at a press conference addressing the shooting that had occurred in the Green Zone, outside the Green Zone. And some soldiers who were there in the First Armored Division saw him on TV, so they just went down to the location and arrested him. So those three things absolutely inflamed the Sadr movement, if you will.
Three mistakes, you think?
Well, I don’t—
Because all of them were triggered by—I mean the decision to close down the paper—
The lack of—poor handling of the apology, and then the seizing at the press conference.
I wouldn’t say mistakes, because at that time, based on everything we—I mean remember, hindsight’s always 20/20 or better.
So I’m not saying mistakes.
But do you think it would’ve blown anyway?
No. Well, I think it would’ve happened much, much differently, and probably under conditions more conducive to us. And that was really for us, as we were—you’re always most vulnerable in transitions—always. So now we’re in the middle of a huge transition. First Armored Division’s on the way out. First Cavalry Division’s on its way in. And the confluence of those events, on top of these three separate events, really made us vulnerable. And—
But it does feel like they were mistakes. I’m not trying to get you to say that, but—
No. Well, I—
It must’ve felt like, “If we had only done it differently.”
No. In hindsight, if we had done it differently.
But as we were leading up to it, we—
You were saying it made sense in the moment.
We could see—absolutely made sense in the moment. Absolutely, it made sense. So I would never second-guess those decisions. And certainly the actions—those soldiers did not mean to kill those two protestors. Things happen like that. When you’re 50 guys, and there’s 20,000 people at the gate, and you’re worried for your safety—we certainly mourn the loss of life. We don’t condone it. They weren’t shooting wildly, spraying madly. They were trying to use good restraint.
But things happen in chaotic situations.
So I’d certainly never, never say that those were mistakes. But there was, as a new guy coming in—and I had a Battalion Commander—this is fairly well written about in a book called The Long Road Home. It was written by Martha Raddatz; published in 2006. It sort of talks to all of this.
But I had a battalion Ccmmander who was on the ground for about three weeks earlier because the policy—the boots-on-the-ground policy by Secretary Rumsfeld—there was no wiggle room, and so and no one wanted to go back and say, “Hey, we need to extend this squadron out of the Second Cav an extra month, ’cause they got here a month earlier.” No one wanted to do that. And there was no justification, because Sadr City was so quiet.
It was peaceful, quiet, yeah.
They had one fatality in the previous nine months—one. So we assumed some risk, and—but I had a Battalion Commander there with about 40 of his leaders, and he had been riding around and dealing and learning and so forth. And I was in daily dialogue—well I was down in Kuwait—on email. And he said, “Hey, sir, I’m just telling you—something’s not right. Things are brewing here, and I’m not sure everybody sees it.”
And so again, as a new guy, your tendency is to say, “Oh, the sky is falling. You guys don’t understand; this is really bad.” I don’t ever subscribe to that, because those that are there, I mean they know. They have forgotten already a lot about the AO that we’ll ever learn. I mean they had experienced it, and you have to trust, and I did trust, their own commander’s assessment, and their instincts. Well, I think what we underestimated as a force was what was going to be the breaking point for the militia, and then what were their actions going to be.
Because up to that point, they had been fairly controlled, so there was a large show-of-force parade by the Sadr militia on the 2nd of April, and they had blocked off the city so we couldn’t observe it. And we didn’t want to enflame things, so. And then the 4th of April we had a platoon that had spent the day in the city escorting sewage vacuum trucks to take the raw sewage off the streets, and they had dropped them off at the governmental center and were on their way back. There were some reports of people with weapons, so they stopped off and, yep, saw those guys with the weapons and said, “Okay, we’ll break contact. We’re going to go back to our base now.”
And they did, and as they were on their way out, they were attacked by probably 3 or 400 guys, and we spent the rest of the night—both—two vehicles were immobilized, and they became under serious attack. Took us about four hours to establish link-up and extract them. By the end of the night—oh, and the militia had taken over all the police stations, all eight police stations in Sadr City, and basically ransacked the place. It took us all night. It took us four hours to regain contact with the platoon and get them out, and took us till about 3:00 in the morning to reestablish control. We had to attack on multiple axes to seize back the police stations. But when the sun came up we had eight soldiers killed, 63 very seriously wounded, but we had the city back under control. And that started about 80 straight days of nonstop fighting in Sadr City.
Wow. That’s tough.
It was tough. There were some days that sort of shook your faith, but I will tell you that the—because it’s tough when you’re losing soldiers. Now, we never experienced another day that bad, and when you read the book—and I’ve reread it again recently—there’ll be some that said then, and they’ll say now, “Gosh, why did you send people into that city, into that firefight, in unarmored vehicles?”
Well, we didn’t have all our—we had just arrived. I wasn’t even the battle space owner. I was still—I was subordinate to Brad May, my good friend, and that night—and everyone was doing everything they possibly could, but the Bradleys had just arrived—hadn’t been fully—I mean within 24 hours, and we had no premonition that we were going to be fighting that way, and they weren’t even supposed to take over the AO for another three or four days.
So clearly something went wrong to set up the situation, and—
I’m not saying they were mistakes. I mean clearly they had not read the Mahdi Army well in their sense of intelligence.
Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of not reading it. I think there was an underestimation as to what Muqtada al-Sadr could mobilize, ’cause up to that point, he had not mobilized anything. He—
But you didn’t think he had the potential to do what he did? Do you think even he was surprised about the following that he was able—
I don’t think he was surprised. I think that is what surprised us. Everyone who was there that—
Misread his capabilities, then, in a sense.
And who’s—not pointing fingers, who’s to blame for that? What should’ve happened that we didn’t do?
We should’ve killed or captured him much earlier. He was a threat. He was a clear threat. We chose not to.
We chose not to believe—
I shouldn’t say kill or capture—detain him, which certainly would’ve been capable.
Did you meet him?
No. I met a lot of people who were very close to him.
What’s your sense of him? What was it that made him—he was a leader in his own way?
It’s got nothing to do with him—it’s got everything to do with his father.
Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr was martyred along with one of Muqtada’s brothers in 1999 at the Muhsin Mosque on Chwader Street, and right just north of the Jamilla Market. And Muqtada—or Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr had been a champion for—he was the originator of the Sadr Current. Really focused on taking care of the poor, disenfranchised Shia, most of whom had been dislocated post-Desert Storm from the south, from their homes down in Amara and al-Kut, and other places down south, and had been displaced up into Sadr City. But he was the champion of the poor.
And he had his own views of Sharia law and the enforcement thereof—he believed—he was constantly a thorn in the side of Saddam Hussein, who ultimately killed him—had his police kill him in 1999 because he was constantly causing trouble in Baghdad and other places. So they killed him—they martyred him. And so the memory of him, and the Sadr Current—there were several people in the Sadr movement who to this day still believe in the principles behind the Sadr Current, which is hey, we got to take care of all these poor people. We got to get them medical care. We got to educate them. We got to give them an opportunity. We got to take care of their basic human essential needs. There are others that want to exploit it for other reasons—for their own personal power. So—
Isn’t it ironic, I mean, that here we have a chain of events where his martyrdom at the hands of Saddam Hussein, whom we remove, yet we get a new wave of violence against us, even though we were the agent of Saddam’s removal.
He was—Muqtada al-Sadr was pretty plainspoken in the summer of 2003 and said, “We’re thankful, we’re grateful. Please leave.” Because he had an opportunity to assert himself as a political figure and as a leader and as a power broker in Iraq, which is what he wanted. Which is really what his advisors wanted, and he wanted on behalf of his father’s movement. And from the beginning, I’ll give him credit for consistency. He was consistent. When he returned from—you know, Muqtada was out of the country, so when he returned from Iran, he was pretty consistent in his message. “Thank you very much. Please leave, and we’ll take it from here,” was sort of his attitude. And that—we underestimated how much power and how much influence he had to be able to mobilize the people against us.
Well, then here’s a piece of irony, because we just talked a few minutes ago about your father and the doctrine of putting the indigenous soldiers forward. Our intention from the beginning was to move to stability operations and extract ourselves from Iraq. And here he’s saying, “Leave,” and we’re saying, “We’re in the process of leaving,” right? And yet a new wave of violence, created basically under his guidance, leads to our having to stay.
Correct. That act—between that and the killing of the Blackwater—security guys and, their—
Their hanging there in Fallujah —those two events—
If there was any space that we were on a path for—to transition in short order out of Iraq, it was all—it was all gone at that point. And again, we fought for 80 straight days, and it wasn’t like that everywhere in Iraq, but over on the east side of the Tigris River, it was every single night.
Why was he so tough to defeat? He seemed like such a minor force, really.
Well, first off, we are operating amongst the people. Now, in Baghdad, unlike in other places—I mean Baghdad’s a city the size of Austin, Texas, size-wise, with eight million people.
So the geography and the real estate the size of Austin, Texas, with eight million people.
That’s right, so it’s a incredibly challenging environment. And we were—we didn’t—we took an approach. Our tactic was not to—was to not have to evacuate the city to clear it out of all of those who were undesirable, and then allow all the people back in. It would’ve been a—it would’ve been a humanitarian disaster if we had attempted to do something like that—a siege of a city that size.
So our tactic was along multiple lines. Clearly, in some parts of the city we could—where things were pretty peaceful, we could start to restore essential services, start to help them form their nascent sort of self-governmental structure in some sort of democratic form, with advisory councils and so forth. And in other places where you had those that just absolutely did not want to get on board with either of those, we had to fight. But our tactic was—so we chose to fight them in and amongst the people.
Why did it take so—first off, we’re talking numbers. You haven’t asked me about numbers, but that’s well-documented, how many people you need to operate and—
Well, speak to it, because—
Well, to be successful in a counterinsurgency, we didn’t want to immediately grab hold of—we were in the middle of an insurgency, but in fact, for stability operations, General Shinseki’s on record with all of his experience in the Balkans and other places and from history, that you need a fair amount of forces to be able to secure the populace, separate the populace from those that don’t want to join the program and insurgents, if you will. And you either have to get them to change their minds, or you’re going to have to detain them or kill them. So and we—
And that takes a lot of boots on the ground to do that.
It takes a lot of boots on the ground. And we didn’t have a lot of boots on the ground in comparison. So, and there was plenty of work going on in the rest of Baghdad and throughout Iraq, so in my particular AO, we had about 4,000 soldiers in the First Brigade combat team. And everybody had their challenges, and spread pretty thin, and there was a lot of them and relatively few of us.
It just takes time. We knew, though—I can tell you the commanders knew that we did not want to get into a battle of attrition, ’cause they’re going to win. But—
And that’s a basic rule of thumb, isn’t it, of all warfare, that if they’re fighting for their homeland, and you’re an invading force—
Sure, but I’m in their neighborhood.
And—but what wins the day, which takes time, instead of it being eighty days, why couldn’t we get it done in two weeks? Well, the other thing is so if you’re going to operate in amongst the people and you’re going to fight in their neighborhoods, you’ve got to do so, though, with precision. You have to do so with—and treat those noncombatants with dignity and respect. You have to respect them.
We didn’t—to fly a helicopter—to use a helicopter in direct fire mode on Sadr City took my approval. We didn’t shoot artillery. We didn’t use all our combat enablers. I allowed the Battalion Commander to decide whether he was going to use main gun off his primary fighting systems. But this was largely a dismounted operation with—at the platoon level enablers. We used a lot of ISR capability. We had shadow UAV, we had Predator, we had not enough full-motion video, but we had, we had a lot.
We utilized helicopters for observation, maintain contact, and so forth. So it’s just going to take time. And we had to go find—we had to go find weapon sites, caches, storage points, leaders—
Well, you needed intelligence, then, right?
So we’ve got a lot, working a lot of human intelligence takes time. A lot of these networks hadn’t been fully established, so that takes time as well. So—but when you’re in there every night, killing 20 or 30 bad guys, they’re not going to come out in the day because all the people are out during the day. They’re going to come out at night. In many cases, they’re trying to establish their own local security; enforce Sharia Law, kill policemen, attack police stations, and so forth, so that’s what really sort of caused it.
But it does take time. We knew—we knew we were getting successful when a couple of things happened. First off, and the bad guys were always making mistakes. The militia, for all their talk, they were incredibly ill-disciplined, and they actually killed more civilians than we ever did. They had a horrific mortar attack where they dropped about 10 mortar rounds right in the middle of a market. I mean they were a thousand meters short of our positions. And I don’t know, they killed 30 people and wounded another 50—it was bad. And—
And did they look upon this with resentment towards—
People in the market know who’s responsible for that.
Without question. Well, first of all, we told them, but they all knew. They all knew as well, because they knew who was firing it, and they could hear the firing.
Absolutely. The second one is when the fighting-age men started, the young ones—I’m talking 17 to 25. When they started to dry up, they couldn’t get them out in the street to carry a weapon, then we knew when we started seeing really old guys and kids. When we started seeing 12 and 13-year-old kids carrying weapons to do things, we knew that they were on the ropes.
Same thing happened in Germany, right, in World War II—basically it’s another rule of thumb.
So there’s a lot of parallel.
If you were to do it over again, what would you have done differently?
Oh, for Iraq?
What did you learn, in other words, that if a—
That you’d like to impart to a cadet, for instance, who might be in that situation 15 years from now, and such?
You need to be—we talk about it. And I’m—this is hard for me to admit, ’cause I had talked about it from the—it’s always been a part of my own personal leadership style. You have to be ready to fight from day one. Not always looking for a fight—don’t go pick a fight—but you must be ready to fight from the moment you get there.
And you’re saying this is hard for you to say because you thought you were not ready for it?
Oh, no, we were ready, but we weren’t ready for this.
You weren’t ready for the right thing.
We weren’t ready for that.
And it’s hard to predict. You’re going to a stability operation. Now, you’re organized that way. You had trained that way. We certainly had—I mean, clearly, by our record that night, even though we suffered a lot of casualties, the truth is it could’ve been a lot worse. It could’ve been incredibly worse. It wasn’t, ’cause we had done proper medical training at the individual soldier level—combat lifesavers. We had great medics, physician’s assistants, and medical doctors, at a consolidated aid station. They all went to—’cause we were in transition, we actually had three aid stations on one camp, so a lot of docs. The weather was good. We flew dust-offs—I don’t remember how many we flew—lots. You know, to get out 63 very seriously injured, lots.
And our soldiers were incredibly lethal that night—heroic actions. The Battalion Commander at the memorial ceremony said that, “Uncommon valor was common that night.” Absolutely unbelievable things that were done. So it could’ve been a lot worse, so they were ready to fight. What will always haunt us who were responsible is we should’ve never been in thin-skinned vehicles.
And we knew that. I had made a strong case to get more, and they were coming, but when the enemy—the enemy always has a vote. That—for a young cadet, you can have the greatest plan in the world—the enemy has a vote, and so there’s risk that you assume. We assumed risk by having soldiers in unarmored vehicles. And if I had to do it over again, that night we got—the events that occurred that night, I’ll never second-guess the decisions that were made to send more people in in thin vehicles to get those guys who were cut off.
Do I wish they had done it differently, to not have so many people wounded? Yes. But I also know that had they not made that attempt that took pressure off the platoon, ’cause there was people who were moving to fight them instead of trying to get after the platoon, ’cause they were really trying to take this platoon. They were trying to capture the platoon, and they were holed up in a good spot. So really, the message is hey, when you get there, you need to be ready, and you need to be ready for all contingencies.
One of the lessons must be if you’re a soldier, be prepared to be surprised.
Always. Things are not always going to go your way the way you envision it. You have to be flexible. You have to be ready for the unexpected, and have that sort of a mindset. You can’t let it break down. But the other thing I’d say is—and this is probably one of the proudest things I have of that whole experience. When the sun came up, everything was back under our control. No one—we had 100 percent accountability of everybody. We had retaken all the police stations. We had evacuated all our wounded. Everything was accounted for. There could’ve been a lot of wringing of hands and lack of fight in a unit.
So that all goes to the professionalism.
Professionalism—trust in their leaders, commitment to their mission, commitment to their buddies’ memory. And they did so for the next 80 days with precision. There was no—I can look anybody in the camera today or look anybody in the eye today and say, “We didn’t have killing sprees,” even though there was soldiers who were plenty angry. We didn’t have any, in this particular outfit, we didn’t have any murdering of civilians. We didn’t have any mistreatment of detainees. The one allegation of detainee abuse that we did have was investigated, and I court-martialed the Sergeant who was responsible. But that was an isolated incident. But that goes to the training, professionalism, commitment of our force.
So the temptation for revenge was resisted.
It was. And it was clearly there. They’re humans. So that’s what I always impart on young leaders. This is about you got to be a leader of character, ’cause that doesn’t happen without leaders at every level who walk the walk in terms of our Army values—being leaders of character. It’s not a cliché. It really works. But it happens in actions, not in words. You have to live it. It’s got to be that platoon leader who’s out there on point who says, “No, we’re not going to do that. No, we’re going to use restraint.” That’s the difference.
Character comes out in context, is what you mean.
It absolutely does. You have to be an expert in your craft; you got to know your job. And then soldiers, you got to take care of soldiers. You got to be tough. You got to discipline them. You got to give them a great environment. You got to ensure they’re fit, that they’re competent. You have to endure the hardships along with them.
There’s the old saying that people want to—before they want to hear about all that you know, they just want to know that you care. Soldiers today in a professional army will do anything we ask them to do. They just want to know that their leaders are going to take care of them first. Then they’ll do anything. And I’ve watched it—I watched it that night. I watched it the next 80 days. I watched it for the whole year. I’ve been watching it for the last 10 years. That’s the difference between really high-performing units and those that aren’t—that level of trust. And that’s really fundamentally at the base of this.
Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
Thanks very much. I hope some of that was useful.
|topics||Leadership Wartime Decisions|
|date||11 January 2012|
|unit||3rd Infantry Division|