“Get some! is the unofficial Marine Corps cheer…. Get some! expresses, in two simple words, the excitement, the fear, the feelings of power and the erotic-tinged thrill that come from confronting the extreme physical and emotional challenges posed by death, which is, of course, what war is all about.”
– Evan Wright, Generation Kill
There is perhaps “no better combined-arms raid force in the world” than a Marine Expeditionary Unit, Col. Jeffery Bearor told National Review Online Friday. Unfortunately for Shiite firebrand Moqtada al Sadr, that’s just the force that has been brought to bear on his Mahdi-army militiamen in and around the holy city of Najaf.
On August 5, after months of allowing al Sadr’s insurgency to go virtually unchecked, the newly arrived 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (11th MEU)–including attached U.S. Army cavalry elements and Iraqi National Guard troops–began battling the Mahdi army in force.
Last Thursday, the 11th MEU launched a major offensive toward Najaf’s city center. On Friday, a tenuous ceasefire was called to allow for negotiations between Iraqi-government officials and al Sadr’s chief lieutenants. The talks broke down on Saturday, and the U.S.-led force resumed the offensive early Sunday.
Perhaps al Sadr, reportedly slightly wounded, believes he can buy more time. Perhaps, he hopes Najaf will become another Fallujah: There, al Qaeda strongman Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s guerilla forces were being systematically destroyed by U.S. Marines when–in a glaring political move–the Americans were called off to allow a somewhat impotent all-Iraqi brigade to move into the city in early May (Fallujah is still a dangerous battle-zone and Zarqawi is still at large).
Perhaps al Sadr believes his ranks will swell dramatically if the Americans continue pressing the attack, particularly if holy sites like Najaf’s Imam Ali mosque are directly targeted, collaterally damaged, or destroyed. The mosque, which has been used as a battlefield sanctuary by Mahdi militiamen, is adjacent to a vast cemetery where much of the fighting has taken place.
Exhorting his followers to continue battling the Americans even if he is captured or killed, al Sadr may be beginning to accept that his days are numbered. Or he may be trying to infuse a fighting spirit in his militiamen.
Either way, he is clearly underestimating the determination of the fledgling Iraqi government and U.S. military commanders to ensure that Najaf will be no Fallujah.
Arrayed against al Sadr is the 11th MEU–a 2,200-man task force comprised of a Marine-infantry battalion reinforced with tanks, light armored vehicles, attack helicopters, and Navy and Marine Corps warplanes roaring in from ashore carriers.
MEU’s like the 11th are particularly “well-suited for small-scale, point-of-the-spear operations,” says Bearor, the chief of staff for the Marine Corps Training and Education Command at Quantico, Virginia.
The reasoning, Bearor states, is because as battle tough as every leatherneck is trained to be, Marines (and attached sailors) in the MEUs receive additional high-intensity training in both conventional and unconventional warfare not unlike that which they are facing in Najaf. All forward-deployed MEUs in the 21st century are designated MEU (SOC)–an acronym suggesting a hard-hitting force, which a MEU (SOC) is–but SOC actually stands for special operations capable.
“We expect MEUs to be able to flawlessly perform myriad special and specialized operations in nearly any environment,” says Bearor. “The fully integrated nature of the MEU, which brings together the command element, ground and air-combat elements, and the service-support element early for an intense round of collective training activities means that the MEUs are the most highly trained air-ground-logistics combined-arms units in the world.”
He adds, “Their command-and-control apparatus and ability to ‘turn-on-a-dime’ driven by a planning cycle measured in hours not days means they are hugely useful to the combatant commanders on the ground for a variety of missions.”
Still, the success of the MEU lies within the ability of each Marine to draw on personal stamina, sharp eyes, quick reflexes, and plenty of motivation and heart on the mean streets of Najaf.
Marines in the attack say they are going “get some,” a leatherneck-battle cry “shouted when a brother Marine is struggling to beat his personal best in a fitness run,” writes Rolling Stone contributing editor Evan Wright in his best-selling book, Generation Kill (about the Marines during the spring 2003 offensive phase of the Iraqi war). “['Get some'] is the cry of exhilaration after firing a burst from a .50-caliber machine gun.” It is the cry shouted by fist-pumping Marines on the ground when a flight of Cobra helicopters thunders overhead. According to Wright, nearly every Marine he met in Iraq was hoping the war would be his chance to “get some.”
Many in the 11th MEU have had the opportunity to “get some” over the past several days.
For instance, during the early hours of the Najaf offensive, Fox News reporter Tadek Markowski described how one Marine was knocked down by a grenade blast, shrapnel tearing into his face. Minutes later, the Marine was back on his feet, weapon in hand and fighting back.
Such performance is not unusual for Marines, says Lt. Col. Thomas V. Johnson of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force currently deployed in Iraq. According to Johnson, al Sadr’s forces in Najaf–much like al Zarqawi’s in Fallujah–are committed to fighting to the death. But American troops in the region are equally committed to killing them.
“The Marines respect the cunning and the not-afraid-to-die attitude of the sneaky bastards, but they [Marines] have dispatched their fair share [of enemy combatants],” Johnson told NRO just hours before the launching of the Najaf offensive. “So there is definitely no super-human mystique about these folks.”
He adds, “Our morale is often at its highest when we are in the most inhospitable of places. We are being challenged daily and each day the Marines rise to meet those challenges with few complaints and lots of heart.”
Still, Najaf is “a big scrap,” says Lt. Col John L. Mayer, commanding officer, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. “One of the toughest I’ve ever been in.”
Marines aren’t the only American combatants taking the fight to al Sadr. Attached to the MEU are elements totaling approximately 1,000 men of the U.S. Army’s crack 1st Cavalry Division: A force that has proven to be equally adept at rooting out insurgents. Recognizable by their big yellow shoulder patches with the black horse-head silhouettes, 1st cavalry troopers retired their horses decades ago. Today they ride into battle much like other soldiers: in helicopters and armored personnel carriers.
Despite overwhelming combat support, American Marines and soldiers are often asked to perform with one hand tied behind their backs. 1st Lt Michael J. Borneo of the 11th MEU says his platoon tries to avoid shooting at or into religious shrines and hospitals, even when inhabited by the enemy. And the enemy knows that.
“We see guys who will drop their weapons, run into a hospital, come out in the street, see what we are doing, and run back into the hospital,” he says “Then we see the same guy later pick up a weapon and shoot at us.”
How bad is the fighting for the average citizen in Najaf? A great deal of print and broadcast reporting from that city has included much in the way of imagery showing kinetic, combat operations.
“The other portion of that picture is one of relative calm in about 80 percent of the city as residents carry out their usual routines,” says Johnson. “The Mahdi Militia forces have been confined to a fairly small portion in the center of the city. They have attacked Iraqi police stations near there, but the Iraqi police have decisively repelled each attack. They [Iraqi police] are holding their own for sure.”
Regarding rumors that thousands of Iraqi refugees are fleeing the city, Johnson adds, “some residents have left over the past seven days, but there has been no mass exodus of civilians. Families have even shown up at the cemetery to bury their dead. One family was pinned down by enemy forces and Marines intervened to get them out of the line of fire.”
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while other Marines and soldiers were racing toward Baghdad, the 11th MEU played only supporting roles. The unit operated a temporary holding facility for captured enemy soldiers and participated in searches for weapons of mass destruction. Returning to Camp Pendleton, California in May of that year, the MEU redeployed to Iraq late last month replacing soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division, the Army’s famous “Big Red One.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.