Seventeen-years-ago, Daniel P. Bolger, U.S. Army officer and military-history professor at West Point wrote, “In the final reckoning, wars are won by men, not weapons. Fortunately, the United States has the right sort of men.”
Today, as a brigadier general on the ground in Iraq, Bolger says the Iraqis are also turning out “the right sort of men.” These are the men who join the army for all the right reasons: Not for reasons of self, money, or opportunity.
“They [the Iraqis] don’t have to join–it is all voluntary,” Bolger, commanding general of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team, tells National Review Online. “A young man can find many jobs in today’s Iraq, including new ones like selling cars; now widely available to most folks: or cell phones; a true post-Saddam ‘must have’ item.”
Skeptics and those opposed to the war contend that young Iraqi men join because of a lack of opportunities in that country. The army, they say, offers about $300 a month. “But the enemy will pay a person $300 a night to plant roadside bombs,” says Bolger. “It is more than money. It is patriotism and a sense of duty. In fact, one of the most often heard reasons for Iraqi privates joining the army is, “It is my duty.”
Unfortunately, many Americans seem clueless to that fact. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, host Tim Russert asked Senator John McCain, if “American kids” are “trained for a couple of months and sent to Iraq,” why can’t the same be demanded of “Iraqi kids?”
Fact is, like their U.S. counterparts, thousands of young Iraqis–Bolger’s “right sort of men”–are volunteering for service and training to become soldiers at several basic training facilities and officer academies located across Iraq.
At both schools, training lasts five weeks (comparable boot-camp training lasts nine weeks for the U.S. Army, eight weeks for the U.S. Navy, six weeks for the U.S. Air Force, and 12 weeks for U.S. Marines). “Iraqi basic training is shorter than American basic training because the Iraqi military has fewer weapons and less complex equipment and tactics,” says Bolger. “There is, of course, room to grow.”
Like American GIs, newly minted Iraqi soldiers move on to advanced training. Infantrymen, for example, must attend an additional seven-week course in infantry skills and tactics.
In addition to the Iraqi army’s basic training camps, army divisions occasionally receive permission to train members of the former Iraqi army at specific divisional training centers. Army divisions also operate separate training camps for noncommissioned officer (NCO) schools where instructors train future squad leaders and platoon sergeants. And three academies–Ar Rustamiyah, Qualachulon, and Zakho–turn out commissioned officers in one-year training programs. The small Iraqi navy and its marine battalion train at Umm Qasr, on Iraq’s northern Arabian Gulf coast. And the small Iraqi air force will soon open its own training center.
Though a few noncombatant females also serve in the Iraqi armed forces, they are not trained at infantry-based centers like Kirkush. Training females is handled directly by the Iraqi ministry of defense.
“There is the same emphasis [as in American boot camps] on teamwork, physical fitness, mental toughness, and shooting,” says Bolger. “Iraqi soldiers in the former army fired 12 bullets a year. Today’s Iraqi recruits each shoot more than 600 rifle rounds in marksmanship training.”
Attrition varies from one class to the next, Bolger adds, but the rates have run as little as five percent to as high as 20 percent in isolated cases. “Attrition has been lower in recent classes as the Iraqi military gains greater societal acceptance and as the new standards are more widely understood by prospective recruits,” he says.
The training instructors are the best in the world: U.S. Marine and Army officers and NCOs who have spent time as instructors on American drill fields, as well as those from British and Australian military forces. They not only train Iraqis, but assist in the selection and training of Iraqi drill instructors.
Each training facility and division has a marching band. “And they are good,” says Bolger. “The Iraqis understand that being a soldier does take some appeal to emotion and pride, and drill and ceremonies can instill that.”
He adds, “The Iraqi army is proud of its hard fight against the Iranians during the 1980s. They blame Saddam for causing that unnecessary war, but they rightly celebrate their courage and skill in fighting it. For example, in a recent parade at Taji Base, a new Iraqi armored unit had the band play ‘We are walking to war,’ the stirring anthem of the battles on the Al-Faw peninsula against Iran.”
Bolger adds that illiteracy is also a factor. “Not all recruits are literate,” he says. “A consequence of Saddam’s brutal era, in which schooling was de-emphasized, about a third or more Arab adult males (and even high percentages of women) did not benefit from schooling. This must be accommodated in training, which tends to be ‘hands-on’ and interactive as a result.”
Division compounds also have shooting ranges, urban-combat mock-ups, and vehicle-training areas that allow practice and rehearsals before and after actual missions. “Training is part of combat–you learn as you fight in any good army,” Bolger adds.
Walid Phares, author of Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agrees.
“The new Iraqi soldier is not afraid of his government as was the case in the previous army,” Phares says. “Just the opposite, he is backed by his own government. He feels closer to his people and many among them have seen Saddam’s bloodshed directly. I believe they display more courage than any other fighter in Iraq, because they operate in the open, against terrorism.”
The guerrillas also have a newfound respect for the new Iraqi soldier.
“A year ago, they [the insurgents] freely attacked the Iraqi military, but now the Iraqi troops dominate the killing ground,” says Gen. Bolger. “So the hostiles have resorted to remote bombings because they can’t stand and fight the Iraqi soldiers anymore. Their worst nightmare is to confront an Iraqi rifleman in the dark, face-to-face. That will only go one way.”
Bolger adds, “The new Iraqi military’s officers and NCOs lead from the front, and what we see in training translates into combat. I have been on many, many operations with Iraqi forces, to include numerous infantry platoon foot patrols, with Iraqi Marines on guard out on the oil platforms, on mechanized sweeps, and with midnight raids, and the Iraqis have never quit. They get the job done, under fire. They run to the sound of the guns sometimes at cost. They recover their dead and wounded. They seek the enemy. They expect to win their firefights.” And they do.
At the individual level, the Iraqi soldier is aggressive. Of course, soldiers are supposed to be aggressive. But the Iraqi soldier seems to have a natural flair for aggressive action in battle. It’s an Iraqi infantry specialty that Coalition troops and instructors believe is giving the Iraqi army an edge over the insurgents.
Phares points to three strategic advantages. “First, they are trained by the most advanced military powers–the U.S. and the Coalition,” he says. “Second, they will be strategically supported in terms of training, education, and logistics by an international Coalition. Third, they are being supported by popular forces in the Shiite and Kurdish areas and will increasingly be supported by more secular Sunnis.”
As in bombing campaigns launched prior to previous elections in that country, the insurgents have failed to break the will of the Iraqi people. And U.S. officials on the ground have been telling me that the Iraqi people are becoming as disturbed by attacks on American forces, as they are on their own.
“They’re fed up with it,” says Col. Cloy. And for reasons as simple as the fact that Iraqi civilians have come to know and befriend many of the young American soldiers and Marines who patrol their villages and neighborhoods.
That’s not to say that the Iraqis don’t look forward to the day when American and Coalition troops are no longer in their country–much as we would not want foreign troops on our soil, even if they were here to liberate us–but the Iraqis see first-hand what is happening on the ground. They know we are there to help stand-up their new military and police forces, thus strengthening their new democratic freedoms. They are intelligent enough to realize that–despite being a force in-progress that will take time to sort through its growth problems–the new Iraqi army is unlike anything that country has ever fielded. And it is an enormous source of pride for both soldiers and civilians, both of whom are reaching beyond ethnic and tribal barriers toward a greater sense of national unity.
“We’re seeing much more diversity in Iraqi-army formations,” says Cloy. “For instance, here in Mosul we have a heavy Kurdish population, but also Sunni and Shia. We starting to see those mixed formations especially at the officer levels. We’re seeing these people starting to compromise, encourage diversity, and forget the past.”
“All of the training facilities and bases in Iraq are at risk,” says Bolger. “Kirkush has had its share of attention from the enemy, as has Ar Rustamiyah and our other training sites. When Iraqi units go on exercises, some always carry live ammunition as a back-up.”
Nevertheless, Iraqi facilities are regularly turning out well-trained soldiers, NCOs, and officers. Iraqi-infantry companies are currently planning and conducting missions with little outside support. U.S. officers believe that battalion-sized Iraqi units will be operating with very little Coalition assistance by early spring. And brigades by next summer.
“In all the discussion about troop or unit numbers, or fully trained versus trained, we’re missing the real story,” says Bolger. “The truth is these guys fight. They want to fight and win, and they do. Some pundits may not know that, but the Iraqis know it.”
Phares may have described them best. “I’ve looked at them [the Iraqi soldiers], heard them, and spoke with some among them,” he says. “These are among the most precious soldiers in the Arab Muslim world: those who will fight in defense of democracy.”
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.