On the night of April 6, 2003, Lt. Col. Stephen M. Twitty called his subordinate commanders together a few miles south of Baghdad. “Guys, this is it,” the black 39-year-old from Chesnee, South Carolina told his officers. “We’re going to take the fight into Baghdad. Some of us in this room may die, and that’s okay. Just know it’s for a good cause.” He then offered up a short prayer and dismissed his commanders.
The following morning, Twitty’s unit, Task Force 3-15 (3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment) of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division began an epic eight-hour struggle to race up the primary highway into Baghdad, seize and hold three key intersections along the way, and then keep the road open for follow-on American forces.
“It was one hell of a fight,” Twitty told National Review Online earlier this week. “A lot of people back here in the states seem to marvel at how Baghdad fell without putting up much of a fight. I don’t get angry when I hear that, but it bothers me when I think of the soldiers killed and wounded and the work we did during that eight hours of continuous, high-intensity fighting to get that thing under control.”
Intense indeed: The soldiers of Task Force 3-15 often found themselves outnumbered by enemy troops which included members of Saddam Hussein’s vaunted Republican Guard, Fedayeen militia, and foreign fighters. The enemy was stubborn, often suicidal on the attack, and at various times during the fighting, the Americans found themselves to be perilously low on ammunition. Not that there wasn’t enough ammunition to go around, but U.S. forces were advancing so fast and far beyond their supply lines that soldiers and ammo moving up from the rear were often slowed by running battles and rear-guard actions with enemy forces that had not yet been destroyed.
By day’s end, two of Twitty’s men were dead and 45 wounded out of his 600-man task force (1,000 men total, if counting the 400 troops who were battling enemy forces south of Baghdad).
“Isn’t that a miracle?” he says. “I actually feared I was going to lose 90 percent of my lead company.”
A miracle perhaps, but the low casualty numbers were also a result of overwhelming U.S. firepower, a determination to hold newly captured ground, and superior equipment and protective gear. “I had six or eight soldiers who were shot in the chest, but lived because of the new body armor we use,” says Twitty. “Rounds [bullets] were literally stuck in the armor plating. Two soldiers were shot in the back and lived. One shot in the stomach and lived. Two shot in the head, but lived because of the design of the Kevlar helmet.”
Oddly, many Americans back home were led to believe that enemy troops defending the Iraqi capital simply collapsed in the face of the American army. A great misconception, argues Twitty, who points to the watered-down version of the fight for Baghdad as an ironic result of the battle’s ferocity.
“The battle was so intense, the reporters were all hunkered down behind vehicles,” he says. “Reporters are usually out front trying to get the story, but the fighting was so hot, many of them were scrambling for cover.”
Twitty adds that he has a great deal of respect for combat correspondents, and that much of the reporting during the offensive combat phase of the war was in fact solid, because embedded journalists were traveling with the troops, eating the same food, sleeping in the same holes, dodging the same bullets. “They saw the good and the bad and they usually reported both,” says Twitty.
Today, with the occupation phase of the war being conducted, journalists are still near front-line units, but few are actually embedded with the troops. And according to Twitty, only select events are covered, and rarely are they the positive stories.
“The news lacks balance, because you have the media staying in comfortable places like the Palestine Hotel,” says Twitty. “They’re no longer ducking for cover. They’re only coming out and getting snapshots of incidents. They rarely see and almost never report the good things. And there are American soldiers out there doing great things for the Iraqis, every single day. They are interacting with children, vaccinating people, delivering supplies, building hospitals, schools, and athletic fields. The Iraqi standard of living is rising, but the media doesn’t report that. What they report are the suicide bombings, RPG attacks, and beheadings.”
Twitty concedes it is not exciting to see a group of soldiers carrying textbooks into a school building, but it is exciting to see something blow-up. “Don’t get me wrong, the ugly stuff needs to be reported, but so does the good,” he says.
Unbalanced reporting, Twitty fears, may eventually begin to erode troop morale.
“Currently, morale among the troops is extremely high,” he says. “A number of factors contribute to that, not the least of which is the progress they see being made everyday. What troubles the soldier is when he or she reads newspapers from home, and sees that only the bad news is being published. They see news that makes the situation look as if America is a hated, bungling occupier and the country is on the verge of collapse. That’s just not so, and the soldiers on the ground know it’s not so.”
Asked if the Iraqis have welcomed the Americans with open arms, Twitty is quick to say, “without a doubt. The vast majority of the Iraqi people are glad we are there. They want to be safe and secure. When we go into an area, they are often all over us. It is only a minority–guerillas and foreign fighters–who do not want us there.”
Is the war in Iraq part of the overall global war on terror, or a separate conflict? Twitty argues both are inextricably connected. “Look, I’m not a politician, but I know what I’ve seen,” he says. “For me personally, regardless of whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he did have plenty of torture chambers and mass gravesites. That’s terrorism. The Iraqis are thankful we are there to eradicate it, and America and the world is safer for that.”
Twitty is currently training at the National War College in Washington, D.C. Following graduation, he is slated to command a brigade and “probably return to Iraq,” he says.
–A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.