‘Everyone’s Iraq is different.” Veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom use that saying to describe the great variety of experiences encountered by those who served there. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Timing is one important factor: Someone who deployed in 2003 might not have much in common with someone who served in the same area in 2006. Location is critical, as well: My tour in Haditha in 2006 was quite different from a buddy’s tour at the same time in Rawah, or another’s in Baghdad. One’s unit can be determinative, but even more important is the individual’s job. The point is: What you hear about Iraq will largely be determined by the individual to whom you are listening.
I raise this point partly as an introduction and partly as a warning to my review of Wesley Gray’s stimulating new book, Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army. I served in Haditha with the battalion that supported Gray’s team for several months of its deployment. As explained above, my own experience differed substantially from Gray’s by virtue of the differences in our jobs and responsibilities. If I can learn a great deal about my own area of operations from this book, I’m sure it has much to offer readers of disparate backgrounds.
This book’s value lies in the uniqueness of Gray’s experience, and his remarkably clear-eyed recognition of that uniqueness. Wes was a Marine lieutenant, embedded with an Iraqi Army unit for seven months as the intelligence officer for a Military Training Team (MTT). Its mission, like that of most MTTs, was to train and advise its assigned Iraqi Army unit and prepare that unit’s members to assume full responsibility for the security of their country. Unlike most American servicemen assigned to MTTs, Lt. Gray spoke nearly fluent Iraqi Arabic. He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in finance and was working on his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago when he joined the Marine Corps in 2004.
Gray’s Arabic skills, and his awareness of his unique position, helped him to understand his Iraqi counterparts in a way that others could not. He eventually became “Mulazzim Jamal,” the Iraqi rank (roughly equal to lieutenant) and name given to him by his Iraqi comrades whose trust and friendship Gray had earned. The result is an eye-opening book that gives the reader a view of Iraqi psychology and society in raw form, one that is vastly different from what one finds in analytical texts.
Unlike most other books of this genre, Embedded was not co-authored with an established professional writer. As a result, the writing and organization don’t flow quite as smoothly as one would like, and Gray’s personal and professional opinions can be a bit heavy-handed. On the other hand, the book is brutally honest; this Marine pulls no punches. There are no attempts at equivocation, and it is clear that Gray prides himself on his straight talk and honesty.
The conversations Gray recounts are priceless and make a fascinating study for anyone trying to understand the war, the Iraqis, or Iraqi society. Here are a few excerpts from Gray’s conversations with Iraqi soldiers:
“In Iraq, it is mandatory to beat your wife! To not beat your wife is considered unmanly. Men who do not beat their women allow their women to take advantage of them through their powers of seduction. I think Western pressure to stop wife beating will only lead to a systematic weakness in Iraqi men.”
“First Division is paid at a higher rate than everyone in our division because their pay officers know even more people than Captain Tseen does at the Ministry of Defense. Americans like to call this corruption. We call this getting things done. . . . All pay officers skim pay. Why do you think being the pay officer is such a highly regarded position in the Iraqi Army?”
“Jamal, there is a beating chain of command in Iraqi society. The oldest males sit at the top of the chain of command and the youngest sit at the bottom . . . Say you are around the dinner table and the youngest son calls the oldest son a weakling. The eldest son, the middle son, and the father, whose honor and respect have been violated, are obligated to beat the offender. And the instigator is obligated to let the beatings happen without a struggle . . . [If they didn’t,] this would effectively show the community that the males of the household can’t even take care of their own internal affairs.”
“The only Marine I have seen that really understood Iraqi people was Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, the 3/1 commander. Do you know what happened to him? The Marines fired him for the ‘Haditha Massacre.’”
After one such conversation, Gray considers the consequences of these major cultural differences. “If Martin is correct, it will be difficult to accomplish our strategic mission in Iraq of creating a peaceful, stable, and democratic-based government that serves the people, especially if we let them decide how to do things. Paradoxically, if we let the Iraqis do things the way they want to do them, it means Iraq will end up as a tyrannical military dictatorship again. This would bring us full circle. And if we confine the Iraqis to using our methods, they will end up in the same situation our troops find themselves in: asking the locals where the IED makers are and getting blank stares.”
This was in 2006, when al-Anbar was considered “unwinnable” by the top intelligence officers in the province, but Gray’s concerns are perhaps even more relevant today in light of our ongoing early withdrawal from Iraq and the elusiveness of a definition of victory.
Gray’s sense of humor about his unusual, and at times absurd, situation keeps the pages turning and brings an authentic Marine voice to his narrative. Marines may be the funniest group of people I’ve ever encountered, and Gray channels that institutional quality masterfully. In one of his adventures, Gray rescues two 18-year-old male Marines from a crowd of Iraqi admirers. One Iraqi says to Gray, “Jamal, those two Marines are pretty and we want to have sex with them in the hut. We want to show them who is boss.” He turns to the two Marines and says, “Gents, the Iraqis think you’re cute and want to take you behind a swahut [barracks]. I’m going to get you guys the hell out of here before this gets out of hand.”
After evacuating the two distressed Devildogs, Gray is again accosted by the amorous Iraqi soldiers. This time he says to their ringleader, “Ayad, I realize you are too ugly to get women and must resort to men. If you need me to help you get some Iraqi women, let me know and I’ll make a few phone calls.” The Iraqis love the joke, and the ringleader hugs him through the window of his barricaded truck, “Jamal, you are an Iraqi. We love you.” You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
Wes Gray’s Embedded is a raw yet thoughtful account of his profoundly interesting experience, told from an honest and intelligent perspective. This is a book for anyone who wants to see Operation Iraqi Freedom from the point of view of our “main effort,” the Military Training Teams, a perspective we have lacked for too long.
– Gabriel Ledeen is a senior fellow with the Vets for Freedom Educational Institute. He served two tours in al-Anbar, Iraq, as an officer with a Marine infantry battalion.