The Snake Eaters by Owen West
Owen West, commodities trader, novelist and USMC Major in the Reserves has written a remarkable book in his war story of counterinsurgency in Khalidiya, a decaying rural town in the deadly Anbar province, heartland of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. A success story for COIN, but also a very cautionary tale of the transformation of the Iraqi Brigade 3-1, from a dispirited, ill-equipped, poorly led unit distrusted and ignored by it’s American “partner” battalion and under siege by a hostile population into a self-confident, elite, combat force, “the Snake-Eaters”, feared by insurgents and respected by townspeople – and of their American advisors of Team Outcast who struggled to broker this transformation.
After reading The Snake-Eaters and reflecting, the book speaks to readers at different levels.
For the casual reader, West has a narrative with no shortage of colorful characters – the inexperienced jundis, “Hater”, the grim Major Roberson, Colonel Troster, “Captain Bomb”, “Private Crazy”, the treacherous police chief Shalal, the Superfriends, the beloved Doc Blakley, the indomitible Major Mohammed, Sheikh Abbas, the no-nonsense Huss, “Ogre” McCarthy, the Sadiqiya Sniper and some advisors who were “strange by any measure”.
The chronically undermanned, underesourced handful of Team Outcast advisors in might resemble a Middle-eastern version of The Magnificent Seven, except that unlike Yul Brynner, Colonel Troster arrived in Khalidiya only to find Calvera and his bandits in control of the town, completely invisible and supported by a community that was implacably hostile:
….To protect a fellow Sunni was the duty of every Khalidiyan. Even if they didn’t love AQI, they were socially connected to and literally enriched by, the local insurgency. In the same way small Texas towns follow their football teams, everybody in Khalidiya knew an active resistance fighter and kept score. The Americans promised security but had brought a hurricane of damage. They passed through Khalidiya in their armored trucks like tourists on glass bottomed boats admiring exotic fish.
The Khalidiya sheikhs, a title loosely used in Anbar for any man with influence, implored the AQI fighters to remain cautious. If they paraded in their black balaclavas too prominently in town, mugging for pictures on al Jazeera, they would draw the attention of Marine headquarters in nearby Fallujah. It was best to inflict some casualties on each American unit that rotated through the area – enough to keep Americans on the defensive but not so many that the Marines would mass their forces and crush the city, as they had done to Fallujah in 2004.
The 3-1 of the New Iraqi Army in Khalidiya bore scant resemblance to a unit of the mighty, Soviet equipped, legions with which Saddam Hussein had daunted his neighbors, held off Iran for ten years of bloody combat or sacked and pillaged Kuwait. Or even the shadow version of Saddam’s Army, decimated by American arms and hollowed out by a decade of UN sanctions after the Gulf War. West describes the Iraqi soldiers initially as a mendicant mob of ill-fed, untrained, Shia jundis without heavy arms, patrolling as seldom as possible, with beat-up Nissan junkers and a pray and spray shooting reaction to the frequent IED blasts that injured and killed them with regularity.
Like any underdog story, with much suffering and lessons learned counted in the lives of men, the American advisors bond with their Iraqi charges through a herculean effort at non-stop patrolling of Khalidiya’s bomb and sniper-ridden streets. Training Iraqis in aggressive tactics while learning Iraqi mores from them, the 3-1 evolves up into the Snake-Eaters, winning over the townspeople of Khalidiya and demoralizing, defeating and driving away the insurgents and gaining the respect of their American mentors. This is the level at which most readers will enjoy and be impressed with The Snake -Eaters.
A second level of reading will be for defense intellectuals, policy wonks, COIN and CT theorists, military historians and other academics. Despite West writing with tactful restraint, avoiding directly criticizing senior brass or national civilian leadership by name, The Snake-Eaters is, in it’s own way, an incredibly damning indictment by virtue of empirical observations of the conditions and restrictions under which Team Outcast labored, driving home the disconnect between leaders, indifferent bureaucrats or FOBbits and the men waging COIN on the ground. Only in the last chapters, when West himself appears in the narrative, does the author permit himself something approaching real and embittered criticism of the Alice-in-Wonderland myopia that sometimes prevailed during the Iraq War:
“If he does this again, I will end his life! Dhafer threatened. “I will burn his house down!”
It was an empty threat. Every day in Iraq, troops encountered suspected insurgents who had previously been arrested. When I first joined the team, I had read Troster’s after-action report excoriating the “ridiculous evidentiary justice system” that “had no place in a wartime environment”. Most detainees were let go because their crimes could not be proved to the satisfaction of corrupt Iraqi judges, or to US military lawyers. We didn’t have prisoners of war in Iraq, only criminal suspects entitled to many of the same rights as in the States. Most detainees were set free within a few months. The advisors called it “catch and release”.
That’s an excellent of example of policy sabotaging strategy and undoing tactical success for transient to nonexistent political benefits for those in comfortable, clean offices far, far away from the crack of rifle fire and the cries of wounded men.
In his Epilogue, West is even more frank regarding counterinsurgency and respect for his efforts in Khalidiya and in the writing of this book require excerpting it here:
While writing this book over the past four years, I’ve tried to figure out how much influence an advisor team really has on it’s unit., and whether institutional expectations match those limitations. I have again read the field manuals taught in our Army and Marine schools where we train advisors. The manuals have an upbeat, culturally correct tone, suggesting that our soldiers and Marines will succeed as advisors based on their tact and sensitivity. The manuals need drastic revision: they are misleading a generation of advisors.
That the recent conference at Leavenworth on the COIN rewrite has been an insular affair may not bode well for the acceptance of critical, empirically-based, views of COIN being offered by Major West.
The final level of reading is one to which West alludes several times in the text, but one in which I cannot share, is that of the soldier or marine who was “outside the wire”. For those men, there is a poignancy in the stories of the figures portrayed in The Snake Eaters that goes beyond mere words, which West bluntly states comes with a sense of despair at the lack of comprehension in the civilian world. Perhaps these feelings of isolation are also shared by veterans of earlier wars, when they speak of Kasserine Pass, the Bulge, Chosin or Khe Sanh; or perhaps not, as every war is horrible in it’s own way. But if we cannot understand these shades of grief and meaning that West indicates are harbored in our veterans, the rest of us can at least acknowledge them and respect it.
The Snake-Eaters is an important book that delivers a microcosm of the COIN war in Iraq, gritty and unromanticized, as experienced by jundis, marines, soldiers and Iraqis in sweltering and crumbling Khalidiya. It is a success story but it is where the phrase “winning ugly” comes to mind; dedication and valor, stubborness and cunning, pitted against dolorous bureaucracy and savage insurgency.