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Book Review: The Snake Eaters by Owen West

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.

Strongly recommended.

2 Responses to “Book Review: The Snake Eaters by Owen West”

  1. L. C. Rees Says:

    Reading biographies of Thomas Lord Cochrane, you’re struck with how incredibly inept and inertial the institutional Royal Navy was during the Napoleonic wars. Cochrane would propose some innovative naval tactic and the Sea Lords would knock it down. After being drummed out of the service and out of England, Cochrane liberated Peru from Spanish rule with a fleet of ten or so ships and on his way home to Britain liberated Brazil from Portuguese rule with another fleet of ten or so ships. Readers of Cochrane’s biographies are left wondering how quickly he could have beat Bonaparte if he’d been given command of twenty or so frigates.

    From Cochrane’s position, it’s easy to damn the Royal Navy for being a bunch of pinheads with bad teeth. However, this same Royal Navy was one of the most powerful fighting forces ever and through its actions gave Britain 110 years of unrivaled dominance. As more and more information comes out about Gulf War II: Vengeance, the detailed inner workings of the American military, in many respects the most powerful instrument of violence in the history of man, will look even messier and keystone copish than it does now.

    Yet it could be worse. Imagine you’re one of those Iraqi generals called in to meet with Saddam around the twentieth of March 2003 and you’re greeted by the news…”Hey, you know those chemical weapons you guys were counting on to deter the Zionist imperialist aggressors?. I have some bad news…”. You can reach the bottom of the crap bucket at the Pentagon and forget that there are still unplumbed depths down which crap can roll that are unimaginable unless you live outside America. The performance of the U.S. military in Iraq must be put into perspective: bringing Jeffersonian democracy to the flood plain where tyranny was invented and practiced for 5,000 years is easy. Whipping Iraqis descended from peasants who’ve been bred for optimal passivity for the same 5,000 years into professionals that can stand and fight is hard.

  2. zen Says:

    Never heard of Cochrane. The Royal Navy and the British Army at the time, if I recall correctly, were still part of the patronage system by which the King (through his Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer) cobbled together a majority by finding a “place” for the younger sons of the peerage and upper gentry. Senior officers, just like their relatives in government ministries or colonial governorships, did their duties as serious hobbies, amidst the more important responsibility of managing familial affairs, estates and relationships with other aristocratic grandees. If a placeman was talented at politics or war, that was a bonus rather than a requirement for the blueblooded pinheads, so long as they maintained their dignity.Tradition overruled professionalism and gentlemen were not supposed to engage too strenuously in activities (other than recreational ones) lest they be considered to be “working”.

    ” the detailed inner workings of the American military, in many respects the most powerful instrument of violence in the history of man, will look even messier and keystone copish than it does now.”
     Whipping Iraqis descended from peasants who’ve been bred for optimal passivity for the same 5,000 years into professionals that can stand and fight is hard.”
    Yes. But it was cake compared to trying to make disciplined soldiers out of illiterate, semi-tribalized, prmitively pious Afghans. The old, old Afghan Army of President Daoud and King Zahir or the old army of the pre-Soviet invasion Parcham-Khalqi Communists worked because it was composed primarily out of deracinated, secularized, urbanized Afghans who took as much of their military education and training abroad as they could. 

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