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.

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