Tom in Iraq as a Military Observer

Tom in Iraq as a Military Observer
They sent me here just to watch...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

War Stories

War Stories

A million men in a thousand years could not take this island.

One of the prerequisites of an expedited retrograde of allied forces at the end of the Gulf War was the emplacement of a United Nations force in Iraq and Kuwait.  In 1991, I found myself the senior Marine Officer in the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM).  I was the deputy commander in the southern sector of the DMZ.  The duty consisted of about a week to ten days in the DMZ followed by one or two days of rest in Kuwait City.  The destruction of Kuwait City during the war was significant, but not so remarkable as the speed and visibility of the post war construction and restoration.
I was driving to Kuwait City from the DMZ with a vehicle full of officers from other contingents.  After traveling a few miles, I asked the Indian officer seated in the front passenger position where his contingent apartment was.  He said it was near the big crane.   I replied that must be Rumaithiya.  The Russian in the back seat said that he thought it was near Salmiya, and in turn the Polish officer indicated that it was between the Third and Fourth Ring Roads.   The areas we had described were all in the same locale; however, the Indian officer repeated his request to just go to the big crane.  The atmosphere in the vehicle tensed, as it was apparent that our offerings made this officer uncomfortable.  We drove for another fifteen minutes in total silence until the Indian officer realized the temporary nature of his landmark and blurted out, “I hope they didn’t move that crane!”

 As we face the daily challenges of this world, we often become fixed upon very temporal landmarks.  This account examines two warriors that did not need a temporary landmark.  They knew where they were to go, what they were to do, and who sent them.  I will contrast their actions with both personal and historical experience in the secular world.

To begin this examination, we must move from the Desert surrounding the Wadi al Batin in Southwest Asia to the desert plains of Paran about 2 years into the Exodus.  If you're keeping score at home, I'll be using chapters 13 and 14 from Numbers, chapters 5, 6, and 15 from Joshua, chapters 19 and 21 from Revelation, and 1 John 2:17

God told Moses, send out one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to explore Canaan--the land that I am giving to the Israelites.  So at the LORD's command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.  There was one leader from each of 12 tribes on what today we would call a long range patrol of 40 days.  We will focus on two of them:   Caleb from the tribe of Judah, son of Jephunneh; and Hoshea from the tribe of Ephraim, son of Nun.

All 12 returned  and reported that this was truly a land of milk and honey, but ten of the twelve were very concerned because the land was occupied by powerful people, fortified cities, and even giant people.  Then it's written that Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, "We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it."  Other dynamic translations are more along the lines of  we should attack now for we will surely conquer. 

But ten of the others said it was impossible.  "We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them."  They were convinced that those in the land were invincible.

Again Caleb stood in opposition to the group and replied, "That dog don't hunt."  Okay, that's a paraphrase.  He said, "do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them."  If you want to translate this from the desert plains of Paran to the page in front of you, it reads God is bigger than the problem that you perceive. 

But still ten of the leaders said it couldn't be done and spread dissent among the Israelites.  In fact, there was such dissent that many  wanted to go back to what they believed was the protection of slavery in Egypt.  They argued that at least they wouldn't be slaughtered and their families plundered.  At least they would be fed.  Only two of these twelve stood ready to execute the will of God.  They were Caleb and Hoshea, and  Moses had another name for Hoshea.  He liked to call him Joshua. 

I'll briefly transition to a time and place a little closer to home:  the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina or boot camp.   This is where I found myself in the early 1980s.   As a series commander, drill instructors would come to me and tell me which recruits were not ready to go on to the next phase of training.  I generally had a couple choices in these matters.  I could treat them like a batter that watched three strikes down the middle of the plate, and say thanks for coming, and send them home.  If I thought they might still be able to become a Marine, I could recycle them back to the start of training.  Several welcomed the ticket home.  Just as many were glad to get another chance.  From a leadership and training perspective, these were fairly routine decisions.  Then came this kid whom I will call Heart.  That wasn't his name, but he had a lot of it.

Heart caught everyone's attention right away.  He was obviously too short l to get in.  This kid appeared to be just over four feet tall when he stood on the yellow footprints with the other newly arrived recruits.   He was, of course, a little taller than what he appeared, but still below the minimum height standard and should have never got past his recruiter's desk.  Even if the recruited fudged the paper work, Heart's height had to be obvious at the medical examination.  But there he was and I didn't have the heart to send him home without giving him a chance.  He struggled through boot camp, but he had the heart of a Marine, and it looked like he would graduate.  Now he was my problem for I surely couldn't send this kid to the infantry.  As an infantry officer I knew what I carried on my back and what my Marines carried.   Having conducted some additional studies on the individual mobility of infantrymen in the Marine Corps and the Army, I tell you that the average weight a Soldier or Marine carries is 118 pounds.  It's more if you go to  a cold weather area, and it continues to grow with our modern, man-portable technology.   Laser designators, global positioning systems, rangefinders, and other equipment is frequently piled on the backs of our front line fighters until they resemble pack mules.    So I talked to the classification people and told them, give him anything but the infantry.  They found one open slot in motor transport, and I said give it to him.  We will make him a truck driver and if he can just see over the steering wheel, he might survive four years in the Marine Corps.  All appeared to be well with Heart until a week before graduation, when the Marine Corps does what it often does and reassigns new Marines based upon the needs of the Marine Corps.    The Marine Corps needed grunts and Heart was assigned to the infantry.  When I told Heart what had happened, he wasn't concerned.  He said that he just wanted to be a Marine and whatever else we assigned him after that was just fine.  He had seen our poster that said, "We never promised you a rose garden" and had bought the whole package.  At least in his mind, all was well. 

All was well until the day before graduation.  On this next to the last day of recruit training,  recruits get liberty on base.  That is, they can go where they want to on the Depot without a drill instructor screaming in their ear.  It gives parents, relatives, and friends a chance to visit with someone that will become a Marine the following day.  That afternoon, Heart's senior drill instructor came to my office holding up a bag of Peanut M & Ms and said, "You'll never guess what Heart brought back to the squadbay."   After many years of affinity for my native language, a fairly rigorous writing curriculum in college, and some early success in writing contests and publication; I recognized this immediately as a rhetorical question.  What followed was not.  The DI asked me, "what do we do about it?"  Bringing candy--pogey bait--back to the barracks is a violation of an order.  Recruits are told not to do it.  On the other hand, it falls just a little bit short of being  a general court martial offense.  I told the drill instructor that I would handle it and there is a technical term for what I did that I'll mention later.  I told the DI to have Heart come see me.

Heart reported to me and I told him that after being on Parris Island for three months, he still did not have the discipline to become a Marine and that I was recycling him to the first day of training.  I took him across the grinder and left him with another drill instructor that I knew.  The DI looked at Heart and told him to clean the hut, the hut being the small drill instructor office in the squadbay.  I came back that evening and found him still cleaning the small office.  The drill instructor was also in the office and had removed his DI cover--the Smokey Bear type hat that is the symbol of the drill instructor's authority.  The cover was on the small desk in the office.  Heart saw me and stood at attention, but his eyes betrayed him.  He did not expect to see me again. I then asked him if he wanted to graduate with his original platoon, to which he replied:  YSSSRR!  When translated from recruit into English, this means yes sir.  I looked at the DI cover sitting on the desk and looked back at Heart and said, "smash it." 

 At this point it is appropriate to discuss something called existential risk.  Existential risk simply defined is a risk to your existence.  In ever simpler terms, you might call it danger.  In the training and consulting business, nobody pays you to talk about danger, so we talk about existential risk.  At this point, Heart should have logically examined the danger in the situation, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, he was jumping past me in mid-air with his fist raised over his head.   He slammed his fist down on that old gray government desk and every drawer rattled.  The DI had pulled his cover off the desk a fraction of a second before Heart's fist came down.  Heart looked up at the DI wondering if he had misperceived the existential risk, then looked at me.  I just said, go graduate.   He was out the door and headed back to his platoon before the DI could say a word.  Actually, it was a few minutes before the DI could say anything because his jaw was in his chest, his heart in his stomach, his eyes were as wide as baseballs, and he was clutching his DI cover like a teddy bear.  I said that there was a technical term for the manner in which I handled this.  That term is hazing.  It is unlawful to haze recruits aboard the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, but in this case it was the drill instructor on the receiving end.  From time to time they deserve a dose of their own medicine.

Heart had only three months invested in becoming a Marine, but did not hesitate even when he should have perceived some danger.  The nation of Israel stood on the verge of entering the Promised Land, and they lost their nerve.  This was a nation that had been delivered from slavery in Egypt by miracle after miracle, had crossed a parted Red Sea, and had seen that same sea engulf the Pharaoh's army.  This was a nation that should have known nothing could stand in their way, but they were not ready to execute the will of God.  Did God lead them into the Promised Land?  Not then.  He recycled them, not for three months or three years, but for another 38 years.

 The significance of forty years is that the warriors of the generation that lost its nerve were pretty much gone.  Their sons had taken their place.  There were still a couple of old timers left:  Caleb and Joshua.  Joshua was now leading his people and he stood ready to execute the will of the Lord.  Now forty years later, Joshua is ready to lead his nation into the land that God promised.

There was one minor obstacle.  It was the Jordan River.  On any given day, this river isn't much to speak of, but at flood stage, it presents a challenge even to modern military engineering.  Joshua was not concerned.  He was told to lead with the Ark of the Covenant and as the Ark was carried into the river, the waters stopped and walled up behind the Ark.  Joshua led his armies across the Jordan River on dry land. 

Now the Israelites are camped on the plains of Jericho and Joshua is walking the perimeter of the camp.  He is probably thinking about how he will attack the fortified city of Jericho.  Perhaps he's thinking that he will attack from the north with two tribes worth of warriors.  This would be the supporting attack, designed to fix the enemy on their northern wall.  With the sun at their backs, he will envelope with four tribes from the east, while sending one tribe each to the south and west to deny egress.  With a reserve of four tribes he will exploit the first weakness he finds and destroy the city.  As Joshua continues his trek around his camp, he encounters a man with a sword drawn.  And like a good military man he  challenges him.  Today, we would say HALT!  Who goes there!  Joshua asked something similar:  Are you for us or for our enemies?

And what was the reply of the man with the drawn sword?

The man with the drawn sword replied, I AM THE COMMANDER OF THE ARMY OF GOD!

Now there is an officer with some seniority.  Who is the commander of the Army of God?  I believe that you find your answer in Revelation 19:11.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.12            His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.
13            He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.
14            The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.
15            Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron scepter." He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.
16            On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

At one point in history, Martin Luther led an effort to remove two books from the New Testament.  One of them was Revelation.  He believed that it was just too hard to understand.  These verses seem pretty straight forward.  The commander of the Army of God is Jesus Christ.  Joshua fell on his face before him and took off his sandals because he was on Holy Ground.

Is this just a cameo appearance by Jesus in the Old Testament?  I don't think so.  The commander of the Army of God was there to deliver the battle plans to Joshua.  Now these plans would be a little unorthodox in today's military strategy.   What was Joshua told to do?  March around the wall of Jericho for six days behind the Ark of the Covenant without so much as a single battle cry.  Then on the seventh day, on the seventh time around the walls, on the long blast of the rams horn--all the people would shout and attack the city!

Did Joshua go back to his people and say, you're not going to believe this crazy plan?  No!  Joshua was ready to go into the Promised Land forty years ago and he conveyed the orders of his Commander as if they were his own.  Joshua's men marched silently behind the Ark of the Covenant for 6 days, then circled the city seven times on the seventh day and at the long blast of the Ram's horn they shouted.  The people were led by a warrior who was ready to follow the will of God, and the walls came tumbling down. The city and everyone in it was destroyed, except for Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house.  They were spared because she had hidden and given safe egress to the Israelite spies that were sent earlier.

You might think that's pretty much the story of the Israelites claiming the land that God had promised.  That's not exactly the case.  There were some ensuing battles and I will focus on those in support of the second warrior that I promised to address.    Remember Caleb, who 40 years earlier stood with Joshua in telling Moses and the leaders of the other tribes that they should go into the Promised Land.  This is the same Caleb who had been a slave in Egypt.  This was a Caleb who was probably about 85 years old.  This is the same Caleb, who from the tribe of Judah could have his choice of the Promised Land.  Caleb chose  a stretch of land extending up to the hill country called Hebron, and it was occupied by a people that induced fear into the Israelites forty years earlier.

I'm certain that none of Caleb's contemporaries would have faulted him for selecting a territory already subdued, or at least one less hostile.  Nobody doubted his mettle.  He had fought in every battle and today would have surely had a chest full of medals, but Caleb would have none of it.  He was going to take the land that he believed God had promised to his people, and in the fifteenth chapter of Joshua we know that he did just that.   Those warriors of the people feared by so many perished or fled as Caleb's army advanced into the land.

After the Israelites have claimed all of their land, I can visualize Joshua and Caleb sitting in the Promised Land Officers Club, probably with a glass of wine to go along with their daily ration of milk and honey.  They sit alone and the younger officers occupy another part of the officers club.  They are alone because their conversation is boring.  They just sit there shaking their heads and saying to each other, "you know, we should have been here 40 years ago."  While this scene has no scriptural basis; the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua do tell us that Caleb followed the Lord in a certain way.  He followed wholeheartedly.  Caleb saw the same things that the others had seen forty years earlier, but his only concern was on doing the will of God.  He was not focused on what were perceived as obstacles.  He was concerned with doing what he was told to do.

Again, I want to transition to a time much closer to the present day.  For some younger readers, this too will seem like ancient history, but to every Marine, it is a time etched forever into our tradition.  During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Commander had boasted that a million men in a thousand years still could not take the island atoll of Tarawa.  On 20 November 1943, United States Marines set out to prove him wrong.  Tarawa was the bloodiest battle of the war for Americans with 1500 Marine casualties on the first day of the assault.  Of the thousands of Japanese that defended the island, fewer than 200 were alive at the end of 23 November 1943. 

After the battle, the Marine Generals were asked if the assault were worthwhile.  To a man,  they said no.  Tarawa did not have the strategic significance of the other islands in the Pacific campaign and should have been bypassed.  They were forced to follow the poorly thought out orders of their seniors in Washington.  Tarawa was not just heavily defended; it was also protected by a barrier reef that kept the amphibious tractors from reaching the beach.  Wave after wave of Marines were exposed to gunfire with no hope of cover as they waded in these last few hundred yards of ocean.  Many of the follow-on waves found a sea of bodies and of blood as they continued their attack.  These Marines continued forward, not because they were recapturing American soil and not because this small island atoll was essential to the Pacific Campaign.  Other islands were bypassed without hindrance to the Island Hoping Campaign.  There was no good reason to attack Tarawa.  The island defended so well that a million men in a thousand years could not take it could have been bypassed, except that the Marines were told to take it.  The Marines had no good reason to fight and die in taking this island.  They simply did as they were told.

The Israelites had every good reason to enter the Promised Land when they first arrived on the plains of Paran.  They had personally witnessed God's miracles in support of their exodus from Egypt.   Of the hundreds of thousands of Israelites, only Caleb and Joshua had the warrior's heart that was ready to do the will of God.  This brings us once again to the question of existential risk.  When we bring this question down to the personal level, it simply asks one thing.  Where is the safest place that you can be?
There is only one answer to this basic question.  The safest place that you can be is in the will of God.  His will may send you across the street to witness to a neighbor, or it may send you all the way across town to spread the good news.  The will of God may even send you half-way around the world to bear arms or to bear witness, but the safest place you can be is in the will of God.

At this point, some of you might be convinced that I was a few bricks short when I left the Marine Corps.  There are some places God may tell you to go where there is real physical danger.  In some of those places, people shoot at you.  Let me put this definition of safety in the context of eternity by looking at Revelation 21:8.

            But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars, their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

But the cowardly!  What kind of deal is that?  This perspective shoots a lot of holes in a plan that is centered on accepting Jesus as savior, then going to lock yourself in your room until you die and go to heaven or get raptured.  God expects us to do more than seek our own salvation.  He expects us to do His will and not be deceived by the things of this world.  Much like the warriors of the secular world, we must recognize our fears and overcome them.  Many seek cover behind the argument that their faith is a personal thing, but we are called to make it very interpersonal.  We are called to be over-comers.  We are called to follow God wholeheartedly and find eternal safety in His will.


            The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
I John 2:17 (NIV)

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