FRESNO -- Most vets will tell you the worst thing about being a soldier is the officers. Soldiers belong to their commanding officers; they're assets, to be spent the way the CO decides. Napoleon was famous for spending his men's lives without too many sleepless nights. After a real bloody battle, he strolled over the French corpses and consoled himself with the famous line that "one night in the brothels of Paris will make up for our losses." And that was a GOOD CO; when you're under the command of a guy who's a fool as well as an egomaniac, you're in real trouble.
That's what happened to the 101st Division's third brigade combat team when they choppered onto a river island near Baghdad on May 9, 2006. These are crack troops, from only of the most famous and admired units in US Army history. Unfortunately, they were commanded by Colonel Michael Steele, who gave them illegal orders, lied about it, and left four of his men out to dry, facing murder charges in a military court. I want to tell the sordid story of Col. Michael Steele in this issue, and I think you'll understand why when you read this.
At the pre-raid briefing last May, Steele told his men that this island they were going to hit was an Al Qaeda stronghold. In fact, here's a direct quote from his morale-boosting pep talk: "Guys, you are going to get shot coming off the helicopter. If you don't get shot, you should be surprised."
He didn't say "shot AT," he said "shot." A real cheerer-upper, that briefing must've been. Move over John Madden.
Imagine if the Army had to translate Steele's briefing into Training Manual language: "Instructions for exiting helicopter: 1. Get shot. 2. If you have not yet been shot, be surprised. 3. See 1."
After reassuring his men they were all going to die, Steele ordered them to kill all men of military age they found on the island. So that's what they did.
When the choppers landed on the river island outside Baghdad, none of those fearsome Jihadis everyone expected were around. Missed their cue. It was one of those funny scenes you get in war: everybody jumps out firing and there's nobody in sight except an old man fishing.
So the troops did what they were ordered to do: blasted away anyway. In fact, one of his soldiers chose to interpret "military age" in what you might call a "very liberal manner," and he blasted a 70-year-old local.
What's wrong with that? you ask me. Well, nothing.
In fact, the picture of that Iraqi grandpa in his fishin' hat, little hooks hanging off the brim, being blown off the pier by a SAW, leaving nothing but a chum-stain for the fish, still makes me laugh. "No fishing, Yankees! Private dock! You go now!" followed by a witty riposte from armor-piercing bullets.
Colonel Steele shows that he's got the mettle it takes to schmooze rich-looking corporate types
In fact, if Steele had stuck to his guns when he was questioned by the brass for violating our wonderful "Rules of Engagement" about coddling civilians, I'd nominate him for President, or even Generalissimo. I'd be searching Google Images for a picture of him so I could take it down to Wal-Mart and have them turn it into a rug, and then I'd hang that rug from my duplex window. A man can be forgiven almost any amount of gore if he's got the innards to stand behind his orders.
Take the scariest American ever to command a military force: Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. If you've read Grant's memoirs, you know that Grant has a hard time even being polite to Robert E. Lee, and doesn't think that highly of Jackson either -- but when Grant mentions Forrest, something like respect edging toward sheer terror comes into his voice.
Forrest came from the Western theatre, like Grant and Sherman. All those prairie boys remembered Missouri and Kansas, where the war had been an ugly no-rules fight way before Fort Sumter. So they understood something Lee, McLellan and the other "coastal elite" commanders didn't: the future of warfare was terror. Just like the whole history of war.
The fantasy of a romantic war that spared civvies was a short little dream, born in the novels of the 19th century and doomed to die in it too (as the Boers found out the hard way). So when Forrest took Fort Pillow from a mixed black/white Union force in 1864, he massacred the black Union soldiers, to send a message about the danger of taking up arms against the South. Forrest was an evil bastard, no doubt -- a former slave dealer, the scum of the earth. But he never backed down from what he did, or let his men take the blame for it. (And don't tell me I'm a racist. Look over my columns and you'll see I've got bigger fish to fry.)
If I could dig up any dead American CO for Iraq, it'd be Forrest. Because we're in a war that makes Bloody Kansas look like Smallville -- the Cleanflix version of Smallville, edited for Mormons. Instead of Forrest, we've got Steele -- and when the Army brought him up for a reprimand for violating those insane ROE, Steele did what you'd expect from a Bush-era American: tried to weasel out of it, saving his own ass while setting his men up for life sentences in a military prison for doing what he'd told them to do.
After a bunch of 101st GIs gave sworn statements that Steele had told them to shoot every man they found on this island, Steele said "through his lawyers" that he did not use "specific language" to that effect. That's a new one OJ's lawyers never thought of: the Vagueness Defense: "Oh, uh, I might've hinted, you know, that they should sort of pepper'em a little, wing a few civvies, light up the odd grandpa, you know, the way you do, but I never specifically said in so many words that they had to kill EVERY man on the island..."
What is it these days? We're up to our ears in guys like Steele--the worst of both worlds. We used to have warriors and cowards and you could tell the two breeds apart -- but now we've got these sick flip-floppers who are all blood and slaughter when they're giving the orders, then crawling behind their lawyers' backs when they're called on the carpet.
I'm not calling Steele a plain old battle-dodging coward. He's the newer kind of coward, the ones who are brave enough facing enemy fire but piss their pants at the thought that their precious career might be in danger, as you can see in the NY Times story on Steele:
"The formal reprimand Colonel Steele received effectively blocks any chance for his promotion, according to former and current military officers.
"'When you're looking to go from colonel to general, and it's a 2 percent selection rate, you're looking to throw people out, and that's an easy one,' said John D. Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy."
I mean damn, is this the best America can do? Look at the competition, people -- there's Karen guerrillas in Burma fighting on three bullets and a ball of rice per day, with bellies swarming full of malaria; there's ten million kids willing to put on suicide vests for every stupid feud in the tropics; and we get officers who give up their own troops for fear it'll hurt their career potential?
Making General -- that's what life is about to guys like him, getting that star on his shoulder. In Nam they had a way of dealing with officers like that, a four-letter word that starts with "f" and ends with pieces of West Pointer splattered all over a tent. Too bad some of those Nam-era traditions haven't survived.
I'm not picking on Steele for fun. Well, partly. But the thing is, he's pretty typical of mid-range officers: ex-jock, Jesus-crazed, desperate to move up the ladder. That's not a bad kind of officer to have if you're running, say, an armored division in a conventional war. But it's the absolute worst sort of man to put in charge of a snakepit like Iraq.
And we coulda, woulda, shoulda saw it coming, because this isn't the first time America's had to watch Colonel Steele at work. If you've read Black Hawk Down, you'll remember him as Captain Michael Steele (he was still Captain then), the Bible-thumping jock who commanded the Rangers that day in Mogadishu in 1993, when they went warlord-hunting, got hung up in Mog's heavy-caliber traffic jams and didn't get home till next morning -- all except the 18 GIs, Delta and Ranger, who never made it home at all.
Steele came across as a hard-chargin' fool in the book, although the author never said so directly. What he did say was that the Delta boys, who are pretty smart dudes on average, laughed at Steele to his face and thought his whole routine, the whole buzzcut, group-prayers, football-playing Hoo-aa! deal was bullshit that had zero to do with the grownup work of CI warfare. And Delta was pretty much proved right when Steele sent his men into downtown Mog, which wasn't so much a city as a XXXL ambush, and couldn't do much to help them except look manly and concerned.
Going into that battle in Mog, Steele never made an effort to teach himself or his men where on the planet they were -- what Somalis talk like, think like, or even shoot like. He walked around that hangar at the Mog airport being a good manager, like it was an insurance office in Omaha, the kind with a big employees' gym in the basement. He was majoring in Management when we need people who majored in Tribal Doublecross with a minor in Garroting the Right People Even in a Dark Room.
So naturally the Army promoted Steele to full Colonel and put him in charge of a special-ops unit with the job of quietly wiping out some Jihadis on an island.
No, no, no! There's a place for dudes like that, but it's not a secret assassination run. You might as well send the Ohio State offensive-line coach to Iraq and let him try to do the Phoenix Program with Hoo-aa!, pushups and a can-do attitude. At least when he blames the off tackle for getting the QB sacked 11 times, the poor steroid-sweating hick won't end up doing life in the Federal pen.
Why's this story bothering me so much? Because in its own dull, depressing way, it says a lot about what my country's armed forces lack, and why we can't possibly be optimistic, imagining all the Colonel Steeles serving under the very worst of them all, our Commander In Chief.
Which brings me to all the letters I recently got asking my opinion about "the surge." Will it work? Put it this way: Ask Col. Steele's boys what they think about "the surge." If they ever see the light of day again, that is.