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THE MALA'AB DISTRICT, RAMADI, IRAQ: FOG OF WAR The early morning light was dimmed by a literal fog of war that filled the air: soot from tires the insurgents had set alight in the streets, clouds of dust kicked up from the road by U.S. tanks and Humvees, and powdered concrete from the walls of buildings pulverized by machine gun fire. As our armored Humvee rounded the corner and headed down the street toward the gunfire, I saw a U.S. M1A2 Abrams tank in the middle of the road up ahead, its turret rotated with the huge main gun trained on a building at almost point-blank range. Through the particle-filled air, I could see a smoky-red mist, clearly from a red smoke grenade used by American forces in the area as a general signal for "Help!"
My mind was racing. This was our first major operation in Ramadi and it was total chaos. Beyond the literal fog of war impeding our vision, the figurative "fog of war," often attributed to Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, had descended upon us, and it was thick with confusion, inaccurate information, broken communications, and mayhem. For this operation, we had four separate elements of SEALs in various sectors of this violent, war-torn city: two SEAL sniper teams with U.S. Army scout snipers and a contingent of Iraqi soldiers, and another element of SEALs embedded with Iraqi soldiers and their U.S. Army combat advisors assigned to clear an entire sector building by building. Finally, my SEAL senior enlisted advisor (a noncommissioned officer) and I rode along with one of the Army company commanders. In total, about three hundred U.S. and Iraqi troops — friendly forces — were operating in this dangerous and hotly contested neighborhood of eastern Ramadi known as the Mala'ab District. The entire place was crawling with muj (pronounced "mooj"), as American forces called them. The enemy insurgent fighters called themselves mujahideen, Arabic for "those engaged in jihad," which we shortened for expediency. They subscribed to a ruthless, militant version of Islam and they were cunning, barbaric, and lethal. For years, the Mala'ab had remained firmly in their hands. Now, U.S. forces aimed to change that.
The operation had kicked off before sunrise, and with the sun now creeping up over the horizon, everyone was shooting. The myriad of radio networks (or nets) used by the U.S. ground and air units exploded with chatter and incoming reports. Details of U.S. and Iraqi troops wounded or killed came in from different sectors. Following them were reports of enemy fighters killed. U.S. elements tried to decipher what was happening with other U.S. and Iraqi units in adjacent sectors. U.S. Marine Corps ANGLICO (Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) teams coordinated with American attack aircraft overhead in an effort to drop bombs on enemy positions.
Only a few hours into the operation, both of my SEAL sniper elements had been attacked and were now embroiled in serious gunfights. As the element of Iraqi soldiers, U.S. Army Soldiers, and our SEALs cleared buildings across the sector, they met heavy resistance. Dozens of insurgent fighters mounted blistering attacks with PKC Russian belt-fed machine guns, deadly RPG-7 shoulder-fired rockets, and AK-47 automatic rifle fire. As we monitored the radio, we heard the U.S. advisors with one of the Iraqi Army elements in advance of the rest report they were engaged in a fierce firefight and requested the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) for help. This particular QRF consisted of four U.S. Army armored Humvees, each mounted with an M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun, and a dozen or so U.S. Soldiers that could dismount and render assistance. Minutes later, over the radio net, one of my SEAL sniper teams called for the "heavy QRF," a section (meaning two) of U.S. M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks that could bring the thunder with their 120mm main guns and machine guns. That meant my SEALs were in a world of hurt and in need of serious help. I asked the U.S. Army company commander we were with to follow the tanks in, and he complied.
Our Humvee rolled to a stop just behind one of the Abrams tanks, its huge main gun pointed directly at a building and ready to engage. Pushing open the heavy armored door of my vehicle, I stepped out onto the street. I had a gut feeling that something was wrong.
Running over to a Marine ANGLICO gunnery sergeant, I asked him, "What's going on?"
"Hot damn!" he shouted with excitement. "There's some muj in that building right there putting up a serious fight!" He pointed to the building across the street, his weapon trained in that direction. It was clear he thought these muj were hard-core. "They killed one of our Iraqi soldiers when we entered the building and wounded a few more. We've been hammering them, and I'm working to get some bombs dropped on 'em now." He was in the midst of coordinating an airstrike with U.S. aircraft overhead to wipe out the enemy fighters holed up inside the building.
I looked around. The building he pointed to was riddled with bullet holes. The QRF Humvees had put over 150 rounds from a .50-caliber heavy machine gun into it and many more smaller caliber rounds from their rifles and light machines. Now the Abrams tank had its huge main gun trained on the building, preparing to reduce it to rubble and kill everyone inside. And if that still didn't do the job, bombs from the sky would be next.
But something didn't add up. We were extremely close to where one of our SEAL sniper teams was supposed to be. That sniper team had abandoned the location they had originally planned to use and were in the process of relocating to a new building when all the shooting started. In the mayhem, they hadn't reported their exact location, but I knew it would be close to the point where I was standing, close to the building the Marine gunny had just pointed to. What really didn't add up was that these Iraqi soldiers and their U.S. advisors shouldn't have arrived here for another couple of hours. No other friendly forces were to have entered this sector until we had properly "deconflicted" — determined the exact position of our SEAL sniper team and passed that information to the other friendly units in the operation. But for some reason there were dozens of Iraqi troops and their U.S. Army and Marine combat advisors in the area. It made no sense to me.
"Hold what you got, Gunny. I'm going to check it out," I said, motioning toward the building on which he had been working to coordinate the airstrike. He looked at me as if I were completely crazy. His Marines and a full platoon of Iraqi soldiers had been engaged in a vicious firefight with the enemy fighters inside that house and couldn't dislodge them. Whoever they were, they had put up one hell of a fight. In the gunny's mind, for us to even approach that place was pretty much suicidal. I nodded at my senior enlisted SEAL, who nodded back, and we moved across the street toward the enemy-infested house. Like most of the houses in Iraq, there was an eight-foot concrete wall around it. We approached the door to the compound, which was slightly open. With my M4 rifle at the ready, I kicked the door the rest of the way open only to find I was staring at one of my SEAL platoon chiefs. He stared back at me in wide-eyed surprise.
"What happened?" I asked him.
"Some muj entered the compound. We shot one of them and they attacked — hard-core. They brought it." I remembered what the gunny had just told me: one of their Iraqi soldiers had been shot when he entered the compound.
At that moment, it all became clear. In the chaos and confusion, somehow a rogue element of Iraqi soldiers had strayed outside the boundaries to which they had been confined and attempted to enter the building occupied by our SEAL sniper team. In the early morning darkness, our SEAL sniper element had seen the silhouette of a man armed with an AK-47 creep into their compound. While there were not supposed to be any friendlies in the vicinity, there were many enemy fighters known to be in the area. With that in mind, our SEALs had engaged the man with the AK-47, thinking they were under attack. Then all hell broke loose.
When gunfire erupted from the house, the Iraqi soldiers outside the compound returned fire and pulled back behind the cover of the concrete walls across the street and in the surrounding buildings. They called in reinforcements, and U.S. Marines and Army troops responded with a vicious barrage of gunfire into the house they assumed was occupied by enemy fighters. Meanwhile, inside the house our SEALs were pinned down and unable to clearly identify that it was friendlies shooting at them. All they could do was return fire as best they could and keep up the fight to prevent being overrun by what they thought were enemy fighters. The U.S. Marine ANGLICO team had come very close to directing airstrikes on the house our SEALs were holed up in. When the .50-caliber machine gun opened up on their position, our SEAL sniper element inside the building, thinking they were under heavy enemy attack, called in the heavy QRF Abrams tanks for support. That's when I had arrived on the scene.
Inside the compound, the SEAL chief stared back at me, somewhat confused. He no doubt wondered how I had just walked through the hellacious enemy attack to reach his building.
"It was a blue-on-blue," I said to him. Blue-on-blue — friendly fire, fratricide — the worst thing that could happen. To be killed or wounded by the enemy in battle was bad enough. But to be accidently killed or wounded by friendly fire because someone had screwed up was the most horrible fate. It was also a reality. I had heard the story of X-Ray Platoon from SEAL Team One in Vietnam. The squads split up on a night patrol in the jungle, lost their bearings, and when they bumped into each other again in the darkness, they mistook each other for enemy and opened up with gunfire. A ferocious firefight ensued, leaving one of their own dead and several wounded. That was the last X-Ray Platoon in the SEAL Teams. Henceforth, the name was banished. It was a curse — and a lesson. Friendly fire was completely unacceptable in the SEAL Teams. And now it had just happened to us — to my SEAL task unit.
"What?" the SEAL chief asked with utter disbelief.
"It was a blue-on-blue," I said again, calmly and as a matter of fact. There was no time to debate or discuss. There were real bad guys out there, and even as we spoke, sporadic gunfire could be heard all around as other elements engaged insurgents in the vicinity. "Now what do ya got?" I asked, needing to know his status and that of his men.
"One SEAL fragged in the face — not too bad. But everyone is rattled. Let's get them out of here," replied the chief.
An armored personnel carrier (APC) had arrived with the heavy QRF and was sitting out front. "There's an APC out front. Get your boys loaded up," I told him.
"Roger," said the chief.
The SEAL chief, one of the best tactical leaders I'd ever known, quickly got the rest of his SEALs and other troopers down to the front door. They looked more rattled than any human beings I had ever seen. Having been on the receiving end of devastating .50-caliber machine gun rounds punching through the walls around them, they had stared death in the face and did not think they would survive. But they quickly got it together, boarded the APC, and left for the nearby U.S. forward operating base — except the SEAL chief. Tough as nails and ready for more, he stayed with me, unfazed by what had happened and ready for whatever came next.
I made my way back over to the Marine ANGLICO gunny. "The building is clear," I told him.
"Roger that, Sir," he replied, looking surprised as he quickly reported it on the radio.
"Where's the captain?" I asked, wanting to find the U.S. Army company commander.
"Upstairs, here," he replied motioning toward the building we were in front of.
I walked upstairs and found the company commander hunkered down on the roof of a building. "Everyone OK?" he asked.
"It was a blue-on-blue," I replied bluntly.
"What?" he asked, stunned.
"It was a blue-on-blue," I repeated. "One Iraqi soldier KIA, a few more wounded. One of my guys wounded, fragged in the face. Everyone else is OK, by a miracle."
"Roger," he replied, stunned and disappointed at what had transpired. No doubt, as an outstanding leader himself, he felt somewhat responsible. But having operated in this chaotic urban battlefield for months alongside Iraqi soldiers, he knew how easily such a thing could happen.
But we still had work to do and had to drive on. The operation continued. We conducted two more back-to-back missions, cleared a large portion of the Mala'ab District, and killed dozens of insurgents. The rest of the mission was a success.
But that didn't matter. I felt sick. One of my men was wounded. An Iraqi soldier was dead and others were wounded. We did it to ourselves, and it happened under my command.
When we completed the last mission of the day, I went to the battalion tactical operations center where I had my field computer set up to receive email from higher headquarters. I dreaded opening and answering the inevitable e-mail inquiries about what had transpired. I wished I had died out on the battlefield. I felt that I deserved it.
My e-mail in-box was full. Word had rapidly spread that we had had a blue-on-blue. I opened an e-mail from my commanding officer (CO) that went straight to the point. It read: "SHUT DOWN. CONDUCT NO MORE OPERATIONS. INVESTIGATING OFFICER, COMMAND MASTER CHIEF, AND I ARE EN ROUTE." In typical fashion for a Navy mishap, the CO had appointed an investigating officer to determine the facts of what happened and who was responsible.
Another e-mail from one of my old bosses stationed in another city in Iraq, but privy to what was happening in Ramadi, read simply, "Heard you had a blue-on-blue. What the hell?"
All the good things I had done and the solid reputation I had worked hard to establish in my career as a SEAL were now meaningless. Despite the many successful combat operations I had led, I was now the commander of a unit that had committed the SEAL mortal sin.
A day passed as I waited for the arrival of the investigating officer, our CO, and command master chief (CMC), the senior enlisted SEAL at the command. In the meantime, they directed me to prepare a brief detailing what had happened. I knew what this meant. They were looking for someone to blame, and most likely someone to "relieve" — the military euphemism for someone to fire.
Frustrated, angry, and disappointed that this had happened, I began gathering information. As we debriefed, it was obvious there were some serious mistakes made by many individuals both during the planning phase and on the battlefield during execution. Plans were altered but notifications weren't sent. The communication plan was ambiguous, and confusion about the specific timing of radio procedures contributed to critical failures. The Iraqi Army had adjusted their plan but had not told us. Timelines were pushed without clarification. Locations of friendly forces had not been reported. The list went on and on.
Within Task Unit Bruiser — my own SEAL troop — similar mistakes had been made. The specific location of the sniper team in question had not been passed on to other units. Positive identification of the assumed enemy combatant, who turned out to be an Iraqi soldier, had been insufficient. A thorough SITREP (situation report) had not been passed to me after the initial engagement took place.
The list of mistakes was substantial. As directed, I put together a brief, a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation with timelines and depictions of the movements of friendly units on a map of the area. Then I assembled the list of everything that everyone had done wrong.
It was a thorough explanation of what had happened. It outlined the critical failures that had turned the mission into a nightmare and cost the life of one Iraqi soldier, wounded several more, and, but for a true miracle, could have cost several of our SEALs their lives.
But something was missing. There was some problem, some piece that I hadn't identified, and it made me feel like the truth wasn't coming out. Who was to blame?
I reviewed my brief again and again trying to figure out the missing piece, the single point of failure that had led to the incident. But there were so many factors, and I couldn't figure it out.
Finally, the CO, the CMC, and the investigating officer arrived at our base. They were going to drop their gear, grab some food at the chow hall, and then we would bring everyone together to debrief the event.
I looked through my notes again, trying to place the blame.
Then it hit me.
Despite all the failures of individuals, units, and leaders, and despite the myriad mistakes that had been made, there was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me. I hadn't been with our sniper team when they engaged the Iraqi soldier. I hadn't been controlling the rogue element of Iraqis that entered the compound. But that didn't matter. As the SEAL task unit commander, the senior leader on the ground in charge of the mission, I was responsible for everything in Task Unit Bruiser. I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does — even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.
Excerpted from "Extreme Ownership"
Copyright © 2017 Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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