Young Marines learning to fight smarter and listen to local Iraqis
HABBANIYAH, Iraq — Winning the peace in his part of Anbar province is a lot like winning the sheriff’s election in his home state of North Carolina, says U.S. Marine Sgt. Kent Hedgepeth.
You won’t get the locals’ vote through coercion, he said. “You can’t forcibly take what we’re trying to gain: trust and confidence.”
Defeating the insurgency is about listening to the locals who depend on you for security, encouraging them and helping them with problems when it’s possible, said the 27-year-old squad leader with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.
Hedgepeth, like other Marines in Habbaniyah, is consciously or unconsciously working from the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual. The 66-year-old reference addresses all aspects of asymmetrical warfare, from the initial conventional war to building a new government.
The chapter on military-civil relations stresses how all members of the force must get to know locals, their problems and issues. Poor judgment by subordinates, it states, will lead to “unnecessary military difficulties” that will endanger the best interests of the United States.
Put another way, “this is a squad leader’s fight,” said Lt. Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, 3-2 commander.
Marine doctrine assigns great responsibility to young enlistees, sometimes leaving it up to squad leaders to decide what’s appropriate to the situation: diplomacy or force. Moreover, small units are the core of anti-insurgency tactics stressing optimum force size — the smallest footprint with the biggest impact, say Desgrosseilliers and Hedgepeth.
The safest tactic would be to clear insurgent-held areas with a company-sized force, Hedgepeth said.
“But what kind of taste are you leaving in people’s mouths? Insurgents always come back in behind you,” he said. “You have to think from the insurgent’s point of view.”
In a conventional war, Hedgepeth figures he’d fight 5 percent of the time, spending 95 percent preparing for the next engagement. Here in Habbaniyah, he spends that “downtime” getting ready to campaign for “the sheriff’s race” — memorizing photos of locals, their names, their issues and what’s going on in their personal lives.
The next time he sees them, “they’re amazed you remember details about their brother going to Ramadi,” he said.
There are also ways to lose the race. He never, ever promises Iraqis things beyond his power to deliver, including regular power, sewers and trash pickup. What he can do is to be there as often as the insurgents, with a more positive message.
Average Iraqis are trying to accommodate the Marines without antagonizing the insurgents, said 2nd Lt. William Heinzelmann, a platoon leader with Weapons Company.
“I walked — it must have been two [kilometers] one day — from vendor to vendor, trying to buy a watermelon,” Heinzelmann said. Every vendor refused to sell him one.
“They’d say, ‘I can’t sell you a watermelon because the insurgents will kill me because they think I’m supporting you and taking your money.’ But they all said, ‘I’ll give you a watermelon,’” Heinzelmann said.
After two months on the ground on his second Iraq tour, Hedgepeth says he’s optimistic, but not naive. Every time they go outside the wire, he and his men meet three categories of Iraqis: the innocent, the indifferent and the insurgents.
“Every single foot patrol and every three-house community, you have all three elements. The challenge is to protect innocent and not turn the indifferent into insurgents.”
While the indifferent may not exactly embrace the Americans, they will — with time, and in very subtle ways — begin to trust, he said. Learning Iraqi culture means knowing that the big tip comes 20 minutes into a conversation, “the, ‘If I were you, I’d be watching two blocks away about 3 p.m., and you might see some insurgents,’” Hedgepeth said.