Bob Weimann | July 25, 2008
Also see Strategic Legalism, December 31, 2011
“For as long as men and women have talked about war, they have talked about it in terms of right and wrong. And for almost as long, some among them have derided such talk, called it a charade, insisted that war lies beyond (or beneath) moral judgment. War is a world apart, where life itself is at stake, where human nature is reduced to its elemental forms, where self-interest and necessity prevail. Here men and women do what they must to save their selves and their communities, and morality and law have no place. Inter arma silent leges: in time of war the law is silent.” — Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer
When we look at the Haditha case, there are a few things we need to remember about combat. Combat is a matter of quick decision-making. Make the correct decisions and you live; make the wrong decisions and you die. Time for discussions, questions, evaluations and ‘do-overs’ is normally not allowed in combat (and if they are allowed, they are conducted by survivors and therefore tend to be very one sided).
Because combat is a matter of decisions and time, the adversaries are continuously reacting and counter-reacting to one another trying to get the upper hand in this mortal duel. Combat tactics can be viewed as a way to limit or eliminate the enemy’s options or reactions. Needless to say, killing the enemy eliminates all of his options.
Rules of Engagement are based on the principle that Marines in combat have the ultimate right to defend themselves. Simplicity is important because decisions, which result in either living or dying, are made in split seconds and can be exceedingly complex in their application. It is unfortunate that the complexity is not addressed until time permits in the comfort of DC offices while sipping lattes from canteen cups. If potential errors do exist, they must favor a Marine’s right to defense and survival. The combat techniques taught to Marines are meant to maximize their survival and eliminate not only the enemy’s potential reactions but also his life.
SSgt Frank Wuterich and his squad of Marines were ambushed on November 19, 2005. They were on a routine mission, providing security for a chow run, when they were attacked. The enemy selects the ambush site, gaining the initiative with the element of surprise. Surprise, if achieved, can have a devastating impact on the ambushed. The enemy picks the site that provides the best killing zone because their intent is to wipe out any unit that moves into the kill zone. A successful ambush leaves no one alive. By what is right in any tactical military mind, SSgt Wuterich and his squad should all be dead or wounded. SSgt Wuterich and his Marine squad survived this ambush because they trusted and followed their training and orders. In the Haditha case, the enemy IED (Improvised Explosive Device) initiated the ambush, the weapon of choice in Iraq. Immediately after the explosion, the enemy commenced small arms fire. We know this because the squad corpsman maneuvered through the enemy bullets in order to get the IED site and the three Marine casualties inflicted by the explosion.
Navy Corpsman always amaze me when they leave covered positions and brave fire in order to treat Marine wounded. Usually when people are under small arms fire, your primary concern is that the buttons on your shirt are keeping you too high off the ground. HN Brian Whitt not only danced through enemy fire but returned fire with his weapon in order to get to his wounded. Folks, in my experience, this act of bravery is normally the subject of a Bronze Star citation.
Marine training requires that the first reaction to an ambush is to get out of the kill zone. In this ambush, because the squad was in vehicles and they kept good dispersion, three of the four vehicles stopped outside of the initial kill zone. The IED site was receiving enemy crossfire from the south and the north. One of the squad leader’s problems, besides taking fire and having casualties still in the kill zone, was that another threat was present at the head of his column with the white taxi.
As some squad members established local security and others moved towards the casualties, SSgt Wuterich and Cpl Dela Cruz moved towards the white taxi and five Iraqi MAMs (military age males). These Iraqis represented an additional threat because they were the most likely IED triggermen suspects. In addition, these MAMs posed a threat because their position flanked the entire squad and fire from the white taxi position could bring the entire squad into an open kill zone.
Approaching five potential terrorist suspects is a tricky undertaking, especially in a country filled with suicide bombers and IED triggermen. The Iraqi males had to be placed under physical control. In order to accomplish this, they needed to be approached, searched and secured. The tricky part is the approach, especially when you have to cross an open roadway that is an enemy kill zone. In order to approach, Marines must leave their covered positions exposing themselves to potential enemy fire.
Because this approach is very dangerous, Marines are normally trained to set a mental trigger. Some call the metal condition an ‘if-than’ trigger. The idea is to set the conditions for the use of deadly force in order to prevent a delayed reaction and overcome the resistance of firing a weapon at a human being. Police use the same technique when approaching an armed suspect. The trigger can be; if he brings his weapon up to aim at me; then I will fire my weapon.
SSgt Wuterich and Dela Cruz’s trigger could have been something as simple as; if they run, I will engage with deadly force. We must remember that in the Battle of Fallujah, the bad guys figured out the Rules of Engagement the Marines were using. During the battle, if an MAM was sighted moving unarmed, deadly force would not be used. Marines were seeing MAMs running from house to house without weapons. The enemy was actually running from one stash of weapons to the next stash in a fighting retreat. In the middle of the battle, the Marines adjusted the Rules of Engagement to address this enemy tactic.
If you look at the Scan Eagle pictures and the area immediately south or behind the white taxi on the Defend Our Marines website, you see plenty of walls, vehicles and buildings (see here). These structures are called cover. The definition of military cover is anything that physically protects an individual from fire. If these five Iraqis stashed weapons in that area and were allowed to get to them, the result would be disastrous. The enemy would have the entire squad under fire from three directions. In addition, if the Iraqis at the white taxi had manned weapons, SSgt Wuterich and Dela Cruz would have been left standing in the open without cover. In other words, sitting ducks.
Five manned AK-47s in the vicinity of the white taxi could bring deadly fire on the remaining convoy vehicles and squad members. Four AK-47s and a light machine gun would raise that lethal force considerably. Three AK-47s, a light machine gun and an RPG could have meant the systematic destruction of the squad; the vehicles and, potentially, the reaction force lead by the platoon leader, Lt Kallop. Yes, this is speculation, but if you want to survive in combat you have to think in terms of self-defense. It is important to understand what the enemy is doing now and it is also important to anticipate and understand what the enemy can do next.
When the white taxi MAMs began to run, and it makes no difference if it was one or all of the MAMs, SSgt Wuterich and Dela Cruz were justified to shoot them because the Iraqis were doing something that potentially was going to get both Marines killed and endanger the squad.
Immediately after the white taxi shooting, SSgt Wuterich moves to his causalities and meets up with Lt Kallop and other members of the squad. They continue to receive fire from the south and believe it is coming from what investigators labeled house #1. While Cpl Salinas fires M203 rounds at the house to suppress enemy fire, Lt Kallop gives the order to SSgt Wuterich to clear to the south. Once Lt Kallop spoke those words to SSgt Wuterich, a Marine rifle squad was under orders to attack. Either these Marines would ‘close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver’ or they would die trying. Folks this is combat; no discussions, no equivocations; once you lock horns with the enemy, it is kill quickly or be killed.
In an almost classic attack, LCpl Sharratt provides covering and suppressive fire with a machine gun while Wuterich leads the Marines available from his squad (Salinas, Tatum and Mendoza) in an attack to clear house #1.This quick reaction counter-attack begins wresting the initiative from the enemy and gives it back to the Marines. Good tactics dictate that the best way out of an ambush is an explosive counter attack. Because LCpl Sharratt started suppressive fire and Salinas, Tatum and Mendoza followed SSgt Wuterich, quickly and without hesitation across open ground, I would have recommended them all for a Navy Commendation Medal with a Combat ‘V’ device.
The reality of house clearing is a close quarter brawl of sudden death. Once in a building, the enemy sets up and aims his weapons on the entry points that channels the attackers. It is a small matter for the enemy to put a full 30 round magazine into their weapon, set it on automatic and point it directly at the door a Marine must enter a few feet away. For this reason, Marine training teaches Marines to throw grenades into the room before they enter firing. Shooting through walls and doors is another technique taught and learned. If a Marine first sticks his head into that room to get PID (Positive Identification), the enemy will shoot and kill him. If given the chance, the enemy is also capable of hurling a grenade out the door into the midst of the attacking Marines. Any hesitation inside a building will get Marines killed.
SSgt Wuterich and his ad hoc fire team, in a stacked formation, then entered and cleared house #1 killing six Iraqis and wounding two. If you read each Marines statement, it is clear they are reacting to what they are seeing and hearing in the close quarters of a dark house filled with smoke and dust. At any instant, any enemy inside that house could have inflicted casualties on the four Marines channeled by the hallways from any of the multiple doors inside the house. Just as quickly as the Marines fire and throw grenades through the doorways, the enemy could have done the same. One enemy grenade exploding in the hallway would probably have wounded or killed all four Marines. The point is, if these Marines were to survive, they had to rely on their training and reflexes. Because they were clearing the house with speed, the enemy did not have time to kill them. In fact, the enemy, having all the advantages of defending a building, seemed rattled enough to run out the back door into house #2.
If SSgt Wuterich believed an enemy ran out the back door during the assault on house #1, he was more than justified to pursue that enemy. Once you have the bad guys on the run you do not let up. This is especially true when you are in house-to-house fighting. Once the enemy moves to another building, it is a simple matter to again set up and wait for the first Marine to come through the door and inflict additional casualties.
The Marine fire team entered and cleared house #2 killing seven Iraqis and wounding one. Again, if you read the Marines’ statements, they are reacting to the sounds and movement inside the close quarters of a house fight. They are following their training by clearing each room with grenades and small arms fire.
Then the Marines return to the vicinity of their vehicles. LCpl Sharratt exchanges the machine gun for a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). Lt Kallop tells the Marines to investigate another house. I find it interesting that at this house there are no causalities and there are people present, at least a woman. I feel the Marine’s actions at this house get to the credibility of the original Time story that started the Haditha investigations and legal actions. If the Marines were on some revengeful rampage, why did it not continue at this house? No one is killed or injured here and it is the next house the Marines enter. The Marines clear the house and move back to an OP (Observation Post). I believe no one is killed because the Marines do not take fire from the house, they do not hear AK-47s being loaded, and they do not see movement between the rooms. In other words, no one presents a threat.
Once the Marines move back to the IED site, they establish an OP on the roof of a nearby building. Some people would call this a lull in the fighting. In actuality, the battalion (3/1) was fighting the other part of the Battle for Haditha. I believe this because while in the OP, SSgt Wuterich and his Marines continue to engage the enemy. According to the Marines investigation statements, on two occasions they kill two separate enemy spotted moving away or towards the battalions battle area. As the battalion’s other units fight, enemy survivors are trying to retreat or get back into the battle. SSgt Wuterich’s OP assists his fellow battalion Marines by preventing two enemy from ever fighting Marines again.
The OP then observes a potential threat from what has been labeled house #4. SSgt Wuterich, Cpl Salinas and LCpl Sharratt observe some Iraqi males looking over an exterior house wall. After observing this activity for a few minutes, Cpl Salines fires a M203 round at the wall and they see the males run into house #4. A few minutes later the males return to the wall and SSgt Wuterich makes the decision to investigate with Salinas and Sharratt.
When they get to house #4, SSgt Wuterich and the two other Marines realize that house #4 is actually two houses. They enter the first house and find only women and children. Again, no one is killed in the first structure. The women communicate to the Marines that the males are in the next house. Salinas is left to maintain security on the Iraqis in the first structure of house #4. SSgt Wuterich and LCpl Sharratt enter the main hallway of house #4 with Sharratt leading and they move to the house’s center. An Iraqi from one of the interior doors with a pointed AK-47 suddenly confronts LCpl Sharrat. Here, at least in this old Marine’s opinion, LCpl Sharratt demonstrates those exceptional traits of bravery, presence of mind, aggressiveness and marksmanship. For a Marine’s weapon to jam, while face to face with an enemy, in the close quarters of a house, is a nightmarish event. When the Iraqi with the AK-47 appears in the doorway, LCpl Sharratt aims his weapon and it jams. The enemy pops back behind the wall and Sharratt tries to get behind a wall for cover. (Apparently, the Iraqi has the same issue with his weapon since an unfired AK-47 round with a dented primer was later found on the floor.) As LCpl Sharratt tries to move to cover, the enemy pops back into the doorway, Sharratt releases his jammed weapon, draws his pistol and drops the armed enemy with a headshot. LCpl Sharratt then attacks into the room; sees four more enemy with another AK-47 and fires on those bad guys until his pistol is empty. He then calls to Wuterich that his pistol is empty, steps to the side and while Wuterich continues to fire until all four enemy are dead. From the moment Sharratt’s weapon jammed until Wuterich ceased fire, in my estimate, the entire event probably took less than twenty seconds.
Both Marines were reacting based on their training, teamwork and knowledge of each other. These Marines survived because LCpl Sharratt possessed the presence of mind to draw his pistol, when his light machinegun jammed, and aggressively assault into a room full of enemy. Again folks, this is the stuff that makes up Bronze Star citations or better.
By this account, based on the squad’s statements, SSgt Wuterich and his squad account for 25 dead Iraqis. Yes, there are civilians in that count but I am hard pressed to see how they could be prevented in the heat of a room-to-room battle. Civilian casualties are tragic and are to be avoided when possible but they happen in combat. House-to-house fighting is violent, brutal and usually marked with high casualties on both sides. On this day, SSgt Wuterich led his squad through a battle that smashed an enemy ambush. He took no other casualties except for the three Marines killed and wounded by the IED. I find it interesting that another platoon from Kilo Company was fighting in Haditha that day. For some reason, these Marines initially were reluctant to use grenades. Their casualties were significantly higher even without an ambush. Again, in my estimation, SSgt Wuterich rates a Bronze Star.
If you have not been keeping count of ‘my estimations’, this squad of twelve Marines and one Navy Corpsman, rates three purple hearts, four Navy Commendation and three Bronze Star Medals with ‘Valor’ device. Impressive, if we were counting awards but instead we are counting court martial charges.
The purpose of this article is to make a case for SSgt Wuterich as a combat squad leader and present his side of the story. I honestly feel the realities of combat have been ignored. The question that haunts me is why it takes a broken-down, old Marine, like me to present his side. The McGirk article was obviously one sided. Mr McGirk, instead of finding the courage to present both sides of combat took the coward’s path and he is disappointing. If McGirk had gone through just a couple hours of house clearing training with the Marines at Lejuene or Pendleton, he probably would have written a very different story.
What surprises me is that none of the senior leadership (e.g. general officers) within DOD stood up for these Marines. This is despite the fact that the Marine’s immediate chain of command; their leaders at the company, battalion and regimental level attempted to standby their story. Instead of addressing this issue as an information battle, the generals turned it into a legal battle. The problem with that approach is: Inter arma silent leges: in time of war the law is silent. We need to talk about that (maybe in another article) but in my opinion, SSgt Wuterich and his Kilo Company squad did the right and heroic things in a hard battle with the enemy. Based on the fact that charges have been dismissed on five Marines, and one found not guilty, even the legalities bear witness to the correctness of their tactics.
We need to continue to support SSgt Wuterich and LtCol Chessani and especially their families. They are currently in a legal fog where progress and direction is difficult to gauge and navigate. Unfortunately, I feel the system will continue to generate that fog for some time. The feelings of injustice must be crushing for these two Marines who should instead be treated as heroes. We need to take a lesson from their wives and mothers, who stand tall with these Marines, and be proud of the fight that 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3/1 took to the enemy and won as Marines.
Bob Weimann is former Commanding Officer, Kilo Co., 3/1
Note: The alor device denotes those individuals who were awarded a decoration in recognition of valorous act performed during direct combat with an enemy force. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_V