Bing West’s latest book, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah was released in September. West has served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration, as well as Assistant to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense. He has also been Vice President of the Hudson Institute, Dean of Research at the Naval War College and an analyst at The RAND Corporation.
Prior to all that, West served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and is a graduate of Georgetown University and Princeton University. He is president of the GAMA Corporation, which designs war games and combat decision-making simulations. His books, which include The Village and The March Up, have won the Marine Corps Heritage General Wallace Greene Prize and the Colby Award for Military History. He is a member of St. Crispin’s Order of the Infantry and the Council on Foreign Relations. You can find out more at his Web site, Westwrite.com
Paul McLeary: In many of your descriptions of the battles in Fallujah and Ramadi in the book, you include quite a bit of dialogue from the soldiers during the fight — were you there for those fights, or did you reconstruct the storylines and the dialogue later?
Bing West: I was there for an awful lot of those fights, but the technique that I use is to try to do everything in large group settings. What I’ll do is I’ll ask two things. I’ll ask if everyone will sit down with me together, as many people as possible … I’ll ask them to correct each other in front of each other … I basically say that “I’m not gonna write anything in here that you’ll be ashamed to have your mother read.” If they say something really stupid to me, I’m not going to make them look like an idiot. But I do want them to correct each other and also to give me the stuff — because we’re all Marines — that ordinarily they wouldn’t say that we know happens in combat. I get them to try and put in the black humor that is so common on the battlefield that you almost have to be there with them to appreciate.
[For example] one guy wouldn’t shoot. He choked. But I didn’t put his name in. But another guy who was standing in a doorway and he couldn’t quite bring himself to enter the room and then a grenade dropped in front of him, he was willing to admit that in front of the others, so, they’re forgiving of each other. They know who the real tough guys are, and who the guys who aren’t as tough are, and just like in a family if you have one brother who is not as tough, you don’t shun him. They’re much more forgiving of each other as a group, and I tried to put that in, but the technique was to get them all to talk in front of one another.
PM: Did you do this right after the fight, or was this some time later?
BW: Oh, no, no, it would be within 24 hours. It would be as soon as possible. If I wasn’t in the fight with them, I’d wait maybe 24 hours to let them decompress a little bit. But they’re bubbling over with stories. It’s hard to shut them up. You don’t have a problem getting them to talk.
PM: There was one scene in the book, I believe in a fight in Ramadi, where one Marine saw a group of fellow Marines who were huddled up against a wall and who refused to move, and he just kind of ran by, and said he figured they’d eventually pull themselves together and fight.
BW: Exactly. I saw no reason to — I mean, I know who that was — but I didn’t see any reason to write who that was … I wasn’t going to tell people that they didn’t choke, but why should I embarrass somebody forever by saying he was the one who choked?
PM: The detail of the combat scenes in your book is unlike any other I’ve read about Iraq. There was one incident where during a fight in Fallujah an insurgent ran across the street and stepped on a live wire and kind of bounced around for a while before stumbling off …
BW: Yeah, I mean, just weird stuff. I’ve been on an awful lot of battle fields, so after a while it’s like I’m the old football player and they allow me to tag along with them but I have the chance to watch each individual player, and I don’t have to play; and they keep me alive, and they really do, I mean they really protect me. Some of the pictures I took, I had to tell them to kneel down so their heads wouldn’t be in it because they were standing in between me and any possible danger. I mean, I love traveling with those guys — I keep telling everyone that I’m much safer there than I am any other place.
PM: You write a bit about the media and Al Jazeera in the book, and you say that Al Jazeera had a big part in turning public opinion in the Middle East, and in the United States, against the war during the original fight for Fallujah in April 2004.
BW: It was huge. Overall, it still pertains. What happened in Fallujah was that the American press was reporting, as they do, meticulously … Our journalists tend to be absolutely accurate, but they give you these small portraits, they’ll give you what happened with this platoon today and they won’t attempt to extrapolate and say “this was typical of the entire city” because that’s what drives an editor crazy … That’s how American journalism operates.
Al Jazeera on the other hand will take one building and zoom in on it with the camera and allege that this is the entire city. So, they do the opposite, they use the individual example as illustrative of a larger case, and they get away with it. Our press gradually became extremely suspicious of Al Jazeera but they didn’t immediately start out that way because they thought they were fellow journalists. But they absolutely changed the battle of Fallujah because they were showing these pictures of dead babies — I can still see them in my mind’s eye — and they alleged that this was what our snipers were doing. There wasn’t a mark on the babies. I don’t know where the babies were killed, or what city, or when, but it was a classic example of how the Big Lie can work. And it definitely affected the White House. It affected everybody. That’s where our public information totally fell down.
There were 60 American reporters there, but they were out with the individual units. They weren’t watching Al Jazeera. No American official had the sense to say “Wait a minute,” and bring some of the American journalists in and say “Look at what’s happening here,” so that they would have a chance to tell their editors. PM: How do you see the relationship between embedded reporters … and the guys in the units they’re living with?
BW: The basic reporter is just a good guy who is trained to observe very carefully what is going on around him and he knows his reputation and chances of getting ahead rely on, number one, getting good, interesting information and number two, developing a distinct style that connects with readers and number three, being meticulous in the rigor with which he reports so that he never gets a reputation of being sloppy or anything with his editor. And therefore when they’re with a unit, the unit never has to worry about them … and there’s a natural symbiotic relationship because the average American editor isn’t interested in the gossip of an 18- or 19-year-old kid. He’s interested in a good story that’s accurate …. I never ran into a platoon that if they had the chance did not want a reporter with them. The troops aren’t bad guys either, so they’re not worried about someone turning them in when there’s nothing to turn them in for.
PM: I’ve read several pieces your son (Owen West) has written on Slate.com about Iraq, where he served with the Marines, and like you, he’s written several books. Do you two have plans to collaborate on any projects?
BW: Well, we’re doing a screenplay together for Michael Shamberg who was the producer of “Pulp Fiction,” and Harrison Ford is looking to play “Mad Dog” Mattis [Major General James N. Mattis, who commanded the 1st Marine Division in Iraq]. And Men’s Journal wants Owen and me to do an article together that pulls together our spear fishing, on the one hand, and the wars that we’ve been in.
PM: Have you seen any difference in the willingness of reporters to go out with units now that the violence seems to be so constant and sporadic?
BW: It’s [only] changed because of the cost. If you want to get out with a unit now, it takes longer to get to the unit, so your editor is calculating “How much is this going to cost me?” So the dollars and cents aspect of it becomes higher and higher.
PM: Are you planning on going back anytime soon?
BW: Oh sure. I’m also kind of interested in going to Afghanistan as well, comparing and contrasting. It’s inevitable I’ll be going back — I want to see what they’re going to do with Ramadi.
PM: Ramadi was a tough fight, and reading your book I really got a sense of how underplayed it was in the media, due in part to Fallujah happening at the same time. You also talk about the battle of Hue in Vietnam, and the fierce house-to-house fighting that took place there. Do you see any similarities between Hue and urban combat in places like Ramadi or Fallujah?
BW: Hue lasted for 30 days. However, Fallujah was 20 days on the lines, so the answer is that there were similarities, but Fallujah was the definitive urban battle of the next 20 years, because it became a battle for the high ground, which was the rooftops. Whichever side controlled the rooftops was essentially controlling the hilltops and was shooting down, which is much easier.
The battle for Fallujah was the toughest battle, the most fierce battle inside houses that I can find in recorded history. There were 100 marine squads that had 200 fights inside rooms [of houses.] And that wasn’t an accident. Among the jihadists, they had a group that came from Chechnya that explained to them how they beat the Russians, or how they thought they beat the Russians in Grozny, which was by running from building to building and avoiding the armor and then coming in on the rear of the Russians. That was the plan that they had in Fallujah, to let the Marines go by, and then pop up in their rear. They said that the one thing that Americans will never do is come room-to-room and fight us in a room — and they were wrong. They thought the Marines would stay with the tanks on the streets, they didn’t think they would enter the buildings.
PM: Well, then they didn’t understand the the Marines, I guess.
BW: They didn’t understand the Marines. But many people don’t. Bluntly, if we had some other forces in there they might not have gone into those rooms — Marines are just tough kids. In Hue City, in 30 days the North Vietnamese stayed only one time in a house because most people, if you enter a house, fall back out the rear. That’s the standard military way of fighting. The North Vietnamese use to abandon the houses when you seized the house. In the entire history of police swat teams of the United States, there have never been 200 fights in rooms. Never. And the Marines get no credit for what they did. I mean, their story has never been told.
PM: That’s true. I found a lot in your book that I hadn’t read before concerning the fighting in Iraq and the tactics used by the insurgents. Things like the way the insurgents would pull up in cars, pile out, shoot from the hip, pile back in and drive off.
BW: It was the weirdest thing! That’s what I wanted to get in to — all the things that people don’t understand about the fighting. No one in Iraq walks — no one — and therefore they take cars onto the battlefield. They get up in the morning and get in to a taxi and drive to where they’re going to shoot at you. They do! They’ll have the taxicab driver waiting for them while they get out, run around the corner, shoot at you and get back in again as if its some sort of game. And then you’d see them dressed up as ninjas, just like out of B level Hollywood movie, in all black … it was wild stuff. But when you consider they’re 17- or 18-year-old kids, they’re sitting around the mosque, they have nothing else to do but jack themselves up chatting about what they’re going to do to the infidels … and every Friday afternoon was the hardest fighting. They would go to the mosque, the imam would whip them up, and those poor kids would come whipping out in the street “I’m gonna kill a Marine!” and the Marines would say “Get ready, here they come.”
PM: Another important point you make in the book is the relationship between the local sheiks and the imams, and how the sheiks don’t necessarily have the power that they once had.
BW: I am baffled by the official government not understanding that the sheiks have lost their power and are simply using us to get money. They don’t control anything in Iraq anymore. And we keep thinking they do. It’s really weird. They’re being displaced by this war, and we haven’t caught on to it yet.
PM: We’re still shoveling money at the sheiks …
BW: Yeah. I was just back two weeks ago. In Ramadi, to fill in the potholes on one street, Major Ben Busch, who is in charge of civic affairs, estimated it was a $1,500 job, and he was willing to go to $5,000. The bill that they wanted was $17,000! Just to fill in a couple potholes, and it was nothing but all the graft among the insurgents, the criminals, and the sheiks, and the government officials. All of them wanted part of the money. What are we doing? That’s insane. And [Busch] knew it was insane. Everyone was fleecing the Americans. Can you imagine that? One job. The contractor said that he has to pay off the insurgents, he has to pay off the criminals, the sheiks, who said it was their street, and then he had to pay off the government officials.
PM: As I said, your book really does a great job in relating the story of the realities faced by the American soldier, and the enormous professionalism and courage they show under fire. Do you have any closing thoughts you would like to share about the war and the men and women fighting it?
BW: We have to be careful that we don’t become a nation of critics. W.H. Auden, the poet, once said, “Teach the free man to praise.” Seventy percent of our soldiers get out after four years, and the only thing they have to show for the four years they gave to the country is that they can say “I fought at Fallujah,” the way they can say “I fought at Hue City.” And if we take that away from them, if we don’t even understand what the fighting was, if we don’t understand that they [fought] room to room, we discount valor.
Then as a country we have to ask ourselves “Who will fight five years from now?” It’s fine to criticize policy, but at the same time we should at least understand the fighting and give credit to them for their courage, instead of treating them as victims, because they’re not victims. They’re aggressive hunters. And that’s what this country needs. You need tough guys in the Marine Corps. And so my final message is teach the free man to praise, and if [a soldier] gets into hand-to-hand [combat] in those houses then you should say, “By gosh, I thank you for that kind of courage.” Because those jihadists are out to kill us. I mean, coulda-shoulda-woulda, why are we in Iraq? I view all that as yesterday’s newspaper, in one way. We are in a death struggle with these guys, and we better understand that. These Marines are the ones out there doing the fighting, but if the jihadists took over Iraq, they wouldn’t declare a truce, so we’re gradually going to have to stand up the Iraqi army and Iraq hopefully will be more like Colombia than like Lebanon. It’ll never be perfect the way people hope, but we have to give praise to these Marines for their valor.