Peace Like A River

It was a wide river, mistakable for a lake or even an ocean unless you'd been wading and knew its current. Somehow I'd crossed it... Now I saw the stream regrouped below, flowing on through what might've been vineyards, pastures, orhards... It flowed between and alongside the rivers of people; from here it was no more than a silver wire winding toward the city. - Leif Enger, Peace Like A River

Friday, August 26, 2005

Dissecting Gates of Fire

Again, if you haven't yet read Michael Yon's latest spellbinding report from Mosul, Gates of Fire, do so now. (The account inspired me to post this yesterday.)

I want to take a look at some of the details in Yon's account.

First, Yon says:

On Monday, while conducting operations in west Mosul, a voice came over the radio saying troops from our brother unit, the 3-21, were fighting with the enemy in east Mosul on the opposite side of the Tigris River.

The eastern sector of Mosul is the Kurdish sector. I am not familiar enough with the situation in Mosul to know how often insurgents and terrorists operate in eastern Mosul. It makes sense the Deuce Four would be in west Mosul, the Arab sector, but I would think it would be dangerous for Arab terrorists to operate in east Mosul. The Kurds do not mess around, and are serious about their security. Perhaps someone with knowledge of the area can inform the rest of us?

Second, Yon says:

The only mission I've seen unfold close to what was planned was a B Company raid a few months back. It actually went so close to perfect that we could hardly believe it. The sole glitch occurred when a Stryker hit an IED, but since nobody was hurt, we just continued the mission. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine why I didn't write about it.

Yon says he didn't write about that one, but here, where he talks about "Day 28", Yon describes an IED attack that killed Nick Sayles during a B Company Stryker patrol. Yon also describes an IED attack during a B Company patrol here. (Some background on Mosul at that link as well.)

Third, Yon says:

As a "surge" operation, Lancer Fury is sort of a crocodile hunt, where our people do things to make the crocodiles come out, trying to flush them into predictable directions, or make them take certain actions. And when they do, we nail them. The combat portion of the Surge amounted to a sophisticated "area ambush" that would unfold over the period of about one week.

My correspondent in Iraq had something similar to say once:

Another fun day. I can't explain too much without giving it away but we have been trying to get the bad guys to come out and play and they are not always so obliging. Fooey, we always seem to be reacting on their terms. Well, we do our own offensives as well and that disrupts them and keeps them moving.

Fourth, Yon says:

Five soldiers from Recon—Holt, Ferguson, Yates, Welch and Ross—were moving through moon-cast shadows when an Iraqi man came out from a farmhouse, his AK-47 rifle hanging by his side. Suddenly encircled by the rifles, lights and lasers of four soldiers, the man was quickly disarmed.

Do not gloss over the discipline it takes to be out prowling at night, in Indian country, chasing armed and deadly terrorists, and not shoot a man armed with an AK-47 who appears in a doorway. Yon says Kurilla acknowledged their discipline.

It's all the more admirable considering what Yon said here:

Don't get me wrong, if they see an enemy with a weapon he is dead, no questions asked

Fifth, Yon says:

The sweet and heartfelt message inside ended with--

Please tell our soldiers we care so much for them. --Dan and Connie Lama.

Perhaps this card was a response to what I posted about here.

Sixth, Yon says:

I changed the subject by snapping a photo of CSM Prosser while LTC Kurilla got Mrs. Lama on the Iridium satellite phone. I heard the commander telling this soldier's mother that her son was fine. Daniel just had some soft tissue damage, nothing major. Kurilla told her that he and some other soldiers were at the hospital now with Daniel, who was still too groggy to talk. "Really, Daniel's okay, and don't worry about it when the Army calls you."

This speaks volumes about what kind of leader, and what kind of man, Kurilla is. He is so sensitive to his men and their families, that he tells them not to worry about what the Army says, just in case they say something abrupt like "Your loved one has been shot", and he doesn't want the family to think the coming call from the Army is made because the injured man's condition has worsened.

Seventh, Yon says:

Some Strykers were scouting for the shooters, while others were working details at Yarmook Traffic Circle...Automatic weapons fire started coming from at least two places. Bullets were kicking up the dust, and we got a radio call that troops were in contact at Yarmook Traffic Circle.

Yon wrote about the deadly Yarmook Traffic Circle here.

Eighth, Yon says:

Newcomers, even soldiers, unaccustomed to this level of hostility, can only burden the men with added danger.

Yon tells us this because we are about to find out how.

Ninth, Yon says:

Chris Espindola also shot the man. Amazingly, despite being hit by four M4's from multiple directions, the man still lived a few minutes.

The lack of stopping power in the M4s, and M16s, is a common complaint in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I've heard some tales from Afghanistan of rounds going right through and hardly slowing down some of the Johnny Jihadis, who I believe tend to be, on average, a little scrawnier than their Iraqi counterparts.

Tenth, Yon says:

Kurilla was in the open, but his judo roll had left him slightly to the side of the shop. I screamed to the young soldiers, "Throw a grenade in there!" but they were not attacking.

This is one of the more amazing aspects of combat training. What to do when the bullets start flying. One cannot blame these young soldiers from a human standpoint, but there are things to do to stay alive.

Yon is sensitive enough not to name them, and he doesn't come back to highlight the inaction. Honestly, as Yon indicates, it is a common reaction when soldiers first experience combat. I am in no way judging these young soldiers. If I knew I was going into that situation for the first time, I'd be happy not to wet myself just lacing up the boots.

Yon had this to say here about moving in combat:

I asked, "Did you fire a warning shot?"

They were still chuckling, oblivious we were under sniper attack. But not for long. Soldiers in our Stryker shouted, "Contact, contact, contact!"

A group of soldiers were already running in pursuit of the sniper.

Note the already running, as soon as shots were fired.

Last detail I'd like to look at, Yon says this:

When Kurilla woke in recovery a few hours after surgery, he called CSM Prosser and asked for a Bible and the book: Gates of Fire. Kurilla gives a copy of Gates of Fire to every new officer and orders them to read it. He had given me a copy and told me to read it. In my book, there is a marked passage, which I thought rather flowery. But I have it beside me on the table by the map of Iraq.

"I would be the one. The one to go back and speak. A pain beyond all previous now seized me. Sweet life itself, even the desperately sought chance to tell the tale, suddenly seemed unendurable alongside the pain of having to take leave of these whom I had come so to love."

The book, Gates of Fire, is written by Steven Pressfield.

(This link to Amazon came through GMT Games, a game company with which I have no affiliation, other than as a customer.)

Why might Kurilla, a leader of men, find special meaning in this book?

The book is fiction, a historical novel, but describes the famous battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. In a narrow mountain pass, 300 Spartans, led by Leonidas, and their allies held back a massive Persian invasion force. This Spartan force was wiped out.

The book is widely known and regarded in military circles.

It is a brilliant novel. Kurilla must have been touched by the account of Leonidas, and his difficult task of leading men in this perilous situation, one fraught with mortal danger.

In the book, Leonidas says this to his officers:

"You are the commanders, your men will look to you and act as you do. Let no officer keep to himself or his brother officers, but circulate daylong among his men. Let them see you and see you unafraid. Where there is work to do, turn your hand to it first; the men will follow."

Kurilla is that kind of man. He was the first man down that alley.

It is instructive that Yon highlighted the passage he did. The passage is taken from Chapter One. The words are from a character named Xeones. Xeones is the narrator of the novel. He survives the battle, and lives to tell the tale of what happened in that mountain pass.

Yon is that person as well. He sees himself as the one who will witness battle and return to tell others about it. He is the one who brings back to us tales of unbelievable courage. Without him, we would know very little of the courage of the men who put their lives on the line for us. God bless Yon, and God bless our Armed Forces.

Today, there is a famous monument at the site of the battle, and an epitaph on the monument says this:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie

Yes, Michael, go tell us all of the courage and dedication of those who serve to defend us.

Blackfive says it well, each sentence of Yon's account is packed with life and death.


  • At Fri Aug 26, 12:05:00 AM, Andrew Scotia said…

    Just after the email alert popped up today and read Mike's piece and immediately sent him a Bravo Zulu, Well Done. Sometimes the wisdom of the ages is too be found in cliches. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." about sums this up for both the LTC and Mike. You lead by example and from the front.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 01:15:00 AM, johngrif said…

    Another hero trying to free Iraq. His work resembles those of M.Yon's company :

    The Distinguished Service Cross – second only to the Medal of Honor in military decorations – has been awarded to U.S. Army Col. James H. Coffman Jr. for his role in leading Iraqi Special Police Commandos through a 5 ½-hour battle against insurgents trying to overrun an Iraqi police station.
    “It’s humbling to me, to be in the company of heroes,” Casey said, noting Coffman’s extraordinary heroism in the battle that killed 12 Iraqi commandos and wounded 24. “Such exemplary conduct is a great example to Iraqi commandos and to all American Soldiers and warriors."
    “In my mind, it’s more for the Iraqis,” he (Coffman) said.

    Coffman doesn’t see himself as a big hero, just a Soldier who did what he had to do to keep himself and his men alive. He believes there are plenty of heroic deeds going on in Iraq – particularly in the military and special police training teams – that go unrecognized.

    “There are equal acts out there. This one just got written up,” Coffman said..


    See Army Public Affairs
    (link from El at Little Green Footballs)

  • At Fri Aug 26, 09:59:00 AM, Jeff said…

    Andrew, Bravo Zulu indeed. And thanks for your honest comments about your personal experience over at The Belmont Club.

    John, thanks for pointing this out for everybody. I'd seen that. You're right, these are kinds of things the media should be highlighting.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 01:32:00 PM, Tom Cuddihy said…

    I'm in the Navy and have several Marine friends over there, Michael Yon has been invaluable in highlighting the real heroism of these soldiers. I hope he doesn't get locked out for the events he described (grabbing a rifle & joining the fray).

  • At Fri Aug 26, 01:46:00 PM, Jeff said…

    Tom, Indeed, it would be a shame to lose, in Yon, one of the most valuable citizen allies the US military has right now. And I'm sure the commanders know that. Yon will get a stern talking to, he'll be told that if he wants to pick up a gun he should go to Uncle Sam and ask to reenlist. But in the end, I think Yon knows he crossed a line and won't make a habit of it. The commanders will recognize Yon crossed that line in an effort to save the life of LTC Kurilla.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 01:50:00 PM, Jeff said…

    Tom, Oops, I skipped too fast past the fact you said you were Navy, and had Marine friends. I of course meant if Yon wants to pick up a _rifle_ he should go to Uncle Sam and ask to reenlist. ;)

  • At Fri Aug 26, 02:04:00 PM, Anonymous said…

    I definitely hope Mr. Yon doesn't get pushed out for what are most obviously actions taken in self-defense.

    Also, something to keep in mind, while the Spartans are rightly honored for their martial valor (and laconic temperament), I don't think they best represent the American fighting man (one word: Krypteia). That distinction would go to the Thespians.

    As described in Herodotus (as well as in 'Gates of Fire'), the Thespians were citizen-soldiers, who voted stay with the Spartans to the bitter end of Thermopylae. The Thespian General Demophilus was an architect by trade. They didn't need to stay and fight, but they did, and they died, for Greek democracy.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 02:51:00 PM, Jeff said…

    Anonymous, You bring up good points. For general consumption, Victor Davis Hanson has written a good deal on this topic. I'd pick three books in particular: The Western Way of War, Carnage and Culture, and The Soul of Battle. These books look at various aspects of the topic of how western warfare has roots in the Greek and Spartan worlds.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 03:07:00 PM, medic_J said…

    SFC Bowman asked Michael "Did you fear for your life or the life of others?"

    LTC Kurilla and CSM Prosser down and other soldiers frozen I think eminently qualifies.

    They might reprimand Mr. Yon in public, but in private they are all for Michael to be sure.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 03:09:00 PM, medic_J said…

    I pity the officer who orders Mr. Yon out of Iraq.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 03:25:00 PM, Jeff said…

    medic_J, I think you hit the nail on the head. They'll probably go through the procedures of stressing the great importance of journalists staying out of action. The military doesn't want other journalists who don't have an SF background deciding to be cowboys. But, unless this gets to be a Truman-MacArthur situation, and Yon gets the Chinese involved in the war, they'll bend over sideways to keep Yon there.

  • At Fri Aug 26, 04:01:00 PM, Anonymous said…


    Kurilla was that kind of man. He was the first man down that alley.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but Kurilla is not in the past-tense yet. I got the sense from the story he is expected to recover.

    --Fresh Air

  • At Fri Aug 26, 04:37:00 PM, Jeff said…

    Anonymous, I had thought of that. I meant he was at that moment in time, in that situation, but you're right, it is probably better to say "is". I'll change it. Thx.

  • At Sat Aug 27, 11:03:00 AM, ET said…

    I've been reading Michael Yon for months. He's an invaluable asset for the military as well as all of us back home. He sets the standard for excellent journalism; we certainly need more journalits like him to keep America informed about the real situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Yon was interviewed by Hugh Hewitt about this story; you can read the transcript at Yon was very professional about his comments regarding the two new soldiers who froze, as well as the Major who questioned his decision to pick up a weapon.

  • At Sat Aug 27, 01:14:00 PM, Jeff said…

    I did see the transcript of that interviews. Quite interesting. That's one of the things I admire most about the military, their professional way of dealing with things. As opposed to how Hollywood portrays the military.

  • At Sat Aug 27, 09:30:00 PM, Jeff said…

    I should have noted in the piece, but the allies numbered 7 to 8,000. A decent number, but... the Persians probably outnumbered them by as much as 40-1.

    As for Xeones, he is a writer's device. I don't know for sure if anyone survived the historical battle. The book is told from the Spartan point of view, so Xeones keeps the book from coming to an abrupt halt once the last Spartan is killed. It's hard to have a Spartan point of view without a Spartan. Xeones is the way to continue the story past that point.


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