Friday, October 05, 2007

Fighting Roadside Bombs: Part IV

This post concludes my coverage of Rick Atkinson's Washington Post series on the IED threat to international security. Atkinson's fourth article in the series continues his discussion of the Pentagon's dramatic policy efforts to adapt to improvised bombs. Frankly, much of the article repeats the main points raised by Atkinson previously. I did like this concluding passage, however:

At 9:30 p.m. on Monday, May 7, a convoy of four uparmored Humvees rolled through the heavily fortified gate at Camp Falcon in southern Baghdad before turning north onto Route Jackson at 35 mph. Each Humvee carried a jammer against radio-controlled bombs, either a Duke or an SSVJ. Each had been outfitted with Frag Kit 5, and a Rhino II protruded from each front bumper as protection against EFPs detonated by passive infrared triggers. As recommended, the drivers kept a 40-meter separation from one another.

The senior officer in the third Humvee, Lt. Col. Gregory D. Gadson, 41, had driven to Falcon to attend a memorial service for two soldiers killed by an IED. Now he was returning to his own command post near Baghdad International Airport. As commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 32nd Field Artillery, a unit in the 1st Infantry Division, Gadson was a gunner by training. But as part of the troop "surge" that President Bush announced in January, the battalion had taken up unfamiliar duties as light infantrymen in Baghdad.

After 18 years in the Army, including tours of duty in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in Afghanistan, Gadson was hardly shocked by the change of mission. He knew that, proverbially, no plan survived contact with the enemy. Raised in Chesapeake, Va., he had been a football star in high school and an outside linebacker at West Point before graduating in 1989. The nomadic Army life suited him and his wife, Kim, who had been a classmate at the academy before resigning her commission to raise their two children.

In the darkness on Route Jackson, no one noticed the dimple in the roadbed, where insurgents had loosened the asphalt with burning tires and buried three 130mm artillery shells before repairing the hole. No one saw the command wire snaking to the east through a hole in a chain-link fence and into a building. No one saw the triggerman.

They all heard the blast. "The boom is what I think about every day," Gadson would say three months later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A great flash exploded beneath the right front fender. Gadson felt himself tumbling across the ground, and he knew instantly that an IED had struck the Humvee. "I don't have my rifle," he told himself, and then the world went black.

When he regained consciousness, he saw the looming face of 1st Sgt. Frederick L. Johnson, who had been in the trail vehicle and had brought his commander back from the dead with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Lying on the road shoulder 50 meters from his shattered Humvee, Gadson was the only man seriously wounded in the attack, but those wounds were grievous. Another soldier, Pfc. Eric C. Brown, managed to knot tourniquets across his upper thighs. Johnson hoisted Gadson, who weighed 210 pounds, into another Humvee, an ordeal that was "extremely complicated due to the extensive injuries Lt. Col. Gadson sustained to his lower extremities," an incident report later noted.

Thirty minutes after the blast, Gadson was flown from Camp Falcon to the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone. For hours he hovered near death, saved by 70 units of transfused blood. "Tell Kim I love her," he told another officer.

Two days later, he was stable enough to fly to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany; two days after that, he reached Walter Reed, where Kim was waiting for him. On May 18, a major artery in his left leg ruptured; to save his life, surgeons amputated several inches above the knee. The next day, the right leg blew, and it, too, was taken off at the thigh.

Gadson would be but one of 22,000 American casualties from IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that isolated incident along Route Jackson on May 7 was emblematic of the nation's long struggle against roadside bombs.

He had been wounded despite the best equipment his country could give him and despite the best countermeasures American science could contrive. His life had been saved by the armored door that shielded his head and torso, and by the superior training of his soldiers, the heroic efforts of military medicine and his own formidable grit. He had lost his lower limbs despite flawlessly following standard operating procedure. He faced months, and years, of surgery, rehabilitation and learning to live a life without legs.

Gadson's war was over, but for his comrades and for the country it goes on. An additional $4.5 billion has been budgeted for the counter-IED fight in the fiscal year that began this week. JIEDDO [the Joint IED Defeat Organization], which started four years ago this month in the Pentagon basement as an Army task force with a dozen soldiers, now fills two floors of an office building in Crystal City and employs almost 500 people, including contractors.

The House Armed Services Committee concluded in May that the organization "has demonstrated marginal success in achieving its stated mission to eliminate the IED as a weapon of strategic influence." Others disagree, including England. "Monty Meigs was the best thing that ever happened to us," he said, "and to the [Pentagon], and to the guys in the field."

Whether because of the surge, or despite it, total IED attacks in Iraq declined from 3,200 in March to 2,700 in July, an 8 percent drop. IED-related deaths also declined over the summer, sharply, from 88 in May to 27 in September.

If heartened by the recent trend, Meigs [Retired Gen. Montgomery C., head of the Pentagon's counter-IED effort] is cautious. He notes that sniping, another asymmetrical tactic, tormented soldiers in the Civil War. "Snipers are still around, and they're darned effective," he said. "Artillery has also been around a long time. There are some tactical problems that are very hard to solve. There are no silver bullets, no panaceas."

Virtually everyone agrees that regardless of how the American expeditions in Iraq and Afghanistan play out, the roadside bomb has become a fixture on 21st-century battlegrounds.

I mentioned earlier how the IED threat demonstrates "the sheer horror of war." Lt. Col. Gadson's experience powerfully illustrates the point, but it also brings home the tremendous importance of defeating the IED scourge.

Overall, while the Akinson series is informative, the reporting focused too much on the bureaucratic impediments in combatting the roadside bombs. In Atkinson's conclusion above he notes that "total IED attacks in Iraq declined from 3,200 in March to 2,700 in July, an 8 percent drop" and "IED-related deaths also declined over the summer, sharply, from 88 in May to 27 in September." There's more to these numbers, especially the more-than 50 percent drop in fatalities indicated for last summer. Atkinson's analysis might have focused more on what ground-level adaptions U.S. forces were making, rather than the almost exclusive attention to the top-down developments coming out of Washington.

Perhaps Atkinson's goal was to contribute to the defeatist grip that's got a hold on much of the Democratic establishment. Stanley Kurtz, at the National Review last week, was critical of the Post's left-wing slant to its coverage of the war:

Today, on the front page of The Washington Post, we see the third in a three-part series on roadside bombs in Iraq. The stories in this series have been centered on the top half of the page and highlighted in red (a device I don’t recall seeing before). Next to that is a huge headline about allegations of killings In Iraq by Blackwater. Below that is a headline that reads "Most in Poll Want War Funding Cut." Meanwhile deep inside the paper, on page A14, we find the following article: "U.S. and Civilian Deaths Decrease Sharply in Iraq: American Military Credits Troop Influx." True, nestled between the other screaming headlines on page one, there is a brief minuscule teaser for this far more positive story about Iraq. Yet the bias here is clear.

If the top story is Iraq, then I don’t see how you can put those three stories on the front page, while burying the other one on page 14. Arguably, an actual report of substantial positive progress in Iraq is more important, and more dramatic, than any of those other stories...

Kurtz has a good point. Yet, I'm reminded of my analysis from the first entry in this series, where I suggested that the IED threat represents a first-order challenge to American military preponderance, in that it works to weaken U.S. military effectiveness in the weakest link of the overall chain of U.S. strategy: the contested zones. This Weekly Standard report from 2005 on the Pentagon's bureaucractic approach to the IED threat captures the priority of taming this threat:

THE IED IS ONLY A TACTICAL WEAPON, but it is also the only weapon that produces significant U.S. casualties. And because these casualties are the primary factor in eroding American public support for Operation Iraqi Freedom, this tactical weapon is capable of having a major strategic impact. The IED is capable of defeating the U.S. mission in Iraq if not checked by an effective tactical response.

The Weekly Standard piece suggests that U.S. policy should cultivate more bottom-up efforts in adapting to IEDs (for an example of such initiatives, this report from Michael Yon). To its credit, the U.S. Army shows evidence of more attention to ground-level solutions to issues of asymmetrical warfare.

See my earlier entries in the "Fighting Roadside Bombs" series, here, here, and here.

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