A U.S. Marine recounts his experiences in combat leading the first Iraqi Army battalion trained by the American military.
“Americans had never built a Middle Eastern army from scratch in the middle of a war,” writes Zacchea, who directs the UConn Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities. In 2004, the author was assigned to do just that in Iraq, whose existing army had been disbanded by Paul Bremer, leader of the U.S. occupation, early in the Iraq War. In this military memoir and cautionary tale, the author describes the mind-boggling challenge of training a unit comprising rival ethnic and religious groups without any special preparation whatsoever. Then a 35-year-old lieutenant colonel, Zacchea received no language training or advice on the history and culture of the region; he arrived to find himself lacking equipment and support needed to train poor, illiterate recruits who showed no desire to be just like Americans. “We think they want to be inclusive, pluralistic, merit-driven, and maybe even secular,” he writes. “They do not.” His on-the-ground experiences shaped his view that the U.S. has yet to learn that “there are limits to how much it can change other people, other places, other religions.” His well-paid recruits—they often disappeared after payday—looted with impunity, honored wasta (clout), valued patronage over merit, and evinced mixed motives for joining the army. They never embraced the idea of an inclusive Iraq. Few knew how to drive, most considered guns status symbols rather than useful tools, and desertion was commonplace. Nonetheless, Zacchea managed to create “a reliable corps of soldiers,” for which he received Iraq’s top military honor. Much of his somewhat rambling account focuses on efforts to overcome ethnic rivalries, distrust between U.S. and Iraqi troops, and the problems caused by clashing values and traditions. He offers vivid accounts of base life, urban combat in Fallujah, and his close friendship with one Iraqi soldier.
An honest, revealing glimpse of the dangers inherent in acting on good intentions based on ignorance.