PART ONE - IRAQ - MARCH 1991
AL NAJAF / AD DIWANIYA
Maybe his lawyer could plea bargain the “Treason” and “War Crimes” charges down to one count of “Murder.”
Murder was a charge Sergeant Ralph Jackson thought he could live with. Green Berets, after all, killed people. They did not, however, betray their country, though sometimes their country did betray them. Treason bothered him but War Crime, on the other hand, was preposterous. The real war crime would be following orders.
In any event, what he couldn’t live with was walking away from the kids, about 70 Iraqi children who he knew practically worshiped him. It began as “winning the hearts and minds” of the villagers and it wasn’t hard. Ralph came from a close-knit family with three younger brothers and some of the Iraqis weren’t much younger than he was. So he played soccer with them, joked with them, and taught them English, using the lyrics to American pop songs. Well, kind of using the lyrics. Ralph remembered them all lined up, singing at the top of their lungs:
Fame! I want tooo live toooooo gather!
Um, “forever” guys.
“Tell me one thing that’s funny, Ralph,” Sergeant Ted Kehr said.
“It’s either laugh or cry, Ted.” He must have been smiling.
Ted Kehr was one of Ralph’s team mates on Operational Detachment A716, or 716. In the same way the Jones family called themselves “The Jones,” Green Berets referred to themselves as members of their detachment, so collectively Ralph, Ted Kehr and the others were “716.”
“Yeah,” Ted said.
The last of the sandstorm blew itself out by eight o’clock in the morning. Ralph was the first one out of the bunker.
After all the months of cursing these storms, the one time you wanted one to last and it blew out early. Ralph pulled out a set of binoculars and scanned the horizon for movement. Outside of As Salman, the terrain in this part of Iraq consisted of shifting dunes of yellow sand, stretching wave after wave, as far as the eye could see. Fine sand still swirled up off the dunes as the final wind gusts blew themselves out. From this distance, in what turned out to be an omen, the sand looked like a yellow mist blowing toward land off of an unearthly sea. As Ralph began sweeping in closer to the village, its water supply and palm trees, the ground changed to a darker color of sand mixed with dirt and the occasional sprouts of grass.
Despite a tickling in his throat and a sudden desire for a drink, he didn’t stop. You started close to the village and swept out in a grid pattern, and then you swept back in, whether you saw anything on the way out or not. He did it that way because that was the right way to do it and that was the way Ralph Jackson did things, the right way. That was why the United States Army put him on one of its fabled Green Beret “A teams” at an obscenely young age. Ralph not only always did things right, he had a real knack for combat, for killing. There was just no other way to put it.
He swept his gaze past the chest high mud brick wall surrounding the village and rested upon the first cinder block house on the outskirts. An old man with a red checked kafia walked outside. Ralph put the binoculars down. Captain Mel Harris, Ralph’s team leader, stepped up behind him, his approach masked by the snapping sounds of men removing condoms from the barrels of their M-16 rifles or unwinding Saran wrap from the action receiver area. Particularly in a sandstorm, keeping the weapons clean and clear by any other means was near to impossible.
Ralph knew what he was going to do, but needed help. He had to figure out how to get the rest of the team on board. He un-slung his canteen and took a long pull.
“Sir, there’s no way these people can escape now,” Ralph said, “and if they stay here, they’ll be slaughtered.”
The rest of the team filed out of the bunker and drifted off.
“Hey Ralph, what can we do?”
“They’ve got weapons, Captain. We can set them up to fight.”
“Most of the weapons they have, we gave them. They’re all Korean War surplus.”
Master Sergeant Dave Grayson, the Team Sergeant, joined them. As Team Sergeant Grayson was the senior enlisted man on the team, but he chose to remain silent.
“They kill people just fine, sir,” Ralph said.
Ralph was the newest member of the team and young for the job. At first that made the dangerous men he worked with nervous. In a twelve man A-Team, any weakness in one member threatens the survival of everyone else. He knew they watched him. Most of the time he was friendly and easy going and he acted his age. He joked around, usually took no offense and especially liked children. To his colleagues, these were not characteristics that inspired confidence. Then the killing started. After that they didn't get nervous about him being young, they got nervous about the red haze that seemed to surround him.
“Look, I know you’ve got a real soft spot for these kids and it’s partly my fault,” Captain Harris said. “I probably should’ve warned you to back off a little, but it helped us with villagers. You can’t let it affect your judgment.”
“Sir, think about all the help these people have given us over the last eight months. They’ve supplied us, hid us a couple times, given us shelter, intel . . . and if they’d been caught . . .“
”You don’t think I know that?”
It was true, Ralph thought. Everyone was upset. Ten hours earlier they’d received word via a secure burst transmission from Kuwait that the United States and Iraq had agreed to end hostilities. “All material support for insurgent groups is to terminate.” “A Teams,” otherwise known as Operational Detachments, including Operational Detachment A716, were to wrap up their involvement with the indigenous people, blow all “externally originated” ordinance in place, and exfiltrate the area.
In other words, they were supposed to disarm the people who’d befriended them and then abandon them to their fate.
After receiving the message, Captain Harris called the Americans together and issued the orders: “Gather up all their weapons and ammunition. Clean up any evidence of our operations in the area. Get ready to exfiltrate.”
Just as they’d begun directing their prior allies and former friends to stack their weapons in central locations, a second radio transmission came in. It was from Special Forces Headquarters and every bit as troubling as the first one.
“Just received at SF Headquarters - satellite intelligence indicates enemy troop elements moving in your direction. Large unit identified as fragment of Republican Guard Mechanized Battalion. Approximately 6 BTR-60 armored personnel carriers and truck transport for 120 infantrymen. Estimated time of arrival, 10:00 hours.”
By the time they received and decrypted the message, the sandstorm began in earnest. Since the storm was blowing east to west across As Salman, the Republican Guard unit approaching from the north was not impeded in until it got near town. The Iraqis who befriended 716, along with their wives and children, however, were snowed in. Then, just as the storm shifted to the north where it might slow down the enemy convoy, it blew out.
“I know you do sir, but-“
”We’ve got our orders, Sergeant Jackson.”
Sergeant Jackson, huh? Two could play that game.
“Remember the police station at Al Khidr, Captain?”
“You little turd.”
Ralph didn’t move, he barely let himself breath. There was no forgetting what 716 found after capturing the Al Khidr police station during the invasion. Images of blood, gore, and horrible metal implements flash before their eyes. They found videotapes, confiscated them and watched enough of one to know what they contained. God only knew what the Bathists would do to their friends given the chance, but 716 had a pretty good idea. Bringing it up was Ralph’s strongest card and playing it might backfire. Harris never talked to anyone like that. After what seemed like forever, he spoke.
“Dave, what do you think,” Harris asked his team sergeant.
“Well . . . it’s not exactly unprecedented, sir.”
Special Forces Detachments engaged in unconventional warfare and “unconventional” meant unconventional. There was a long Special Forces tradition of “improving upon” ambiguities in orders. Refusing to run from an enemy planning to butcher friends of America fell into this “improving upon” category. Morally, there is no reason not to disobey, but the entire team would have to agree. If they were caught, they’d be court-martialed.
“I’m inclined to go with Ralph on this, but first let’s see if it’s doable. We gotta think through the tactics, especially what we’re gonna do with those armored personnel carriers. If it’s doable, I say we lay out the legal consequences and then poll the team,” Grayson said.
Success, Ralph thought.
“Agreed. We review the tactics and if it’s feasible, we put it to a vote,” Harris said. “But before we go that far, let’s check the tactics.”
“Yes!” Ralph blurted out, clenching a fist.
“Shut up, Ralph,” Harris said under his breath. “Not a word out of you until we know it might work.”
The rest of the team was fanning out into the village, yelling for the villagers. They were already assembling the ordinance, moving it from private homes and hiding places into the village streets.
“We’ve got about 120 infantrymen to deal with, but the old small arms don’t bother me. We’ve got plenty of M-16 ammunition and the villagers will have the element of surprise,” said Harris.
“Keep them moving, Sergeant Penn.” Grayson shouted over Harris’s head. “Stack em up, then stand by.”
The rest of the twelve man detachment glanced over at the three men huddled together, then continued working with the villagers.
“What worries me are those APCs,” Harris said, referring to the Armored Personnel Carriers.
“Me too,” said Grayson. “Maybe we could use some of the C-4, Molotov cocktails . . .”
“Penn says there’s a couple crates of old LAWS in the villagers’ stockpile,” Ralph said.
“When’d those come in?” Grayson said. He’d often been away from the village conducting patrols and didn’t see all the ordinance as it was air dropped in.
“You’ve been working on this, haven’t you?” Harris said to Ralph.
“I’m just saying, sir.”
Ralph was referring to a rocket launcher that replaced the bazooka known as the M-72 light antitank weapon (L.A.W.). The LAW was developed in the 1960s. It was old and most soldiers had never seen one. In Special Forces, however, obsolete and foreign weapons were frequently supplied the allies or even to SF detachments. 716 knew more than a little bit about the LAW, including how to use it.