'Embedded' With The Iraqi Army

Wesley Gray left a prestigious business school for the U.S. Marine Corps — and then really learned something. He advised Iraqi troops who were preparing to take over responsibility for the security of their country. Host Scott Simon speaks with Gray about his book, Embedded, which recalls his eight months spent advising the Iraqi army as part of a military transition team.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Wesley Gray was known as Jamal among Iraqi soldiers. He was a first lieutenant U.S. Marine Corps adviser to the Iraqi army who spoke Iraqi Arabic and was a University of Chicago business school student who interrupted his studies to be a soldier.

For 210 days in 2006, Lieutenant Gray lived and fought alongside Iraqi soldiers in the al-Anbar province as they prepared to take eventual control of their own country. He's now Captain Gray in the reserves and has written a candid memoir of his times in Iraq, which has been published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press. It's called "Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army."

Wesley Gray is in his final year of the Ph.D. program at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Captain WESLEY GRAY (U.S. Army Reserves): Thanks for having me, Scott. It's an honor to be here.

SIMON: And we have to make plain: You arrived in Haditha after an outrage of a crime had occurred.

Capt. GRAY: Yes. I arrived there right after the Haditha massacre. And obviously at the time, the tensions were very high, and the violence subsequent was also high.

SIMON: The Haditha massacre was when 24 Iraqi civilians were killed by…

Capt. GRAY: That's right.

SIMON: …U.S. forces following the death of a Marine lance corporal.

Some of the, I must say, alarming, upsetting sections of your book have to do when you talk about cultural differences. And it should be understood, because I think a lot of our listeners would say, you know, we should respect cultural differences.

But you recount an astonishing conversation, dinner with a colonel of the Iraqi army, where he - and not just he - considers spousal abuse a cultural difference.

Capt. GRAY: That's right. One of the biggest questions I always wonder is, how is it I always hear that you beat your wives. And so I actually asked the colonel, and he was sitting around there with a bunch of other Iraqi army soldiers, and we started discussing this. And the primary logic there is that the reason you need to beat your wife is that women have this power of seduction. And in order to keep that power of seduction to an acceptable level, you need to make sure you let them know who's boss.

SIMON: Now, setting aside that pernicious and offensive nonsense, the astonishing thing about this section is that you say all the soldiers there, Iraqi soldiers, agreed with it.

Capt. GRAY: Yeah, it was - I mean, obviously not everyone does it, and there are people even within our unit that say, hey, no, that's B.S. and you shouldn't do that to your wife. But I think in general, it's a pretty consistent thought throughout the military men, at least.

SIMON: Tell me what you observed about the relationship between officers in the Iraqi army and enlisted men.

Mr. GRAY: Well, in the U.S. military and in Marine Corps specifically, there's this concept of officers eat last. And idea behind that is your men, they're doing all the real hard work and you're there as an officer to make sure they can do their job and then take care of them. Whereas in the Iraqi military, the concept is officers eat first, and enlisted guys can get the scraps.

And now, one of the dynamics there that creates an issue is that if you're treating your men like crap, they're not going to be receptive to your orders and they're not going to respect you as a leader. So it's a lot more difficult to try to get things done.

SIMON: You recount a conversation with Mark, a terp - as you called the interpreters - who was Kurdish. And he was very blunt and concise in talking about what he thought went wrong...

Mr. GRAY: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ...in the U.S. invasion and aftermath.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah. His biggest concerns were, one, we destroyed the Iraqi military, which was an infrastructure that was the main, core infrastructure in Iraq that kind of kept people together and gave them a job and gave them something to do. And then the second thing is when we went in there, we went in this idea of like, hey, let's go in with a limited force structure. We'll take care of business and then Iraqis will pop up and sprout democratic institutions. It'll be all good.

But the reality is that when we went in and we didn't have enough people to secure the population's resources, so all the Army bases, all the banks, all the antiquities and treasures, we just left them rampant to robbers and whoever wanted to take them.

SIMON: And a lot of people could get weapons...

Mr. GRAY: Exactly. And even Mark tells me stories where he would see grandmothers go on Iraqi bases and take RPG stocks. Not 'cause she wanted to use them but because they're valuable. And his other main point was that we -the one thing we did guard was the oil pipelines.

So this whole concept that, oh, we're going in there to share democracy and freedom, it's very hard from their perspective when they see us, you know, blowing everyone up and we go in there and the only thing we do protect is the oil pipeline. And they say, okay, this is a little fishy here. You're not coming here to help us. You're coming here to steal our oil, whether that's the reality or what have you, that is the perception.

SIMON: I mean, as you know, the military often said well, we're protecting the oil pipeline because that's the source of wealth of the country for everyone.

Mr. GRAY: But the problem with that is trying to spin that politically to a lay Iraqi person, who just looks at us as an occupier who's just trying to take their resources for our benefit as opposed to being altruistic with their resources and giving them right back to them.

SIMON: Mr. Gray, you're about to finish graduate school. We had the pleasure of meeting your daughter, who's just a few weeks old, outside. Would you like to go back to Iraq one day and see some of the people you worked with, see your country?

Mr. GRAY: I certainly would. And last year I was planning on going to the Kurdistan region to visit Mark. But unfortunately, there was a little issue with the Turks there so it became a little dangerous. And of course, my wife wasn't too happy about it. But the minute I get the opportunity and I get the green light from those guys out there, they think it's safe enough for me to go as a civilian, I'm there.

SIMON: Wesley Gray, his new book is "Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army."

Thanks so much.

Mr. GRAY: Thank you Scott. Appreciate being here.

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