Learning Lessons in a Prolonged War Military rules of engagement are being closely examined in the wake of the civilian deaths in Haditha. We hear from an enlisted man who wrote about his experiences in Iraq -- and helped change the way Marines are taught to go into urban combat.
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Learning Lessons in a Prolonged War

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Learning Lessons in a Prolonged War

Learning Lessons in a Prolonged War

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U.S. Marines going house-to-house in Ramadi, Iraq, this week, may have learned this week from past missions. The Marines have studied a previous effort to clear insurgents from Fallujah. And this morning, we will meet an Iraq veteran who wrote an influential article on urban combat.


It's part of our conversations, this week, on leadership in war. American troops are trying to eliminate an insurgency that's well into its fourth year. They're also under pressure to avoid incidents, like the one in Haditha, Iraq, where Marines are accused of going into houses and killing civilians.

INSKEEP: Marine Staff Sergeant Earl Catagnus knows about those pressures. In the fall of 2004, he chased insurgents house-to-house during the Battle of Fallujah.

Staff Sergeant EARL J. CATAGNUS (United States Marine Corps): I cleared probably 60 to 80 houses a day, searching every room, every corner, every niche and cranny, because the amount of weapons that were there was enormous. I mean, 14-foot rockets - missiles that they had no idea how to use or couldn't employ, but they were there; truckloads upon truckloads, upon truckloads. So we had to go in and make sure that it was all clear. So what our battalion commander had us do, was turn around, as soon as the assault was done - the initial assault -and then clear every house again.


SSgt. CATAGNUS: And then we turned, shifted to the east, and we cleared again. And then we shifted to the east and cleared again. And then we turned around and cleared again.

INSKEEP: Did you keep finding new people that you missed on the earlier sweeps?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Yes. Actually the cordon was - the cordon around the city was porous. It was.

INSKEEP: After this experience, Staff Sergeant, you went on to write about it. You wrote an article in the Marine Corps Gazette. And you write, The city of Fallujah is unlike any city for which Marines have trained.

SSgt. CATAGNUS: That is true. The tactics and techniques and procedures that you use as a unit, it's sort of like a football team. You get together and you play, and you have plays. Well, you can't be that strict, like everybody goes left and everybody goes right. That's what taught us in Fallujah. We had to learn that individual Marine training - which means that you have to teach them the basics of, even walking in an urban environment, walking into a house so you don't trip, or get your crouch, you have to heel toe, I mean, to the points where you actually relearned to walk. Relearn to walk with your weapon. Relearn how to shoot.

INSKEEP: Can you explain what you mean about learning to walk?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Yes. When you engage the enemy within feet, literally within feet, you have to learn how to keep your head up, how to walk from your heel to your toe on the outside of your feet. You have to crouch. You have to make sure your stance is open so you don't trip and fall.

INSKEEP: I'm moving my feet here and trying to imagine when you say heel to your toe.

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Yes. You would put your heel, if you put your foot up and point your toe in the air. And you bring it down and then put on the outside of your right - say, if your right foot, you put it on the outside towards the right and then down.

INSKEEP: That's to keep your balance?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Yes. It's not an over exaggerated. It's just so that way, one, you keep - you minimize the noise that you put on, but also the balance and you stance is wider, and it's very much a controlled movement. Everything is controlled. And after a while, you get to do a muscle memory and you don't even realize you're doing it.

INSKEEP: You write about the difference between attacking a house from the bottom up and attacking a house from the top down. What are some specific experiences you had that influenced what you think?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: What you're traditionally taught is that you attack a house from the top down. Okay. Which means you make an entry either through the roof, or go through the window, or go through the stairs, or a door. And you clear from the top down. And the philosophy behind that is that what happens when rats are trapped? If they're in a corner they're going to fight.

Well, if you clear a house from the bottom up, you leave them nowhere else to go because they can't jump off the roof. So if you clear from the top down, they're going fight less. Plus, also, there's momentum. As you're going down the steps, if you take a casualty you can either go over top of that casualty and then clear and eliminate all threats.

Well, now this is great when you're doing this with blanks, but, in reality, when you take a casualty when you're going down the steps and the first One Man, we call them, the One Man gets hit and he goes down. You not only have a Marine that, say 160, maybe even 200 pounds, some of these big guys are like 230 pounds, to pull up the steps. But you have over a hundred and some pounds worth of gear plus a weapon. So you cannot - it's just - you cannot pull that casualty back up the steps. You just can't.

INSKEEP: So the alternative to going top down was to go...

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Bottom up. Now when we went bottom up, the squad leader has many different options that he can do. If he takes contact and it's an extreme amount of contact, instead of keep throwing Marines in for his casualties because it's - you just - it's almost cannon fodder if you keep throwing them in, he can pull back and fight. And they can either throw grenades, or shoot into it, or even bring down the whole entire house.

INSKEEP: What did you learn in your experience, that can be past on, about distinguishing civilians from insurgents under very difficult circumstances?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Well, that's the thing, is that - we would kick in a door, literally kick in a door and one foot from your muzzle, one foot. When you kick in this door you have no idea what's there. One foot from the door to may be a woman, may be 10 - there's 10 military aged males that are sitting in this room one foot away from your muzzle, and you have a split second to decide whether they have a weapon, or whether a bomb, whether anything. And we've been - we were very, very, very successful at doing that. And the discipline that I saw from the Marines, because we knew that one of the in - because we knew that one of the insurgent tactics, was they would shoot at us all day long. As we're clearing, we'd get pop shots. So they'd shoot at us.

And then we'd get to a house, where we cleared the house, and there's weapons that are still warm. There's chai, their tea. There's bread. There's cigarette smoke. You can still smell it. You know the people were there. Two houses down from where we cleared, we find 10 military aged males, and we knew they were insurgents. We knew it. We knew they were shooting at us. But what Marines do is they followed orders and they detained them.

But it was very frustrating for Marines to do that because it was - they knew. We knew they were insurgents. And we knew that nothing - that they could shoot us but couldn't shoot them. But they did that...

INSKEEP: What were the rules of engagement in situations like that?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Rules of engagement - you don't shoot. And if they don't have a weapon, they don't - you don't shoot.

INSKEEP: Did the rules of engagement that you fought under always require that you know who you were shooting at, and what you the situation was? Or could you, for example, toss a grenade into a room without being quite sure who was in it?

SSgt. CATAGNUS: No. See, that's the thing. No. We always had to be sure of the target that we would shoot at, always. You have to look. You have to exposure yourself to throw that grenade, even if it's a hand or whatever. You have to exposure yourself. So you have a general understanding of what's in that room, whether it's bad or whether it's good. But no, we would not blindly throw in grenades or bring down a house for no reason.

INSKEEP: Staff Sergeant Earl Catagnus...


INSKEEP: United States Marine Corps, thanks very much.

SSgt. CATAGNUS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Our conversations on leadership in war continue tomorrow. We'll meet two American generals who were shaped by another long conflict: Vietnam. One of them is Peter Pace, President Bush's top military adviser.

This is NPR News.

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