IED War

On May 26, 2003, Private First Class Jeremiah D. Smith, a twenty-five-year-old soldier from Missouri, was driving in an Army vehicle outside Baghdad when the convoy he was traveling in came upon a canvas bag lying in the road. It was Memorial Day, which meant that back in the United States this was a day to remember the millions of American soldiers who died while serving in the armed forces. Private Smith had been a proud member of the U.S. Army for a little over a year.

Three and a half weeks earlier, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush had stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced that major combat operations in Iraq were over. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” he declared. The invasion, which began on March 21, had been swift. Baghdad fell on April 9. Standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier in a dark suit and a red tie (he’d more memorably arrived on board wearing a flight suit), the president exuded confidence. A banner behind him, designed by the White House art department, read “Mission Accomplished.” At one point during his speech, the president gave the thumbs-up.

Now it was Memorial Day, and Private Smith was heading into dangerous territory. His convoy was escorting heavy equipment out of Baghdad, traveling west. Smith was a gunner and was sitting on the passenger side of the Humvee. As the vehicle approached the canvas bag lying in the road, not far from the Baghdad International Airport, the driver had no way of knowing it contained an improvised explosive device, or IED, and he simply drove over it. As the vehicle passed over the bag, the device exploded, killing Private Smith. In his death, Smith became the first American to be killed by an IED in the Iraq war.

The blast could be heard for miles. Twenty-two-year-old Specialist Jeremy Ridgley was one of the first people to come upon the inferno. “I was a gunner in the Eighteenth Military Police Brigade,” recalled Ridgley in a 2014 interview. “We were driving about five hundred yards behind, in a totally separate convoy. The explosion was extremely loud. We’d been informed that people were dropping things off overpasses, so every time we went under one, we sped up and came out in a different lane. Someone threw something at our vehicle, then I heard the explosion. I swung my gun around. It all happened so fast.” The explosion Ridgley heard was the IED detonating as Private Smith’s vehicle drove over it.

Ahead of him, Ridgley saw the burning Humvee in the road. Two bloodied soldiers emerged from the thick black smoke and staggered toward his vehicle, dazed. “One of the guys was trying to push something up his arm,” recalls Ridgley, “like he was trying to fix his sleeve. When he got closer I saw it was skin. Skin was just falling off of his arm.” A second bloodied soldier followed behind. “He asked me if he had something on his face,” Ridgley recalls. “Most of his face was missing. It was horrible. He was horribly, horribly burned.”

Ridgley’s team leader, Sergeant Phillip Whitehouse, ran toward the burning vehicle. Whitehouse discovered Private First Class Jeremiah Smith unconscious, trapped inside. “He pulled Smith out. That’s when the vehicle started to cook off,” Ridgley remembers. “All the ammo inside started to catch on fire. There were massive explosions going off all around. I caught some shrapnel. A little burn near my sleeve. I was sitting on the gun platform thinking, I need to call in a report.”

Ridgley called for a Medevac and remembers looking around. “There were these Iraqi kids playing soccer in a field,” Ridgley recalls, “and I told the Medevac the helicopter could land there. Everything seemed like slow motion.” Ridgley had never seen mortally wounded people before, and he was having trouble focusing. “The Medevac arrived and the soldiers were loaded onboard. From the time I called it in until the time the helicopter took off was about twenty minutes,” recalls Ridgley. “But it sure seemed like it lasted all day,” he says. “Time stood still.” Later, Jeremy Ridgley learned that Private First Class Jeremiah Smith had died.

On May 28, the Department of Defense identified Private Smith as having been killed in Iraq while supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Pentagon attributed Smith’s death to “unexploded ordnance,” as if what had killed him had been old or forgotten munitions left lying in the road. Two weeks later, in an article in the New York Times titled “After the War,” a Defense Department official conceded that the unexploded ordnance that killed Smith might have been left there deliberately.

An IED is made up of five components: the explosive, a container, a fuse, a switch, and a power source, usually a battery. It does not require any kind of advanced technology. With certain skills, an IED is relatively easy to make. The primary component of the IED is the explosive material, and after the invasion, Iraq was overflowing with explosives.

“There’s more ammunition in Iraq than any place I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s not securable,” General John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told the Senate Appropriations Committee in September 2003. “I wish I could tell you we had it all under control, but we don’t.”

The month after Private Smith was killed by an IED, the casualty toll from IED attacks began to climb. In June there were twenty-two incidents. By August the number of soldiers killed by IEDs in Iraq was greater than the number of fatalities by direct fire, including from guns and rocket-propelled grenades. By late 2003, monthly IED fatalities were double that of deaths by other weapons. In a press conference, General Abizaid stated that American troops were now fighting “a classical guerrilla-style campaign” in Iraq. This kind of language had not been used by the Defense Department since the Vietnam War.

“A new phenomenon [was] at work on the battlefield,” says retired Australian brigadier general Andrew Smith, who also has a Ph.D. in political studies. “IEDs caught coalition forces off guard. ‘Surprise’ is not a word you want to hear on the battlefield.” Smith was one of the first NATO officers to lead a counter-IED working group for Combined Joint Task Force 7, in Baghdad. Later, in 2009, Brigadier General Smith oversaw the work of 350 NATO officials at CENTCOM, all dealing with countering IEDs. “The sheer volume of unsecured weapons in Iraq was staggering,” Smith says, “a whole lot of explosives left over from Saddam.” In 2003, there were an estimated 1 million tons of unsecured explosives secreted around the country in civilian hands. These were former stockpiles once controlled by Saddam Hussein’s security forces, individuals who quickly abandoned their guard posts after the invasion. A videotape shot by a U.S. Army helicopter crew in 2003 shows the kind of explosive material that was up for grabs across Iraq. In the footage, an old aircraft hangar is visible, stripped of its roof and its siding. From the overhead perspective, row after row of unguarded bombs can be seen. One of the men in the helicopter says, “It looks like there’s hundreds of warheads or bombs” in there.

The IEDs kept getting more destructive. Three months after Private First Class Jeremiah Smith was killed, a truck bomb was driven into the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing twenty-two people, including the UN special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The Pentagon added a new IED classification to the growing roster. This was called the VBIED, or vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, soon to be joined by the PBIED, a person-borne improvised explosive device, or suicide bomber. When Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the IEDs, the resounding psychological effects were profound. Before the invasion, there had been no Al Qaeda in Iraq.

DARPA’s long-term goals were now subordinated to this immediate need inundating the Pentagon. Initial counter-IED efforts involved Counter Radio-Controlled Electronic Warfare (CREW) systems, or jamming devices, that were installed on the dashboards of Army vehicles and cost roughly $80,000 each. The triggering mechanism on most IEDs consisted of simple wireless electronics, including components found in cell phones, cordless telephones, wireless doorbells, and key fobs. Early jammers were designed to interrupt the radio signals insurgents relied on to detonate their IEDs. First dozens, then hundreds of classified jamming systems made their way to coalition forces in Iraq, with code names like Jukebox, Warlock, Chameleon, and Duke. At the same time, DARPA worked on a next generation of jammers, developing technology that could one day locate IEDs by sensing chemical vapors from the relative safety of a fast-moving vehicle. The program, called Recognize IED and Report, or RIEDAR, would work from a distance of up to two miles away. The ideal device would be able to search 2,700 square meters per second, could be small and portable, and able to alert within one second of detection. But these were future plans, and the Pentagon needed ways to counter the IED threat now. By February 2004, IED attacks had escalated to one hundred per week. The five hundred jammers already in Iraq were doing only a little good. In June, General Abizaid sent a memo to Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Meyers, sounding an alarm. The Pentagon needed what Abizaid called a “Manhattan-like project” to address the IED problem.

In Washington, Congress put DARPA in the hot seat when, in the spring of 2004, in a research study report for Congress, the concept of network-centric warfare was taken to task. Congress asked whether the Department of Defense had “given adequate attention to possible unintended outcomes resulting from over-reliance on high technology,” with the clear suggestion being that it had not. The unintended consequence that had Congress most concerned was the IED, presently killing so many American soldiers in Iraq. In its report, Congress wondered if, while the Pentagon had been pursuing “networked communications technology,” the terrorists were gaining the upper hand by using “asymmetric countermeasures.” Congress listed five other areas of concern: “(1) suicide bombings; (2) hostile forces intermingling with civilians used as shields; (3) irregular fighters and close-range snipers that swarm to attack, and then disperse quickly; (4) use of bombs to spread ‘dirty’ radioactive material; or (5) chemical or biological weapons.”

To the press, Arthur Cebrowski claimed that he had been misunderstood. The so-called godfather of network-centric warfare complained that Congress was misinterpreting his words. “Warfare is all about human behavior,” said Cebrowski, which contradicted hundreds of pages of documents and memos he had sent to Secretary Rumsfeld. “It’s a common error to think that transformation has a technology focus. It’s one of many elements,” Cebrowski said. Even the Defense Department’s own Defense Acquisition University, a training and certification establishment for military personnel and defense contractors, was confused by the paradox and sent a reporter from its magazine Defense AT&L to Cebrowski’s office to clarify. How could the father of network-centric warfare be talking about human behavior, the reporter asked. “Network-centric warfare is first of all about human behavior, as opposed to information technology,” Cebrowski said. “Recall that while ‘a network’ is a noun, ‘to network’ is a verb, and what we are focusing on is human behavior in the networked environment.”

It seemed as if Cebrowski was stretching to make sense, or at least resorting to semantics to avoid embarrassing the secretary of defense. Nowhere in Secretary Rumsfeld’s thirty-nine-page monograph for the president, a summation of Cebrowski’s vision titled “Transformation Planning Guidance,” was human behavior mentioned or even alluded to. While Cebrowski did television interviews addressing congressional concerns, the Office of Force Transformation added four new slides to its “Transforming Defense” PowerPoint presentation. One of the two new slides now addressed “Social Intelligence as a key to winning the peace,” and the other addressed “Social Domain Cultural Awareness” as a way to give warfighters a “cognitive advantage.”

On PBS NewsHour, Cebrowski defended network-centric warfare and again reminded the audience that the United States had, he believed, achieved operational dominance in Iraq, completing major combat operations in just twenty-one days. “That speed of advance was absolutely unheard of,” Cebrowski said. But now, “we’re reminded that warfare is more than combat, and combat’s more than shooting.” It was about “how do people behave?” To win the war in Iraq, Cebrowski said, the military needed to recognize that “warfare is all about human behavior.” And that was what network-centric warfare was about: “the behavior of humans in the networked environment… how do people behave when they become networked?”

If Cebrowski could not convincingly speak of human behavior, he found a partner in someone who could. Retired major general Robert H. Scales was a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and recipient of the Silver Star. As the country sought a solution to the nightmare unfolding in Iraq, Scales proposed what he called a “culture-centric” solution. “War is a thinking man’s game,” Scales wrote in Proceedings magazine, the monthly magazine of the United States Naval Institute. “Wars are won as much by creating alliances, leveraging nonmilitary advantages, reading intentions, building trust, converting opinions, and managing perceptions—all tasks that demand an exceptional ability to understand people, their culture, and their motivation.” As if reaching back in time to the roundtable discussions held by JFK’s Special Group and Robert McNamara’s Pentagon, Scales was talking about motivation and morale.

In 2004, amid the ever-growing IED crisis, Scales proposed to Cebrowski that the Pentagon needed a social science program to get inside how the enemy thought. The United States needed to know what made the enemy tick. Cebrowski agreed. “Knowledge of one’s enemy and his culture and society may be more important than knowledge of his order of battle,” Cebrowski wrote in Military Review, a bi-monthly Army journal. The Office of Force Transformation now publicly endorsed “social intelligence” as a new warfighting concept, the idea that in-depth knowledge of local customs in Iraq and elsewhere would allow the Pentagon to better determine who was friend and who was foe in a given war theater. “Combat troops are becoming intelligence operatives to support stabilization and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq,” Cebrowski’s office told Defense News in April 2004. It was hearts and minds all over again, reemerging in Iraq.

With chaos unfolding across Iraq, all the agencies and military services attached to the Pentagon were scrambling to find solutions. At DARPA, the former deputy director of the Total Information Awareness program, Bob Popp, got an idea. “I was the deputy director of an office that no longer existed,” said Popp in a 2014 interview. The Information Awareness Office had been shut down, and Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness program was no more, at least as far as the public was concerned. “Some of the TIA programs had been canceled, some were transitioned to the intelligence community,” says Popp with an insider’s knowledge available to few, most notably because, he says, “the transitioning aspects were part of my job.” Popp was now serving as special assistant to DARPA director Tony Tether. “Tony and I met once a month,” recalls Popp. “He said, ‘Put together another program,’ and I did.”

Working with DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, Popp examined data on what he felt was the most important element of TIA, namely, “information on the bad guys.” After thinking through a number of ideas, Popp focused on one. “I started thinking, why do certain areas harbor bad guys?” He sought counsel within his community of Defense Department experts, including strategists, economists, engineers, and field commanders. Popp was surprised by the variety of answers he received, and how incongruous the opinions were. “They were not all right and they were not all wrong,” Popp recalls. But as far as harboring bad guys was concerned, Popp wanted to know who was harboring them, and why. He wanted to know what social scientists thought of the growing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I looked around DARPA and realized there was not a single social scientist to be found,” Popp says, so he began talking to “old-timers” about his idea of bringing social scientists on board. “Most of them were cautious. They said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. You should listen to the commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq.’” Then someone suggested to Bob Popp that he talk to an anthropologist named Montgomery McFate.

When Bob Popp first spoke with McFate in 2004, she was thirty-eight years old and worked as a fellow at the Office of Naval Research. Before that, McFate worked for RAND, where she wrote an analysis of totalitarianism in North Korean society. A profile in the San Francisco Examiner describes her as “a punk rock wild child of dyed-in-the-wool hippies… close-cropped hair and a voice buttery… a double-doc Ivy Leaguer with a penchant for big hats and American Spirit cigarettes and a nose that still bears the tiny dent of a piercing 25 years closed.” If her personal background seemed to separate her from the conservative organizations she worked for, her ideas made her part of the defense establishment.

McFate says that in addition to being approached by DARPA’s Bob Popp for help in social science work, she also received a call from a science advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hriar S. Cabayan, who was calling from the war theater. “We’re having a really hard time out here,” McFate remembers Cabayan saying. “We have no idea how this society works…. Could you help us?”

In 2004 the insurgency in Iraq was growing at an alarming rate. Criticism of the Pentagon was reaching new heights, most notably as stories of dubious WMD intelligence gained traction in Congress and around the world. For the Department of Defense, it was a tall order to locate anthropologists willing to work for the Pentagon. Academic studies showed that politically, the vast majority were left-leaning, with twenty registered Democrats to every one registered Republican. Not only was McFate rare for an anthropologist, but also she was enthusiastic about the war effort. Like many Americans, she had been propelled into action by 9/11. In 2004, Montgomery McFate decided to make it her “evangelical mission” to get the Pentagon to understand the culture it was dealing with in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In November 2004, DARPA co-sponsored a conference on counterinsurgency, or COIN, with the Office of Naval Research. For the first time since the Vietnam War, DARPA sought the advice of behavioral scientists to try to put an end to what General Abizaid called a “guerrilla-style” war. The DARPA conference, called the Adversary Cultural Knowledge and National Security Conference, was organized by Montgomery McFate and took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. The key speaker was retired major general Robert Scales. From the podium, the decorated Vietnam War veteran told his audience what he believed was the key element in the current conflict: winning hearts and minds. Scales was famous for his role in the battle of Dong Ap Bia, known as the Battle of Hamburger Hill because the casualty rate was so high, roughly 70 percent, that it made the soldiers who were there think of it as a meat grinder.

An entire generation of Vietnam War officers like himself had retired or were in the process of retiring, Scales told his audience. He and his colleagues were men who had engaged in battle before the age of “network-centric warfare.” Vietnam-era officers had been replaced by technology enthusiasts, Scales said, many of whom “went so far as to claim that technology would remove the fog of war entirely from the battlefield.” These were the same individuals who said that one day soon, ground forces would be unnecessary. That the Air Force, the Navy, and perhaps a future space force would be fighting wars from above, seated in command centers far away from the battlefield. Scales said it was time to reject this idea. Guerrilla warfare was back, he warned. Just like in Vietnam. Technology did not win against insurgents, Scales said. People did.

“The nature of war is changing,” Scales wrote that same fall in Proceedings magazine. “Fanatics and fundamentalists in the Middle East have adapted and adopted a method of war that seeks to offset U.S. technical superiority with a countervailing method that uses guile, subterfuge and terror mixed with patience and a willingness to die.” Scales warned that this new kind of warfare would allow the weaker force, the insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, to take on the stronger force, the United States, and win. Since the Israeli War of Independence, Scales wrote, “Islamic armies are 0 and 7 when fighting Western style and 5 and 0 when fighting unconventionally against Israel, the United States, and the Soviet Union.”

The Pentagon moved forward with DARPA’s idea to bring anthropologists into the Iraq war, and McFate garnered exclusive permission to interview Marines coming home from Iraq. In July 2005 she authored a paper in Joint Force Quarterly, a magazine funded by the Department of Defense, titled “The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture.” In it she stated clearly her opinion about what had gone wrong in Iraq. “When the U.S. cut off the hydra’s Ba’thist head, power reverted to its most basic and stable form—the tribe,” wrote McFate. “Once the Sunni Ba’thists lost their prestigious jobs, were humiliated in the conflict, and got frozen out through de-Ba’thification, the tribal network became the backbone of the insurgency.” As an anthropologist, McFate believed that “the tribal insurgency is a direct result of our misunderstanding the Iraqi culture.”

Soldiers in the field had information, McFate said, but it was the wrong information. “Soldiers and Marines were unable to establish one-to-one relationships with Iraqis, which are key to both intelligence collection and winning hearts and minds.” McFate issued a stern warning to her Pentagon colleagues: “Failure to understand culture would endanger troops and civilians at a tactical level. Although it may not seem like a priority when bullets are flying, cultural ignorance can kill.”

McFate was hired to perform a data analysis of eighty-eight tribes and sub-tribes from a particular province in Iraq, and the behavioral science program she was proposing began to have legs. At DARPA, Bob Popp was enthusiastic. “It was not a panacea,” he says, “but we needed nation rebuilding. The social science community had tremendous insights into [the] serious problems going on [there], and a sector of DoD was ready to make serious investments into social sciences,” he says of DARPA’s efforts.

Arthur Cebrowski died of cancer the following year. The Office of Force Transformation did not last long without him and within a year after his death closed down, but the social intelligence programs forged ahead. Montgomery McFate found a new advocate in General David Petraeus, commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command, Iraq, who shared her vision about the importance of winning hearts and minds. Petraeus began talking about “stability operations” and using the phrase “culture-centric warfare” when talking to the press. He said that understanding people was likely to become more important in future battles than “shock and awe and network-centric warfare.”

The DARPA program originally conceived broadly by Bob Popp to bring social scientists and anthropologists into the war effort was fielded to the U.S. Army. Montgomery McFate became the lead social scientist in charge of this new program, now called the Human Terrain System. But what did that mean? The program’s stated mission was to “counter the threat of the improvised explosive device,” which seemed strangely at odds with a hearts and minds campaign. Historically, the battle for hearts and minds focused on people who were not yet committed to the enemy’s ideology. The Army’s mission statement made the Human Terrain System sound as if its social scientists were going to be persuading terrorists not to strap on the suicide vest or bury the roadside bomb after all. The first year’s budget was $31 million, and by 2014, the Pentagon would spend half a billion dollars on the program. Unlike in ARPA’s Motivation and Morale program during the Vietnam War, the social scientists who were part of the Human Terrain System program during the war on terror would deploy into the war zone for tours of six to nine months, embedded with combat brigades and dressed in full battle gear. Many would carry guns. So many elements of the program were incongruous, it was easy to wonder what the intent actually was.

“I do not want to get anybody killed,” McFate told the New Yorker. “I see there could be misuse. But I just can’t stand to sit back and watch these mistakes happen over and over as people get killed, and do nothing.” Major General Robert Scales, the keynote speaker at the DARPA counterinsurgency conference organized by McFate, wrote papers and testified before Congress in support of this new hearts and minds effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Armed Forces Journal Scales wrote, “Understanding and empathy will be important weapons of war.” Then he made a bold declaration. “World War I was a chemists’ war,” Scales said. “World War II was a physicists’ war,” and the war on terror was “the social scientists’ war.”

The program quickly gathered momentum. The Human Terrain System was a countermeasure against IEDs, and counterinsurgency was back in U.S. Army nomenclature. In December 2006 the Army released its first counterinsurgency manual in more than twenty years, Counterinsurgency, Field Manual, No. 3-24. Lieutenant General David Petraeus oversaw the manual’s publication. Montgomery McFate wrote one of the chapters. “What is Counterinsurgency?” the manual asks its readers. “If you have not studied counterinsurgency theory, here it is in a nutshell: Counterinsurgency is a competition with the insurgent for the right to win the hearts, minds, and acquiescence of the population.” As it had done in Vietnam, the COIN manual stressed nation-building and cultural understanding as key tactics in winning a guerrilla war.

It was as if the Vietnam War had produced amnesia instead of experience. On its official website, the U.S. Army erroneously identified the new Human Terrain System program as being “the first time that social science research, analysis, and advising has been done systematically, on a large scale, and at the operational level” in a war.

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