SNAKE EATERS: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq

Judging the book, The Snake Eaters, by its cover, I would never have picked it up. I would have assumed that this was    another first-person “there I was” tale from Iraq and assumed that the title referred to another attempt to anoint some unit or experience as “special.” I would have been wrong. Owen West has written an eminently useful and readable account of an advisory team in Iraq that should make us question the conventional wisdom about counterinsurgency, advising, and what works and what does not. It should also add to our anger about opportunities squandered, troops left twisting in the wind without the proper training and support, and a conceptually ill-disciplined force wandering every which way, rather than fighting a consistent and unified battle.

The Snake Eaters is not about Owen West or the special forces. The story is about an advisory team (Team Outcast) partnered with Iraqi Battalion 3/3–1 (“the Snake Eaters” after their unit insignia) in Habbaniyah, Iraq. This collection of undertrained, underequipped, and often forgotten soldiers and Marines learned how to advise and combat an Iraqi insurgency on Iraqi terms. For West this story is of great importance because, in “these murky twenty-first-century wars, all roads out lead through the combat advisor.” The “way out”—Iraqi forces capable of fighting their own insurrection—was an afterthought, or so it seems in this instance.
The teams’ predeployment training was premised on the assumption that they would be spending their time on forward operating bases training Iraqis, rather than conducting combat patrols with their partners. This proved to be an extremely poor assumption. In short, the advisors showed up in Iraq with no idea what was expected of them and what, in reality, their true mission was. As a result, they made it up as they went along. For Team Outcast under LTC Michael Troster, the results were impressive. Under the next team leader, they were less so. The lack of conceptual unity meant that the whole effort—from personnel selection and training, to tactical employment of the advisor teams, to the interaction of advised Iraqi units with adjacent coalition forces, to the conception of counterinsurgency writ large—was done in a haphazard and sometimes directly counterproductive manner.

In contrast, West found that some Iraqi officers, perhaps as a function of being part of the society, “had a clear, effective, streetwise philosophy that the Americans running the war did not.” The team leader, LTC Troster, opined that Americans see “population-centric” counterinsurgency (based on the “theoretical” and “opaque” Field Manual 3–24, Counterinsurgency) as a popularity contest to be won by being friendlier and spending more money. Iraqi troops (and some Marine units) wanted to be tougher. Without clear conceptual guidance from the top down, however, there was nothing to set priorities between adjacent units at a given time, and there was nothing to enforce the discipline of continuity between the constantly rotating units in a given area. With more conceptual discipline, perhaps the reduction in violence realized during the surge might have come much earlier.

The conventional wisdom is that the surge of troops in 2007 and the magic of population-centric counterinsurgency fortuitously combined to create the Anbar Awakening, in which the Sunni tribes turned against the extremists, and the Sadrist truce, in which Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi also agreed to stop fighting. Others have argued that the Sunnis were actually sick of al-Qaeda in Iraq well before this and that the Sunni-Shi’a violence in Baghdad and surrounds stopped primarily because those areas had fought themselves out and partitioned by 2007. West’s case study tends to support this view.

On 14 April 2006, far ahead of the surge and the Anbar Awakening, the head of the Khalidiya Tribal Council came forward to 3/3–1 to broker cooperation in Habbaniyah. Violence had dropped off significantly, locals were forthcoming with tips, and the battalion was becoming a respected presence. A few short days later, a special operations night raid detained an influential imam, derailing further cooperation and sending violence skyrocketing again. This example suggests that the sheikhs’ discontent with extremism may have percolated earlier, had it not been for our one step forward, two steps back fumbling.

West offers no real answer to the conundrum, but that was not the purpose of his book. It is a book that tells the story of one small piece of the Iraq war—a war that Iraqi soldiers are still fighting. Their success will depend in large part on the efforts of the trainers and advisors who fought alongside them. In light of the coming transition in Afghanistan, the book is timely and a must-read for any Marine contemplating advisor duty.

The book is very engaging and was thoroughly researched with both indepth interviews and references to counterinsurgency classics. I tend to agree with West that when we have an irrefutable interest in such small wars, the only way out is through indigenous security forces. Until America’s strategic elites more fully consider the clashing reality of a chaotic, modernizing world and a shrinking appetite for defense spending and military interventionism, the lessons West wants us to learn will never be put in their proper place. Perhaps the most poignant question in the book comes from West’s friend and interpreter, Alex, who asked of the American generals, politicians, and commentators, “How can they understand so little?”

>Editor’s Note: A version of this review first appeared in The Small Wars Journal at

SNAKE EATERS: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq.
By Owen West. Free Press, New York, 2012
ISBN 13579108642, 327 pp.
$26.00. (Member $23.40)

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An Advisory Tale