THE SNAKE EATERS: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq.
Pulsating throughout the pages of “The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq,” often paragraph by paragraph, is probity, a virtue defined by this noblest noun in the English language. Resonating among a small team of U.S. advisors, call sign “Outcast,” it meant to them exemplifying the highest of human principles and ideals while embedded in Iraqi Battalion 3/3-1—the 3d Battalion, 3d Brigade, First Iraqi Army Division—nicknamed “Snake Eaters,” often thrust into bitter and sanguinary urban fighting.
The author, Owen West, was a member of the fourth Outcast team to mentor the Snake Eaters in the battalion’s 33-month existence. The U.S. Army most often had provided staffing for the advisor team, but in 2006, the author’s team was an uninitiated, no combat-experienced hodgepodge, including a cop, a firefighter, an unemployed rock ’n’ roll guitarist, a plumber, a mailman and a DEA agent. Together, they planned amid pessimism and fought in optimism.
Binding them to each other as well as their “Snake Eater” Iraqi soldier-cousins was a strong, unwavering allegiance to the Allied mission bolstered by an empathetic understanding of the odds against any of them surviving the street-by-street, house-to-house killing in Anbar province’s Khalidiya, an insurgent-infested town along the Euphrates River. No amount of cunning or overwhelming enemy fire weakened their resolve or loyalty to each other.
West, a third-generation U.S. Marine who served two combat tours in Iraq, one as an advisor to the Snake Eaters, explains that his account focuses upon how ordinary American weekend reservists were deployed in extraordinary ways.
Researching, interviewing, gathering material and then writing the book required more than four years of constant effort, a dedication and commitment that he said “almost killed [him]. … It was worth it. The incredible contribution of these advisors is now memorialized, and with a collective voice we assert that the advisor model works.”
Indeed, as it should be. For West smoothly carries readers into Khalidiya, placing us into the streets, schools and homes of supporting civilians whom the 12 advisors were trying to protect. The only problem was that their friends were indistinguishable from the enemy they were determined to destroy. Complicating things was that the Iraqi battalion they mentored was at first amateurish and hostile, leading to the possibility of a failed mission.
But the men of Battalion 3/3-1 wouldn’t give up. They quickly acclimated to the culture, made friends with translators, and learned how to work with townspeople. By the end of their stay, Battalion 3/3-1 was the first Iraqi battalion granted independent battlespace, the insurgency was wiped off the streets, and peace was restored.
Although the core of the narrative zeros in on and details the near epic struggle where the fighting was so intense and prolonged that the combatants knew each other’s names, faces and families, West offers significant lessons for future counterinsurgency wars. During interviews, West argues the problem today is that the role of the military advisor is “a mystery to the public and misunderstood by politicians.” Even President Barack Obama has declared “that advisors are not combat troops.”
But the author says the opposite is true: “Few troops take as much risk as advisors, whose unwritten orders are to set the example in battle.” Our response in Iraq and Afghanistan has been “to send hundreds of thousands of troops at a cost of a hundred billion dollars a year, mistakes reminiscent of Vietnam that, left unchallenged, will be repeated.” West’s book now demonstrates there is a better way.
“The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq” is neither a memoir nor an official history. It’s a case study for a new way of war: the advisor model. Suggested by Owen West after observing one particular group of 12 ordinary but resolute men, who found themselves together in one small phase of an anguishing conflict waging battle in an unorthodox way, the model in its full measure is certain to be appraised by military strategists and historians alike, especially in light of our counterinsurgency efforts in the wars yet to come.