Why a Historian Based in Iraq Couldn't Help but Draw Parallels to the Civil War

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Mr. Miller is author of Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as well as A Carrier at War: Shock and Awe Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (Potomac Books, 2005). He was an embedded journalist in the Gulf during OIF I and more recently, in Baghdad and Fallujah.

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My last embed was at Camp Fallujah in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, part of the II Marine Expeditionary Force. I was assigned to Weapons Company and spent most of my time as a passenger patrolling in up-armored Humvees. By day, we traveled the highways that connected the city of Fallujah with other Iraqi cities strung out to the west along the Euphrates River; the mission was to search for IEDs (improvised explosive devices). When found, they were destroyed. By night, we enforced the highway curfew, set up random roadblocks to chat with drivers (an attempt to keep the insurgents off balance), and, on occasion, raided houses suspected of harboring illicit weapons or insurgents.

As a Civil War historian that conflict was inevitably in my mind as a silent reference point in evaluating my experience in Iraq. For example, on my first Routine Daylight Patrol, as our column left Camp Fallujah’s final checkpoint, I stared out the window and was reminded of Petersburg, 1864. The day was cold and wet and the area between the barracks and outer perimeter was a long, depressing stretch of foliage-denuded kill zone. Rows of freshly bulldozed defensive berms might easily pass for trenches or, as they were once called, parallels. Large Hescoe barriers (named after the manufacturer) were filled with soil and stacked to form walls virtually impenetrable to small arms’ projectiles; in 1864 these were called gabions, soil-filled straw baskets of about the same size which appear so prominently in photographs of the Petersburg fortifications. The monochrome ochre-dirt landscape was lacerated with wire and abatises, both familiar features of the 1864 siege. Scattered conveniently throughout the camp were cast concrete shelters (shaped like an upside down “U” perhaps six feet long and four feet high) that several Marines actually referred to as “bomb proofs.” It was the same term used by their Civil War predecessors and they served the same purpose—to provide quick shelter against incoming artillery rounds and rockets. Indeed, despite the passage of 141 years, I imagined that this desolated landscape would probably have been instantly familiar to the eastern armies that faced off during the last year of the Civil War.

About other similarities between the two wars I was less certain. The Civil War’s reputation as a “gentlemen’s war” is often overdone (for example, one has only to consider the fate of Fort Pillow’s surrendering African-American soldiers or the behavior of both sides waging guerilla war in the Border States); nevertheless, after two decades of research and writing I have found that notions of “civilized warfare” were real considerations for many Civil War soldiers. My belief is based not on the Blue-Gray sentimentality that pervades so many postwar narratives, but on reading thousands of soldiers’ letters and many diaries that were written during the conflict.

Two examples of many will suffice. In April 1862, Lt. Henry L. Abbott of the Twentieth Massachusetts found himself in command of a Federal picket line in front of rebel fortifications at Yorktown. Abbott was ordered to instruct his men to shoot to kill rebel pickets who were merely standing sentinel. This was a sharp departure from war as Abbott had previously waged it and as commonly practiced between the two armies. He privately denounced the orders as “barbarous & unchristian warfare,” a policy that resulted in “a man or two [being] picked off every day, without getting any thing to compensate for the loss of life, slight as it is.” But Abbott did more than complain—he sabotaged the orders by quietly instructing his men to remove their musket’s firing caps, thereby ensuring that no enemy pickets would be killed, even “accidentally.”

Something like this happened again eight months later. In the late afternoon of December 11, 1862 Lt. Henry Ropes, commanding a company in Abbott’s regiment, was ordered to advance through the streets of Fredericksburg and drive the rebels from the town in what would prove one of the nastiest small-scale actions of the Civil War. Ropes’s orders included something else: “to bayonet every male found— take no prisoners.” [Emphasis original] But this part of the order was virtually voided on issue—“this being,” Ropes wrote just after the battle, “contrary to the rules of war [and] was not of course obeyed.”

As my first Humvee patrol left camp, I wondered to what extent these seemingly antique notions of warfare prevailed in today’s military. Based on media reports, I might have few reasons for encouragement. The lurid photographs of tortured Iraqi prisoners taken by depraved U.S. soldiers were still fresh news. Fresher still was NBC photojournalist’s Kevin Sites’s video of a Marine shooting a wounded insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. (The Marine was eventually exonerated although that finding was not announced until months after my return.) Many anti-war cultural elites, re-enacting the timeless tropes of aristocracy, sniffed and wondered aloud whether these events were evidence that the U.S. military, allegedly composed of those from less privileged backgrounds, somehow inherently lacked the “morality” (perhaps code for the absence of Ivy League credentials) to wage a politically correct war worthy of a democracy.

But on the afternoon of my first daylight patrol, I was to observe something quite different. It was an experience that suggested that for some of our foot soldiers, the moral distance between 1862 and 2005 was not as great as some might suppose.

A few hours into the patrol, mission commander Lt. Hunt, a wiry, hyper-alert Texan, had discovered a live IED concealed under an abandoned tire by a roadside near the city of Fallujuh. In preparation for detonating the bomb, the Marines set up roadblocks to halt traffic and called in the Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team. On arrival they dispatched a robot nicknamed “Bob” to place a charge on the IED to blow it. Moments before the charge was set to detonate, a junky pick-up truck suddenly emerged from a nearby dirt road.

This could only bode ill. IEDs often have armed button-men lurking nearby; moreover, a column of Marines halted on the road is bait for suicide bombers and other attackers. For all the obvious reasons, tensions, elevated to begin with, suddenly skyrocketed.

The EOD team had its own security, and they immediately trained a dozen weapons on the car, forcing it to halt. The driver, a plump man in his mid-30s who was dressed in the traditional white dishdasha, was dragged from the vehicle, spread eagled on the wet pavement, and subjected to purposeful (and at that point probably necessary) verbal intimidation. In a few moments, the truck and driver were thoroughly searched; his description was radioed back to intelligence; no explosives or weapons were found, and within 20 minutes, he was pronounced clean. He had simply been unlucky.

However, the EOD security detail was not finished with him. One guard continued to scream while keeping the man spread-eagled on the road. From a distance (I was standing perhaps 30 yards away), he seemed to prod the suspect in some private places with his weapon.

It was then that I witnessed the event that mattered. Cpl. Nichols, a tall, taciturn Mississippian and the senior NCO in my vehicle, had been silently watching the Army process this suspect. When the radio crackled that the Iraqi was clean, Nichols expected that the man would be released. But when the intimidation continued, Nichols shook his head in disgust and turned to L/Cpl. Dolo, a husky Liberian-born Marine. "Shit, we got to stop those fools before they hurt the guy." Nichols and Dolo crossed the median strip and confronted the Army’s security detail. After some brief, minor unpleasantness between the two service branches, the Iraqi was freed.

This was a small episode, hardly newsworthy. At the time, there was little opportunity to reflect on it. After the Iraqi’s release, the IED was blown; “Bob” then found a second IED concealed beneath the first. It, too, was blown; then a few seconds later, the likely real button man surfaced on a nearby overpass and emptied his AK-47 at our position, before speeding away. Other events competed for my attention that afternoon and it was only later that I recognized the larger significance of this otherwise small incident. For their parts, Nichols and Dolo never mentioned it again.

Of course, I could not peer into these Marines’ hearts to know what motivated them. (L/Cpl. Dolo may have inadvertently provided one clue about his heart, when, after the shooting stopped, he said to no one in particular, “I read my Bible every day! I could not do this without that! ”) It might have been the presence of the media—although I doubt it given the spontaneity of Cpl. Nichols’s genuine disgust with the events unfolding across the median strip. It might well have been a feeling that the treatment meted out to the suspect was, as Abbott or Ropes had once phrased it, “unchristian & barbarous” or even “contrary to the rules of war;” or, it may have been simple contempt for the undisciplined actions a fellow soldier.

As long as it is human beings who wage war, one can expect that some pickets will be shot and some prisoners bayoneted. But one should also expect to find men like Abbott, Dolo, Ropes, and Nichols—men who, despite residing at the spear’s point, remain the incarnate threads of simple decency that somehow, even in this century, still manage to bring a measure of human compassion to the barbarous if occasionally necessary business of waging war.

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Tom Sweetnam - 12/12/2005

If Mr. Miller seeks a thematic locus on which to parallel another Civil War/Iraq War morality play, I might suggest a particular favorite of mine, a humorous Shelby Foote anecdote regarding the civil war's western theater and General Grant.

So disgusted was he with press impropriety by 1862, including out-and-out acts of front page treason, Ulysses S. Grant rounded up all the journalists "embedded" within his Army of the Mississippi, and tossed them in the stockade. He then announced to the collected gaggle that since their singular function thus far had been to "aide and abet the enemy", he intended to shoot every mother's son at dawn the following morning. No panic ensued immediately, because since noon of that day (and in fact, starting at noon every day) the gentlemen of the press had begun their ritual maintenance of a journalistic trait of character carried down by adventurous stringers to this very day: most of them were dead drunk, so they cared less about the death sentence just pronounced by the general. For that matter, they never listened to him anyway, drunk or sober. Only the following morning did the gravity of their situation sink in. Now panic made up for lost time. Grant let them stew for awhile, till about an hour after sunup, then convinced he'd made his point by instilling the fear of God in them, he finally let them go. Alas, would that we could do the same thing today.

BTW This is a history web board, so I'm going to pick a nit. Politically correct examples of counterfactualism have the same effect on me as fingernails scraping down a blackboard. There were no African-American troops at Ft. Pillow. For that matter, there were no African-American troops anywhere in the 1860's. There were Negro troops at Ft. Pilllow, or if you like, colored troops, but there were absolutely, positively no African-American troops at Ft. Pillow.

Ryan Portillo - 11/27/2005

"it was only later that I recognized the larger significance of this otherwise small incident."

Up to a point this is fine as military history goes but as an historian in the thick of things I wonder how is Mr. Miller able to see the larger picture, a larger significance so soon, from the actions of a few men who may or may not legitimize their actions on the front-line by their religious beliefs? What is he doing in Iraq except to report the events as they occur like any journalist would who selects what is of factual significance and what is not. A historian who swears to tell nothing but the whole truth would have to take a vow of eternal silence.

Frederick Thomas - 11/21/2005

..primary and compelling. You remind me of Xenophon, getting your history at the source.

Please keep it up, and keep your head down. I sincerely hope that HNN will find some more like yourself.

Bill Heuisler - 11/20/2005

Mr. Miller,
Great article, but much too short.
Will there be another book? If so, I'll watch for it and buy one or two.

My great grandfather, William Strong, wrote "History 121st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers" taking that unit from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg and many places between. A sense of chivalry, fair-play and respect for the enemy's bravery - if not their cause - permeates the 275 page "account from the ranks".

Marines, in general and in my nine-year experience, tend to share those attributes and to display their sharp counterpoint to the intense ferocity displayed in combat. One may explain the other. Elite units who have no need to prove anything might consider some actions beneath them - reduction of acknowledged warrior status to that of mere grunt putting in time.
Volunteers then, volunteers now. The finest reflections of our American spirit. Bless them all.
Bill Heuisler