With an NCO in Iraq

News Abroad

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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Few would dispute that a competent noncommissioned officer corps is sine qua non to a successful military. As a Civil War historian embedded with a Marine Corps unit at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, I was especially interested in how modern NCOs—as distinguished from commissioned officers—established their moral authority and fitness to lead as well as demonstrated competence with the weapons, vehicles, and communications systems operated by their squads. Until I began embedded assignments, such phrases as “fitness to lead” or “moral authority” were, in a military context, only vicarious concepts that I principally derived from reading Civil War soldiers’ letters and diaries. As for understanding various combat technologies, I relied chiefly on Internet-sourced histories and diagrams and the occasional television documentary.

Largely because Civil War tactics were chiefly line of battle warfare—in which lieutenants and captains, often leading in advance of the line, were the most visible focal point in combat—soldiers’ letters mention these officers more often than sergeants or corporals. Yet there is much from that war that today’s NCOs would instantly recognize. For example, Article XIII of the 1861 Revised U.S. Army Regulations required that each company be divided into four squads, each of which were placed under the command of a sergeant. While officers had general responsibility for the storage of equipment as well as the bathing of men “once or twice a week,” (feet were required to be washed “at least twice a week”) it was NCOs who “will be held more immediately responsible” for these things as well as others— that their men “wash their hands and faces daily; that they brush or comb their heads” and that “those who are to go on duty put their arms, accoutrements, dress, &c. in the best order.” Moreover, in Civil War combat, NCOs often commanded the skirmish lines that were critical in developing the enemy’s position; carried the colors that formed rallying points as well as continuing proof of the regiment’s cohesion during battles; oversaw picket posts that constituted a camp’s early warning of an approaching enemy. NCOs also comprised the ubiquitous file closers who, standing just behind the battle line, ensured that soldiers remained in place and fired as ordered. (Technological specialization, which would eventually distinguish the Civil War NCO from his modern counterpart, had already begun to appear in the 1860s. NCOs operated telegraphy and military railroads.)

Of course, shoulder-to-shoulder battle lines have gone the way of smooth bore cannon and load-in-nine musketry procedures. In Iraq today the platoon, often led by NCOs, remains the standard for the “routine” patrols tasked with fighting the insurgency. Close observation of one of these platoons gave me an opportunity to observe a working example of how critical the NCO is to the current war effort.

Portrait of a Marine NCO: Gunnery Sergeant Jeffrey V. Dagenhart

I was told to present outside the CP of Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion 8th Marines at 16:00 for a night patrol assigned to the 2nd Platoon. Up-armored Humvees were just arriving—ultimately the patrol would consist of five such vehicles—and soldiers milled about, smoking, dipping, and chatting. I approached one man and introduced myself. It was a fortuitous choice because I received an immediate introduction to at least one Marine Corps NCO. “You’re lucky you’re with us, man,” 19-year-old L/Cpl Doyle Derrick from New York declared. “Gunny Dagenhart is in charge. He is the best Marine. Takes good care of us. Puts us before him any day. Times [are] that he’ll show up and work and let us sleep. He’ll get us chow, man.” A few of Derrick’s comrades had drawn closer, curious about me and perhaps hoping that L/Cpl Doyle could elicit some interesting details. They got very few of those although when I distributed packs of cigarettes and chewing tobacco from the States they received something far more useful. But what I received was much more useful to me—a general nodding agreement with the Lance Corporal’s assessment of Dagenhart. It was significant because the qualities Doyle stressed were not extracted from the familiar images of Hollywood Marines, but rather, from the mundane details of daily life among professional soldiers.

In a few moments Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart appeared. I was instantly struck by the disparity in age between him and the twenty men forming his patrol. Dagenhart was 35 years old, with almost 15 years in the Marine Corps (the oldest soldier I would meet in the platoon was just 23). The human math was straightforward—by itself, Dagenhart’s decade-and-a-half would probably have entitled him to a modicum of respect from his men; but his extra years were “Marine years” during which he had grown to maturity inside the Corps and had repeatedly solved problems and processed experiences which many of his men were now encountering for the first time. The age disparity was an abyss, a thing that would prevent the Gunnery Sergeant’s men from considering him as only a peer; compared with this, rank was a mere formality. Different men would emphasize different reasons for confidence in Dagenhart, but all comments shared one aspect: a heartfelt conviction that the odds of returning home unscathed would be considerably improved by carefully listening to the Gunnery Sergeant’s instructions, closely observing his “style,” and vetting his anecdotes of past deployments for lessons in survival, comfort and pain-avoidance.

I, too, observed Dagenhart closely. His erect posture and determined gait, while “military,” was not overdone and he moved comfortably. Despite the mud from recent rains, the degraded quarters (we lived in the shells of barracks once used by Saddam’s sons to train dissident Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War), his uniform was clean and neat and his boots brushed; his accoutrements were in order, adjusted and fitting well; his weapon was slung correctly, his goggles perfectly centered on his helmet. This might suggest a parade soldier; but I came to know this man as a fighter and no martinet; quite the contrary—Dagenhart’s neatness, cleanliness, and the need to be properly accoutered satisfied something more than a personal predilection—he must dress, stay clean and be properly equipped for the entire company, that no man in his command could have any excuse (other than his own shortcomings) for not appearing precisely the same. If the “Gunny” can do it, they can do it—which is why the Gunny must do it. As Lt. William Joseph Hardee wrote in 1855 in Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, the standard tactical manual used by both sides during the Civil War, “A non-commissioned officer should be always observable from his bearing, cleanliness and attention to the details of duty, and all the qualifications which go to make up a good soldier.”

What invested Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart with an exemplar’s authority was that unlike the officers, he shared living quarters with his men. When I followed him as he collected his patrol I was invited to enter the “hooch”—Marine Corps’ slang for quarters. Compared with my own miserable quarters made more so by the recent weather, entering 2nd Platoon’s hooch was like walking into a cocoon. It was warm inside, by bodies living closely as much as by any heat source; the light was soft, enough to read but no glare. As soon as Dagenhart enters, the blaring rock music was turned off, and faces previously buried in magazines, staring at photographs or reading letters now upturned and brightened. “Waz’up Gunny Sergeant?” was heard, casually yet somehow not casual. Dagenhart answered amiably but his remarks—a weather report, details on the patrol, and the delegation of work assignments—was listened to with an earnestness that perhaps many of these recent teenagers had not experienced before enlisting. He paused for the few moments he knew it would take his men to rise from their sacks and gather around him. He announced that the weather would be cool but no rain; the patrol would depart at 17:00 and return—maybe (and as the Gunnery lingers on the word ‘maybe’ his men wearily nod)—by midnight. Their job will be one that they’ve performed a hundred times before but can never be routine. “Tonight’s mission,” he informs his men in a matter-of-fact voice, “is MSR security. We’ll be patrolling MSR Michigan between here and Abu Ghraib to insure that no IEDs or insurgents will attack US or Coalition forces or Iraqi civilians.” His voice contained a hint of some distant solemnity which struck me as entirely appropriate—nearly 80 percent of U.S. casualties have resulted from IEDs, usually concealed by the roads and intended to blow passing patrols into eternity.

Required Skills—In Part

Established in 1898, the rank of Gunnery Sergeant dates from a time when half the Marine Corps was permanently deployed aboard ships; according to one history, a Gunny “denoted a shipboard sergeant proficient in small arms, signaling and naval gunnery.” This specialization simply reflected technological advances in warfare; soon, Gunnery Sergeants were overseeing electric mines, and electronic signaling including radio and telephone operations. Yet during this period of increasing specialization, it was understood that the Gunnery Sergeant would maintain some combat-technology expertise (often ordnance) while leading other men, as opposed to becoming a specialist working alone. Indeed, to prevent misuse of Gunnery Sergeants, it was decreed during the 1920s that they were prohibited from duty solely “as clerks, orderlies, chauffeurs, or any type of duty connected with messes, commissaries, post exchanges, guards or police.”

The extent of Gunnery Sergeant Dagenhart’s required skills was apparent in the configuration of the Humvees lined up for our patrol. Every vehicle had a rooftop turret; behind three of these bristled .50 caliber machine guns; two vehicles boasted the clumsy looking but lethally accurate turret-mounted TOW (Tube Launched, Optically Tracked Wire Guided) missiles. In the trunk of one vehicle was a M136 AT4 recoilless rifle (an anti-armor weapon). Moreover, because this was a night patrol, Dagenhart’s skill with NVD equipment (night vision detection) and interpreting the Blue Screen—a GPS informed visual communications system that provided real-time readouts of current location, friendly forces and bases—would be especially critical, to avoid both wrong roads as well as the dreaded “Blue-on-Blue” incidents (friendly fire). Dagenhart’s familiarity with these systems was displayed as he supervised—from memory—his men in checking fuel, ammunition, batteries, radios, and weapons’ systems; ascertaining that every vehicle had ample supplies of food, water and first aid; that all weapons were disarmed until exiting the camp, and a hundred other items that must be on hand, or stowed, or left behind.

All of these were the skills required mostly for operating, maintaining, or bringing “things.” Yet even now, within the (relative) safety of Camp Fallujah, just before Dagenhart gave the order to “Mount Up!” there were hints of other required skills, born of some mysterious combination of constant training, long-honed instincts and simple luck. As I climbed into my assigned vehicle, I noticed a sign posted on the rear of one Humvee, which declared in English and Arabic: “STAY BACK 50M OR YOU WILL BE SHOT!”

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More Comments:

Tony Luke - 12/12/2005

What a difference from that day to this!

Stephen Kislock - 12/12/2005

In early 1964 I was assigned H&S Co. 2nd Service Battalion, FMF 2nd MarDiv.

There I met Gunny_?_ (red head)can't remenber his name but from that that day I take this memory with me "I hope we have a WAR, so I can make Rank", I looked that man in the eyes, from them on it was one dirty detail after another.

My story......