West, Owen, The Snake Eaters, An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi: Free Press, 2012
The Snake Eaters, An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq by Owen West is a very engaging story about a motley crew of U.S. advisors and Iraqi soldiers that turned around an area in Anbar province in 2005-07. All the odds were stacked against them. The Americans were not prepared for their job, they and the Iraqi soldiers they worked with had little support from their superiors, and the locals were antagonistic to the presence of both. Over two years the Iraqis and Americans were able to gain confidence and more importantly trust in each other which eventually won over the residents and forced the insurgents out.
What made West’s story so amazing was how it began. The Iraqi 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 3/3-1, was one of the first units put together under the new Iraqi army. In 2004 they were sent to Khalidiya in eastern Anbar province in between Ramadi and Fallujah. A team of 10 American army reservists were sent to advise them. They were not prepared for their duty. During their training they were told they would mostly operate at a U.S. base with only half their time with the Iraqis and the other half doing things like guard duty. The officers in both units were mixed. Some for instance were scared to leave their base. What they had going for them was the U.S. commander Lieutenant Colonel Troster who wanted to be aggressive and was adaptable. Just looking at that start it’s hard to believe what they were able to achieve together. Neither unit had any idea what they were doing at first. The book focuses upon how they bonded and grew together as fighters. The author talks about the Iraqis as much as the Americans which was a welcome change from most U.S. books on the war that only focus upon the latter.
The heart of The Snake Eaters is about how the 3/3-1 and their advisors were able to turn things around in Khalidiya. That started with Troster insisting that the Iraqis and Americans consistently patrol the town which was controlled by the insurgents. The idea was that if the army and the U.S. created a constant presence they could stop the militants from planting bombs all the time and show the people that they were there to protect them. The locals in turn would hopefully start informing on the insurgents. The problem was the 3/3-1 and their advisors didn’t know anything about patrolling let alone combat and mistrusted each other on top of that. On the first patrol they got lost and then attacked and the Iraqis panicked. Despite many mistakes they weren’t willing to give up and their bravery paid off as people started talking to them. Eventually another U.S. officer arrived and organized the Iraqi police and a major sheikh turned against the insurgents. The strength of the book is all the stories that West provides of the day to day routine that the Iraqis and Americans went through. They threatened each other, they joked, they found comradery and faced losses.
The Snake Easters is a page turner. The book draws you into the experiences of the Iraqis and Americans. That’s especially true at the start where it seemed like the soldiers were on an impossible mission given their inexperience. It also covers a story not well known to the public. This is not the story of the Anbar Awakening or the Surge which led to a book industry in the U.S. This is about a small town and a few hundred men who were able to turn things around despite the odds being stacked against them.
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