'The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness bows down to wood an’ stone;
‘E don’t obey no orders unless they is ‘is own;
The ‘eathen in ‘is blindness must end where ‘e began,
But the backbone of the Army is the non-commissioned man! '
Rudyard Kipling, the grand old British imperialist, wrote that about NCOs.
"The guys who make the army work." That's what techno-thriller writer Tom Clancy called NCOs. They are noncommissioned officers, the soldiers and Marines in pay grades E-5 through E-9: buck sergeants, staff sergeants, sergeants first class, master sergeants and sergeants major.
Northwestern Baghdad is no exception. In the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry (the "Vanguards"), 2nd Brigade ("Dagger" brigade) of the 1st Infantry Division ("The Big Red One"), noncoms make sure the vision and strategy of senior officers get translated into reality and tactics on the ground.
Sgt. 1st Class John Peterson, for example, took blueprints for a mobile command post--a vehicle that looks like a stretch version of a Ford 350 with desert camo, up-armor, radar and a mounted machine gun--and made sure the local Iraqi army unit got to make one of its own. He helped two Iraqis, Sgts. Salaam and Ayid, prepare a 21-page color handout on the "Badger," which the Iraqis wrote "will enchance the command's ability in performing their duties away from the office." Peterson, who's been in Iraq since 2007, with just three 15-day leaves to see his family, often pulls all-nighters because that's when the action happens on the streets. "Hey," he says grinning, "I love what I do."
Sgt. Maj. Jeff Smith, ramrod straight with a brush cut, looks as if he's been sent over by Central Casting to play an NCO like the one in "Full Metal Jacket." And like nearly every sergeant major in the army and Marines, he knows where all the bodies are buried--and whether to dig them up or leave 'em under the ground. During one brief encounter in the so-called Command Post of the Future, the sergeant major takes care of three or four problems in as many minutes. His management style is aided by liberal use of a certain Anglo-Saxon word that he deploys as a verb, noun, adjective and adverb. Then he stalks out to make sure the next mission gets done.
Noncoms pull the same kind of duty in the Iraqi National Police (INP) and army.
Four Iraqi INP NCOs hang out in a sixth-floor office across a dusty courtyard from the U.S. battalion. The INP serve as the security arm of the Iraqi army in the northwest sector of Baghdad. The Americans understand how important NCOs are in the command structure, so they helped start an academy two years ago that features courses like those taught in the U.S.
Someday, the INP are supposed to assume the whole internal security role for Iraq and let the army do what it's supposed to--protect Iraq's borders from outside attack. Meantime, some 40,000 of them work the northwest sector, scene of a huge holy shrine, upscale shops and cafes, as well as garbage dumps, offal piles and slums that have spawned car bombings, IEDs and suicide attacks. Besides staffing checkpoints, the police officers do traffic control on Baghdad's sclerotic streets.
Staff Sgt. Mark Lancaster, Nashville, is a grunt who now liaises with the police to swap information, tell tall tales, hang out and build a bond of trust. "We're all NCOs," Lancaster drawls. "They do all the reports, interrogations, scout patrols and go after very important targets."
After seven months or so with his counterparts, the Tennessean feels right at home. When he walks into their office, they greet one another the Iraqi way--a handshake and kisses on each cheek. One big Iraqi sergeant tells Lancaster, "If you go to war in Afghanistan or Iran, you come and get me. I will hang (Iranian prime minister) Ahmadinejad!"
Another American NCO drops by to leave bags of beef jerky and a chew bone for an Iraqi police officer's pet dog. The chew toy, a foot-long tube of dry leather, immediately prompts a slew of ribald jokes and pantomines from the Iraqis, with Lancaster's interpreter translating it all. They cut the BS only when a line of veiled women enters the office, female officers hired to search women at checkpoints.
Later, after three of the Iraqis eat a lunch of bread, rice and oranges sitting on a silver Mylar first-aid blanket on the floor--Lancaster declines, saying he's already had chow--the big Iraqi gets serious. He describes the slow dance the cops must perform to recruit their sources---whether he asks for money, how much, will he hold "a package" for them. Then they move to "tougher questions--if we send you off to mix with 'special groups' [insurgents], will you give us correct information?" Finally, the police compare and correlate what their source has told them with other bits and pieces of data to see if they can trust their man.
Any American cop worth his or her salt follows the same drill in cultivating informants.
The Iraqi NCOs are worried about the U.S. withdrawal of combat forces from major Iraqi cities scheduled in two days (June 30). But not because they fear for their own safety or that they can't do their job. No, they're worried that people with "wasta," influence, will be able to avoid the warrants they need to make arrests. "If a man belongs to a certain (political) party, when we go arrest him, he can use wasta to avoid it," says one rail-thin NCO.
Adds another Iraqi sergeant: "It will be a hard six months after the Americans go. Then we can show our ability to control the situation."
Lancaster rises to shove off. He kisses each Iraqi noncom on the cheek, who return the farewell the same way. "I'll still be here," he says.
Together, all the NCOs--members of an ancient and honorable brotherhood--say, "Inshallah." If God wills.
Someday Lancaster hopes to write a novel about his two Iraq tours. He's got, it seems, plenty of material.
--By Mike Tharp