This should ALWAYS be public:
How a Marine Lost His Command
In Race to Baghdad
Col. Joe Dowdy’s ‘Tempo’ Displeased Superiors;
Balance of Mission, Men General’s Call Name: ‘Chaos’
By CHRISTOPHER COOPER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
April 5, 2004; Page A1
Two weeks into the war in Iraq, Marine Col
. Joe D. Dowdy concluded the crowning military maneuver of his life, attacking an elite band of Iraqi troops and then shepherding 6,000 men on an 18-hour, high-speed race toward Baghdad.
But no praise awaited the First Marine regimental commander as he pushed into the tent of his superior, Maj. Gen. James Mattis, on April 4, 2003. Instead, Col. Dowdy was stripped of his command, which effectively ended his 24-year Marine career. In a final blow, Col. Dowdy says, the general asked him to empty his sidearm and turn over the ammunition. “He thought I was going to try to kill myself,” the colonel says.
Assuming a battlefield command is the pinnacle of a Marine’s career. Being removed is near the nadir, exceeded only by a court martial. It’s extremely rare for the modern U.S. military to relieve a top commander of duty, especially during combat. Col. Dowdy, 47 years old, was the only senior officer in any of the military services to be dismissed in Iraq. He says he would rather have taken an enemy bullet.
Col. Dowdy’s firing was even more unusual because he didn’t commit any of the acts that normally precipitate a dismissal: failing to complete a mission, disobeying a direct order, breaking the rules of war. “It was a decision based on operating tempo,” says Lt. Eric Knapp, a spokesman for the First Marine Division. He wouldn’t elaborate.
The colonel’s removal sparked media coverage and intense speculation in the Marine Corps. The reasons for his firing weren’t clear, mainly because the colonel and his superiors refused to talk about it. Now, interviews with Col. Dowdy and a score of officers and enlisted men show the colonel was doomed partly by an age-old wartime tension: Men versus mission — in which he favored his men.
Gen. Mattis and Col. Dowdy personify all that is celebrated in Marine Corps culture. Gen. Mattis, 53, is a “warrior monk,” as some of his men put it, a lifelong bachelor consumed with the study and practice of battle tactics. Col. Dowdy is beloved for the attention he pays to his men, from the grunts on up.
The qualities of these two Marines eventually tore them apart. Gen. Mattis, a Marine for 33 years, saw speed as paramount in the Iraq war plan. Col. Dowdy thought sacrificing everything for speed imperiled the welfare of his men.
The dispute was stoked by widespread but mistaken assumptions about how the Iraqis would fight. The desire for speed stemmed from the Pentagon’s expectation of a fierce, protracted battle in Baghdad, with far less resistance in other areas. But it turned out that Baghdad fell easily, while the countryside continued to seethe with resistance.
Today, as U.S. forces tangle with an enemy they clearly underestimated, the military still is debating whether speeding to the Iraqi capital was the best way to proceed.
Gen. Mattis declined to be interviewed for this story. His chief of staff, Col. Joe Dunford, says a decision made during combat is impossible to explain now. “It’s just one of those things when you try to put the pieces back together, there’s no way you can.”
Over a plate of chicken quesadillas near his home in Carlsbad, Calif., Col. Dowdy admits to making mistakes. But he doesn’t believe any of them warranted his removal. He’s proud that only one Marine died under his command. “At least I don’t have a butcher bill to pay,” he says.
Dust caked the 900 trucks and tanks in Col. Dowdy’s regiment when they emerged from the desert March 22, 2003. Two days into the war, the regiment was headed to Nasiriyah, a sprawl of slums and industrial compounds where Col. Dowdy’s problems would begin.
Since he was a boy in Little Rock, Ark., the colonel had dreamed of an assignment like this. Commander of the 6,000-man First Regiment for nearly a year before the war began, Col. Dowdy was deeply familiar with the plan for invading Iraq.
With his shaved head and powerful frame, Col. Dowdy looks like the archetypal Marine. His men praise him for treating them as equals, despite the Marines’ stratified organization. Departing from custom, Col. Dowdy, a married father of three, invited enlisted men as well as officers to the annual Christmas party at his home. When the Marines were camped in Kuwait in the run-up to the war, Col. Dowdy declined an air conditioner when it became clear that only officers would get them, recalls Gunnery Sgt. Robert Kane.
“As a colonel, he was entitled to certain privileges, but he was the type of man, if his Marines didn’t have it, he didn’t have it,” says Sgt. Kane, who served under Col. Dowdy in Iraq and in East Timor in 1999.
By several accounts, Col. Dowdy was destined to win a general’s star after the war in Iraq. “I know people, supporters, peers who think Joe Dowdy is a water walker,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general. When Col. Dowdy served under him, “he was the finest lieutenant I had,” Gen. Zinni says.
Like many in his regiment, Col. Dowdy lacked extensive battle experience. In 1983, he saw limited action in Beirut, where 241 Marines were killed in a suicide bombing. He served in Somalia in 1993 and 1994, where Marines were on the vanguard of what became a bloody humanitarian mission.
Gen. Mattis mapped the Marines’ broad plan for Iraq, which many defense analysts consider tactically brilliant. Two 6,000-man regiments of the First Marine Division were to drive toward Baghdad. Col. Dowdy’s regiment was to head to the city of al Kut — where an 8,000-man contingent of Saddam Hussein’s best Republican Guard soldiers were dug in.
It was presumed the Iraqis had chemical weapons, so the plan was to avoid engaging them directly. Col. Dowdy’s unit was to act as a decoy, diverting Mr. Hussein’s soldiers and allowing the other U.S. regiments to rush in from the northwest through a gap in Iraqi defenses to get to Baghdad.
Col. Dowdy’s route would take him through the city of Nasiriyah. Another Marine unit, called Task Force Tarawa, was charged with keeping order there. Pentagon officials assumed the city would offer little resistance because it had long been oppressed by Mr. Hussein. That assumption turned out to be wrong.
The plan began to unravel in Nasiriyah. When Col. Dowdy and his men arrived outside the city, they found their passage blocked by a massive firefight. Word filtered back that Task Force Tarawa had suffered casualties, including 18 dead. Adding to the confusion was a U.S. Army supply unit, which had mistakenly stumbled into Nasiriyah. Several soldiers in that unit were dead. Others, including Pvt. Jessica Lynch, had been taken prisoner.
Outside the city, Col. Dowdy and his staff debated what to do. Several hundred trucks in Col. Dowdy’s train lacked armor, and squeezing through a fierce battle zone would be complicated, especially on Nasiriyah’s narrow streets.
A potential 150-mile bypass around Nasiriyah didn’t seem feasible. Col. Dowdy wasn’t sure he had enough fuel and didn’t know what resistance he might face. The First Regiment was stuck.
The halt was anathema to Gen. Mattis, a devotee of a modern military doctrine known as “maneuver warfare.” Though Marines have practiced the technique for years, the Iraqi war was its first large-scale test. Instead of following rigid battle plans and attacking on well-defined fronts, this tactic calls for smaller forces to move quickly over combat zones, exploiting opportunities and sowing confusion among the enemy. The technique is summed up in Gen. Mattis’ radio call name: “Chaos.”
Gen. Mattis had fought in Iraq before, in the first Gulf War. After that, he commanded the Seventh Regiment of the First Division, known as one of the most battle-ready units in the Marines. “I’d follow him again,” says Gunnery Sgt. Kane, who fought under Gen. Mattis in Afghanistan. “His whole life is the Corps.”
Slight in stature and fierce in demeanor, Gen. Mattis burnished his reputation in Afghanistan, where his men captured an airstrip outside Kandahar. The daring raid cut to the heart of the Taliban resistance. “The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan,” Gen. Mattis told reporters there, just a few months after Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon scrambled to disavow the remark, but the Marines loved it.
To some in the military, the Iraq war promised the perfect test of maneuver warfare. At the time, the U.S. thought the fiercest fighting would begin near Baghdad and involve protracted urban fighting and chemical weapons. Speed was everything. The 1,000-mile journey to Baghdad, many thought, was just a warm-up.
Stopped outside Nasiriyah, Col. Dowdy says, he wasn’t surprised when Gen. Mattis’s top aide, Brig. Gen. John Kelly, showed up. The two stood talking on a bridge outside the city, watching the fighting. Gen. Kelly, 53, who has been a Marine for 33 years, had served mostly in academic and administrative posts. “I thought I knew what war was,” he says. “It’s difficult to imagine if you haven’t been there.”
Col. Dowdy’s regiment had been stuck in Nasiriyah for more than 24 hours. In retrospect, he says he should have been more decisive about moving through the city.
One of the cardinal rules of maneuver warfare stipulates that generals should allow commanders in the field, such as Col. Dowdy, to make tactical decisions. Gen. Kelly says he never ordered Col. Dowdy to move through Nasiriyah and never threatened to remove him from his post. But Lt. Col. Pete Owen, Col. Dowdy’s chief of staff, has a different recollection. “When we were stalled out in Nasiriyah, Gen. Kelly came up to me and said, ‘If Col. Dowdy doesn’t get this column moving, I’m gonna pull him.’ ”
Late that night, Col. Dowdy decided to move. He gave battalion commander Lt. Col. Lew Craparotta one hour to figure out how to form a cordon of soldiers that would shield the regiment as it passed through the city. Col. Craparotta wasn’t pleased. “I don’t think next time I want to plan something like that on the hood of my Humvee in the pitch black,” he says.
The regiment rumbled through Nasiriyah, past blackened hulks of U.S. vehicles and bodies of dead Marines waiting to be recovered by Task Force Tarawa. It was a sight, Col. Dowdy says, that would remain with him throughout the campaign.
While the other regiments headed north on a four-lane highway, Col. Dowdy’s group rolled up a two-lane country road that ran through dozens of villages, brimming with enemy forces. An official Marine account later called it a “running gunfight through the Mesopotamian mud.”
The Iraq regime flooded the road with thousands of fighters. Soon Col. Dowdy’s men were engaged in battle. A raging sandstorm mixed with rain cut the Marines’ visibility to almost zero. The regiment suffered its first casualty when a rocket-propelled grenade blew through a Humvee door and severed a captain’s hand, according to men on the scene.
As bullets flew and the captain was being hauled out by helicopter, Col. Dowdy, two days without sleep, slouched in his Humvee, with his staff around him. He fell asleep.
In wars, commanders fall asleep in meetings, on the radio, even during firefights. Col. Dowdy nodded off for about five minutes, his men say. But his timing couldn’t have been worse. As he dozed, Gen. Mattis’s top aide, Gen. Kelly, saw the colonel sleeping. Some of Col. Dowdy’s men who were there say they believe that made a lasting impression.
Gen. Kelly declines to comment on Col. Dowdy’s removal, saying such matters are “sacred ground” that only Gen. Mattis can address. In answer to general questions about the war, he says a battlefield commander’s top priority is to “put it all aside and focus on the mission. I’ve seen a lot of people learn this the hard way.”
Two days later, on March 27, 2003, the U.S. Army ordered an indefinite halt to the war to allow supply lines to catch up with American fighters.
Col. Dowdy’s regiment was camped about 50 miles southeast of Kut. He had his men capture a nearby airfield so supplies could be airlifted in. The next day, Gen. Mattis dropped by to check on his men — and was infuriated by what he saw: A cratered runway and a Marine captain sitting on a bulldozer reading a paperback book. The captain said he hadn’t been given an order to fix the runway.
A few hours later, Col. Dowdy says, he got an earful from Gen. Mattis, who said he should have made sure the job of fixing the runway was done. Col. Dowdy now says he should have issued a written order. He considered stripping the bulldozer operator of his command, but thought better of it. “If you fire everyone who makes a mistake, pretty soon you’re standing there all by yourself,” he says.
Despite the misstep, Col. Dowdy was receiving daily praise from Gen. Mattis’s staff, according to Col. John Toolan, who was then the general’s chief of staff. Intelligence reports suggested that capturing the airport had drawn the attention of Mr. Hussein’s Republican Guard soldiers. The Iraqis soon announced their presence by lobbing artillery shells at Col. Dowdy’s regiment.
The decoy ploy was working. The other Marine regiments sped on the Iraqis’ untended western flank, toward Baghdad, according to plan.
At this point, it could be argued that Col. Dowdy had fulfilled his mission. The war plan called for him to retreat and take a bypass around Kut. Gen. Kelly acknowledges this was the original plan.
But after seeing villagers in the area waving and cheering at the Marines, Gen. Kelly believed an enemy collapse was imminent. “There was so little resistance,” he says. “I figured they either deserted or were so far into their holes that they didn’t want to fight.” On April 1, 2003, the Fifth Regiment seized a bridge near Kut. At that point, Gen. Kelly says, Hussein’s once-feared Baghdad Division became “irrelevant.”
In an unexpected move, Gen. Kelly ordered Col. Dowdy to head to Kut on a “limited objective” mission. Once Col. Dowdy got there, he was to decide if his regiment should go through the city, which could trim several hours of travel time.
Col. Dowdy didn’t think pushing through Kut would be wise. It would be a quicker route to Baghdad, but he thought it would be dangerous. His men had seen fortified foxholes, sandbagged buildings, mines along road shoulders and several thousand Iraqi fighters. With its narrow bridges and urban tangle, Kut looked even more perilous than Nasiriyah. Was saving a few hours worth the risk?
“In war, you have competing demands between men and mission,” Col. Dowdy says. “Which one wins out? There’s no easy answer.”
His superiors confirm that he wasn’t ordered to take his regiment through the city. But an aggressive Marine could have chosen to plow through to get to Baghdad faster.
The generals were growing impatient. The U.S. Army had reached the outskirts of Baghdad. On the morning of April 3, 2003, the 15th day of the war, Gen. Kelly called Col. Dowdy to say he wanted the assault on Kut to begin immediately. Col. Dowdy said he was awaiting fresh ammunition and checking a report that the road to Kut was mined.
Gen. Kelly was furious, according to Col. Dowdy. “Those aren’t considerations, they’re excuses,” Col. Dowdy recalls the general saying.
Col. Dowdy says the general continued: “Why aren’t you driving through al Kut right now? You know what? I’m going to recommend that you be relieved of command. Maybe Gen. Mattis won’t do it. Maybe he’ll decide he can get along with a regiment that isn’t worth a s-. But that’s what I’m going to recommend.”
Gen. Kelly says he doesn’t recall that specific conversation. He says he appreciated the potential risk to life that driving through Kut would pose. In a recent e-mail from Iraq, where he is serving a second tour, he wrote, “The choice between mission and men … is never an either-or, but always a balance.”
Within an hour or so, Col. Dowdy and two of his battalions moved into Kut. They immediately met resistance, they say, with fighters popping out of doorways and alleys. “My machine gun was going crazy,” says Warrant Officer Thomas Parks, a gunner riding in the lead.
The battalions ground to a halt in front of an Iraqi tank, which Gunner Parks hit with a rocket, prompting return fire from the two-story mud huts lining the road. The door of Gunner Parks’ Humvee was blasted off its hinges, while lead filled the door of Col. Dowdy’s vehicle, according to both men.
Moments later, Gunner Parks glanced back and saw Col. Dowdy sprinting toward a family of Iraqi civilians. The colonel swept up two children and shoved the family into a bomb crater for cover, Gunner Parks says. An Iraqi fighter moving up an alley aimed a machine gun at Col. Dowdy. Gunner Parks shot him in the head. “It took me three tries,” he says.
The decision on whether to push through Kut was ultimately up to Col. Dowdy. But in the hours up to and during the fight, he and his staff say they received conflicting guidance. On the field telephone, Gen. Kelly was telling him to push through Kut. But on the radio, division command was urging withdrawal. “There was a lot of confusion,” Col. Dowdy says. “Go. Don’t go.” Gen. Kelly agrees there was discussion about what the regiment should do.
So Col. Dowdy made a crucial decision: He decided not to go through the city. Getting to Baghdad early wasn’t worth the risk, he says.
“At that point, maybe you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says Sgt. Maj. Gregory Leal, the top enlisted man in Col. Dowdy’s regiment. “There’s no book out there that says, ‘This is how you liberate and occupy a country.’ ”
Around sunset, the First Regiment started moving to rendezvous with the rest of the division via a 170-mile bypass around Kut. Col. Dowdy’s men had collected 30 prisoners and, the colonel says, “I felt like taking them up to division and saying, ‘Look, g-ddamn it, we hit resistance in Kut, and here’s your proof.’ ”
Headlights on and ducking intermittent fire from Iraqi peasants, the regiment covered the miles in about half the 36 hours it was supposed to have taken. On April 4, 2003, the regiment rolled into Numaniyah, where the Marines had planned to meet. The regiment had completed its mission with ample time to join the assault on Baghdad.
But Col. Dowdy’s career was dead.
A helicopter awaited when Col. Dowdy arrived in Numaniyah. Col. Dowdy and Sgt. Maj. Leal climbed aboard. Gen. Mattis had asked to see them. They were flown to the general’s camp, about 50 miles away.
When they arrived, Sgt. Maj. Leal says Gen. Mattis took him aside. “How’s your boss doing?” the sergeant-major recalls him saying. “I said, ‘He’s doing fine, sir.’ ” Then, according to Sgt. Maj. Leal, the general snapped: “You’re not engaged enough. You’ve got four battalions and you’re not pressing the attack.’ ”
“I told the general not to fire him,” Sgt. Maj. Leal recalls. “I said, ‘Tell me what we need to do and we’ll do it.’ ”
Men under Gen. Mattis’s command say he makes decisions quickly and never looks back. Sgt. Maj. Leal says he believes Gen. Mattis had already made up his mind.
Artillery shells screamed overhead and the tanks and trucks of the Fifth Regiment rumbled past as Col. Dowdy made his way to Gen. Mattis’s tent. Inside, the colonel sat facing Gens. Mattis and Kelly as an aide served hot tea. The colonel says he knew in his gut that he was about to be fired. “It’s like I’m someplace I’ve never been before,” he recalls. “I’m failing miserably and I don’t know why.”
He says Gen. Mattis began with a sympathetic tone: “We’re going to get you some rest.” Gen. Mattis brought up the bulldozer incident. Then, according to Col. Dowdy, the general said Col. Dowdy worried too much about enemy resistance and noted his lack of battle experience.
Col. Dowdy says he replied: “I’ve been fighting my way up this m-f-ing road for the past two weeks.” He recalls pleading with Gen. Mattis to reconsider. “Think of my family, my unit,” he recalls saying.
It was not to be. When Gen. Mattis requested his ammunition, Col. Dowdy assured him that he still considered himself a Marine. The general relented. Soon Col. Dowdy got on a helicopter to Kuwait. He called his wife, Priscilla. She’d already seen the news on CNN.
Word of his dismissal quickly filtered back to his men. Marines who were there say there was fleeting talk of a mutiny. “I wanted to go with him,” says Gunnery Sgt. Kane. “A lot of guys felt that way. If Col. Dowdy said, ‘Get your gear, you’re coming with me,’ I would’ve gone, even if it meant the end of my career.”
In ensuing days, media outlets and Marine Internet chat rooms speculated about the colonel’s defrocking. A day or so after his dismissal, Col. Dowdy wrote a letter that was posted on a Web site catering to families of the First Marine Division.
“As all of you are aware … I am no longer a member of the Regiment,” the letter said. “Rest assured, no one, except me is responsible for the reassignment. Priscilla and I will remain loyal to the Marine Corps and to our Division and its very capable leaders.” Col. Toolan, Gen. Mattis’s chief of staff, took over the command. The regiment went on to Baghdad, setting up in a slum once known as Saddam City.
A few weeks later, Col. Dowdy ran into Warrant Officer Parks, who was heading back to the U.S. like most of the First Division. The colonel arranged for his subordinate to get civilian clothes so he could take a commercial airline and meet his wife in New York. “He called down to command for me and said, ‘I got a hero coming, take care of him,’ ” Gunner Parks says. “Then he got a little choked up, I got a little choked up and I got on a helicopter and left.”
Col. Dowdy says he took no joy in his next assignment, as head of personnel at the Marine Air Station in Miramar, Calif. In June, the First Division gave him a performance evaluation. It faulted him for “being fatigued beyond normal” and “not employing the regiment to its full combat potential,” he says, quoting from the document. It also said he was “overly concerned about the welfare” of his Marines, according to Col. Dowdy. By policy, the Marines don’t comment on performance evaluations.
Last November, for the first time in 25 years, Col. Dowdy and his wife skipped the Marine Corps Ball. The First Division returned to Iraq this spring. Col. Dowdy received permission to retire early, and left the Marines last month. “I think I’m a guy they probably didn’t know what to do with,” he says.
The issue of speed in Iraq remains in debate. Last fall, the Army War College, a Pentagon-financed school where officers analyze tactics, released a study saying there was little evidence that speed affected the outcome of the war. The stiff resistance outside Baghdad suggests U.S. forces may have done better by moving at a more measured pace, entering more cities, rooting out fighters and leaving more troops in the provinces to enforce order, the report said.
However, in another study yet to be finalized, the military’s Joint Center for Lessons Learned says speed was integral to U.S. military success in Iraq. In a speech in February, Adm. E.P. Giambastiani, commander of the Joint Forces, said speed “reduces decision and execution cycles, creates opportunities, denies an enemy options and speeds his collapse.”
Retired Gen. Zinni says that, for Col. Dowdy, speed was academic. “The boss is the boss,” he says. “If Gen. Mattis feels you need to move faster, then you move faster.” Still, he says Col. Dowdy’s firing could haunt Gen. Mattis too. “This is not going to add to Jim Mattis’s luster.”
Sgt. Leal, now stationed in Texas, often tells Col. Dowdy that his reputation will be cleared one day. “I think he’ll always be known as the guy who chose men over mission,” Sgt. Leal says. “If that’s how he’s remembered, it’s OK.”
Write to Christopher Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org