View Full Version : His Leaders Failed a Marine Commander

04-14-04, 05:53 AM

His Leaders Failed a Marine Commander

By Raymond Perry

Even though the incident occurred more than a year ago, new details about the firing of a Marine Corps regimental commander in the heat of Operation Iraqi Freedom have emerged. The underlying issue of what is effective leadership in battle demands our attention.

First, we need to recount what happened to the First Marine Regiment.

As reported in depth in The Wall Street Journal on Apr. 5 (“How a Marine Lost his Command In Race to Baghdad”), Marine Col. Joe Dowdy led one of two 6,000-man Marine regiments dispatched by First Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. James Mattis to drive from Kuwait to Baghdad.

The plan called for Dowdy’s First Marine Regiment to drive through the city of Nasiriyah – where Mattis had dispatched a Marine unit named Task Force Tarawa to capture it – and proceed northwest toward the city of al Kut. This was a diversion designed to speed the way for Mattis’ other regiment.

As the Journal article revealed, however, when Dowdy’s regiment arrived on the outskirts of Nasiriyah, Task Force Tarawa had gotten bogged down in intensive fighting with heavy casualties including 18 killed. It was the same day the Iraqis ambushed the Army’s 507th Maintenance Co. outside the city, killing 11 soldiers (including two from another unit), wounding nine and taking six prisoner including Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Dowdy’s route through Nasiriyah was blocked.

With several hundred of his 900 combat vehicles lacking armor, Dowdy faced the dilemma of attempting to force his unit through the city anyway, or attempting a 150-mile detour around it, the Journal reported.

This decision goes to the heart of the dilemma any commander faces in the heat of battle: Whether to press on under the original operational order, or to modify his movement and actions to minimize the loss of life among his troops. In this case, it would prove effective to his men but fatal to his career.

While Dowdy and his Marines waited for the situation to clear, assistant division commander Brig. Gen. John Kelly arrived. According to several officers interviewed by the Journal, Kelly threatened to fire Dowdy as regimental commander if he did not get his unit moving (Kelly in an interview denied saying that).

After a 24-hour halt, the First Regiment drove through the city and proceeded up a narrow country road that passed through dozens of Iraqi villages brimming with enemy soldiers. The official after-action report noted that Dowdy’s men also endured a major sandstorm mixed with rain, describing the action as a “running gunfight through the Mesopotamian mud.”

But relations between Dowdy and Kelly apparently soured further at this point, the Journal noted. Having moved without sleep for days, Dowdy fell asleep in his Humvee when the unit paused to medevac an injured Marine, only to have the assistant division commander show up for another meeting. “Some of Col. Dowdy's men who were there say they believe that made a lasting impression,” the newspaper added.

By March 27, the First Marine Regiment was 50 miles southeast of Kut, capturing a local airport that attracted the attention of some Iraqi units that were still resisting. However, Marine officials told the newspaper, the regiment’s overall mission of deceiving the Iraqis had worked: As planned the other regiment under Mattis’ command had succeeded in racing around the west of Nasiriyah and were well on their way to Baghdad. The Journal article continued:

“In an unexpected move, Gen. Kelly ordered Col. Dowdy to head into 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? …

“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.”

At this point, Dowdy and other Marine officers told the Journal, Kelly again threatened to have Dowdy relieved of command if he didn’t immediately move into Kut. The regiment quickly found itself in a battle with dug-in Iraqis. However, the division headquarters at one point ordered him to withdraw. Dowdy ultimately decided to make an end-around move and his unit 18 hours later rendezvoused with the rest of the division at the city of Numaniyah.

There, Mattis summoned Dowdy to his command tent and relieved him of command of the First Marine Regiment.

In an article last year (“A Failure of Our Ethos,” DefenseWatch, July 10, 2003), I took on the Air Force during the Air Force Academy scandal for its leaders kowtowing to appearances at the expense of the military profession. There are clear elements of this in the sacking of Joe Dowdy.

Much of the focus of the Journal article was on the dichotomy of men versus mission. The reporter missed the point on military leadership: A military leader is called upon to husband his troops. Even as he makes them sweat he must love them, knowing full well that he may be called upon to sacrifice every one of them to a greater purpose.


04-14-04, 05:53 AM
Any CO worth his salt knows that he may be called upon to sacrifice his command. In a January 2003 DefenseWatch article (“Well-Led Americans Just Do This”), I described how Marine Capt. William Barber led his Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, in holding Toktong Pass in Korea during the battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

In that fight more than 53 years ago, Barber’s company held a critical communications link between two Marine regiments. The best estimate of casualties inflicted by his company was over 1,000 enemy killed. But of the 220 of his men that began the battle only 82 walked away. I believe that Dowdy’s regiment was ready to perform as heroically if called upon. More importantly, I believe that Dowdy was ready to ask his men to perform just as Capt. Barber’s company did at the “Frozen Chosin.”

What is all but overlooked in the Journal article was that Dowdy was not called upon to do that. His generals merely called upon him to look good by moving faster than the U.S. Army in the race to Baghdad. It is impossible not to conclude that Dowdy’s leaders were focusing on appearances rather than the actual mission.

What is clear from the Journal account is the involvement of Brig. Gen. John Kelly in Mattis’ ensuing decision to fire Dowdy. And I find it noteworthy that Kelly’s Marine Corps background as reported was primarily administrative and academic. It is clear that he understood “show and tell.” In my opinion, the moment this general saw Dowdy asleep in his Humvee, Dowdy was doomed.

But why? Only a man whose career had been more academic than operational would not intuitively recognize the value of a 20-minute “combat nap,” which is an essential element of keeping to the superhuman pace and stress of combat.

The Journal noted a later fitness-report entry about Dowdy being “fatigued beyond normal,” but that is just bunk.

The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Kelly saw an image that just did not fit his perception of a Marine leader. The reality of the unit’s success in its assigned mission as recorded in the article was irrelevant.

The system by which generals are promoted ensures that only one half of brigadier generals will make major general. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that this one brigadier general knew he had to compete to make himself known as contributing directly to winning the war.

And I believe that Mattis did not recognize such sycophancy. The very art of the sycophant is to ensure that his boss perceives him as watching out for the boss’s future when in fact the sycophant is merely stirring the pot to see what mess he can generate so that he can “fix it” for his superior.

The “limited objective” excursion to Kut, not in the original plan and a direct order from Kelly – not Mattis – appears to me to have been supremely well designed to allow Dowdy the opportunity to screw up.

It is clear that Dowdy did not train himself to look over his shoulder. Nor had he trained his people to watch out for him. They had been trained to be the warriors that the Marine Corps so powerfully emphasizes. Yet in not looking over his shoulder, he became a ripe target for such machinations.

Dowdy was defenseless when this “opportunity” was presented to him. How was he to win when Kelly was ordering him to attack at the same time division headquarters was “urging withdrawal,” as the article revealed?

Both Mattis and Dowdy were the hard-charging warrior that the Marine Corps advertises, but neither of them knew how to handle John Kelly.

A leader, such as Mattis, must learn to pay attention to the facts – not the show. It is instructive that throughout the movement and multiple engagements it was Kelly and not Mattis himself who observed and reported on Dowdy’s performance. The division commander is personally obligated to face the enemy that Dowdy was facing and draw his own conclusion about Dowdy’s performance.

This he did not do and the Marine Corps was not well served.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps should review this case. The propensity for the system to defend such actions is enormous and the Commandant should himself take what the system serves up with a grain of salt.

Lt. Raymond Perry USN (Ret.) is a DefenseWatch Contributing Editor. He can be reached at cos1stlt@yahoo.com. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.



04-14-04, 09:10 AM
Re-instate Col. Joe Dowdy! If he cannot be given the 1st Regiment, then give him another one. If he has "retired" as result of this, then send him a letter of apology, and revise his record jacket to reflect the official re-instatement of his honor. Any and all benefits which might have been redacted by his "removal" from command should also be restored.

It is reported that BGen Kelly never led Marines into battle at any time. If this is true, then he is a paper pushing "garrison Marine". Put Kelly in the Quatermaster section of whatever supply warehouse needs an a**kisser. He never commanded Marines in combat, and should never again be put in a position of judging those who have performed admirably in that capacity. He is a REMF "Pogue" Brigadier, in my opinion.