war on the rocks

On MRAPs; or Protecting Troops and Eroding Local Support in Baghdad

March 3, 2014

“But why did they tear down our power lines?”

It was mid-summer 2008, another hot day in east Baghdad, and that was the sole topic of discussion among the group of Iraqi men who had gathered around our patrol.  We were in a small square in Tisa Nissan, the part of the city at which the relative affluence of Karada to the west meets the chaotic, unplanned sprawl that had come to define much of Baghdad al-Jadida and Kamaliya to the east in recent years.  This was the place where the sentiments of the technocrats who populated central Baghdad’s secure, walled communities could be contrasted with the complaints of Baghdad’s most marginalized residents — those that inhabited the squatter neighborhoods extending out to Shawra Wa Um Jidir.  Today, seemingly for the first time, the feelings expressed by these disparate groups were entirely in harmony.

“But why did they tear down our power lines?”

For the first time in our deployment, the residents of our demographically diverse area of operations were united.  They were united against MRAPs — Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected Vehicles.  The vehicles, newly arrived in our area of operations, were causing significant property damage.  And so the commander of the brigade that my tactical psychological operations (PSYOP) detachment supported asked for my teams’ help with quelling the growing public anger.  The lessons we learned while seeking to do so — and indeed the entire fielding of these vehicles — highlight the complexities of materiel procurement, and should inform decision-making today, as military services are preparing to step back from a war footing and organizing and equipping for new challenges.

•  •  •

A month ago, the memoirs of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates were published.  Like many others who served in the wars shaped by his influence, I was eager to read the book.  While I admired and appreciated the dogged tenacity with which Gates approached the fielding of equipment that could help troops downrange fulfill their missions, when I read his remembrances of the fight to procure and deploy MRAPs, I found myself … agitated.  Only one sentence acknowledged the particular drawback of the vehicles that occupied my mind and the minds of many Baghdad residents when they first appeared on the city’s streets en masse in 2008:

They were so tall that, when going through towns, the antennas could snag electric wires.

One sentence.  And the very next sentence suggested that this was perhaps little more than an inconvenient test of the resourcefulness of America’s fighting men and women:

Our ingenious troops simply improvised, using long pieces of plastic pipe to lift the electric wires as they went under.

And indeed they did.  Without a doubt, the devices rigged up in motor pools across Iraq helped.  But such creative solutions had their limits in Baghdad, where millions of cables had been strung across the city — connecting houses, strung between rooftops, wound around light posts — forming the web of connectivity on which the city relied in the almost complete absence of government services.

More than five years after the American-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the government was unable to generate and provide more than a few hours of electricity per day.  Privately owned generators compensated for this failure.  In some cases, enterprising individuals fronted the money to pay for one and sold power to their neighbors.  In others, residents of neighborhoods came together to pool their money to purchase a communal generator.  Under both sets of circumstances, wires needed to be hung to transport the electricity.  And our MRAPs were tearing these wires down.

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Electrical wires on a typical street corner in Baghdad, 2008.

Hence the anger of the men who crowded around me that day.  And thus the feeling that something needed to be done to head off this rapidly spreading sentiment, an imperative that the brigade commander felt keenly.  He was reminded of the deadly consequences of that anger by the memorial board that hung outside his office, on which were hung the photos of soldiers from the unit who had been killed during the current deployment.  In this war, heightened popular anger meant a swelling of the ranks of various militant groups, which in turn meant more violence, and more casualties.

And herein lay the paradox of the MRAP.  It was so big that it could not travel through east Baghdad’s mahallas without disrupting life, so tall that it tore down power lines, and so heavy that it could damage road surfaces.  But the MRAP saved lives.  It kept photos of soldiers from being added to the memorial outside the commander’s office.

The MRAP’s V-shaped hull deflected the force of explosions outward from the vehicle.  Its thick armor stopped the bulk of conventional IEDs, and provided a degree of protection from explosively formed penetrators that would rip through even the most heavily armored Humvees.  Its clearance from the ground meant that the force of even the strongest under-vehicle explosions was severely dissipated before it reached the MRAP’s body.  And its suspended seats protected passengers from the literally spine-shattering energy that they were experiencing in full force all too often in other vehicles.

As soon as the MRAPs began arriving in theatre in significant numbers, the stories of their protective capabilities started making the rounds.  The earliest that I remember came from just south of Baghdad.  A bomb buried under the surface of a roadway — a deep-buried IED — was detonated while an MRAP drove directly over it.  The bomb contained 2,000 pounds of explosives, enough to flip the massive vehicle onto its side.  The gunner in the turret suffered a broken arm, and the bones in the passengers’ feet were shattered.  But each and every one of them survived and recovered.  There is little doubt that, if the IED had struck an M1114 Humvee, in which the vast majority of U.S. forces were traveling at that time, the toll would have been much worse.

This protective capacity was what motivated Secretary Gates when he ordered Pentagon procurement bureaucracy bypassed in order to field as many MRAPs as were needed, as quickly as possible, to the troops in the field.  And both his aggressive approach and DoD’s rather surprisingly effective response to it should be commended, for they had the exact impact that the Pentagon’s E-ring wanted: They saved lives.  I was witness to countless such saved lives in the months after MRAPs arrived in theatre.

But as I stood in that square in Tisa Nissan, I could feel the other shoe dropping.  The same qualities that made MRAPs so valuable as force protection devices virtually ensured that they would be more disruptive to Iraqis than less safe vehicles would be.  And this at a time when our operations were meant to revolve around the theme of a “return to normalcy.”

Did MRAPs save lives?  Absolutely.  Was their net effect on the overall war effort positive?  I honestly don’t know.  There were so many mistakes made, so many actions that cost us valuable popular support, that it’s impossible to measure the effect of a single vehicle’s introduction into the battlespace on public sentiment in any area of operations, much less the entire country.  There is also the possibility that diminished casualties after the MRAP’s fielding might have helped sustain sufficient American will to continue the war effort long enough to achieve particular objectives.  This also needs to be considered, but evaluating such a hypothetical is similarly an exercise in speculation.

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Defense procurement is a complex process, made more so in the heady and emotional times of war.  It needs to be based on the motivations that are bound to dominate in Washington, but also on the experiences of soldiers on the ground.  From unmanned aerial platforms to armored vehicles to advanced missile technology, the weapons and equipment our military uses are certainly effective at achieving a specific purpose.  But success with respect to a narrowly defined objective is an insufficient metric with which to guide strategic acquisitions decisions.

The brigade commander came to me that day in 2008 because I was a PSYOP officer, trained and in command of teams whose stated purpose is to “influence [a target audience’s] emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately … behavior.”  If the residents of our area of operations were angry, we needed to alter the process that led to that anger.  We had some success by seeking to place the damage to property in the context of the much more severe threat to civilians’ lives posed by militant groups, but that success was limited.  Complaints about the damage continued for the duration of my detachment’s deployment and well beyond.

However, PSYOP officers and soldiers are trained to think in terms of second- and third-order effects, which is what makes a PSYOP perspective of the MRAP’s fielding instructive today.  I experienced those derivative effects in the form of Iraqis justifiably angry that, because of these behemoths — protective as they might be of their passengers — some of their refrigerators, televisions, and lamps would go unpowered.  Those consequential impacts are important.

We find ourselves now in a period of military transformation.  In ten years, the equipment with which our military units are directed to complete their missions will be vastly different than it is today, from the tactical level to the strategic.  Decisions regarding the fielding of that new equipment must be based on more than individual considerations — even those as important as force protection.  Our future force will be fortunate if such decisions are influenced by civilian leadership as dedicated as Secretary Gates.  But procurement and fielding decisions must also be based on an appreciation of the second- and third-order effects that, in the case of the MRAP, were so glaringly obvious on the streets of Tisa Nissan but barely acknowledged in the halls of Washington, DC.

 

John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  A former United States Army officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada.  Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.

 

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Mark B. Matthews, 27th Public Affairs Detachment