Book Review - Kerry Kachejian's - SUVs Suck in Combat

The Military Officer's Association of America (MOAA) reviewed author Kerry Kachejian's book “SUVs·Suck in Combat: The Rebuilding of Iraq during a Raging Insurgency”.

SUVs Suck in Combat


Reviewed by Dr. Alan Gropman, National Security Studies Faculty, Industrial College of the Armed Forces

SUVs SUCK in Combat: Chaos and Valor—The Rebuilding of Iraq during a Raging Insurgency (Fortis, 2010. $30.95)

Did the title grab you? It was meant to. The vulnerability in wartime Iraq of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) -- the primary means by which the author of this book, Kerry Kachejian, and the men and women he supervised were transported to their workplaces --was overwhelming.

Kachejian writes: “The most dangerous activity” his unit “would perform was ground movements.” In fewer than six months on the job, his outfit had 45 personnel killed and 88 wounded.

This well-paced, no-holds-barred book is a memoir of an intense year in Iraq by a West Point graduate, Ranger-qualified, Army National Guard activated lieutenant colonel (now promoted to 0-6). The author is, furthermore, a graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF) (sent to war college as an industrial fellow by Raytheon Corp.), and an executive at Raytheon. His meaningful, highly adventurous, and dangerous year in Iraq occurred during the early phase of the insurgency, soon after the defeat of the Iraqi government.

Kachejian’s bluntly written experiences should be read by anybody interested in the art of stabilization and reconstruction, everybody who might be assigned similar missions in the future, and all veterans of all wars eager to compare notes. Kachejian ends his account with potent lessons learned under fire, and this reviewer believes rebuilding and restoring war torn societies during combat, as we did and are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, will loom large in our tomorrows.

Kachejian has three purposes: to tell his story by making the reader “feel like you were there with boots on the ground,” to ensure the reader understood "the complexity and danger of Iraqi reconstruction operations,” and “to make certain our country does not forget — or repeat — what we learned during this seemingly impossible period.” He definitely succeeds with the first two goals; we will have to wait to see if his third objective is met.

Kachejian was the operations officer (G-3) of the Gulf Region Division (GRD), a civil engineering unit (by no means as large as an Army Division) in Baghdad responsible for rebuilding, among many key infrastructure components, the electrical grid and petroleum facilities. In an 18-month period, in which he served his 12 months under fire, his unit employed an average of 155,000 Iraqi workers building or repairing 703 schools, 280 police stations, 90 railroad bridges, 40 public buildings, 1,400 electrical transmission towers, and 8,600 kilometers of power cable, among other construction projects -- ALL OF IT IN HARM’S WAY!

The insurgents were determined to destroy everything the GRD built and attacked soldiers and contractors both inside the Green Zone (where people generally were secure) but also (and more pointedly) while they were constantly travelling to and from projects working to improve the life and economy of the Iraqi people.

Almost all the time, Americans travelled in unarmored SUVs, and many soldiers were killed or maimed by IEDs, RPGs, and small arms fire.

A quote from the book is representative of much of the narrative:

Infrastructure security was a huge challenge, and there were no easy solutions. The lack of security throughout Iraq had a major impact on reconstruction costs, schedules and even quality. Thirty percent of costs were allocated to providing security to protect our personnel and project site—and for good reason. In August… 2004 GRD had 37 attacks on project sites, 16 attacks on personnel, and 5 attacks on reconstruction convoys. These attacks included IEDs, rockets, mortars, RPGs, small arms fire, threats to our workforce, and other asymmetric attacks, including kidnappings.

There is wisdom in Kachejian’s book. There were problems with stabilization and reconstruction from day one because there was no doctrine, there had been no exercises, and there were no sources to turn to for guidance:

I wish all this had been worked out before we went to war, but the Army had rarely practiced Phase IV operations (Security and Stabilization) in war-fighting exercises. Our plans were to fight, win, and then go home. Reconstruction was not seriously considered as a DOD mission—it was considered a State Department issue. But we did not know we needed to integrate the [Reconstruction Operations Center] and Contractor Operations Center (CONOPS) into our doctrine, our force structure and into our peacetime military exercises. Surprisingly, little of this was covered in the new Army [and Marine Corps] Counterinsurgency Manual, Field manual 3-24.

In other words, GRD was making it up as it went along, while the Sunni insurgents were killing and maiming to ensure the effort failed.

Here are three of a dozen of Kachejian’s enduring lessons:

  1. “We had the wrong tactical wheeled vehicles for counterinsurgency operations.” He made several formal (and trenchant) arguments to armor SUVs, even innovating with jury-rigged armor to save his people.
  2. “We need to develop and rapidly evolve tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to combat asymmetric attacks.” Here, too, Kachejian has recommendations: Be prepared to respond to all false allegations made by the enemy; embed Iraqi authorities (especially civilians) with U.S. forces during attacks to ensure they see the care Americans take to protect civilian life and possessions; and do a much better job protecting the identity of Iraqi civilians working for the U.S.
  3. “Maneuver forces and reconstruction efforts must be fully integrated.” During Kachejian’s year at the front, the proper level of cohesion was not met, and he considered it essential.

About the author: Dr. Alan Gropman is The Distinguished Professor of National Security Policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. Kerry Kachejian was one of his students, class of 1996. Dr. Gropman’s comments are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of DoD or any part of it.

Copyright Dr. Alan Gropman and Military Officers Association of America. All rights reserved.