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Military Officers Discuss Leadership in a War Zone


Next, we'll meet two Marines who had to decide when to fire on a battlefield full of civilians. Some Marines are under investigation for the killing of civilians in Haditha. Three members of the 101st Airborne face charges for killing prisoners. U.S. troops face critical daily decisions.

Two veteran officers joined our conversations this week on leadership and a lengthening war.


Major Michael Zacchea was wounded in Fallujah in 2004. Lieutenant Seth Moulton's time in Iraq included urban fighting in Najaf. Both Marines worked under shifting rules of engagements, instructions for when to open fire. Lieutenant Moulton remembers a day that he and another Marine arrived at different decisions.

Lieutenant SETH MOULTON (United States Marine Corps): Well, there was one time when we were sitting in our (unintelligible) and there's an old man stepped out of this house. I looked at him, and I guess that my instinct was that he was perhaps not an enemy combatant. But I didn't do anything. I didn't shoot, but I also didn't, you know, didn't take responsibility for telling everyone else not to shoot. And another Marine did shoot him.

And I don't know. I mean, maybe I should have stood up and said, you know, I don't think this guy is doing anything wrong. Although, in truth, not only was - under our rules of engagement - not only was it completely legitimate to shoot him - and that's, in fact, the instructions we were given. There's a very good chance that he was, indeed, spotting for a sniper.

INSKEEP: Major Zacchea.

Major MICHAEL ZACCHEA (United States Marine Corps): One of the cultural things about Iraq is that everybody has guns and everybody shoots. You know, there's a lot of celebratory gunfire. There's mourning gunfire. So I determined one rules of engagement, which were stricter than the ones that we had gotten during the invasion. Basically, except for when we were specifically assaulting an objective, they were allowed only to respond with deadly force when deadly force was directed at them.

The other part is that in combat in a lot of these places, it's occasion for spectating by average Iraqis. They just come out and want to see what's going on and watch the fight. On any given day, they may be helping the insurgents, or they may be neutral, or the may be helping the Iraqi Security Forces. Or they may be just watching because they've got nothing better to do.

The Marine Corps does a very good job of urban warfare training, but I don't think that I was prepared for those cultural differences.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that you would give your men rules of engagement that were more restrictive than what you would have been allowed to give under the broader command?

Maj. ZACCHEA: Yes, that's right. The basic rule is thumb was that you could not use deadly force unless deadly force is directed at you. Now, there are occasions when I would suspend when, for instance, in Fallujah, when we were assaulting a specific objective. You know, when we captured the al-Hadhrah al-Muhammdaiyah Mosque or the al-Muzarine(ph) Mosque. We repeatedly trained them on this, that they could not use deadly force unless deadly force is directed against them.

INSKEEP: Major Mike Zacchea, do you remember a moment when you had a decision to make about whether to pull the trigger or not?

Maj. ZACCHEA: I do. Particularly in Fallujah. Most of the civilians had left the city, but after we captured the al-Hadhrah al-Muhammdaiyah Mosque, basically, we began doing civilian affairs missions. We set up a station for - to distribute food, water, clothing, and we also had a medical station there for civilians who were coming in who were wounded. We also started getting some insurgents who were giving up who, you know, were coming in for food, water, and medical treatment. But all around us, there were snipers. And, in fact, as some of the civilians were coming in to get food and water, the snipers were shooting them as they came in. So, we and the Iraqis had to make constant split-second decisions about these people who were approaching us under a white flag. You know, were they suicide bombers? Were they hiding weapons? Were they really people who just needed food, water, and medical attention? And that happened every day for - you know, really since from mid-November until we left the city on December 21st. So, this was a very, very relevant, daily part of our mission there.

INSKEEP: When people spend a lot of time in Iraq, does it get harder in some ways to restrain yourself, because you just have more and more exposure to risk - more and more exposure to danger as time goes on?

Maj. ZACCHEA: I did not find that. I did find that towards the end of my tour, I became much more hyper vigilant. You know, I'd already been wounded. I'd already had a lot of close calls.

INSKEEP: What does that mean, hyper vigilant?

Maj. ZACCHEA: When you're in combat, something happens in your brain, brain chemistry. You know, there are spikes of adrenalin and testosterone that cause you to gain maybe tenths of a second in reaction time. I think that there's like a sixth sense that you develop. I've been in, you know, fire fights in, you know, pitch-black darkness inside buildings. And, you know, somehow I knew where the enemy was at night. I can't describe it. It's almost like being able to see in the dark. It's just your senses are so attuned to your surroundings.

INSKEEP: Both of you were leading Marines into combat who were lower in rank, a little bit younger, less experienced than you were. What did you tell them, your Marines, would happen to them if they screwed up?

Maj. ZACCHEA: You know, I never threatened anybody. You know, you try to be positive. You don't threaten somebody with a court martial or investigation if something happens. But, you know, these are all extremely well trained. And virtually all of them - there maybe one or two exceptions - but virtually every Marine that I know of really has his heart in the right place and is trying to do the right thing in, you know, just unbelievably difficult situations.

INSKEEP: Did anybody in either of your units do anything that required investigation afterward to determine if their conduct was appropriate?

Lt. MOULTON: Nobody in my platoon did anything. But I think you certainly have to make them aware of these situations and certainly not threaten them. But really, just try to teach them. Make them learn from the mistakes that have been made in the past.

Maj. ZACCHEA: I agree with Seth. But on one occasion, I had to relieve an Army NCO who had done something inappropriate. But other than that, I did not have any disciplinary problems.

INSKEEP: What was the inappropriate thing?

Maj. ZACCHEA: We were on a mission. He was supposed to be doing a combat checkpoint down at the al-Maserva(ph) Bridge, which is on the road to Baghdad. And for some reason, he took it into his head that he was going to start going door to door and doing searches of homes in this particular area. And it was really not good for the relations that we were building with the townspeople. I didn't have any confidence in him anymore.

INSKEEP: What do you think happened to him?

Maj. ZACCHEA: I think he was a little high strung. And I think that maybe he didn't understand - and if he didn't understand what we were trying to do in that town, that was my fault. But this just sort of alienated the people. I just think he didn't get it, didn't get what we were trying to do.

INSKEEP: Lieutenant Seth Moulton and Major Michael Zacchea both served in Iraq. They're part of our discussions on leadership in a lengthening war. And they return tomorrow to talk about their work training Iraqi Security Forces. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.