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The Highway War A Marine Company Commander in Iraq by Seth W. B. Folsom Book

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The Highway War A Marine Company Commander in Iraq by Seth W. B. Folsom Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: The Highway War is the compelling Iraq War memoir of then-Capt. Seth Folsom, commanding officer of Delta Company, First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps. Mounted in eight-wheeled LAVs (light armored vehicles), this unit of 130 Marines and sailors was one of the first into Iraq in March 2003. It fought on the front lines for the war's entire offensive phase, from the Kuwaiti border through Baghdad to Tikrit.

Folsom's thoughtful account focuses on his maturation as a combat leader—and as a human being enduring the austere conditions of combat and coming to terms with loss of life on both sides. Moreover, The Highway War is the story of a junior officer's relationships with his company's young Marines, for whose lives he was responsible, and with his superior officers. Folsom covers numerous unusual military actions and conveys truthfully the pace, stress, excitement, mistakes, and confusion of modern ground warfare. The Highway War is destined to be a Marine Corps classic. 

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The Highway War A Marine Company Commander in Iraq by Seth W. B. Folsom Book Read Online Chapter One

Start Point

My path to becoming a company commander during war did not begin on September 11, but my course was set that morning, after four hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a lonely field in Pennsylvania. The United States was suddenly at war, and for me it couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time.

I had been married barely forty-eight hours, and my new wife and I were honeymooning in Oxford, Mississippi, when I saw the events of that terrible morning unfold on television. Silently we packed our bags—the honeymoon was over. Ashley and I sat in silence as we drove the back roads to her family’s home in Memphis and listened to the story rapidly unfold over the radio. Oddly, I remembered the words my company commander had spoken on my first day at Officer Candidates School (OCS) nine years earlier.

“Life as you know it is about to change,” he had said. “From this point on, you will never look at anything again the same way you have up until now.” Those words rang true after September 11, 2001. Nothing would ever really be the same for me again.

I was still relatively naïve, even though I had been a company commander for nearly five months at the time of the hijackings. Until that point, my career in the Marine Corps had been unremarkable. After scraping by in OCS during the summers of 1992 and 1993 (my final class standing in 1993 was a stellar 114 out of a class of 124), my performance as a second lieutenant at The Basic School (TBS) was similarly mediocre. Student officer peer evaluations (what the venerated biographer, historian, and former Marine William Manchester appropriately referred to as “fuck your buddy night”) described me as everything from “gung-ho” to “abusive.”

My first assignment as a second lieutenant and an infantry officer in the Fleet Marine Force, in 1995, was as a platoon commander in the First Marine Division’s First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Despite its successful trial by fire during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, 1st LAR Battalion continued to suffer from an identity crisis within the division. Based around companies of eight-wheeled light armored vehicles (LAVs), the battalion regularly changed names over the years following its creation in the mid-1980s, even if its wartime mission did not. Originally First Light Armored Vehicle Battalion, it switched to First Light Armored Infantry Battalion prior to the 1991 Gulf War. Several years later, First Light Armored Infantry Battalion and First Reconnaissance Battalion merged to form First Reconnaissance Battalion (Light Armored). And finally, in 1994, the battalion was renamed First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Its mission was—and remains—to conduct reconnaissance and security operations and, within capability, limited offensive, defensive, and economy-of-force operations. A mouthful. What the LAR battalion is, and was designed to be, is the vanguard force for the Marine division. It is a swift, mobile, and deadly unit capable of conducting self-sustained reconnaissance and combined arms operations well forward of the division’s main body.

The centerpiece of the LAR battalion is the LAV-25, so named for its M242 25-millimeter Bushmaster cannon. The Bushmaster (or simply “main gun,” as it is known) can fire up to 200 rounds of high explosive or armor-piercing projectiles per minute. The effects on humans and light-skinned and other lightly armored vehicles are devastating. The LAV-25 also comes equipped with two M240 machine guns. One is coaxially mounted to the main gun (referred to as the “coax”), and the second is supported on a pintle arm for the vehicle commander. Supporting the LAV-25 in the LAR battalion are five other variants utilizing the same basic chassis. The LAV-M (mortar) houses an 81-millimeter mortar, and the LAV-AT (antitank) has an elevating “hammerhead” turret to fire TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missiles. The LAV-C2 (command and control) is the heart of the LAR company’s communications network. With four VHF radios, one HF radio, one UHF radio, and other modular communications assets, the LAV-C2 also serves as the principal vehicle for controlling external fire support. The LAVL (logistics) is typically referred to as “the Log”; its spacious cargo bay can haul most everything the LAR company requires. Finally, the LAV-R (recovery) comes equipped with a massive hydraulic crane, a 30,000-pound test winch, a welding kit, and various other tools to keep the maintenance-intensive LAVs up and running.

Still, regardless of 1st LAR Battalion’s success in Desert Storm, its focus following that war shifted to providing LAR companies to Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) for their six-month western pacific (WestPac) deployments. As the number of deployments and tempo of operations both continued to increase, the battalion’s ability to fight as a cohesive team began to deteriorate. Imagine a football coach constantly sending away large portions of his team for months on end, while seldom having practice for the remaining players in their absence. The focus was clearly on supplying and supporting the MEUs, which were predicted to be the Marine units most likely to be involved in future combat operations. Even the division commander wanted more emphasis on training 1st LAR Battalion as a unit, yet the demand to deploy companies of LAVs in MEUs continued.

Most of this was transparent to me as a second lieutenant. As one of the most junior officers in a battalion that numbered close to one thousand Marines and hundreds of vehicles of all types, I was more concerned with trying to manage and lead a platoon of thirty Marines and four light armored vehicles. Several of my men were combat veterans from Kuwait and Somalia, and I faced the daily challenge of trying to find my place as their leader without making a total asshole out of myself. William Manchester was correct when he said there is no job less enviable than that of a green second lieutenant taking over a platoon of veterans. It doesn’t help when you are a temperamental perfectionist with a confidence problem and deficient in the TBS-inspired ideal of “command presence.” At least that was how I thought of myself at the time. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I made it through my tenure as a platoon commander without my Marines mutinying.

My trials and tribulations as a new lieutenant aside, one thing remained constant in nearly all of our platoon, company, and battalion training: preparing to fight Iraq again. For the most part, all classwork on armored fighting vehicle identification focused on models operated by the Iraqi army. Through hours of repetitive drills, the silhouettes of these Russian-produced armored hulks were burned like photo-negatives into all of our brains. Maneuver training against enemy threat doctrine in southern California’s Camp Pendleton and in the Marine Corps’ desert stronghold of Twentynine Palms always employed the Iraqi model. The major training exercises during my 1997 WestPac deployment were in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates—desert countries situated near Iraq with comparable terrain and climates. No matter how much the establishment preached that we should not focus on “fighting the last war,” it was generally accepted that one day we would go up against Iraq again and finish what our predecessors had begun in 1990.

After graduating from the U.S. Army’s Armor Captains Career Course, I returned to 1st LAR Battalion in April 2001. Upon assuming command of Delta Company, I committed myself to accomplishing two objectives. I wanted to be a better captain than I had been a lieutenant. As a lieutenant I had been prone to angry, emotional outbursts when I didn’t get my way. Everyone knew I wore my heart on my sleeve, and that was probably my greatest weakness. But as a captain at age twenty-nine, I knew my personality and limitations. The chances of this tiger changing its stripes seven years into his career were slim.

Above all, I committed myself to training my Marines for war. But in April 2001 the prospects for participation in armed conflict seemed as remote as they had been when I was a platoon commander. Sure, tension had periodically bubbled in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, but it was nearly always met by the United States with a barrage of cruise missiles and empty diplomacy. Despite a U.S. refusal to commit the time and resources to permanently address the problems in the Persian Gulf, I always remembered something one of my colleagues had said to me while I was assigned as an instructor at OCS. I had been complaining about the laziness and general unmilitary attitude displayed by many of the personnel who worked at OCS. A fellow staff member, formerly a drill instructor and a prior Force Reconnaissance Marine, rolled his eyes and simply said, “Hey, lighten up, man. We’re not going to war anytime soon.” I couldn’t believe someone who had so much experience could have such an attitude about the subject. From then on, I knew that even if war didn’t seem to be on the horizon, we had to train as if it was right around the corner, waiting to ambush us. That sounds like a cliché, but it is for that reason the Marine Corps has always performed so well.

September 11 confirmed this. Ashley and I sat at her parents’ house for two days, unable to get a flight home because of flight restrictions immediately following the attacks or rent a car because there were none to be had anywhere. The tension in her family’s household resulting from the attacks was matched only by my restlessness, which my new wife knew she could calm only by taking me out to the local bar for a drink and to discuss options for getting me back with my company. First LAR Battalion was conducting desert training in Twentynine Palms, and the most important thing on my mind after seeing two airliners slam into the World Trade Center was to get my ass out of Tennessee to be with my men. I didn’t feel safe sitting in America’s heartland; I felt safer with my Marines. My father-in-law offered his car, and on the evening of September 12 Ashley and I left Memphis. Twenty-seven hours later we were in Carlsbad, California, just south of Camp Pendleton. Along the way, I mused to Ashley, “Man, if they link Iraq to 9/11 in any way, we are gonna total that country.”

Much to the surprise of my Marines and the entire battalion—who couldn’t believe I had found my way back so quickly under such chaotic circumstances—by September 14 I was in the desert with my company. I was where I belonged.

That was where Delta Company’s road to war began.


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