Fighting door to door
Top US general recalls last big urban battle
Several times a day, the US military's second highest ranking officer, Gen. Peter Pace, glances at a 35-year-old photo of a Marine Corps private. Staring back is Guido Farinaro, the first soldier General Pace lost to combat in Vietnam.
"It's a way to remind me," says Pace, whose career in the Marines began with the US military's last big urban fight. In 1968, about 2,500 marines fought for weeks in the Vietnamese city of Hue to dislodge an enemy force four times their strength.
"I know how difficult it can be," Pace said last week in a phone interview from his office in the Pentagon as the US 1st Marine Division raced toward Baghdad. "If I'm able to help craft plans to impact the battlefield from a distance that would make it less likely to have to fight inside a city, then I'd like to do that."
Among the US military's top generals planning the war in Iraq, only Pace has fought through a city.
So far, US troops have cordoned off the Iraqi capital and all but pacified the eastern half of the city. But if a full-scale assualt is still necessary in Baghdad or elsewhere, Pace says, today's marines are well-trained and equipped for street fighting. "I'm very confident in our troops' ability to win in an urban environment," he says.
Each year, US troops train for weeks in mock cities constructed on military bases. It's a far cry from the urban combat training Pace says he received: When a blizzard shut down the Marine base at Quantico, Va., in 1968 during the three days allotted for city-fighting exercises, Pace and his fellow officers just watched old movie footage of World War II and Korean street fighting.
Such training didn't seem important, Pace says, as the US fought through Vietnamese jungles and rice paddies. Then Communist troops launched the surprise Tet Offensive, pouring into southern cities just as Pace shipped off to Vietnam. Within a week of arriving, he was sent to fill in for a wounded platoon leader in Hue.
Pace claims "all the work was already done" by the time he got to Hue. That's not exactly the case, says retired Marine Gen. O.K. Steele, who served with Pace.
There were still weeks of clearing out enemy troops from the city's narrow, debris-filled streets, abandoned schools, and homes, General Steele says. Enemy snipers hid on rooftops. Air support had trouble flying through rainy overcast skies. Clearing a seven-block area took three weeks of door-to-door combat.
By the end of the fight, the 160 men in Pace's company had earned 190 Purple Hearts, says retired Marine Corps Col. Chuck Meadows, the company commander at the time. Less than a dozen, including Pace, walked away uninjured.
"As a general, I have some feel for what the guys on the ground are going through," Pace says.
He says he often invokes a not-so-hypothetical grunt named, "Private First Class Pace." "You try to transport yourself to this guy's position in the battlefield and think through the impact of what you're doing in Washington," he says.
Pace also got a feel for the effects of urban combat while serving as the second in command of a US task force sent to Somalia after 18 soldier were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu. Pace helped oversee the withdrawal of US troops and then pulled out of the country on a cruise ship.
Pace declined to discuss operational specifics but said Marine and Army units will employ tactics influenced by Hue. Urban-combat specialists say quick pinpoint strikes will supplant the block-by-block fighting of Hue.
"It's got to be a speed-and-shock approach that goes after critical nodes," says retired Marine Col. David Dilegge, a consultant with the Corps War fighting lab.
Another lesson from the ruins of Hue: Public perception is as important as military victory. US troops crushed the Tet Offensive, but the sight of North Vietnamese soldiers in southern cities and reports of thousands of civilian deaths turned the public against the war.
To win the perception war in Iraq, US forces have seized Saddam Hussein's main presidential palace in Baghdad as well as the Information Ministry and the Al Rashid Hotel, from which the Iraqi president beamed his version of the war.
Pace says he thinks about the seven men he lost during his 13-month tour in Vietnam every day and asks himself, "What is it that you, General, should have done to ensure whoever is out there, has the support that he or she deserves?"
For at least one day in February, Pace put aside war planning and joined fellow veterans of Hue at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., for a memorial service to mark the battle's 35th anniversary. That night, Pace shook hands and swapped stories. And though he has four stars now, the middle-aged men who served under him as teenagers still call him lieutenant.
A few weeks after the reunion, an e-mail arrived in Pace's inbox from one of the veterans. Attached was the black-and-white photo of Private Farinaro.
Shortly before the war in Iraq began, Pace slid the picture under the glass on his Pentagon desk.