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A U.S. Elite Officer Falls

Posted October. 25, 2005 07:25,   


“The war drove one of the most distinguished elite officers in the U.S. Army to take a wrong turn and eventually fall.” Sound like the synopsis of a movie? It is a real-life cover story published in the New York Times Magazine from the Sunday issue of New York Times on October 23.

The tragic hero is Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, who was recently discharged with dishonor for the undisciplined behaviors of his unit members.

He had stood apart among military officers in brains, physical ability, and leadership. He is a West Point graduate, but his grades were excellent enough to be recruited by Princeton as well.

An outstanding football talent, he led West Point’s team to its first bowl victory in 1980s. Everyone in the Army knew his name.

His capabilities also proved exceptional when he was deployed to Iraq. With a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington, he held local elections in the Iraqi village of Balad, where his base was located, earlier than any other towns and cities in Iraq, and successfully organized local authorities. His relations with the locals in Balad were so warm that on each Friday, his men would play a game of soccer with the Iraqis.

However, his passion for the country’s reconstruction subsided since November 2003. When his battalion was patrolling Hishma, a town with a majority Sunni population, one of his men was hit by a grenade which nearly cut him in half. This incident made Sassaman a changed man.

Deciding that the Iraqis had betrayed him, Sassaman opted for iron-fisted rule. He ordered his men to wrap Hishma in barbed wire and issued ID cards to all the grown men in the village. They were not allowed to enter or leave the town without the card.

He replied to insurgent attacks with cold-blooded retaliation. Once, when his compound was attacked, he called in two air strikes bearing thousands of pounds of bombs. He also fired antitank missiles into the home of an Iraqi man suspected of being an insurgent, blowing it to pieces.

His tactics reduced insurgent attacks, but with costs. He became an object of such great fear that Iraqis told their children at night, “If you aren’t a good boy, Colonel Sassaman is going to come and get you.”

His immediate supervisor ordered him to abstain from these extreme counter-insurgency methods, but Sassaman insisted on having his way, saying his supervisor didn’t understand what was needed in the field. He condoned his men’s continued violence against Iraqis.

The incident that forced his dishonorable discharge came in January 2004. His unit members plunged two Iraqi civilians into river for allegedly violating curfew, drowning one of them to death.

The story of Sassaman can be summed up in one sentence: an elite officer, who was once thoughtful and idealistic, transformed over time into an inhumane product of war after witnessing his men brutally killed. In light of this, his story evokes the memory of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a movie about the Vietnam War, although there are differences in situation.

Sassaman decided to retire after 19 years in the army and is now considering coaching football. To the question of the New York Times correspondent about his Iraqi experiences, he answered, “They threw us under the bus,” referring to the Army.

Jong sik Kong kong@donga.com