Col. Ted Spain in Baghdad briefing Ambassador Paul Bremer, right, and Bernie Kereck, the acting Minister of Interior. Kereck was the New York City Police Chief on 9/11. Courtesy photo
Retired Army Col. Ted Spain, general manager of Centerra, the protective force services at Los Alamos National Laboratory since December 2015, can readily justify his nickname, the Sheriff of Baghdad.
“We took Baghdad the second week in April (2003),” Spain said in a recent interview. “I was the first and last American police chief in Baghdad.”
There wasn’t much left of Saddam Hussein’s police department when the 18th Military Police Brigade commanded by Spain was called on to impose law and order on the spirited anarchy that followed the conquest of the capitol during the first year of the Iraq War.
The looting and lawlessness came as a surprise to Paul Bremer, the top civilian in the provisional authority governing Iraq after the invasion. Only later, when Spain started reading Bremer’s book, My Year in Iraq, and President Bush’s memoirs, Decision Points and books by some of the other principals in the war did Spain realize what was going on behind the scenes.
“When Bremer saw Baghdad burning, he called Secretary (of Defense) Rumsfeld,” Spain said. “He says send me every military police you can. That explains why I got 2,000 in the month of June; and at one time I had 6,100 soldiers in the brigade.”
Later, after an interview with Tom Ricks, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Iraq War, Fiasco, Spain said Ricks told him he should write a book, too, for historical purposes and to get the lessons learned down on paper.
“That’s what planted the thought in my head,” Spain said. He had always carried a spiral notebook in which he kept notes and recorded quotes in real time of conversations during critical meetings. Later he started typing these up along with an update on how it turned out in hindsight.
Right now, the public is focused on ISIS, the jihadist group that has carved out an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Not many people understand that ISIS grew out of what happened at that time. As Spain explains it, “Ambassador Bremer would tell you it was Rumsfeld’s decision and Rumsfeld would tell you it was Bremer’s decision that they would disband the army.
“That was a terrible mistake,” said Spain, along with many other critics of the way the war was handled. The army, which was predominantly Sunni, “took their weapons and went home and then they came back and fought us. And, by the way, that’s the basis of ISIS,” he said.
The book, Breaking Iraq: The Ten Mistakes that Broke Iraq, was published in 2013, co-authored by Spain with his friend Terry Turchie, former deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division. The title came from a memorable quote by Gen. Colin Powell, Bush’s first Secretary of State, who argued the case for invading Iraq at the United Nations. “If you break it, you own it,” Powell said. “We broke Iraq without any plan to fix it.”
Unique among books on the war, Spain not only wrestles with his own responsibilities for the outcome, but he names names and evaluates policies and decisions by his chain of command all the way to the top. The No. 1 mistake, said Spain, was to think the American military could put the country back together again, that the same organization that was so good at defeating an opposing force could turn around and handle the delicate task of rebuilding a nation.
Enemies, Terrorists and Criminals
When Spain rolled into Baghdad, he expected to get a sense of how best to go about standing up the police again, but he had no idea that one of his main problems was going to be about where to put the prisoners. There had been no planning for insurgency and no anticipation of the sheer lawlessness that would terrify the population and destabilize the society.
Confronting the chaos of war and national collapse on a daily basis, Spain realized that the detainees were not all the same. He had to make some distinctions. There was the enemy, the terrorists and the criminals. And there were a lot of criminals. He called Saddam’s security forces the enemy. Terrorists were the people who came from outside the country who wanted to kill Americans. Then there were all the criminals the ones that had been released from prisons and the new ones taking advantage of the situation to loot, rob banks and take care of personal vendettas.
Before the invasion, Saddam had 88 police stations in Baghdad, but Spain said the occupation didn’t have the staff to populate so many. He did assessments of all of them, but ended up with 34, divided between the two kinds of police functions – patrols that made the rounds and kept watch and the police who made arrests.
In order to get Iraqi’s back in uniform, the Americans did a recall, which caught the notice of the most recent Baghdad chief of police. “I had one meeting with him and the CIA made him go away because of stuff he did before,” Spain said.
Meanwhile, Spain was the “de facto” police chief of Baghdad. “I was it. I was all they had and it was high adventure,” he said.
He had never heard of the Abu Ghraib prison that would become so infamous in the next few years. “I was looking for confinement,” he said. An officer said there was a huge prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. It was filled with looters and the Americans captured a couple of them to find out what it was.
“Rumsfeld told Ambassador Bremer we couldn’t use it because it was a torture chamber,” Spain said. At Bremer’s request Spain wrote a paper that would go to Rumsfeld explaining that there was no other option for confining thousands of people. “They came back and said okay you can open it but couldn’t go anywhere near the execution chamber,” Spain said.
One of the main themes of the book and a dominant emotion as Spain recalls his year in Iraq was grief for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives and those who were scarred and wounded: “This book is especially devoted to the thirteen men and women I left behind,” he wrote in the dedication, a fraction of the intense concerns he demonstrated throughout the text.
Spain survived three assassination attempts. The first one he heard about in advance, then stayed up all night planning a raid that turned the tables and captured 17 conspirators.
How do these extraordinary experiences flow into Spain’s current role, leading the protective force contingent at LANL? Spain has plenty to say about that as well, starting with the importance of leadership. He talks about “adaptive leadership,” the need to adjust for all kinds of people, cultures and situations.
There is also the matter of rising to the challenge. Earlier this year, with barely a couple of months at the lab, he oversaw his team in a force on force exercise, “the highest level exercise that DOE has,” Spain said. For training and validation, every two years, DOE’s Office of Enterprise Assessment comes in and tests the security force’s ability to defend nuclear materials against a variety of mock attack scenarios. “They said this is the only time we’ve ever done this when we have a new contractor coming in,” said the Sheriff of Baghdad in his new role… “If I failed, I’m gone the next day, but I understand it because I’m responsible.”
Editor’s Note: Retired Army Col. Ted Spain wrote the following letter on his final day in Baghdad:
A commander is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do. The Army gave me the honor and the privilege of being a commander; then they asked me to lead thousands of soldiers in combat.
As the Commander of the 18th Military Police Brigade for the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I only wanted two things; accomplish all missions and send every soldier back home alive. From the initial invasion of Iraq in late March, until our one year deployment was over, we accomplished all missions. However, I failed to bring every soldier back home alive.
I accept full responsibility for that and will have to live with this fact the rest of my life. The following are the names of the great Americans I failed to bring back home:
- SPC Narson Sullivan 411th MP Co.
- SGT Travis Burkhardt 170th MP Co.
- SPC Eric Hull 307th MP Co.
- SSG Bobby Franklin 210th MP Co.
- PFC Charles Sims 549th MP Co
- LTC Kim Orlando HHD, 716th MP Bn.
- SSG Joseph Bellavia 194th MP Co.
- CPL Sean Grilley 194th MP Co.
- PFC Rachel Bosveld 527th MP Co.
- SGT Aubrey Bell 214th MP Co.
- SGT Nicholas Tomko 307th MP Co.
- SSG Aaron Reese 135th MP Co.
- SPC Todd Bates 135th MP Co.
The heroes above are not just names but human beings that gave their lives because they believed in something greater than themselves. How many Americans can say that about what they do every day? They gave their lives to accomplish the mission we were given, which was to liberate the Iraqi people and help create a safe and secure environment in a country that had been oppressed by a brutal regime for 30 years.
Regardless of what their duty position was, every day they went about accomplishing whatever mission they were given, regardless of the danger they faced. Today they are looking down on us, knowing they gave everything they had so people they didn’t even know would have an opportunity for a better life; a quality of life that is just a small percentage of what most Americans enjoy everyday. We must continue the fight so the heroes listed above will not have died in vain.
We gave each of our fallen comrades a fitting memorial and mourned their loss. Each time, I knew these heroes left wives, husbands, children and other loved ones behind. They were all volunteers and each had their reasons for joining the Army and defending their country. They all had great plans for the future, but none of them had planned on dying in combat. These soldiers will never see their children graduate from high school, will never attend their weddings, will never coach their little league baseball teams.
During our one year we had contact with the enemy 395 times and we awarded 180 purple hearts as a result of wounds received during these attacks. Some of the surviving soldiers will never be physically the same and none of us will ever be emotionally the same.
Things that were real important before the war just don’t seem important any more. In the movies, combat sometimes seems glamorous. But in the movies, after the cameras are turned off, the actors get up, wipe away the fake blood and go home. In real combat, slain soldiers do not get up and do not go home.
I will never forget the soldiers that perished while under my command and our nation will never be able to pay them or their families the debt they are owed. May they rest in peace. Freedom is not free!
Scenes From Baghdad:
Col. Ted Spain briefing Lt. Gen. William Scott Wallace, the senior Army Commander in Iraq at the time. Courtesy photo
Col. Ted Spain during his one and only meeting with Saddam’s Baghdad Police Chief, shortly after the fall of Baghdad. He was forced into retirement. Courtesy photo
Col. Ted Spain and his translator meeting with a religious leader in a small village between Kuwait and Baghdad. Courtesy photo
Col. Ted Spain inside a typical Baghdad Police Station burned out by Iraqis. Courtesy photo
President George W. Bush serving Thanksgiving lunch to soldiers in Baghdad. Courtesy photo
Col. Ted Spain with the son of one of his Iraqi police majors. Courtesy photo
Some of the Iraqi kids who welcomed Col. Ted Spain and his soldiers to Baghdad. Courtesy photo
This former palace of Saddam Hussein’s served as Col. Ted Spain’s Brigade Headquarters in Baghdad. Courtesy photo