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Seasoned combat vets in Iraq are spoon-feeding the newbies from green units as they pour in for their one-year stint in the “sandbox.” They’re sharing the tricks of the trade – which could dramatically reduce casualties – as warriors have done for years.

A sergeant I’ve known since he laced up his first pair of jump boots says: “The 21st Infantry is relieving us. Even though they’re non-paratroopers, they’re pretty good. We’re passing on all the little things we learned the hard way and trying to bring them up to speed so they’ll get the bear before the bear gets them.”

And there’s more good news: The senior Army brass have decreed that replacing units on the battlefield rather than individual soldiers is the right way to go. They must have finally figured out that units retain their cohesion, teamwork skills and unit spirit, while the individual replacement system blows away institutional memory with a bigger bang than a Claymore mine. The result is too many American kids learning critical how-to-stay-alive lessons while already in the killing zone.

Another old pro in Iraq reports: “Hack, recently the guerrillas shot at one of my patrols with rocket and machine-gun fire. My boys killed all the bad guys less one. Then this wounded dude started babbling and apologizing for taking us on.”

The bewildered sergeant asked the wounded guerrilla what all the apologizing was about. He replied, “We were instructed to only shoot at the sand-colored machines – the green-colored machines always shoot back and then chase us down.”

“Once that trickled down to my boys, who are out of Vicenza, Italy, and drive green-colored, camouflaged vehicles,” my friend said, “they were even more aggressive.”

We owe a big salute to the heroes who smashed Saddam’s military last March and April as easily as an Abrams tank can total a beer can. But then our warriors morphed from conventional fighting to taking on the guerrillas – in most cases without proper training and without sufficient troop strength. Apparently, the SecDef’s still so into gold-plated, high-tech stuff that he doesn’t relate to ground warfare in a guerrilla environment.

Logistics also sucked for the first six months, leaving our fighters short of everything, from the basics like food and water to spare parts for mainly thin-skinned vehicles that soldiers aren’t exactly keen on using in this fight against a terrorist opponent who is into roadside bombings and ambushes.

Yes, Iraq proved in spades that we have outstanding warriors who made a bad plan work and deserve every accolade bestowed upon them. Not so for many of the brass – who need to lose the kinder, softer Clintonesque approach before they do unto the line side of the Army what they’ve already done unto Jessica Lynch’s service and support side.

“I know that these new combat units have good leaders and troops,” says a senior sergeant who has been in Iraq for 10 months. “But the higher-ups are pushing them to be passive and not take the fight to the enemy. The rest of the bad news is what we call the ‘Colonel West Syndrome.’ For example, the other night when we were conducting a raid, a target was standing behind a steel door as our guys breached it, and the door smacked him in the face and messed up his head. When we turned him into the detention center, the MPs there accused us of abusing this clown, kicking off an investigation that got pretty ugly.”

“Gen. Sanchez tore up my very-squared-away battalion commander for not wearing his Hummer seat belt,” says another sergeant who’s now finishing up a tour with a parachute brigade – the famed 173d Airborne – that made a hairy night-combat jump into Bashur at the beginning of the war and has been in the thick of it ever since.

“Hello? Where has this general been?” asked the sergeant. “The terrorists over here have a bad habit of shooting at us – we have to be able to unass our vehicles in a hurry.”

No question that battling guerrillas requires an exceptionally disciplined force and that parade-ground regs don’t extend longevity on a guerrilla battlefield. The brass need to get down and talk to their fine noncoms quick smart. The sergeants know how to keep up the initiative – while keeping U.S. casualties down.

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