Looking back at the events of yesterday I now have certain clarity that the Libyan rebel army is the most ill-disciplined, inexperienced and unreliable I've ever seen in a combat situation. Their level of incompetence is so shocking the very notion of heavily arming them gives me nightmares of dudes walking around with machine guns looking to settle personal scores that have nothing to do with their revolt in the desert.
When we got caught in that cross-fire yesterday, it revealed that what this mob needs is a few good Marine Corps drill sergeants, not more or heavier weapons.
Picture this: in front a fortified enemy position; Gaddafi loyalists have dug in behind the brick or cement walls of the town's university. Actually, it's more of an oil-related trade school, called Bright Star Petrochemical University. They are out-numbered and far from home; they know that if they surrender their fortified positions and attempt to flee westward toward the Gaddafi stronghold of Tripoli they will be exposed to harassing attacks and possibly more allied air strikes.
So they are not going anywhere and they have no choice but to fight.
Coming down the road from the eastern side is the vastly larger rebel force of at least 1,500 or 2,000. They are armed with rocket launchers, RPG's, heavy machine guns, 20 millimeter anti-aircraft guns mounted on the backs of Toyota pickups and other assorted lethal weapons. The rebels drive toward the fortified position essentially in single file. In other words, only a few of their formidable arms can be brought to bear on the target they are attacking. No effort is made to spread out the line. No effort is made to protect either the north or south flank. No scouts are sent ahead to pinpoint potential targets within the Gaddafi stronghold.
Instead, the lead elements begin firing wildly. In vehicles back in the line, weapons are also let loose. Rounds fly dangerously close to the heads of the rebels in front. To avoid killing their comrades, the rebels aim high. Clearly the fact that they are shooting the sky does not occur to them as they are made euphoric by the sheer power of their weapons igniting, however harmlessly. Many shout Allah Akbar as they fire.
The Gaddafi forces endure this assault for several minutes before letting loose their own barrage, better aimed. Several rounds land among the rebel column. This sets off one of their typical mad dashes to the rear; the entire column rushing incoherently to retreat back up the hill and out of range of the incoming rockets and mortars. Some keep going all the way home to Benghazi 135 miles away. The gravest danger of the day is that of traffic accidents as they careen away, many still firing their machine guns as they swerve up the road.
In 40 years of war reporting I have never seen so disgraceful a performance under arms. Granted just a few weeks ago most of these rebels were students and clerks and gas station attendants, lawyers, teachers and such. Still, didn't anyone think to look up a basic training manual before they set out to make war? That's how I know for certain that the rebels are not al Qaeda. Those professional terrorists would never continence this incompetence.
Neither having God on your side nor sheer macho courage is enough to win a rebellion.
The lack of discipline also manifests itself in behavior that is sometimes larcenous, as weapons and vehicles are snatched and stolen from fellow fighters, presumably because the snatcher believes he can do a better job than the snatchee. Besides who wouldn't want their own AK-47?
As the fighting continues today around the campus; a word about my crew.
When my longtime partner-producer Greg Hart and my calm, hard as steel former British SAS commando bodyguard Scott Board and I were walking up that road toward the campus, not expecting to be met by the fusillade that came, we took cover off the road, beginning the running commentary that formed the basis for last night's special, "The firefight at Brega University." As we did, several Gaddafi rockets and mortar rounds landed right where we had been standing minutes before.
My second cameraman Greg Khananayev, who along with Mohammed Ali our local stringer had literally just physically fought off a larcenous rebel trying to steal our vehicle, watched in horror as the rounds landed right where we had been standing. Terrified that we had been killed, Greg drove our Toyota back down the hill toward the firing to retrieve us. He thought we had been killed, but was determined not to leave us behind dead or alive. His courage allowed us to avoid the mile and a half walk back up that long hill through the cluster of fire coming from both sides. He probably saved our lives and I will never forget that.