U.S. military trainers — the only American boots on the ground — say the Georgian soldiers they knew who were sent to battle the Russians had fighting spirit but were not ready for war.
The Georgians were "beginning to walk, but by no means were they running," said Army Capt. Jeff Barta, who helped train a Georgian brigade for peacekeeping service in Iraq. "If that was a U.S. brigade it would not have gone into combat."
Now on standby at the Sheraton Hotel, unarmed and in civilian clothes, six of the American trainers offered a glimpse at the 5-year-old U.S. mission and at the performance of the outnumbered and outgunned Georgian military in its defeat by Russia.
The Americans arrived for work Aug. 7 to unexpectedly find training was over for the unit they had been assigned to for three weeks, the 4th Brigade: The Georgian soldiers were sitting on their rucksacks and singing folk songs as an Orthodox priest walked among them chanting and waving incense.
Then buses and trucks took the troops off toward Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, where there had been sporadic clashes and shelling during the previous week. That night the Georgian army began an offensive trying to retake the Russian-supported region, and by the following morning hundreds of Russian tanks were rolling across the border.
"From what I've heard, a lot of the 4th Brigade was hit pretty hard," said Rachel Dejong, 24, a Navy medic from Richmond, Ind.
The Georgian company commander who was training alongside Barta was killed.
"Some of the soldiers seemed really grateful for the things we taught them," said Barta, a 31-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, but he acknowledged it was not nearly enough.
Trainers start with the basics of infantry warfare — shooting, taking cover, advancing — then on to squad and platoon maneuvers, Barta said.
The Georgians do not lack "warrior spirit," he said, but added that they weren't ready for combat.
Troops not ready to go
They inherited bad habits from the Red Army, whose soldiers wouldn't move without a direct order from a superior, and need to be taught to think on their own, Barta said. To make things more difficult, many soldiers "come from the hills of Georgia, and some of them sign for their paycheck with an X," he said.
The Georgian army has five regular infantry brigades, each with some 2,000 troops. Only one of them — the 1st, which was rushed home from Iraq by U.S. planes after fighting broke out — has been trained to a NATO level.
There are also units of poorly trained reservists, Georgian men who do 18 days of one-time military training and then eight days a year into their 40s. Officially, the government says it has 37,000 regular soldiers and 100,000 reservists.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, some of the American trainers spoke bluntly about problems with the Georgian troops, who one veteran sergeant said "got torn up real bad."
The Americans were training them to use the U.S. military's M-4 rifles, he said. But when fighting broke out, the Georgians went back to the Soviet AK-47, the only weapon they trusted. They appeared incapable of firing single shots, instead letting off bursts of automatic fire, which is wildly inaccurate and wastes ammunition, he said.
Another problem was communications: As soon as combat began, the army's communications network largely collapsed, he said, so troops conducted operations using regular cell phones. That left their communications easily accessible to Russian intelligence.
"Were they ready to go? The answer is no," the sergeant said.
Few U.S. trainers
The U.S. trainers come from different branches of the military: Marines, Army, Navy and special forces. Most have combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. At the moment, according to the trainers, there are fewer than 100 of them in the country.
Officially their job is to get the Georgians ready to serve in Iraq, where the country has maintained a 2,000-man contingent.
Unofficially, some of the trainers acknowledge, the program hopes to give the U.S. a more robust ally on Russia's border in a country that houses a vital oil pipeline.
The Americans aren't the only ones here. Georgian corporals and sergeants train with Germans, alpine units and the navy work with French instructors, and special operations and urban warfare troops are taught by Israelis, said Georgia's deputy defense minister, Batu Kutelia.
While the U.S. mission is specifically aimed at getting troops ready for Iraq, the "overall goal is to bring Georgia up to NATO standards," Kutelia said in an interview at the Defense Ministry on Sunday.
This former Soviet republic has allied itself with the West and has hopes of joining NATO, ambitions that Russia has seen as a challenge to its influence and security.
Kutelia said Georgian troops who had trained with the Americans and other foreign forces — about half of the military — performed better in the war than those who didn't.
It isn't clear how many Georgian units actually had a chance to put what they learned into practice.
One Georgian officer who returned from the front said the army succumbed not to one-on-one combat but to overwhelming Russian air power. The officer, who appeared shaken by what he saw, showed photographs of Georgian military jeeps destroyed from the air, the bodies of their occupants lying bloated on the road.
He would not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Barta, the Army captain, said of the company he was training: "I know specifically that Bravo Company, I'm sure, and I hope from what I did for them, that they're better off than they would have been if this happened four weeks ago."
An independent Georgian military expert, Koba Liklikadze, said the U.S. training was not a deciding factor, attributing the army's loss to bad decisions by the government. Georgia declared a cease-fire too soon, he said, which demoralized the troops before most of them had a chance to fight.
"It was not an absolutely decisive factor whether Georgians were trained by Americans or not," he said. "What happened was due to the political decision of Georgian authorities, and not the performance on the ground."
The U.S. program has been interrupted, and critically damaged, by the war. The Georgian army has been dealt a harsh blow: While official statistics claim 180 fatalities, soldiers and civilians, Liklikadze estimated the number of dead or missing soldiers at 400.
Many Georgian military bases, including the main U.S. training facility at Vasiani, were damaged or destroyed.
The U.S. trainers now lounging at the Tbilisi Sheraton have been relegated to following the situation from the hotel's carpeted halls and glass elevators. They seem eager to either get back to work or leave.
With the future of their mission uncertain, the trainers have been drafted to help the U.S. aid operation that began last week. But it is hard to avoid the impression they would rather be elsewhere.
"I'm not saying that we're suffering here with the one million-thread-count sheets or checking out the local females at the pool," said Capt. Pongpat Piluek, a veteran of the Afghanistan war. "But if our job now is to sit here and put down roots in the couch, I'd rather do it at home."