ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq -- Scrawled on the helmet of Lance Cpl. Carlos Perez are the letters FDNY. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York, the Pentagon and western Pennsylvania, Perez quit school, left his job as a firefighter in Long Island, N.Y., and joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
"To be honest, I just wanted to take revenge," said Perez, 20.
Pfc. Kyle Maio, 19, spots Lance Cpl. Carlos Perez, 20. Maio said he thinks U.S. officials are not being candid about Iraq because of upcoming U.S. elections.
(Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)
Now, two months into a seven-month combat tour in Iraq, Perez said he sees little connection between the events of Sept. 11 and the war he is fighting. Instead, he said, he is increasingly disillusioned by a conflict whose origins remain unclear and frustrated by the timidity of U.S. forces against a mostly faceless enemy.
"Sometimes I see no reason why we're here," Perez said. "First of all, you cannot engage as many times as we want to. Second of all, we're looking for an enemy that's not there. The only way to do it is go house to house until we get out of here."
Perez is hardly alone. In a dozen interviews, Marines from a platoon known as the "81s" expressed in blunt terms their frustrations with the way the war is being conducted and, in some cases, doubts about why it is being waged. The platoon, named for the size in millimeters of its mortar rounds, is part of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment based in Iskandariyah, 30 miles southwest of Baghdad.
The Marines offered their opinions openly to a reporter traveling with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines during operations last week in Babil province, then expanded upon them during interviews over three days in their barracks at Camp Iskandariyah, their forward operating base.
The Marines' opinions have been shaped by their participation in hundreds of hours of operations over the past two months. Their assessments differ sharply from those of the interim Iraqi government and the Bush administration, which have said that Iraq is on a certain -- if bumpy -- course toward peaceful democracy.
"I feel we're going to be here for years and years and years," said Lance Cpl. Edward Elston, 22, of Hackettstown, N.J. "I don't think anything is going to get better; I think it's going to get a lot worse. It's going to be like a Palestinian-type deal. We're going to stop being a policing presence and then start being an occupying presence. . . . We're always going to be here. We're never going to leave."
The views of the mortar platoon of some 50 young Marines, several of whom fought during the first phase of the war last year, are not necessarily reflective of all or even most U.S troops fighting in Iraq. Rather, they offer a snapshot of the frustrations engendered by a grinding conflict that has killed 1,064 Americans, wounded 7,730 and spread to many areas of the country.
Although not as highly publicized as attacks in such hot spots as Fallujah, Samarra and Baghdad's Sadr City, the violence in Babil province, south of the capital, is also intense. Since July 28, when the Marines took over operational responsibility for the region, 102 of the unit's 1,100 troops have been wounded, 85 in combat, according to battalion records. Four have been killed, two in combat.
Senior officers attribute the vast difference between the number of killed and wounded to the effectiveness of armor -- bullet-proof vests, helmets and reinforced armored vehicles, primarily Humvees -- in the face of persistent attacks. As of last week, the Marines had come upon 61 roadside bombs, nearly one a day. Forty-nine had detonated. Camp Iskandariyah was hit by mortar shells or rockets on 12 occasions; 21 other times, insurgents tried to hit the base and missed.
Realities on the Ground
Several members of the platoon said they were struck by the difference between the way the war was being portrayed in the United States and the reality of their daily lives.
"Every day you read the articles in the States where it's like, 'Oh, it's getting better and better,' " said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Snyder, 22, of Gettysburg, Pa. "But when you're here, you know it's worse every day."
Pfc. Kyle Maio, 19, of Bucks County, Pa., said he thought government officials were reticent to speak candidly because of the upcoming U.S. elections. "Stuff's going on here but they won't flat-out say it," he said. "They can't get into it."