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In Marja, it's war the old-fashioned way

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 20, 2010; A01

MARJA, AFGHANISTAN -- They had slogged through knee-deep mud carrying 100 pounds of gear, fingers glued to the triggers of their M-4 carbines, all the while on the lookout for insurgents. Now, after five near-sleepless nights, trying to avoid hypothermia in freezing temperatures, the grunts of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment finally had a moment to relax.

As the sun set Thursday evening over the rubbled market where they set up camp, four of them sat around an overturned blue bucket and began playing cards. A few cracked open dog-eared paperbacks. Some heated their rations-in-a-bag, savoring their first warm dinner in days. Many doffed their helmets and armored vests.

Then -- before the game was over, the chapters finished, the meals cooked -- the war roared back at them.

The staccato crack of incoming rounds echoed across the market. In an instant, the Marines grabbed their vests and guns. The 50-caliber gunner on the roof thumped back return fire, as did several Marines with clattering, belt-fed machine guns. High-explosive mortar rounds, intended to suppress the insurgent fire, whooshed overhead.

And so went another night in the battle of Marja.

The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold in Helmand province is grim and grueling. For all the talk of a modern war -- of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles -- most Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.

They hump their kit on their backs, bed down under the stars in abandoned compounds and defecate in plastic bags.

"This isn't all that different from the way our fathers and grandfathers fought," said Cpl. Blake Burkhart, 22, of Oviedo, Fla.

The battlefield privation here is unlike much of the combat in Iraq, which often involved day trips from large, well-appointed forward operating bases. Even when Marines there had to rough it, during the first and second campaigns for Fallujah, they didn't have to walk as far and they remained closer to logistics vehicles.

In Marja, U.S. military commanders figured, the best way to throw the insurgents off-balance and avoid the hundreds of homemade bombs buried in the roads was to airdrop almost 1,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers. That provided an element of surprise when the operation commenced, and it allowed the forces to punch into the heart of Marja. But it also meant they would have to tough it out.

Because they had to stuff their packs with food, water and ammunition, sleeping bags and tents were left behind. That seemed fine, because summer temperatures in southern Afghanistan often reach 140 degrees. But at this time of year, the mercury can dip -- and it did during the first days of the mission, to freezing temperatures at night.

Huddled under thin plastic camouflage poncho liners, the Marines lucky enough to get a few hours of sleep in between shifts of guard duty huddled close together, sometimes spooning one another, to keep warm.

It didn't always work. In those first days, more Marines were evacuated for hypothermia than for gunshot wounds. One grunt in the battalion's Alpha Company proudly displays the frostbitten tip of his middle finger as his battlefield injury.

In the mornings and evenings, the Marines huddle around small fires they build, fueled by stalks of dried poppy, the principal cash crop in Marja. But in some platoon bases, nighttime fires have been banned because they make it too easy for Taliban snipers to aim.

The snipers have become the principal concern for the troops here, not the seemingly pervasive roadside bombs, in part because there is less driving than in other missions. More Marines have died from gunshot wounds than blasts in the first days of the operation.

As a consequence, body armor and helmets are a must-wear, except when in a patrol base with thick brick walls. Even then, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades are a constant threat.

Marines who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan call the Marja operation more intense than anything else they've encountered, save for the battles in Fallujah.

"This place is crazy," said one sergeant as he ran to respond to the attack on Thursday evening. "It's more intense than anything you could have imagined."

The intensity is sharpened by the lack of any relaxation. It's all combat, all the time.

The laptops and DVD players that some Marines brought are packed in duffel bags and footlockers, which will be delivered at some point. Could be days. Could be weeks.

There is technology out here, but it is all in the service of war. Each company has a few laptops connected to high-powered satellite antennas, which commanders use to view live, streaming footage from unmanned aircraft flying overhead. It allows a bird's-eye glimpse of the battlefield in a way their infantry units could only dream of a few years back.

But for the average grunts, all they have is what they could carry. And those who borrowed a book from the chapel library at the base before they were dropped into Marja -- well, nobody has really had time to read.

Same for showering. That is, if there were showers or places to bathe. "Hygiening" in the morning means a quick scrubbing with a baby wipe. Full ablutions are weeks away. In the meantime, everyone smells equally rank.

The lack of hot water hasn't kept the Marines from shaving. The Corps' style -- high-and-tight haircuts and cleanshaven faces -- is enforced out here, no matter how rough the conditions.

The one edict most openly flouted is with regards to the possession of pets. Every patrol base, no matter how small, seems to have attracted at least one stray dog in search of food, water or just companionship. The outpost that was attacked has a tiny puppy, dubbed Furball, who is fed a generous daily allotment of packaged tuna and chicken found in some ration bags.

The rations, which are called MREs -- for Meals Ready to Eat -- are pretty much all anyone has to eat, other than the last bits of Corn Nuts or beef jerky squirreled away in a rucksack. The choices range from a boneless pork rib to a beef enchilada to vegetable lasagna. Regular meals, which require a base with a kitchen, a dining hall and contract labor, may never come to Marja. The Marines here have been told to get used to meals in a bag for months.

None of this seems to bother anyone out here. There's a bit of harrumphing here and there -- the lack of hot coffee and the shortage of cigarettes prompt regular complaints -- but all say this is why they got into the Corps.

After Thursday's attack, which lasted 90 minutes before a volley of mortar shells and rockets presumably wiped out the insurgents who had been shooting, the Marines returned to their designated corners of the base in the darkness. Dinner was cold, and the cards were scattered. But nobody cared. All they wanted to do was talk about the fighting, and the one Marine who had been wounded by a Taliban sniper.

"This is better than 'Call of Duty,' " said Lance Cpl. Paul Stephens, 20, of Corona, Calif., referring to a series of shoot-'em-up video games.

"This is what it's all about," Cpl. Mina Mechreki added. "We didn't join the Corps to sit around. This is what we came out here to do."

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