EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, DEC. 25 -- Shining in the east, far beyond First Battalion, Fifth Marines, were a couple of flares from gas burning over oil wells, the closest thing the Marines would see to Christmas lights.
The Marines had gotten here in August, back when the temperature was 130 degrees and everyone was saying they'd be home for Christmas.
Now it was 40 degrees. It was midnight on Christmas Eve. This is an old story, and against the gas flares you could see the outlines of Lance Cpl. Steven Shalno and a buddy sitting on five-gallon water cans having an old argument to go along with it, one of the older arguments in the history of the world.
"I am from Boston, Massachusetts," Shalno said very slowly, "and I am behind George Bush, my commander in chief, 110 percent."
"I am half Indian," said his buddy, not quite as slowly. "And I say it is cold ... out here. This whole thing out here, you've got to be kidding."
"I am from Boston, Massachusetts," Shalno kept saying, "and I am a devil dog."
"Devil dog" is what the Germans called Marines in World War I. The Marines know their history. It seems like half the corps also has read all of the novels about Casca, the eternal mercenary, who pulled the duty of nailing Christ to the Cross and was doomed, the Marines will tell you, to spend eternity as a soldier, a career that can lead to billets like sitting on five-gallon water cans in the cold desert wind on Christmas Eve in Saudi Arabia.
After a while, they went back into their hooch, a bunch of canvas cots under camouflage netting. The wind blew through the netting. Men snored and talked in their sleep -- they dream a lot out here in the desert, they say. You could see the stars through the netting. Jittery smears.
For a long time Shalno stood outside the hooch and stared at the cot of a stranger to the platoon, stared and stared until the stranger decided to move and show he was awake.
"You warm enough?" Shalno asked. "You look cold, man. I'll give you my poncho liner."
"Merry Christmas," the stranger said. "Merry Christmas," Shalno said. Then he curled up on his own cot, no poncho liner, didn't even get into his sleeping bag, and fell instantly asleep.
In the morning, the flares had turned to black smoke over the horizon and it was Christmas Day.
The Marines had a Christmas tree made out of netting, toilet paper, plastic plates, a cardboard star and some tinsel streamers that had come in all the Christmas mail, tons of it, the whole country sending presents to these guys.
A truck full of carolers labored through the sand from company to company, and Marines sang along with them in a tight, quiet way.
"Anybody tells you morale is high, they're a damn liar," said Pfc. Joseph Queen, who grew up in Northwest Washington. Then he went back to insulting a fellow radio man, Lance Cpl. Erik Holt, a Nez Perce Indian who was disputing Queen's taste in athletic teams.
"Celtics," said Queen. "Chief, you must be drinking that Indian water again."
Back home in Washington, Queen would have been helping his grandmother put toys together, he said. "I'm one of her elves."
Back in Idaho, Holt said, "we'd go to the sweathouse in the morning, pray to the Great Spirit, tell Indian stories about old times."
Wishing each other quiet Merry Christmases, Marines ambled toward the drop points for morning chow, cereal and milk. Four months of living in soft sand has given them a slow tread that makes them look tired and preoccupied.
"Reindeer!" somebody said. Eight Marines had lined up in front of a personnel carrier, and they pretended to pull it with a rope while guys on top in Santa hats tossed candy and presents.
"Actually, today is pretty motivating," said Staff Sgt. Brendon Van Beuge. "You get the whole day off."
A Marine standing behind him said, "The whole day."
It wasn't sarcasm, it was the way Marines have of taking irony just far enough that it becomes sincerity, and then taking that so far that it's irony again.
Over at Dragons platoon -- Dragons are antitank missiles carried by two-man teams -- Sgt. James Grassmick said, "Christmas," and lifted a slow thumb of approval.
In the back of their hooch, Gunnery Sgt. Darrell Norford heated coffee on a little gasoline stove.
"I've been married for seven years; I've been gone at Christmas for five of them," he said. "Before we came out here, we'd only been back from training in Panama for 24 hours. I patted my kids on the head, saw my wife ... and then we headed for the desert."
He had an old sergeant's way of watching you listen to him. "This thing isn't for democracy or Kuwait or Texaco, it's for 50 percent of the world's oil reserves, and that's what America runs on."
A lot of Marines in this battalion said something like this, part realism, part cynicism, part professionalism, part Casca and part because they've been alone together for so long in the desert that any time they talk to a stranger they have the tone of people clearing up misconceptions.
"Everybody's so in sync," said Lance Cpl. Benjamin Bradshaw.
"I could tell you every story Ben tells about his dog, Gretchen," said Lance Cpl. Brian Archer.
"German shorthair," Bradshaw said. "No morals, but a smart dog."
It was almost as if they didn't need Christmas the way the rest of America does to feel close, to feel like family, a family standing around dipping snuff together and growing their first mustaches.
A lot of them said morale had actually improved when they found outthey wouldn't be home for Christmas after all.
There is a kind of logic to this, a logic that the Marine Corps runs on.
Capt. Jeremiah Walsh explained: "Everybody wanted to have a date they'd be going home, but once we found out there would be no date, a great burden was lifted from us."
Walsh has a master's degree in international relations, and he said he had no animosity toward Iraqis.
"I think they're nice people. I was in Beirut when the bomb went off and we lost all those Marines, but I don't hate those people either."
Very professional, but it was reasoning that was out there in irony/sincerity land too.
Walsh called a company formation to explain it to his troops. Guidon pennants rolled in the wind, and Marines did slow rounded facing movements in the sand.
"I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas," Walsh said. "The surroundings are not what we want, but the camaraderie is here, the morale is here to do the job. Hopefully, a diplomatic solution will take precedence, but if not ... "
After all the wristwatches and crossword puzzle books, yo-yos, footballs and Frisbees for the troops -- one guy even got a box of caviar and quail eggs -- Lt. Col. Chris Cortez, the battalion commander, announced his own gift. From 6 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon, "in the spirit of Christmas," his troops would be allowed to listen to their tape recorders and radios without earphones -- sound discipline would be relaxed for one day, but one day only.
There would be volleyball, there would be a lot of dandy games. But after 5 o'clock, 1700 hours, there would be silence again in the desert, and no lights again, not even reading under blankets with flashlights, nothing.
Silence and darkness, along with the gas flares and the stars, and here and there the old muttered arguments, to fight, not to fight -- not that they'd make the slightest difference.