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.
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."
Maio said that when he arrived in Iraq, "I didn't think I was going to live this long, in all honesty." He added, "it ain't that bad. It's just part of the job, I guess."
As a reporter began to ask Maio another question, the interview was interrupted by the scream of an incoming rocket and then a deafening explosion outside the platoon's barracks. Pandemonium ensued.
"Get down! Get down!" yelled the platoon's radio operator, Cpl. Brandon Autin, 21, of New Iberia, La., his orders laced with profanity. "Get in the bunker! Get in the bunker now!"
Members of the platoon raced out of their rooms to a 5-by-15-foot bunker, located outside at the end of the one-story building. The dirt-floor room was protected by a low ceiling and walls built out of four-foot-thick sandbags. Once in the bunker, several Marines lit cigarettes, filling the already-congested room with smoke.
"The reality right now is that the most dangerous opinion in the world is the opinion of a U.S. serviceman," said Lance Cpl. Devin Kelly, 20, of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Lance Cpl. Alexander Jones, 20, of Ball Ground, Ga., agreed: "We're basically proving out that the government is wrong," he said. "We're catching them in a lie."
Senior officers said they shared many of the platoon's frustrations but added that it was difficult for low-level Marines to see the larger progress being made across Iraq. Maj. Douglas Bell, the battalion's executive officer, said "one of the most difficult things about the insurgency is identifying the enemy."
Bell said it was frustrating for "every Marine in the battalion" to search for insurgents on a daily basis, only to be attacked repeatedly with bombs and mortars detonated or launched by an invisible enemy. "You want to get your hand around his frigging collar and kick his ass," Bell said. "But they slip away."
Bell said Marines offering dire predictions for Iraq were not taking into account the training of the new Iraqi security forces. He said the installation of the new Iraqi army, Iraqi National Guard and police across the country would lay the foundation for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"That's how we're going to get out of Iraq," Bell said. "That's how America is going to get out of Iraq."
The Marines acknowledged that the elusiveness of the insurgents was frustrating. "You don't really know who you're fighting. You're more or less fighting objects," said Elston, the lance corporal from New Jersey. "You see something on the side of the road. It blows up."
But the Marines said their frustrations run deeper. Several said the Iraqi security forces who are supposed to ultimately replace them were nowhere near ready and may never be.
"They can't take care of themselves," said Lance Cpl. Matthew Combs, 19, of Cincinnati, who added that he didn't think the National Guardsmen "can do anything. They just do what we tell them to do."
The Price of Precaution
The Marines also expressed frustration that they were unable to fight more aggressively because of restraints in the rules of engagement imposed by senior commanders.
The rules, which require Marines to positively identify their target as hostile before shooting, are cumbersome in the face of urban guerrilla warfare, several of them said.
"When we get called out, we'll sit there staging there for an hour," Maio said. "By the time we're ready to move, they're up and gone. A few weeks ago, the Iskandariyah police station was under attack. We staged for damn near an hour before we went out. It's stupid. You have to wait to get approval and all this other stuff."
Kelly, the lance corporal from Alaska, said he understood the need to protect civilians but that the restraints were jeopardizing American lives. "It seems as if they place more value on obeying the letter of the law and sacrificing our lives than following the spirit of the law and getting the job done," he said of his commanders.
Bell said the Marines' frustration was understandable but that it was extremely difficult to make a determination of hostile intent following a roadside bombing that might have been detonated by anything from a remote-controlled toy car to a cell phone. "That's a pretty difficult decision to make for a 19-year-old kid," he said.
Lance Cpl. Jeremy Kyrk, 21, of Chicago, said the insurgents took advantage of the limitations imposed on U.S. troops. "They don't give us any leeway, they don't give us any quarter," he said. "They catch people and cut their heads off. They know our limits, but they have no limits. We can't compete with that."
A Decision to Serve
Perez said the frustrations inherent in the war became apparent almost immediately after he arrived in Iraq in late July. A Colombian immigrant, he said he decided to join the Marine Corps after attending the funeral of a friend who had died in the Sept. 11 attacks. The friend, Thomas Hetzel, was a volunteer firefighter at the Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department on Long Island, where Perez also volunteered.
At the time, Perez was studying criminal justice at Nassau Community College. "While I was at the funeral I was looking at his little daughter cry," he said. "He had a pregnant wife and two kids. I just said, 'All right, this is what I want to do.' "
But Perez said he came to think that war in Iraq was unrelated to his anger. "How do I put this?" he said. "First of all, this is a whole different thing. We're supposed to be looking for al Qaeda. They're the ones who are supposedly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. This has no connection at all to Sept. 11 because this war started just by telling us about all the nuclear warheads over here."
Snyder, who was listening, added: "Pretty much I think they just diverted the war on terrorism. I agree with the Afghanistan war and all the Sept. 11 stuff, but it feels like they left the bigger war over there to come here. And now, while we're on the ground over here, it seems like we're not even close to catching frigging bin Laden."
Perez said he thought that in some ways he was still fighting terrorists "and I can see how they might attack the United States in the future. It's a link, but it's not really based in the same thing."
Perez added that he now believes the primary reason for the U.S. presence is to help the Iraqis. "But they don't seem like they want to be helped," he said. "I've only been here two months, but every time you go out, people give you bad looks and it just seems like everybody wants to shoot you."
The frustration of the Marines was evident one afternoon last week as members of the platoon traveled from Forward Operating Base Kalsu back to Camp Iskandariyah. An attack had reportedly taken place in the area, and members of the platoon were asked to leave their Humvees and walk up a road to look for suspicious activity.
Traffic quickly began to pile up: cars packed with families, trucks loaded with animals and vegetables. The line of vehicles would have taken hours to search. An order was suddenly passed for the Marines to search all buses for insurgents or weapons.
"This is what we call a dog-and-pony show," said Kelly, the heavyset, sharp-tongued lance corporal from Fairbanks. He said the operation was essentially a performance for American reporters who were traveling with the Marines. "This is so you can write in your paper how great our response is," he said.
Combs and another Marine boarded a small bus packed mostly with women and children. He walked up the center aisle carrying his M-16 assault rifle, then got off, disgusted.
"We just scared the living [expletive] out of a bunch of people," he said. "That's all we did."
When the Marines returned to their truck, Autin and Kelly began to debate the merits of the American presence in Iraq.
"And, by the way, why are we here?" Autin said.
"I'll tell you why we're here," Kelly replied. "We're here to help these people."
Autin agreed and said he supported the mission.
He added later that it was difficult to wage the battle when American commanders were holding them back.
"We feel they care more about Iraqi civilians than they do American soldiers," he said.
Asked if he was concerned that the Marines would be punished for speaking out, Autin responded: "We don't give a crap. What are they going to do, send us to Iraq?"