February 22, 2010

XBOX 24/7:

In Marja, it's war the old-fashioned way (Rajiv Chandrasekaran, 2/20/10, Washington Post)

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. [...]

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."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2010 7:46 PM
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