NORTHWEST OF NASIRIYAH, IRAQWar is lumbering toward Baghdad on the heels of teenagers, who are more inquisitive than afraid. They are experiencing history firsthand and watching in awe as the mass of their combined power pushes forward one dusty mile at a time.
When the mortar rounds first started coming in, Cpl. Matt Motzger, 22, of Washington State "just thought, 'are they aiming at us?' " He was outside Nasiriyah, 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, where marines would engage in two bloody battles that took the lives of marines. In the end, coalition forces would choose to go around the city instead of take it, a move that will be repeated up the line until they reach the heart of their mission, Baghdad, and the man they seek to depose, Saddam Hussein.
But confronting combat with a real enemy is new to many of these men. And it is not always coming when or how they imagine. "Nobody was expecting it. The shells came in while many of the guys were doing hygiene, shaving, washing, and stuff," Motzger added. "It didn't feel like I thought it would, combat. Luckily, we train so much it was just 'muscle memory.' " Fire was called in. The mortar went silent. No one was injured.
But one shell, even one like this onea 100-yard misscan get men to thinking. Add to that news of surrendering Iraqis opening fire and friendly towns turning dangerous hours after they've been passed through. Thought out here doesn't follow the regular circuit, though. It's not just about wives, girlfriends, children, and home. It's about gear: Will it work next time? About the marine next to you: Will he hold up? And about keeping sane through maintaining distance from the apparent. "We were like schoolboys," said one marine about the shelling, adding that they talked about it as though they had survived a dare in high school. Some retreated to their youth in other waysthey suddenly asked the marine next to them for a smoke.
In the end, it is all about survival. No one expects the often-unfinished letter sent home before deployment to be his last. Motzger, for one, is already planning for how he'll tell his friends about his travels past the biblically significant Euphrates River, right near the ancient town said to be the birthplace of Abraham. He hadn't listened to much about this in school, he admits. But now he was paying attention. Every place he has been and will be during this war is punched into his global positioning system, "so I can put it on a map, and say I was here."