NEAR DIWANIYAH, Iraq"Can't you smell that," the marine asked, about to gag. I couldn't, really couldn't smell anything, even myself, though I knew for a fact that I did smell awful. The marine was pointing past me up the hill, near the unfinished Highway 80, an oddity in itself, turning to nothing but packed sand and dunes every few kilometers, as if to constantly remind us of the hardship ahead.
Dead bodies have been hard to come by on this journey, a testament to the long-range, almost antiseptic fighting conducted by the U.S. military; why get close when you can kill so well from afar? (Even the infantry here can kill at 1,000 yards.) But here was one, right by the side of the road, a headless blackened corpse sticking out of a burlap bag, arms outstretched and clutching the dusty air. There had been a wristwatch once, the marine said, but now it was gone. And it was doubtful much else would be left in the coming days.
The marines had reburied him twice already, but the dogs remained hungry. One sniffed the air, looping about on our edges, waiting for another meal. This time sandbags were brought after a few shovelfuls of dirt were splashed on his remains to rechristen the site. A team of marines filed in to drop them downa bunker against further disturbance of his remains.
For many of these men, it was one of the first dead bodies they had seen close up, even now. One took a picture, a memento of his life here, something perhaps to discuss at the bar when he got home. Others gazed at it quizzicallyso that's what it looks like. "I've seen three so far, but this one's pretty nasty," said another marine, throwing his sandbag on the corpse.
So far, the invasion of Iraq has met few reference points for these Marines. This isn't like the moviesbloody and close. And they are taking few casualties, so D-Day and Iowa Jima don't fit the bill. What they know is "the fog of war"; being run over by an armored assault vehicle or a tank running into a river in the night, or being shot by friendly fire; those are the immediate and real concerns. In hushed tones, they talk about their fear of being accidentally killed by one of their own: "Not the way a marine wants to go out," said one. More loudly many wonder why the war imagined in childhood has yet to materialize. "I expected to get shot at a lot more," noted Cpl. Daniel Wells, 23, of Brazoria, Texas, who joined the Marines to pay for college at East Texas Baptist University. "The worst thing for us is the slow days, because you then begin to think about home a bit."
War as a concept, what shells and bullets leave behind. These are afterthoughts at best. Blank stares are the norm. "That's a really good question, and a hard one," said one corporal from Baltimore, who thought for quite a while about the query before giving up with a shrug. He was a likely target when asking because friends said this marine was himself shot at in a friendly fire incident a few days before. The Marine said he had joined the armed services so he'd have enough military experience to one day become a state trooper. He had never really thought he'd end up killing people. But now he said he might stay in past his four-year hitch. Not because he liked killing: "I just like the camaraderie and the ability to teach others what I know," he said, popping up behind me as I asked the question of other marinessaying he hoped their answer might help him formulate one of his own. It didn't really. The best answer coming from a fellow marine who said he just thought about being accurate, to protect his fellow marines, "and kill all those suckers so we can go home."
Others called out in agreement. "Yea, it's time to go punch that mare in the mouth," said a corporal named Karl, a 23-year-old from Seymour, Wis. Another yelled that it was time to finish the job "and get the hell out of Dodge City." No one in this group of soldiers, or others met over the course of several days, would answer the real question. War had changed them little, because even at infantry range, its effect on their lives was distant. Instead, they talked in terms of "waxing," "leveling," and "getting one," sometimes describing operations graphically but also clinically, like they were watching it on tv. Even those who go out on scouting missions and get up close and personalrocket-propelled grenades whizzing by their heads, automatic weapons rounds ding-a-linging on the cabremain Rambos at heart. "The flies getting to you?" asks one. "Yeah, they were awful on our last mission. We were right next to a dump and all these bodies."
These soldiers have been told now to avoid creating civilian casualtieswhich, by all appearances they have done quite well. And they have been pressed by their commander to treat all Iraqis "with respect." But they have also been instilled with the mentality to "kill, kill, kill," admitted one marine, adding that some of his fellow soldiers scared him more than the Iraqis because "they're all hot about getting a kill, it will probably end up being me when they accidentally let off a round." It was getting dark now and it brought some much-needed candor. The Marine's buddies nodded as they looked around to see if anyone was listening, then voiced similar complaints. All had recently been "in contact," the favored euphemism here for battle. Some of them admitted that they too had once been cavalier, but seeing Iraqi prisoners had brought them back to earth.
For a while, Cpl. Frederich Ellis, 21, didn't say a word. Then he wouldn't stop talking. "I was like that when I first came here, I was all rough with them, maybe even kicked a few," said the young man from Florida. "But then I started hearing what these prisoners were saying to our translators, about how they had to fight or Saddam would kill their families." He talked of seeing captured prisoners plead with the marines not to kill them, prisoners of war as young as 13 pulled out of foxholes and Iraqi officers breaking down in tears, saying their capture would lead to their family's execution by regime diehards. "I changed," he said, eyes coming up again. "I started giving them food and water. I realized that there was a bigger purpose here, to free these people."
"I wish," he added, "that all the guys at the front line could talk to these EPW's [enemy prisoners of war], too." What war means is not the sort of question many 18- or 19-year-old men have to think about. But when at war, it seems odd that people his age haven't been doing more soul-searching, said Pfc. Shawn Rogers, 19. He had waited a minute before he spoke. But he had thought long and hard about the question and said what many marines didn't understand was that the only way to win this war was to maintain the sense of humanity once instilled in them long ago at home. "All these guys are trying to be bad asses. The really badass Marines are the ones who know how to fight when they have to but also know when they need to put down their guns," said Rogers, of Owinsville, Miss. "We aren't here to conquer, we are here to help, and if we kick these guys when they are down, that's just what Saddam has told them we'll do."
"I've really thought about this," he said, adding that he received no exhilaration from shooting or killing. That was just the job. Entering a town and seeing all these guys come out and cheer, that, he said "is the best feeling in the world."