The ebb of morale and discipline starts slowly, with little things. Military leaders are not expected to stop the first incident. Rather, they're trained to recognize these early signals and arrest the big problem before it occurs. I'm sure the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, for example, weren't stripped naked on the first night. There was probably a poke here and a flashbulb there that was dismissed by supervisors as childish rather than criminal.
One of my former commanders used to look for signals in the Port-a-Johns. While Rudy Guiliani was tracking broken windows in New York, this officer was reading the writing on the walls. Literally. I decided to do the same thing traveling from base to base to Fallujah.
In Kuwait, at an inter-service base that serves as a staging area, the graffiti was both prolific and profane. Sandwiched between anti-war rants and political babble from all sides were crude drawings and slurs against fellow soldiers. Closer to Fallujah, the graffiti slackened. It still dotted the walls, but the mood was upbeat and ironic. "Spring Break '04" was indicative of the phraseology. Inside Camp Fallujah, at the headquarters for 1st Reconnaissance Battalion—a light infantry unit that has seen serious combat over the past year—there was no graffiti. None. I toured the 1st Marine Regiment's area and it, too, was pristine. These men and women have seen the worst of it. Perhaps they're too tired to scribble. Perhaps they have better things to do.
Maybe they're too hot. Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the temperature hovers around 115 degrees. Add a helmet and flak jacket with interceptor plates to protect against the randomness of the daily mortar attack, and you're quickly in the zone for heat exhaustion. Opening the Port-a-John at noon is to open a pre-heated oven. Marines cat-called me for my timing yesterday, but my body had not yet adjusted to evening-only visits. I was fast, but after the first few seconds of sitting on a hot plate, the damage is already done. It changed my worldview. I now consider sitting in a chair to be elitist and lazy. I plan to hold this view for several days, or at least until the bandages sweat off.
With one experiment finished, I moved to another: What did these Marines think about the political situation in Iraq? Why were the insurgents killing their own people? I should have known better. The Marines don't waste time debating motivations. There are no policy wonks here. They understand that though most Iraqis want democracy, until this majority is willing to fight for it, they'll never be free. History is rife with small bands of murderers controlling entire populations. In 1917, thousands of Bolsheviks controlled millions of people. The Viet Cong assassination program destroyed South Vietnam's intelligentsia and put a country on its knees. A few miles away, bands of murderers control Fallujah while the Iraqi brigade formed to secure the city camps outside its walls.
These Marines have a simple philosophy: Evil is everywhere. Every country has its own private slice of hell. The only way to deal with it is for the warrior class to turn off its big screen TV, drop its PlayStation, and trade its basketball for a sword.
Iraq is one of those societies that is ruled by its warriors. Like the Somali, Serb, and Afghan before him, the unseen enemy in Iraq is now being feted for his martial prowess. But Americans should not confuse the fact that we don't let our own warriors run roughshod over its citizenry with their ability.
Stateside, we seem to have embraced the role of victim. Everyone knew the Jessica Lynch feeding frenzy was insane—she said so herself—but with American blood in the water, the populace kept feeding and feeding. Producers gobbled up ratings, generals gobbled up stars, writers gobbled up book advances. Today, Chesty Puller would not throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. Who's Chesty Puller? Let's get a POW to throw out the first pitch. Oh, and would he mind wearing the orange jumpsuit?
At Camp Fallujah, the theme is not victimization but domination. And that's exactly what the Marines of First Recon Battalion are doing. They have conducted raids under the most brutal circumstances, an historic high-altitude combat parachute jump, and countless patrols. They have killed hundreds of combatants. And yet they are one of the only units in Fallujah to have avoided casualties because of roadside explosives. How do they do it? "By staying aggressive," says Gunnery Sgt. Dan Griego. "When we slow down and look for a fight, we're safer. Other convoys speed up and go pedal-to-the-metal. They look like victims, and they get hit. Sometimes we want to fight and can't get one."
"You can avoid IEDs [improvised explosive devices] at night," says Master Sgt. Karl Froisy. "Problem is, if you want contact, you need to get it during daytime. And we tend to look for contact."
The Marine Corps once used a recruiting slogan that read: "Nobody likes to fight, but someone has to know how."It was soon dropped. Marines like to fight.
This is not a celebration of violence. This is not a recruiting advertisement. This is not an endorsement of a political view. This is simply the result of dropping flesh and bone into an atmosphere filled with bits of steel. When you put equally determined riflemen in a pit, they will fight until one of them yields. These Marines promise to keep fighting until there's no one left to kill. Or they're told to go home.