Best Defense

Sangin, the Fallujah of Afghanistan, and what it means to your Marines

By David J. Morris Best Defense red cell correspondent Heroes and myths die hard among fighting men. The troops love them for the added dimension they provide to the savage grind of field life, the feeling they can give a guy that tells him that he is part of a grand saga, something that will ...

U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/flickr
U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos/flickr

By David J. Morris
Best Defense red cell correspondent

Heroes and myths die hard among fighting men. The troops love them for the added dimension they provide to the savage grind of field life, the feeling they can give a guy that tells him that he is part of a grand saga, something that will outlive his own individual destiny. Eccentric heroes and acts of valor exist for those who need them most as evidence that a greater depth to life is possible, that sacrifice can have meaning. That, with luck, they will be remembered by history. And yet, for some reason, outside of the ranks such ideas about heroism and destiny never fail to come across as anything other than primitive fantasy, the sort of thing that if brought up in conversation at certain hipster parties will cause people to stare at you as if you had just given them a Hitler salute.

Nevertheless, these are exactly the sorts of ideals that are being tested in extremis in Sangin, a small town in southern Afghanistan where a single unit, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, has been fighting to make good on all on the hot talk about the new, improved, industrial-strength Surge and the Undeniable Genius of David Petraeus and has, as a direct result, suffered some of the worst casualties in recent history, losses of a magnitude that haven’t been seen since the darkest days of the Iraqi insurgency, indicative of a vicious, locked-in fight beginning to collapse in on itself like a dying star, annihilating anything that drifts too close. Fifteen killed. Forty-nine wounded. Nearly seven percent of the entire battalion dead or wounded. All in just thirty days.

Of course, to the average American, there is nothing, absolutely nothing new here. In an age of stereotypes, what is a Marine battalion other than a gang of unfortunates and semi-literate savages, all of them hailing no doubt, from the unwashed, Jesus-addled, gun-loving middle of the country, colliding head-on into the hard facts of life for the non-college-bound? Sacrifice is for saps, so the thinking goes, God knows why people go into the service these days and to take anything more than a passing interest in the whole awful show is to somehow be complicit in it.

Still, whatever else may be wrong and misguided about the war, like the inadequacy of the Iraq-centric techniques being applied to a scene that bears little resemblance on a tribal level to that country, there is something immutable, almost Homeric, happening in Sangin. It’s the story of a unit filled with boys far, far from home, consumed by ideals older than the Old Testament about death, honor and human destiny.

Within the tight-knit world of the Marine grunt, 3/5 occupies a unique position. It has seen more combat than probably any unit in the Corps and been rightly decorated for it: its members have been awarded seven Navy Crosses, more than any other Marine battalion by a significant margin. At one point, there were more Navy Cross winners from 3/5 than winners of the equivalent army award in the entire U.S. Army. During the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004, it spearheaded the offensive, seizing the notorious Jolan neighborhood, home to some of the war’s most hardened insurgents and took twenty-one dead. Marines from other units have been known to talk about "Darkhorse" as 3/5 is known, with a mixture of awe and gratitude, awe at their combat record and gratitude that their unit hadn’t suffered as many casualties as they had.

Of course, there was more to it than just Glory and Honor and local Iraqis, understandably, harbored certain convictions about Darkhorse. At the height of the 2007 Surge, as 3/5 was preparing to return to Fallujah, this time for occupation duty, the local Iraqi police force caught wind of it and complained to their American counterparts, demanding that anybody else other than "the butchers of Fallujah" be allowed to patrol their city. Even the Marines who 3/5 was set to replace had their doubts.

And for some Darkhorse Marines, the battalion has, at times, come to feel like an electron shit magnet, the worst sort of hard luck outfit, a unit where even the biggest storehouse of personal karma was sure to taxed to the limit, or beyond, out into that dim country where a guy begins to think of his own life as something not to be taken too seriously, death the final trip, something to be savored first-hand. Let it bleed, son, let it bleed. When I was first embedded with 3/5 in 2006, one lance corporal complained, "We always get the shit assignments." Now, a reporter who spent any time at all in Iraq was sure to hear this sort of talk from tired grunts, it was the kind of personal Delta blues that all soldiers lapse into from time-to-time, but in this case, the Marine had a point: the day I’d arrived at their camp in Habbaniyah, word was just beginning to filter in about two of the battalion’s most popular Marines who had been killed by an IED, including the gunner for the battalion commander’s vehicle, a burly, joke-a-minute surfer named Morrow. Hard times are the lingua franca of the Corps, there has never been any doubt on that point, but this just seemed somehow unfair.

Standing there sweating in the battalion adjutant’s office that afternoon, taking in the grim news, I could feel the heat and anger the Marines around me were giving off like an invisible sun. The fraternal mystery of the Corps never ran deeper for me than it did on that day.

And what a mystery! The idiosyncrasies that make 3/5 and the Marines in general unique were the very things that many reporters and soldiers in Iraq found outrageous and even criminal. If you’d just spent a couple months embedded in Anbar and then dropped back into Baghdad with say, the 1st or the 4th Infantry Division, you were likely to get this:

"Where’d you come from?"

"Out west, AO Denver."

"With the fucking Marines? I know how they do it, it’s like ‘hey diddle-diddle, straight up the middle!’ — Fuck that, man!"

And on a certain level, it was hard to argue with them. There was always some vague, unexplainable feeling that came with being embedded with the Marines. Call it bad fate or bad luck or a conviction that living up to your own mythology was more important than living at all, but Marine units I’ve embedded with have always borne a different relationship with death than any army unit I spent time with. The GIs would gripe good-naturedly about all the close calls they’d had, treating death like some carping, churlish creditor, something to be resisted, staved off, for sure, but in the end, something to be ignored if at all possible. But among many of the Marines I patrolled alongside — and 3/5 certainly stands paramount among these — there was a tendency to get hip to the madness, the horror and rot of it, to embrace the darker angels of human nature to a degree that made your skin flush hot for a moment until you remembered that they were the ones watching your back after all, and for you and your admittedly-selfish purposes, that was a generally good thing. Madness, mythology, bad midnight sweats, these are all temporary things, no? But death, that thing, that other thing that happened to some and not to others and no, no, not to you, never to you, that thing was permanent. It was a little bit of warped, hard Chicago faith that some guys would inevitable come up with, living proof of what Sinatra was reputed to have said to a struggling alcoholic friend of his: "Whatever gets you through the night, pal." Selah.

But — and this must be admitted — the mythology works both ways. To the old mujaheddin fighting the Marines in Sangin, the town must seem something like the Alamo, a place to stand and die, a treasured redoubt where a piece of eternity resides. Just like armies, places grow their own mythologies like ivy around old academic buildings and Sangin has long been a trophy to the muj. The British Royal Marines patrolled the town for almost five years and never quite got their arms around it, and in the end, the town accounted for fully one-third of all British casualties in Afghanistan. And according to the NATO commander at the time, the troops there saw "the fiercest fighting involving British troops since the Korean War."

I suspect it would shock the hell out of a lot of Marines to learn how much they have in common with the men they are fighting. It’s like what Mao said: one invariably comes to resemble one’s enemies. But then, for a young man in the heat of events, this is the most inconvenient of truths and one that can only be taught over the decades and only if he survives the war. It’s the same lesson that the first banzai charges taught the men of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal, what Pacific War vet William Manchester and author of Goodbye, Darkness, learned when he looked into the eyes of a Japanese veteran of Okinawa at an observance forty-two years afterward: in the end we learn and are shaped by our enemies and we take on similar mythologies, because, if for no other reason than the current apathetic state of America, who else could know you better, what you’ve been through, other than the guy who called you there and remade you and stayed with you through to the end?

David J. Morris is a former Marine officer and the author of Storm on the Horizon: Khafji — The Battle that Changed the Course of the Gulf War (Free Press). His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate and The Best American Nonrequired Reading series.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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