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Baghdad hammered
Dozens of civilians killed in capital market; Iraqi missile strikes Kuwait City
BATTLE HUNGRY: Marines are eager, not afraid, to face combat

John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, March 29, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
Chronicle Sections

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Central Iraq, south of Baghdad -- Just before U.S. troops were ordered across the Kuwait border into Iraq, a Marine officer gathered his men together and explained that the battalion's mission was to engage an Iraqi mechanized division and destroy it.

The numbers appeared dispiriting. Intelligence estimated that the Marines would be outnumbered six to one, perhaps eight to one. And the Iraqis had many more tanks and armored vehicles, he said, which often means death to the infantry.

The response: a loud cheer.

These Marines wanted the battle. They had trained for it, prepared for it. They wanted it.

No doubt some were afraid, even terrified at the prospect. But they didn't show it. Rather than fear, the most common emotion was elation and eager anticipation.

"I want to be in a firefight," said Lance Cpl. Samuel Baynes, a machine gunner with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. "I swore an oath that I would fight for my country, and that's what I want to do."

Baynes is a 20-year-old machine gunner who works an M-60 from the turret atop a humvee. He didn't see any actual combat during the first battle the Marines fought, in and around Basra. The best he got to do was light up an old Iraqi tank that was dug into a sand pit near an army barracks.

The 3rd Battalion saw some action this week at Basra. Its tanks destroyed dozens of Iraqi armored vehicles, many of them empty. And there were small skirmishes with Iraqi soldiers.

Afterward, those who had not been involved in the firefights spoke wistfully of those who had been. Those guys had been blooded -- they had proved they could fight a battle and survive.

"I'm 20 years old, and already I've been in combat," one Marine mused during a lull.

"You're lucky. I had to wait until I was 28 to see combat," responded an officer who overheard him.

The allure of combat is a hard phenomenon for most civilians to understand and even for some in the military to fathom. But for some people, it's a primeval need, or desire, to prove oneself as a man. As a warrior.

There are a lot of guys like that in the Marines.

Maj. Martin Wetterauer said some young men grew up listening to their fathers or uncles talk about fighting in previous wars and want to show that they, too, have what it takes.

Others, he said, were enthralled by action movies or TV shows that glorify violence. And they are often disillusioned when they see the reality.

Others are just adrenaline junkies. They like the rush they get by going into a violent situation and living through it.

Wetterauer said he pretty much falls into the latter category. He's a 35- year-old from Baton Rouge, La., who likes to cook and restore classic cars, but he can't really imagine having a job where he doesn't have a gun strapped to his hip.

"There's something about facing your fears and responding to a situation," he said. "There's no other feeling quite like it."

Wetterauer first saw combat as an enlisted man in the first Gulf War, then went to college and got his commission as an officer. He served in Kosovo and is now back in Iraq, as operations officer for the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

He still remembers his first firefight. How he was positioned close to a Marine machine gunner who was attracting a lot of fire, and bullets peppered all around him.

Wetterauer doesn't like to talk about killing. He'll only say that he did a good job during the battle and that he's a pretty good shot.

A lot of men here are like that. They might talk about battles and close calls, but seldom do they talk about killing.

"War is not a sport, and there is no joy in taking another human life," said Battalion Sgt. Maj. David Howell, himself a combat veteran.

In the back of every Marine's mind, Howell said, is the desire to test himself. There is no other arena in which to do that but combat.

"At the same time, they want to believe they are doing something worthwhile, " Howell said. "They want to do something to make the world better."

Baynes, the machine gunner, said his main desire in entering combat is to rid the world of Saddam Hussein.

"I want to get him in my sights, there in Baghdad," he said. "Him and Osama bin Laden, shaking hands or something, so I can get them both at the same time. "

Some of the Marines talk tough before a battle -- or if they're not involved in the fighting. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of raw language. A group of Marines was talking about the problem of irregular Iraqi forces and how difficult it can be to spot them. "I don't give a f--," said one Marine. "I'll pop a cap in his ass."

Wetterauer said Marines fight for each other as much as for their units or a common good. Sometimes the desire to experience combat and do well is about not letting your buddies down.

Sgt. Eugene Soehner, 24, of Wray, Colo., said he had the opportunity to transfer out of his unit and avoid the war in Iraq. He decided to stick around,

he said, because a lot of the guys in his platoon are young and inexperienced.

He figured he could help them survive.

"I want to experience combat," he said. "I want to be able to say I did something for my country."

E-mail John Koopman at jkoopman@sfchronicle.com.

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WAR COVERAGE

WAR IN IRAQ: Background, breaking news, maps, related links

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