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