Trained for War, a Marine Company in Iraq's Once Dangerous Anbar Tries to Adapt to Shaky Peace
By Alex Kingsbury
Posted October 29, 2008

RAMADI, IRAQ—Many of the U.S. marines in the 2/9 Weapons Company out here in Iraq's Sunni heartland didn't sign up for this fight. Most of them, including many who aren't old enough to buy beer back at their home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., enlisted when the war here was a shooting war.

Now, the shattered province of Anbar is home to a much different conflict—a nation-building assignment in the most pure sense—where the military is reconstructing hospitals and courthouses and standing up indigenous forces so that they can better patrol their own streets. The company has just over 160 men and is responsible for an area of Iraq that was once patrolled by seven Marine battalions—some 7,000 troops. Far outnumbered by residents of the city and assisted only by the local Iraqi police, the company is putting Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy into action one joint U.S.-Iraqi mission at a time.

Capt. Dallas Shaw, the commander, spent 11 years in Force Recon, the Marine equivalent of the Navy SEALs. An enlisted man during the initial invasion, he took his first company-command assignment in a city once regarded as the most dangerous on the planet--shattered by five years of war, prone to blinding sandstorms, and recently the cradle of Iraq's Sunni insurgency, as well as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Today, things are quiet, and the mission is about keeping the peace. "It's like walking on a pane of glass sometimes, and you've got to convince these guys—especially the young ones, to tread carefully," says Lt. David Gilliland, 24, part of a 2/9 civil affairs unit that works in Ramadi. "Sometimes the best thing to do with a lance corporal or a corporal is to keep them away from things. Keep in mind: They enlisted to fight, not to do civil affairs and reconstruction."

That's why these young marines are expected to behave not like infantry grunts, as they were trained, but more like Special Forces troops working to build an indigenous army. "They are young and inexperienced and don't necessarily have all the self-discipline that everyone in Force Recon has, but they are equally capable of learning it," says Shaw, who forced his officers to learn basic Arabic before the deployment. Shaw's ex-wife is Tunisian, and he's rapidly gaining fluency. Says Lt. Col. Thad Trapp, who commands the battalion, "He [Shaw] is one of those guys who simply gets it—gets what we're trying to do here."

Just over a month into their deployment, the marines of Weapons Company have yet to hit an IED, take mortar fire, or even get shot at. But the insurgents haven't left Ramadi—they've just set down their weapons for now.

And they are not above testing the green troops—sometimes firing bullets over their heads as they sit on guard duty. The boredom and anticipation of actual combat can be maddening at times, and so the marines complain about their conditions: air-conditioned rooms in a warehouse, an Internet lounge that goes down sporadically, and two massive flat-screen televisions. "We just drive around once in a while and stay here and lift weights," says one lance corporal.

The dissonance between the training and the reality of the counterinsurgency mission they're engaged in has been striking for these young troops. One marine in the Weapons Company, who admittedly probably shouldn't have deployed because of earlier discipline issues, got in a fight with one of his fellow marines over who should take out the base trash. After a scuffle, he picked up a folding chair and bashed it against the other marine's skull with such force that the marine needed to be evacuated to Camp Ramadi for stitches.

He was the first in the company to draw blood during the deployment. "In another situation, that guy's aggression might be needed, but discipline is key to the military and key to our mission here," one of the noncommissioned officers in the Weapons Company told his men.

A few hours later, a lance corporal on guard duty accidentally fired his rifle when the trigger caught on his flak jacket. That's a far more serious infraction, in the Marine Corps's eyes—criminal behavior is unpredictable, after all, but negligence costs lives. It carries a standard punishment of a demotion in rank and the loss of a month's pay, spaced out over two months.

"It's hard to convey to these guys how difficult our job is here for the hearts-and-minds components and how much it's taken us to get this far," says Sgt. Brad Blevins, 26, one of the few in the company with real combat experience. He served in Afghanistan for four months before the Ramadi deployment and was accustomed to far less plush billeting. "These guys don't have the focused mind-set of 'I'm getting shot at' to make them concentrate."

It was the company's second so-called negligent discharge. Other companies in the same area when the fighting was tough didn't have a single such incident during their entire tours. "If we had a shooting war, maybe this wouldn't happen. But that doesn't matter," Lt. Andy Szwejbka, 26, told his platoon in the camp chow hall after the incident. "We're here together, and our mission is what it is. I need you all to press the 'I believe' button on this."

Continued training has been critical. Shaw says he was never fond of the dogmatic aspects of Marine culture, which sometimes encourages marines to greet each other in passing with emphatic shouts of "Kill!" "That might be fine for a conventional war—and the beginning of this war—where we are killing and needed our guys in the hyperaggressive mind-set," Shaw says. "These guys are diplomats, social workers, and marines all at the same time."

Before shipping out, Shaw and the other officers took questions from marines' families. One asked why her husband—a corporal—was forced to attend language classes when he could have been at home. "Wasn't that something reserved for the officers?"

Shaw told her about the 2003 invasion, when Iraqis approached soldiers while gesticulating frantically only to be ignored. "They were trying to tell us where the bad guys were, and no one could communicate with them," he said. The explanation to the corporal's wife was an easy one, he says. "I told her it was going to protect her husband and that if he learned, it would increase the odds he'd come back in one piece."

At first, the men resisted. "We didn't see the point and thought he'd forget about it," says one noncommissioned officer. Instead, they found themselves doing hundreds of push-ups when they couldn't respond to Arabic phrases they'd been ordered to learn.

The 2/9 Weapons Company still has translators, of course, and few of the marines are anywhere near being fluent. But all have used their Arabic on the streets, however limited. After all, Shaw and his men are the public and day-to-day face of the American presence here, interacting with average Iraqis and preventing violence—accidental or not.