MARJAH, Afghanistan — They had slogged through knee-deep mud carrying 100 pounds of gear, fingers glued to the triggers of their M-4 carbines, all the while on the lookout for insurgents. Now, after five near-sleepless nights, trying to avoid hypothermia in freezing temperatures, the grunts of the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment finally had a moment to relax.
As the sun set Thursday evening over the rubble of the market where they made camp, four of them sat around an overturned blue bucket and began playing cards. A few cracked open dog-eared paperbacks. Some heated their rations-in-a-bag, savoring their first warm dinner in days. Many doffed their helmets and armored vests.
Then — before the game was over, the chapters finished, the meals cooked — the war roared back at them.
The staccato crack of incoming rounds echoed across the market. In an instant, the Marines grabbed their vests and guns. The .50-caliber gunner on the roof thumped back return fire, as did several Marines with clattering, belt-fed machine guns. High-explosive mortar rounds, intended to suppress the insurgent fire, whooshed overhead.
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And so went another night in the battle of Marjah.
The fight to pacify this Taliban stronghold is grim and grueling. For all the talk of modern war — of Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs and mine-resistant vehicles — most of the Marines in this operation have been fighting the old-fashioned way: on foot, with rifle.
"This isn't all that different from the way our fathers and grandfathers fought," said Cpl. Blake Burkhart, 22, of Oviedo, Fla.
U.S. military commanders figured the best way to throw the insurgents off-balance and to avoid the hundreds of homemade bombs buried in the roads here was to drop in almost 1,000 Marines and Afghan soldiers by helicopters. That provided an element of surprise when the operation commenced, and it allowed the forces to punch into the heart of Marjah, but it also meant they would have to tough it out.
Because they had to stuff their packs with food, water and ammunition, sleeping bags were left behind. But at this time of year, the mercury can dip — and it did during the first days of the mission, to freezing temperatures.
Marines who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan call Marjah more intense than anything else they've encountered, save for the battles in Fallujah.
"This place is crazy," one sergeant said as he ran to respond to the attack on Thursday evening. "It's more intense than anything you could have imagined."