CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.-- --Oblivious to the Washington debate over what to do with Iraq, a clutch of Marines in damp flak vests and helmets kneel in the chilly dark, headlamps shining on notebooks where they are carefully printing K-Roc's instructions for their next mission.
Like most of his squad, K-Roc, the slender Lance Cpl. Adam Koczrowski, is barely out of his teens. He and many of his guys are veterans of one or two tours in Iraq where their unit, Charlie Company, has lost 22 dead. They got back from Iraq in May, and they're about ready to go again.
With no hand in its making, they nonetheless are stuck with taking whatever new strategy emerges and making it work in the gritty, murderous landscape of Iraq. That's a tall order. Neat solutions to Iraq have so far eluded Washington's senior policymakers, still struggling to sort out Iraq's complexities and corruptions, its shifting sectarian allegiances and mindless violence.
These Marines and tens of thousands of other U.S. troops about to rotate into Iraq will have to figure it out on the street, making near-instantaneous decisions that carry deadly consequences. "Stand by to take casualties and be confused," K-Roc says sardonically as dawn breaks on another long training day.
His squad of seven men - it is supposed to have 12 - will travel through a mock Iraqi city here, a dread zone of concrete rubble, narrow streets and burned-out cars. Instructors will try to rattle the Marines with deafening explosions simulating roadside bombs, snipers firing blanks and insurgents firing simulated rocket-propelled grenades that are launched out of dark alleys with unnerving abruptness.
Treating the severely wounded and evacuating the dead are major preoccupations.
Iraqi men with hooded eyes watch from the shadows. They are suicide bombers or occasional snipers - or just jobless and hopeless. At least they convincingly play those roles as part of a contingent of several dozen Iraqis hired from Michigan for the training here.
But this is no simple point-and-shoot game. Based on hard-won experience in Iraq, the Marine Corps has escalated its training from simple weapons drills to more complex urban scenarios where Marines interact with the residents and must make judgments about how much force to use in tense situations - just like local police officers. This eerie replication of Iraq's mean streets was built specifically to train all deploying Marines. Some of the Iraqis they encounter here are friendly innocents. Some are angry but harmless. Some play the roles of Iraqi soldiers or police assigned to work with the Marines. They are armed, not necessarily trusted. Others play killers.
Over and over, K-Roc's men work through "escalation of force" drills. Confronting an angry crowd, you might raise your weapon after repeated warnings, but better if you use the interpreter to pull aside two of the leaders and ask, "Hey, what's bugging you guys, and how can we help?"
"You have to think through the second- and third-order consequences, like what if they don't stop, what if this, what if that," says Lt. Patrick Lukanich, K-Roc's stern platoon leader, who is trying to cram as much experience into his men as possible before they arrive on the streets of Ramadi. "I heard a couple of you saying I am what-iffing you to death. Well, OK, let's do it here, not when we get over there," Lukanich lectures.
"Over there" is on everyone's mind. Pausing to consider how to phrase his hopes for the next few months, K-Roc ejects a stream of tobacco juice. "Get home safe, with no casualties in my squad or my platoon," he says.
His squad has just spent a pleasant hour in a cafe set up here by the Michigan Iraqis. They've played dominoes with robed Iraqi men, joked and flirted with giggling Iraqi girls at tables heaped with flat bread and fragrant stew, even danced wildly to Iraqi music. It's part of learning that not all Iraqis, as one officer says, "are out to kill us."
Now they've hoisted on 50 pounds of body armor, weapons, ammunition and other gear, and are plodding up a street with nerves jangling, spread out in formation so a single grenade round won't kill more than one of them.
"I am scared to go, but so is everybody," says Lance Cpl. Steven Levine, a 19-year-old squad radio operator from Northeast Baltimore. "You've just got to trust your unit."
Here comes a car careening around a corner, and Marines have about five seconds to determine whether it is a suicide bomber or a family on the way to market. If they judge wrong, their squad might be blown to smithereens, or an innocent family could be shredded by automatic rifle fire and the Marines brought up on charges of killing civilians.
When the crack of a sniper rifle fells a Marine, his buddies leap to yank him by his flak vest strap out of the street and bounce him over the curb into a vacant building, where a corpsman bends over him and a radioman begins calling for a medevac. Yards up the street, a Marine confronts an angry Iraqi shouting at him. Lance Cpl. Karl Moore, 20, backs up against a wall and follows K-Roc's instructions.
"Tell him we are here to help the people!" he yells to the interpreter.
This provokes even more shouting. After several heated exchanges, Moore turns to yell over his shoulder to K-Roc, sheltering under a colonnade.
"They want us to go away!"
"Well, we're not going away!" K-Roc bellows back. "Let's move forward!"
And, sssssssssSSSSSt-Bam! "RPG!" somebody shrieks. "McClellan is down!"
Another Marine goes down to sniper fire, and his buddy rolls in behind him to return fire. "Use his body as a shield," urges one of the trainers.
"Everybody stay calm," orders K-Roc, who has a choirboy's face and a noticeably startled response to loud explosions.
But somebody has decided the angry Iraqi man is a threat. He is put face-down and his wrists are cuffed. It later turns out he is the mayor and was roughed up unnecessarily. Over in the battalion command post, another checkmark goes up under a heading, "How Many Enemies Did We Make Today?"
That captures the intent of the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy Christmas: Train and advise Iraqi soldiers and police, kill bad guys, make no enemies and keep your guys alive. In some situations you must instinctively shoot. In others, not.
That is what passes for the strategy that has sifted down from Washington, and while it might sound reasonable in principle, out here on the street it means young Marines have to weigh the risk to the life of an Iraqi against the risk to the life of a fellow Marine. They have to do that quickly and accurately, perhaps several times a day. That's a responsibility that wears on them.
"It's easy to sit back in the command center going, 'You should have done this or that,' " grouses a Marine. "You've got a heartbeat to make a decision."
"Guys are thinking, 'You could be on your way to Leavenworth'," says a second Marine, referring to the military prison in Kansas.
"All these decisions rest on our shoulders because we're trying to keep our guys alive," chimes in a third Marine. "And we're all the time wondering, 'Am I going to keep my guys alive, or complete the mission?' "
Christmas is a lanky man with an easy grin and blazing eyes that hint at the zeal he brings to commanding 800 Marines of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, and he recognizes the dilemmas this war puts them in.
"That's what all this training is for," Christmas says. "That's why this war is so hard." In the months between deployments, he runs his Marines back and forth between high-intensity combat, where killing must be instinctive, and low-stress patrolling, where they should act more like community police. A week of urban training here, then a week of live-fire shooting. Another week in the mock Iraq city here, then a couple of weeks of high-intensity desert combat training, and back in the city for another week with the Michigan Iraqis.
"On-off, on-off," says Christmas. On, off.
Watching Marines wrestle with this kind of conflict, it's easy to forget how young they are beneath their battle gear and the fierce expressions they call their "war face."
Lazing on the grass during a break, two lance corporals discuss a computer game.
"Hey, did you ever get 'Gears of War'?" asks Louis Doran, 19.
"Nah, I was gonna, but my mom told me not to," says Steven Aspling, 20.
In the world of war, they have more backbone.
When two of K-Roc's men fall "wounded" - as dictated by a trainer - there's the squad's youngest guy, Timothy Bardo, kneeling on concrete with the squad radio, calmly reporting the casualties and requesting help.
He's using what's known as a "nine-line," a reference to the standardized radio report that has nine points of essential information. Every nine-line must report the same information in the same order: Line one: location. Line two: your radio call sign and frequency. Line three: number of patients, and so forth. Every Marine and soldier must memorize nine-lines so they can call for a medical evacuation helicopter quickly and accurately.
The story on Bardo and the nine-line is that a day earlier, he had melted down when practicing a nine-line under pressure. The pressure was Lance Cpl. Matthew Schwaller, senior radio operator, a big man with a gruff voice, and off under a tree he had laid out several Marines as "casualties" and was testing Bardo, who has been in the Marine Corps all of nine months.
"OK, Bardo, gimme the nine-line," Schwaller ordered. "QUICK! Jesus ... OK, line one. Line two! C'mon, Bardo, what is line two?" Schwaller bellowed as Bardo grimaced and sweat poured off his face. "Do you know what line two is? Line three? Your buddies are bleeding out and you frickin' don't KNOW what line two is? You better get this RIGHT, Bardo! OK, now this Marine is dead, and it's YOUR FAULT, BARDO!"
After that, Bardo spent hours memorizing the nine-line. Now, under the pressure of explosions and two dying Marines, he reels off the numbers effortlessly. "Line five: two patients, urgent surgical. Line six: marking site with green smoke. Line seven. ... " No one in the squad mentioned anything about his achievement.
But they all noticed.