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In Iraq, Marines' morale unshaken

The Baltimore Sun

Under a sweltering Iraqi sky, the general asked for questions from his troops. Many were reluctant, but one stepped forward.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jack Kessel, 19, of Raleigh, N.C., asked about something that had been gnawing at him as he and his buddies go about the dangerous business of winning hearts and minds in Anbar province.

"How are we supposed to fight a war when people back home say we've already lost?" he asked.

It was a question that Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis had anticipated as he toured Marine outposts in the sprawling province that is the home of the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq. After four years of war - and nearly 900 Marines killed and 8,000 wounded - many Marines believe they have begun to drive a wedge between the civilian populace and the insurgency in Anbar.

But at the same time, troops are keeping an eye on what is happening at home, where polls show that an increasing percentage of Americans believe the war was unnecessary, has been poorly executed and is unwinnable, if not already lost.

During the Vietnam War, the growing opposition of the American public to the war had a devastating effect on troops in the field. Drug problems among soldiers, race-related disputes and even faltering support among the troops for their own fundamental mission could often be traced back to the fact that the public had turned against the war.

So, what is the effect on troop morale of declining public support for the war in Iraq and the increasingly contentious political debate at home? Like so much about modern military life, the answer may seem counterintuitive to civilians.

After my fifth trip to Iraq to report on Marines, I've concluded that, at least among Marines, morale remains high - not in spite of the public's disaffection with the war but possibly because of it. The declining poll numbers and rising political upheaval appear to have driven Marines closer together.

Marines, for instance, continue to exceed their re-enlistment goals; a recent study showed that those who have deployed twice to Iraq are more likely to re-enlist again than those who have only gone once - and that the Marine least likely to re-enlist is one who has not deployed to Iraq.

Young men join the Marines with the expectation - many even with the fervent hope - that they will deploy quickly to a war zone. That's not true for, say, the National Guard, and that kind of motivation doesn't waver with public opinion polls.

As Cpl. Alexander Lengle, 21, of Lancashire, Pa., said of the debate that dominates much of the news: "That's political. It's not our part of the spectrum. We've got a job to do."

At chow halls at the larger bases, there are usually televisions at opposite ends, one set to sports, one to news. The TV showing sports gets the larger audience, particularly among the young enlisted troops.

When the 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment needed volunteers to extend their enlistments so they could return to Iraq and mentor younger Marines making their first deployment, the talk was not of foreign policy but of loyalty to each other. Two hundred Marines - 25 percent of the battalion - volunteered to return to war-torn Ramadi.

In my many discussions with Marines, Corporal Kessel was one of the few who raised the issue of support for the war. He said he had picked up negative vibes about the war while he was back home. Other Marines acknowledged that they had heard the same kinds of comments but said they had dismissed them. Corporal Kessel, however, said he kept worrying.

Keeping up morale is a top-priority mission among Marine brass and senior noncommissioned officers, who know that alienation can set in quickly and spread rapidly.

During the assault on Baghdad in 2003, young Marines frequently asked reporters whether the public backed their mission. At the time, the answer was yes, overwhelmingly so.

Many of the Marines were the sons of Marines or soldiers who had fought in Vietnam. They had grown up hearing tales - real or apocryphal - of returning veterans being scorned. There seemed to be a palpable fear among the Marines that the same fate might await them if the public changed its mind about the mission.

Instead, something different happened. As support for the war waned, support for the troops increased. A tidal wave of paperback books, goodie boxes of candies and other things, and banners done by schoolchildren has engulfed the troops.

It's a point that General Mattis, the commanding general of Marine Forces Central Command, made repeatedly as he talked recently with troops.

"There's a lot of dissent about the war, but there's zero dissension about the troops," he said. He used the example of Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, one of President Bush's most ardent opponents on the war but also one of the most aggressive members of Congress in getting money for safer combat vehicles.

General Mattis told the Marines to believe their own eyes rather than news accounts on the issue of who is winning the war. Don't be discouraged by the politicians and pundits who haven't been to Iraq and don't understand, he said.

"Don't hold it against them," he said to Corporal Kessel and the others gathered at a base in Habbaniya. "The only reason they have that freedom of speech is because you'll fight for it."

Corporal Kessel nodded. "I understand now," he said later.

Tony Perry is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared.

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