HIT, Iraq—The inability of U.S. forces to hold ground in Anbar province in western Iraq, and the cat and mouse chase that ensues, has put the Marines and soldiers there under intense physical and psychological pressure.
The sun raises temperatures to 115 degrees most days, insurgents stage ambushes daily then melt into the civilian population and American troops in Anbar find themselves in a house of mirrors in which they don't speak the language and can't tell friend from foe.
Most Marines and soldiers in Anbar live behind massive concrete barriers, bales of concertina wire and perimeters guarded by sniper towers and tanks.
Despite their overwhelming military might, they must watch every alleyway for snipers and each patch of road for mines or bombs, which can send balls of flame through their vehicles. That happened earlier this month south of Haditha, when an explosion killed 14 Marines in an amphibious assault vehicle.
Officers worry about the enemy while trying to make sure their men don't crack under the pressure.
"I tell the guys not to lose their humanity over here, because it's easy to do," said Marine Capt. James Haunty, 27, of Columbus, Ohio. "I tell them not to turn into Col. Kurtz."
Haunty was referring to a character in Joseph Conrad's novella, "Heart of Darkness." It became the basis for the Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now," in which Kurtz has a mental breakdown and murders suspected Vietnamese double agents.
Asked for an example of the kind of pressure that could cause Marines to crack, Haunty talked about the results of a car bomb: "I've picked up pieces of a friend, a Marine. I don't ever want to see that s--- again."
Sitting with his men at a morning meeting in the town of Hit, Marine Maj. Nicholas Visconti said he was up late the night before, unable to sleep in the heat, when a call came from a patrol requesting permission to shoot an Iraqi man. The man, the patrol leader said, was out past curfew and appeared to be talking on a cell phone. Visconti intervened and told the patrol leader not to shoot.
Looking at his young lieutenants and sergeants, Visconti said, "If he's a bad guy, if he's running the (car bomb) factory, I'll put the gun in his mouth and kill him myself ... but first let's get a f------ security check."
With a worried look, Visconti, 35, of Brookfield, Conn., continued: "There's killing bad guys and there's murdering civilians. Let's do the first and not the second. Murderers we're not, OK?"
Chief Warrant Officer Mike Niezgoda nodded in agreement. The next day, a roadside bomb knocked Niezgoda unconscious and broke his arm.
"It's a lot like it was in Vietnam, when the VC's (Viet Cong) would come out and pretend to be your friends," said Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Vidler, 23, of Syracuse, N.Y. "You're fighting an enemy on his home ground and you don't know who's who."
After a recent meeting with local tribal sheiks in Fallujah, Marine Lt. Col. Jim Haldeman walked to the back of the room and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.
The gathering was supposed to be an exercise in civic empowerment but quickly degenerated into the Iraqis demanding that they get identification cards designating them as sheiks, which would bar local security forces from arresting them on the streets.
"All of these guys are f------ muj," Haldeman said, using the Arabic term for "holy warriors," mujahedeen, which American troops frequently use to describe the insurgents.
Haldeman took a deep drag from his cigarette.
"I've never been so nervous around a group of men," he said. Haldeman, 50, of West Kingston, R.I., later added that he was sure that a lot of the men in the crowd would have slit his throat if they'd had the opportunity.
Walking down an alley in Hit a few days earlier, stepping over pools of sewage, Lance Cpl. Greg Allen had watched the Marines around him. They were picking through garbage, tugging on wires and kicking boxes, looking for bombs and mines and hoping that if they found one it wouldn't go off.
"They (insurgents) are doing a hell of a job fighting this war. They know they can't take us head on but they can do a lot of damage with bombs," said Allen, 19, of Syracuse, N.Y. "There's no one out here to fight."
The men in Allen's squad stopped at a grocery to buy water and sodas. As they walked away, several of them wondered if they'd just given money to an insurgent sympathizer.
On a recent patrol through southern Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Sgt. 1st Class Tom Coffey, 37, of Burlington, Vt., looked through the thick bulletproof windows of his Humvee. Children were peeking at him from behind a half-closed garage door.
"I'd love to play soccer with them but we'd have to stage gun trucks and then we'd still end up being a large soft target," he said.
After he went back to the base to pick up some supplies, a call came: A roadside bomb had hit one of his Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
A description of a vehicle possibly driven by the triggerman came over the radio. "The guy's already gone," Coffey said. "We're just p------ in the wind now."
Later, he and his men walked along the Euphrates River, looking for a metal stake that an informant said marked a weapons cache. The sun burned, and palm trees and crops formed a lush green swath along the riverbank.
"There's been reports of a .50 (caliber) sniper rifle out there. Maybe they called this in just to get us out here and take a shot. A .50-cal would go straight through our (body armor) plates," Coffey said, looking at the buildings across the river. "Why do I feel like I'm in a f------ Vietnam movie?"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-INSURGENCY
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050825 USIRAQ Anbar