Tired, dirty, footsore, slightly dehydrated, hungry, and with an aching back and shoulders, I limped toward the battalion headquarters building from where a clean, fit, and slightly younger Lt. Col. Jason Bohm — task force commander of 1st Battalion, 4th Marines — emerged. I had just returned to Forward Operating Base Al Qaim after several days operating out of one of Bohm’s battle positions up on Iraq’s Syrian border. Bohm was getting ready to head back out to be with his men.
“Colonel, this is young man’s work,” I said.
He smiled and responded, “That it is.”
Notice, I did not say young person’s work. Nor did I say simply, man’s work. Though I’ve unconsciously understood infantry work to be “young man’s work” ever since I participated in my first, fast, route-stepping distance-march with heavy equipment under a searing Camp Pendleton, California sun some 25 years ago, the conscious reality of it surfaced for the first time during my recent, second trip to Iraq.
Granted, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” But at 48-years-old, and a civilian for most of my adult life, I won’t pretend that I am as capable today of fighting, surviving, and contributing to an infantry unit in action, as I was when I was in my early 20’s. By most standards for my age, I’m still strong and quick and I certainly know how to fight. But I also know my limitations, and in spite of my willingness, my body simply cannot endure the extreme heat and cold as easily as it once did. It cannot bear the same loads that it once did, nor can it run the necessary distances at the necessary speeds, negotiate the physical obstacles, or function, as it once managed to, when deprived of food and sleep. Neither can it perform the myriad other tasks required of young infantrymen in modern war.
The fact is, beyond my ability to shoot and think, I would be a burden on any infantry force in a desperate situation in which everyone needs to pull his own load and assist others with theirs. I think this is true for most war correspondents, though many would never admit it.
Infantry campaigning is difficult, and it has been ever since man first picked up a few stones, shouldered a club, and moved against a neighboring tribe. And despite modern weapon-systems and many of the new modes of delivery — helicopter, various ground conveyances — that difficulty has not changed.
Of course, we all remember former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder’s attempt to dismiss the physical severity of modern combat with her now-famous line: “A woman can push a button just as easily as a man.” Perhaps, if combat were limited to waiting on the unthinkable in an air-conditioned missile silo in the American West, but that’s not how war actually works.
MORE THAN FIGHTING
Ground combat — including fighting, campaigning, and surviving in the wild — is a young man’s work. It means bearing heavy loads (In the modern world, much of a unit’s gear can be carried in vehicles. But because soldiers today have so much gear, a lot of it — particularly personal equipment — simply has to be borne on one’s back, shoulders, and hips.), surviving in remote environs and severe weather conditions, and maintaining a level of proper hygiene for good health: None of which are easy in an environment where men are hunting one another.
One example worth noting: During the 1st Marine Division’s epic fighting-withdrawal from Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in 1950, Marines in one of the most remote regions on earth found themselves up against some of the worst weather imaginable; Snow, ice, and mercilessly cold temperatures, which often plummeted to 30-40 degrees below zero, were among the climate elements endured. Long, black nights and lashing winds of up to 40 and 50 miles an hour sometimes dropped the temperatures even further. Everything froze: Motor oil, medicines, blood plasma, even hands and feet. Marines touching the steel of their weapons often lost skin. Everyone was bundled up as best as possible, but it was never enough. Worse, the heavy clothes caused the exerting Marines to sweat. If they stood still for any length of time, the sweat turned to ice. The severe frostbite and other cold-related injuries were staggering.
As the Marines pulled back along the narrow reservoir road, the enemy attacked again-and-again, often at close quarters with the bayonet. So the withdrawing Marines had to stay alert, healthy, and ready to respond with brute force in an instant. They also had to keep their wits about them and remain in formation.
WAR AIN’T PRETTY
When the Marines at Chosin needed to relieve themselves, they did so on the road. To stray from the column meant death by ambush or getting lost and freezing. They urinated on the march, and relieved themselves otherwise by stopping and squatting in the middle of the road while other troops simply passed by. It was simply a reality of the animal-like existence for infantry troops on the move in combat. It hasn’t changed in over 50 years, or a thousand.
Iraq for the infantry — particularly those in the forward-most patrol bases and battle positions — is no different in that sense.
For obvious health reasons infantrymen try to stay as clean as possible. Teeth are brushed daily. Everyone tries to wash his face and shave daily or every other day. But men in the field often go days without showering, because there simply is no showering equipment available.
At some of the less-spartan battle positions I visited in Iraq, there were makeshift open-air shower boxes. At others, a shower consisted of one man soaping himself while other men poured plastic bottles of water over him. If a clean body of water was found — river, stream, lake — half of the infantry unit might strip and bathe, while the other half secured the area. When the first men were clean, they would stand watch while the other half washed. Sometimes men simply stripped and wiped down with wet cloths or baby wipes: more so for the refreshing physical comfort than the actual hygiene (though both were accomplished). Modesty over nakedness was never an issue. In the infantry, it cannot be.
As far as body odor was concerned: no one cared. Everybody stinks in an infantry environment, and stinks bad.
WHAT YOU WEAR
Then there was — and is — the issue of the weather: Iraq is the extreme opposite of what was experienced at Chosin. Over the past several weeks In Iraq, the ground temps have climbed to between 127-130 degrees. The body armor, helmet, ammunition, and all other gear the infantry Marines and soldiers have to wear — more than 70 additional pounds — sent those temperatures up another ten degrees. The weight and heat is only one part of the equation; it must be combined with the fact that any given foot patrol for the Marines generally lasts about two-and-a-half hours, and in some cases three to four hours.
On patrol, if a Marine or soldier makes contact with the enemy, he has to dive for cover or run — depending on the situation. If he is on the chase or a hot-search, it means that he will be hustling with all of his gear — and his weapon at the ready — down streets and alleyways, going over walls, kicking in doors, sometimes going through windows, climbing up on roofs of houses and making his way up long ladders into towers.
And remember, there is no break for the Marine or soldier when he gets to his objective, because that’s where the fight is. The fight is, moreover, usually against a full-grown, heavily armed man of comparable size and weight, who has not just expended much of his burst-energy on getting to the fight and is less encumbered with heavy gear.
This brings us to the actual weight of the combat load for American infantrymen: between 70 and 100 pounds.
So, a 5’11’’ Marine weighing 175-180 lbs., weighs about 250-280 lbs. in full battle kit. Yet with this added weight, he must remain strong, fast, agile, able to withstand long road marches in extreme temperatures and capable of fighting another man of equal size and weight in the often-close quarters of an urban environment.
The point is, we’ve all seen the one-dimensional images and film clips of Marines and soldiers running or cautiously moving down dusty streets in Iraq. We’ve seen them kicking in doors, and rolling over the tops of walls. If the camera is close enough, we sometimes see a stream of sweat between the helmet and the chinstrap. It’s been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But no image will ever be able to adequately convey how little an infantryman has had to eat over the past 24 hours, the scant sleep he has had over the previous two days, how pushed to the limit his strong back is, how close he is to dehydration, a sniper’s bullet, or sheer emotional collapse; nor will a picture ever be adequate to display why infantry combat continues to be “young man’s work.”
– A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. Smith is the author of six books and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at “The Tank.”