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MARJA BLUES
by Steve Mumford
 
A bomb goes off outside the base as a squad of Marines is getting the briefing for a patrol. It seems ominous, calling us out to play.

The mission is to return to an area where Lima Co 3/6 had been hit in the past, and look for buried bombs.

Leaving the wire, we pass a bunch of Afghan Army soldiers, lolling by the entrance. Their stares are inscrutable, mirthless. We walk along a hard-packed dirt road following a large canal. The road is empty, until we come across the reassuring sight of some boys jumping in the water -- a perfect activity for such a sweltering morning, without a breeze.

I’m trying to keep 100 feet back from the soldier in front of me ("dispersal, dispersal, dispersal" is the safety rule here for foot or vehicle patrols). After an hour we get to the "rat lane," as the Marines call the smaller footpaths where IEDs have been buried in the past. The team leader hollers at the Afghan soldiers to continue up the road while an explosives team searches the smaller path. The Afghanis balk, grinning sheepishly and hanging back. After some haranguing the American shrugs and calls up some of his Marines to patrol the road.

The Marines simply call the Afghan soldiers "ANA" (Afghan National Army), as in, "Hey ANA, get off your ass and get up here!"

Sometimes the ANAs’ behavior on patrols reminds me of a dog who really doesn’t want to go for a walk in the rain, and has to be continuously cajoled and threatened.

A couple of hours later the three-man Explosives and Ordinance Disposal team discovers a black trip wire threading its deadly way through the underbrush.

The search intensifies and then Marine Lance Corporal David Fields locates a second cord, this one colored tan, perfectly matching the tall dry grass. As the EOD team follows the strings they come upon a small explosive, then nearby a big homemade bomb, 50 lbs of explosives and old spark plugs and bolts stuffed into a large, battered cooking-oil tin. The team leader thinks that the bomb had just been placed; the smaller explosive would have drawn in Marines to investigate, then someone would have triggered the large IED.

As we wait for the EOD team to blow up the bomb, we hear the sounds of an intense firefight not far off: a sniper team fighting off an ambush, I learn later.

That night back at Combat Outpost (COP) Coutu our sleep is punctuated by outgoing mortar rounds, launched to support Marines in combat at a nearby patrol base.

I share a ride to Camp Yazzie with the sniper team leader who’d been ambushed the day before. He estimated that the attack involved seven or eight Taliban fighters who followed his team and attacked from multiple directions. He called in mortar strikes twice to clear out the enemy positions, thus keeping his men from being pinned down. After three hours the attack finally faded at dusk when the Taliban fighters knew they’d be at a disadvantage.

No Americans were killed.

The gunner in the heavily-armored vehicle I’m traveling in merrily informs me that there’s a misfired shoulder-launch rocket by my feet, so "Don’t let it bang around back there, it’ll take us all out!" It’s the size of a small tree trunk -- yet another good reason not to hit an IED.

From Camp Yazzie, I join a morning patrol lead by Lance Corporal Paul Horsler, Lance Corporal Monte Buchanan walking point, with Capt. Daniel "K-nuts" Knudsen along for the ride, to call in artillery support if needed.

Matthew, a congenial Englishman from the Financial Times, is along as well: he tells me he normally doesn’t "chase the bang-bang," but was desperate to escape the boredom of Camp Hanson, from where he’d been filing stories over the last week.

We walk south of the base along a large canal in sweltering heat and humidity. Right away two men on a motorcycle come toward us and are quickly stopped and searched by the Afghan soldiers. As they pass by me one smiles broadly but I can’t shake the immediate impression that the smile is false, that they’re scoping us out, my certainty fed by fear.

Our goal is to walk to a small village and interview some people who have been receptive to chatting with the Marines in the past. It’s a pretty but tough hike to the village, as the heat ratchets up, past mud-walled compounds and fields green with crops.

I notice that the Afghan soldiers with us seem more professional than those on the patrols from Camp Coutu. Their bearing is serious and they don’t seem to be waiting for the Marines to tell them what to do.

Arriving at the village, we knock on several gates and the Marines sit down to ask the men some standard questions about security, Taliban presence and other war-zone small talk. An Afghan officer translates. These interviews remind me of 1st ID’s "knock & talk" missions in Mosul, Iraq, back in 2008, in which the Americans seemed tired, impatient and distracted, missing the nuances from the translator’s halting efforts. To glean anything useful from such conversations would require subtler and more attentive minds. I sense that the point of these missions is mostly a show of presence.

A couple of genial but tough-looking middle aged men in turbans drop by to chat. Perhaps they’ve cleared this visit with the Taliban, or perhaps they are Taliban.

As the talk goes on and the heat increases I’m trying to draw but the sweat is pouring down my face, getting in my eyes and wetting the paper. I don’t have a cloth to wipe my face with. Finally in desperation I take off my helmet and flack and find a little concentration with which to continue. Matthew comments later that amidst the tension of the long combat patrol he was amused to hear the pedestrian grinding of my pencil sharpener.

Resuming the patrol, we’re passing a farm compound outside the village. Another dirt road is coming up which intersects the one we’re on. Suddenly a rifle fires nearby. Matthew and a Marine just in front of me drop to the road; I’m crouching, waiting for a response, the din of combat.

"Warning shot -- the ANA fired a warning shot!" someone calls out.

"Why didn’t they warn me about the warning shot?" a Marine jokes.

Ahead a white van filled with men has stopped on the approaching intersection. The men are shouting at one of the ANA. Apparently the van sped up when it approached the patrol. There’s no harm done and we move on, swimming in the heat.

Thirty minutes later the patrol stops, and I hear over the radio that Lance Corporal Horsler and the ANA have discovered disturbed dirt on the road up ahead, sometimes an indication of a recently buried bomb. Horsler goes in close to investigate.

At the rear of the patrol, two Marines position themselves at a rat lane intersection. They had just encountered a child who dashed away so fast he left his sandals on the path. They suspect he’s alerting someone, perhaps a triggerman for a bomb.

Horsler, over the radio, doesn’t think it’s a bomb and wants to press ahead on the main path, but the other two chide him, insisting that it’s an unnecessary risk, and anyway the smaller path is a shorter route back to Yazzie.

Horsler walks by the upturned dirt, arguing for several minutes, but finally relents.

A few minutes later a man in a white dishdasha appears 75 yards ahead, walking in front of us. Buchanan hollers at him to stop, but he ignores us and disappears into the foliage.

Is there any meaning in these odd encounters?

We continue our hot walk back to base.

The afternoon patrol, which I skip, gets hit with an ambush.

The next day I join a convoy on a long mission to resupply two smaller bases, Moose and Camel. Along the way, we stop to provide security for a foot patrol passing by a new yellow schoolhouse the Marines have been building. We also provide over-watch for a convoy evacuating a Marine casualty from a roadside bomb that morning.

A sandstorm picks up, darkening the sky and buffeting the trees and bushes. At Camel I get out to draw the entrance gate, a Marine in a small tower atop a stack of Hesco barriers. He’s got a headscarf wrapped tightly around his face and helmet. The wind is so intense it’s rocking me back and forth, dust at times obscuring the edge of the dunes behind the barriers.

The call goes out that we’re leaving. I hastily hold up the drawing to show the guy in the tower.

He raises his arms and shoulders in a questioning gesture. Is he saying, What the fuck are you doing out here? Or maybe just, Why?


STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). The illustrations accompanying this text are his own. For the complete archive of his writings on Artnet, click here.