Marines in Fallujah trade ‘ culturally sensitive’ training for bullets


April 15, 2004 — FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) On a rooftop overlooking Fallujah’s industrial wasteland, Lance Cpl. Tom Browne pokes his machine gun muzzle out of a hole in a barrier wall, singing to himself to pass the time.

In the street below, the corpse of an insurgent suspect lies baking in the sun. Browne, from Boston, says he has killed several rebels, probably Iraqis, so far.

“I don’t even think about those people as people,” he says.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The band of Marines in this insurgent stronghold received two big orders this year. They were told to return to Iraq to stabilize the Sunni areas west of Baghdad, Iraq’s toughest patch of territory. The normally clean-shaven Marines were also told to grow mustaches in an attempt to win over Iraqis who see facial hair as a sign of maturity.

“We did it basically to show the Iraqi people that we respect their culture,” said Lance Cpl. Cristopher Boulwave, 22, from Desoto Texas.

But after the brutal killing of four American contractors in Fallujah on March 31, they tossed aside such pretenses. First to go were the mustaches.

“When you go to fight, it’s time to shoot not to make friends with people,” said Sgt. Cameron Lefter, 34, from Seattle.

In the fight for Fallujah which has killed more than 600 Iraqis, according to city doctors, and around a dozen Marines. The Marines now seem to be following the second half of their famous motto: “no better friend, no worse enemy.”

The Marines say it’s easier to cope with the daily work of killing inside Fallujah, where a seemingly unending supply of rebels continues to fight, if they don’t think about the suspected Iraqi rebels they are targeting as people who, under different circumstances, they might have been trying to help.

“If someone came and did this to our neighborhood I’d be pissed too,” said Capt. Don Maraska, of Moscow, Idaho, a 37-year-old who guides airstrikes on enemy targets in the town. “I’ve never had people look at me the ways these people look at me. I don’t know what came before, but at this point, what else can we possibly do but fight?”

The Marines were hoping to lull Fallujah and al-Anbar province into a state of well-being by passing out $540 million in rebuilding funds, and showing off a more educated attitude about Arab sensitivities than they believed their U.S. Army predecessors displayed.

Before returning to Iraq, the Marines took a crash course in cultural training that included a video teleconference with an Arabic studies professor and the distribution of a culture handbook with tips warning against showing the soles of their feet or eating with their left hands.

Around three dozen Marines from one unit took a three week intensive language course in Arabic. And of course, they grew mustaches.

“We grew them for the Iraqi people. We shaved them off for us,” Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, who originally ordered his men to sport the facial hair, said.

These days, the Marines are speaking a more familiar language.

“We didn’t initiate this,” said 1st Marine Regiment Commander Col. John Toolen. “I came in here with more money than bullets. Now I’m running out of bullets but the money is still in my pocket.”

The Marines are frustrated with the negotiations to halt the firing in Fallujah. Many say they want to finish the battle, take control of the rebel city by brute force whatever it takes rather than wait for Iraqi negotiators to thrash out a deal to stop the fighting.

“We’re the guys that go in and put out foot in the door,” said Maraska, a veteran of the first Gulf War and Somalia. “We’ll do any mission. But we’re better at pushing and fighting.”

Behind the front line, Marines are trying to supply the holed-up locals that they encounter with food and water, one of the few areas their cultural training is put into use.

But Cpl. David Silvers, based in a front-line building nicknamed “the tower,” says his experience with Iraqis has been limited to dodging bullets from a persistent and shadowy gunman he dubbed “Bob the sniper.”

“He’s the guy who wakes us up every morning and fires at us all day. He hasn’t got anyone yet but he’s come close a few times,” Silvers said.

Even though the Marines have given Bob his name, they say they still want to kill him.

“This is the closest relationship I have with an Iraqi right now,” Silvers said.

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