Right now the Marines in 2nd platoon are feeling they couldn't get in a fight if they went into a biker bar and ordered daiquiris. It's not that they're not trying. We're just back from two dusty, frustrating days of patrolling south of Naw Zad. I've never been with a bunch of grunts more eager for a fight. Frequently when I've traveled with grunts there has been an undercurrent of resentment: "You're hoping we get hit so you can get good pictures." These guys are shamefacedly apologetic that they haven't gotten us in a fight.
Here's how it works: We pull up outside some village in our six heavily armored and heavily armed vehicles. The Marine patrol spreads out and walks across several hundred meters of open ground to the village. When we were done in the first village -- Kurghay -- we had walked seven miles.
While we didn't find a fight, the patrol did have its interesting moments. In Kurghay, Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Motz, one of the medical corpsmen in the group, Cpl. Timothy Glover and I had sought shade under a small tree. Glover, a hyperkinetic kid, looked up in the tree and spotted a small cloth bag. We'd been warned that the enemy was planting explosives in walls and trees (we'd already experienced one in a wall). Glover wanted to climb the tree and check out the bag. I said fine, just wait until I get on the other side of the wall. That kind of caution is how you get to be a 65-year-old war correspondent. The Chief -- as everyone calls Motz -- didn't budge.
Glover clamored into the tree and brought the bag down. When it didn't explode I came out from behind the wall. He poured into his hand brown sugar heroin, an intermediate processing step between raw opium and the powdered heroin on the streets of America and Europe.
"Lick it," the Chief said. "That's what they do on CSI."
"I'm not licking it," Glover said, with uncharacteristic good sense.
"Grissom would have licked it," the Chief said.
"I'm not licking it."
When Glover asked the platoon leader, Staff Sgt. Keith Kesterson, what he should do with the bag -- which I'm guessing weighed several ounces -- he was told to leave it. The U.S. military doesn't plow up poppy fields believing the farmers have no choice. The poppy harvest was completed just weeks ago and Kurghay is surrounded by dried brown poppy fields. So are all of the villages we've visited. The Marines had been briefed by their superiors to leave as well the processed product like that found by Glover.
The next day in another village we found a farmer with a grapefruit-sized ball of raw black opium wrapped in plastic. He was puzzled when all the Marines did was take his name and photographed him with the bag of opium.
For a good understanding of the role that opium plays in this war I heartily recommend "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qadea" by Gretchen Peters.