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Timeless lessons from war in Iraq

August 21, 2003|Scott Sandell | Times Staff Writer

The story of young men going off to war, where they will lose their innocence if not their lives, is ancient. Yet retelling it never grows old, if only because society so often forgets its lessons.

That's the real strength of tonight's "Primetime Thursday" on ABC, which features an hourlong report titled "Brothers in Arms: The Untold Story of One Marine Company in Iraq" at 10 p.m. Although the documentary is relatively formulaic and sometimes overproduced, it also records the remarkable experiences of the Marines of Company Fox 2/5 and embedded reporter Mike Cerre.

The report begins at Camp Pendleton, where the Marines are training in house-to-house combat in anticipation of a conflict with Iraq. Soon the men are deployed to Kuwait, where a sandstorm is just the first of their challenges.

Boredom sets in, and to relieve the monotony, the men hold talent shows and use their ingenuity to create an ersatz bowling alley as well as games of chess and horseshoes. Some, like Cpl. Michael Elliott of Montana, pass the time reading. His choice: the book "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff -- for Teens."

When President Bush orders the troops into Iraq, Fox 2/5 is among the first over the border. But as the Marines roll toward Baghdad in 3-decade-old amphibious vehicles designed to travel much shorter distances, they meet with more mechanical problems than enemy resistance. When combat does ensue, the Marines feel a rush that eventually turns to shock after they end up killing several Iraqi civilians in a nighttime incident -- and after they see their own comrades die.

One of those is 1st Sgt. Edward C. Smith of Orange County, a Marine with 20 years' experience, whose retirement had been delayed because of the impending war. "Brothers in Arms" pays tribute to Smith, but it also has the unfortunate effect of making his story a dramatic device through some heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Though the scenes of combat are intense, the program refrains from depicting graphic images of death. Still, when 2nd Lt. Paul Chase tells the camera, "War is not romantic to me anymore; war is a very, very terrible thing," you don't doubt him for a moment.

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