Not long after giving that order, 1st Lt. Arthur Karell was hunched in a dirt trench crowded with Marines. The hushed darkness bristled with eight-inch blades fitted beneath the barrels of dozens of M-16 assault rifles.
You fix bayonets when you expect to need the aggressive combat mind-set that's produced by the primal sight of massed blades. You fix them when you expect to search hidden places. You fix them when you expect the fight could push you within arm's reach of your enemy -- gutting distance. In modern warfare, that's extraordinarily rare.
The problem was, Karell didn't know what to expect. He was from Arlington. He'd traveled the world. This place, though, was like nowhere he'd ever been. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment had deployed to Afghanistan last spring to train Afghan police. But when Karell's platoon arrived in Now Zad, the largest town in a remote northern district of Helmand province, they'd rolled into a ghost town.
The Afghans who used to live here, more than 10,000, had been gone for several years, their abandoned mud-brick homes slowly melting into the dusty valley. Insurgents were using the place for R&R. At night, all you heard were the jackals, ululating like veiled, grieving women. The fact that Now Zad had no civilian residents, much less any police, had somehow escaped the notice of the coalition planners who had given the Marines their mission.
"They saw what they wanted to achieve but didn't realize fully what it would take," Task Force 2/7's commander, Lt. Col. Richard Hall, said at the time. "There were no intel pictures where we are now because there were few or no coalition forces in the areas where we operate. They didn't know what was out there. It was an innocent mistake."
So, with no police to train or civilians to protect, the Marines in Now Zad were left with the job of evicting the insurgents who had taken over the town. The fight to root them out began a year ago in the predawn twilight of June 15, in a trench...