Nobody likes an MRE, until you're told you can't have one.
The military-issued food packet (MRE stands for "meal, ready to eat") has been in short supply lately. With the U.S. march to Baghdad stalled and supply lines stretched and under attack from Iraqi guerrillas, Marines in the 1st Division, Headquarters Battalion, were rationed to one MRE a day last week.
Now that supply trucks have arrived from Kuwait, the quota has been boosted to two.
"Oh no, the four fingers of death!" groaned one Marine as he opened his MRE to find four frankfurters in hot sauce -- not a favorite.
At this sprawling makeshift camp in the Iraqi desert, thousands of Marines assigned to Headquarters Battalion are fighting not Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guard but dust, flies, primitive conditions and even ennui.
By nature, Marines are an impatient lot and lack of movement does not sit easily with them. Just a few days ago, they led the headlong dash from Kuwait along the Euphrates River toward Baghdad. They battled Iraqi fighters for days to secure two bridges over the river and guarantee a supply corridor that will eventually extend some 400 miles.
Since Wednesday, however, they've been stuck.
"We're starting to call it Operation Enduring Boredom," said Staff Sgt. Jason Kirby, 33.
Marines are repairing vehicles ravaged by sandstorms, keeping supplies moving to more forward troops, digging "fighting holes" (only the Army digs foxholes), and tending to the minor chores that take on major significance when all other comforts are denied.
They are such chores as washing, shaving -- and picking just the right MRE. When there is time, they read. The Marine Corps is the only military service with a reading list. And books are everywhere -- books about Marine history, books by Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, and a few that surprise.
A supply officer is reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin." An artillery spotter is working his way through Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales." So far, he's finished "The Miller's Tale."
And Staff Sgt. Taryne Williams, 25, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is reading "The Spiral Path" by Mary Jo Putney, because "it's as trashy a novel as I could find, but it keeps my mind totally off the fact I'm in Iraq."
Living in tents, denied any chance for a real shower and subject to clouds of dust kicked up by the helicopters that land and take off at all hours, Marines here are on the prowl for diversions. Chess, spades ("the thinking man's poker," said one Marine) and dominoes are big. GameBoys are popular with younger grunts. A few of the troops keep journals.
In their flak-jacket pockets, Marines stash small articles of significance to their daily lives: good luck talismans, lip balm and tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce (rescued from their MREs).
When Marines are on the move, there is little time for thinking of anything but the mission. When the pace slows, the mood changes. They dwell on their fears, what they miss, what they've seen and their own lack of activity.
"When you get like this, it gives Marines time to think about stuff," said Staff Sgt. Brad Faulkner, 25, of Glasgow, Ky. "Right now we're here because the freakin' Army needs to catch up and be resupplied."
Few of these Marines, especially the young enlisted men, have ever seen action. And they know that whatever they have experienced so far is only a prelude of what is to come.
"We are all pretty young here and we've never been to war," said Lance Cpl. Christopher Somrek of Chicago. "This is all pretty new. Every time we go out we know we probably will get in a more dangerous situation. It gets you thinking: Is my gear good? Is my stuff good? Am I ready?"
In this downtime, before the final push to Baghdad, one thing Marines think about is whether the American public supports the war that has brought them here from Marine camps around the country. They often ask reporters assigned to the troops whether the U.S. public supports the war.
Although they are too young to have seen it firsthand, many have heard stories about servicemen returning from Vietnam to a hostile or indifferent nation.
"When you go back, you want people to know why you went over and served your country," said Sgt. David Vanuch, 24, of Springfield, Ohio.
Work starts early in this camp -- only a slacker is still in his sleeping bag at 7 a.m. -- but ends early as well. With sundown, all activity ceases.
Lights out is strictly enforced after sunset. To deter attackers, no lights are permitted outside tents and are allowed inside only if the window flaps are securely fastened. Flares attached to trip wires are positioned around the camp to warn of intruders. Some have been set off by wild dogs, leading to a swift and armed response from the "react squad."
There are morale boosters, though, at this undisclosed location, which, with its flat terrain and ashy soil, could pass for the California desert.
There is, for example, recently installed telephone service that allows calls back home for those with credit cards or relatives willing to accept the calls collect. The limit is five minutes.
But if there is a No. 1 booster, it probably comes in the form of the outdoor toilets, holes in the ground with box seats and camouflage netting for a bit of privacy. In the beginning of the move north, there were only trenches and bushes. Toilet paper is hoarded by Marines and shared only with best buddies.
"We're spoiled here," said Navy Petty Officer Kathryn Fauss, 22, of Rapid City, S.D., who assists the camp chaplains. "We've got toilets."