How Will Afghanistan Live on in Marine Corps Lore?

U.S. Marines conduct a security patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines conduct a security patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, July 29, 2011. (Nathan McCord/U.S. Marine Corps)

Belleau Wood. Guadalcanal. Inchon. These battles are largely the stuff of history books for the public, all part of greater wars and grander strategies that helped the United States triumph in its conflicts overseas.

To Marines, however, these names mean everything.

"We know only that it was the Marines who won at Belleau Wood, the Marines who won at Guadalcanal, the Marines who led the way at Inchon," Gen. Carl Mundy wrote in a guide on leadership when he was commandant of the Marine Corps.

"These are the legacies that we have inherited and that we must pass on," Mundy said as he closed out the guide. "Learn them, study them, and live them."

Though every branch remembers its victories and proudest moments, few instill these bits of history and legend into everyday life like the Marine Corps.

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Everything from the nickname "devil dog" to the "blood stripes" on their trousers to the hymn of the service has a story behind it. In the 1960s, the branch even published a book of official lore.

As the 20-year war in Afghanistan goes through its final days, will Marines remember, memorialize and revere any chapter of the conflict? For many, there's one moment in a campaign that has proven light on triumphant events that stands out – Sangin. During the battle, which is considered to have lasted from the summer of 2010 to spring of 2011 for the Marines, they effectively cleared the area, located in Helmand Province, of Taliban fighters.

The fact that the war in Afghanistan has come to resemble Vietnam rather than World War I may shape how Sangin is remembered by Marines who haven't yet embarked for one of the service's two recruit depots.

Vietnam doesn't have a decisive battle that leadership points to as a sign of the Marine Corps' superiority. It was a conflict where iconic imagery centered on civilians clinging to helicopter skids as the U.S. withdrew. But that doesn't mean that Vietnam didn't leave its own indelible mark on the service's history.

Dr. Brian Neumann, a historian with the Marine Corps History Division, told, "There's a tremendous amount of mythology that emerges out of Vietnam, surrounding the Marines. … It's the mythology of perseverance."

"Mythology is not something that wars make – it's something that people make," added Paul Westermeyer, another historian with the division.

"If you want your Marines to believe or your soldiers to believe in their ability to endure, then you can absolutely focus on these experiences" of fighting in Afghanistan, Neumann explained.

'Toughest Battle in Afghanistan'

In the summer of 2010, the British had had enough of Sangin. After years of fighting and at least 100 dead, the troops were ready to leave the region in the south of Afghanistan that U.K. outlets reported was being called "Sangingrad."

The nickname was a reference to the World War II battle of Stalingrad -- one of the bloodiest in all of human warfare. Though estimates vary, the siege of the Soviet city claimed at least two million casualties on both sides over the course of five months.

The Marines came to replace the British in Sangin. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, known as the 3/5 or "Dark Horse" battalion, based at Camp Pendleton, California, deployed to Helmand Province and Sangin later in 2010. Among their ranks was a young officer, Thomas Schueman.

Schueman told in an interview that the region's deadly reputation struck the Marines immediately.

"In the first 100 days, we were in a firefight every day," he explained. "I think that we had 14 killed in the first two weeks."

Schueman, now a major, added, "There was a real feeling initially like 'we're not gonna make it.'"

In addition to gunfire, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were omnipresent.

One report described the area as "one of the most heavily mined areas of Afghanistan."

According to that study, British troops were so bogged down looking for the devices that they were barely able to move a mile a day on patrols.

"Every time you took a step in Sangin, you understood: 'When I put my foot down, there may not be a foot there anymore,'" Schueman said.

"[Sangin] not only was the Corps' toughest battle in Afghanistan, it was, I think, the toughest battle in Afghanistan, period," he said.

Bing West, an author and former Marine infantry officer, made numerous trips to Afghanistan and embedded with a number of platoons. He echoed many of Schueman's impressions. In 2015, West wrote a book about the 3/5 called "One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War."

To West, Sangin was "the zenith of a genuine war" where Marines abandoned "trying to win the hearts and minds of a tribe."

"You were fighting every day against a determined enemy -- period," he said.

Marines had a "very narrow focus on staying alive and killing the enemy. ... Everything else was stripped away," West said.

The region ultimately became one of the bloodiest in the entire war with about 50 Marines losing their lives there. Half of that number belonged to the 3/5, lost in that single 2010 deployment. Among their casualties was 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, son of then-Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly, who later became the secretary of Homeland Security and chief of staff to President Donald Trump.

Schueman is still plagued by memories of the constant combat, "whether that's when somebody hands me my Marine's fingers and the guy's missing an arm, or some of the conversations I had to have as Marines were dying, or moments where my Marines wanted to murder the whole village and I had to stand between my Marines."

The situation ultimately reached a point when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates considered pulling the Marines out of Sangin altogether.

Gen. James Amos, the Corps' commandant at the time, told NPR that his answer was "absolutely not."

"We don't do business that way. You would have broken the spirit of that battalion," Amos added.

Despite the bloodshed, the Marines prevailed.

"Make no mistake, the Marines won the battle of Sangin," Schueman said. "I left Sangin, and I could walk to the Helmand River with my rifle in the patrol base, and they wouldn't fire a shot at me."

'There Is No Battle of Sangin'

Both Schueman and West are certain that Sangin has all the makings of a battle worthy of Marine legend.

"A recruit in Parris Island in 2121 ... is going to be getting quizzed on something in their knowledge book about Sangin," Schueman said.

A Marine walks through a poppy field in Afghanistan in 2011.
FILE -- In this April 16, 2011 file photo, U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Dustin Combs with 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 8, patrols through a poppy field with a Mark 12 rifle in Sangin, Afghanistan. The U.S. Marines of 1/5 conduct frequent patrols through the area to show a presence and interact with the community. (Nathan McCord/U.S. Marine Corps)

Meanwhile, West drew a comparison with the island-hopping campaign the Marines waged during World War II. "Many, many islands were captured, but none like Iwo [Jima]. And in the history of Afghanistan, no district was as tough as Sangin," he explained.

In 2011, Gates told the Marines of the 3/5 that "alongside your Afghan brothers, you've written a new chapter in the Marine Corps' roll of honor with your sweat and with your blood."

"Against the toughest odds and the most difficult terrain, alongside the legends of Guadalcanal, the Chosin Reservoir and Belleau Wood will forever be added in Marine Corps history the legend of Sangin," he added.

Yet military historians say that it may not be that simple.

Neumann and Westermeyer explained that for a battle to make the leap from basic fact to something venerated across the Corps requires more than just sacrifice.

"There has to have been a lot of Marines involved to remember it," Westermeyer said. "To be frank, I think you're going to find that Sangin ... doesn't have that."

He explained that for Sangin to have a good chance of becoming part of the lore of the Corps, a large percentage of the Marines who were there would need to become general officers or many Medals of Honor would have had to have come from the battle.

However, both men noted that predicting what the Marines elevate to legend and what gets relegated to the back pages of history books is hardly a precise science.

Neumann also suggested that it is possible Marines will not separate Iraq and Afghanistan in coming years, as we do now.

"It's not going to be, in my opinion, Afghanistan or Iraq -- it's going to be whatever we decide because I doubt we're going to keep the term 'War on Terror,'" he said.

"It's not a set piece of battle, right?" Neumann noted. The term refers to a battle that both forces plan to engage in willingly, unlike a siege or an ambush.

"Afghanistan doesn't really have a lot of those," he added.

As a result, "historically, there is no Battle of Sangin -- that is not an actual thing," Neumann said. "It's just a continual, perpetual fight for control and, just because we were in control one day or that we're in control at the end of the season, that doesn't mean that we're not going to continue to fight the next day or the next season."

He said that "one of the almost requirements for anything that enters into the collective memory of the Corps is probably some level of success through incredible suffering."

Though there is no question that Marines suffered in Sangin, the level of success they achieved, especially in light of the country's fall to the Taliban this month, is now a hotly debated topic.

Together — as Marines

The 3/5's deployment ended in 2011, and other Marines took over. However, by 2014, the last Marines left the region, and it was handed over to the Afghan National Army. Eventually, some Marines returned to Sangin in 2017 as advisers, but the hard-won peace didn't last. The province was captured by the Taliban in March 2017.

The fall of the region was a precursor to the total collapse of the Afghan Army during the summer of 2021.

West said that the Sangin Marines he's spoken to are "damn proud of how they fought, and they still continue to have that." Yet, he quickly added, "They're really pissed about how it all ended."

Schueman explained that in the waning days of his time in Sangin with the 3/5, officials "finally just kind of negotiated this fake treaty."

"The guys on the ground knew from the get … that was a lot of bulls---," he said.

These sentiments echo larger concerns among veterans that have prompted military leaders, including those in the Marine Corps, to release statements assuring those who fought in Afghanistan that their sacrifices were worth it.

For Schueman, "These ideas of 'does it matter' are probably not really the best questions for the soldier, the Marine. I think those kind of questions are better directed at the general public.

"We volunteered to be in the Marine infantry, and so we went," he explained. "What does society think? They're the ones that said they're willing to send their youth there to die."

The connected nature of battles such as Sangin to the larger war in Afghanistan is not lost on more senior officers. At the time of its Sangin deployment, the 3/5 was led by Lt. Col. Jason Morris. Now a brigadier general, he initially agreed to speak with about the battle and his thoughts on its historical significance through a spokesman. But the day after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, he canceled the interview.

"With the events developing in Afghanistan over the weekend, Gen. Morris is not the appropriate spokesperson to be speaking of Afghanistan," his spokesman, Lt. Joshua Collins, wrote in an email.

Neumann feels that specific battles aren't key to the branch's history.

"The importance for the Marine Corps is not that they're fighting in Helmand or that they're fighting in Fallujah, it's that they're fighting as Marines," he said.

"Throughout our history, we've demonstrated that we'll get it done, and I think Sangin is a testament to our continued willingness and ability to fight our nation's toughest battles and win," Schueman said. "I am proud to have fought alongside the best men that this country has to offer, and I'm proud of what we accomplished in that moment."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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