Living with the Devil Dogs - An interview with Major Justin Ansell

Afghanistan 10 January 2010

“I grew up dreaming of becoming a Navy Seal. Then I met some Marines.” Says Major Justin Ansel, the Battalion Executive Officer. “17 years later and Ive never looked back.”

As second in command of the First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment, he has the daunting task of managing well over a thousand Marines across two districts engaged in ‘full-spectrum counter-insurgency operations’. When you first meet Ansel, he embodies the image of a Marine – broad shouldered, a strong handshake, and with an air of no-nonsense competence.

Working with the US Marines has intrigued me from the first moment. Their reputation is hewn from iconic battles in exotic places – Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Khe Sanh… but just how does this legendary history translate into reality here in Musa Qal’eh?

There is no doubt that US Marines are a breed apart (I was politely informed very early on that Marines are not ‘soldiers’ – which refers to US Army). I was struck by the obvious distinctions; the ‘high and tights’ (fiercely cropped haircuts), their impressive appetite for physical training, the dog tags sewn into their boots, the famed Eagle, Globe and Anchor symbol adorning their fatigues, their guttural greetings of ‘Oorah’ (reportedly derived from the sound of a submarine diving alarm).

They are a force designed for expeditionary warfighting – taking the battle to a foreign enemy wherever they may be. And this approach pervades life in Musa Qal’eh; essentially Marines carry all they need with them, forgoing creature comforts to make do with what they have. (‘Living austere’ is the jargon.) Such a mindset also means a constant state of combat readiness. Out here, that means every Marine carries a weapon no matter what they’re doing, and that includes eating, sleeping and showering.

I was also struck by Ansel’s passion for the Corps. It is the spirit that seems to bind all Marines. “We are fanatical about our history – its who we are.” he tells me.

And he is right. It was their courage in the famed (and terribly bloody) battle of Belleau Wood in World War One which sealed their reputation. A letter later taken from the body of a German solider read “I don’t know who we are fighting, but they are like Hounds from Hell.”

Now the Devil Dogs, as they have come to be known, number over 220,000 troops, which is more the entire British Armed Forces. They have become the world’s largest mobile military, supporting three fully equipped ready-reaction task forces around the globe at any one time.

Ansel, who is nearing the end of his seventh tour, seemed to capture the mood of the Marines in Musa Qal’eh. “We’ll do whatever it takes to get this done.” referring to the campaign in Musa Qal’eh and Now Zad, and to the lives that have been lost on both sides. “And Im proud of the sacrifice we’re making here - it honours all those who have gone before us.” His words also resonate with the Corps’ own battle cry;

Semper Fidelis. Always Faithful.

Hamish Wilson