It's been two weeks since they left they relative luxury of their camp in Kuwait and their supplies of cigarettes and chewing tobacco are running out. They are rationing their precious supplies, and even begging smokes from local farmers.
An army, Napoleon reputedly said, marches on its stomach. But for generations, armies have also marched on nicotine. And these Marines — smoking more than usual under the stress of battle conditions — are getting antsy.
"It just crushes morale," said Cpl. Jonathan Kibler, 22, of Lexington, Va.
With the few remaining shreds of tobacco nearly gone, the Marines here face the prospect of being involuntarily enrolled in what could be one of the most successful programs to end nicotine addiction in history.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of tobacco to the Marines.
Cigarettes are smoked at every possible break and the doors of many Humvees are streaked brown from the spurts of tobacco-filled spit that shoot out of the windows every few minutes.
Tobacco helps relieve boredom, relax or stay awake for long nights, the troops say.
"It keeps your sanity," said Lance Cpl. Brandon Phelps, 20, of Franklinton, La.
It has been that way for generations. During World War II, cigarettes were included in battle rations; on ships, sailors could buy whole cartons for 50 cents, $3 less than they cost on shore — IF they could be bought at all.
U.S. Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., a member of the House Committee on Veteran's Affairs, has said that, "From the time of the Civil War until 1956, the Army was required by law to provide a cheap and nearly endless supply of tobacco to its personnel."
That's changed. Since 2002, all Department of Defense facilities have been smoke-free — though of course that doesn't apply to the battlefield. Despite the military's best efforts, 34 percent of the members of the service smoke, compared to 23 percent of all Americans.
While living in their tent camp in Kuwait for nearly two months, the Marines were constantly resupplied with cigarette cartons and rolls of 10 tins of dip mailed by family members or with tobacco they bought themselves at the PX truck.
But there are no stores in this desert, though many Marines swear they have huge stores of tobacco in the mail somewhere out there, there's yet to be a mail delivery and there's little hope for one soon.
"It's frustrating knowing that there's a box more of it back there that I haven't gotten yet," said Capt. Daniel Schmitt, 31, of Glen Ellyn, Ill., a serial dipper who ran out days ago.
With smokers and dippers becoming more desperate, the value of tobacco has exploded.
Cpl. Aeron Jackson, 22, of Circleville, Ohio, sold 9 tins of chewing tobacco, for which he paid $4 each, for prices that started at $5 and escalated to $20 as his comrades run out.
Now he is almost on empty himself.
But most Marines, no matter how low their stocks, are sharing what little they have.
"As soon as someone gets a can it's pretty much gone in a day," said Kibler. He offered to trade the entire contents of his day pack, except his sleeping bag, for one more tin.
Phelps has been smoking since he was 9 and dipping since he was 7. But the four cans and six packs he brought from Kuwait ran out about a week ago and now he has to beg.
"Every time I see somebody light up a cigarette I'm right there: 'What's up, man?'" he said.
So far, Marines have not exploded with nicotine rage. But they have become a little more irritable and uncomfortable.
"The real test will come when we're up for long hours and no one's got dip or smokes," Kibler said. "If we're up for 30, 36 hours, you'll see people getting real edgy."
Cpl. Matt Nale, 31, of Seattle, Wash., normally smokes half a pack a day. He brought three cartons of cigarettes with him from Kuwait, but they ran out nearly a week ago after he shared them with his mortar platoon.
Desperate, he managed to bum two packs of local Sumer cigarettes — stronger than his preferred Marlboros — off Iraqi farmers in the countryside using hand signals to bridge the language gap.
"We've had three cigarettes a day for the last three days because of those farmers," he said.
By Ravi Nessman