AC: " 'Tell our story...We want people to know.' "
ANDERSON COOPER: Well, no matter what's being said about Iraq, no matter what you think about it politically, the reality is, young Americans are there right now, true heroes, just trying to do their jobs, trying to get home safe, and protect their buddies, and trying to make it out alive.
Tonight, you're going to see these heroes on the front lines. They are Marines given one of the most dangerous missions of the entire war. And our cameras were there to capture it all.
CNN's Michael Ware takes us to the battle zone.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The angry debate over the war in Iraq -- does it stop or actually create brand-new Islamic militants -- means little to these guys. No doubts here; their enemy is al Qaeda.
LANCE CORPORAL BEAMER DIAZ, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Most people here are willing to die for each other. So, pretty much, it's -- it happens over here.
WARE: This is where it happens: Ramadi. At this moment, Marines closing around a fallen comrade. It began 30 minutes earlier, a patrol watching the al Qaeda-controlled streets from a rooftop, when an insurgent sniper surprises them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, you see where that came from?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, directly in front of me.
WARE: Next, the Marines pushed home, only 600 feet back to their outpost, when they're hit, caught in a killing zone, crossfire from two directions. Somehow, only one Marine, Lance Corporal Phillip Tussey, is hit.
DIAZ: It -- it gets pretty crazy. So, there's a lot -- a lot of times you're just sitting around, nothing is going on. And, all of a sudden, two seconds later, you're in a big firefight, just fighting, trying to stay alive.
WARE: This was the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment's war: 600-plus men ordered to go head to head with al Qaeda in downtown Ramadi, in a battle their general admits he does not have enough troops to win.
CORPORAL DONALD BRIER, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Definitely that I -- I lost one good friend. And -- but I have talked to his wife. I have talked to his family. And they're all coping well. So, I know I can cope well. If they can, I can. So...
WARE: These Marines fought day in, day out, repelling al Qaeda assaults from their outpost. A flew blocks down, the men draw an ambush in another street. The fight moves to a rooftop. In seven months, this battalion suffered 17 dead, more than many brigades of 5,000 in Iraq lose in an entire year.
MAJOR EDWARD NEGLOVSKI, U.S. MARINE CORPS: We're going to leave the blood and the lives of several Marines, the memory of their lives here. We won't forget them. But all of us will leave something here.
WARE: Their presence made a dent in al Qaeda.
CAPTAIN ANDREW DEL GAUDIO, U.S. MARINE CORPS: But the dangerous -- you know, how dangerous the mission is hasn't changed. We have stopped a lot of attacks. We -- we stopped them cold in their tracks, never really took any great pride. And, you know, how many people we have stopped, I have no idea.
WARE: But, listening to them, from the kids in the gun pits to the officers who lead them, you hear, in their own words, how the real price of this war is being paid.
BRIER: You get nervous when you come over. But, once you're here, you're nerves are just-- Of course you're nervous. I mean, you're coming into a combat zone.
DEL GAUDIO: It's a -- it's a hell of a thing to come to grips with, but, yes, we -- that's what we are. You know, that's the -- the meaning of who we are as Marines, is be prepared to do that, if necessary. And, in my perspective, in my mind, there was no greater calling.
BRIER: I think it's still -- still not reality for me, even though I'm here. I see everything that goes on. I have seen things, you know, that you don't -- because you're here, your mind state isn't -- isn't what's going on here. You just -- it's day by day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're taking fire!
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where else are we taking fire from?
DEL GAUDIO: And when I -- when I think of my men, when I first brought them out here, before we came out here, the -- you know, you could see the young -- the young faces, you know, naive to the world, and, you know, just -- just grasping for an understanding of exactly what they were about to get themselves into.
NEGLOVSKI: I don't think you could come here to a place like this and not forget it. You would want to forget it, but you're -- you're not going to. It's just not going to happen.
DEL GAUDIO: The blood that we have shed here, we will certainly never, you know, forget the pain, the suffering, all the emotions, the -- the bleeding, the crying, the sweat, the tears. None of that will ever -- it's never going to leave us. And we will -- we will never leave it, because that's the legacy of our -- our fallen comrades.
I will do my duty. We'll be here. You know, we will -- we will do what has to be done. We will do it. You know, whatever it -- whatever it takes, we will keep doing it.
WARE: Away from the politics on the home front, to these Marines, it's about surviving what their commanders call the meat grinder.
DIAZ: And it's not easy.
COOPER: You know, Michael, you talk about a lot of these guys feeling like they don't have enough troops to win the battle.
Do they feel like their reports are getting heard, like their voices are getting heard, like that people know what the situation is like where they are?
WARE: Well, I do remember one of the younger Marines saying to me, you know: Tell our story. You know, "we do not want to be doing this in a vacuum. We want people to know."
But, I mean, the thing is their own general says that, as his mission stands for that province, the heart of al Qaeda in Iraq, it's only to train the Iraqi security forces. He said, he does not have enough troops to win against the al Qaeda-led insurgency. Yet, these are the guys at the tip end of that spear, at the core of the worst of it.
So, in some ways, you know, their own commanders are saying: We don't have enough forces in this place to win this battle. These kids have to hold the line -- Anderson.
COOPER: You know, there was also a lot of talk before, I mean, the last couple of times I was there, especially in the beginning of the war, you know, about building schools and refurbishing things, and civil affairs work, the kind of stuff they're doing in Afghanistan, essentially what they used to call winning hearts and minds.
Is that stuff still going on? Or has it gotten to the point where the security situation is so bad, they're basically just focused on, especially, you know, in this area, surviving?
WARE: Well, a departing civil affairs chief that I spoke to some months ago said that, essentially, "Well, we have given up. I mean, there's no way to deliver civil affairs."
And, quite frankly, there was doubt about whether they would ever win the hearts and minds. Nonetheless, the brigade that's out there in Ramadi is attempting to do what it can. There's consideration of setting up a provincial reconstruction team.
But, most importantly, they're just trying to prop up the governor, make sure he can get to work and back each day alive, despite repeated assassination attempts, and despite the fact al Qaeda has penetrated what little stands of that government -- Anderson.
COOPER: Michael, a very real look at the war.