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July 27, 2002
On the gigantic canvass of the Kuwaiti desert an abstract painting is being created by the churning tracks of M1-A1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and mechanized howitzers. It’s an ensemble piece, the artists being U.S. Army drivers and commanders who throw their 70-ton armored vehicles into mad turns, dashing through sand berms and across exposed flats, leaving in their wake a criss-crossed, swirling chiaroscuro of tread marks.
Call it, Tableau of War.
As seen from a Blackhawk helicopter at an altitude of barely a hundred feet, this exercise, part of a week-long training session under the aegis of Operation Desert Spring, unfolds on a gigantic scale. Two opposing forces, both American, are tasked with achieving the best position and holding onto it. From the air it seems to take place almost in slow-motion; as vehicles move towards pre-designated contact zones the only thing that belies their real speed is the beige dust plumes that rise behind them.
But on-board the tanks, it’s a different story. They rock and roll to the music of roaring turbine engines, clanking steel, and the rhythmic, ear-shattering squeaks of tank treads being pushed to the limit. Everything moves so much faster than seems possible given the vehicles’ weight and the terrain. The Abrams, the Bradleys, even the HMMvees, fly across the desert sands, their gunners and signalmen slamming side to side, front to back into the steel bulkheads, hanging on with one hand while shouting into a radio or plotting a GPS map coordinate with the other.
First misperception: The desert is flat. It’s anything but. These soldiers ride a daily roller-coaster of hillocks, gullies, trenches – even sand dunes that are bulldozer-created leftovers from the anti-landmine operations after the Gulf War.
Second misperception: Armored divisions are slow, ponderous, plodding dinosaurs that exist primarily to hold ground taken by surgical aerial strikes. Today’s tanks and artillery pieces move at shocking speeds to take ground, defend it, and push forward. The Army has demonstrated M1-A1 Abrams tank can fire accurately at a full run, launch a high-explosive shell over 3000 meters, and operate at full capability in total darkness. This ain’t your daddy’s mechanized unit.
“The U.S. Army owns the night,” says Capt. Stuart James, company commander with ten tanks and four Bradleys under his guidance. “Whenever you attack, you want to have an advantage over the enemy, and this gives us a great advantage because we can see and kill at night.”
The training exercise this day started shortly after 2am under cloak of darkness, although the full moon gave the desert sand, and the soldier’s faces, a blue cast. When the first of three battles was engaged, flashing yellow lights began appearing on the horizon, marking vehicles that had been tagged by the opposing force’s lasers, and thus officially “killed.” Those yellow lights were stunning proof of the army’s nighttime targeting capabilities.
Staff Sgt. Mario Cirinese perched on the edge of his M1-A1, sunburned nose peeling and sweat trickling down the side of his face; his grin weary but sincere. “We took out a couple of enemy vehicles, so we did our job. Did our job and helped our company succeed.”
As the day progressed, different battle scenarios were practiced: Move To Contact, for instance, where the forces charge straight at one another and attempt to get the upper-hand. They worked on defensive strategies, on medical evacuations under fire, on clearing mine-fields, on laying artillery traps and springing them.
“We’ve been working out here now, my unit, for about six weeks.” Lt. Col. George Geizy says, taking a brief break from the sun under the camouflage netting of a tactical outpost, “We’ve been constantly building to crescendo an event, like today, where the task force gets to put all of its combat power together. And today, our last mission, it seems it all fell into place for us, where we put all the forms of contact that we want to bring to bear out here to maneuver on this kind of ground. It happened.”
Geizy and the others are out here for a total of six months. Six months of rigorous week-long mini-wars, training briefings, tactical lectures, sand, dust, homesickness…and that blazing, blast-furnace, blindingly-bright, unrelentingly hot Kuwaiti summer sun, that hits you like a hammer in the head every time you step into its angry glare. There is no way words can describe heat that reaches 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It radiates from sand and concrete and steel so that no hat, no shade, is a sanctuary. It evaporates the water in your bloodstream. It melts the horizon.
“It’s warm,” says Maj. Jeff Ward with typical Army understatement, “can’t say it’s not warm. And by 9am it’s about 120 degrees.”
The tanks and Bradleys get suffocatingly hot, which is a worry for commanders like Capt. James. “The environmental conditions, the heat and the sand, for these soldiers over long periods are a challenge.” As well as for the machinery. “Engines become very hot. But we have acclimated ourselves here and we’ve learned to control the environment. We’re able to work through the day and continue on without any loss of performance on our soldiers.”
None of the vehicles is air-conditioned, but the soldier’s tents are. Thanks to a thousand huge, portable air-conditioner units, the soldiers have livable quarters even when billeted to the so-called kabals – their desert garrisons where units live together in austere but not altogether unbearable conditions when not staying at Camp Doha, one of two U.S. Army bases in Kuwait (the other is nearing completion in the southern part of the country).
In the kabals they have exercise rooms, movie tents, ice-cream, hot showers (unfortunately, only hot) and fully-stocked commissaries (well, maybe not fully stocked: in deference to their Muslim hosts, soldiers aren’t allowed alcohol or certain types of adult reading, and viewing, materials). All within a few miles of their practice grounds; some within a few miles of Iraq.
And that’s the elephant in the living room: Iraq. Everyone knows there’s a hostile regime whose own forces are sometimes within sight. The training takes into account Iraqi capabilities and tactics. The primary objective of the American presence in this desert, in this foreign land, is to deter possible Iraqi aggression.
But because of the political sensitivities of a Western army in an Arab country, the issue of a possible, some say inevitable attack by American forces on Iraq is never discussed in mixed company.
But in private, for these soldiers, it’s a tired subject. After a few days, that sort of speculation doesn’t much interest them; getting better at what they do, does. If anything, the jobs they have – each of them, from mechanic to munitions loader – seems that much more important now.
“Being on the desert floor out here means something to me after September 11th,” Lt. Col. Geizy says, “Helping to defend Kuwait makes me feel as though I am contributing. I’m demonstrating my technical abilities with my guys, and when called upon, we are going to kick some ass.”