As U.S. forces advance, visible violence of war emerges
As U.S. troops sweep into Iraq and run into determined pockets of opposition, the war is beginning to yield discomforting images of death and destruction.
CAMP RIPPER, Kuwait-To climb into today's M-1 tank with Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Miller, 36, a decorated tanker from the first Persian Gulf War, is to understand why Saddam Hussein will be hopelessly outgunned.
"Look through this sight," Miller said to his visitor. The sight magnifies the armored vehicles in the distance to 10 times their size, making them seem close enough to swat. At the same time, a laser beam shoots out to tell the tank commander the target's exact distance. Miller had no such instrument on his M-60 tank in the first Gulf War, when he nevertheless won the Bronze Star for destroying three Iraqi tanks and two armored personnel carriers.
Although 2,500 meters (about a mile and a half) is considered a "comfortable" range for the M-1's main 120-mm gun, Miller said that his upgraded tank could destroy an Iraqi armored vehicle more than two miles away. A computerized system in the tank calculates the effects of the wind and the air temperature for the gunner, helping him to hit the very heart of the enemy vehicle from long distances.
And the big gun is only part of the hell that the M-1 can make. A chain gun can fire 11,000 7.62-mm bullets per minute while that old reliable, the .50-caliber machine gun, can spit out 1,000 rounds of lethal fire. And if Iraq should dare to fly a helicopter over his M-1, Miller can use the big gun to explode a round right in the aircraft's path, thanks to another new high-tech aiming system.
"We're a big armored pillbox," said Miller. "And we have had 12 years of studying the lessons of the last Gulf War." He feels sure that none of the Iraqis who faced U.S. tanks back then will have any stomach for a rematch.
Miller said he felt no pleasure in 1991 destroying Iraqi tanks with men like him inside. "I just felt numb as I was going through it. I just lined up the sights and pressed the trigger," he recalled. Later, when he drove through the Iraqi wreckage and saw the death and destruction he had caused in pressing that trigger, it bothered him, he said. "I did keep seeing some of the faces. I had a difficult time sleeping afterward." And he said that after the war, when he was back home, "I was hypervigilant. My senses were extremely sharp. I was difficult to be around, especially if I saw lots of light, like Fourth of July fireworks."
Miller said he could have left the tank corps after Gulf War I in hopes of relieving some of the postwar stress. "But I thought I should come back and teach young marines what I learned." Miller was to be in one of the first tanks to bump over the big sand berm that marks the dividing line between Kuwait and Iraq. "I'll go without hesitation, because that's the choice I've made in my life. I'm sure if the president says this is important, he knows more than I do. So I'll say, 'Aye, aye,' and go."
Marines Move Forward
President Bush has declared the disarmament of Iraq to be important, and Miller and his tank crew were among hundreds of armored vehicles moving north across the Kuwait-Iraq border on Thursday as part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
M-1 tanks like Staff Sgt. Miller's will play an important role in the assault. But they won't be able to do it all. As always in war, flesh-and-blood riflemen will have to leave the protection of their troop carriers and move on foot to confront the enemy.
Marine leaders expect some of Saddam's forces to fire at U.S. troops from stores, apartment buildings, mosques, and even hospitals. So once marines go deep into Iraq, they may have to mount high-risk missions that entail assaulting and holding buildings. A secret war map specifies which cities the marines may have to take, and officers erected simulated buildings from those cities on the base here so the marines, in the days before war, could practice assaulting them.
"Did you grab the radio?" a Marine sergeant shouted to a lone survivor of one such mock attack against one of these buildings.
"No," the trooper answered.
"Communications! Communications! Communications!" shouted the sergeant, impressing on the rifle platoon that this is the key to survival in city fighting.
Marine officers have tried to drill this into their troops since January, but the mock attacks have continued to show heavy casualty rates. The week of March 9, for instance, the 1st Rifle Platoon of Charlie Company of the 7th Marine Regiment "lost" 14 of its 34 marines in an attack on the kind of building that might lie in their path in Iraq. That's a casualty rate of 41 percent.
Just before the 1st Marine Division deployed to Kuwait, Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis convened a seminar at its home base of Camp Pendleton, Calif., in which senior Marine officers were lectured on the complexities of city fighting. One officer who attended said that veterans of the fighting in Chechnya and Somalia presented chilling testimony about how the marines would have to destroy whole buildings to dislodge snipers if Saddam elected to take the fight to urban areas. If marines find this tactic necessary in Iraq in the weeks ahead, the televised images could inflame the very world opinion that Bush is trying to influence. But the officer came away from the seminar agreeing with the Chechnya veteran, who said, "Blowing up a building is often the only way."
Assuming that Saddam wants to win international sympathy for his regime while provoking condemnation of Bush, he is expected to make sure that civilians are killed by American forces-or at least to make it look that way. His options include placing cannons in village squares and next to hospitals, and pushing civilians into the paths of advancing U.S. columns. These tactics, Marine officers acknowledge, would greatly complicate American commanders' efforts to limit collateral damage and civilian deaths. Places in Iraq where civilians congregate, along with Iraqi cultural centers the U.S. military wants to spare, are marked on a top-secret map that commanders are constantly updating and studying.
"We've dotted the landscape with restricted-fire zones," said Lt. Col. Kirk W. Hymes, commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment within the lst Marine Division. The map showing these zones was covered up during the interview in his command tent with National Journal. The circled areas, he said, are not necessarily off-limits to artillery strikes but would require special study by commanders before gunners could open fire.
Hymes, an artillery commander, noted that his cannons are not pinpoint weapons. "We are an area weapon," he said. Modern-day shells are not single chunks of iron; instead, they are balls of explosives that spread their impact over a wide area. Incendiary shells send out showers of burning-felt wedges impregnated with white phosphorus, which generate a choking smoke screen and set fire to almost anything they hit. Hymes said that use of incendiaries might be ruled out for some of the circled areas on his maps.
Maj. Samuel Chapman Cook, 33, of Clifton Forge, Va., is one of the young Marine officers here who will help decide whether Hymes's 3rd Battalion should fire on any weapons Saddam puts near civilian areas. Cook, a 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is the battalion's operations officer, and he has at his disposal the latest high-tech equipment. One of his computerized systems, called Blue Force Tracker, was not available to commanders during the first Gulf War. The system bounces signals off a satellite to come up with a picture of the exact location of friendly forces. This helps the marines with what they call "deconfliction"-properly separating friend from foe, and from innocent bystanders. Cook and other officers will also have pictures taken by tiny drone aircraft flying over civilian areas of Iraq.
Despite all that technical help, Cook and other officers controlling the rain of fire on Iraq will have to weigh the deaths of Iraqi men, women, and children against the lives of their troops.
A religious man, Cook said he has come to terms with that dilemma. "If Saddam places cannons in the village square or a mosque, he's the one who has violated the rules of war. I understand the responsibility I have. I'm not going to let the fact that he has put cannons in a mosque keep me from stopping the killing of marines."
If the past is any guide, Saddam's government and some of the Arab press will flash pictures of dead civilians around the world as part of their information offensive against the United States. A major reason that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered military commanders to "embed" reporters in their units was his hope that American journalists would see what happened on the battlefield and describe the situation in a nonideological way. He saw such reporters as people who could help the Bush administration win the propaganda war now raging in the wired-together world of the 21st century.
This worldwide, instant flood of information will keep the new Iraq war from looking neat and clean, despite the military's emphasis on precision weapons and a battle plan that envisions bypassing congested urban areas. The overwhelming level of U.S. firepower, combined with the lethality of new-generation weapons, the readiness of U.S. forces to engage in street battles, and the probability of civilian deaths, will provide photogenic fodder for Saddam's-or Al Qaeda's-propaganda wars. Winning the battle against the broken Iraqi military will be the easy part, it seems safe to say. Winning over world opinion and pacifying Iraq after the war loom as the hard part, now that Bush II has decided to use force to depose a dictator Bush I allowed to stay in power.
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