A dispatch from the edge of war

Oliver North
|
Posted: Mar 07, 2003 12:00 AM

This column is the first in a series.

TACTICAL ASSEMBLY AREA "RIPPER" -- It is a dusty, dun-colored tent city parked on a barren, flat, windblown plain, lacking both vegetation and recognizable terrain features. Without a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver, it is impossible to know where you are or where you are going. It is also the temporary home of the fabled 7th Marine Regiment -- the "tip of the spear" for the First Marine Expeditionary Force in the upcoming battle for Baghdad.

The Marines here in this arid southwest Asian desert are blissfully unaware of the political machinations at the United Nations that have held them for more than a month, poised like a diver prepared for a plunge at the end of the board. And they couldn't care less about the protestations of the "Blame America First" crowd in San Francisco or other European cities. They do know that the French have "wimped out" once again and are quick to remind the hoards of visiting journalists that it's OK because, as one Marine put it, "the French have always been there when they needed us."

Despite the delay in getting done what they came here to do, these young warriors revere their commander in chief. And whether the nice folks at the United Nations or the critics in Europe or the antiwar activists in the United States like it or not, they have a refreshing certainty about their mission -- Saddam Hussein and the need to evict him from Iraq. This isn't because they are "poor, uneducated, minorities," as some liberal politicians have recently alleged in propounding a reinstitution of conscription. The all-volunteer troops here are predominantly white, middle-income Americans. Minorities are, if anything, under-represented in these units, and nearly 100 percent are high-school graduates.

Their "mission focus" isn't because they have been "brainwashed" by their superiors. During a briefing by an intelligence officer, the troops asked penetrating questions and got honest answers about what lies ahead -- and what it all could mean to the rest of the region. And it's not because they are "bloodthirsty," as a foreign journalist described them to me. In fact, none of the soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines with whom I have spoken over the last several days told me that they are here "itching for a fight."

What has apparently been missed by many of the media elites here covering the preparations for a gunfight in Iraq is the fact that no one who has ever really been to a war ever really wants to go to another one. And a remarkable percentage of these young men already have combat experience.

One commander estimated that more than half his officers and senior Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) had served under fire before -- in the first Gulf War, the Balkans or Afghanistan -- and, in some cases, all three. They know better than any correspondent, reporter or politician the true nature of war -- that it is the most terrible of human endeavors.

Yet, precisely because so many of them have so much combat experience, they are anxious to get on with the task at hand. They know that the sooner it gets started, the sooner it will be over. Many of them expressed frustration that what was supposed to be a "blitzkrieg" has become a "sitzkreig." One young NCO said, "We're the best there is, but this is going to be the most ‘telegraphed punch' in military history."

And that's not the only problem with further delay. A "Recon Marine" -- one of those whose job it is to penetrate deep inside enemy territory to scout out the routes, objectives and enemy targets to be hit -- said: "It's a new moon. We do our best work under conditions of marginal visibility. We don't like to operate when the moon is like a big light bulb in the night sky." Another concern was expressed by an NBC officer -- one of those responsible for ensuring that the Marines survive an attack by weapons of mass destruction. His comment: "The longer we wait, the longer Saddam has to plot and carry out a chemical, biological or nuclear attack -- and the hotter it's going to be wearing those protective suits and masks."

This isn't whining and complaining. It's just common sense. But even this is apparently misunderstood by some of those who have been sent out here to cover this high-risk venture. For reasons that have escaped most Marines, the Pentagon has provided press credentials to a significant number of foreign journalists. Unfortunately, many of the international media appear to have an overt hostility to the subjects they are covering.

One female correspondent from a European news service was overheard asking -- or was it telling -- one of the Marines that she had "never seen so much bravado, machismo or arrogance" in her life. The young NCO listened and appeared to mull over her grievance before replying, "Yes ma'am, that's why they call themselves U.S. Marines."