Preparing For War

Coping R Not Fun

The men of the Third Division are young, strong and eager. Judging from history, their enthusiasm will last right up to the moment someone shoots back.

The Third I.D. is prepared to be the tip of the spear when American armed forces invade Iraq, according to the division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount. 

The Third I.D. is a rapid-reaction force, built upon armor and infantry that can be sent anywhere in the world on short notice. They are eager to be given the chance to prove their worth.  

  • During a chaplain's prayer in the Kuwaiti desert, a GI yells out, Pray for war!
  •  On the barrel of his tank, one young commander has stenciled all the way to Baghdad. 

But not many of the soldiers of the Third Division have ever been anywhere near combat.  They are all innocents, with a few exceptions, like S/Sgt. Juan Carlos Cardona, 41, who was a private in the 1991 gulf war. 

The younger guys ask Cardona about his combat experiences. His answers are general and superficial: I don't want to go too deep and freak them out about dead bodies, he says.

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Combat veterans often don't like to talk about their fighting experiences. They do not wish to boast, but also do not wish to relive their feelings of disgust and shame. They know that the most common oaths uttered are not Charge! or On, Wisconsin! or I have not yet begun to fight! or any of those rallying cries of legend. When young men die on the battlefield, writes author and World War II combat vet Paul Fussell, the cry heard most often is: 

Mother!

The men of the Third Division don't believe that will happen to them.  They are young, strong and eager.  

Judging from history, their enthusiasm will last right up to the moment someone shoots back and if its intense, most will bravely do their duty, but many will curl up into the fetal position or wet themselves. 

If they see as much combat as their grandfathers in World War II did, 
they will, with time, 
become jaded, 
ground down 
and unwilling. 

A 1943 survey asked frontline troops how they felt about getting back into actual battle. Less than 1 percent wanted to do it any time soon. Among Silver Star winners, almost none wanted to go back.  (The Silver Star is the second highest award for valour -- the Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest award, but it is often made posthumous, making it hard to ask them.) 

In another study of a division that saw heavy fighting in World War II, a quarter of the soldiers admitted they had been so scared that they vomited. 

Almost a quarter lost control of their bowels. 

Ten percent urinated in their pants. 

[Dry mouth and gagging are common symptoms of fear, a problem for officers who try to shout orders under fire and, instead, squeak] 

As the U.S. military girds for war today, shipping tons of arms and ammunition, thousands of tanks and planes and artillery pieces to jumping-off points around Iraq, commanders must prepare themselves and their men for the hardest part of war: overcoming fear. 

In an earlier age, commanders killed shirkers and used alcohol to stiffen spines. 

As military historian John Keegan has noted, at Agincourt in the 15th century, at Waterloo in the 19th century, at the Somme in the 20th, many soldiers went into battle "less than sober, if not fighting drunk.

 Modern American generals must rely on less crude tools. [Alcohol is forbidden on warships and at forward bases of the U.S. military, though soldiers seem to be able to get their hands on liquor, sometimes in mail deliveries from home.] Denial and stoicism, the traditional warrior virtues, may work for some gung-ho types - Marines, fighter pilots, paratroopers, the Navy SEALs and Green Berets - but the modern grunt misses his MTV. And even a valorous medal winner can come home a post-traumatic-stress-disorder wife beater.

It has long been recognized that men fight, not for God or country, but out of fear - 

fear of being killed 

and fear of showing fear. 

The great combat historian of World War II, S.L.A. Marshall, wrote that fear affects all men, even the most highly motivated; that no more than a quarter of the men actually fired their weapons on the battlefield. Religious scruples against killing was one reason. 

A bigger factor was shock.

Some men break immediately under fire. Others take longer. A few, maybe 2 percent, are true war lovers, but they are also deemed psychopaths driven mad by the stress of combat.

Army psychiatrists in World War II found that every man had an absolute limit of psychic endurance, at most about 60 days of continuous combat or an aggregate of 200 to 240 days.

Leading men into battle requires more than daring cliches and a strong jaw. Most presidents, post-Vietnam, have been deeply reluctant to see any soldier come home in a body bag. For example, President Clinton pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 right after the bloody fight depicted in "Black Hawk Down." 

Determined to show U.S. resolve, faced with a foe armed with WMD, President Bush seems more willing to run the risk of casualties.  Bush might even be eager to show the world that he is no Clinton.  

A war against Iraq, if it comes, will be much shorter - probably. Americans have become accustomed to one-sided wars with low American casualties. U.S. forces will again roll over Iraqi opposition - maybe. U.S. soldiers will be better protected than earlier combatants and kill the enemy from greater distances - usually. 

Then again, the Third Division could find itself fighting house to house in a city swathed in toxic gas.

Train the way you fight, fight the way you train 
is the mantra of the armed services. 

"Chesty" Puller, Marine Corp hero of World War II and Korea, believed there is no substitute for the training given by real combat. His point is valid.  The urban-fighting drills of the Third I.D. feel a little unreal, staged more for the CNN cameras perhaps than as preparation for a real fight. Highly trained paratroopers or commandos may be more likely to do any close-in urban street fighting in Iraq. 

The Third is a mechanized division, depending heavily on tanks that fight at long range. "You can shoot and hit at very long distances," says Sgt. Maj. Dennis Oggs, a battalion tank commander. You feel protected.

Living with death requires a certain mind-set. Even buttoned up in their airtight, steel-plated rolling fortresses, tankers have reason to be afraid. The capacity to shoot at unseen over the horizon targets makes U.S. forces especially vulnerable to killing one another. 

The military is constantly trying to cut down on friendly fire incidents, all war, including high-tech war, rarely goes as planned. During one recent exercise in the Kuwaiti desert, the Third I.D.'s brand-new computerized system for tracking friendly forces blinkered out.

Pilots, 
especially marine pilots,
 
are an insular warrior caste. 

No one must deal with fear on a more regular - indeed, daily - basis than carrier-based pilots. Taking off and landing a wind-tossed warplane on a pitching deck in the dead of night - night after night - requires a suspension of normal human reactions.

Death and the enemy are to be mocked, often in crudely psychosexual terms. The all-male Rattlers refer to Iraq as the Box. (Naval aviators, more politically correct than the Marines because women serve as aviators too, avoid sexual connotations by referring to Iraq as the Container.] 

The Rattlers readily admit they are afraid at times, but they exult in flying jets and their view of combat can be surreal. Capt. Dan (Knuckles) Shipley described antiaircraft fire on a night mission. It looks like trails of beads, he said, making explosions with his mouth, like fireworks. It's pretty, it doesn't seem real, and you've got to sort of wake yourself up to realize that you're being shot at.

The average grunt has less psychic armor. For every three or four soldiers wounded or killed in battle, on average, one soldier has to be pulled off the front line suffering from combat stress. Among conscripts thrown into heavy combat, the ratio can be as high as 1 for one. (Among well-trained elite units, like the Army Rangers, the ratio is usually very low, more like 10:1.)

The Israeli Army discovered the cost of fighting with green troops during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. The Egyptians and Syrians attacked out of the blue on a day of religious fasting. Hungry, stunned Israeli reservists were pressed into action. Tank crews were assembled ad hoc. Men who had never seen each other drove into battle. By morning, many of them were dead or shell-shocked.

The Israelis had been given a severe lesson in unit cohesion and training. Units that train together and stay together for long periods of time almost always fight better. 

This obvious lesson should have been learned in Vietnam by the U.S. Army, which rotated individual soldiers through units, always to the detriment of morale and fighting effectiveness. Some elite units are allowed to stick together today, but the Pentagon still replaces soldiers on the front lines one by one in most regular Army divisions. 

Why?  Well, to rotate entire units would require a larger force than Congress is willing to pay for, or so say the bean counters.

Soldiers do not have to be on the front lines to be afraid.  

Fear can hit anyone.  In Kuwait, U.S. troops feel like sitting ducks for a terrorist attack with chemical or bio-weapons (not unrealistically either, since British police believe that terror suspects recently caught with ricin, a lethal nerve agent, planned to poison the food of British soldiers). 

Even in the most storied outfits, like the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALs, some men wilt under fire. If these men not be made to feel like cowards, they might not ever go back into combat. 

Since World War I, enlightened military leaders have followed the teachings of Napoleon's surgeon in chief, Dominique Larrey. In tending to La Grande Armee through 60 battles in 25 campaigns during the early 19th century, Larrey had discovered that the best way to treat a shell-shocked soldier was like any other wounded soldier. Give him sleep and decent food, preserve his identity as a soldier. Do not disgrace him by treating him as a mental case or sending him to an asylum or even home for a rest. Get him back into the line as soon as possible. More often than not, this worked, reported Larrey.

History has borne out Larrey's approach. 

When Gen. George S. Patton slapped a couple of "malingerers" at a field hospital in World War II, he was way out of line. In both world wars and in every conflict since, military doctors have found that about 70 percent of soldiers suffering from combat fatigue, if treated with kindness and respect, went willingly back into battle after three or four days of rest. About half the others were able to serve in rear echelons away from the fighting. Only 15 percent or so were truly broken.

Since Vietnam, the U.S. military has grown increasingly sophisticated about dealing with psychological trauma. "In the '70s, the answer was always 'three hots and a cot', says the Rev. Raymond Koop, a chaplain at Fort Benning, Ga. "Now we have critical-incident defusings and stress-management techniques." 

Sure, some old hands, especially in the Marine Corps, think the military has got a little too touchy-feely. They say that boot camp has gone soft in the Army and Navy, especially after the inclusion of women in the early '90s. Instead of wearing combat boots and fatigues, enlistees do the rope course in sneakers and gym shorts. 

There have even been some urban legends circulating that at some training courses, frazzled recruits have been allowed to beg out of strenuous drills by holding up blue or white cards marked with an "S" (for stress).

Soldiers who sign up for combat arms - infantry, armor and artillery - eventually go through much more realistic training. 

The basic idea is to eliminate, or at least lessen, the surprise and shock of combat. By constant repetition, a soldier's duties are supposed to become routine, reflexive, automatic.  Rather than think - and possibly panic - a combat soldier is supposed to rely on "muscle memory." 

At mock battlefields like the National Training Center in the California desert, soldiers simulate real battles, shooting each other with laser beams (soldiers are fitted with sensors; when they bleep, the soldiers are "dead"). Explosions are used to replicate the noise and smoke of the battlefield, but live fire is generally deemed too dangerous.

Iraq cannot be conquered if the men doing the fighting cannot conquer the gremlins in their own minds. The greatest fear among troops, it seems - worse than death - is of looking like a coward.  Consequently, the military uses the buddy system knowing that men do not want to shame themselves by showing cowardice to their buddies.

That's absolutely one of the most horrible things to have to go through, you can't let your buddy down. says David Grubb, a Marine infantryman who enlisted on the day after the 9-11 attacks. He has trained to use a shoulder-fired 83-mm rocket launcher; he knows when the time comes to use it in combat that he will be afraid.

But what I do with the fear determines whether the fear is a good thing or a bad thing. If I let the fear overcome me, that's a bad thing. If I use fear as courage, that's a good thing. Making the switch is easier said than done, he knows. 

A 20-year-old, and newly married with a baby on the way, Grubb flashes a big grin. No matter what happens, I'm coming home so I'll get to see my baby, he says. 

I'm not allowed to die. They can't kill me. They're not allowed to, no matter what happens.

On such faith do young men go into battle. 

They will never doubt their own immortality, 

until the man next to them falls heir to one of the body bags.

the end.  

For more essays in this vein and of this caliber, contact Margot B & Associates http://www26.brinkster.com/margotb 

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