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Coping R Not Fun
How the Troops Preparing for Combat in Iraq Will Cope
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
- 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
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.
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:
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 it�s intense, most will bravely do their duty,
but many will curl up into the fetal position or wet
If they see as much
combat as their grandfathers in World War II did,
they will, with time,
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
Almost a quarter lost
control of their bowels.
Ten percent urinated in
[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:
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.
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.
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
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
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
A war against Iraq, if
it comes, will be much shorter -
have become accustomed to one-sided wars with low American
casualties. U.S. forces will again roll over Iraqi opposition
U.S. soldiers will be better protected than earlier combatants
and kill the enemy from greater distances -
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
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
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
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
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
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
�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
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.
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