Being in the rear: No longer a day at the beach

By David Hackworth

Historically, when an army cocks its fist and masses at enormous expense, far from its native land, any small incident – such as our recent Marine casualties in supposedly friendly Kuwait – could quickly escalate from a slugging match into a major shootout. And with Congress going along to get re-elected, war with Iraq is growing increasingly inevitable.

Unless there’s an inspection miracle, bombs smart beyond belief will probably start pummeling Iraq around Thanksgiving. A ground attack will follow only after we’ve prepped the battlefield with this awesome display of new weapons designed to blow away Saddam Hussein’s capacity to command his forces or do serious damage to our coiled ground units and their control and support facilities.

For sure, Saddam is capable of military stupidity – as he repeatedly proved during his long war with Iran and again when he tangled with Stormin’ Norman’s boys. But chances are he learned from Desert Storm that a U.S.-Iraq tank fight in the open desert would amount to us thumping him with a baseball bat while he retaliated with chopsticks. Not only do his armored formations not have the range, firepower or quality of our tank units, there’s also our total control of the airspace over the battlefield and the fact that his formations will have no place to hide.

Instead, all indications are that he’ll circle his wagons around Baghdad and Tikrit, the two cities critical to his survival. My take is that he’s hoping our generals will be so inept as to go force-on-force and conventionally attack those dug-in positions – where his civilian and our military casualties could be enormous. Dream on, Saddam.

Once our first bomb falls, I suspect he’ll immediately launch Scud missiles armed with Weapons of Mass Destruction and simultaneously use drone crop-dusters to spray our troops with deadly biological and chemical weapons. And the word is his special forces – having infiltrated our rear areas – will strike with hit-and-run dirty tricks ranging from sniper attacks to still more WMD.

Back in the good old days when he was our new best friend, we provided him with weapons, ammo, tactical advice and intelligence galore – and even the seed material to make the same terrible weapons our troops might soon be ducking – to use against the Iranians and his own people. We also showed our now-worst enemy the school solution for stopping a conventional force from putting him out of business: blow the dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would flood the southern Iraq desert with billions of gallons of water. No way has he forgotten where we told him to set the demolition charges!

U.S. Marine units will survive the flood and whatever else Saddam throws at them. Our Devildogs remain as spirited and effective as their brave predecessors stretching back to World War I.

U.S. Army combat units, not nearly as hard or as good as they were in Desert Storm, are another matter. Early conventional operations in Afghanistan have proven in spades that eight years of budget cuts and downsizing, social experiments and high-level Army leadership who sold their souls to get ahead have taken their toll. But because the Army still has a strong NCO and junior-to-middle-grade officer corps ready and willing to tighten the screws, our combat echelons should be good to go before it’s jumpoff time against a vastly inferior opponent that’s fortunately a pale shadow of what it was in 1991.

It’s the Army rear-echelon folks – where Bill Clinton’s kinder, gentler approach did the most damage – who worry me most. At present, they’re not trained nearly well enough to defend themselves and their installations from the rear-area kamikaze attacks that will surely come their way.

“The shock of a rear-area attack will leave the ‘air-conditioned office’ and other behind-the-lines types wishing the Army would have concentrated on basic survival skills in war instead of ‘diversity awareness’ and ‘consideration for others’ training,” a senior sergeant in Kuwait says. “I expect we’ll pay a high price for getting away from the standard that saved the bringing-up-the-rear crowd in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.”

My bet is this time around it’ll actually be safer in the lead tank than squatting in a once “safe” depot or headquarters bunker.