Cheerleaders, put on your gas masks!

By David Hackworth

Cheered on by a chorus of bloodthirsty TV, radio and newspaper savants – few of whom have ever worn a soldier suit – and equally unqualified politicians also burning to take out Saddam, the Washington Warlords say, “Regime change in Iraq will be a cakewalk.”

And, for once, these know-it-alls are right.

Remember in 1991 when “the fourth most powerful army in the world” melted down after the first tank shot and surrendered to TV crews? Expect a replay when the bombs fall and our troops slash toward Baghdad.

My concern is not whether our warriors – thousands of whom are about to hook up with tens of thousands more around the Persian Gulf, where they’ll all remain on hold until whenever because politics is out-of-sync with the realities of war-fighting – are up for the job, but if their biological and chemical gear can adequately protect them. For it’s a given that Saddam will try to splash our troops with every bio-chem weapon he’s got before he’s incinerated. And immediately after the first such attack, we’ll just as surely dispatch nukes and do unto Iraq as we did unto Japan.

Yesterday, I suited up in a charcoal-lined Mission Oriented Protective Posture suit – MOPP – complete with M-40 protective mask, rubber gloves and rubber boots. While it was far from desert weather on my mock battlefield, I came away from being hermetically sealed in that spacewalker suit at MOPP4 – the highest level of protection – convinced our soldiers won’t be able to function for long in any environment in this type of gear.

My instructor, who’d spent hard time at our Army Desert Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., couldn’t wait to tell me horror stories about the heavy heat-related casualties he’d observed during training exercises, when our troops were in MOPP4 suits for only short periods of time. Scores of warriors now deployed in the oven-hot Gulf share this captain’s righteous concern.

While encased, I couldn’t help wondering about performing basic body functions like eating and evacuating, let alone kill-or-be-killed drills. How could our Joes and Janes function as tankers, cannon-cockers, riflemen, flight ground crews, medics or truck drivers in this cumbersome stuff?

An old pro warrior now in the Gulf says: “Having trained for years in MOPP gear, I can best describe life wearing it as being truly miserable. I’ve seen soldiers in excellent condition unable to move after a moderate level of exertion. Will it work for more than a few hours here? Right! And I’m the tooth fairy.”

Let’s get a grip and find out what’s really going down: Why not send the war-pushing pundits, politicians, Pentagon big wheels and service chiefs off for two weeks of fact-finding in Kuwait?

The first week, the best experts going on bio-chem defense would train them. The second week, they’d be suited up at MOPP4, moved to an isolated section of Kuwait along the Iraqi border – close to the area where there’s still 350 tons of U.S. depleted uranium fired by us during Desert Storm – and for seven days they’d function as rear-echelon supporters, tasked with the vital bringing-up-the-rear jobs, and as frontline grunts, manning guns and tanks and conducting infantry battle maneuvers. While, of course, bio-chem weapons like the ones our intell folks say Saddam has – anthrax, smallpox, mustard and sarin gas, to name but a few – were sprayed in and around them.

But, hey, we don’t need to sweat these high-profile folks. They won’t be guinea pigs like our Desert Storm troopers – who’ve suffered more than 170,000 dead and disabled out of the 700,000 who served there because of top-brass dereliction of duty. This time around, they’ll be as safe as our kids when they jump off. After all, the gear and the vaccines procured to protect our soldiers from Saddam’s vile weapons of mass destruction have been Pentagon and Food and Drug Administration certified as good to go.

This testimony to our wonder gear could and should be broadcast live, straight from the test site to the American public – a top-rated TV reality show that would allow these VIP pols and pundits to get their war message out to a larger-than-ever audience share. At least for as long as they survived.