On a sodden, sullen day in the Arabian desert, American troops bailed out foxholes and tents flooded by a rare downpour and steeled themselves for a day they will meet with dread and foreboding--the last day for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
“I doubt anybody’s going to be able to sleep,” said Army Sgt. Doug Milligan, 28, of New York City, a member of the 11th Signal Brigade, describing the somber spirit on the front lines on the eve of Jan. 15.
The message all up and down the line, he said, was “Just be ready.”
Across the barren desert and on the inky waters of the Persian Gulf, it was nearing deadline time in the 5-month-old crisis, and participants large and small in Operation Desert Shield prepared for a war that most had reluctantly concluded was now inevitable.
The question on everyone’s mind was no longer if war would come, but when. “Any moment after the 15th is borrowed time,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in Washington.
Aboard the aircraft carrier Midway inside the narrow gulf, crews launched fighter and reconnaissance planes northward into the night. Five other American flattops took up positions in the region with their 400 combat aircraft.
On the docks at Persian Gulf ports, mammoth freighters continued belching out their lethal cargo as blinding spotlights illuminated the wharves. Around the globe, 255 merchant ships were loading, under sail or offloading cargo dedicated to arming and supplying the 430,000 U.S. troops of Desert Shield.
At the joint military headquarters in Riyadh, commanders put the finishing touches on war plans and kept in constant communication with their superiors in Washington over secure radio, cable and telephone lines. Charts detailing U.S. and allied troop deployments, enemy missile sites and Iraqi ground force locations were updated by the hour.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cleared their calendars to attend to the last-minute details of what would be the largest single American military operation since D-Day. They met Monday afternoon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the National Military Command Center on the Pentagon’s third floor, then drove across the river to brief President Bush at the White House on the U.S. expeditionary force’s state of readiness.
Security was tightened at American military installations around the world in anticipation of what the CIA fears will be the largest outbreak of terrorist attacks ever. Even the school group tours of the Pentagon were canceled indefinitely because of security concerns.
And at an airfield in Saudi Arabia, the pilots of the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing double-checked their missiles, awaiting the “go” order they have been expecting for months.
“We’ve got everything we need to go to war,” said wing commander Col. Merrill R. (Ron) Karp. “What we do in the next three or four days will set the agenda for the next 40 or 50 years in the Middle East.”
At the Pentagon, officials were at pains to describe the activities of senior officers and civilian leaders in terms of business as usual. An aide described Cheney as “resolved and purposeful;” the aide rejected the characterization “grim,” but in a television interview on Sunday morning the defense secretary certainly appeared that way.
Powell was said to have his emotions under control, or at least well concealed. He was able to laugh and joke with his staff during morning briefings, an aide said. Despite the fact that about 40,000 U.S. troops are still en route to Saudi Arabia, Powell remains “confident” that the American force is ready to do whatever Bush asks them to do, Powell’s spokesman said.
Other military officials also tried to downplay the tension of the moment.
“We’re just so wired now, we don’t really have to do very much to be in the crisis mode. We really have been in a near-continuous crisis mode since October, 1989--the first Panama coup,” said an official in the Pentagon’s policy-making bureau.
Gen. Carl E. Vuono, chief of staff of the Army, lifted weights as usual in the morning and arrived at the Pentagon to conduct a typical round of meetings on the meat and potatoes of Army management: the status of Army personnel, training and education programs and readiness.
The chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank B. Kelso, underscored the importance of relations between the Air Force and the Navy--in and out of the gulf. He appeared at an Air War College symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama to give a classified briefing on current naval operations.
For many officials, there was a sense of resigned calm before the storm.
“Most people seem to be convinced now, finally, that push has come to shove and that something is gonna happen. There’s a feeling somewhere between fatalism and determination,” said one senior military officer at the Pentagon.
“All that can be done has been done,” said another. “I’m looking for the 11th-hour reprieve. I’m praying. . . .”
On Capitol Hill, which had just seen a wrenching debate on war and peace, there were calls for unity.
“It’s time to rally behind the forces in the field,” said Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who had opposed the congressional resolution endorsing the use of force. He said that the time for debate is over but added that there could be bad news from the battlefield if war breaks out.
Nunn said he is confident that U.S. armed forces would prevail on the battlefield, but he cautioned that a conflict and its aftermath is not “going to be simple, easy and quick.”
In Saudi Arabia, ships carrying VII Corps equipment from Europe docked and began disgorging M1-A1 tanks and other armored vehicles, supplies and ammunition. The troops met their gear and began readying them for the long overland journey to the front. When the transport operation is completed in the next several weeks, about 1,300 U.S. tanks will be in Saudi Arabia, facing 4,000 Iraqi tanks dug into position in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
Eighty-eight merchant ships unloaded or prepared to unload their cargo in the war theater Monday, while about 4,000 new troops arrived. Transport aircraft have been landing at Saudi airports every 15 minutes for several weeks.
Back in the United States, reserve units were still being alerted and deploying, and for the first time since the nation placed its reliance in National Guard and Reserve units to fill out its combat rolls, three such brigades were training across the country.
The 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard was storming mock-Iraqi fortifications at the Army’s National Training Center at Ft. Irwin in California, the 256th Infantry Brigade from Louisiana was exercising at Ft. Hood in Texas and the 155th Brigade from the Mississippi National Guard was “acclimatizing” to arid air and treeless terrain in Ft. Carson, Colo.
Marines afloat for months off Saudi Arabia waited aboard eight amphibious ships inside the Persian Gulf. Another 24 amphibious ships steamed in the north Arabian Sea, just outside the mouth of the gulf.
In all, more than 20,000 Marines were aboard ships in the region in preparation for what could be the largest amphibious operation since Inchon in the Korean War. In one unit somewhere in the vast expanse along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, an Army captain told his anxious men that they no longer need salute their officers. No more military pomp, he said; wartime rules apply.
Other troops heading toward the border were making a different transition. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, one of the first units to arrive in Saudi Arabia, still wore grins from their first official respite, three days of beer and hot food aboard the Cunard Princess, leased by the military for troop recreation and now anchored off Bahrain.
“It was like, party and get drunk, party and get drunk,” said Spec. Jose Santana, describing what was for him and his buddies from the 101st the first chance to blow off steam since they arrived in country.
While his spirits were clearly buoyed by three days of rest, the apprehensions of an approaching battle were beginning to return. “I’m not saying I’m not afraid or anything,” said Santana as he waited for his plane back to the front. “I don’t want to die.”
And at an air base to the rear, four F-15C fighters fired up their engines and roared into the skies, heading northward to skirt the edge of Iraqi airspace on a 4-hour combat air patrol. They are among the 500 U.S. warplanes that would ply the skies in combat.
F-15 pilots who stayed behind fingered newly printed decals, depicting a red triangle upside-down within a green one, a design adapted from the Iraqi flag. The decals were printed in advance as spoils of war, to be slapped proudly on the fuselage of U.S. jets that registercombat “kills” of enemy planes.
At other American bases and encampments strewn across the desert, other senior officers spent the day wrestling with their feelings, torn between gut emotions that urged them on to war and more reflective wisdom that made them pray for peace.
“I know it’s irrational,” said Maj. Bryan Berg, an 18th Airborne Corps operations officer who is beginning his sixth month in Saudi Arabia. “But for some of us who have been here for such a long time, you want to see it go.”
And others, combat-tested, said they would do their best to keep their emotions on an even keel.
“It can’t affect you one way or another,” said Sgt. Major Paul Parker, 45, of Herrin, Ill., a 22-year Army veteran who fought in Vietnam. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
Jehl reported from Saudi Arabia and Broder reported from Washington. Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this story.