Veterans Give Field Officers Final Advice : Combat: Senior commanders impress on younger subordinates that soldiers' lives are in their hands.


The brigade commander pushed past the tent flaps and into a dusty command post crowded with the captains and lieutenants who would lead this battalion into battle.

He turned a chair so that its back was to the battlefield map that on any other day would be the focus of attention.

"I want to look at all the young guys," the colonel said, "who are ready to go to war."

With an American forward thrust now straining at the starting line, commanders like Col. James Riley have begun to assemble their subordinates for what might be the final words of advice before a ground war begins.

At this session, which featured a 50-minute monologue that blended plain-spokenness and eloquence in a classic eve-of-battle oration, what seemed to weigh most heavily was the recognition that the leadership of these officers could determine whether soldiers would live or die.

For what might lie ahead is not war games but the real thing. In war games, a yellow light indicates a tank or other piece of equipment has been hit and is "killed." But "out here," Riley reminded his audience which has known only war games, "a yellow light is a burning tank. And that tank has American soldiers in it."

In anticipation of an American offensive the colonel predicted would be "prosecuted more violently than any war in history," U.S. commanders here have had to confront head-on the basic brutality of warfare. With most soldiers' grasp of battlefield death limited to the flashing lights of war games, the effort is to prepare the inexperienced for battlefield reality.

"What changes," reflected Maj. Arnie Leonard, executive officer for the 7th Infantry Regiment, "is that here you know your plans and decisions make the difference between people living and not living. It can be a difficult thing to carry around."

"Out here," said Maj. Mark Curry, operations officer for another brigade in this 1st Armored Division, "you spend considerably more time asking yourself, 'Is this the right thing to do?' Instead of, 'Is this the easiest thing to do?' "

Riley, a warm but intense 48-year-old who first saw combat as a second lieutenant in Vietnam, has sought, in his visits to the battalions serving under him, to speak frankly of that horror.

"Some of those guys are not going to get a proper burial," Riley said of the enemy forces now arrayed in front of his infantry brigade. "Some of these guys are going to be laid to rest right there in the holes they've been sitting in. They're just going to be covered up as we go by.

"Now that's a sad thing," he said, "but I don't want you to be sad about it."

His voice rose a notch and took on a tougher edge. "Because those sumbitches are the same trigger-pullers that are out there trying to kill you. And if any of you have any problems with that, then you're in the wrong business."

The officers listened in silence, men in their 20s and 30s almost spellbound, as the colonel, a wiry man with metal-rimmed glasses who usually speaks in the most measured of tones, showed a fierceness few had seen before.

"My goal is for this to be a killer brigade," Riley told his officers carefully, chomping methodically on a wad of Red Man tobacco almost always lodged against his cheek. "Killers survive."

There was a quiet sense of urgency in his talk as he leaned back in a folding chair on the sand, hands shoved in jacket pockets and a leg crossed loosely over the other. And it provided a particularly vivid sense of a leader seeking to steel his men for war.

This was not yet time to peak, the colonel warned. His crystal ball was "a little bit cloudy"--no one knew when the order to attack might come. Soldiers brought to battle pitch too soon would go to war emotionally spent.

It was, however, clearly time to recognize what would lie ahead. And in his talk, one of four he would deliver this day to his main attack battalions, Riley sought to describe what the battle would look like.

It would be essential, he said, to rein back soldiers' natural aggressiveness, to ensure than an American advance remained well-ordered, that there be no suicidal headlong charges into Iraqi positions.

"It is going to be anything but timid," he stressed. "It is going to be exceedingly violent. But it must be disciplined and controlled."

Then Riley paused to share a description of his own first taste of combat as a 21-year-old assigned to a Vietnamese battalion, his insides churning in anxiety as he moved forward across what soldiers call the "line of departure."

His men, too, would be anxious when battle time came at last. It was only to be expected. "Don't fear fear," the colonel urged as he brought his speech to a conclusion. "Accept it. Live with it. And expect that it will go away."

Outside afterward, Capt. Charlie Arp sat quietly in his Humvee, thinking about what he had just heard and thumbing slowly through a photo album he had brought from home.

There, in full color, were Arp and his girlfriend, bundled up in winter parkas on a ski trip in the Austrian Alps only last October. But the young company commander from Georgia said his mind was mostly on his troops.

"If there's anything I worry about now," he said, "it's the guys out there and can I make the right decisions at the right time.

"Sure I'm scared," he added, "but not really for myself. It's for the soldiers, and the pain and agony they face."

This article was reviewed by U.S. military censors.

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