Winning Without a Fight

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The war in Iraq may have started, but the fighting men of Charlie Rock keep missing it. For weeks as they waited out dust storms and rising heat in the Kuwaiti desert, their commander told the 152 infantrymen that as part of the Third Brigade Combat Team, third Infantry Division, they would be the vanguard, the "tip of the spear" that would run the Iraqi army through. And so, for three days and nights they endured the heat of their biochemical protection suits and rode their Abrams M1-A1 Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles hard across Northern Kuwait and the southeastern Iraqi wastelands to the strategically pivotal garrison town of An Nasiriyah. At hasty fuel stops by Bedouin camps, they winced in jealousy at radio news of Marines fighting in Basra to the East. A scout team just ahead of Charlie Rock destroyed two Iraqi vehicles, killing ten.

But late Friday afternoon, with Howitzer batteries and rockets blasting from behind and zeroing in on their targets ahead, the 3rd Brigade burst from the desert onto Highway 80, the road to An Nasiriyah, and beyond it, Baghdad. The drivers roared into town, blowing clouds of dust and black exhaust, as above them gunners and dismount crews oiled their M-16s and readied the grips on their 50 caliber turret machine guns. Now at last, they would prove their mettle in what, for most would be their first taste of combat. "It's on," yelled first sergeant William Mitchell, 34, strapping a picture of his wife and ten year old son over his left forearm, "it's on like 'Donkey Kong'". And then.... nothing.

They sat on a highway shoulder for hours. They moved a few hundred meters and then stopped, and stopped again. After three nights of only a few moments sleep, exhaustion began to claim crews in their turrets. And then, when the attack order came, their commander Lt.Col. Wes Gillman called in yet more artillery, telling his troops he wanted to be "smart and not to push" and that they should stand by. Saturday morning found Charlie Rock picking through the remains of what should've been its battlefield, taking three rather ordinary looking prisoners of war and feeling more than a little riled. "What the hell did we come here to do?" asked Mitchell looking around his company. "This is the finest collection of weaponry in all the world." Surveying Tallil Airfield outside An Nasiriyah—a bombed out weed strewn apron of wrecked Iraqi airforce planes and administration buildings that has more in common with a junkyard than a military installation—Major Richard Des Jardin felt overdressed in his Bradley, "it's just plain embarrassing."

As embarrassing as it might be for feeble Iraqi forces, An Nasiriyah represents a strategic crossing point on the Euphrates—it lies about 200 miles southeast of the Baghdad. Taking this town is a crucial stop along the way to a siege of the capital where fighting is expected to be much more severe.

So far, however, Gulf War II hasn't offered much in the way of combat for the men of Charlie Rock. And from their vantage point the war has seemed rather dull. Third Brigade commander Daniel Allyn, 43, says the U.S. has updated nearly every single piece of equipment it will be deploying; by contrast, the Iraqi army's once proud forces have rotted under sanctions. This war provides an insight into how fully the post-Vietnam priority of fewest possible American casualties has matured. Improvements in technology means even commanders of thousands, such as Allyn, have a fighting chance of bringing them all home safe. The great killer of close quarters urban warfare is all but a thing of the past for the laser-guided U.S. military. "We will not risk American lives out of concern that we will damage Iraqi infrastructure," said Allyn on the eve of his Brigade's departure. "We do not intend to make it a fair fight."

All of which leaves the men of Charlie Rock a little irked. Resting and poking around Iraqi air force offices at Tallil, nearly all will admit to a yearning for a little action. Indeed more than a few are wondering why they bothered with all the training, and some are even questioning whether they picked the right career. So far the only shots fired have been when Staff Sergeant Adams' M-19 grenade launcher pumped two rounds into the desert when his M-113 track hit a particularly bad bump. Of course, safe is always good both for the men and military. Seasoned Charlie Rock veterans agree the U.S. has developed what Michell calls a "very successful way of fighting." But these are men who want to "get it on," who wrestle each other until the loser passes out, who roll out to war to the tune of Kid Rock's "American Badass" on the company radio. To them, this new way of fighting is like the war cry pasted on one of the medic's tracks: "Saddam Don't Surf." It makes sense, but somehow it just doesn't feel right.