KUWAITI DESERT - Monday afternoon I ate a hamentaschen on the hood of a humvee in the Kuwaiti
desert, 40 km. south of Iraq with US Army 1st Sergeant Michael Mansfield. I
lit a zippo lighter for a candle and we said the blessings.
We clinked hamentaschen for l'haim. In lieu of the megilla reading, I told his driver
an abbreviated version of the Purim story. The hamentaschen were courtesy of
the sergeant's uncle Norman in Florida. The rest of the experience was
compliments of the US army.
This is by far the most bizarre holiday celebration I have ever had, but
Sgt. Mansfield, a 39-year-old Brooklyn native who has been in the US army
for 18 years, has experiences that far outpace our humvee Purim picnic.
In the first Gulf War he was a squad leader with the same battalion he is
presently attached to - the 2-7 mechanized infantry battalion of the 3rd
Army Infantry Division's 1st Brigade.
'Being a Jew in the army means knowing how to compromise. But back in 1991,
when I was in Saudi Arabia, I insisted on being allowed to celebrate Hanukka
with other Jews.
'They flew me to this camp in the middle of nowhere in the desert; out there
they had this tent set up and inside the tent was a rabbi and five other
Jews. We said some prayers and lit the menora. The rabbi sang and pulled out
the Manischewitz wine. I don't know how he got that wine into Saudia. That
was by far the most memorable Hanukka of my life.'
As far as postings go today, the 2-7 Battalion is a pretty good place for
Jews. The commander, Lt.-Col. Scott Rutter, is Jewish.
Rutter cuts an interesting figure. The 40-year-old, 1.8 m. commander with
bright blue eyes and salt and pepper hair is the only Jewish combat
battalion commander in the US army and one of the only Jewish commanders at
any level. Rutter is also the only battalion commander in the 3rd infantry
division who fought as a company commander in the Gulf War.
Rutter, an only child, grew up in Philadelphia. He finished college at the
age of 20 and joined the army. In June he is set to round out his 20 years
of service and to the great consternation of his superiors, is determined to
leave 'at my peak,' and become a civilian.
Today he, his wife Joline, and their sons Seth and Luke live in Manhattan
and are members of the Lincoln Square Orthodox synagogue.
He is proud of his background and his heritage and is open to sharing it,
especially with a writer from Jerusalem. His mother's family came to America
from Germany before the US Revolution in 1776 and they have maintained their
Judaism throughout the centuries.
But today, the story for Rutter is not about his Judaism. It is about his
battalion and the war that he and his 730 soldiers and officers are about to
I ARRIVED at Rutter's battalion on March 11, about 10 days after they left
the cultivated Camp New Jersey and moved to the outback closer to the
border. Conditions for the battalion are harsh. In their desert camping
ground, they have much sunlight during the day, much darkness during the
night and very little else. They have no running water and receive
electricity from generators. They live off combat rations and food trucks
that come from the brigade command some 10 km. away.
The troops have all learned one word in Arabic since arriving in this spot -
shamal - which means sandstorm. I experienced my first shamal on Wednesday
night. In this type of storm, once the sand starts moving, there is no
stopping it. Day and night visibility can be limited to less than 20 cm.
Wednesday night I could barely make out my hand in front of my face.
Unlike the Negev or the Judean Desert, the Kuwaiti desert is perfectly flat.
Any hills are the result of either Kuwaiti mining or oil drilling
explorations or US military maneuvers. There are no natural obstacles to
hide a person from the wind or to slow it down.
And yet there are no complaints. As Lt.-Col. Rutter says, 'Our forces are
much happier here than they were in Camp New Jersey. It's true that there
they had showers and regular toilets. They even had Internet access. But now
that we are here they know that the battle is approaching. And they know
that the way home goes through the north.'
The topography of the desert is one of the reasons that the US forces here
foresee little resistance for their troops in their initial push into
Baghdad. Commander of 1st Brigade, Col. William Grimsley explains, 'It is
hard to defend in this terrain. If a side in hostilities believes that it is
best to place troops in a location where their presence will reinforce
naturally defended terrain then this would not be the place to deploy them.'
The US military leadership in Kuwait is exceptionally confident about its
ability to complete the march from Kuwait to Baghdad within four to five
days. A mechanized infantry battalion like the 2-7 can move an average of
20- 30 km. per hour and at that rate Baghdad, at 450 km. from the border is
just about four days away.
Rutter's battalion today is an almost wholly autonomous offensive strike
force. The 2-7 mechanized infantry battalion, (nicknamed the Cottonbailers),
includes a heavy mechanized infantry company equipped with 10 Bradley
fighting vehicles and 4 M1A1 Abrams battle tanks, a fully mechanized company
with 14 M1A1s, and a third company with 10 M1A1s and four Bradleys. The
Bradleys have a 25 mm. cannon, two TOW missile launchers and a 7.62 machine
gun. They are heavily armored and can dismount eight troops. In addition,
the battalion has an engineering company, a mortar company, a scouts company
and an air defense artillery platoon armed with stinger missiles launched
from their Bradleys instead of the TOWs.
For the purpose of the invasion, the 2-7 battalion will also be carrying two
Patriot missile batteries. The battalion will receive heavy artillery
support from the brigade's battalion of Palladin howitzers. The Palladin
cannons have a 33-km. range and their payload includes laser-guided heavy
explosive charges. The 2-7 battalion's indigenous mortar range is limited to
In addition to its fighting forces, Rutter's 2-7 battalion has a civil
affairs team of reservists who were called up for 365 days as well as a
psychological warfare team of active duty soldiers. Both of these attached
assets are part of the Special Operations Command from Fort Bragg. The task
of these forces during the fighting stage will be to keep civilians away
from the battle and to instruct Iraqi forces how to surrender.
Captain Bill Thompson, the head of the civil affairs team, teaches photo
journalism at a junior college back home in South Carolina. The soft-spoken
38-year-old is to lead the civil affairs team in setting up displaced
persons camps, POW camps and, in later stages of the war, identifying Iraqis
who will cooperate with the US in regime change as well as in coordinating
the work of NGOs in rehabilitating the country.
Thompson recalls the success of the US psychological operations in the Gulf
'We had Iraqi soldiers surrendering to us with our leaflets in their hands.
If we hadn't come they would have died. They had no water and all the food
they had left were these inedible black oranges.
'Our leaflets had pictures of food on them. They came with their hands up
with their fingers pointing to the food pictures. They ate our entire
rations, including the powder for the coffee creamer and the Tabasco sauce -
they were so hungry. On the leaflets there was a picture of a banana and the
prisoners kept pointing to the picture. We figured out that in Iraq bananas
were a delicacy so we flew in a planeload on a C-130 (Hercules) and gave
them to the Iraqis.'
WHILE THE attack plan is complete, it is far from clear how Iraq will be
stabilized after the fall of Saddam's regime. Third- Infantry Division
commander Maj.- Gen. Buford Blount believes that his division will remain in
Iraq through the initial stabilization stage after the hostilities die down.
'Our mission here is to set conditions for a new regime and to locate and
seize all weapons of mass destruction,' Blount, a 1.9 m. model of an
American general says. 'All of this is necessary to prepare the country for
a new regime.'
It appears that the Pentagon planners believe that after the initial push to
Baghdad it will take some time to put together a new Iraqi government. First
there is the problem of northern Iraq. In the absence of Turkish bases, US
forces will have to move from south to north and it will take time to arrive
Second, there is the problem of civil affairs. While there are 100,000
ground forces in Kuwait and heading for Iraq, there are only 180 civil
affairs troops. These men, all reservists, will be responsible for going
from village to village and making the determination of whether or not the
local leaders should stay in power. Of the 180, only 30 speak Arabic. No
doubt it will take months for the US to train and deploy a sufficient force
to operate a civil administration for the Iraqis. In the meantime, they seem
to be operating under the impression that NGOs will volunteer happily to
work with the US military government in rebuilding infrastructure and
providing for the basic humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people.
One Civil Affairs soldier, 36-year-old St.-Sgt. Yancey Christopher explains,
'We want to avoid a Balkan situation where the country fell apart after Tito
left power. Hopefully we can bring democracy to Iraq but I don't know how
that can happen. As Civil Affairs soldiers we don't do rebuilding work
ourselves. We farm it out to NGOs. We have a bird's eye view of the country
and we coordinate the activities of others.
'The problem is that many of the NGO's look at us as aggressors. We
understand that after September 11, the world changed for us. They may look
at the Americans as colonizers. I know that this is not the case. I hope
they will understand that this is not our objective. But today, instead of
being reactive, and waiting to be attacked we need to be proactive and take
care of these guys before they can attack us.'
As for the attacking forces, they are ready and their motivation is high.
Captain Matt Paul from New Jersey, who commands the mortar company has a
picture of the World Trade Center in his command car. For Paul and his men
the mission is clear. They have American flags flying on the backs of all of
The US troops, whose average age is 22-23, are sophisticated in their
analysis of the need for the war and the morality of the battle, if perhaps
a bit innocent about the likelihood that the Iraqis will view them in the
same light as they view themselves.
Paul says, 'I can think of no battle more moral than the one that we
approach. Saddam has caused mayhem and will continue to do so, both against
the US and our allies, as well as against his own people. To me, it would be
unacceptable not to go in and take him down. Were we to stand down, I know
that we would be back here in a few years to do this. But in the meantime,
we must ask how much damage will Saddam have caused?'
Twenty-four-year-old Bradley gunner Jason Trombley from Vermont makes the
case even more bluntly.
'This man Saddam tortures women and children in front of their husbands and
fathers. I know what has to happen to a person like that. And we are going
to take care of it.'
The US forces come from all over the US, from all social classes, races and
regional affiliations. While the US itself has over the past decade or so
upheld diversity rather than unity as the pinnacle of its social pluralism,
the army is a study in melting-pot socialization.
In one of Paul's mortar carriers sits a crew from South Carolina,
California, Russia and Ohio.
'We all work together,' says the commander, a 34-year- old sergeant from
Georgia. 'Sure there are lots of differences between us but we find things
in common. We talk about sports or movies or work. We don't run out of
things to say.'
The troops seem to believe, like their commanders, that because they have
nothing against the Iraqi people, the Iraqi people will have nothing against
them once they enter the country as liberators. When I mentioned the word
'conquest' to the deputy battalion commander Maj. Kevin Cooney, the husky
native of Arkansas with a smile forever on his face, looked surprised.
'I have never thought of us as conquerors. We are going in to liberate the
Iraqis from a terrible dictator and set up a new government that will treat
them with respect. I guess we are going to conquer their country but we
don't want anything from them. We just need to safeguard the security of our
country and help them.'
Specialist Bobby Roberts from West Virginia, who joined the army at 25 and
divides his time fairly equally between driving Rutter's humvee and writing
poetry expressed the same sentiment.
'It will be clear to the Iraqis that we mean them no harm. We'll be helping
them. They'll understand that.'
IN AN address before the 1st Brigade's battalion and company commanders on
Tuesday morning, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, who commands the army's V Corps
in charge of all army forces in the theater, told the men that he is not
concerned about the ability of the forces and indicated perhaps the root
cause of the army's sense that the Iraqis will accept them.
'You are all a hell of a lot better than the force needed to get this done
quickly, decisively and on our terms.'
The US forces believe that terrorism is likely to be used against their
forces but do not believe that it will be used to much effect. Col. Grimsley
explains, 'Terror won't stop us.'
The terror attack that most concerns the forces is the prospect of a bombing
of the fuel tankers that will resupply the armored columns.
'A car bomb or a human bomb is more effective against a fueler than against
a Bradley or an M1A1. But in the event that a 5,000 gallon tanker is blown
up, while it will be a terrible tragedy, it won't stop me from moving
Due to fear of terror attacks against the support lines, the US has
collapsed the distance between its front and its rear. Maj.-Gen. Blount
explains that all the convoys 'will be armed and protected.'
The coming battle will be significantly different from Desert Storm not just
in its ends but in its means as well. If the air war in Desert Storm
continued for 30 days before the introduction of ground troops, the coming
war will introduce ground forces at an early stage. As one high level source
explains, 'It will be a matter of hours or at most a couple of days between
the beginning of the air campaign and the ground campaign.'
At the battalion level the men can be packed and ready to go within four
hours. By Tuesday the camp was already being broken in preparation for the
advance northwards. The actual movement to the edge of the border is set for
Wednesday morning and the breach is presumably to begin early Thursday
morning - at the end of President George W. Bush's 48-hour deadline.
The troops are infused with a sense of the justice of their cause. Fire
support officer, Capt. Jason Happe from West Virginia found a chapter from
the Bible that expresses their feelings, and the purpose of their mission
best for himself and his men. He read from the Book of Joel, chapter 2, to
his troops as the move toward battle became palpable.
'Behold the trumpet of Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who
live in the land tremble for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at
'A day of darkness of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness.
'Like dawn spreading across the mountains, a large and mighty army comes
such as never was of old nor ever will be in the ages to come.
'Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land
is like the garden of Eden, behind them a desert waste - nothing escapes
'The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are mighty beyond
number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the Lord is
great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?'