The Magazine

Why Iraq's Still a Hard Place

From the July 21, 2003 issue: The thugs are fighting, the troops are tired, and some doubt our determination--but we're winning.

Jul 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 43 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Living conditions in the field are austere, to put it mildly. Headquarters units may be sampling the weird, Michael Jackson-ranch quality of Saddam's palaces, but even there two out of three meals are MREs. Sleeping in the open without a mosquito net has consequences. There's barely enough water to drink--a huge concern as the summer heat begins to peak--and a lot less to wash with. The combination of the fine Iraqi dust and human sweat makes for a grimy paste that is hard to get off in a three-minute shower, especially given the tenuous nature of the Iraqi water system.

Military equipment has also taken a pounding. A substantial number of ground combat systems have sustained damage. There are widespread if anecdotal reports of tanks, infantry-fighting, and other armored vehicles taking multiple hits from rocket-propelled grenades while remaining in action, and those vehicles will require repair. Attack and assault helicopters were peppered with small-arms fire, as in the much-publicized raid against the Republican Guard by Army AH-64 Apaches. The Army's support units, significant parts of which lie in the reserves and have the supplemental mission of enabling the operations of the other services, are putting lots of mileage on their trucks, tankers, and heavy equipment transporters.

Even tactical aircraft, which dominated the skies over Iraq even before the war began, have had operational readiness rates--the technical measure of their fitness to fly in harm's way--a notch or two below those of the first Gulf War, if for no other reason than the aging of the overall fleet in the last decade. The Navy went to extraordinary lengths to surge five carriers and a large fleet of cruise-missile-shooting surface vessels and submarines in time for the war, and the recovery time is certain to be lengthy. And essentially the entire Corps was stripped nearly bare to assemble the Marine expeditionary force; the continuing presence of Marines in Iraq is needed for now, but the Marine Corps is designed for contingencies, not sustained operations.

Reinforcements have been slow to arrive and may still be too few to continue the ceaseless patrolling that makes up the daily diet of forces now in Iraq. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, and 4th Infantry Division (whose equipment spent so long in boats waiting to get into Turkey and then Kuwait that the commanding general is smilingly saluted as "commodore") have supplemented the war-fighting force and even allowed for the slender beginnings of a rotation system. British replacements have been hampered by the need to provide 19,000 soldiers to offset the firefighters' strike in England. The peacekeeping coalition has expanded to 28 participants, but to what effect is in doubt; the first wave of liaison officers for deploying allies can be found wandering the halls of U.S. headquarters, trying to figure out where to go and whom to see. Some of the coalition will be willing and able partners, some more trouble, at least logistically, than they are worth. Some will want a U.N. mandate, rules of engagement, and rates of supplemental pay. In any case, they will be tested by Iraqi rejectionists who will probe for coalition weaknesses (it was Pakistani forces that were first targeted by Somali militias in Mogadishu in 1993).

American soldiers are increasingly weary in mind and body. The 3rd Infantry Division, in particular, may be a leading indicator of the kind of stresses this war is producing. Not only was the division deployed the longest, but it was first to confront the suicide attacks of the Fedayeen and other fanatics. Though these attacks yielded few American casualties, the slaughter was nightmarish for U.S. soldiers, who had no alternative but to obliterate their attackers. The division also was assigned much of the operation in Fallujah and other nearby towns, where ambushes have been frequent. A soldier on patrol faces the constant prospect of attack and an enemy often indistinguishable from a friendly crowd or street scene. Over the past ten years, military morale has remained surprisingly strong in the face of escalating constabulary duties, but the soldier story now is that the 3rd Infantry is "black"--meaning critically short--on Prozac supplies. During the Cold War, defending the frontiers of freedom usually meant a comfy kaserne in Bavaria, and something approximating normal family life; it now looks like repeat deployments to Saddam palaces stripped of their plumbing fixtures and electrical wiring. It is too soon to know if this portends long-term morale problems, but reenlistment rates in these units will bear scrutiny. Most of all, soldiers would like at least a clearly defined rotational policy and tour length.