EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — After two days of rain that turned the desert into a mire of sticky clay, a chilly sun dawned over Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, and more than half a million soldiers prepared to go to war.
Convoys of trucks, tanks and personnel carriers rolled relentlessly northward into forward positions nearer the Kuwaiti border, and soldiers lined up at pay telephones for a last call home before moving on to their final deployment postings.
"Everybody understands we're going to war, and in wars you don't call home," said Steve Pauley, a civilian contractor for the Military Communications Center in the Persian Gulf. "You need to get that stuff off your mind and get down to business, and then when it's over, you can start making phone calls again."
If anyone tried to forget that Iraq's deadline for pulling out of Kuwait was only hours away, the specter kept nudging it back: in the two-inch banner headline in the Saudi Gazette that said "ON THE BRINK," in the supermarkets with shoppers lining up for stockpiles of bottled water and canned goods, in the air raid brochures handed out at a local hotel. "From now on, we earnestly recommend that you carry your respirator with you at all times. . . . Think GAS," the management advised.
In the mucky desert terrain that sprawls featurelessly from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, soldiers piled up sandbags, pumped rainwater out of trenches and began preparing for the possibility that, after five months of stationary exercises, today could be the day they move toward Kuwait.
"In the last 72 hours, I've seen a dramatic change," said Spec. Keith Everett of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "The guidelines, everything we normally used to do, they're toughening up. It's tense, everybody's stressed out. They say they want to get it over with so they can go home. Some of them have not faced the reality of what it's going to be like."
Everett, a squad leader, said he has made a personal resolution in the last few days: "If I lead soldiers in, I'm gonna lead them out. I'll take mine before I let something happen to my squad. I feel if something happens to me, I'll be remembered as a soldier in Operation Desert Shield, which to me will be sufficient."
With the Army 82nd Airborne Division's Aviation Brigade, Apache helicopter pilot Ron Moring mailed home his hand-held computer games and beach shorts to lighten up his rucksack. And Capt. Clint Esarey dictated his will on a cassette tape to his wife.
"If I don't make it back, I want to be buried in my military uniform. I'm a soldier. It's my life. The uniform is part of me," Esarey said.
"In our minds, the war has started," he added. "Today is the day. Training is over with. The mind-set is, this is the real thing."
At a vast Marine Corps logistics center taking shape in the desert near the Kuwaiti border, supply officers continued supervising construction of a network of underground bunkers and depots that will help push fuel, food, water, ammunition and medical supplies forward to front-line Marines.
"It rained for 36 hours straight," said Cpl. Joe Defoer, filling sandbags to lay on the soggy floor of a supply tent. "I woke up with two inches of water over my rack (cot). It rained right through the night and all through the next day and halfway through the following night. You just got to work around it, keep filling the sandbags. That's all you can do."
At a Military Airlift Command terminal where late-arriving troops and supplies are being unloaded, Sgt. Robbie Felton said most see the deadline as a welcome signal that the war many soldiers have long considered inevitable was, at last, at hand.
"Finally. The day has finally come," he said. "You got to think logically and realistically. Too much money's been spent, too many troops are over here, too many people had too many hard times to not kick somebody's ass.
"Yes, we're scared," he added. "But just like my commander told me, don't worry about anything you can't control. Why waste your time worrying, when you can spend your time making an extra sandbag, something that's going to make a difference? Why waste your time saying, 'I don't want to do it,' when the bottom line is if they say you're going to do it, you're going to do it."
Out on the flight line at an air base in Eastern Saudi Arabia, Pfc. John Howard and Pfc. Leonard Mathena, both Bradley Fighting Vehicle drivers, waited for an airlift home for a week or two off before returning to Saudi Arabia and a job that will likely have begun in earnest.
"We been trying to joke about it, and it all kinda depends on how you feel that day," Howard said. "If you're feeling macho, everybody goes around saying, 'Yeah!' If you're feeling scared, people just get a little quiet. People start getting reclusive, sitting off by theirself, you know they're thinking too hard. What we all know is, people are going to die. A lotta people. The U.S. hasn't fought a war like this. There's nowhere to hide, no cover, you're just out there."