EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — Four days into America's first major war in a generation, U.S. troops have rallied around a single goal--to destroy the Iraqi military machine and go home.
"I want to see my Mom smile again," says one soldier.
No one wonders anymore whether he is here to protect the oil fields or to liberate Kuwait or to safeguard the Saudi borders. From the moment the first jets streaked across Baghdad early Thursday morning, the quiet debate stopped and Americans began speaking of military victory with a conviction that was denied their fathers in Vietnam.
On aircraft carriers and in foxholes, at sprawling air bases and desert supply depots, the Americans also express another belief never heard in Vietnam: They are convinced that this will be a war fought by the military, not the politicians. And without political restraints, they appear confident to a man that no one will be spending a second Christmas in the Saudi desert.
"I'm not flying, but my hands are all sweaty," said Airman 1st Class Michael Razzo. "I feel the anxiety, the emotional impact, but I feel good and think that we will prevail."
Although the service branches traditionally compete for their share of glory--and their share of the Pentagon's budget--the pilots have quickly become every ground soldier's hero and are on what Air Force surgeon Col. Alvin Cotlar calls "an unbelievable high." Let the "zoomies" keep pounding Iraqi positions, Marines and soldiers near the Kuwaiti-Saudi border say, and our casualties are going to be reduced in any ground action.
"We've been talking about an adopt-a-pilot program," says Maj. Tim Timmons. "If Iraq capitulated right now, we'd clap. We don't care which service wins this one."
Pilots have run into heavy antiaircraft fire on the bombing runs, but troops along the border are surprised that Iraqi artillery resistance has been so light. They had expected thunderous barrages to coincide with the start of hostilities. Instead, firing has been sporadic, with most rounds missing their targets by hundreds of yards.
"Either they're very bad shots or they don't know where we are," said Lt. Jim Tuemles, who pilots a Cobra helicopter gunship that hunts down Iraqi artillery sites.
"We're not getting as much resistance as we thought we would," said Marine pilot Randy Powell. "I don't know if they don't have it or if they're holding back."
Intelligence officers believe the Iraqis still have plenty of punch left but are reluctant to fire and give away their positions at this point.
The sporadic firing, however, also could indicate that the Iraqis have lost their communications to senior commanders, officers said.
While pilots carry on round-the-clock bombing missions, ground units have inched forward, their M-1A1 main battle tanks bearing painted names like "Dog of War" and "Death Dealer." Pvt. Robert Rocha reached the front over the weekend after a 125-mile convoy journey. He looked around at the barren, flat terrain in his new home and muttered, "Same old Saudi Arabia. What a crummy package tour."
On the John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier in the Red Sea, pilots try to relax before their intensive briefings, writing letters home, watching the movie "Dick Tracy" on the ship's TV channel or talking over cups of coffee.
"You going hunting tonight?" a sailor asked a pilot as he passed him in the mess hall.
"Be careful up there, man, you hear," another said.
"Are you bringing your samurai sword with you?" a third asked.
"I just hope Israel doesn't get involved," the pilot said to a colleague.
Another pilot had stuffed in his identification packet a $20 bill and a note written in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and English. It said: "I am an American and do not speak your language. I bear no malice toward your people. . . ." Then, after a briefing, he was off, roaring through the skies toward Iraq with his payload of bombs.
This story was compiled in part from pool reports reviewed by military censors.