WITH U.S. FORCES, Saudi Arabia — If it must be, finally, a great armored battle in the sand to settle the Persian Gulf War, the outcome is likely to bear the handwriting of some lone officer. Up along the front lines, probably in the pitch dark of night, under the rage of open-field warfare, this commander will sound an order--an order he has prepared his whole life to give.
By the quality of his judgment, the caliber of his leadership, the determination of his troops and, indeed, the measure of good luck he carries, the tide of this "mother of battles" will turn.
So will an anxious nation's hope for a ground war with light casualties and a fast resolution.
Desert warfare tests not just equipment. It's the stuff to test the front-line generals. George S. Patton. Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery. Erwin Rommel. These storied field commanders of half a century ago all emerged out of the early and bloody armored desert fighting of World War II. That was the last time America found itself on a battlefield with so much lethal armor.
For all the obvious reasons, tanks in the desert raise ground combat to its most fearsome and perhaps its highest level: vast open spaces, huge mobile armies, computer-fast weaponry and firepower of unimaginable fury.
It's no wonder that, as eyes drop from the skies to the sandy horizon at ground level in the Persian Gulf War, conversations like this can be overhead around Central Command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:
"Wonder if we've got any Pattons up there?"
"I hope so."
In World War II, the long unfolding of campaigns allowed the Army to test its generals under fire. Some, though adept at traversing the corridors of the Pentagon, proved unsatisfactory for the life-and-death demands of combat leadership.
But this kind of on-the-job testing is incompatible, in this war, with the strategy and aims of political leaders in the United States and other coalition countries.
So for good or ill, the burden rests with men named Paul Funk, Ronald Griffith and Barry McCaffrey and a handful of others, the warrior generals of the Persian Gulf.
They now are known, largely, only in the clubby circles of the military today.
But tomorrow. . . .
"Armored battle at any scale in this war will be incredibly fast, incredibly violent and incredibly heroic. Or incredibly disastrous," says one Army officer in Central Command. "And if the scale is all out, it will be like nothing ever seen."
Commanding Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the brass in the Pentagon and Riyadh war rooms, of course, will devise the battle plan and its many contingencies. But at some point after the engagement begins, the decisions and adjustments in execution will pass inexorably to those officers on the front.
For years, the Pentagon has promoted the doctrine of individual initiative. Even Americans far removed from the military have probably heard that potential adversaries, particularly the Soviets and now the Soviet-trained Iraqis, suffer from overcentralized commands, while U.S. officers enjoy the freedom to move and exploit conditions on their own initiative.
Officers here, in fact, say there are plenty of limits circumscribing that freedom in this age of high-tech communications and dense layers of command.
But with an armored battle expected to occur faster and with greater firepower than ever in history, field commanders at two levels, in particular, will be called upon for the judgments on which medals or, conversely, casualties are earned.
Army tactics strongly emphasize mobile, armored battalions. Much of the training in Europe has envisioned battalion-level movements.
But perhaps more important in this open-field desert theater, and the subject of exhaustive training here, has been movements of larger units, the armored divisions.
The Marines also are deployed by division, although none match the armor of the Army's heavy divisions. And the Marines are at sea in a pair of Marine Expeditionary Forces, also with lighter armor.
Here are sketches of some of the front-line fighting generals, any one of whom, by fate and deed, could affect the turn of battle:
* PAUL E. FUNK
Major general, U.S. Army; commander, 3rd Armored Division.
One of two heavy armored divisions on the front line, the 3rd is as close to a desert division as the Army has. And Funk, 51, of Roundup, Mont., is regarded as one of the Army's most experienced desert generals; he is the former commander of the National Training Center, at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert.
"The desert suits the 3rd Armored Division, and so does fighting in it," he says. "If we're going to do it anywhere, we're suited for this place."
Troops under Funk have been made to forgo even basic necessities in the division's rigorous training program until they learned to regard the desert vastness as friend, not foe.