COVER

‘SEND IN THE GRUNTS’

FOOT SOLDIERS FACE A FIRST BATTLE

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 11 1991
COVER

‘SEND IN THE GRUNTS’

FOOT SOLDIERS FACE A FIRST BATTLE

ANDREW PHILLIPS February 11 1991

‘SEND IN THE GRUNTS’

FOOT SOLDIERS FACE A FIRST BATTLE

Staff Sgt. Rick Taylor, a U.S. Marine Corps instructor, calls it the “big pink mist.” It is the reason, Taylor tells young marines, why they have to stand around in a bitterly cold wind while he runs through—for the third time in a single morning—the techniques for clearing away Iraqi land mines. “When your buddies disappear in a big pink mist with body parts flying, you’ll know what to do,” he shouts. Taylor’s language is frank, almost brutal. But its purpose is clear: his troops, and thousands of others camped in the desert of northern Saudi Arabia, are steeling themselves to assault Iraqi forces dug in along the Kuwaiti border. After Iraqi forces launched a ground assault into Saudi Arabia and held the coastal city of Khafji for more than 36 hours last week, there was no more room for illusion. Ground fighting is bloody. And Taylor’s job was to make sure that his men were ready for the worst.

The allied counteroffensive against Iraqi

ever constructed: the socalled Saddam Line consists of layers of minefields, antitank ditches, trenches and razor wire that begin just over two kilometres from the Saudi border and continue all the way to Kuwait City.

The insides of coalition officers’ tents in forward positions are festooned with maps showing Iraq’s defences in detail, the fruit of months of satellite and aerial reconnais§ sanee photography. Leading £ up to G-Day, the soldiers’ I nickname for the day of the major ground offensive, U.S. § warplanes are pounding the j Iraqi lines in an effort to break I their resistance. But on the m ground, among the soldiers from 18 countries, there is a stoic acceptance that the air force will almost certainly not be able to finish the job. “When all else fails, and it

always does.....” began Specialist Scott Gill, a

21-year-old infantryman with the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. His friend, Pte. Thomas Schneider, finished the thought: “Send in the grunts.” Still, the grunts, the army’s basic foot soldiers, would not be the first to test the Iraqi defences. That would be the job of combat engineers, including the marines being trained by Sgt. Taylor. They would clear a path through the fields of mines laid by Iraq— hundreds of thousands of deadly devices ranging from antitank charges that can blow a 60ton tank five feet off the ground, to so-called toe-poppers designed to blast the foot off an unlucky soldier. The engineers would clear a path through the mines with bulldozers and by firing British rocket-propelled “line charges,” which detonate a string of explosives across a minefield, triggering the mines harmlessly.

Hazardous: But other methods are more basic and have not changed since the Second World War. Soldiers would use hand-held mine detectors and probe the sand for mines with wooden stakes. In training sessions, they practise with empty soft-drink cans buried in the sand. In real life, it is hazardous, painstaking work. “This isn’t the war to be out there playing Rambo,” cautions Maj. George Cutchall, a marine mine expert.

In theory, coalition forces would then break through the Iraqi defences by concentrating overwhelming tank forces at weak points along the enemy lines, sending their armor through the paths cleared of mines. And along with the tanks come the bayonet-wielding grunts, with the most basic task in any military: to engage enemy soldiers at close range, penetrating Iraqi trenches and bunkers and clearing out any defenders who have survived air and artillery bombardment. “In the last 300 yards, it basically comes down to that young marine getting in his fighting hole and killing the enemy before

troops in Kuwait, if it comes, will be in sharp contrast to the air campaign that has dominated the Gulf conflict so far. According to the Pentagon, at least 36 coalition pilots are missing in action and at least 12 have been captured as prisoners of war; the rest have launched their sophisticated missiles and so-called smart bombs and returned safely to base—often with videotape of the attack. Coalition officers say that their forces have a major technological advantage on the ground, as well. But last week, allied officers said that 11 U.S. marines and four Saudi soldiers were killed in the battle for control of Khafji during the war’s first ground battle. And although U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf compared the attack to “a mosquito on an elephant,” it took Saudi troops, backed by Qatari tanks and U.S. air and artillery cover, more than IV2 days to retake the city.

Costly: A coalition offensive to dislodge Iraqi forces from the bunkers in Kuwait would be far more costly. The currency of that ground war would be the lives of tank crews, young infantrymen and the rest of the force sent to break Iraq’s defensive line. And what they would face is one of the most formidable series of barriers

he kills you,” said Lt.-Col. Mitch Youngs, commanding officer of a battalion attached to the 2nd Marine Division.

If and when they move into Kuwait, ground commanders maintain, they would do everything they can to avoid sending the vulnerable infantry against heavily defended Iraqi positions. The foot soldiers would ride into battle in the back of Bradley armored fighting vehicles. When the threat from Iraqi antitank weapons becomes too great, they would take to the battlefield on foot. Said Lt.-Col. David Gross, commander of a U.S. armored task force:

“The toughest thing for a commander to do is to decide when the dismounts have to get onto the ground.” He added: “I don’t expect these kids to have to attack against positions that have not been handled by artillery.”

Bloodiest: Still, close-in ground fighting is the bloodiest and most terrifying form of combat. “It’s scary,” mariñe Sgt. Don Dunkle, 26, | told reporters. “When we get S into those trenches, it will be § like cornering a rat. When r you corner anything, it’s gos ing to bite back.” Dead Iraqi soldier: a stoic acceptance that the infantry

Many frontline soldiers -—-

talk freely of their fear, something that the few combat veterans among them encourage. Staff Sgt. Robert Compton, a 45-year-old Vietnam Special Forces veteran now with a battalion of U.S. army combat engineers, said that he had some basic advice for young soldiers: Stay alive by getting scared. “I’m scared, I’m scared as hell,” he said. “But that’s all part of it. I don’t want to get to the point that I’m not scared.”

He added: “Being scared keeps me on my toes and keeps that adrenaline flowing—keeps you going in the right direction.” For some, the pre-combat tension is particularly hard to bear. “My biggest concern is getting us bloodied,” said Capt. Jack Reiff, a 31-year-old tank commander with the 1st Infantry Division. “None of us has seen combat. Until it starts, there will

be a great fear of the unknown. We will be all right once we lose our virginity.”

Ground fighting is also demanding for those not directly involved in combat. Gunner Jim Forshaw, the 24-year-old driver of an armored field ambulance with the British army’s 4th Armored Brigade, will have the job of rescuing wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Last week, as he waited with a mile-long convoy of

heavy vehicles to move north to the brigade’s forward position, Forshaw said that his team had been told to expect up to 1,000 casualties in the first 24 hours of a full-scale battle. “Bullet wounds, artillery injuries, amputations—everything you can think of,” he said. But, added Forshaw, the biggest fear among British troops on the front lines is that Iraq might bombard

them with poisonous chemicals—as it did during its war with Iran. “I’m afraid, no question,” he said. “And part of what scares me is what I’ll be like after it’s all over. Will it have some kind of psychological effect? I mean, I’ve never even seen a dead body before.” Amid all the uncertainties of war, that was sure to change.

ANDREW PHILLIPS