Spot The Sergeant
March 2003

by Patrick J. Sloyan

The problem presented to the newly-minted 2nd Lieutenant's in U.S. Army deals with moving an entire platoon across a roaring river, then through a minefield, past enemy machine-gun bunkers and up sheer cliffs coated with ice to a snow-topped mountain peak.

What, Lieutenant, is the single order you must issue to overcome all these obstacles? The answer: Sergeant, move the platoon to that mountaintop.

So, it is Sergeant, First Sergeant or Sergeant Major, journalists should turn to if Saddam Hussein manages to stand and fight in the bazaars of Baghdad and his hometown, Tikrit.

These non-commissioned officers (NCOs) come in all sizes, colors and—these days—sex. On their sleeves and collars they wear at least three stripes with rocker panels below. What makes them stand out, however, is not their insignias but their skill in skirting death that will be lurking around every street corner. Learn how to spot the sergeant, listen to his wisdom and improve your chances for survival and success as a war correspondent.

That looming downtown streetfight is the worst-case scenario for Desert Storm II.

The wishful scenario –the one fed to President George W. Bush just as it was to his father in 1991—involves an Iraqi colonel with an automatic that slips through palace security and puts one in the Iraqi leader’s ear. Don’t hold your breath.

Saddam has been a step ahead of assassins as well as American generals. In 1991, Bush the Elder let Iraq’s best troops elude the awesome force led by Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, boss of Central Command. In a classic battlefield maneuver, Saddam used his conscript troops as so much cannon fodder in a blocking force that delayed a slow-moving U.S. VII Corps tank force.

It provided enough time for most of the elite Republican Guard with more than half of its armor still intact to escape into a premature ceasefire. Within in hours, these same Guard units crushed an uprising—instigated by Bush—of Iraqi shias in and around Basra. So the endgame was both dishonorable and dubious, leaving Saddam to out maneuver U.S. diplomacy for 12 more years.

“Every war is going to astonish you,’’ said Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led allied troops to victory in World War II and Republicans into the White House.

Desert Storm II is likely to be more costly in terms of American causalities. In 1991, the Pentagon said 148 U.S. men were killed in combat and another 145 in various non-combat mishaps, including 15 women.

But Gen. John Yeosock, commander of all Army forces in Iraq, contends not a single soldier was killed by hostile Iraqi fire during the ground war. Yeosock excludes the 25 soldiers killed at the rear when a Scud missile struck their tent near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 20 Air Force members and six sailors off shore.

On a battlefield that roamed over a vast desert, both the Army and Marines killed their own in friendly fire incidents that occurred, according to Army studies, at four times the rate of fratricide of all other U.S. conflicts.

In one night battle involving the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division and 2nd Armored Division, 12 U.S. Rounds from American tanks killed soldiers. Including death and injuries to soldiers, who picked up their own unexploded munitions on the battlefield, self-inflicted incidents accounted for at least 70 per cent of Desert Storm causalities.

Most of these mishaps happened at night with local commanders lost in the featureless desert without the advantages of global positioning systems. And, increasingly accurate U.S. weapons kill with a single round fired from a miles away.

While some skirmishing in the open field is likely, the coming battle in urban areas will be at close quarters. Because much of Iraqi military doctrine is based on a long relationship with the former Soviet Union, Saddam’s forces are capable of staging elaborate defenses that are the hallmark of Russian armies.

This includes barricading tanks and artillery at key junctions that defy attacks from the air. Each position is supported by crossfires of automatic weapons and mortars. Snipers are everywhere.

American forces have extensive training and equipment to deal with urban warfare. A major advantage would be restricting operations until nightfall. The latest generation night vision goggles enable whole divisions to move swiftly as if it were broad daylight. House-to-house combat at night gives American soldiers a major advantage.

Still, it could be a costly and dirty business with “collateral” damage to the urban infrastructure as well as the civilian population.

To save Baghdad and Tikrit for democracy, President Bush may have to first destroy them.

© 2002 Patrick J. Sloyan
Contributing Editor

Sloyan is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who has covered national and international events since 1960.


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