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The "Empire"'s Bivouacs
This piece appeared in Le Monde (Paris) on Dec. 12, 2002. It reports in detail on the American army's occupation of Kuwaiti territory neighboring Iraq, which hasn't been mentioned much in the mainstream U.S. media -- though there was one paragraph about it in late November in a story in the New York Times.
Translated from Le Monde (Paris), Dec. 12. (Unabridged; the apparent ellipses are a stylistic device of the author.)
More than 70,000 men and women and tens of thousands of tons of American weaponry are already arrayed around Iraq. In Kuwait, in Qatar, and in Bahrain, troop training has become intensive. Reporting from the camps of the world's leading army.
THE ENCIRCLEMENT OF IRAQ BY THE AMERICAN ARMY
Seventy-seven degrees at noon, about 45 at midnight. The young GIs stationed at Doha, in Qatar, think the prevailing climate these days in the Arabian-Persian Gulf is "ideal for action." The preparation of troops and matériel has intensified in Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, the three emirates chosen by Washington to house the US Army's cohorts, the US Air Force's hawks, and the Fifth Fleet's navies and its huge whales loaded with planes. Officially, George W. Bush, the "commander-in-chief" of all the armies, has not yet sounded the call to arms. Theoretically, this is a continuation of Operation "Desert Storm," already ten years old.
But nobody in the Arabian Desert, no one in a European chancellery, and no one in the marble palaces of local sultans has any illusions about what's going to happen next. The American machine is definitely on the warpath... "The possibility of a conflict is close and very real," confirms Col. David Perkins, one of the bigwigs of Camp New York, a canvas city plunked down right in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert. The conflict has not begun, it has not even been planned, but the centurions are in place on all borders, on a war footing. Gen. Wesley Clark, experienced in these matters, has "an intuition" that greatest mechanized assault in the history of the United States will be given the go "around the end of January."
The former commander of American NATO forces is not the only one of that opinion. "Don't quote me," says one European military expert, "but in fact I think that they've decided in Washington that absent any dramatics in Baghdad they'll let people celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve in peace." In any case, even if the rhythm of the arriving troops, ships, and all the heavy armament has picked up the pace remarkably -- in Doha alone, you could count landings of jumbo jets numbering twenty or so per day on Dec. 5, 6, and 7 --, the complete set-up that the Pentagon's top generals want in order to undertake an offensive free from needless risks was not yet completely in place for the Aid-al-Fitr holiday that concludes Ramadan. This set-up is said to require "at least 200,000," according to The New York Times.
As far as one can learn in the dense thickets of rumor and "confidential" information in which journalists find themselves enmeshed, on Jan. 1 there will be about 100,000 men and women in place in the three emirates named above (Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar), on four aircraft carriers and dozens of support ships cruising in the zone, together with the troops stationed in the Sultanate of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia (which is still hesitating about whether to participate in an attack on Iraq). Still far too few, but military analysts aren't worried. "The needed heavy matériel and logistics are there," one of them says. "With intensive jumbo jet shuttles all the necessary troops could be here in two or three weeks at the most."
In Camp Doha, in Kuwait, and on Qatar's Al-Udeid, As-Sayliyah and Camp Snoopy bases, hundreds of Abrams assault tanks -- 70-ton monsters --, hundreds of Bradleys, those famous "humvees" (armored troop transports), the huge 155-mm self-propelled howitzers (cannons), and the minesweepers are already in place. There are also several hundred fighter aircraft and bombers -- F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s --, not to mention the enormous B-2s and B-52s stationed on the British island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Whatever one thinks about its mission, the deployment of the American military eagle around its prey, six thousand miles away from its nest, is an impressive sight. And a source of permanent envy for every European military officer.
"Take a look! We've built a real city, haven't we?" Col. John Cunnings, head of the detachment of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, takes pride in the firepower amassed by his country. With a bullet-proof vest, standard-issue revolver strapped low on his right thigh, gas mask packed high on his left hip, walkie-talkie on his chest, assault rifle slung across his shoulder, and dark glasses on his nose, this officer presents a silhouette worthy of Hollywood. He points to the vast canvas encampment that stretches before him in the harsh light of the Arabian sun. Ten kilometers of massively fortified perimeter, surrounded by a high embankment of grayish, sandy earth that was thrown up first by an armada of khaki bulldozers. In the steel cabins of watchtowers planted at every corner of Camp New York, sentinels equipped with night vision binoculars are constantly scanning the vicinity. The land is so flat that no one can approach without standing out as visibly as a black olive on a billiard table. "Today only America can send this kind of a force far from its bases with this standard of comfort," boasts Lt. Col. David Perkins, commander in chief of the 2nd brigade of the 3rd infantry division, theoretically based in Fort Stewart, Georgia.
The towers of Manhattan are far from Camp New York. But in this corner of desolate desert, an obvious and astounding level of comfort is everywhere. It's in those portable "fountains" of cool water scattered in strategic spots throughout the camp to quench the thirst of the troops, wherever they may be, whether near the landing strips of combat helicopters that hover overhead or near the huge "parking lot," where dozens of tanks sit in rows, and it's in the strings of prefabricated port-o-potties strewn across the landscape and in the baseball fields and volleyball courts set up for the relaxation of the soldiers, both men and women.
There is comfort, too, in the vast sand-colored tent dormitories, where there's a constant supply of cool air circulated by purring generator batteries. It's in the canopied dining rooms and the messes that serve hundreds of hot meals and all sorts of multicolored non-alcoholic drinks every day in a calculated "Home, sweet home" atmosphere. And it's in the big-screen digital TVs that all day long show the news of the planet on all the satellite channels. It's in the base's huge video library, and in the internet tent with its battery of computers. And there's comfort, finally, in the telephone booths that are available all day and all night to those who feel the pangs of separation from their families.
When the lines are overloaded or when relatives are on vacation in Italy, in France, or in Greece, no problem -- just go to the private tent provided by AT&T, the huge private conglomerate, who, for a few dollars or a credit card, will provide communication to any place in the Universe. Not everybody, of course, is happy to be there. There is, for example, that anonymous dissident who with an enraged pencil dared to address his comrades on a toilet partition: "Hey, are you really glad to be playing mercenary to make profits for oil companies?" No comment. There is also that GI encountered at the gates to the camp who groused: "We're bored as hell here, you know. No leave, and it's strictly forbidden to hang out in the malls in Kuwait City" -- which are 40 miles away. "Can't bother the natives, they say. All you get is to take a swim every two months in the only hard encampment we have here, on the coast, at Camp Doha. It's about time they decided over there in Washington: are we going in, or not? I'm fed up. I've been here for a month, I have five more to go before I get out, and believe me, I'm counting the days."
An isolated complainer, or a typical spokesperson for the company? "I often tell my troops," explains David Perkins. "Be happy you're Americans. For your country, you're not cannon fodder. You'll soon see, if we have to go up north, that the Iraqi soldier is treated less well and fed less well, in his country, than we are, here, 6000 miles from home..." Sgt. Robert Greenleaf, 25 years old, originally from Indiana and based at Camp Virginia, another base in the Kuwaiti desert, 18 miles to the south of Camp New York, complains a little about the "stress that goes with the job" -- twelve hours of training a day right now. But he acknowledges: "When you arrive in a place and a situation like this, you learn to appreciate America."
The motivation of the troops "is not really a problem," swears Lt. Col. Eric Wesley. "Everybody watches TV, everybody knows who Saddam Hussein is..." Of course, adds while laughing "Captain" Michael Cutler, an infantry medic and veteran of "Desert Storm" -- the 1991 offensive that liberated Kuwait -- "we sort of have the impression that we're returning to the scene of the crime." But there's no needless hand-wringing: for officer Wesley, "whatever happens, this deployment will have provided great opportunities for training troops and equipment, which is precious." In addition, flexing one's muscles allows one to "send a message to Saddam: we're very serious..."
An exercise with live ammunition took place on Wednesday, Dec. 5, north of Camp New York, on the Al-Udairi firing range. Almost 400 square miles of desert completely turned over to the American army to frolic in -- in all, American troops at this moment control about one quarter of Kuwait, about a thousand square miles that have been off limits to Bedouins and their camels for weeks. The soldiers leave at one in the morning, and get back to camp at noon. More than forty tanks and attack vehicles, hundreds of GIs of the 2nd brigade of the 1st Army batallion -- the spearhead of the American armada --, plus the 64th armored division, are participating in this full-scale "war game." Four hours of constant explosions with F-16s that pass roaring over the helmets, artillery barrages, with 155 mm shells falling around the men in huge orange showers, 50-caliber machine guns firing, bombs exploding in a deluge of fire. All in all, an impressive demonstration of force in a hellish din that's meant to be heard in the distance, on the other side of the border, less than ten miles away. This is the first time that the American army is training so close to "enemy" lines. It's not the last time, "nor by chance," says Sgt. Maj. William Barnello, a veteran of the Gulf War. "We want our men to be as bold and audacious as possible." And, secondarily, "if someone takes note of our maneuvers, he'll get a bit of an idea of the firepower we've accumulated here."
No need to be more explicit: the relevant party has gotten the message. History will record that on December 7, 2002, twelve years later, Saddam Hussein, at bay, presented his first official excuses to the "Kuwaiti people" for having invaded their country in 1990. A coincidence? On the same day, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of all the American forces stationed in the region, was putting the final touches on an exercise without precedent in the neighboring emirate of Qatar. Operation "Internal Look" was moving outside American borders. Banks of the latest computers and about a thousand experts with stripes -- 600 Americans and 400 Brits -- were at their posts on the As-Sayliyah base, the most modern and the largest in the Persian Gulf. The objective: to simulate in real time, 24 hours a day for at least eight days, a generalized offensive on Iraq in order to test all the command equipment. It's from Doha, if war breaks out, that the generalissimo will direct it, coordinating all the combined actions of the US Army, the Air Force, the battalions of marines and special forces as well as the movements of the US Navy. "Saddam Hussein is surrounded," exulted Paul Wolfowitz on Thursday, the very hawkish number two in the Pentagon. The expression used last week by Condoleezza Rice, the security advisor to President Bush, is not longer up-to-date: this is not "a gun pointed at the head of the Iraqi regime," it's the world's most powerful army...
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Last updated: December 15, 2002