In The Field
With The 101st Airborne
With Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Foreign Correspondent
Wednesday, March 19, 2003; 1:30 p.m. ET
Preparations for war accelerated throughout the Middle East as Saddam Hussein rebuffed George Bush's ultimatum to step down and leave Iraq by Wednesday. Some U.S. troops in Kuwait reported that they had been ordered to break camp and load their ammunition and personal gear onto Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Foreigners have begun to leave Baghdad and residents are unsettled and anxious.
At Camp New Jersey, the headquarters and 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, are squatters in a vast tent city, waiting for the war that many expect to come this week. They are among 250,000 U.S. and British troops poised and waiting for orders.
Washington Post foreign correspondent Rick Atkinson was online direct from Camp New Jersey in north central Kuwait, Wednesday, March 19 at 1:30 p.m. ET, to talk about the troops and preparation for battle.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: As the countdown to war proceeds, what is the situation right now, seven hours before the deadline for Saddam Hussein, in Camp New Jersey?
Rick Atkinson: There's feverish activity here where the 101st Airborne Division has its headquarters. Many new fuel trucks arrived about three hours ago and soldiers are packing their Humvees and other vehicles, clearly in expectation of a move north.
Hagerstown, Md.: The mission of the 101st has been variously reported as 1. Establish a northern front, 2. Find and capture the weapons of mass destruction, and 3. Secure the oil fields. Can you shed more light on the division's role?
Rick Atkinson: I don't think any of those missions you described are likely. The 101st is unique in its air mobility, which means the ability to move soldiers great distances by helicopter in a hurry. But the aspect of the division that's most likely to be used early in the war is the contingent of 72 Apache attack helicopters. Look for the 101st to be part of the drive on Baghdad.
Madison, Wisc.: Mr. Atkinson:
Do you believe that US forces will use MOAB and/or tactical battlefield nuclear weapons on Iraqi units that employ chemical or biological weapons on our troops?
Rick Atkinson: I think it's still unclear in the high command exactly what the U.S. reaction would be. But I would be very surprised if nuclear weapons or any weapon of that magnitude was used.
Oak Park, Ill.: You are just hours away from the ultimatum issued by Mr. Bush. How are the soldiers of the 101st dealing with the tension in the waning moments before what will be the first actual combat for most of them?
Rick Atkinson: The soldiers here for the most part are extremely busy, as you can imagine, and it provides a good diversion away from the anxiety that naturally attends this moment. You can find soldiers playing cards on occasion or otherwise relaxing in the few moments they have free, but for the most part they're working 18 hours a day. In the mess hall you still hear plenty of laughter, as well as very earnest discussions about what is likely to happen next.
Portland, Ore.: Is the attitude of the troops, "On to Bagdad!" or "Well, let's get this over with?"
Has the fact that there are less than half the number of troops, or far fewer allies, concerned any of the commanders over there?
We are all praying for a short war.
Rick Atkinson: I think the typical soldier here is ready to get on with whatever needs to be done. He or she are ready to follow orders and they're certainly ready to get out of the Kuwaiti desert, which is pretty unpleasant.
Bangalore, India: There is news that Saddam has been wiring up oil fields with explosives. Has the Army taken this into its calculations? Will the Army have to divert resources to protect those oil fields rather than continue the invasion to Baghdad?
Rick Atkinson: There has been considerable discussion about what to do if Saddam Hussein pursues a scorched earth policy by sabotaging the oil wells. There are units that have responsibilities to try to intervene if that happens, but I can't tell you much more than that at this time.
Silver Spring, Md.: In Viet Nam we fought primarily in thick brush and hilly terrain. The last war in Iraq was fought on open plains where the enemy was there in front of our forces retreating north. Now there is talk of actually taking Baghdad. What are the tactics the military will use to accomplish this end?
Rick Atkinson: The terrain between Kuwait and Baghdad is generally flat and relatively open, with somewhat more vegetation than the arid desert here in Kuwait. But the closer you get to Baghdad with five million people, the more complicated the war fighting scenarios. There is great hope by the military that the show of force and the speed and audacity of the American attack forestalls any protracted fighting in Baghdad or other cities.
Arlington, Va.: I know that given the preponderance of US military strength, that our forces seem to have an overwhelming advantage. But I was wondering if the troops are uneasy over how the government has been so public with battle plans.
Rick Atkinson: I have been with the 101st Airborne Division for three weeks now and I haven't heard any discussion along those lines. While the general strategy of changing the Iraqi regime obviously requires getting to the Iraqi capital, the particulars of how to do that have remained reasonably secure notwithstanding the fact that 600 or more journalists are here with the various military units.
Essex, Conn.: How are you feeling now? Are you nervous, afraid, or excited? Are the embedded journalists given arms or training in the event the unit is compromised?
Rick Atkinson: No, journalists are not permitted to carry weapons and few would want to. I personally am here with 17,000 heavily armed friends, and I suppose on the eve of the war I feel a combination of anticipation, sadness, and anxiety not for myself but for our soldiers.
Washington, D.C.: What are military leaders doing to boost morale within the 101st and create unity that is needed to succeed?
Rick Atkinson: There's great esprit in this division, partly because of its heritage and partly because they have excellent leaders. Morale seems to be quite high in part because the soldiers are focused and the long period of waiting and uncertainty now seems to be almost over.
Singapore: How long will the war be?
Rick Atkinson: That's the $64,000 question. It will depend largely on how vigorously the Iraqi military resists. Estimates among officers here range from a couple weeks to a couple months.
Bardstown, Ky.: Have you heard any news where you are located concerning a possible military battle that had or is now taking place in the city of Basra?
Rick Atkinson: No, I haven't heard that. Basra is in the Marine sector and we don't get much news about what's happening in Basra where I am.
Olney, Md.: I have attended your author lectures at The National Archives, read your books, and enjoy your reporting from the 101st. Thanks for giving us an idea of what it's like for the average soldier. Do you see any parallels between this action and the desert fighting you describe in "An Army at Dawn"?
Rick Atkinson: Thanks for your kind words. Sure, there are eternal things about soldiers deployed and ready for war in the desert. These soldiers in some ways are very similar to their grandfathers in Tunisia in 1942/43. I have to say, however, that soldiers today tend to be much better prepared and much better armed, and clearly they're fighting an enemy that is less robust than the Germans were in north Africa.
Arlington, Va.: Once the battle begins, how soon will we be seeing "live coverage" from the journalists embedded in the combat units? And will it really be live? Won't there be some review by the military censors?
Rick Atkinson: I think you'll see coverage almost immediately. There is discussion of a kind of security review of outgoing news stories, but it's not clear even now exactly how effective that will be. In general, the military-media relationship thus far has been pretty good, despite the unusual nature of this very large experiment with embedded reporters. I do expect that this war will be much more extensively and accurately covered than the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.