EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Pvt. Robert Bowen drives the M1A1 tank, which is arguably the peacetime heavyweight champion of tanks. No one knows what the wartime champion is, but we may find out pretty soon. The Iraqis' big guy, the Soviet T72, going up against our big guy could be the greatest tank battle since Rommel in North Africa, maybe even since James Mason played Rommel in "The Desert Fox."

"We are going to beat them," Bowen says, somehow seeming to emphasize each word in the sentence. We Are Going To Beat Them.

He is 26, old for an army private, a fact that embarrasses him a little, but he makes up for it by loving his job, loving his tank, and saying he never wants to go back to working construction in Norfolk.

"They only got 500 T72s," he says. "We got the range on them, we can lay back and take them out. Hopefully, we got the range. We lay back and fire away, like, hey, pass me that Coke, BAM, gimme that sandwich, BAM, fire, fire, fire. I don't want to go to war, but I want to see what war is like, you know? The Iraqis can't be too much better than the Iranians, can they? They say the M1 can take a couple of hits, they just knock it around. I don't worry about dying, just give me my limbs, I want to come back with my limbs. My legs, my eyes, my arms, especially my arms. I play guitar."

Young Americans The plane flying into Saudi Arabia is full of young Americans, you spot them right away, like the girl across the aisle with the white socks and big teeth.

Like several hundred thousand young Americans coming into Saudi Arabia just now, she is planning on a little camping in the desert.

"I grew up in Saudi Arabia, my father works for Aramco," she says.

Her name is Lydia Crawford. She goes to law school at the University of Virginia. She is going home for Christmas vacation. She has blond hair, and what they used to call a good chin when chins were held to be a sign of character.

"Actually, my family has been in the Middle East since the 19th century, they were Presbyterian missionaries and now my father works for an oil company," she says. She leaves the impression that she sees a continuity here, a tradition.

"If I could choose one climate for the rest of my life it would be desert. It's very beautiful, the marks of the tips of the grass in the sand when the wind blows, the lizard tracks, the desert flowers after the spring rains. We've got a Chevrolet Suburban, and we'll camp near big sand dunes or go climb on the rocks, we go arrowhead hunting." Lately, she said, her parents have been driving out in the desert with cool drinks for the American soldiers there.

Saudi Arabia was a good place to grow up, she says.

"I know people criticize the Saudis for the way they treat women, but I feel uncomfortable criticizing because American oil companies have reaped so much benefit."

Desert Rats

It's not the end of the Earth, the Marines like to say, but you can see it from here.

Especially this latest spot they're calling home. At least at previous spots they had camels, they had Bedouins driving around in pickup trucks, and they had enough scorpions to hold scorpion fights, and they could still get Baghdad Betty on the radio. Now, for some reason, they can't pick her up on the radio anymore.

"And listen to this, American soldiers," says gunnery Sgt. Darrell Norford, doing Baghdad Betty's Iraqi accent. "Why do you want to die with the snakes and the tarantulas?"

Right, right, say the other Marines, standing around, reminiscing about the good old days with Baghdad Betty.

"We'd say, BECAUSE WE LIKE TO EAT THEM!" gunny Norford says. "On Halloween, she was saying, 'Wouldn't you rather be home on your special holiday? Halloween.' She's fun, a lot of fun."

Gone, all gone. Just like the scorpions.

"We got scorpions, we got plenty of scorpions," says 1st Lt. Fred Rudolph, who was worried that a visitor might get the wrong idea. "We got dung beetles worse than the scorpions, they kill the scorpions." He holds up two fingers to show the size of these beetles -- about the size of a Swiss army knife, apparently.

"In the morning," Rudolph warns the desert greenhorn who was listening to him, "you get up and you see the beetle tracks in the sand, you follow them out and then they stop, just like that."

They stop?

"You bet," Rudolph says. "Wild rat got 'em. They got wild rats out here."

Customs Hamad M. Madhi, of the Saudi Ministry of Information, fears there is much the Americans do not understand, which is why he is personally escorting a photographer and a reporter to Dammam. This is a city that looks like someone took the outskirts of any city in America and made a downtown of it, with a faint architectural reference to the Atlantic City Boardwalk, a sense of wariness, knickknacks, luggage for sale and wristwatches.

"What is the reason for the people drowning in Haifa?" he asks from the front seat of his government car.

He is referring to the American servicemen who died recently when their ferry capsized.

Big waves? the Americans suggest. Maybe something wrong with the boat?

"I think it is punishment from God," Madhi says. "Why do they go to Israel? They are safe on {their ship}, but they want to go ashore to go drinking, they want to go dancing."

Ah, say the Americans.

There is so much they don't understand, which is why Madhi has to explain there must be no pictures, none, of the Saudi women with the black veils over their faces. "Every nation has its customs," he says. This one is so misunderstood.

Then, out of the car, Madhi worries about the photographer taking pictures of worn but beautiful old Arab faces and the vendors who sit on the sidewalk selling miswak, which is an herb stick Saudis use to clean their teeth.

Of course. Saudi Arabia is not a poor country or a backward one. Why should it look that way in photographs?

"Take pictures in an electronics store," he says, and proudly opens the door of one to reveal a wall of boom boxes, the very latest thing.

Ah, say the Americans.