EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- At first, word went around that the sand was sacred, all of it -- sacred dunes, sacred dust storms that look like mist and turn the sun silver, sacred sand that pours out of your boots like a magician's trick, just keeps pouring and pouring, sacred sabhkas, which are the soft dark brown damp spots that eat tanks, whatever, offerings to the desert god.
"There was a rumor you couldn't urinate out here or you'd defile the sands," says Master Gunnery Sgt. Junior Talauega, who drove Marine tanks in Vietnam and is driving them here.
Then the Marines noticed all the wrecked cars rusting by the roads, and the camel dung and trash heaps, the plastic and oil cans that have blown up against the miles of wire fencing that surround endless square miles of empty desert, and they decided maybe the sand wasn't so sacred after all.
So word went around among the troops not to worry, that the only thing you had to worry about was making sure you didn't face Mecca when you urinated. Was this true? Why did they worry?
Clearly, the sand had to be honored. Herodotus recounts the Persian army that set out across the Libyan desert to conquer the people of the Siwa oasis. The army vanished.
"You move out here at night and all the terrain features disappear," says Maj. Terry Lockard, the operations officer of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, an infantry outfit. Getting lost is easy enough during the day; at night it's worse. "We have guys take compasses when they go to meetings right here inside the battalion." You hear about sentries who get caught 50 yards from their hooches in one of the dust mists and have to sit down and wait for it to clear.
It's funny -- some Marines act as if it's bad form to sit on the sand. "Don't sit on the sand, man," they'll say. They have no chairs, and they're strapped into a lot of weight -- the helmets, chemical-warfare suits, rifles, canteens -- but they'll stand rather than sit on the sand, talking about the sex dreams they had last night and spitting snuff juice. They even eat standing up, off the plastic plates they buy from the Saudis. Then they burn the plates -- no problems about sacredness with snuff juice or plastic plates, apparently.
"Sand permeates everything," a Marine Corps report said.
It is interesting stuff.
In the 1930s a British army engineer named Ralph Bagnold did wind-tunnel studies on sand. He showed how sand moves in three different layers -- sliding, bouncing and hanging in the air, forming ripples and dunes describable in terms of wave theory. He found it unsettling. He wrote: "In places, vast accumulations of sand weighing millions of tons move inexorably, in regular formation, over the surface of the country, growing, retaining their shape, even breeding, in a manner which, by its grotesque imitation of life, is vaguely disturbing to an imaginative mind."
Here, near Kuwait, the desert is flatter than the dune ranges of the Empty Quarter to the south.
You drive along and you're always in sight of a high-tension line or the desalination plant the Marines look at from miles and miles away and call the Emerald City, a cement factory way off in the dust, an oil-fired power plant with strobe lights winking on the stacks, gas flares streaking the horizon with black wind-blown smoke, as if you were standing at the center of a flat revolving earth and the flares were out on the edge of it, leaving the smoke in their wake.
There is scrub, and there are palm trees sometimes. The sand turns the palms a shabby, drooping, ancient brown, like something you might find under the porch of a summerhouse, or as if these are the pariahs, the pi-dogs of palm trees, while the green ones lining highways in the cities are the purebreds.
Then you see camels grazing on the scrub, preposterous and elegant, or a flock of goats in the distance, being driven through the scrub by a Bedouin in robes flapping wildly in the wind. It's all romantic in its own way, from the strobe lights to the robes, the charm of desolation.
The wind broke mountains to rocks, rocks to gravel, gravel to sand, as if God Himself had done a stretch of bad time here, making big ones into little ones as they say on prison rock piles, reducing everything to the irreducible (you can understand why mystics like deserts), to sand so fine that word has it the Saudis actually had to import coarser sand to make cement. Was this true or is it just one of those ironies that livens up the military day?
In any case, there were few enough suitable boulders that the Saudis had to make the harbor of Jubail out of chunks of concrete. They have to keep dredging the harbor because of all the sand that blows into it.
"I hear that when it rains the first time in the spring, it rains brown for the first half hour," says Cmdr. S.W. McCone, the head of the Coast Guard reserves policing port facilities in their dusty Boston Whalers with their dusty .50-caliber machine guns. "That's what I hear, but it hasn't rained yet."
Marine Cpl. Sean Murray, a tanker, warms himself over a fire he has built from one of the telephone poles you find out here like driftwood, pieces of the foundered good ship progress, replaced by high-tension towers that will founder into oblivion in their turn, you think, but then everything has a provisional, abandoned quality out here. Murray's fire burns in a six-inch declivity, the flames making a flapping noise in the wind, like a flag. Tomorrow, Murray will build his fire somewhere else.
"Four days ago this pit was seven feet deep, I dug it myself, but the wind fills it in," he says.
And the sand is all over him, the coarse stuff in his boots, the finer stuff filling his pores, so fine you can't really see it, so fine it feels more oily than gritty, fine as talcum, people keep saying, but it's finer than that -- you can't breathe talcum, but you can breathe this stuff, as easily as you can breathe mist. Ghost sand.
It makes Murray look not so much old as like an old photograph, fading and blurring, a snapshot from an old war but not quite: The difference so far in Saudi Arabia has been that with no shooting, faces have yet to acquire the combat look, the legendary thousand-meter stare.
In the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," Peter O'Toole announces that he loves the desert because it's clean. That's nonsense.
You wash as much as you can, truck showers when the trucks show up or those plastic-bag showers you buy in camping-good stores. You could wash out of your helmet if the Army still had the old helmet, the steel pot of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, a helmet you could dig and cook with too. Now the new, scientific, systems-analyzed Army has come up with a Kevlar helmet that is good for absolutely nothing but saving your life. So you put a plastic bag inside a ration carton, fill it with desalinated water, add a little shampoo and scrub.
At a PX recently, an Army nurse named Debbie Posey, a first lieutenant, stood in front of the makeup counter not buying any. "The sand just sticks to it," she said. The dust is hell on hair too, apparently -- PXs have a hard time keeping conditioner in stock.
The sand overwhelms everything, the way the sea overwhelms ships and makes them tiny. Tanks don't so much roll over this sand as they seem to stand still and process it, 67-ton sand mills raising plumes of dust the way factories put out smoke -- "sand signatures," the tankers call them.
The dust becomes a sort of weather all its own. Navy ships are said to be shrouding their equipment 20 miles at sea. Gun bolts jam, planes can't fly, they are not "good to go," as the Desert Shield catch phrase has it, a phrase that so far you hear with the same frequency you heard "sorry about that" in Vietnam. The dust is everywhere, so fine that television cameramen find it between the hermetically-sealed lenses of their cameras, and newspaper photographers can't rewind their film or else they'll scratch it.
Does the sand explain why you can spend days in the desert and never see more than a few planes and helicopters? Are they keeping out of the dust until the shooting starts? In any case, to a Vietnam veteran, at least, the absence of the popping and grumbling of helicopter rotors is conspicuous.
In Vietnam, in the jungle, you felt watched. Here, you are the watcher, but the effect is the same, you feel just as much a stranger. If Vietnam was the heart of darkness, a war in the Persian Gulf could be the heart of glare, from green to brown, wet to dry, defeat to victory, one hopes. The desert is just the place for what the Beltway brigadiers like to call "our kind of war." More important, of course, is that the desert is just the place for its own kind of war.
Sand, the Persians, the Emerald City, junked cars, lost sentries, blinded cameras, big ones into little ones, look on all these works, ye mighty, and despair. Though Ozymandias isn't the American way, of course. We'll try to turn it around, confident that our might lies in looking on all this despair, and getting down to work.