NORTHERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Never before has America fielded so many abstemious, clean-shaven, church-going soldiers to a major war. The new soldier may curse a blue streak, but he is not drunk, high or a skirt chaser. It's so out of character for the few, the loud and the unseemly, that they have dubbed this the "Square War."
The big benefit from all of this sobriety, according to U.S. and Saudi sources, is that at least one Islamic country may stop stereotyping Americans as Godless, heathen party animals. Very quietly, concerned and conservative Islamic leaders and scholars have been escorted by government officials to the secret military bases in northern Saudi Arabia on the Iraq and Kuwait borders where they have met with randomly picked GIs.
It is an eye-opener for both sides -- for the Muslims who are treated with courtesy and interest, and for the soldiers who get a rare opportunity to mingle with residents of their host country. The biggest shock to the Muslims has been to find so many of their own faith among the American troops.
The deployment last August was an act of faith by the Saudis and the United States. The Pentagon promised that its soldiers would behave themselves under the most trying of circumstances, and then everyone held their breath. So far, so good.
Disciplinary hearings are few, prompting one Army lawyer to complain to us that he didn't have enough business to keep him busy. The primary reason the troops are earning a group good-conduct medal is the lack of liquor. "What it means is that we're running the largest detox center in the world here," one senior Army official observed. "Any of the 500,000 troops here who came as alcoholics has been forced to sober up over the last six months."
Drug use is also rare, unlike the last war, Vietnam, where the host country was a supermarket for marijuana, opium and other narcotics. The closest thing the soldiers get to a narcotic is tobacco. The downside is that while many may have kicked the booze habit while at the front, they now have a nicotine addiction that they didn't bring with them.
Vietnam had prostitutes aplenty, but soldiers will look a long time before they catch a glimpse of an ankle in Saudi Arabia. Not only can't the men proposition Saudi women, but they also can't talk to them. The GIs have taken to calling the black-veiled Saudis the "Ninja Women."
Hanky-panky among the men and women soldiers is logistically tough. There is little privacy. In one case a male mechanic and a female dispatcher in one unit both reported to sick call with the same sexually transmitted disease. Both are likely to be disciplined. But those incidents are rare.
So what do the troops do with their time? A surprising number have turned to religion. Thousands of special Bibles with desert camouflage covers are being shipped in and may not meet the demand.
There are more than 700 American chaplains serving the troops, and the Saudis have turned out to be more tolerant of religious observances than originally feared.
The Saudis have drawn the line at any attempt to proselytize among the Muslims, but the ministry among the troops has become more open. There have been more than 100 Christian baptisms among the troops here.