Monday morning, at breakfast in the Marriott hotel here, a man at the table next to mine was talking on his cell phone in one of those brisk executive cell-phone voices. He was not in uniform, but from his neat, straight, clipped look he was military of some sort. He was saying that he was calling on behalf of Capt. So-and-So, following up on a call from yesterday, trying to make clear exactly what the captain needed.
"We're looking for the whole thing as a package deal," he was saying, "the bunk beds and the pillows and the blankets all for one price." A pause, as he listened to a question. "No, nothing like that. Basic stuff. The blankets -- not fancy. You know, durable, but economical. Just looking for, you know, one level above airline. Just looking for a place for a guy to put his head." Another pause, another question. "No, that's too much. Look, these would be for, if you get my drift, guests. They're not high-end guests. They're guests that would be trying to kill us at one time."
In Washington and New York and Paris and London, the idea of war with Iraq is still, theoretically, theoretical. Although no one believes that war (or regime change and a temporary U.S. military occupation of Iraq without war) will be avoided, it is still barely possible, for the purposes of news product and national posturing, to pretend that the last bit of jaw-jaw remaining has some connection with reality: that it matters what judgments pass so finely parsed from the thin lips of Dr. Blix, the Great Equivocator; or what the precise details are of the latest ploy by the French to save their great, greasy oil contracts with their client-tyrant Saddam Hussein.
But here, where the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division wait for the word to attack, the conversation has moved entirely beyond these fictions and confections, except as they concern issues of timing and tactics on the periphery of things. The talk here is much more pragmatic: beds and blankets and fuel and gas masks and so on, a million little things to get done before the beginning of the forgone conclusion.
Last week the 3rd Infantry Division packed up its big tan-white tents at Camp New York, its desert base since November, loaded up its tanks and its other assault vehicles with ammunition, and moved to a forward position farther north in the sand. A few days later, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division, spoke to the journalists who will be traveling with and reporting on the division as the main heavy armored force in the invasion of Iraq. Blount was clear and matter-of-fact on the nature of the job: "Our goal is to have a regime change in Iraq, plus make sure the area is free from weapons of mass destruction."
The invasion of a nation, the defeat of its army in its own land and the ouster of its government represent the height of ambition, danger and difficulty in war. But here too, Blount is matter-of-fact -- not blustering (he does not seem at all the sort) but quietly and apparently absolutely sure of a victory based on an overwhelming superiority of force.
A reporter asked him about what has been presumed the nightmare scenario -- taking Baghdad by arms. "I feel confident that, with the mechanized forces we have, we'd be able to do that very successfully," Blount said, in his low, almost monotonal voice. A reporter asked him about the dangers of chemical or biological attack. He said that this was his "biggest concern," but "if it happens, we're very well prepared for it." A reporter asked him what worries keep him up at night these days. He said, "I sleep pretty good at night."
The historian Paul Kennedy wrote awhile back that the immense disparity of power between the United States and the rest of the world, unique in degree in history, was remarkable enough, but that what was really extraordinary was that the United States was able to achieve this by spending less than 3 percent of gross domestic product annually. A similar sense strikes an observer here.
It is remarkable enough that the United States is setting out to undertake the invasion of a nation, the destruction of a regime and the liberation of a people. But to do this with only one real military ally, with much of the world against it, with a war plan that is still, by necessity, in flux days before the advent, with an invasion force that contains only one fully deployed heavy armored division -- and to have, under these circumstances, the division's commander sleeping pretty good at night: Well, that is extraordinary.
A victory on these terms will change the power dynamics of the world. And there will be a victory on these terms.