IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, NOV. 4 -- In the first hours today of his Persian Gulf tour, Secretary of State James A. Baker III got a look at the reality of military life in the Arabian desert, where American troops openly expressed anxiety about how long they would remain here before going to war or going home.
"Time is being wasted," said Sgt. Lisa Jones, 29, of Toledo, Ohio. "Let's do something or go." A soldier standing next to her added, "Let's go and get him and go home."
Second Lt. Henry Wardick, 23, a recent graduate of West Point, said: "Most of us assume we'll be going to war sooner or later. I'd like to go home as soon as possible, but let's get the job done."
Baker, who is sounding out members of the Western and Arab alliance who have sent troops here about the prospects for conflict with Iraq, offered no timetable to the restive troops. But in remarks to the 4,200 men and women of the 1st Cavalry Division, a mechanized infantry division based at Fort Hood, Tex., he dropped the fiery rhetoric that he and President Bush have been using in recent days to put pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Baker did not mention Iraqi-held hostages or U.N. war resolutions to the troops who would do the fighting, nor did he reiterate the impatient warnings from Bush about time running out to drive Saddam from Kuwait. Instead, he spoke in subdued tones about the principles underlying the largest American military deployment since the Vietnam War.
Baker acknowledged the uncertainty among the troops about whether Bush would eventually order them to fight. "I think . . . the main question is knowing what the future holds," he said after mingling with the soldiers. "That's the one thing that people are asking more than anything else and of course that's something that right now can't be answered with a great deal of specificity."
Standing under camouflage desert netting, wearing khaki slacks and worn cowboy boots, Baker told the troops:
"This is a long, long way from home, but I think that Americans are home wherever our principles are. And that's really what this crisis is all about. It's about the defense of the values that made the United States of America the finest and greatest country in the world.
"All nations have a right to be free, free from aggression, small nations as well as large nations. It's an important principle, I think, that unprovoked aggression should not be permitted to succeed, and the world made a terrible mistake in the '30s when we were unable or refused to stand up to unprovoked aggression.
"Today we are facing the first real crisis of the post-Cold War era. We have an opportunity to establish -- to participate in and establish -- a whole new international order. And we don't want to make the same mistakes that were made in the '30s," Baker said.
Perhaps sensing the anxious mood among the rank and file, Baker emphasized repeatedly that the sacrifices by the troops are appreciated back home. "We appreciate what you are doing, we are grateful for what you're doing, your nation is grateful to you for what you're doing," he said.
As he strolled among the soldiers, accepting some tobacco and chewing it demonstratively, Baker heard of the hardships of service in the gritty, dusty environment.
"I have a question: When are we going to get to go home?" asked Sgt. Kim Mathis.
"How long you been here?" Baker inquired.
"Too long," she said.
Another soldier added, "Thirty days, sir."
"Thirty days?" replied Baker. "Stay a little longer."
Mathis said later: "I'm from Alabama. I'm ready to go home, too. I'm tired of eating this dirt. I'm tired of drinking hot water. I'm ready to go home."
Although Baker said he was "impressed at the excellent morale of these troops," there were other signs of impatience.
While he shook hands with officers in the front rows of the assembled troops, some of the grunts in the back row beckoned for Baker to come talk with them.
"Have some hot water!" some shouted, referring to the drinking water. "Eat an MRE," they said, referring to a "meal ready to eat," canned rations served U.S. troops in the field. They asked reporters to give Baker a chicken ala king MRE.
"Tell him to eat this for 30 days," said one young woman soldier.
None of the division's heavy equipment, which includes M1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, rocket systems and Stinger missiles, was visible as Baker spoke.
Capt. Jeff Phillips said the tanks have been operating well but require constant maintenance because of the dust and grit. Pfc. Earnest Fowler, of Summerville, Va., who is in a unit that runs trucks to tow tanks, said the night before Baker arrived they took the trucks out and five broke down before they got to the main road.
Later today, Baker met with Bahrain's ruling emir and other officials of the government. Information Minister Tariq Almoayed told reporters that Bahrain applauded the hard line taken by Bush and Baker in recent days, which he called "encouraging" and "a fine road to take."
Almoayed said the multinational force had not come to the region for a "picnic," and he predicted that some kind of permanent force would be necessary as part of a future regional security arrangement.
Asked if the government of Bahrain felt there should be any constraints on the military forces, he replied, "There is no point to bringing armies from all over the world and tie their hands."