Commanders of the 3rd Infantry Division stood before their troops in the Kuwaiti desert today and imparted final words of resolve and caution before sending them to lead an anticipated U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Col. David Perkins, commander of the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, told assembled soldiers that President Bush "has given Saddam Hussein and his regime 48 hours to get out of town or face military action. We are that military action."
In Bravo Company of the division's 3rd Battalion, 15th Regiment, Capt. Ronnie Johnson, 37, of Dallas, put the message in less polished terms for infantry soldiers, armored vehicle crews and other troops as he spoke of his personal outrage over Sept. 11, 2001.
"This is going to be the biggest statement to the world that you are never going to [expletive] with America like that again," he said. "Take care of yourself, take care of your brother. Don't leave your honor in Iraq. Do what's right. Do what millions of American soldiers have done before you. Do the right thing. . . . What we do in life echoes in eternity. God be with you all."
Shortly after he spoke, the 20,000-strong Army division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., abandoned a vast camp in the northern Kuwaiti desert and set off in a miles-long column of M1 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, artillery pieces and support vehicles to a location that commanders said could not be disclosed. Later, as a full moon rose over the stark, sandy landscape, the forces stopped to await further orders.
The commanders' speeches aimed to define the meaning of the conflict for troops on the verge of combat, and to remind soldiers how to conduct themselves in territory where they would confront mortal hazards and moral dilemmas.
Perkins and other commanders stressed the need to avoid civilian casualties and to give Iraqi soldiers a chance to surrender. But they also ordered soldiers to be especially wary when venturing through civilian areas and to look out for one another. They sought to tie Hussein to the threat of further terrorist attacks against the United States and said they expected many Iraqis to welcome his ouster.
Speaking to brigade leaders a few hours after Bush's Monday night speech, Perkins said: "Peace is not just the absence of people pulling a trigger. Peace is the absence of the threat of war." Invoking the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, he said, "The country will not be at peace, the world will not be at peace, until we can eradicate the threat of a new world enemy: international terrorism."
Terrorists depend on state sponsors, Perkins added, "and right to the north of us is a huge state sponsor."
He urged lower-level commanders to explain the purpose of the war to their troops in those terms and contended that, in the end, they will have international support. "You and your soldiers are doing the heavy lifting . . . and are going to rid the world of a major, major problem."
"We are going to relieve Iraq of a dictator," Perkins said. While there may still be doubts about U.S. resolve in Hussein's mind, he said, those will be answered by "footsteps outside his doorstep."
Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, the 3rd Battalion commander, had stood in the middle of a formation of his 900-man task force before the unit moved and said, "Guys, you're going to war." The soldiers responded with a roar of "Hooah!"
Twitty cautioned the troops to do all they could to avoid harming civilians and to allow Iraqi soldiers to surrender honorably. "We are not going up there to fight the Iraqi people," he said. "The Iraqi people are good people. They've just been put in a bad situation. Treat all the good people with dignity and respect."
In their speeches, the officers sought to reassure soldiers who might have doubts about the mission in view of international opposition to a U.S. attack, with prominent U.S. allies among the critics.
"I don't want you to worry about why we're here," said Capt. Anthony Butler, commander of the battalion's headquarters company. "It doesn't matter. When we go north, we are the good guys. We are the cavalry."
Capt. Charles Glassock, a 28-year-old Air Force liaison officer from Portland, Ore., said the presidential speech that set the troops in motion was "pretty much what I expected." He added: "The U.N. hasn't done their part, so we're going to take care of it. If we don't roll north, we don't know how long we're going to be here. We want to get it over with one way or another."
In fact, that appears to be a common sentiment among the rank and file. Many soldiers see their way home as going through Iraq and are eager to take the first step.
"It's all we've been waiting for," said Sgt. Joseph Conley, a Bradley gunner from Kentucky. "Do this thing and get to the house."
But he said he did not see the connection between Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks that commanders invoked as a motivational tool. "I don't look at him as having anything to do with that," Conley said.
Sgt. David Fields, 38, from Kansas City, Mo., said the message in Bush's speech was "to the point, but it was  years too late." He said he thought the United States should have acted when the inspectors were pulled out because Hussein refused to cooperate.
"Now it looks like a vendetta," said Fields, who is in charge of an M88 maintenance and recovery vehicle. "But it's got to be done. I don't want my son to have to do it."