Between The Lines Online: A New Kind Of War

I could get used to this. I mean, it isn't every day that you're saluted as an admiral on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. It happened just after I landed on the flight deck and it left red faces all around--an auspicious (for me) beginning to my two-day Christmastime visit aboard the USS Constellation, now the Navy's "point of the sword" in the waters off Iraq.

After an hour flight from Bahrain, we had just landed on the carrier in "The Cod"--an ancient propeller plane used to ferry visitors and mail. The 3Gs I felt when the wire on the deck "trapped" us at 130mph had worn off and we'd unharnessed, uncrossed our arms and sat up. Now the back of the plane opened wide and someone gestured to me and my seatmate, an AP reporter based in Indonesia with a craggy, distinguished look, to exit first.

We stepped down to find two long rows of sailors smartly saluting us. I gave them a big smile and pathetic half wave, like Bill Clinton before he learned to salute. Somehow I'd forgotten this wonderful greeting from my last trip aboard a carrier in the mid-1980s. Was it standard for visitors?

Well, no. Inside stood Capt. John Miller, commanding officer of the Constellation, with a puzzled look on his face. When I stuck out my hand, he greeted me warily and understandably asked: "Who are you?" He was waiting for the real distinguished visitor, a Canadian admiral on our plane. I never got to ask the admiral, but I assume he was greeted with all of the pomp and circumstance normally accorded a reporter.

The Constellation is a 41-year-old conventionally-powered carrier on its last cruise. The ship is scheduled for decommissioning next spring, in part because it's too old to spend the money required to retrofit the berthings (sleeping cabins) and heads (bathrooms) for women. (Unlike newer carriers, this ship carries only a handful of women). Dubbed "America's flagship" by Ronald Reagan, the Constellation is currently offering what the military calls "power projection" against Iraq. The pilots of the F-14s and F-18s patrol Iraq's no-fly zone around the clock. Both nights I spent aboard, bunking with a Palestinian TV crew, it felt all night as if jets were landing on our heads. They were.

The not-so-secret story out here is that the war has already started against Iraq; in fact, it has been going on for a few years. The game in Southern Iraq goes like this: pilots patrolling the no-fly zone spot Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, usually somewhere on the horizon (none has come close, except to an unmanned drone downed this month). Unless they are immediately endangered, the U.S. aircraft leave the area. Later, these or other pilots return to take out one Iraqi command-and-control target for each anti-aircraft incident. The number of incidents waxes and wanes. The two days I was aboard, sandstorms meant no Iraqi sightings. But some days bring as many as 50 encounters. The result is that if and when a real war starts, the United States will have significantly degraded Iraqi communications capacity in the South. Saddam Hussein will be fighting half blind.

The nearly 5,000 sailors and airmen (including 72 pilots) onboard the Constellation, which only arrived in the gulf in mid-December, have been ordered not to speculate on the likelihood of war. But they know this is already the real thing, and that odds suggest they will bear the brunt of the Navy's share of it. I asked Captain Miller if this was the "exhibition season" before the war. "No, this is the regular season, and we're getting ready for the playoffs," he said.

I guess it all comes down to what the meaning of the word "war" is. Right now, we're dropping J-DAMs on Southern Iraq. If "war" comes, it will likely start with cruise missiles against Baghdad. Is there that much of a difference?

But whether we have a full-scale war or just more "low-intensity conflict," it's hard not to be impressed by the readiness of the people I've met. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came aboard for a couple of hours while I was there, accompanied by a USO contingent that included Drew Carey and Roger Clemens. Inside the huge hangar bay, I was struck by how often Myers mentioned the "joint" nature of the mission. This was the message several officers also kept pushing, and it finally convinced me that the U.S. military has changed more in recent years than most of us have noticed.

"Goldwater-Nickles was a revolution," Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation Battle Group, told me, referring to the little-known 1986 reform bill that over time swept away many of the old interservice rivalries. The Army, Navy and Air Force finally talk to each other now, often through a secure Microsoft Chat system that three years ago revolutionized military communications. Never again will a Marine officer storming the beach have to use a pay phone to call in an airstrike. (That actually happened during the invasion of Grenada in 1983).

The better communication extends even to our adversaries. The day before we arrived, Admiral Costello recounts, a merchant ship sank in the gulf, leaving nine Iranians in the water. A Polish vessel heard the distress call, contacted an Australian ship, which radioed the Constellation, which sent out a chopper to rescue the Iranians, despite their government's inclusion in the American commander in chief's "Axis of Evil."

New communications systems have also changed the military experience of the average sailor. Officers and enlisted men can send e-mail home almost as often as they want (the bandwidth is occasionally prioritized for military communications, meaning interruptions for the "Hi, Mom" messages), and they can telephone from the ship much more easily than in the past. But cell phones and Blackberries don't work onboard; too much interference. And it's hard to shoot video on the flight deck or bridge because of the radar.

With the ease of communications comes new concerns about security. After September 11, new World War II-style loose-lips-sink-ships posters went up all over the carrier. My favorite features a 1940s character drinking coffee and saying: HOW ABOUT A NICE BIG CUP OF SHUT THE HELL UP. Underneath, it reads: THINK BEFORE YOU SAY SOMETHING STUPID.

On board, I go to bed at 1 a.m. and wake up with reveille at 6 a.m., like most of the crew. The accommodating public-affairs officers cheerfully keep tabs on reporters and cheerfully keep us from getting lost amid the five and a half acres of confusing passageways, levels, ladders and hatches. It's fun just to talk to as many people as possible: The officer who confides that this deployment is tame; when women are aboard "it's Peyton Place"; the sailor just out of boot camp and the Los Angeles barrio who has found that he gets seasick; the white senior enlisted man from a famously racist American community who recounts going home for a holiday to find his father making racial epithets in front of the grandchildren. The son fumes. In more than 20 years in the Navy he has learned to trust performance, not skin color, in making judgments about people. He tells his father that he and the grandchildren won't be back again soon unless he stops talking that way.

I watch some night landings on the carrier, which are widely considered the single hardest task in the American military. I look down at the flight deck, viewed by Lloyd's of London to be among the most dangerous work sites in the world.

One afternoon, I run into an old classmate of my brother, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Wright, who gives me a special tour of parts of the flight deck where public-information officers dare not tread. On this cruise, Wright's a "shooter," which means he supervises the catapult that launches the planes. Off duty, he takes me within 10 feet of the wings of the departing planes, then up to the front of the carrier. Matt keeps walking to the very bow, just inches from the edge. The wind is blowing strongly against us (carriers routinely sail into the wind to slow the planes down on landing), but I make what I consider to be the prudent decision to stop several feet short and plant my feet for balance; the gear I'm wearing--standard for anyone on the flight deck--would emit a signal if I fell 70 feet down into the drink, but I'm taking no chances. Just then an F-18 is flung out over the ocean right in front of us--a spectacular view I won't forget any time soon.

Too soon, it's our turn to be catapulted out over the gulf. The Cod awaits, this time with no one saluting on deck. I get one tiny foggy window; the Russian ambassador to Bahrain the other. We strap in, the "shooter" gives the thumbs up and as the flight deck disappears at super-fast-forward beneath us, the point of the sword glistens for a moment in the sun.

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