Fear At The Front

I want to go to combat," says Sgt. Mathew Figley of the Second Brigade, Third Infantry Division, as he slouches in the back of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the desert wastes of northern Kuwait, a few miles from the Iraqi border. Figley may get his wish. The Third I.D. is prepared to be the "tip of the spear" if American armed forces invade Iraq, according to the division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount. Sergeant Figley, 22, is sorry he missed combat in Afghanistan. "That was a heartbreaker," he says. He is not worried about dying, he says. Danger "is just part of life. If it's my time, I die." Says Figley: "There's no stress here. It's a cakewalk. It's so easy."

Figley's manly nonchalance is not unusual among the enlisted men of the Second Brigade. The Third I.D. is a rapid-reaction force, armor and infantry that can be sent anywhere in the world on short notice. During a chaplain's prayer in the Kuwaiti desert, a GI yells out, "Pray for war!" On the barrel of his tank, one young commander has stenciled ALL THE WAY TO BAGHDAD. But not many of the soldiers of the Third Division have ever been anywhere near combat. They are all innocents, with a few exceptions, like S/Sgt. Juan Carlos Cardona, 41, who was a private in the 1991 gulf war. The younger guys ask Cardona about his combat experiences. He keeps his answers general and superficial. "I don't want to go too deep and freak them out about dead bodies," he says.

The men of the Third Division are young, athletic and eager. Judging from history, their enthusiasm will last right up to the moment someone shoots back. If the shooting is intense, most will bravely do their duty, but more than a few will curl up into the fetal position or wet themselves. If they see as much combat as their grandfathers in World War II, they will, over time, become jaded, ground down and unwilling. A 1943 survey asked frontline troops how they felt about "getting back into actual battle." Less than 1 percent wanted to do it any time soon. Among Silver Star winners, the second highest award for valor (the highest, the Congressional Medal of Honor, is often posthumous), almost none did.

Combat veterans often don't like to talk about their time under fire. They do not wish to boast, but they also do not wish to relive their feelings of disgust and shame. They know that the most common oaths uttered are not "Charge!" or "On, Wisconsin!" or "I have not yet begun to fight!" or any of those rallying cries of legend. When young men die on the battlefield, writes author and World War II combat vet Paul Fussell, the cry heard most often is "Mother!"

As the U.S. military girds for war, shipping tons of arms and ammunition, thousands of tanks and planes and artillery pieces to jumping-off points around Iraq, commanders must prepare themselves and their men for the hardest part of war: overcoming fear. No amount of men and materiel will conquer Iraq if the men doing the fighting cannot conquer the gremlins in their own minds. They have reason to be afraid. Most presidents, post-Vietnam, have been deeply reluctant to see any soldier come home in a body bag. Determined to show U.S. resolve, faced with a foe armed with WMD, President Bush seems more willing to run the risk of casualties. President Clinton pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 right after the bloody fight depicted in "Black Hawk Down." Bush is eager to show the world that he is no Clinton.

Leading men into battle requires more than cliches and a strong jaw. In an earlier age, commanders killed shirkers and used alcohol to stiffen spines. As military historian John Keegan has noted, at Agincourt in the 15th century, at Waterloo in the 19th century, at the Somme in the 20th, many soldiers went into battle "less than sober, if not fighting drunk." Modern American generals must rely on less crude tools. (Alcohol is forbidden on warships and at forward bases of the U.S. military, though soldiers seem to be able to get their hands on liquor, sometimes in mail deliveries from home.) Denial and stoicism, the traditional warrior virtues, may work for some gung-ho types--Marines, fighter pilots, paratroopers, the Navy SEALs and Green Berets--but the modern grunt misses his MTV. And even a valorous medal winner can come home a post-traumatic-stress-disorder wife beater.

How best to face fear? The therapy culture has seeped into the armed services: men are now encouraged to talk about their deepest anxieties, and "critical incidence stress teams" of psychiatrists and counselors are rushed to the scene within hours of a fight or a fatal training accident. But fear cannot be talked away. It can be contained or compartmentalized, but it cannot be banished. Most commanders know that their best hope is to channel fear, so that men are not paralyzed but rather motivated. It has long been recognized that men fight, not for God or country, but out of fear--fear of being killed and fear of showing fear. The military uses the buddy system knowing that men do not want to shame themselves by showing cowardice to their buddies.

The great combat historian of World War II, S.L.A. Marshall, wrote that fear affects all men, even those in the most highly motivated units. Marshall found that no more than a quarter of the men actually fired their weapons on the battlefield. Religious scruple against killing was one reason. A bigger factor was shock. In one study of a division that saw heavy fighting in World War II, a quarter of the soldiers admitted they had been so scared that they vomited. Almost a quarter lost control of their bowels. Ten percent urinated in their pants. (Dry mouth and gagging are common symptoms of fear, a problem for officers who try to shout orders under fire and, instead, squeak.) Some men break right away under fire. Others take longer. A few, maybe 2 percent, are true war lovers, but they are also deemed psychopaths driven mad by the stress of combat. Army psychiatrists in World War II found that every man had an absolute limit of psychic endurance, at most about 60 days of continuous combat or an aggregate of 200 to 240 days.

A war against Iraq, if it comes, will be much shorter--probably. Americans have become accustomed to one-sided wars with low American casualties. U.S. forces will again roll over Iraqi opposition--maybe. U.S. soldiers will be better protected than earlier combatants and kill the enemy from greater distances--usually. Then again, the Third Division could find itself fighting house to house in a city swathed in toxic gas. Even Sergeant Figley does not seem so sure he wants to experience urban combat. He and his troopers have been practicing amid a dozen old trailers arranged into a mock "city." They use live ammo, but for safety reasons they are required to keep the barrels of their M-16s pointed down except when they're shooting. In a real street fight, they should be aiming up at the rooftops. "It's just them creating bad habits," mutters Figley. Plastic silhouettes in the fake city represent the locals: dark green is the enemy, beige is friendly. But silhouettes do not shoot back, and identifying friend or foe is not so easy in a real fight, especially if the troops are peering through gas masks. They can practice for the worst, but there's always someone who doesn't get the message. As the men of a Second Brigade unit struggled to pull on their chem-bio suits in a recent drill, one young private helplessly held up his shattered visor. He had used it as a pillow.

"Train the way you fight, fight the way you train" is the mantra of the armed services. Yet there is no substitute for the real thing. The urban-fighting drills of the Third I.D. feel a little unreal, staged more for the CNN cameras perhaps than as preparation for a real fight. Highly trained paratroopers or commandos may be more likely to do any close-in urban street fighting in Iraq. The Third is a mechanized division, depending heavily on tanks that fight at long range. "You can shoot and hit at very long distances," says Sgt. Maj. Dennis Oggs, a battalion tank commander. "You feel protected."

Yet even buttoned up in their airtight, steel-plated rolling fortresses, tankers have reason to be afraid. The capacity to shoot at unseen "over the horizon" targets makes U.S. forces especially vulnerable to killing each other. The military is constantly trying to cut down on "friendly fire" incidents, but high-tech war, like all war, rarely goes as planned. During one recent exercise in the Kuwaiti desert, the Third I.D.'s brand-new computerized system for tracking friendly forces blinkered out.

Living with death requires a certain mind-set. No one must deal with fear on a more regular--indeed, daily--basis than carrier-based pilots. Taking off and landing a wind-tossed warplane on a pitching deck in the dead of night--night after night--requires a suspension of normal human reactions. The members of the "Death Rattlers," a Marine squadron aboard the USS Constellation in the Gulf, are already at war, bombing antiaircraft sites in Iraq every week. They call these dangerous sorties "vuls," for "vulnerability windows." The Rattlers fill their downtime with smutty or gallows humor. They joked, mordantly, when a Navy F-18 pilot flew into a rocky wall at 600mph while shooting through a gorge in Oman known to hot-dogging pilots as "the 'Star Wars' canyon." "He became a geological artifact," said one Snake (as the Death Rattlers call themselves), taking comfort that the dead man felt no pain.

Death and the enemy are to be mocked, often in crudely psychosexual terms. The all-male Rattlers refer to Iraq as "the Box." (Naval aviators, more politically correct than the Marines because women serve as aviators, avoid sexual connotations by referring to Iraq as "the Container.") The Rattlers readily admit they are afraid at times, but they exult in flying jets and their view of combat can be surreal. Capt. Dan (Knuckles) Shipley described antiaircraft fire on a night mission. "It looks like trails of beads," he said, making explosions with his mouth, "like fireworks. It's pretty, it doesn't seem real, and you've got to sort of wake yourself up to realize that you're being shot at."

Pilots, especially Marine pilots, are an insular warrior caste. The average grunt has less psychic armor. For every three or four soldiers wounded or killed in battle, on average, one soldier has to be pulled off the front line suffering from combat stress. Among well-trained elite units, like the Army Rangers, the ratio is more like 10:1. But among conscripts thrown into heavy combat, the ratio can be more like 1:1. The Israeli Army discovered the cost of fighting with green troops during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. The Egyptians and Syrians attacked out of the blue on a day of religious fasting. Hungry, stunned Israeli reservists were pressed into action. Tank crews were assembled ad hoc. Men who had never seen each other drove into battle. By morning, many were dead or shellshocked.

The Israelis had been given a severe lesson in unit cohesion and training. Units that train together and stay together for long periods of time almost always fight better. This obvious lesson should have been learned in Vietnam by the U.S. Army, which rotated individual soldiers through units, always to the detriment of morale and fighting effectiveness. Some elite units are allowed to stick together today, but the Pentagon still replaces soldiers one by one in most regular Army divisions. To rotate entire units would require a larger force than Congress is willing to pay for, say the bean counters.

Soldiers do not have to be on the front lines to be afraid. In Kuwait, U.S. troops feel like sitting ducks for a terrorist attack with chemical or bioweapons (not unrealistically: British police believe that terror suspects recently caught with ricin, a lethal nerve agent, planned to poison the food of British soldiers). Even in the most storied outfits, like the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALs, some men wilt under fire. It is important that these men not be made to feel like cowards. Since World War I, enlightened military leaders have followed the teachings of Napoleon's surgeon in chief, Dominique Larrey. In tending to La Grande Armee through 60 battles in 25 campaigns during the early 19th century, Larrey had discovered that the best way to treat a shellshocked soldier was like any other wounded soldier. Give him sleep and decent food. Preserve his identity as a soldier. Do not disgrace him by treating him as a mental case or sending him to an asylum or even home for a rest. Get him back into the line as soon as possible. More often than not, this worked, reported Larrey.

History has borne out Larrey's approach. When Gen. George S. Patton slapped a couple of "malingerers" at a field hospital in World War II, he was way out of line. In both world wars and in every conflict since, military doctors have found that about 70 percent of soldiers suffering from combat fatigue, if treated with kindness and respect, went willingly back into battle after three or four days of rest. About half the others were able to serve in rear echelons away from the fighting. Only 15 percent or so were truly broken.

Since Vietnam, the U.S. military has grown increasingly sophisticated about dealing with psychological trauma. "In the '70s, the answer was always 'three hots and a cot'," says the Rev. Raymond Koop, a chaplain at Fort Benning, Ga. "Now we have critical-incident defusings and stress-management techniques." Some old hands, especially in the Marine Corps, think the military has gotten a little too touchy-feely. They say that boot camp has gone soft in the Army and Navy, especially after the inclusion of women in the early '90s. Instead of wearing combat boots and fatigues, enlistees do the ropes course in sneakers and gym shorts. Reputedly, at some training courses, frazzled recruits have been allowed to beg out of strenuous drill by holding up blue or white cards marked with an "S" (for stress).

Soldiers who sign up for combat arms--infantry, armor and artillery--eventually go through much more realistic training. The basic idea is to eliminate, or at least lessen, the surprise and shock of combat. By constant repetition, a soldier's duties are supposed to become routine, reflexive, automatic. Rather than think--and possibly panic--a combat soldier is supposed to rely on "muscle memory." At mock battlefields like the National Training Center in the California desert, soldiers simulate real battles, shooting each other with laser beams (soldiers are fitted with sensors; when they bleep, the soldiers are "dead"). Explosions are used to replicate the noise and smoke of the battlefield, but live fire is generally deemed too dangerous.

No amount of training will substitute for good leadership when the shots begin to fly. In an earlier era, a good officer never wanted to be seen ducking or flinching. At Trafalgar, the great 19th-century sea battle that secured for Britain control of the seas, Lord Nelson wore his best uniform and decorations into battle, as an example of sang-froid to his men. (Nelson was mortally wounded by a sharpshooter, however, and as fire became increasingly accurate and lethal, officers began stripping badges of rank from their uniforms before battle.) As he prepares to ship out for Iraq, Michael David Gauthier, 36, a gunnery sergeant with a light helicopter squadron and a combat veteran from the gulf war, knows that his men will be watching him. "If I was scared, then there would be a lot more people who would be uncertain about how things are going to work out," says Gauthier, an 18-year Marine veteran. "If I'm confident, they're confident." His greatest fear, it seems--worse than death--is of looking like a coward. "That's absolutely one of the most horrible things to have to go through," he says. "You can't let your buddy down."

David Grubb, a Marine infantryman trained to use a shoulder-fired 83mm rocket launcher, knows he will be afraid. "But what I do with the fear determines whether the fear is a good thing or a bad thing. If I let the fear overcome me, that's a bad thing. If I use fear as courage, that's a good thing." Easier said than done, he knows. A 20-year-old, newly married with a baby on the way, Grubb enlisted the day after the 9-11 attacks. He flashes a big grin. "No matter what happens, I'm coming home so I'll get to see my baby," he says. "I'm not allowed to die. They can't kill me. They're not allowed to, no matter what happens." On such faith do young men go into battle. They believe in their own immortality, until the man next to them dies.