The Grunt's War

It takes all kinds of soldiers to win a war. lt. Col. Ernest (Rock) Marcone lives the warrior myth. The tough-talking, cigar-chewing Marcone, West Point class of '86, loved reading "The Killer Angels," Michael Shaara's epic of generalship at Gettysburg, and he can recite many of the legends of the Long Gray Line. As the commander of Task Force 3-69 of the First Brigade Combat Team of the Third Infantry Division, Marcone rode into battle in his Abrams M1A1 tank at the tip of the spear, in the lead unit in the invasion of Iraq. After he had liberated Baghdad (formerly Saddam) International Airport last Saturday, Marcone took a tour of one of Saddam Hussein's nearby palaces with his fellow commanders. When they arrived at a crystal-clear man-made lake on the manicured grounds, the burly, dark-haired Marcone stripped off his filthy battle garb and, like a triumphant gladiator of old, bathed in the unspoiled water of a (nearly) vanquished tyrant.

Capt. Mike Pecina, the executive officer of a company of Bradley fighting vehicles in the 3-69th, has no dreams of glory. An ROTC grad of Sam Houston State University, he wants to do his duty and go home to civilian life. Balding, a little paunchy, Pecina has an easy smile and a harried manner. His men trust him; they sleep and eat with him in the close and harsh confines of a Bradley, an armored box on tank treads. When Pecina arrived at the Baghdad airport, he washed his hands in a metal bowl. Then, Pecina, who had not slept in two days, lay down and rested, nearby his men asleep in the dirt.

The professional warrior. The citizen soldier. In two weeks Marcone, Pecina and thousands of comrades in arms, brother soldiers and Marines--and not a few women in so-called noncombat roles, like Jessica Lynch, the POW rescued last week--performed a truly memorable feat. In a 350-mile dash across the desert, through ambushes and over the shattered remnants of Saddam's Army, they arrived at the gates of Baghdad, exhausted after two weeks of gas alerts and rocket-propelled-grenade attacks, but ready, if called upon, to fight some more.

Taking down the regime may require more cleverness than brawn. The Americans do not want to get trapped in a street brawl. An armored column from the Third Infantry Division smashed deep into the center of Baghdad on Saturday--but then drove right back out again. Shadowy Special Operations forces lurked in the streets, directing airstrikes and looking for "leadership targets." "We're leaving our calling card," said a Defense Department official. "We want the Iraqis to know we can go any-where and any time. We're everywhere and we're nowhere." NEWSWEEK has learned that the war planners are considering a bold strike at the heart of the regime, an "inside-out" attack on key headquarters in the heart of the city. But first the --Americans have to find Saddam. Last week the Iraqi strongman, or someone who looked just like him, took a jolly stroll through the streets to greet his people. Then, presumably, he slipped back into his network of tunnels and bunkers, buried deep below the city.

The American war plan--praised, criticized, then lauded again--is meant to be fluid. "Like water," said one senior military official, who described a relentless wave that flows around all obstacles in its path to inexorably drown Saddam in his hole. It is unclear how soon the end will come, or how messy the battle will be. But victory, when it is achieved, will be owed as much to the steadfastness of soldiers like Marcone and Pecina as it will be to the genius of the war planners. NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino rode in Pecina's Bradley fighting vehicle from the first thrust across the Kuwait border to the Third Infantry Division's arrival, under fire, on the apron of the Baghdad airport. Their triumph is at heart human, not strategic. The men are not especially brilliant or bold, and they gripe like all soldiers, but they are inventive and straight with each other. The story of their astonishing odyssey begins about one week and 200 miles down the road to Baghdad.

The top brass call it a "tactical pause." To the grunts of Charlie 2-7 (Charlie Rock) Company, stalled in the bleak wastes of central Iraq, it is a time of low spirits and second-guessing. They had jumped off on the night of March 20 to the sound of "Bodies," by a heavy-metal band called Drowning Pool, blasting over a loudspeaker atop a Humvee. For the first three days they rolled across the desert. Then the sniping began; the column slowed and stopped. "It's like the government bought us one shot of tequila," says Specialist Jared Agnetti, 22, the driver of Captain Pecina's Bradley fighting vehicle. "And then they took away the bottle."

For long hours the men of Charlie Rock just do nothing. They stare vacantly out at the desert or at the walls of their Bradleys. Water and food supplies run low. Crammed with unwashed men, the Bradleys reek of armpits and sweaty socks. Dirty clothes are piled next to antitank missiles and boxes of grenades. For toilets, grunts cut holes in canvas folding chairs and use empty water bottles, marked with their initials, as urinals.

Some GIs fold and fly paper airplanes. A few watch the 1980s movie "Red Dawn," about the Cubans and Soviets invading the western United States. The movie seems eerie--American kids dressed in civilian clothes attacking Soviet armored columns with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. The Americans feel a little like the guys in the tanks, ambushed and surprised.

This is not the Big Battle the men of the Third Infantry Division planned, trained and hoped for. They are confident they can crush Saddam's tanks. But suicidal irregulars firing RPGs from the back of pickup trucks are an unsettling and dangerous annoyance. There are few American casualties; still, the men are wary, on edge. When they pass Iraqis on the road, the locals sometimes give them a thumbs-up. The soldiers have been misinformed that a thumbs-up is regarded as an obscene gesture by Arabs.

Near Najaf, a column of tanks and Bradleys fight a skirmish against a ragged band of Iraqis shooting at them from an escarpment, a steep slope. The Bradleys and tanks charge through a gap in the slope, scattering the enemy, killing about a hundred and taking about the same number of prisoners. The fighting goes on, in fits and starts, for more than a day. The next day a few mortar rounds fall on the Americans, including one on the top of Colonel Marcone's tank. The colonel is banged up by the concussion of the blast, but otherwise unfazed. For a professional warrior, being bloodied in battle is a necessary passage.

Afterward, Marcone congratulates the men on what he calls "the Battle of the Escarpment": "The Lord was very good to us yesterday," says Marcone, roughly quoting the words uttered by Stonewall Jackson ("God has been good to us this day") as the Confederate general toured the bloody battlefield at Antietam. "Yesterday was easy," says Marcone, who sounds a little like Darth Vader. He tries to prepare his men for bloody battles ahead. "Whatever emotions you're feeling, you've got to take the pain. Let your instincts take over. You've got to concentrate on the guys who are alive. They [the dead] are just bodies. Their spirits are gone." The colonel asks his com--pany commanders for Bronze and Silver Star recommendations, normally handed out for more desperate actions.

Some of Marcone's troops think that the colonel is a bit over the top. They admire his flair but wonder if he thinks he is General Patton. The enemy doesn't seem very formidable. The prisoners they have captured are, for the most part, pathetic, hungry and scared.

Captain Pecina does not have his commanding officer's yearning to make history. "I've seen enough history," he says. "I want to go home and work on my golf." Pecina is, by his own account, a worrywart. He constantly frets about broken and lost equipment and soldiers who can't seem to get squared away. After a vehicle catches fire in the desert, Pecina can't believe it when the men manage to get out with their Hostess cakes, but forget their radios. Most of the men have lost their gear as well and wander around wrapped in blankets, like homeless people. Pecina is exasperated by one particularly needy grunt, Pfc. Phillip Davis, a somewhat clumsy soldier who is mercilessly teased by the others.

During one of the slow afternoons in the desert, Pecina orders Davis to pick up the contents of his MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), scattered around the Bradley. "We're not in combat," Davis says, talking back to his superior. Marcone might have bridled and told the private to stand at attention. Pecina just asks, "What do you think we're doing?" Davis, 32, is old to be a private. He enlisted because he needed a job and "G.I. Joe [a toy soldier] was big when I was a kid," he says. "Being a private in the Army is not fun and I don't like it much," says Davis, who wears thick government-issue glasses and a helmet stenciled heavy d. Before the invasion, Davis couldn't find the magazine for his assault rifle and then got his weapon jammed in the Bradley's ramp. "Davis!" Pecina and the other officers keep shouting at the hapless dogface, without much effect.

At last, word comes down: the big push is on. The Third Division will roll through the Karbala Gap, a narrow slice of flat land between a large reservoir and the town of Karbala outside Baghdad. Intelligence warns that Saddam may have artillery, armed with chemical warheads, fixed and aimed on the gap. The men have been told to start taking Cipro pills (for anthrax) and wearing plastic boots with their charcoal-lined protective suits. "I feel like a clown with these f--ing boots on," says Cpl. Timothy Smith, the gunner on Pecina's Bradley. Short, with an All-American smile, Smith sleeps in the turret. The other grunts call him the Turret Troll.

Colonel Marcone is bracing for battle, though an intelligence officer says there doesn't seem to be much sign of the vaunted Republican Guard awaiting them in the gap. "I think that you can expect to see a squad here and there," the gruff West Pointer tells his officers. "Kill them with extreme prejudice."

That night the troops lie out under the stars and watch a light show of American might. Rockets and artillery shells streak across the night sky. Around 11 o'clock, the giant B-52s roar overhead, with their lethal payloads for the Republican Guard, at least those who haven't already fled. The show rivals the opening night of the war, when the men brought out disposable cameras, like tourists.

Along the desert, the tanks and Bradleys of the Third Infantry Division are arrayed in long rows for a sweeping advance. "It always feels good to move in battalion," Pecina says. "You feel so powerful." In the gunner's turret, however, Corporal Smith, who hasn't been able to sleep, is feeling the blahs. "You ready to start scanning [looking for targets]?" Pecina asks his gunner. "I guess," Smith replies. "You guess?" says Pecina. "You all right?" he asks. Smith says that he is.

The clanking armor columns rumble out of the sandy wastes into lush farmland, crisscrossed with canals. They pass the smoking carcasses of cars and trucks hit by American air power and artillery. Very occasionally, they see the burnt-out hulk of a Russian-made Iraqi tank. At the Euphrates River crossing, Pecina's Bradley finally hits some resistance, a few Iraqi soldiers with mortars. "Kill 'em!" commands Capt. Todd Kelly, the company commander and Colonel Marcone's fellow West Pointer, over the radio. "Kill 'em in the holes! I need you to kill all the infantry at the bridge!"

The battle is one-sided. Tanks from the rear open up on cars and trucks in the distance. "Did you see that car get the s--t blown out of it?" Pecina asks. An A-10 swoops in, its giant machine gun rattling. "That's pretty wicked," says Pecina. "It sounds like a big fart."

Pecina is ordered to pull up to the bridge and lay down smoke to mask the advance of the other Bradleys. An Iraqi man approaches. "Stop!" Pecina demands from his perch, an open hatch in the vehicle's roof. "Say 'kif!' " pipes up Davis, the Bradley's gun --loader, referring to the Arab word for "halt." The man ignores or doesn't hear the order and walks on by. "There's a vehicle coming!" Pecina yells. Smith opens up with his 25mm gun. "Too high!" says Pecina. Another truck cuts in front of them. Smith fires a burst of high-explosive rounds. "Engaged and destroyed truck," Pecina says, then reconsiders. "No, it was too high." Apache helicopters are hovering overhead by now. A white truck pulls in ahead and heads for the bridge. "White truck! Engage!" shouts Pecina. This time Smith hits the truck, destroying it.

Pecina directs smith to shoot at a Nissan parked by the road, several hundred yards away. "I don't see any movement inside the vehicle," Smith replies. "You have to shoot it," Pecina insists. Smith obliges, remarking, "I can't believe that Nissan started on fire so quickly." Then an Iraqi pops his head over the high grass along the road. "See that guy?" says Smith. "What's he doing?" asks Pecina. "Spying on us," says Smith. "Shoot! Shoot it!" yells Pecina. "He's definitely a soldier." Smith shoots at the man, though he's not sure if the man went down or got away. After the battalion has safely secured the bridgehead, Colonel Marcone grants an interview to Michael Kelly, a Washington Post columnist who is traveling with the unit. "We took no prisoners. They fought until they died," says the colonel, in the stern manner of a Roman centurion. (Kelly was later killed when the Humvee in which he was traveling plunged off a bridge into a canal.)

By the next morning, Pecina, who is strung out from sleeplessness and standing for 12 hours at a stretch at his command post, is slouched in the back of the Bradley. He has a bad head cold and he's not feeling good about the war. "The military planners did not plan on us fighting this much," he says. "They thought we would just take out Saddam and we'd just roll into Baghdad. They didn't plan on any contingencies, and it's going to bite us in the ass." Pecina is worried about shortages of water, food, ammo and parts. His men have been scrounging for parts. The Bradley's driver, Specialist Agnetti, who is sharp and wiry and has a tattoo of a wizard in a tornado on his bicep, wrangles trades for spare parts that he calls "drug deals." The unit has too much armor-piercing ammo and not enough high explosive, possibly because the planners figured the Third Infantry Division would be facing tanks, not guerrillas in trucks. (A senior Pentagon official told NEWSWEEK that CENTCOM's Gen. Tommy Franks asked all his com-manders, "Do we have what we need?" and that "everyone seemed pretty comfortable.")

Pecina's troopers are feeling cocky about the march to Baghdad. "It's like a rock rolling down a hill," says Agnetti. "What's going to stop us?" Pecina prefers to be the pessimist: "They could be waiting for us in Baghdad," he says. As the convoy rolls north into the urban outskirts, hundreds of civilians line the road. Some wave MREs tossed by passing GIs (they're not supposed to). One Iraqi man wears a Guinness-beer T shirt. "It's making me nervous," says Pecina, eying the bystanders, who scowl, or smile, or just stare impassively. "I wonder if they always hang out outside like this."

The Third's objective is Saddam International Airport, 10 miles from the center of Baghdad. When the Bradleys drive up to the edge of the airport, they encounter a tall wall. "Kick the door in," growls Colonel Marcone over the radio. Captain Kelly orders the men to begin firing tank rounds, but it seems to take forever to punch a hole in the wall. "Is this the Tootsie Roll wall?" asks a major on Colonel Marcone's staff. "How many shots does it take to get to the middle?" Replies Captain Kelly: "We're a little f--ed up right now. Give me a minute to sort it out." Incongruously, driver Agnetti comes on the radio to say to gunner Smith, "Hey, Smith, I have no pants on."

The wall is breached and the grunts are trigger-happy when they finally roll onto the tarmac. One fires his tank at an airplane, blowing it up. Pecina is impressed. "That could have been Saddam trying to fly away," he says. Colonel Marcone is furious. "Now they're really pissing me off!" he yells over the radio. "The instructions were: don't shoot the aircraft! Now get control of your men!" Kelly calls Pecina: "That is our f--k-up and blunder. Do not do it again." Pecina: "Roger. I guess that word hadn't been passed down."

As the Bradleys cruise through the alleyways of the airport, littered with shrap--nel and the copses of palm trees, Pecina orders Private Davis into action. Ridiculed as a "pogue," a private who is a mere gun loader on the Bradley and not a true "dismounted" infantryman, Davis has his chance for glory. He is ordered to hop out of the back of the Bradley and throw grenades into the dugouts abandoned by Iraqi soldiers. Davis chucks a couple of grenades at a fighting hole occupied by a small lawn chair and ducks back into the Bradley. "It feels pretty cool," he says, safely back aboard. "This is where it stopped being surreal. Everything else seemed to have this weird Hollywood-movie-ish air. Everything seemed easier than we expected."

Emboldened, Davis steps out on the tarmac while the Bradleys idle. He has become accustomed to the thud of distant artillery. But small-arms fire can be heard cracking and snapping nearby. Machine-gun rounds begin kicking up dust. Davis jumps back into the Bradley. Pecina asks, "Hey, did that fire come near us?" Davis replies, "You know that sound it makes when it whizzes over your head? I heard that sound." Pecina looks at him. "That's why you don't f--ing hang out outside," he says.

Later in the day the firing starts up again. Pecina orders his Bradley toward the airport control tower. A large bang shakes the vehicle. "I think I received an RPG round!" Pecina yells over the radio. Agnetti, at the wheel, exclaims, "Something exploded right near me!" "Keep driving," Pecina says. "It was right next to me!" Agnetti yells. "I saw the smoke!"

It's not clear what hit the Bradley. An inspection shows little damage. But the men are worried about Saddam's irregulars shooting at them from hiding holes. In the turret, Smith grumbles, "I can't see s--t. There are 10 million places where a dude with an RPG could hide!" The men of the Third had hoped that the airport was their final destination, that they would be pulled back for a rest. Now they're not so sure. "I'm tired and dirty," Smith announces. "I want to go home."

The heat is rising; the temperature on the tarmac, despite a fetid overcast of smoke and haze, nears the 100-degree mark. At least the men are allowed to take off their heavy chemical-warfare protection suits. Although the armchair generals on TV are warning that Saddam is more likely to use poison gas now that American forces are over the "red line" around Baghdad, the Third Infantry Division's intelligence reduces the threat level. Some of the men strip down to their T shirts and lie about, listening to the radio.

Captain Pecina tells them to put their uniforms back on and behave like soldiers. He prods the men to clean their weapons and perform "personal hygiene," to shave and wash. He tells them not to rest too easy, that the fighting isn't over. They can hear the sound of small-arms fire and the heavy boom of artillery. Another brigade of the Third has pushed into Baghdad. Earlier in the day Smith blew up an Iraqi tank that was parked near the airport. Many of the Iraqi soldiers have fled to become civilians again. But there are reports of fanatical "freedom fighters," Jordanians and Syrians and Sudanese coming to take their places, dressed in black ninja uniforms and ready to die for Saddam. Pecina is ready to accommodate them. He knows that the sooner the war ends, the sooner he can go home.

The Grunt's War | News