'Hell In A Cold Place'

Congress doesn't like the idea much and neither does the American public, but it looks like our soldiers will be spending Christmas in hell. A good day in Tuzla, the north Bosnian town that will soon be home to 20,000 of our troops, reminds me of a really bad day in a Pennsylvania mining town -- long before the EPA got into the act. The city is tucked into a small mountain range, but you'd hardly know that, because the sun never shines. Low-hanging clouds and heavy mists are partly to blame; the constant burning of soft coal, the major source of electricity for this town of 110,000, snuffs out the remaining daylight. Everything seems black, bleak, bent or broken. Bosnians walk head-down, like they're nursing the mother of all hangovers. Few people smile, and even the children seem to be on a downer after almost four years of war. The streets are muddy troughs. Tuzla's three movie theaters are shut. As you get out of the city, where much of the fighting occurred, most of the houses are bullet-pocked hulks or charred skeletons. Color this place an ugly shade of gray.

It feels ominous, too. I doubt if even Bob Hope and his show could bring much cheer to our troops here during the holidays. "It's hell in a very cold place," says a sergeant in the advance team. "Just flat nasty." Nasty, anyway. The narrow roads out of Tuzla make hundreds of hairpin turns. Scrub brush and small, ugly gray trees grow right down to the pockmarked road, making each bend the perfect ambush site. A sniper, or a few determined partisans, could stop a convoy in a heartbeat and bring on a lot of instant pain. Simple driving is a combat-pay dangerous assignment. I saw three different accidents in as many days. In one case, an 18-wheeler truck loaded with hundreds of bags of salt careened off the road and plowed straight into a stone house-disrupting the breakfast of a middle-aged Muslim woman. "The driver, a Catholic, was drunk," she insists. That semi sticking out of her house made a larger point: booze, bad drivers and beat-to-hell roads may produce more American casualties than gunfire.

That can hardly reassure people back home. Americans still aren't sold on the idea that Bosnia is worth one drop of U.S. blood. Even after President Clinton's pitch on TV the other week -- and a big follow-up sale s push by his point men -- a majority of people in the U.S. think Congress should give a thumbs-down to sending U.S. troops. And nearly half of the GOP-controlled House is happy to oblige. More than 200 legislators, including a handful of the president's own party, asked him not to send U.S. forces to the Balkans. "The best way to support the troops," said Rep. Bob Inglis, the South Carolina Republican who led the charge against, "is to keep them out of harm's way."

The military is certainly trying -- by starting out slow and being hyper-circumspect (like making clear to the warriors that they don't have to track down Bosnian war criminals). So far, this isn't like any other American intervention I've ever seen. A small group of us shivered in the darkness last week outside the front gate of Tuzla's military airport -- waiting for something, anything, to happen. Finally, a white U.N. armored vehicle appeared out of the gloom, and lowered its ramp. Into the camera lights rushed three Swedish U.N. soldiers, weapons at the ready. I half expected Sly Stallone to jump out from behind this heavily armed advance guard. Instead, out came U.S. Air Force Col. Neal Patton and Army Lt. Col. Sid Kooyman, among the score of American advance specialists to land in Tuzla. Their mission, says Colonel Patton, is to "inspect the airfield" and prepare it to receive the thousands of aircraft that will follow their C-130 over the next 12 months.

A critical task. But why the pumped-up security detail? I hadn't seen anything like it since the squad of bodyguards that stuck to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the Saudi desert. The next day, I caught up with Colonel Kooyman, assistant operations officer for Task Force Eagle (as the U.S. Army First Armored Division is known). He was doing a recon at the Swedish battalion's base camp -- and was in the company of a heavily armed, no-nonsense Brit commando from the 22d SAS. What gives with all the heat? I asked. "The U.N. laid on the unusual security arrangements," he says. "The armored car was their idea." So, too, was the SAS escort. No one is taking any chances with U.S. lives. "We can't have anyone killed before Dec. 14," says a senior NATO planner. "If an American is zapped, it will be a big, big 'I told you so'." If this is any indication of how the NATO implementation force will proceed, we could well see the most cautious military operation in U.S. history. "This is NATO's big test on how they handle post-cold-war trouble spots," a U.N. officer tells me at the local watering hole. "That's why they're so careful. It's a big case of stage fright."

But the show must go on. And that's why the U.S. Army engineers will be the main actors during the first part of the operation. They will be getting the roads that lead into Tuzla ready for what Maj. Leonard Shearer of the 21st Theater Army Area Command in Germany calls "the biggest logistical operation U.S. Army Europe has had since Desert Shield." Most of the supplies will move by rail on up to 700 trains from Germany to initial staging bases (ISBs) set up in southern Hungary. Because of hundreds of "chock points" -- tunnels, curves and bridges -- along the route, the se train s will be limited to less than 1,500 feet in length. "It's a logistician's nightmare," says Major Shearer, "because the raft infrastructure between Germany and Bosnia is old and primitive." The engineers' tough job is to ensure that the combat elements of Task Force Eagle can move from the ISB to Tuzla in ready-to-punch-it-out tactical formations.

They will have to make quick work of it. Most bridges in northern Bosnia are either down or impassable for heavy loads. The local efforts at infrastructure repair unfold in slow motion. You see teams filling in potholes and replanking bridges. But their equipment is old; strong backs, axes and worn shovels seem to be the main tools. The transportation system has reverted to the Middle Ages -- you move stuff on foot or by horse and cart. I did see three crews replacing broken windows in houses, which is a helluva good sign of peace: people generally don't make that effort if they think the panes will be broken again.

Death still lurks It's been three months since the Serbs shelled Tuzla from "Sugar Hill." about five miles outside town, killing a Norwegian U.N. soldier. Serbian artillery is still there. "within easy range," says a U.N. officer, despite the pullback dictated by the Dayton peace agreement. But the real peril lies underground, not overhead, from the millions of land mines buried throughout Bosnia.

Just outside Tuzla, on the road that stretches all the way from the Croatian coastal town of Split, the mines have been cleared only to the edge of the muddy track. Everywhere else, you're gambling with your limbs. A slip on an icy patch, a lurch off the road to avoid an oncoming truck -- and you could cash it all in. I drove that stretch last week late at night. It was maximum pucker factor; I was practically sucking up car seat. Days before, a tractor rolled over an antitank land mine on this stretch of death road, killing four civilians. Their clothes are still hanging from the branches where they were blown from the blast.

U.S. Army Engineers will soon have to pluck these body-bag fillers from this area. To get a sense of their meticulous, terrifying work, I teamed up with Swedish Army Capt. Thomas Stenberg, a United Nations engineer whose platoon of specially trained, handpicked volunteers is helping to clean up this 10-mile stretch of mined road. "On a good day, eight men will clear 20 square meters," he says. "On a bad day they'll clear none." His men work in shifts, sweeping for 80 minutes, then taking a 30-minute break while another eight-man team of sappers takes over. "It's not a job for Rambos," says Captain Stenberg. The work requires the skill and patience of a watchmaker. It mainly involves carefully stabbing every inch of ground with two-foot-long ice picks and bayonets by men with "the right attitude." His teams are so proficient they can tell with their probes if they've hit a rock or a plastic mine. Once they locate a mine, his men gingerly dig away the dirt around it to ensure that it's not boobytrapped by yet another device below. It's impossible to conduct this sort of operation when there's snow on the ground or the earth is frozen.

The work apparently demands a second kind of dexterity -- the art of lying. Stenberg's wife didn't know he was in the demining business until she saw him on Swedish TV. When she screamed at him over the phone, he gave the typical soldier's reply: "Honey, I thought I told you." It's hard to fault someone so skilled in a job so dangerous and weirdly hypnotic; it's a little like staring into the eyes of a cobra. Stenberg reckons the U.S. Army should work with him ASAP. "I'm not sure the Americans know that much about the problems we've dealt with," he says, since there's a big difference between classroom instruction and actually clearing the devices.

The brass decided early on that the best way to prepare for the coming mission is relentless training. Task Force Eagle has spent months rehearsing the details of this plan -- even down to the level of briefings to journalists. "I war-gamed what questions the press would ask, wrote them down, took them to the division public-affairs officer and we went over them," says Lieutenant Colonel Kooyman. Leave nothing to chance, and avoid a failure like Somalia.

That's the idea, anyhow. The old army way of doing things -- "stay loose and expect the unexpected" -- won't hack it in Maj. Gen. William Nash's outfit. But I'm not sure what this kind of zero-defect mentality will do to soldiers in the First Armored.

Murphy's law applied to combat says that nothing ever goes according to plan. My gut tells me these men may be trained in a way that could hurt them on a future hot battlefield where they'll have to think on their feet -- where they can't pull out the plan and consult Annex A. A CO's worst nightmare is to watch his warriors lose their hard-gotten fighting skills in peace enforcement missions like Bosnia. But this may be the price of post-cold-war soldiering.

'Hell In A Cold Place' | News