The Ups and Downs of Preparing for War

Click here  to read Part 1, in which Carter finds out he’s off to war.

The M9 pistol range at Camp Atterbury

A military historian once compared the study of war by soldiers who have never seen combat to the study of sex by virgins using only pornography. Despite the U.S. Army’s accumulated millions of years of combat experience, it can do only so well in training its neophytes for battle, for anything but war itself is simulation. No matter how many miles we run, classes we take, bullets we shoot, or mock attacks we repel, we cannot truly consider ourselves warriors until we have actually been bloodied by combat.

During the 12 weeks between my call-up and actual deployment to Iraq, I have gone through a series of training exercises with my unit, the 101st Airborne Division Detachment, to ready us for war. But deploying involves much more than training; it also involves a litany of logistical and administrative tasks such as loading and shipping equipment, and those tasks would consume as much of our time as the combat training. We would also plan a great deal, developing standard operating procedures (SOPs in military parlance) for small units and elaborate battle orders for large ones. If we were a sword, then our goal would be to deploy with as tempered and sharpened an edge as possible.

There are certain mundane, universal tasks that come with reporting for duty anywhere in the Army, and I did these at Fort Campbell. On Day 1, I signed into my new unit and filled out a ream of paperwork—updating my emergency data, signing up for Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (every soldier today can opt for up to $400,000 in coverage for a very cheap premium), and starting direct deposit, among other things. Napoleon once said that an army moves on its stomach. Observing the U.S. Army in action, he might have said it moves along on a sea of paperwork.

Physical prowess has mattered to militaries at least since ancient Greece, where the best warriors competed every four years in ancient Olympic events designed to mirror the military training and tactics of the time. Today, the 101st Airborne Division starts each day with physical training from 0630 to 0800 (6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. civilian time). I arrived at Fort Campbell a little older and softer after four years out of the Army. To beat my body back into shape, I ran three miles per day, four days a week, on Wickham Ave., closed and transformed into a giant track for Fort Campbell’s 20,000-plus soldiers. The most impressive thing about morning PT at Fort Campbell is the sound. Nothing in the world quite resembles the adrenaline and testosterone-filled chorus of thousands of young infantrymen screaming in responsive verse to their sergeants as they run:

Saw an old lady walkin’ down the street

Had a ruck on her back, and jungle boots on her feet

Hey old lady where you goin’ to?

U.S. Army Ranger School!

Hey old lady don’t you think you’re too old?

Leave that shit for the young and the bold

Hey young punk you talkin’ to?

I’m an instructor at the Ranger School!

My combat boots fit differently than my lawyer’s leather Oxfords, to be sure, and the military’s customs (like constant saluting) stand in stark contrast to the world I had just left behind in Los Angeles. Yet it’s the visceral sensation of PT that truly hammered home the reality that I was a soldier once again.

On Day 3, I went to the Central Issue Facility, a giant warehouse of Army gear, to receive the personal gear I would need for war. I signed for a large-frame backpack that goes by the military acronym MOLLE (modular lightweight load-carrying equipment), an unbelievable amount of polyprolene thermal underwear and Gore-Tex cold weather gear, sun goggles, and various other sundry items. Most important, I got my Interceptor body armor, the state-of-the-art protective vest that many soldiers went without during the first deployment into Iraq. A few weeks later, the Army would issue me four more duffel bags of gear, including four complete sets of the new Army Combat Uniform and the old Desert Combat Uniform. The new ACUs came with a digitized gray-brown camouflage pattern that made us look like oddly pixilated wannabe chameleons.

We received more gear than we could possibly take to Iraq, so I would need to store some of it for my year overseas. But I still found myself wanting for certain items, like moisture-wicking Under Armour T-shirts, a high-capacity CamelBak, and ammo pouches that could carry four rifle magazines instead of three like the ones we got from Uncle Sam. Fortunately, Clarksville (like every other base town in America) has a plethora of shops willing to sell these things to deploying soldiers—at a nice profit of course. 

Camp Atterbury, Ind., was our next stop en route to Iraq. The regimen there comprised a mix of administrative processing, basic combat training, and field training on missions we might see in Iraq. In theory, all reservists should report for duty with a solid foundation in all these areas. In practice, many do not. Inactive reservists like me reported having not fired an M-16 in years; others soldiers showed up out of shape or out of practice on other essential skills. Other soldiers or units might show up ready for one mission (such as firing artillery cannons), only to learn they were being deployed as a convoy security company instead. Regardless of what level we came in at, units left Camp Atterbury with a baseline proficiency in soldiering.

We spent about half our time training outdoors, sweating profusely under the weight of our Kevlar helmets, body armor, combat uniforms, and boots. We relearned basic first-aid tasks long since forgotten, practiced navigating through the woods with a map and compass, shot our rifles and pistols on ranges, threw hand grenades, drove Humvees, and exercised ourselves on scores of other individual and group tasks. Near the end of our sojourn, we moved to a mock “FOB” (forward operating base) to train on the more difficult combat tasks like convoy operations and foot patrols. Our unit drew the fun but difficult task of acting as the enemy while we were out in the field.

When not in the field, we went to school. My unit sat through dozens of briefings on everything from Army ethics to urban operations. We did our best to stay awake, aided by liberal amounts of coffee and tobacco products, and sometimes even managed an erudite question or two. A sign-in sheet was passed around to document our attendance for posterity, and possibly to cover someone’s ass should a particular subject come back to haunt us. (I imagine that someone frantically searched for the sign-in sheet for Charles Graner’s class on the Geneva Conventions.)

Our best classes came from the combat vets who had served in wars from Vietnam to Iraq; they used their personal experience to teach us how to spot IEDs or load a Humvee for combat. By contrast, the bad classes came via canned PowerPoint briefing; today’s U.S. military has developed a fetish for the use of Microsoft PowerPoint that would make a business consultant green with envy. Perhaps the worst class was the most important of all for us, given our mission to advise Iraqis: This was our country briefing on Iraq and Islam. The instructor was a less-than-impressive former pilot, now in the National Guard, who couldn’t pronounce “martyrdom” properly, let alone explain its theological foundations or connect the subject to the insurgency Iraq. We got the basics, like the five pillars of Islam and a general chronology of Iraqi history, but we would need to teach ourselves the more advanced stuff. Once back in Clarksville, several of us raided the local Borders for books on the region, and we also started listening to Arabic on CD courses that we bought or obtained from the Army.

When the pace slowed, I spent a lot of time on my bunk listening to Coldplay and the Killers on my iPod, reading books I had brought or sent from home, or writing in my journal. My colonel, a die-hard conservative from southern Illinois, had a field day making fun of me for my reading selections (i.e., Bill Clinton’s My Life or copies of The New Yorker), but it was all in good fun. The other guys in the unit divided their time among trips to the PX, the gym, and watching DVDs in the barracks. I knew they’d watched too many when a Dave Chappelle punchline (“Because I’m Rick James, biatch!”) became our unit’s unofficial motto. Nearly all of us had cellular phones and Internet access, so it was easy to stave off homesickness with a quick call or e-mail home.

After 30 days in Indiana, we returned to Fort Campbell to continue our deployment preparation, another endless list of logistical minutiae. We loaded a metal container with unit and personal equipment to be shipped to Iraq. A couple of sergeants and I inventoried everything we would leave behind—tents, field desks, office equipment, unarmored vehicles, and even our unit’s building—and passed ownership of this gear on to a nondeploying unit: 40 cots, 112 tent poles, six general purpose small tents, 12 rolls of communications wire, three desktop computers, one building built in 1942, and so on. It took a day to count the stuff and another day to do the paperwork.

There comes a point before deployment when a unit has shipped its equipment, accounted for everything else, and done all the meaningful training it can do. At that moment, three weeks before our departure, we settled into a routine that maximized off-time while leveraging the time we had left in the States. Our unit acquired some new rifle scopes, and we went out to the range to practice with them. We spent four days in a virtual-reality simulator honing our marksmanship. The local police department gave us an orientation to law enforcement to help us prepare for our mission of advising Iraqi police. And so it went, until the e-mail came that we had been booked for a flight across the Atlantic.

As a new second lieutenant, I attended a lecture by retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, one of the Army’s legendary officers, played by Mel Gibson in the movie We Were Soldiers. Moore stressed the difference between being “prepared” and “ready”: the former being a status you acquired through training and preparation; the latter being a state of mind. To survive in combat, he said, you must be both. In the 12 weeks since our call-up, we had prepared ourselves for war. As the date got closer for our departure, I started asking myself a lot whether I was ready.

Tomorrow, Carter flies out to Kuwait and prepares to enter Iraq.