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some concessions by the Saudis,’ he told reporters, adding that the Saudis are the largest oil suppliers to the U.S.”] About 22,000 troops, 300 aircraft, 1,000 tracked and 3,000 wheeled vehicles had been fed into Border Star ’81 when the Observer team found a battalion command post holding a forward defense position. It had been stalled here, said its commanding officer, a slight, youthful Fifth Division major, “because the god damned sand has fucked up seven tank transmissions.” Mechanics worked on the crippled transmissions and front-bladed caterpil lars dug holes into which the major planned to emplace both lamed and ma neuverable tanks, guns facing to the north and east horizons over which dust clouds and flares were rising perhaps four or five kilometers distant signal ing invader advance. Along the battal ion’s forward outpost line, smoke was being generated. Live artillery rounds were exploding to the west. “We’re from Polk,” the major said. “We’re armor experts in swamps and woods and in ordinary open terrain, but here . . . well, we can still shoot and we’ll hold here. “And we’re learning to navigate in this kind of country.” He jerked his head sideways westward at a peak of the Organ Range. “We’re shooting azimuths off those peaks. But it’s damn hard at night.” “Stars?” asked the Observer. “Yep,” said the major, and he grinned. “Ships of the goddamned desert.” [INTERVAL: The Associated Press, April 6, from Beirut: “Israeli jets streaked over Beirut during the sixth day of fighting between Syrian forces and Lebanese Christian militiamen. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., blamed Syria for the street battles in Beirut and nearby Zahle and said the upsurge of violence could have ‘most serious consequences.’. . . A senior U.S. official traveling with Haig underscored the growing spectre of Israeli intervention, saying ‘We are right on the brink, in my judgment, of a major outbreak of hostilities.’ “J Invader armor in silhouette appeared on the northern horizon and the battalion commander eyed that and said, “they’re out there four or five clicks yet,” mean ing that many upward graduations of gunsights would be necessary if he ordered firing, and he hollered at a sergeant-major in his 50s standing nearby: “Hey, hardass top! ready for Afghanistan or Eyeran or Anywhereistan?” The topkick spat into his palms, scrubbed them together and wiped them on the seat of his greens, mounted a jeep and disappeared northward through 26 APRIL 17, 1981 smoke and dust plumes, headed for the position’s perimeter. A black soldier dismounted from an armored personnel carrier, a canned Coke in a paw as big as a fielder’s mitt and a bag of Doritos in the other, his rifle slung over a shoulder. He reported to the major, grinning through dust that made his black face seem ragged at the edges like a decoupage. He winked at the Observer team, mugged for a camera, and sat down in the thin shade of a dwarfed mesquite, careless of the two or three inches of sand covering the muzzle of his rifle, slung barrel down. Had he fired a live round through that fouled barrel, it’s likely he’d have blown his head off. “War’s sure hell, ain’t it, man,” he said and tossed back the Coke. “Whooee pure-D hell.” There was a parting verbal round from the young major, a regular soldier: “Used to be when I’d goof, I’d say, `What’re they gonna do, ship my butt to Fort Polk?’ Now I know what they can do, they can cut orders for Bliss.” He moved away to meet the developing threat to his front and his eastern flank. The exchanges with officer, noncommissioned officer and line trooper were repetitious and revelatory, preceded and succeeded all across the simulated battleground by other exchanges: the regular officer and the Government Issue noncom serious, intent on learning, willing to earn their pay if the balloons go up, anywhere; the short-time private playing a game, even welcoming this kind of respite from garrison duty in a Fort Polk. The exchanges and the attitudes underscored a salient fact of this kind of preparation for real killing engagements: Exercises like Border Star ’81 are only rehearsals, but not full dress rehearsals; they lack the noise, the dying, the maiming, the bowel-and-bladder sphincterloosening terror, the palpable stink of fear that has always permeated every actual killing ground, Punic Wars to Southeast Asia. \(There is a character in War and Peace who, upon arrival at the front and coming under fire, exclaims something like, “My God, they are The troops of Border Star, therefore, are not, cannot, be ready. The events here of April 3-7 demonstrated at least, certainly, for the writer that the U.S. Army has much to learn about the employment and maintenance of armored equipment in a desert. It is not only the troops and officers of Border Star ’81 who appear as unready as was the medieval Childrens’ Crusade when it sailed for the Levant. Evidence surfacing over the past year or two strongly suggests that things are fouled badly at the top. About a year ago, the Jimmy Carter administration announced the forging of what it said would be a cutting edge for U.S. “readiness” a Rapid Deploy pened, critics say, was that the Rapid Deployment Force was only another title tacked atop the existing USREDCOM. It is a small staff group, personnel drawn from the four services, headquartered, guess where? at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida. And the mission spelled out for it is exactly that laid down earlier for USREDCOM: get there first with superior numbers of men and material to any trouble spot on the globe not in the jurisdiction of a “unified command” jurisdiction. This apparently festering carbuncle came to a head only last month, lit for public scrutiny for the first time by a re port issued in early March by Geoffrey Record, a senior fellow of the non partisan Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. Record said that RDF, as now constituted, is “a standing invitation to military disaster from which the military reputation of the United States, already battered by 30 years of defeats and miscarriages, might never recover.” Record’s report went on to say that RDF suffers from “an unusually de bilitating inter-service rivalry.” He said the Joint Chiefs, each of whom repre sents an individual military branch, are openly in disagreement on RDF organization. [INTERVAL: The Associated Press, April 7, last day of Border Star field operations, from Washington: “The nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve now stands at 121.5 million barrels, an amount equal to 18 days’ worth of oil imports, Congress was told. Another 45.4 million barrels slightly less than sevendays’ worth of imports are under contract for delivery this year. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve reservoirs of crude oil stored in salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana is the nation’s insurance against major oil supply disruptions such as the 1973 Arab oil embargo.”] It’s a far piece from this high desert to the Senate and the Pentagon and Mac Dill. Nobody here can see much farther than the end of his weapon’s medium range. Anyway, everybody’s headed back to garrison. How they will do if they are called to do all this on a killing ground is no doubt connected to testimony before Congress this spring by Air Force General David Jones, the Joint Chiefs’ chairman, and by Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci. Jones told a congressional panel that he opposed a predominant role in a rapid strike force for the Navy and the Marine Corps. Carlucci told the same con