IN THE KUWAITI DESERT – Spewing sand high in the air behind them, hundreds of camouflaged U.S. Army vehicles race across the desert, roaring toward an unseen enemy like some nightmare vision of sand-colored destruction.
For now, it's all pretend. But with the Iraqi border less than 30 miles away across open desert, it's also clear the exercise is a none-too-subtle warning to Saddam Hussein.
"We're close enough for the man in Baghdad to see us," said 1st Lt. Keith Zieber, whose mortar platoon kept to the rear of the attack formation, ready to offer support to forward positions from miles away.
The long-planned war games in Kuwait — along with a command exercise in Qatar that simulates running a full-scale war — are now clearly aimed at Iraq as much as they are designed to prepare U.S. troops for battle.
They are a statement about the firepower Iraq will face if it does not comply with international demands to account for, and destroy, any weapons of mass destruction.
The exercises come at a critical time. International weapons inspectors are scouring a 12,000-page Iraqi statement on its nuclear, biological and chemical programs. Iraq insists it has no programs for developing banned weapons and is challenging the United States to hand over any evidence to the contrary.
Washington has released no such evidence, but has repeatedly warned Iraq it must disarm.
"Our presence here is not a mystery," said Col. David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team from Ft. Stewart, Ga., which is taking part in the war games that began last week and run into next week. "Part of the calculus is that the enemy is well-aware of our presence and our capabilities."
In Kuwait, television cameras were brought into the field, along with reporters and photographers to record the action. While many details of the exercise remain classified, the U.S. military wants to make sure its message is conveyed to Iraq.
As the cameras rolled Sunday, Humvees scrambled around in the front of the pack, tanks arrayed behind them, armored mortar trucks heading up the middle. Hundreds more vehicles were deployed around and behind the formation — everything from tanks to gasoline tankers — with fighter jets and attack helicopters lending support from the air.
In Qatar, the U.S. military has taken a quieter approach. Officials have said little about the computer-simulated exercise, code-named Internal Look, which began Monday. They have also done little to dispel speculation the exercise is a rehearsal for an invasion of Iraq. It is led by Gen. Tommy Franks, who is expected to command the real thing if President Bush so orders.
"The grand strategy requires you to constantly use every exercise you don't want classified to put pressure on Iraq," said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Disarmament almost certainly depends on Iraqi fear of U.S. and British military action, (but) if disarmament fails, you're ready, you're demonstrating your strength."
On the ground, though, it isn't military theory that's on the minds of many soldiers, but the reality of a war that could be coming soon.
With more than 12,000 American soldiers in Kuwait, and more on their way, this little country would obviously be a main attack base for what some soldiers are already calling "The Second Gulf War."
"I don't want to see war," said Pfc. Shiloh Latourette, 21, of Cobleskill, N.Y., part of the four-man crew on Gun One, an armored truck mounted on tank treads that fires a 120-mm mortar from its open back. "I don't want innocent people to die."
"But this is what we know how to do, so if we do it, we'll do it well."
And, he insists, he does do it well. The crew of Gun One can stop their truck, spin it around, slam the mortar into position and fire a round in well under four minutes. "This may look primitive but when you drop a round on a tank from five miles away, that takes some skill," he said.
It was a rare moment of seriousness for Latourette, a friendly, fun-loving soldier who prides himself on being the rowdiest member of the 34-man platoon and who rarely gets out a full sentence without at least one four-letter word.
They're a young group; the oldest is the 31-year-old platoon sergeant. He has two years on his boss.
"I must be the oldest 29-year-old alive," said Zieber, the platoon leader, shaking his head. "Half these guys aren't old enough to drink."
As for the men of Gun One, they may not want to go charging into Iraq, but they're ready if the order comes. They've stockpiled packets of instant coffee and extra food and they keep a tape player in a safe place to provide whatever musical accompaniment they can. Their choice is a heavy metal classic.
"If we go north, we know what we're going to play," Latourette yelled above the roar of the truck's engine, "'Highway to Hell' by AC/DC, and we're going to play it loud as ...."
Well, just say they plan to play it loudly.