DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The U.S. commander in chief rode into the field yesterday and rallied his troops deployed there to duty, honor and potential war.
Flying over the vast expanse of Army and Marine tent villages in the Saudi desert and 12 miles over the waters of the Persian Gulf, George Bush shared Thanksgiving with nearly 6,000 military men and women and sought to explain personally to them why they are here.
"We are not here on some exercise," the president declared to a chorus of cheers, grunts, barks and whistles of several hundred Marines at a desert camp about 75 miles from the Kuwaiti border, where Iraqi forces are massed.
"We're here to protect freedom. We're here to protect our future. And we're here to protect innocent life," he said.
The president warned repeatedly yesterday of the danger of waiting so long to act that Iraq would be able to develop nuclear weapons for use in a possible conflict, the latest in a series of White House rationales for moving quickly.
"Those who would measure the timetable for Saddam's atomic program in years may be seriously underestimating the gravity of the threat," Mr. Bush said in his address to the Marines.
The president did not give the soldiers the news they were looking for: a date by which they will either attack the forces of Iraq or go home. But he hinted at the outcome.
"We're not walking away until our mission is done, until the invader is out of Kuwait," he promised. "That may well be where you come in."
Even so, the response he drew was enthusiastic, grateful, gung-ho. The soldiers reached for his hand to clasp it; they surrounded him with the fervor of comrades in arms.
"Thank you, sir, for showing up here in the desert and showing your support," 2nd Lt. Emiciades Alcon, 23, told Mr. Bush as the president was getting himself a cup of coffee after a Thanksgiving lunch with an Army infantry battalion about 80 miles out in the desert from Dhahran.
Mr. Bush, dog-tired and red-eyed from a dinner meeting with Saudi King Fahd that lasted until 2.30 a.m., told the lieutenant that he has made a credo of the advice offered by comedian Woody Allen: "Ninety percent of life is showing up."
The president's visits to the outposts seemed to be choreographed with a little help from nature.
It was a relatively cool 85 degrees at noon in the desert, with no humidity, no wind to kick up the sand, and no swells on the gulf to disturb a midafternoon prayer service aboard the USS Nassau. Mr. Bush made his final appearance here at the Marine camp just as dusk was giving way to a crescent moon.
"You couldn't have asked for better weather," said Capt. Michael Sherman, a military spokesman for Operation Desert Shield, the code name for the military presence here that will soon reach 400,000 troops.
Security was extremely tight. A Secret Service helicopter joined several military craft circling above as the president spoke at the desert outposts. The entire White House party was issued gas masks and trained in their use in case of a surprise Iraqi attack.
The president's visit, coming in the midst of a U.S. lobbying campaign for a United Nations resolution authorizing a military strike if economic sanctions fail to drive Iraq from Kuwait, was full of appeals to patriotism.
"It's only the United States that can lead like this," Mr. Bush told reporters from a sandbagged bunker at the Marine camp.
Speaking often in a choked, quavering voice, the president said he was "very moved" by the U.S. soldiers he met, calling them "strong" and "tough."
"We have others with us, but these are the ones that are doing the heavy lifting," Mr. Bush said.
But time, tedium, and not knowing what will happen next wear heavily on them, the soldiers said.
Maj. Jason Kamiya, 35, of Honolulu, said the younger troops in particular are prone to question what they are doing there.
"It's important for the president to reinforce the reason why they are sacrificing so much of their personal and family time," he said. "It's just serious business out here."
At their camps, with camels ambling by and very little contact with the outside world, the older soldiers tend to long for more traditional forms of military recreation that the religious Saudis are not disposed to allow. Sgt. 1st Class Jim Neville, 39, a Baltimorean who once worked as a delivery boy for The Sun, said, "At home, I deliver beer -- and I'm dying for one tonight."
Several soldiers also seized quickly at the opportunity posed by the visiting delegation's presence and pressed little slips of paper with telephone numbers from home into a reporter's hands.
"Happy Thanksgiving," read one note. "Sgt. Loucious Hires says HELLO WIFE."