Aboard the USS Wisconsin, in the Persian Gulf
EVEN THOUGH THE EXPERIMENT was unplanned, this was the setting for a psychological study of sorts, a chance to observe how people behave knowing several hours in advance when and how a war will begin.
What happens is this: Navy officers aboard the battleship sit down for dinner at the regular time and place and complain that the meal is the worst in weeks: hot corned beef, creamed potatoes and a chewy square of cake. Four enlisted men, following a schedule set long before, begin painting a narrow passageway, as if nothing was more important before a war than freshly painted bulkheads. In an officer's lounge someone sees stains in a carpet, and an enlisted man hurries over with shampoo and begins to scrub. In the guts of the ship, sailors swab decks. Sailors line up for mail. They wedge themselves into their bunks to wait for the call to battle stations, the alarm they already know will sound several hours hence.
Everyone has wished at least once to know the future. Tell me what will happen tomorrow and I will make the most of today -- or so people fervently believe. But having the wish come true, at least in this case, offered the Wisconsin's 1,500-member crew little comfort.
This is a conflict to which many people were resigned. In the days before it began, crew members said the war was inevitable and at the same time predicted it would leave them untouched. It would be the giant tree that crashed in the forest, unobserved. They were wrong.
Everyone drilled repeatedly for the real thing. Each drill began with an order to general quarters, the call that sent people hurrying to a gun turret or onto the bridge, to a missile firing center, a radar scope, a makeshift infirmary or engine rooms beneath the water line.
Captain David S. Bill III, the ship's commanding officer, ordered another drill on January 16, a few hours after the expiration of the deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. There was an imaginative script: A make-believe Iraqi fighter-bomber is spotted by radar. Radar detects the make-believe airplane firing a make-believe missile at the battleship. Everyone moved calmly to his position without saying a word.
The drill lasted half the afternoon, a not-too-stressful exercise that might have been designed by the Navy to please fans of war games. An hour after it was over, Captain Bill told the crew the next time would be for real. He announced that war would begin in the early hours of the next day. The opening shot, he said, would be the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles by a Navy strike force led by the Wisconsin.
How does a person change his behavior? He doesn't. The best way to cope with foreknowledge of war was to pretend the future remained unknown, to will oneself back to ignorance. Otherwise, the anxiety seemed almost too much to bear.
Several reporters shared the experience. Reporters are wars' drop-ins, house guests who usually arrive after the action begins and stay to watch just enough scenes to grasp the themes of the drama, and then come and go as it suits them. This time five reporters, members of a Pentagon pool, were flown by helicopter to the Wisconsin several days in advance of the opening shot. We arrived ignorant of the warning given a small number of officers, a warning that reporters would be brought aboard only when war was one to two days away. A lieutenant remarked later that officers saw us -- accurately -- as bearers of bad tidings.
Of all the people touched by war, combatants have the most restricted view of events. Soldiers are captives even before a battle begins, people tied to their radar screens, their turrets or patches of desert. They see only parts of skirmishes: the launch of a cruise missile but not where it explodes. When a civilian comes aboard a warship, the first thing every sailor asks is, "What's going on?"
Nothing on the ship has a higher value than routine; it helps crew members believe that a world from which they are largely isolated remains safe. A few hours before the war began, Fireman Apprentice Ronald Lee Davis was slicing ham and separating plastic-wrapped slices of cheese for 700 sandwiches grilled 150 at a time. A few hours after the first shots, he was preparing another meal. "I wouldn't know if it was day or night, or what day of the week it is," he said. "You lose sense of time and place."
"Combat is impersonal on board a ship," said Scott Smith, a machinist's mate, one of the people running the Wisconsin's boilers. "The enemy? Of the 135 people in my division, I can count on one hand the number who have had any contact with Arabs. The rest of them, when you come into a situation where the tension level is this high, people narrow their vision to what will keep you alive."