EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- While allied forces are preparing for a ground war to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, a dissenting voice comes from an unusual source -- America's most decorated living soldier.
David Hackworth, 60, a retired paratrooper who earned 110 decorations as a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, believes that the war against Iraq can be won with air power alone and that launching a ground war -- at least under current conditions -- would unnecessarily waste lives.
The assessment surprises even Mr. Hackworth himself. "I've spent my career arguing that the Air Force has failed to accomplish its mission in every war since World War II. But I've got to tell you, air power will do the job here. This smart-bomb technology really is smart. What's the point of rushing it with a ground war? Why not just blow away their guys with air power?"
Mr. Hackworth believes that despite its staying ability, the Iraqi army has been vastly overrated because it managed to defeat "a 10th-rate force" in the Iran-Iraq War. He said that intense bombing of the Iraqi troops' "center of gravity" with B-52s is taking a heavy toll.
Mr. Hackworth, a retired Army colonel, is in Saudi Arabia as a special correspondent for Newsweek magazine.
A critic of the military establishment, Mr. Hackworth has avoided official military channels here and mostly has dealt with colleagues from the Vietnam War, many of whom are now senior commanders. He has used his contacts to take an extensive, unescorted tour of the battlefront.
"My sources tell me that the Iraqi army in Kuwait is crumbling like a doughnut that's been soaked in too much coffee," he said. "I don't see any need for a ground war. Iraq's guys are dug in. They can't maneuver. They can't communicate. They don't have medical support. They aren't getting resupplied.
"What they're going to do is . . . dig in and fight behind their tanks. Sure, you can go around the Iraqi lines and fight them from the rear, but you don't have to do that. With our air power, you can just blow these [lines] apart if you bomb in a methodical manner."
Not all rank-and-file soldiers agree with Mr. Hackworth. Many believe a ground war is inevitable. Speaking more from impatience than bravado, they appear eager to get on with whatever is going to happen.
Mr. Hackworth, a Santa Monica, Calif., resident and author of the best-seller "About Face," said his greatest fear is that the Army might prematurely launch a ground war in order to play a larger role in the war and strengthen its case for a bigger share of the Department of Defense budget.
He said the Army used excessive force in Panama as a way of saying, "Hey, Congress, look how good we are."
"The Navy has played a prominent role here in air power blockading, firing Tomahawks [missiles]," he said. "It will suck a lot of dollars out of the '92 budget. The Air Force has performed virtually impeccably. The Marine Corps got here fast, and it arrived fighting fit.
But the Army fumbled at the beginning. Its performance in August, September and October was shocking. Talk to soldiers from the 82nd [Airborne Division] then and they'd tell you that they were here as sacrificial lambs, as sort of speed bumps in the desert."