FORT POLK, La. - As the late afternoon sun seeps through the pine forest of this sprawling Army training range, Spc. Ryan Frederick reclines against a tree, resting before a night assault on a mock city a few miles away. He calmly recalls what happened there two years ago, the last time he and his fellow soldiers tested their urban-warfare skills.
"We got waxed," says the 20-year-old California native, who operates an M240 machine gun in Charlie Company, a unit of the 101st Air Assault Division.
With a possible war in Iraq looming and the prospect of block-to-block fighting in the teeming capital of Baghdad, there is a new urgency among the troops who traveled here from their home base at Fort Campbell, Ky., to practice attacking a well-defended city. Urban warfare, one of the costliest forms of ground combat, has bedeviled military strategists since ancient times.
Unlike a battle in open country, where American precision weaponry and long-range firepower can eviscerate an enemy, a city skirmish can be the great equalizer. A concealed foe can shoot from high-rise buildings, pick off U.S. soldiers from behind piles of rubble, pop from sewers or culverts. "It's a three-dimensional fight in the [urban] environment," says Capt. Chris Cox, the 31-year-old commander of Alpha Company.
For these soldiers of the 101st, the hazards are not hypothetical. They are expected to be part of any American ground force that takes on the troops of Saddam Hussein, just as they were a decade ago. On the night of Jan. 17, 1991, Apache helicopters from the "Screaming Eagles" division, as the 101st is known, swept into Iraq and destroyed two mobile radar installations with Hellfire missiles, marking the beginning of the Persian Gulf war.
"I get out of the Army in nine months. I'm pretty sure we'll go to Iraq before then," says Frederick, who plans to become a police officer. "I'm not worried about it because I don't think they want to fight us."
His squad mate, Spc. George Zubaty, a 27-year-old graduate of Northern Kentucky University with a history degree and dreams of becoming an officer, frowns at such talk. Zubaty is wary of entering Baghdad, a sprawling city of 5 million and nothing like their objective, the mock city of 29 buildings and about 80 defenders.
"It's a big city, and cities just eat people up," says the bespectacled Zubaty as he slathers green camouflage paint on his face. "Every block is a fortress."
Looking for the enemy
An hour later, the troops are clambering onto Black Hawk helicopters and roaring through the night sky at treetop level. Three choppers soon swirl above a forest clearing, kicking up a choking cloud of dust, twigs and stones as they land. Alpha Company charges out, heading for the safety of the tree line.
Among the surging throng of soldiers is Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 50-year-old division commander, a West Point graduate with the lean, angular look of a distance runner. He served a year in Bosnia and in July took over the 101st, the Army's largest division, with about 17,000 soldiers and nearly 250 helicopters.
The troops spread out and slip into the woods. Their night-vision goggles transform the blackness into something resembling daylight, though with a milky, eerie glow. This gives them a leg up on enemy forces not similarly equipped. The U.S. military likes to say that it "owns the night."
Alpha Company crunches through the trees, the soldiers dropping every so often to one knee to scan the woods for the opposition force, known as the Geronimos, a Fort Polk-based unit assigned to defend the city. They know every inch of this training ground and take pride in shellacking visiting troops.
Petraeus, moving with his soldiers, talks in hushed tones about the tactical problems of urban combat.
"It's a very laborious, long process," says the general. "Patience is what it takes. This is the toughest battlefield in the world."
Attacking troops must have superior intelligence information to determine the location of key enemy "nodes" - such as military headquarters, government buildings, radio and television stations - and figure out on the fly how to seize them, all the while taking care to protect civilians from harm on an unpredictable battleground.
Ideally, the invading force tries to maneuver quickly, says Petraeus, bringing all its weapons to bear - infantry, artillery, armor, aircraft - creating a blur of firepower that overwhelms the enemy. Often, though, it still comes down to building-to-building, block-by-block action.
Armies of the past would generally bypass the killing streets of cities. If they were forced to fight there, they would often try to bludgeon them into submission first, turning buildings into rubble as the Germans did during their siege of Stalingrad during World War II. But the Soviets successfully defended the city and destroyed the German 6th Army of 300,000 men.