It seemed like a mission to Mars. At 4 p.m. on Mar. 25, the desert of central Iraq was bathed in an eerie red glow, and visibility was down to a few yards as 40-mph winds whipped up the sand. Mud-colored hailstones pummeled the temporary supply camp where I'd hunkered down with the 3rd Infantry Division's D-Rear logistical unit. In my worst imaginings, an apocalyptic event loomed on the horizon.
We had encountered few Iraqis, but the weather was proving a formidable foe. All along the 3ID's 190-mile supply line, the blowing sand was wreaking havoc. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Lovett, a procurement expert attached to 3ID, told me he feared every general's nightmare: that the division's fighting arm, in this case the 3-7 Cavalry squadron, would get too far ahead of the supply chain. "Due to the fog of war and severe weather conditions," Lovett said, "critical supplies that should have arrived two, three, four days ago are unaccounted for." He was talking about the lifeblood of any military operation: food, water, fuel, ammunition.
Guerrilla harassment, too, was becoming an increasing worry. Less than three miles away, an officer told me, U.S. forces had killed eight Iraqis brandishing rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Although the 3ID had supposedly cleared and secured the area, the Iraqis apparently ditched their uniforms for civilian clothes. Now, with snipers on the loose and U.S. forces focused on protecting the rear, a unit of 44 tanks was policing the perimeter of our camp.
Weather, enemy harassment, intermittent communications -- all had conspired to slow our advance over the previous few days. We were supposed to roll through southern Iraq with minimal resistance, barreling up Highway 8, the principal route north. But because of overoptimism, lousy intelligence, or both, that assumption proved wrong. Unexpectedly fierce fighting raged in the cities of Basra, al-Nasiriya, and al-Samawa -- places where U.S. commanders had brashly predicted mass surrenders.
Things began falling apart within half a day of crossing the Iraq-Kuwait border. Because the Army wasn't able to secure the highway, nearly 10,000 vehicles were forced to share secondary routes that were decidedly infantry-unfriendly. Tanks, flatbed trucks, Humvees, and rocket launchers snaked their way bumper to bumper through the desert in near-zero visibility. In no time, the route was littered with 45-foot trailers stuck in the sand, and the carefully orchestrated departure had deteriorated into chaos. By the time we made it to the temporary camp, some 160 km south of Baghdad, nearly a third of the trucks in our convoy had fallen at least 12 hours behind and couldn't be contacted. Amid the mounting chaos, communications suffered; a major told me that 60 fuel tankers sat in al-Nasiriya for two days because no one issued the order to move forward.
It's sobering how quickly morale can slip. Only a few days before, soldiers in our unit were mugging for photos -- shirts off, muscles flexed, guts sucked in. A female private with freshly applied lipstick squealed: "War is sexy!" But our plodding progress and the growing Iraqi threat extinguished the party mood fast. "I felt a lot better when I thought this was only going to take a matter of days," said First Lieutenant Sara Creely. "Soldiers at the perimeter are freaking out at everything, [even] when they see a dog or a camel."
Back in Kuwait, Brigadier General Louis W. Weber had spoken confidently of shortly taking a bath in one of Saddam Hussein's gilded tubs. Now, the 3ID's No. 3 commander was telling me that he hadn't expected such serious Iraqi resistance. It seemed churlish to remind him of his earlier boasts. Like all of us, the general had slept in his vehicle for three days straight, and clearly, he was exhausted.
Already, it seemed like a long war. Fresh-faced soldiers I'd met just two weeks before seem to have aged. Their weariness reflected more than lack of sleep: The strain of living with danger 24-7 was every bit as draining. The incessant wind and dust wear you down, making arduous even the simplest outdoor chores -- brushing your teeth, unpacking a bed roll, finding your way back from the field latrine. I can only imagine the hardship for soldiers trying to fight.
Luckily, the generals of 3ID had sufficient foresight to load up their fighting troops with a full seven days' worth of supplies. And though none of the units had yet reached a point of critical shortages, the situation was getting tense. Everyone was waiting anxiously for the weather to let up -- and no one wanted to find out what would happen if the rations ran out.
By Frederik Balfour