CAMP COMMANDO, KUWAITHe stood on the flatbed of a 7-ton truck in a place called the "Coliseum," a fitting location to gather warriors girded for battle. And Lt. Gen. James Conway, commanding officer of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, left little doubt for the 5,000 assembled marines that they would soon see a taste of war. "I believe in my heart that it's just a few days away," Conway told his anxious troops sitting cross-legged in the sand, the barrels of their M-16s pointing toward the sky. Soon, they would "head north."
It was an age-old rally-the-troops speech, the kind generals for centuries have given to armies before marching into battleequal parts motivation, bravado, profanity, and fatherly advice. The 15-minute talk, punctuated by a flyover of AV-8B Harrier jets and Cobra attack helicopters, touched on the September 11 attacks, Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons, the history of the Marine Corps, and the natural fear of battle. "Courage is not the absence of fear," the general counseled the troops at the end of his address. "It [is] simply being able to control fear at the appropriate place and time."
Conway's hunch about the impending war was reinforced hours later by his commander in chief, when President Bush announced at the end of the Azores summit that Monday would be the final day to reach a diplomatic solution before war with Iraq. Yet diplomacy was not the order of the day at the Coliseuman arena of massive concrete pillars used as a training ground for Kuwaiti commandos, for which the Marine camp is named. Conway, who commands more than 80,000 U.S. marines and British troops, delivered a simple message: The hundreds of thousands of troops now encircling Iraq were there to prevent another September 11.
The 6 foot, 4 inch Missouri native laid out a war scenario in which jets from the 3rd Marine Air Wing would pound Iraqi forces for three to four days in advance of a ground assault. The unfortunate recipients of the barrage would be Saddam's forces closest to the Kuwait border, principally the 51st Mechanized Infantry Division, based near the southern city of Al Zubayr. He assured the Marines that their renown as fighters is well known throughout Iraqthat they have a reputation for being "the baddest sons of bitches in the valley." As Conway put it: "I gotta tell you, when Abdul in the 51st Mechanized Division north of the border heard that he was taking on the 1st Marine Division followed by the 1st UK Division, he said something like, 'Ana felaka beluchi,' which is Arabic for, 'Ain't that a bitch!'"
Yet the troops received a mixed message about the mission at hand: Be aggressive, yet tactful. "We're not here to destroy the country of Iraq," Conway said. "We're not even here to destroy the Army of Iraq." Thousands of Iraqis would most likely not even fight, and the marines would have to show mercy on the surrendering troops. "Give them a cup of coffee, give them cigarette, pat them on their skinny ass and send them to the rear," Conway said. The general also assured the young men poised for battle that despite their concerns, their country was behind them. Once the fight began, he said, public support for the war effort would reach 91 percent. As for the rest? "P--- on everyone else," barked Conway.
Of course, no military event these days is complete without some good French-bashing. Sgt. Maj. Bill Kinney, who warmed up the audience before Conway began his speech, cracked a string of French jokes that brought thunderous applause from the assembled crowd. "Did you hear about the new French tank?" Kinney asked. "It's got 15 gears: one forward and 14 reverse. And the forward gear is just in case they get attacked from behind."