About 30 minutes after a suicide bomber killed four soldiers from the 2-7 Mechanized Infantry Battalion, Operations Officer Maj. Rod Coffey stood before the maps lying on the table of the battalion operation tent absentmindedly but violently smashing his plastic water bottle on the table.
Coffey managed the front-rear coordination of the operation to secure the checkpoint on Highway 9 that had just been attacked and to retrieve the soldiers' bodies. During each radio contact with the units concerned – ambulances, logistics, company commanders – Coffey would speak quietly and
calmly while violently smashing the bottle on the table again and again.
This continued for 10 minutes, when, at a particularly harsh smash, the bottle flew to the sandy floor with a boom. A sergeant quietly picked it up and handed it back to Coffey. Coffey took the bottle, and, realizing what had happened, gave an embarrassed glance to the soldiers and said, firmly, 'We're going to destroy these bastards.'
With that he took a sip of water, put the bottle aside, and went on managing the operation.
The scene at Saturday's suicide bombing was almost identical to scenes of suicide bombings with which Israelis are so tragically familiar. The response of the US forces on the ground in Iraq was decidedly different.
These men are not civilians, they are soldiers engaged in a great war, and this fact was not lost on them even for a moment.
While in Israel a terror attack's news cycle does not end until after the last of the victims is laid to rest, the battalion officers and soldiers did not interrupt their battle-planning activities even for an instant.
The battalion chaplain held a small memorial service on Sunday for the men. Soldiers and officers bowed their heads and cried for 15 minutes, and returned to their posts.
In the first 10 days of the US war in Iraq it became clear that during this war, the military will sustain more combat losses than it has in any confrontation since Vietnam. Reports filtering into the field from Washington and Centcom paint a picture for the troops of politicians and
generals at a loss to explain how it came to pass that American blood has been spilled again in a foreign land.
For the officers and troops in the field, the losses they have personally incurred over the past week did not catch them by surprise.
Tuesday morning, as they made their final preparations for the much-awaited push north to Baghdad, I spoke with a number of soldiers and officers in 2-7 Mechanized Infantry Battalion of the Third Infantry Division's First Combat Brigade about the losses they have absorbed – six dead over the past week.
THE BATTALION'S air force liaison officer, Master Sgt. J. B. Bruening, compares the current situation with that in the 1991 Gulf War, in which he also fought.
'The big difference between the two wars is that in the last one the Iraqis all surrendered. The mission is completely different this time. Then we fought to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis; now we're liberating Iraq from the Iraqis.
'Anyone who thought they'd just stand down was deluding himself. I am not surprised by the Iraqi resistance.'
Reflecting on the public scrutiny of the losses, Maj. Coffey says, 'I never assumed we would come back home with everyone, although I never highlighted this in conversation. By placing such great emphasis on the suicide bombing they are playing into the enemy's hand.
'You let terror succeed when you focus on it. This is no time for anyone to lose their nerve.'
Coffey is an intellectual. In addition to his duties as operations officer, he fills the role of battalion military historian. The blue-eyed, sandy-haired, square-jawed Rhode Islander is always on hand with a historical analogy or precedent.
On the question of the reaction to casualties, the 41-year-old Coffey sees a generational divide between the young officers and soldiers in the field and their older generals in command positions in the rear and in Washington.
'The generals remember not being supported in Vietnam. That is a generational memory. We grew up in the post-Cold War era, with a huge awareness of the terrorist threat. Starting with the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in Teheran in 1979.
'We understand terrorism, we were brought up with it, so this sort of suicide attack is not a surprise to us.'
In short, he says, 'Our response is, 'OK, there was a car bombing, let's drive on.' To focus on it is to let Saddam succeed. We won't let him succeed.'
Battalion commander Lt. Scott Rutter echoes these sentiments and adds another layer to their thinking: 'The guys who died make it clear to the soldiers that they are fighting for each other. The soldiers now realize that death happens. This makes them even stronger in their fight for each other because our survival instinct is stronger.
'S.L.A. Marshall, a journalist who covered US troops in World War II, discussed this issue in his book Men Under Fire and concluded that more than mom, apple pie, or country, soldiers fight for one another.'
Speaking of the politicians back in Washington, Rutter considers, 'I guess they didn't realize that we would be confronted by the combination of regular enemy forces and civilians with bombs. Obviously in this situation defining what constitutes a threat is difficult.'
As for the generation gap, 40-year-old Rutter says that the older officers and politicians need to respect the soldiers' willingness to serve.
'They [the generals and politicians] are very sensitive to losses. Our generation is making sacrifices for our country and our way of life. These men all volunteered to serve. If we weren't ready, we wouldn't be here.'
ALPHA COMPANY Commander Capt. Rob Smith commanded five of the six soldiers who died this past week. His first man fell when the Bradley fighting vehicle he was riding in plummeted 10 meters into a ditch last Thursday night. The other four were killed by the car bomb at the checkpoint on Highway 9.
Smith, at 34, is the only company commander in the battalion who also served as an enlisted infantryman. He served as a soldier for six years before going to college and becoming an officer. Smith's colleagues speak of the stocky, apple-cheeked, brown-eyed officer with deep respect.
Alpha Company is a pure infantry company. For the war it traded a Bradley platoon for an Abrams tank platoon with another company. The four soldiers killed on Saturday were members of that platoon.
Alpha Company always moves first. The rest of the battalion follows. To this degree it is not surprising that Alpha would also be the first to suffer casualties.
Smith believes that as a commander, he fills the role of parent for his soldiers.
'I realize that I have the highest responsibility for the lives of 156 sons of other parents. I take care of my guys as I would take care of my daughter. It's that simple. That is how I stay focused.
'The parents are upset by the fatalities. The American people are upset. All that I can do is give these people the peace of mind that at least the Alpha Company commander is doing his best.
'When I find myself tired, hungry, and scared, I think what I would do if my daughter were under attack. This focuses the mind.'
For Smith, the lives of his men who were killed this week are part of a long history of selfless sacrifice for the United States.
'Being a soldier means not thinking about yourself. It is being a civil servant. Our forefathers risked execution when they rose against the British. Someone has to sacrifice for our freedom.
'I think of all the late nights I'
ve worked, missing dinner with my wife and daughter. I missed my daughter's first Christmas. Hopefully, she'll understand that America doesn't exist because of selfishness, but because of individuals who made sacrifices for the greater good.'
Living with the men of the 2-7 Battalion for the past three weeks, the main word that comes to mind when I consider them today, just hours before battle, is 'warriors.' Their small talk relates to the minutiae of battle preparation – from having enough spare batteries to the best way to clean
their rifles. They talk of home and returning to their wives and children often, but with an understanding that first things are first.
Capt. Jason Hancock commands the First Brigade Reconnaissance Team of 81 Scouts that moves before the rest of the force to assess enemy strength. This is a necessarily precarious duty, and five of Hancock's men have already been wounded.
Although he talks a tough game, the stocky, Mowhawk-hairstyled Hancock wears on his wrist the ID bracelet of his friend and soldier Army Ranger S.P.C. Marc Anderson, killed in Afghanistan last March.
'I wear this bracelet because it keeps me focused. I trained my men hard to make them ready, and they are ready.'
Hancock expresses concern over what he views as the public's overreaction to the use of terrorism against US forces.
'Our enemy no doubt studied our experiences with unconventional warfare in Somalia and Haiti and sees how such terror tactics caused us to pull out. I just hope that the politicians understand that this is part of the war we fight, and that they will let us continue on and win.'
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.