IN THE KUWAITI DESERT -- The order to be ready to roll within hours came down Tuesday and the U.S. Army infantrymen began taking apart their dusty camp in Kuwait's featureless desert.
Not long after President Bush set a deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war, the young men of "Attack Company" packed up nonessential gear -- including tents -- and loaded it onto trucks to be taken to the rear.
The soldiers, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, will be sleeping under the stars until the worst of the fighting is over, or until Saddam bows to Bush's demand and flees.
Foot soldiers -- the "dogfaces," "ground-pounders" and "grunts" of previous wars -- have always been the bedrock of military campaigns. After the bombs and tank shells have exploded, the infantry captures and holds the ground.
"If I'm going to be in the Army, I wanted to be involved as much I can, someplace where I can play a part," said Spc. Peter Alsis, 22, of Pepperell, Mass., a veteran of the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
When the order comes, the soldiers of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment will storm across the border in their 10 Bradley armored fighting vehicles and assault Iraqi troops with precision weapons.
The 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., relies on speed and precision more than brute force. If Saddam fails to leave Iraq with his sons by tonight, the infantry's job is to go in and force him out.
"He better be packing his bags," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Alfred of Twin Mountain, N.H., one of many soldiers who expressed a subdued confidence while talking with an Associated Press reporter traveling with A Company.
"I'm kind of excited, wanting to see if we go north. The faster we do, the faster we go home," said Spc. Servando Diaz of San Jose, Calif.
'The mission is the same'
New weapons systems, specifically the Bradley, have improved the infantry's maneuverability and speed, but the goal of the infantry has not changed, said Capt. Chris Carter, A Company's commander.
"The mission is the same as it's always been: to close with and destroy the enemy," said Carter, of Watkinsville, Ga. "Mechanized warfare has allowed the infantry to affect the battlefield on a much broader spectrum and a much quicker time scale."
Air Force and Navy planes and Army tanks and howitzers may deliver the spectacular firepower, but it's the infantry that is crucial to taking and holding ground.
"It is an infantryman with a rifle or a bayonet that takes the terrain," said Carter, a small man with thick eyebrows and a liquid Georgia accent.
With Bush's deadline in place, that role has the men anticipating those first shots.
"I think we'll get there and will see something we really don't want to see, some form of forces against us," said Spc. Terrance Donaldson of Miami.
But, he added, "We'll do what we need to do and accomplish the mission."
Gone are the days of blitzkrieg, when a line of tanks rushed across the battlefield. The doctrine for U.S. forces is to identify where enemy troops are and then swarm over them, using weapons with laser-guided accuracy to inflict as much violence as possible.
Speed and agility can confuse and demoralize a foe into surrendering without much fight, Carter said. Military experts often describe the new style of fighting as "swarm warfare" or liken the troops to angry hornets.
The armored Bradley carries infantrymen into battle at up to 45 mph, shuttering to halt and letting them out just a few dozen yards from the enemy.
On Tuesday, A Company's soldiers rehearsed how to move through urban areas and search buildings in case they have to fight inside any Iraqi cities.
Four Bradleys make up a platoon, each carrying the six soldiers of a squad. A platoon's vehicles arrive together near a targeted building and two squads get out and shelter behind the other two Bradleys.
The two Bradleys that have disgorged their soldiers stand back, ready to fire 25 mm cannons loaded with depleted uranium shells capable of piercing armor. Bradleys, each with a three-man crew, also have belt-fed heavy machine guns to use against enemy soldiers and two anti-tank missiles.
As the two Bradleys still carrying troops approach the building slowly, the dismounted infantrymen run alongside, guarding against enemy troops who might try to destroy the Bradleys.
Finally, the rear hatches on those two Bradleys drop open and 12 more men run out. The platoon is ready to enter the building, or walk down a road too narrow for the 12-foot-wide, tracked vehicles.
Each infantryman carries a variety of weapons, which can include an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a shotgun, an M-16A4 assault rifle or the new M-4 -- either of which can be fitted with an M-203 grenade launcher.
The assault rifles and the machine gun have laser pointers that are visible only through the night vision equipment worn by the soldiers, allowing them to see exactly where they will hit the target.
The Bradley uses a thermal imaging system, known as the Integrated Sight Unit, to hit targets up to 3,000 yards away with extreme accuracy.
Carter, whose Combat Infantryman's Badge and airborne wings attest to his experience and battlefield skills, said the new swarm doctrine allows the Army to avoid civilian areas, concentrate on enemy troops and minimize destruction.
"It is more humane because if you can accomplish the goal while destroying less, it introduces the idea of morality into warfare," Carter said.