Scene: A troubled corner of the globe, sometime in the near future. The Marine expeditionary force prepares for an upcoming offensive.

2248 Monday: Maj John Gustafson had taken over as the regimental intelligence officer just in time for Operation VERBAL IMAGE. Who thinks up the names for these operations anyway? he wondered. This would be his first command briefing and he wanted to make a good impression. The colonel had a reputation for being a tough, no-nonsense boss—and the best regimental commander in the division. Gustafson would be thorough and by-the-numbers. He would have all the pertinent reports on hand, pages of printouts containing any piece of data the regimental commander could possibly want. He went over his briefing in his mind as he walked with his stack of reports through the driving rain to the command tent.

The colonel arrived, just back from visiting his forward battalions and soaking wet, and said, “All right, let’s get started. S-2, you’re up.” Gustafson cleared his throat and began. He had barely gotten through the expected precipitation when the colonel held up his hand as a signal to stop. Gustafson noticed the other staff officers smiling knowingly.

“Listen, S-2,” the colonel said, “I don’t care about how many inches of rainfall to expect. I don’t care about the percentage of lunar illumination. I don’t want lots of facts and figures. Number one, I don’t have time, and number two, they don’t do me any good. What I need is to know what it all means. Can the Cobras fly in this stuff or not? Will my tanks get bogged down in this mud? Don’t read me lists of enemy spottings; tell me what the enemy’s up to. Get inside his head. You don’t have to impress me with how much data you can collect; I know you’re a smart guy, S-2. But I don’t deal in data; I deal in pictures. Paint me a picture, got it?”

“Don’t worry about it, major,” the regimental executive officer said later, clapping a hand on Gustafson’s shoulder. “We’ve all been through it.”

0615 Tuesday: The operation was getting underway. In his battalion command post, LtCol Dan Hewson observed with satisfaction as his units moved out toward their appointed objectives. He watched the progress on the computer screen before him. Depicted on the 19-inch flat screen was a color map of the battalion zone of action. The map was covered with luminous-green unit symbols, each representing a rifle platoon or smaller unit. If a unit was stationary, the symbol remained illuminated; when the unit changed location by a hundred meters, the symbol flashed momentarily.

Hewson tapped on a unit symbol on the touch screen with his finger, and the unit designator and latest strength report came up on the screen. Alpha Company; they should be moving by now.

“Get on the hook and find out what Alpha’s problem is,” Hewson barked. “Tell them to get moving.”

With rapid ease he “zoomed” down in scale from 1:100,000 to 1:25,000 and centered the screen on Bravo Company’s zone. Hewson prided himself on his computer literacy; no lance corporal computer operator necessary for this old battalion commander, he mused. Hewson was always amazed at the quality of detail on the map at that scale; it was practically as if he were there. That was the old squad leader in him coming out. He tapped on the symbol of Bravo’s second platoon as it inched north on the screen.

No, they should turn right at that draw, he said to himself. That draw’s a perfect avenue of approach. Where the hell are they going? Don’t they teach terrain appreciation anymore at The Basic School?

“Get Bravo on the line,” he barked. “Tell them I want second platoon to turn right and head northeast up that draw. Now. And tell them first platoon needs to move up about 200 yards; they’re out of alignment.”

Satisfied that everything was under control in Bravo’s zone, Hewson scrolled over to check on Charlie Company. Back when he was a young corporal, some 22 years ago, this technology didn’t exist. It was amazing how much easier command and control was today compared to his old squad leader days, how much more control there was now. He wondered if the junior Marines realized just how lucky they were.

0622 Tuesday: Second Lieutenant Rick Connors was feeling anything but lucky. Just past the mouth of a draw, he angrily signaled for second platoon to halt. Company was on the radio, barking about something. He was wet, he was cold; his rain top had somehow sprung a leak, and a stream of icy water poured down his spine. And on top of everything else, now this.

"Come again?” he said to his radio operator.

“Sir, Hotel-3-Mike says we’re supposed to turn right and head up this draw,” LCpl Baker repeated.

Damn PLRS, Connors cursed to himself. He had never actually seen a PLRS, that venerable piece of equipment having been replaced by a newer, lighter generation of position-locating system which attached to any field radio and sent an updated position report every time the transmit button was cued. But like all the more experienced Marines, he insisted on calling the new equipment by the old name.

“Up that draw,” Connors repeated, as if to convince himself he had heard correctly.

“Hotel-3-Mike says it’s an excellent avenue of approach, sir,” Baker reported dutifully.

Connors studied the impenetrable web of thorny, interlocking undergrowth in the draw and snorted scornfully. Maybe on somebody’s computer screen it is, he thought. But on the ground it’s not. Somebody at battalion must have his map on 1:25,000 again. So much for the decentralized mission control they told us about at TBS. What do they even need lieutenants for if they’re going to try to control us like puppets? He despised the prospect of hacking his way through the thick brush of the draw, especially when first squad had spotted what looked like an excellent concealed avenue of approach not 200 yards ahead. Of course, if he followed instructions, higher headquarters would be squawking about his slow rate of advance—there were no thickets of pricker bushes on a computer map. He could just imagine the radio message: “What’s taking you so long, 3-Mike-2? It’s only an inch on the map.” And if he chose the other route they’d be on him in no time about disobeying orders. He cursed the PLRS again. But then he decided it wasn’t the PLRS that was the problem; it was the way it was being used.

1118 Tuesday: A section of SuperCobra IIIs churned through the driving rain on its way back to the abandoned high school campus that served as an expeditionary airfield, returning from an uneventful scouting mission.

“I’ll tell you what, skipper,” 1stLt Howard Coble said from the front seat of the lead helicopter, “this soup isn’t getting any better.”

In fact, it was getting considerably worse, Capt Jim Knutsen decided as he piloted the buffeting attack helicopter. A squall was moving back in. Goo at 500 feet, visibility down inside a mile and worsening.

“I’m glad I’m not those poor bastards,” Coble said, indicating a mechanized column on the muddy trail below them to starboard.

“You got that right,” Knutsen said, not paying much attention.

Until Coble cursed sharply.

“Those aren’t ours,” Coble said. “Take a look, skipper. BMPs, T-80s.”

Coble was dead right. What they were looking at was an enemy mechanized column, Knutsen guessed, of at least battalion strength. Probably more. His first instinct was to make a run at the column, but his intuition told him otherwise. Something was not right. Knutsen banked the Cobra away sharply to avoid detection, and his wingman followed.

What’s wrong with this picture? Knutsen said to himself. The mission briefing had said nothing about enemy mechanized forces anywhere near this vicinity. The enemy had apparently used the cover of the bad weather to move a sizable force undetected through a supposed “no-go” area into the division’s zone. Knutsen was familiar enough with the ground scheme of maneuver to know instantly that this unexpected presence posed a serious threat to the upcoming operation. We got ourselves a major problem. These guys are not supposed to be here.

His wingman’s voice crackled over the radio: “Pikeman, did you see what I just saw at two o’clock?”

“Roger, Sylvester.”

“We need to let DASC know about this,” Coble said on the intercom.

Knutsen considered the problem. Reporting the sighting to the direct air support center would, of course, be the standard course. But because of the weather, they’d had trouble talking to the DASC all day; they couldn’t get high enough to get a straight shot. In these conditions, he figured they were nearly a half hour from the field. And when he finally got the message through, he could imagine the path the information would take from the DASC before it reached the units at the front—and that was provided they even believed such an unlikely report. DASC hell, we need to tell the guys on the ground, he thought. They might like to know about an enemy mech column driving straight through the middle of the MEF’s zone. Forget normal channels. Unfortunately he had no call signs or frequencies for any of the local ground units.

“Howie, find me some friendlies on the ground,” he said. He radioed his wingman with his plan.

“Got somebody, skipper,” Coble said shortly. “AAV in the tree line at nine o’clock. Got it?”

“Roger, I’m setting down.”

1132 Tuesday: You got to be crazy to be flying in this weather, Capt Ed Takashima said to himself when he heard the sound of approaching helicopter rotors. He was twice amazed to see the Cobra appear low over the trees and settle into the clearing not a hundred yards away while its partner circled overhead. He hopped down from his AAV and jogged out into the clearing to meet the Marine emerging from the cockpit and was three-times astonished to recognize him as an old Amphibious Warfare School classmate.

“Knut-case,” he said, pumping his friend’s hand enthusiastically. “I should have known nobody else would be crazy enough to fly in this stuff. What the hell are you doing here?”

Knutsen quickly explained the situation and, when he was finished and saw Takashima’s expression, said: “Don’t look at me like I’m crazy, Tak.”

Anybody else Takashima would have thought was crazy—or else completely lost—but not Knutsen. He had known Knutsen too long for that. Knutsen was too squared away.

“Give me your map, I’ll show you,” Knutsen said. “We’re right here, right? And the enemy is right there, heading in this direction,” jabbing the map and tracing the enemy movement.

As Knutsen had begun to diagram the enemy move, Takashima was already considering the situation. With all the sensors and satellites and reconnaissance assets that support a MEF, Takashima wondered, how does an enemy mechanized battalion drive through the middle of our sector without being detected? He remembered reading something somewhere about uncertainty being a pervasive attribute of war. Chalk one up to Clausewitz’s “fog of war,” Takashima decided. Of course, Takashima knew, since it was a “no-go” area—and that meant that somebody up the chain had looked at the terrain and decided it was impassable—it would remain relatively unobserved. But how it had happened didn’t matter: it had happened. What to do about it? That was the problem. Six or seven clicks, tops, he thought, looking at the map. Not much time. This changed everything. The original battalion plan would have to be scrapped; it was as simple as that. Takashima recognized that his original mission was overcome by events. He made his decision. The situation called for quick thinking, and quicker action. The objectives might change, but the overall aim remained the same. The ultimate object, Takashima knew, was to locate the main enemy force and attack to destroy it. That could still be the object; it would just have to happen a lot farther south than had been planned. If the battalion could make a 90-degree left turn in time, they might just pull it off. Now if he could just get battalion to go along with it . . . . he needed to talk to the battalion commander.

Knutsen had finished tracing the enemy movement, and his finger rested on the map, pointing at a small town called Culverin Crossroads. “That’s it then,” Takashima said. “Culverin Crossroads.”

“I hear you, Tak,” Knutsen said. “You’re thinking of that West Africa map ex we did last year at AWS, aren’t you? The one where we wheeled the whole regiment and took the red force in the flank.”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Takashima said.

“What the hell; let’s do it. I got enough fuel for maybe one pass. You want me to work them over, or don’t you want them to know that we’re on to them?”

“Let’s wait and surprise them. Can you bring back some friends?”

What a kick, Knutsen thought. A couple of captains standing in the middle of a muddy field in a downpour working out the beginnings of a major operation. It reminded him of playing pick-up football as a kid and drawing improvised plays in the dirt.

“We’ll be here,” he said with a grin. “You’ll recognize me—I’ll be the one in front.” “See you then, Knut-case,” Takashima said.

They shook hands, and Knutsen climbed back into the cockpit.

“Olsen!” Takashima bellowed at his radioman. “Try to get me battalion. I need to talk to the colonel direct.”

1310 Tuesday: “General, the latest weather pictures are coming in,” the lance corporal reported, the note of anxiousness unmistakable in his voice.

MajGen Harry Vanderwood doubted if there was a single Marine anywhere in the wing who did not recognize the significance that attached to the latest forecasts.

“I’ll be right there, Marine,” he replied.

No sooner had Vanderwood arrived in the tactical air command center than the MEF commander bustled in unannounced as he had a disconcerting habit of doing. You never knew when he was going to show up, or where, Vanderwood mused. Wing commander or mechanic on the flight line, you were never safe.

“Have you gotten the latest on the situation, Harry?” the MEF commander asked.

“As of the last 15 minutes, general,” Vanderwood replied. “Not that I’m any smarter than I was before. I’d still like to know what the hell is going on.”

“That makes two of us. I’d like to talk to those Cobra pilots myself.”

“It’s being arranged, general. They managed to take off on another sortie before we could grab them. Under terrible conditions, I might add. When they get back, I’m either going to give them a medal or a butt-chewing; probably both.”

The MEF commander grunted. “How’s the weather looking?” he asked.

“We’re just in the process of pulling down the latest pictures from the weather satellite,” Vanderwood said.

A large-scale map of the area of operations appeared on the large screen, color-coded to illustrate the precipitation fore- cast.

“No good news there,” Vanderwood said. “Let’s take a look at the incoming weather.”

A broader map, much like a weather map on a television newscast, appeared on the screen. Heavy white blotches swept sputteringly across the screen from left to right.

“Freeze it right there,” Vanderwood said, and the image stopped moving. “Good. That could be the break we’re looking for. I figure in about 90 minutes we’ll be able to get something going. If this pattern holds, I plan to blot out the sun—what little sun there might be—with aircraft by 1500. Now all we need is to know what we’re going to be attacking.”

“How about cueing up the MEF situation package, and we’ll see if we can’t make some sense of this,” the MEF commander said. “And see if we can get General Bishop on teleconference.”

“Somebody ask the Top to come over here,” Vanderwood said, meaning the intelligence chief.

“General, the division commander’s away from the CP, but we’re setting up video with the chief of staff,” a Marine reported.

“Very well,” the MEF commander said. He fully expected Bishop to be away from the command post; in fact, the division command post was the last place he’d expect to find the division commander in the middle of a battle.

The computer operator, Cpl Beale Davis, tapped quickly on his keyboard, and the wall-sized screen blinked, the weather map replaced by a situation map of the MEF’s area of operations. From the menu across the top of the screen, he opened a “conference” window, and the division chief of staff appeared in a live video feed.

“How are you, Tom?” the MEF commander said.

“Hanging in, general,” Col Tom Hester replied. “Sir, General Bishop has gone forward. Do you want him paged? If he’s at one of the regimental CPs, we can get him on video too.”

“No, that’s all right. We’re just going to try to piece this picture together, and I want everybody to share the same image. Are you looking at the same thing we are?”

“Yessir, he is,” Davis said, meaning that the screen in the division command post would depict the same information and images that were being called up on the wing situation map.

Davis had logged into the theater data base and could “pull down” almost instantaneously any individual piece of data, or complete or partial package of information, that had been entered into the system anytime, anywhere, by any means. He had access to text, imagery, and live or prerecorded video and audio, which he could call up by opening additional windows on the screen. Through the theater data base, he had access to State Department reports, Defense Intelligence Agency summaries, Central Intelligence Agency accounts, and National Imagery and Mapping Agency charts. Likewise, he could call up the latest tactical reports and analyses by a variety of categories—time, unit, contents, location, reliability—and could specify the level of information resolution— “granularity,” they called it. Any time he asked for tactical reports over a period of time, the software would automatically “crunch out” a trend analysis, both in picture and bullet form. With a little manipulation, he could get direct feeds from satellites or aerial reconnaissance drones. (This procedure was not taught in the classroom; it was an unauthorized “back door” gateway, but nobody complained when Davis pulled it off.) Perhaps most important of all, he could access the Cable News Network for the latest-breaking developments. There was no lack of information out there, Davis knew. You were being bombarded by it. Any yahoo could access a near-endless flow of impressive data. The trick to being a good computer operator was being able to sift through it all to access the right information in the right form at the right time so the old man could figure out what it meant.

In an effort to make some sense of the enemy situation, they pulled down various “packages” of information, mostly in picture form, which promptly appeared and disappeared on the screen at Davis’ command. Enemy armor spottings within the last 48, 24, and 12 hours. All ground contacts reported in the last 48 and 24 hours. All enemy artillery units spotted and fire missions reported in the last 48 hours. Road and rail usage in the last 72 hours. Sightings of enemy mobile air defense equipment, usually a good indicator of the disposition of the main body, in the last 48 and 24 hours. Enemy radio traffic in the last week. Enemy aviation activity in the last 2 days. Every once in a while the MEF commander would ask for a “template,” a computer-generated estimate of possible enemy dispositions and movements based on the partial information that was available. Each template automatically came with a reliability estimate—“resolution,” they called it—calculated as a percentage of complete reliability. The best resolution they had gotten for any one template was 45 percent; most were in the twenties and thirties. Statistically not very good—but certainly as good as could be expected.

Another set of red enemy symbols flashed on the screen.

“What the hell,” the MEF commander said, looking at the screen which indicated a heavy flow of enemy helicopter traffic along a single route. A major heliborne operation? In this weather? As if things aren’t sticky enough. And why is this the first I’m hearing of it? “You’re telling me the enemy’s been flying fleets of helicopters continuously the last 6 hours?”

Vanderwood looked to MSgt Edgar Tomlinson, the intelligence chief.

“No, general,” Tomlinson said. “He’s not flying anything. What you’re seeing on the screen, believe it or not, is actually a row of power lines. We checked it out. Radiating and blowing in this wind, our sensors picked them up as helicopters.”

“You’re kidding me, Top,” the MEF commander said skeptically. “Our sensors think a set of power lines is a bunch of helicopters?”

“I guarantee it, general,” Tomlinson said. “If you want to call up an aerial photo, I can show you the power lines.”

“No, I believe you, Top.”

“I’ve seen it happen before,” Tomlinson said. “This gear is great, as long as you don’t trick yourself into thinking that it’s actually smart.”

Despite an aggregate resolution of under 25 percent, Van- derwood sensed that a possible pattern had slowly begun to develop, but hardly anything conclusive. A possibility. A hunch. A little better than a wild guess. Despite the admittedly amazing technology, you could never be certain of anything, Vanderwood knew. Despite the artificial intelligence, the decision aids, the computer analysis. As long as war re- mained a clash of human wills, Vanderwood mused, no mat- ter how much technology you had, it still boiled down in the end to intuition and judgment.

“General, the division commander’s coming in on video link,” a Marine interrupted.

A window opened on the wall screen, and MajGen Miles Bishop appeared, apparently from inside a command AAV somewhere on the battlefield, the trademark cigar stub clamped in his teeth.

“Hey, can anybody hear me?” he was saying gruffly over the background noise in the AAV. “Is this blasted thing on?”

“Bish, this is Vanderwood with the MEF commander,” the wing commander said. “You’re coming in fine on this end.”

“The video whatzit thing is on the blink on this end, but I can hear you okay,” Bishop replied.

“Glad you could spare a few minutes out of your busy schedule,” the MEF commander said. “We’ve been trying to figure out what the hell’s been going on. We’ve been running some software for the last half hour, and we think we might have something.”

“You want to know what the hell’s going on, general?” Bishop said. “Hell, I can tell you what’s going on.”

“Okay, let us have it,” the MEF commander said, and Bishop proceeded to describe in his own colorful but accurate way the same situation that had begun to take shape, with much less clarity, on the wall screen of the TACC. Vanderwood and the MEF commander exchanged glances. Bishop, Vanderwood mused, shaking his head. What a piece of work. Glad he’s on my team.

“How did you come by that, Bish?” the MEF commander asked.

“Me and a couple of the boys sitting around a heat tab making some coffee just swagged it,” Bishop said with a lopsided grin. “Ever-lovin’ coop da oil—isn’t that what you’re always calling it, Harry?”

Coup d’oeil, Bish,” Vanderwood pronounced—referring to the French term which described the ability of gifted commanders to peer through the “fog of war” and intuitively grasp what was happening on the battlefield.

“Yeah, whatever,” Bishop snorted.

Vanderwood grinned at Bishop’s famous good-old-boy routine. Outside the circle of general officers, few Marines knew that French was one of the four foreign languages that Bishop spoke like a native.

“As long as he’s got it,” the MEF commander said, “let him pronounce it however he likes.”

1428 Tuesday: Capt Takashima heard the unmistakable sound of the ATGMs firing off in unison like a naval broadside. The doctrinal manuals called it “massed, surprise fires.” Takashima called it “a world of hurt for the bad guys.” Damn if those bastards didn’t walk right into it, he thought as he scampered forward to get a better look at the situation at the crossroads where first platoon had just sprung an ambush on the leading elements of the enemy column. I owe Knutsen a beer when this is all over. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but just from the sound of things he could tell that first platoon had caught them pretty good. Amazing how you learned to sense these things. The ground nearby erupted in a massive explosion, and he hit the deck—or rather, the 6 inches of water that covered the deck.

“Olsen, you all right?” he yelled after checking to make sure he was still in one piece.

“Yessir,” his radioman replied. “Captain, third platoon wants to talk to you.”

Second Lieutenant Tim Dandridge, Golf Company’s least experienced platoon commander, was several hundred yards off to the right. Takashima had originally put third platoon where he could keep his eye on Dandridge, but when he’d spun the company, it had left third platoon off on the right flank by itself. Takashima switched on his headset.

“Oscar-3, this is Romeo-2-Oscar, go.”

“Romeo-2-Oscar, I’ve got mechanized activity to my front and more activity moving through the woods around my right flank, over,” Dandridge reported.

Even over the radio Takashima could sense the nervousness in the lieutenant’s voice.

“Echo’s on your right flank,” Takashima said. “Roger, Romeo-2-Oscar, I don’t think it’s Echo,” came the reply. “I’m not picking them up on PLRS.”

Takashima checked his electronic map board, networked to Olsen’s radio, which in addition to his own eight-digit location could show the location of friendly transmitters. He punched in a request for the location of all transmitters of platoon level or higher. Dandridge was right: no Echo Company units. Which meant one of two things: either Echo was so badly lost they weren’t even on the map, or somebody had keyed the wrong code into all of Echo’s transmitters.

“Have you made contact with Echo?” Takashima asked.

“Negative. Can’t raise them.”

“Any visual with the enemy?”

“Negative, but they’re definitely out there,” Dandridge said. “Estimate at least a company.”

“Roger, are you in position yet?” Third platoon should have been well set in by now, ready to ambush the advancing enemy forces.

There was a pause. “Er, roger . . . pretty much, Romeo-2-Oscar,” came the halting reply.

Which meant “No,” Takashima knew. Good news got passed without hesitation; bad news always seemed to move more reluctantly. Not a good sign. For a second, he considered heading over to third platoon’s position to check things out, but he quickly dismissed the idea. His intuition still told him the critical action was taking place in front of him at first platoon’s position. Events were still unfolding as expected, thanks to Knut-case. This was where he needed to be. Chances were that the young lieutenant was exaggerating; but yet, if Dandridge was right, then Takashima had read things wrong, and the enemy had other ideas in mind. You could never count on the bastards doing what they were supposed to.

“Gunny!” Takashima bellowed over the sound of the shelling.

A moment later GySgt Roberto Hernandez splashed down beside him.

“Gunny, third platoon is reporting enemy activity to their front and flank,” Takashima began.

“Roger that, skipper,” Hernandez said. “I was listening in.”

Naturally, Takashima thought. Nothing the gunny did surprised him anymore.

“I’m concerned about what’s going on over there,” Takashima said. “But I don’t have time to check it out myself. That activity they reported might or might not be Echo Company. Gunny, I want you to hustle over there, have a look around, and report back to me what you see. Use an alternate net. If it’s real trouble, I need to know in a hurry. Don’t step on any toes, but you might want to make a few tactful suggestions if it’s appropriate.”

“You want me to be, sir, what is sometimes referred to in the literature as a ‘directed telescope,’ ” Hernandez said.

“Directed tele-what? Get outta here, gunny,” Takashima said with a grin.

Sometimes it was a pain having the best-read staff NCO in the Marine Corps as a company gunny, he decided as he watched Hernandez charge away. But not usually.

1455, Tuesday: “Any questions?”

Any questions? Col Perry Gorman, the division G-3, wondered incredulously. Where should I start?

MajGen Bishop had just spent the last half hour orienting his staff to the new situation. He stood in front of the large electronic mapboard in the musty tent which housed the division’s future ops section. The map was crisscrossed with the broad arrows and symbols he had been drawing with the stylus while he talked. Every once in a while Bishop would call for an estimate or opinion, or one of his staff would ask a question, make a recommendation, or take the stylus to sketch on the map. An energetic discussion would usually ensue and Bishop would let this go on for a few minutes, listening to the arguments for and against and benignly chewing on his cigar while the members of his staff had their say; then he would suddenly shut the discussion off and announce his position. Sometimes Bishop followed the advice of his staff; sometimes, Gorman was convinced, the general had already made his decision but wanted to make sure his people felt that they had had the opportunity to participate. It was truly an education watching Bishop work his staff, Gorman decided. It was a fluid and idiosyncratic process, reflective of Bishop’s own personality. Never exactly the same twice and yet very effective. Anybody who thought staff planning was a mechanical process had never been around MajGen Miles Bishop.

There was an old military saying, attributed to the Prussian Field Marshal Moltke, that no plan survives contact with the enemy. In a short period of time by merely modifying an existing branch plan, Bishop quickly reoriented the efforts of the division to meet the new situation. Gorman’s first thought was for the wasted effort; but he quickly realized the effort had not been wasted at all: it had been a valuable learning process which had resulted in an improved situational aware- ness that was shared by Bishop, the entire staff, and subordinate commanders.

A feeling had engulfed the command post that through previous good planning and adaptability the division had turned a potential crisis into a decisive opportunity. Of course, Gorman mused, an awful lot of things had to happen to make adaptability during execution possible. It’s amazing how much preparation is required to provide flexibility in execution. A division contained an awful lot of independent parts that needed to be working toward the same goal. The intelligence collection plan would have to be reoriented to the new axis of advance, as would the fire support planning and the logistics effort. Potential enemy countermoves would have to be considered, as well as possible ways to deal with them. One good thing that doesn’t have to change is the commander’s intent and its end state. The force would have to be reorganized to support the new taskings. Fragmentary orders would have to be issued. Necessary coordination would have to be effected above, below, and laterally—especially with the wing since all the aviation support requirements had changed. The light armor battalion would have to be redeployed to continue the counterreconnaissance battle. With Task Force Hammer as well as all the forward units committed to the exploitation, a new reserve would have to be constituted somehow, but not immediately. Thought would have to be given to protecting the lengthening lines of communications as the pursuit continued. The general’s concept for a regimental helicopterborne attack into the enemy rear would have to be worked out—a major evolution in itself (although most of the planning and coordination would be done by the regiment). Landing zones and helicopter lanes would have to be reconnoitered, air defenses located and targeted for suppression . . .

“Last chance,” Bishop was saying. “No saved rounds?”

“You want this by when exactly, general?” a voice from the back of the tent asked.

Laughter broke out, and Bishop smiled but did not bother to answer. The general’s obsession with tempo was legendary.

“Look, people, don’t worry about trying to control every moving piece in this monster. It’s not gonna happen. I can tell you it’s gonna be chaos for the next few days at least. Maybe longer. The battalions and regiments are already starting to do what we need them to do, so let’s not try to overcontol this thing. I just want you to make sure that all the chaos and mayhem are flowing in the same general direction and that we keep it going. Coordinate what absolutely needs to be coordinated and don’t try to coordinate what doesn’t. Keep this thing pointed straight, but let it go. Remember, the sign of a good plan is that it gives you both direction and flexibility.

“All right,” the general concluded, “I think everybody knows where we stand and what needs to be done. Let’s get at it.”

1505 Tuesday: If 2ndLt Connors had been unhappy before, he was positively miserable now. He decided he felt about as useful as a mindless pawn in some giant chess game, being moved around one square at a time. Certainly don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, do we? The analogy was pretty appropriate, he thought. Too bad the chess player who was ordering him around showed every sign of being an indecisive beginner who seemed to be taking an awful lot of time between moves.

What made things worse was that from the distant shelling and the radio traffic he could tell that there was one heck of a battle going on. And he was missing it. Every time he radioed for instructions he’d get the same reply—“Wait out”—and when the orders eventually arrived, it seemed that he was always one step too late. Usually, he’d arrive just in time to have to duck the tail end of somebody else’s fire mission. He might just as well have been wandering around the pine forests of beloved Camp Lejeune for all the action he was getting. Was that a red-cockaded woodpecker he just saw?

He crawled to the edge of the vegetation and peered across the clearing. That was the objective, all right, some 300 yards away. Hill 124, now known as Objective Rose after the company commander’s mother-in-law. He checked his watch; the prep fires were scheduled to commence at half past. He searched the hilltop carefully through his thermal binoculars and saw no sign whatsoever of enemy activity.

Of course, he didn’t know what he had expected to see. He’d been given no information on the enemy situation on the objective, and he had no idea why he was attacking this hill in the first place. He certainly had no idea what made Hill 124 so important—other than that it was a convenient place to draw a goose egg on some higher-up’s map. He was expected to attack and seize Objective Rose, commencing at 1530, and that was that.

With his squad leaders, Connors crawled back to rejoin the platoon.

“Lieutenant, company wants to talk to you,” his radioman reported.

Connors switched on his headset.

“Hotel-3-Mike, this is 3-Mike-2,” he said.

“3-Mike-2, are you ready yet?”

For about the tenth time, Connors said to himself. Keep your shorts on; the attack doesn’t go for another 20 minutes.

“Roger that,” he replied out loud. “The objective is deserted.”

“Roger. The prep fires commence at 1530, as scheduled, and last for 5 mikes.”

“I say again, the objective is deserted, Hotel-3-Mike,” Connors said. “We don’t need the prep fires; we can just walk up on the objective.”

There was a pause. Connors could imagine the captain wrestling with that one. He couldn’t blame the captain, really. Battalion wanted things done a certain way. To change things now, Connors knew, would throw off the timetable and would mean shutting off the scheduled fires—in short, it would dis- rupt the plan. And you certainly didn’t want to interfere with the plan, he knew—not in this battalion anyway. The plan was everything. All the elements of the battalion were supposed to attack in close synchronization, Connors knew— “synchronization” was LtCol Hewson’s favorite buzzword. Of course, when Connors thought of synchronization he invariably thought of synchronized swimming, and he smiled at the ridiculous image of a couple of swimmers pirouetting in graceful unison in a pool. He couldn’t imagine anything less like combat than that. I might not have a world of experience, he thought, but how could anybody in his right mind think you could synchronize the confusion and mayhem of any military operation? It boggled the mind.

“Listen, the prep starts at 1530,” came the eventual reply over the radio, somewhat testily. “Just do it.”

“Roger, out,” Connors said resignedly. Three bags full.

Setting in the base of fire and getting the other two squads in position for the assault was the work of only a few minutes. Connors checked his watch: still only a quarter past. Hope nobody falls asleep waiting, he thought, abundantly aware of Marines’ remarkable ability to doze off on a moment’s notice anytime, anyplace, in any conditions. Fifteen minutes later, exactly on schedule, the preparation fires commenced and ended 5 minutes later. Battalion would be pleased: the attack went flawlessly; there was no enemy resistance to screw it up. His two squads swept through the tall grass toward the hill and within minutes were consolidating on the objective. There was no sign that the enemy had ever occupied the hill. Whether the enemy was anywhere in the vicinity he couldn’t tell: because of the tall grass, visibility was about 10 yards in any direction. No matter; they had accomplished the assigned task.

“Lieutenant, company gunny wants our ammo and casualty report,” his radioman said.

Connors chuckled scornfully. Seeing as there was nobody to shoot at us and nobody for us to shoot at . . . . Now, Connors, you’re being a malcontent again. Just go through the motions and don’t make waves.

“I’ll take it,” he said, switching on his headset. “Hotel-3-Mike, this is 3-Mike-2. No casualties; no ammo expended. Mission accomplished. What next, over?”

There was pause, then finally the reply came: “Wait out.”

1635 Tuesday: “Romeo-2-Oscar, this is 2-Oscar-3.”

Capt Takashima recognized the gunny’s voice on the command alternate net. He had been hearing the firefight coming from that direction for some time now—he didn’t know how long: it could be 20 minutes, it could be 2 hours—but he didn’t have time to think about it. He’d feel a lot better once he got the gunny’s opinion of the situation.

“This is 2-Oscar, go,” Takashima said.

“Confirm situation as described earlier by 2-Oscar-3,” Hernandez reported. “Engaged, situation well in hand. Echo was a little slow getting their act together, but Oscar-3 saved their butts. Caught the enemy pretty good.”

“Have you made contact with Echo?”

“Roger,” Hernandez said. “Have been attached.”

“Say again,” Takashima said, confused. “2-Oscar-3 has been attached to Alpha-7-Hotel.”

What the hell? Who the hell does Schuler think he is, taking it on himself to attach one of my platoons to his company? Takashima was about to cut loose with some choice words, but he thought better of it. He knew that he was in no posi- tion to try to control what third platoon was doing; he was too busy dealing with the situation at the crossroads. Sometimes the enemy didn’t use the same boundaries that we did, Takashima realized: third platoon was really part of Echo’s fight. That being the case, Takashima knew that for the purposes of unity of command third platoon ought to be answering to Schuler and not to him. It was hardly conventional, Takashima decided—certainly not the school solution—but, under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do. I guess that’s what gunny would call a “self-organizing, complex adaptive system,” Takashima mused. I’ll just have to remember to give Schuler a hard time about needing four platoons to do what we can do with only two.

0255 Wednesday: The MEF commander shed his dripping poncho as he stepped out of the rain into the MEF command post. The military policeman snapped to attention and saluted.

“Carry on, Sgt McDavid. Cpl Cooper,” he said to his soaked driver, “get some sleep. It’s been a long day.”

He made his way into the operations center and dropped wearily into his chair where he’d started the operation some 24 hours before. In the last 24 hours, he’d been all over the MEF area of operations. He’d been to the division forward command post to talk to the division commander face-to-face about how to deal with the unexpected developments. He’d insisted on a face-to-face because he wanted to make sure they understood each other. He’d been to the wing head- quarters twice to try to get a handle on the overall situation and to see what could be done about air support. He’d personally debriefed the Cobra pilots who’d first spotted the enemy column. He’d videotaped a new intent statement—an “intent-o-mmercial,” as the Marines jokingly referred to it—to be broadcast to the entire MEF (at least down to battalion and squadron level, the lowest level that had video capability). He and the wing commander had taken a terrifying V-22 flight over the battlefield (and unfortunately had gotten precious little out of it). He’d been back to the MEF command post once during the day to see if the situation had gotten any clearer since he’d left: it hadn’t. He’d visited the division’s main-effort regiment and that regiment’s main-effort battalion near Culverin Crossroads. (It hadn’t been until he’d met that CO from Golf Company, Capt Taka-something, and had seen the indomitable fighting spirit of his Marines that he’d realized that the MEF would carry the day—“Just get me some air, general,” the captain had said.) He’d visited the engineers to make sure that the roads were going to hold up for at least the next 72 hours in this rain. He’d even spent several hours supervising an assault river crossing during the critical early stages of the pursuit. And he’d happened upon the FSSG commander at a maintenance contact point, of all places, where they’d watched an M1A3 main battle tank repaired and put back into action; they’d discussed the logistics needed to support the upcoming exploitation.

It seemed like days since he’d been at the command post. On the wall screen before him, the amorphous wave of flashing green unit symbols had crept considerably farther north since the last time he had looked at the map. There were far more red enemy symbols now as well, most of them encircled in the lower left-hand part of the screen, an indication that the intelligence effort had managed to locate many of the enemy forces that had been unknown at the beginning of the operation. He knew that many of those units, although still reflected on the map and still present on the ground, had ceased to be effective fighting forces by now. He also knew that the clean image portrayed on the screen could not begin to capture the brutal fighting and the destruction that he had witnessed during the day. That was the great danger of being stuck in a command post, he knew; you began to confuse what was on a map with reality.

Based on the tempo of activity in the operations center, he wondered if the staff knew that the battle was all but won. In the next room, the major and the two staff sergeants who made up the future plans cell would be working feverishly on the plans for the next week to exploit the advantage the MEF had won today. The responsibility of command is never finished, he decided; always something else to be done. Curiously, he thought, he found himself thinking back to his days as a brand-new lieutenant at The Basic School, remembering the adage that had been drilled into them: “Camouflage is continuous.” Command is continuous, he found himself thinking. I’ll have to remember that one, he decided, for the next time I’m invited to speak at a TBS mess night.

He thought of stopping in to see how things were going in the future plans cell, but he knew his chief of staff would have things moving along briskly, and he would just be getting in the way. Even when the issue had still hung in the balance, Col Dick Westerby had been pushing the future ops guys to develop a plan for exploiting the outcome. Around the MEF command element, Westerby was known with a certain grudging admiration as “Yesterday,” because that was when he seemed to want everything done. “If it’s not done fast,” Westerby was fond of saying, “it’s not done right.”

As if by cue, the small, balding colonel appeared, bearing a cup of steaming coffee.

“You look like you could use this, general,” he said.

“Thanks, Dick,” the MEF commander said.

A staff sergeant appeared. “Here’s the new MEF op order, colonel,” he said, handing a flimsy document to Westerby.

Westerby perused the two-page order which consisted of a page of text and a diagram, nodding as he read.

“General, do you want to have a look at this?” he asked.

“Hell, no. I couldn’t even focus my eyes on it. That’s what I’ve got you for. You know my intent.”

“Looks good, Staff Sergeant Walters,” Westerby said, initialing the document and returning it to the staff sergeant. “Let’s get it out 10 minutes ago.”

“Aye, aye, sir; it’ll go straight out on the secure fax,” Walters said and quickly departed.

The MEF commander sipped his coffee and gazed at the large situation screen.

“Well, what do you think, Dick?” he asked.

“What do I think?” Westerby said. “I think we went in with an unclear picture of the situation, and it only got worse. As is usually the case, the enemy tended not to cooperate. Weather precluded using the bulk of our aviation and restricted the mobility of some of our vehicles. Our original plan had to be quickly discarded and another put in its place. We had to adapt to a rapidly changing situation. Our previous planning efforts provided us with the flexibility and situational awareness to react to a changing situation and provided flexibility to our subordinates. Thank goodness for staff officers, pilots, and subordinate commanders who exercise initiative and quickly adapt to changing situations.”

“Yes,” the general said with obvious satisfaction, “don’t you love it when the system works to perfection?”

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Chapter 2
Chapter 3