The clock is set

After President Bush's ultimatum Monday, I expect to find people on edge. Not so. Training missions continue, people do laundry, and I see fliers proclaim, "War is coming and so is the ... talent show."

"It's about time," says Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Clarke, as he watches a pick-up volleyball game in a common area near the chow hall. "Get the war started so we can go home."

The calm within this camp testifies to an uncanny confidence in the US troops. I can only wonder about morale on the other side of the border.

"It's such a mismatch," says Staff Sgt. George Carr, as he looks around the main chow hall. "It is bizarre, this collegial, country-club atmosphere before a war." He likens the reaction to the activity on Wall Street, which shot up on news that the war is imminent.

A few servicemen walked around this morning in full NBC gear. I also saw more than the usual number of troops wearing flak jackets and helmets.

No one can call home now because of maintenance issues with the phones on base, and that frustrates those who want to reassure their families. For the time being, e-mail is the only way to communicate, so people have been dropping more quick notes to families and friends. There are a number of places to send off e-mails, including at a recreation center where there are about 10 computers as well as a bank of phones.

Some of the troops disrupted their sleep to listen, live, to President Bush speak early Tuesday morning (local time). Many who watched were working a night shift. Televisions in one chow hall broadcast taped excerpts of the speech during breakfast.

Reaction was generally positive.

"I'm proud of the president because he said: This is it," said Tech. Sgt. John Bock.

So the clock is set. "We're just waiting for that 48 hours to be up, and we'll see what happens after that," says Senior Airman Heather Vaars. Vaars, like many others I've spoken to, says she believes that the war will be over within a matter of weeks.

One danger mentioned by many of the troops is a preemptive missile attack by Iraq. But even under that scenario, most of the officers expressed confidence in their extensive training and in the ability of the Patriot missiles to protect the base.

As I finish a conversation with one longtime soldier, he has a question for me. "Do you know how to use that gas mask?"

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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