Like blinding orange and white stars, US rockets and missiles filled with deadly cluster bombs arced skyward, lending the evening clouds an unnatural glow. Moments later, the munitions exploded on targets around Baghdad, wiping out Iraqi artillery and killing scores of Iraqi soldiers.
So lethal was the past week's barrage ofartillery - using rockets and missiles designed to demolish everything within a "grid square" (one square kilometer) - that it left Lt. John Harrell of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1-39 Artillery Battalion with virtually nothing else to attack.
"We don't have many targets left," said the lieutenant, whose multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) battery is positioned near Baghdad's southern edge. His battalion has shot 350 rockets, including 72 in a single onslaught on Baghdad International Airport a week ago.
Yet even as US commanders cite dramatic success in the three-week-old war, many look upon the wholesale destruction of Iraq's military and the killing of thousands of Iraqi fighters with a sense of regret. They voice frustration at the number of Iraqis who stood their ground against overwhelming US firepower, wasting their lives and equipment rather than capitulating as expected.
"They have no command and control, no organization. They're just dying," says Brig. Gen. Louis Weber, an assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. This week, the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team killed at least 1,000 Iraqis by direct fire alone on a single raid into Baghdad, he said.
The decimation of the Iraqi military - once among the Middle East's most formidable armed forces - exacerbates the power void that occupying troops must fill to stabilize the nation, Army officers say. The combat strength of most regular Iraqi Army and elite Republican Guard units has dwindled to below 20 percent, according to US military estimates. Some 70 percent of Iraq's artillery has been knocked out, along with hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles.
"We've destroyed a large majority of their military and they still need to secure their country," says Lt. Col. Woody Radcliffe, who heads a 3rd Infantry Division operations center. "It's an absolute shame. We didn't want to do this. Even a brain-dead moron can understand we are so vastly superior militarily that there is no hope. You would think they would see that and give up."
Again and again, as battles raged in recent days and weeks, US officers expressed puzzlement over Iraqi fighters' tactical ineptitude and seemingly reckless disregard for their own lives.
"What are these guys thinking? It's suicide!" said Capt. David Roberts, a military intelligence officer, monitoring a massing of Iraqi forces outside Baghdad while the 3rd Infantry's combat brigades rolled in to cordon off the city. "The sad thing is these guys are being led by people who don't know what they are doing."
For example, Iraqis repeatedly attempted to block roads using vehicles buttressed with loose sand. US forces either blew up the vehicles or drove around them. "They're getting ... spanked again and it seems like they haven't learned anything," says Capt. Kathy Cage, a signals officer with the 3rd Infantry.
As the 3rd Infantry quickly advanced north along the Euphrates and west toward the capital, some soldiers began to describe the battles as almost disturbingly unfair.
"At the Karbala Gap the Iraqis put up a good fight, but to no avail because we had the firepower. It was way too easy," says Staff Sgt. Ira Mack, who serves at the headquarters of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team. US commanders had expected heavier fighting and the possible use of Iraqi chemical weapons as the 3rd Infantry traversed the narrow gap, a stretch of land between the Euphrates River and the Razzaza Lake.
Earlier, in a battle to isolate Najaf, US commanders called for airstrikes partly out of an aversion to mowing down Iraqis with direct fire.
"There were waves and waves of people coming at them, with AK-47s, out of this factory, and they were killing everyone," says Lieutenant Colonel Radcliffe. "The commander called and said, 'This is not right. This is insane. Let's hit the factory with close air support and take them out all at once.'"
For some soldiers, trauma is already sinking in. "For lack of a better word, I feel almost guilty about the massacre," says one soldier privately. "We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?"
Adding to the potential for post-war trauma, some officers suggest, is the fact that many of the 3rd Infantry Division's troops are barely 20 years old.
"The average soldier now is 19 to 21 years old," says Sergeant Mack. "You have 21-year-old sergeants. They're not experienced enough to maintain control over themselves or their soldiers in the heat of the battle. They're just two years off the streets. We have WIAs [Wounded In Action] wearing Purple Hearts who are 20 years old."
As the longest-deployed Army division in the region and the one that provided the bulk of the Army's combat power, the 3rd Infantry Division is not likely to serve as an occupying force in Iraq. Instead, it should be one of the first arriving home.
But before that, officers stress, the soldiers must have time to decompress. "The reality is, we've got a bunch of steely-eyed killers that have destroyed all the enemy forces they've come into contact with," worries Radcliffe. "The switch is on right now, and you can't just turn it off."