DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
December 12, 1995

ALL IS QUIET ON THE TUZLA FRONT

TUZLA, BOSNIA -- This place ain't exactly happy valley. After months of catching Serb cannon fire and hard fighting in the nearby mountains, things are grim. The war has left this city of about 110,000 -- mainly Muslims -- bent, broken and bleak.

Even though the guns are now silent, few people smile. Most act like they had too much local plum brandy the night before and are wearing a head-throbbing hangover. All are waiting for the Yanks to kick-start them out of their misery and into the good life provided by Marshall Plan-type underwriting.

But the "Amerikanci" are slow in coming. So far, only a few dozen aircraft have landed at the air base that sits just south of the city. These planes are bringing in the vital technicians who will lay the logistic base to support our 20,000 U.S. troopers.

The warriors will not come by air. They'll ship their heavy stuff by rail from Germany to Hungary. After the peace accord is signed off on, they'll marry up with their gear and roll in over 120 miles of rugged road, locked, cocked and ready.

Once on the ground, Clinton's Task Force Eagle will be the Tuzla high sheriff, with the mission of keeping the Serbs and Muslims from going back to blowing each other away.

It's too early to tell if this can be done without a few High Noons. Right now, Bosnia is dead quiet. All three sides are holding to the peace deal our pin-striped suiters arm- twisted them into last month in Dayton. It will be up to our warriors to make these purposely fudged and fuzzy agreements work.

I have a gut feeling that the main Bosnian combatants will cool it and wait out NATO's one-year stay. One Muslim says that if his folks "are not armed," the war will start again just as soon as NATO leaves, and his side will lose.

The way it looks now, except for hit-and-run attacks by small bands of crazies, the big killers will be the mines, the bad roads and the many drunken Bosnian drivers.

No one knows how many mines are scattered across this savaged land. United Nations reports say there are over 8 million mines and booby traps in Bosnia alone.

I spent two days with a Swedish army mine-clearing team, working 10 miles out of Tuzla clearing a field of widow-making anti-personnel mines, a dangerous and painstaking duty.

With the care of brain surgeons, eight men clear about 20 square yards on a good day. One man works about one square yard at a time. First he sweeps with a mine detector. Then he gets down on his knees, cuts away all the vegetation with clippers and gingerly probes every inch of dirt with a two-foot ice pick or bayonet, looking for the plastic mines the detector doesn't pick up.

When these brave men find a mine, they carefully dig around and under it to make sure it's not booby-trapped. Then they disarm it. Not work for the fainthearted. Each man is a hand-picked volunteer.

Their captain, Thomas Stenberg, says, 'They must have the right attitude." Boy, do they ever, and they don't even get extra pay!

The roads here are narrow, muddy roller coasters. In many places, the mines have not been cleared on the sides of the road.

Two weeks ago, a civilian tractor hit a mine where Stenberg's team is working, killing four people. Their clothes are still hanging in the bushes where the blast blew them.

Bosnian drivers are always in a hurry. They haven't gotten the word about drinking and driving, either, so too many blaze along these death roads ripped out of their gourds.

I'm not sure our troops will accomplish much during their one-year tour here other than facing a lot of danger and growing old fast.

I'll bet this futile mission would be scratched if Clinton and the Capitol Hill gang sending them came in with the advance party and worked the trenches and roads for 30 days.

As a matter of fact, I think you could eliminate war entirely if the Doles and Clintons led the first wave.