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BRIGHT STAR

The Biannual US-EGYPT Military War Games

Samir Raafat
Egyptian Gazette, October 29, 1997

brighstar manoeuvres I made it from the Cairo suburb of Maadi to a five-star hotel near the Giza pyramids in 17 minutes! By car not by helicopter. It was 04:15 and most of Cairo's 16 million inhabitants were fast asleep. I was to rendezvous with a luxury bus that would take 20 journalists and photographers to a beach front a hundred and some kilometers west of Alexandria. We had been invited to watch epoch-making wargames code named Bright Star '97 starring crack land, air and sea forces from the United States, France, Italy, the UK and Egypt. The scheduled joint military exercise that day was taking place on a site near where Field Marshals Rommel and Montgommery had directed the fiercest tank battle in the history of mechanized warfare. Fifty five years later, we were going to observe state of the art hardware in motion the likes of which would've made the Third Reich's panzerarme look like a child's Lego.

From the freshmen journalist sitting next to me I learned that there were over 6,000 American GIs and officers taking part in the fortnight-long exercise. In fact, one of them was on our bus and would shortly brief us on the day's event. Even as the major greeted us with a hearty "howd'y'all," my bus companion's face lit up. As it turned out, both men were Confederate descendants from America's deep South. A few half hours later and we were treated to a breathtaking desert daybreak. How could anyone think of war in such awesome surroundings.

Since its inception in 1981, Bright Star's biannual exercises brought together elite forces from Egypt and several NATO countries in what a veteran journalist termed 'the most important simulated war on desert terrain.'

Bright Star was interrupted in 1991 when the real thing took place on the borders of Kuwait and Iraq. This was also when CNN scored a reporting coup smack in the middle of the American networks' evening newscasts. "Whoa! Holy cow! bright flashes and blazing stars are lighting up the sky west of the city!" was how ABC's correspondent in Baghdad reported live the unfolding hostilities. As one Late Night talk-show host later put it, 'Desert Storm was when Iraq went to war and America played Nintendo.'

When our bus arrived at the beach front, the first thing we saw was a titanic made-in-USA earth moving bulldozer going back and forth along the beach. I was told this was necessary because the seashore was littered with plastic bags and trash. It wouldn't do to have a televised amphibious landing on a virtual dump. The remark on plastic bags brought home what I had seen minutes earlier. As our bus approached the coast, I couldn't help but notice how our desert was littered kilometer upon kilometer with this non-biodegradable trash. What we need after these joint military exercises are over, is a joint Clean Desert exercise. And with the help of America's titanic plows, we could perhaps remove redundant German and British WW-II land mines.

Within minutes after the earthmover exited, the cameras were ready to roll. Restored to its pre-plastic era, the beach with colorful banners and multinational flags flapping above the VIP dais looked more like it was hosting a Malibu-style volleyball match than it was military exercises. Soon enough, the amphibious landing came. One after the other, a display of military gewgaws and giant gizmos broke out of the ripple-free Mediterranean. They came towards us escorted by flying gunships and by a formation of fighter jets making large pirouettes in the blue sky above. Since the program said amphibious landing, the spectacle went on in the Azure sea and immediately behind our high vantage point, right on the fine white sand dunes in between the Bedouins' denuded fig trees. Supplementing the distributed handouts and media kits, were several military experts on hand providing many of the answers and assessing the capabilities of these moving U.S. weapons.

As Uncle Sam's guests we had the chance to chat up some of our American hosts during intermission. It turned out, many servicemen and women were enlisted or on reserve duty. One of them, a fireman from Chicago was contemplating a college education thanks to a loan from the army. The American military has a long-standing system which enables enlisted cash-strapped youngsters to get a paid-for college education. I ran into 'An Officer and a Lady' variant an engaging and attractive mother of two who when off duty was a lab technician. I also met an army Public Affairs captain who was a journalist. He had met Tom Clancy and was hoping to write a movie script of his own.

Whether officers or privates, our non-combat hosts were immaculately groomed. None of that greasy Desert Warriors stuff. I find it difficult to call their uniforms battle fatigues. To me these pressed garbs looked more like liveries tailored by the late Versace. As for those remarkable desert boots, they had to be from Gucci. Small wonder civilians as well as other non-US military personnel were gawking. I happen to know an American photographer who tried desperately to work out a swap. It didn't work.

Per chance I met an infantryman who was stationed in Hawaii. His singular responsibility was Rex and Ramin, two of Bright Star's sniffs. Although Rex was old and almost blind, he was the unit's prize explosives dog. The German Shepherd's task was to make sure no one had forgotten or misplaced a bomb in the VIP dais where most of the two, three and four star generals congregated. Ramin, on the other hand, was the narco canine on duty. "Naw drinkin or smokin allowed on camp!" clarified an army grunt

The troops from a non-Nato participant were evidently slower than normal when it came to running and scrambling. Perhaps their gear was to heavy. Later I learned that in keeping with the Joneses, they had only just been issued with new battledress and boots. Since these were not of the Gucci variety but more likely the cheaper Rhino skin or some other stiff element, the corn-pocked servicemen had difficulty walking. Moreover, they had been warned that any tears to their new-sprung battledress were deductible.

Early afternoon and we're on our way back to Cairo. After a long morning under a bright vertical sun, the mediamen welcomed the quiet drone of the air-conditioned bus. Seeking to impress his colleague, a veteran TV-journalist characterized the day's events as a glorified arms-expo when compared to his macho experience covering Somalia's prime time landing a few years ago. A debate ensued as other reporters drew on their respective telebattle experience: Bosnia, Gulf War, South Lebanon.

Just as someone in the back of the bus was feeling sorry for CNN's hristiane Amanpour who makes a living reporting real time wargames, a youngish reporter tried to convince a multi zoom-lensed photographer there were two types of arms. The good news for Bright Star and other analogous pageants is that many countries still believe in conventional weapons: tanks, warships and planes. This is commendable for Western economies and provides a valid vehicle for selective re-distribution of income in military-minded regimes. The bad news is that the next wars will be fought through modems. A software and high-tech information technology fair is worth several military exercises. This is why the next wargames must be held in Silicon Valley. Zzzzzzzzz...

I made it back from the Pyramids to Maadi in 61 minutes. As usual Giza and Malek al-Saleh bridges were at a standstill. If only I owned one of them Bright Star amphibious vehicles.


articles posted on egy.com were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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