The very name of the World War I battlefield evokes images of mindless sacrifice: More than a million men killed and wounded in months of pitiless trench warfare as numerically superior German forces sought to bleed the French army to the breaking point."They shall not pass!" declared French Gen. Henri Philippe Petain, but it took one of the longest and bloodiest struggles of the Great War to make good the legendary vow.
Now, almost 75 years later, U.S. military analysts say, something approaching that mass slaughter could repeat itself on the sandy wastes of the Arabian Peninsula. In the most detailed portrait yet of what U.S. troops face along the Iraq-Kuwait border with Saudi Arabia, government officials say Iraq's defensive lines resemble nothing so much as the barbed-wire and mine-fields killing ground of Verdun.
First comes razor wire, government officials say, then three parallel rows of minefields, each several hundred yards deep and dotted with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines purchased over the years from the Soviet Union, China and France.
Between the minefields are anti-tank ditches - each 12 feet deep and eight or nine feet wide - dug by bulldozers and earthmovers and studded with 55-gallon drums of napalm that can be detonated by remote control.
Beyond these obstacles lies the Iraqi infantry, several hundred thousand strong, dug into deep trenches reinforced with concrete-coated steel mesh, wire or reeds.
Behind the troops are hundreds of fortified artillery pieces - from 81-millimeter mortars to long-range 155-millimeter cannons. The Iraqis have also used Soviet-made, four-barreled, anti-aircraft cannons against infantry formations. Known as ZSU-4s, these guns can lay down a withering field of fire over a broad swath of land.
Finally come the tanks, other armored vehicles and self-propelled guns, more than 7,000 in all.
U.S. strategists say current plans dictate that if war comes, American forces will try to use machines - rather than manpower - to soften up and dislodge the entrenched Iraqi forces: sorties by tanks and airborne forces, coupled with massive bombardment from the air and sea.
But, as U.S. Marines learned fighting the Japanese forces dug into Okinawa and other bastions in World War II, eventually American ground forces will almost certainly have to attack the enemy troop concentrations directly - a task that U.S. commanders do not relish.
"No matter how it's done, it's going to be bloody," said Bernard E. Trainor, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who is director of national security programs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The Pentagon estimates that there are now 430,000 Iraqi troops facing U.S. and allied forces in Saudi Arabia. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein also has moved in about 7,700 tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces.
In contrast, the United States has fewer than 100,000 ground troops in the area, along with about 75,000 Navy and Air Force personnel.
In addition to the U.S. ground troops, there are another 100,000 soldiers from a multinational force that includes forces from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among others.
"Military history is essentially the history of people using static defenses and other people trying to overcome them," said Anthony J. Cordesman, a military specialist on the staff of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has written extensively on Iraq's recent war with Iran.
"The result has depended on luck, skill and the relative size of forces on either side," Cordesman said.
There seems little doubt that the Iraqis have taken a page from the German experience at Verdun - adding some modern twists, such as using giant Japanese earthmovers to build even deeper trenches and thicker earthen berms to shield troops and artillery.
To be sure, while the Verdun-style defenses probably would extract heavy U.S. casualties, the use of such fortifications also carries some penalties for the Iraqis, military analysts said.
"Because any defense can be penetrated, they tend to be so dug in they cannot withdraw," said Cordesman. "Fortifications shelter you from air and artillery attack, but they allow an attacker to concentrate on certain areas and pin you down."