The 24th division's "Battle Kings" man 155mm howitzers, but the only weapons used in anger are flyswatters. The enemy, for many, is a clock that moves too slowly.

"People keep telling lies that morale is high," said Spec. Chris Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, playing cards with friends who nodded assent. "They're only fooling themselves. Morale is low."A sampling of the 200,000 soldiers and Marines deployed under Operation Desert Shield to confront Iraq suggests a classic military malaise: Troops, with no idea of when new orders might come, want to get back to their lives.

Some have been in the blistering northeastern Saudi desert for more than two months preparing for a battle that might never come.

The desert weather is cooling down, but the sand remains, fouling equipment, jamming weapons and fraying tempers.

But many are still anxious to fight. Marine Sgt. Marco Rodriguez, a 23-year-old aircraft mechanic from Santa Barbara, Calif., left no doubt.

"I'll come home in one of two ways, the big parade or in a body bag," he said. "I prefer the former, but I'll take the latter."

Lack of enthusiasm, however, seemed more common.

Field commanders like Lt. Col. Stephen Lutz, of the 3rd Battalion, 41st Field Artillery - the Battle Kings - scrounge videos, books, volleyballs and games to help their troops get by.

"We're thinking about this every day," Lutz said of growing morale problems. "We try to provide some relief and outlet for the soldiers."

Sgts. Steve Coles, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and Ty McWhorter of Wichita Falls, Texas, weren't convinced by the efforts. They spent last Christmas in Panama on Operation Just Cause. This year, they figure, they'll miss out again.

"All the goodies, we don't want them," Coles said. "We only want one thing: to go home. And that's speaking on behalf of everyone."

McWhorter nodded gravely. His daughter was born 17 months ago, just before desert training. Then came Panama and more desert training. And then Saudi Arabia.

Like most others, Coles and McWhorter acknowledged Desert Shield was made up of volunteer service people. Like many others, however, they said that if they weren't going to fight, they had no business sitting around in the desert.

Spec. Darnell Thompson of Akron, Ohio, said his daughter was born in early October, and the news - from the Red Cross - took 10 days to reach him. He had been due for discharge soon but emergency orders extended his stay for six months.

"We're not prisoners and shouldn't be held against our will," he said.