Strapped into their single-seat Harrier jets, Marine pilots Capt. Mike Beguelin and Lt. Mike Kenny, known by the call signs Disco and Pisser, thunder over the Kuwaiti desert at more than 550 mph, weaving in and out of the columns of black smoke that rise from burning oil fields. Just beyond the 12-foot-high sand berm that forms the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, Disco starts to dance, "jinking" his jet to avoid "triple-A," antiaircraft artillery, and watching his "6 o'clock," the vulnerable area right behind him. Suddenly he rolls the jet over to see if he has picked up any SAM missiles. Disco is carrying 3,000 pounds of Rockeye cluster bombs—and a whole lot of attitude.

"You're coming down the pike," says Beguelin, in his breeziest pilot patter, "hauling the mail [going fast] with your nose down 45 to 60 degrees, and you're staring at that bad boy [enemy target], and you roll in and hit the pickle [drop the bombs] and get outta Dodge, damn, and you keep climbing, checking your six, and then you see a big part of the ground go boom, and then they hit it, light up the sky with triple-A, and your heart's going a hundred miles an hour, and your eyes are as big as golf balls. And you think, man, this shit's serious. I should have been a banker, maybe a dentist."

Unluckily for Iraqitroops in Kuwait, Beguelin didn't make that career choice. And neither did the other 20-plus pilots who make up Marine Attack Squadron 542, the self-styled Young Guns whose frat-boy nicknames belie their deadly calling: Rebel, 6-Pak, Scar, Strut, Turbo, Spud, Flattop, Vapor. Their skill and courage has helped carry the war against Iraq for more than a month. Lounging around their fly-blown base in Saudi Arabia, they pass out mock business cards announcing their specialties as "Bar Brawls, Brush Wars, Small Wars, Big Wars and Star Wars." ("The difficult done immediately," they boast. "The impossible done by appointment.") It is all a little like a high-testosterone Hardy Boys adventure. "I get a kick out of combat," says Kenny, who has flown 22 missions since the gulf war began. "That's probably bad to say."

Maybe so, but then there is nothing genteel about the men of the 542 or their equipment. Once called death machines because of their frequent mechanical failures, the Harrier jets are awesome planes—part helicopter, part bomber, and all business. They can hover like choppers, take off and land vertically, streak up to an altitude of 30,000 feet in less than a minute and reach runway speeds of 250 mph in a matter of seconds. "You can do stuff in this plane that looks like magic," says Kenny. The Harrier's main use is to provide support for ground troops by pounding enemy troop concentrations, tanks, artillery batteries, missile sites and the like. Normally based in Cherry Point, N.C., the squadron, which totals 250 men, arrived in the Middle East on Aug. 21. Among those serving with the 542 is actress Demi Moore's gangling younger brother, a shy 23-year-old corporal named Morgan Guynes, who inspects and repairs ejection seats. Especially among the pilots, there is an esprit that borders on the fearsome. "We're a band of brothers," says Beguelin, 29, a poster-perfect flyboy with dangerous blue eyes, close-cropped blond hair and a toothy Tom Cruise grin. "We eat our own and we protect our own. And as a community, we're ruthless. If a guy is having a tough time flying the jet, he isn't going to be around long."

The squadron has yet to lose any planes in combat. But the pilots realize that their run of luck might not hold forever. "You know what the odds are, and sometimes you got to pay the bear for having so much fun," says Kenny, a Naval Academy grad from Ogden, Utah, who, at 26, is the junior member of the squadron. (The elder statesman, their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ted "Mongoose" Herman, is 45.) His buddy Beguelin, on the other hand, is not so blithe about the risks. "Getting killed I don't dig," he says. "I take flying very seriously. You have to assume that everyone is trying to kill you, in peacetime and in wartime."

And ever since the Iraqis paraded a handful of captured allied fliers, whose bruised and battered faces showed all the signs of a serious beating, pilots have had something else to worry about. "It plays on your mind," says Beguelin. "You think, 'Do I really want to get out of my jet? Because if I do, I know I'll be partying with the boys in Baghdad.' " It is, in short, the ultimate role reversal: one minute streaking along in a $30 million war machine, the next landing rudely on the ground and facing the enemy with nothing but a government-issue 9-mm Beretta handgun, retail value $1,200.

For the moment, their days are filled with routine. After each mission, usually a 60-to 80-minute mixture of terror and tedium, the pilots land, disarm and roll into the fuel pit. They spend another hour debriefing with Intelligence, telling them, says Beguelin, "what you saw that bit you in the ass." Then they go over the sortie on a television monitor that replays the crucial sequences of the attack, as recorded by the Harriers' computers. Weather permitting, the squadron flies roughly 40 sorties every 24 hours. Between bombings the men laugh, lunch on bean soup and apples, brief again and get ready to punch the sky. Nights they spend around the Dead Beat's Club, a makeshift near-beer and soda bar in a tent on the base. Photos of Madonna in various states of undress are taped to the plywood counter, while colored Christmas lights form a canopy above. "We're like a motorcycle gang, or a roving pack of dogs," says Capt. Tom Rutledge, call-sign Strut, a muscular 29-year-old who does just that.

Maintaining the proper image can sometimes seem like a full-time job. "Life for Mike is real simple," says Disco. "He likes to eat, sleep and entertain from time to time. His measure of cool is how fast a guy came in for a break [landing] and when he last got in a fight." All the same, adds Disco, his rambunctious pal "will hang his ass out for me. There's no question about it."

If it all seems terribly clinical and antiseptic, well, the pilots know otherwise. They're very much aware that this is no video game they're engaged in. Looking out at the starry night in the quiet hours after his final mission of the day, Beguelin explains what it's like to be so far removed from the carnage he causes. "You don't hear the screams, you don't see the arms and legs flying," he says, slowly shaking his head and imagining the horror. "Dropping bombs is a very impersonal thing. I don't envy the 19-year-old grunt who has shot somebody and seen his eyes."

Despite his flyboy swagger, Disco admits that he isn't delighted to be fighting a major war. "I never thought I'd be involved in anything like this," he says. "I never wanted to be involved in anything like this." Raised in Camarillo, Calif., 50 miles north of Los Angeles, he graduated in 1984 from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in business and joined the Marines that summer. Early on, Disco knew he wanted to be a pilot, like his uncle Francis Gleason. (The taste for life on the edge runs in the family; his father, Rick, is a successful investment banker who rides a Harley.) His progress was typical: 10 weeks of basic-training hell at Quantico, Va., a little over a year as an infantry officer at Twentynine Palms, Calif., flight school at Pensacola, Fla., more training in Texas, and eventually assignment to Cherry Point. His pals called him Disco because in college he belonged to a dance troupe that performed tap, jazz and ballet. Three days before he and the squadron took off for the gulf, he married Cheryl Lynn Albrecht, 34, a flight attendant for Delta Airlines whom he had met while stationed at Pensacola. Cheryl, he says lovingly, is his "best friend in a girl suit."

Which is all the more reason to worry about what the future might bring. "There's no telling how long I'm going to be here," he says. "And there's no telling whether I'm going to make it out alive." The same sentiment prevails, more or less, throughout the squadron. As a result, few of the pilots, while soaring in the skies in their high-tech aircraft, are above indulging in a little primitive superstition. Capt. Art "Turbo" Tomassetti, 26, always packs an old pen for luck. Kenny wears a tattered flight suit from his Pensacola days. Beguelin carries a tiny glass bunny from Cheryl, a four-leaf clover and an Omamori—a charm made of silk given to him by a Japanese pilot he "spanked" (outflew) during a mock dogfight over Asia last year. But in the end, Disco believes, his fate lies in more powerful hands. "You could be doing everything right, and it could still be your day and you get bagged," he says. "You only get so much magic dust when you're born, and if you use it all up. it doesn't matter what's in your pocket."