The Magazine

The Real Gulf War Blunder

The problem wasn't that Barry McCaffrey kept on fighting -- it was that we stopped fighting too soon

Jun 5, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 36 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



Seymour Hersh's allegation in the May 22 New Yorker that then-Major General Barry McCaffrey unleashed his 24th Infantry Division in an unnecessary attack that mercilessly pummeled retreating Iraqi soldiers two days after the Gulf War cease-fire in 1991 has created the usual furor. Even though the U.S. Army investigated the charges against Gen. McCaffrey years ago, the New York Times has called for an independent review, claiming that "the military services have a poor record of holding their own members accountable for misconduct, especially top officers."


On one level, the Hersh-McCaffrey contretemps is much ado about nothing. As the Clintons and their spinners would say, it is old news. But if we can get past the typical press treatment of the issue as a clash of stereotypes, the "'no-holds-barred' investigative reporter vs. the ambitious 'hard-charging' general," the story reveals some important truths about the nature of war and the difficulties of waging it in a democratic republic.


The basic facts are these. On March 2, 1991, two days after the Gulf War cease-fire, elements of the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) trapped an Iraqi column that had blundered into it near Rumaila, about 50 miles south of Al Qurnah on the Euphrates River. In an intense but one-sided fight, the division destroyed 346 Iraqi armored vehicles including 30 T-72 tanks. McCaffrey's critics claim that he provoked the fight and then used force far in excess of what was necessary. McCaffrey and his defenders reply that it was the Iraqis who provoked the clash and that the response of the 24th Infantry Division was fully in accordance with existing cease-fire guidelines.


To understand McCaffrey's actions at Rumaila, it is necessary to grasp the fact that the foremost military objective of the ground war was the destruction of the three divisions of Saddam's Republican Guard. The plan for the Allied ground attack called for the Marines and other Allied forces to fix the Iraqi forces south of Kuwait City while the VII and XVIII Airborne Corps executed a Kesselschlacht, a strategic envelopment from the west toward Basra. The purpose of this maneuver was to trap the main Iraqi forces, especially the Republican Guard, before they could escape across the Euphrates.


But the Marine attack was too successful. The offensive against Kuwait City drove the Iraqis out of their defenses rather than fixing them in place. The attack of the VII Corps, on the other hand, took too long to develop. Still, bold action on the part of two divisions of the XVIII Airborne Corps, McCaffrey's 24th Division and the 101st Air Assault Division, placed them in position to prevent the escape of many Republican Guard units.


That is the background for the situation Gen. McCaffrey found himself in on March 2. But the blame for the events of that day, if any blame is to be assigned, belongs to McCaffrey's superiors.


On February 28, General Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, without any clear sense of the disposition of Iraqi and American forces along the Euphrates, suddenly advised President Bush that it was appropriate to announce a cease-fire. Why? There were two reasons, neither of them sound.


Powell's principal motivation for suddenly terminating the war was to dispel the impression, created by news reports describing air attacks on retreating Iraqis along the so-called highway of death, that Allied forces were "piling on." The second reason, which is almost too embarrassing to mention, was that Powell and other Bush advisers believed it would be nice to end the war after 100 hours. One hundred seemed a good round number for the history books.


Powell did not bother to inform either the president or the secretary of defense that the central military mission -- destruction of the Republican Guard -- had not yet been accomplished. Given that this was the primary military objective of the ground offensive, this was a rather startling omission on Powell's part. After all, the political goals of the war as laid down by President Bush and the other coalition leaders -- the expulsion of the Iraqis from Kuwait and the destruction of Saddam Hussein's power base in Iraq -- required the destruction of the Republican Guard, upon which Saddam's power was thought to rest. When they made the decision to call the cease-fire, President Bush and Secretary Cheney were under the mis-apprehension that this publicly announced goal had indeed been achieved.