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
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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.

Powell's hasty decision to call a cease-fire before American forces had completed their mission was bound to create confusion and ambiguity for U.S. field commanders, who right up until the moment they heard of the cease-fire were scrambling to accomplish their assigned task. On February 28, U.S. forces, including McCaffrey's division, were poised to "close the gate" on the Republican Guard. They were startled, and angered, when the order came to halt the ground war. To those on the front lines, like McCaffrey, the order seemed disastrously premature, driven not by politico-military considerations -- the objective of destroying the Republican Guard -- but by Powell's public relations concerns. In fact, President Bush had originally planned to allow his theater commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, to determine the timing of the war's end, on the sensible assumption that Gen. Schwarzkopf would be in the best position to judge when the military mission had been accomplished. Powell's short-circuiting of this process was a profound error.

No soldier denies that in the American system of government, political considerations trump military ones. Nor do soldiers doubt that the civilian leadership has the authority under the Constitution to make decisions regarding war and peace. Indeed, the idea that once the fighting begins, the politicians stand aside and let the generals take the lead is at odds not only with American republican theory of government, but also with Clausewitz's subordination of war to policy.

But by law, the military leadership is obligated to provide the civil authorities with the best possible military advice. The record indicates that Gen. Powell, who was responsible for providing this military advice to President Bush, recommended an end to hostilities based not on military considerations, but on political ones.

It seems clear that to have fulfilled his statutory obligations, Gen. Powell should have asked his field commanders if the military objective of the war had been achieved: Had the Republican Guard been destroyed? If the answer was no, he should have recommended that the ground war continue. Had the president rejected his advice, Powell still would have done his duty while reflecting the view of his field commanders closest to the action.

But Powell never consulted the field commanders, who would have told him that the Republican Guard had not been destroyed. Instead, he presented them with a fait accompli. Given the deterioration of the U.S. position in the Gulf since the war, Powell's failure to render his best military advice ranks as a failure of major proportions.

McCaffrey was in important respects the victim of Powell's error, and also the victim of the usual problems of warfare: bad information, bad luck, what Clausewitz called the "fog of uncertainty" in war, and that ineffable but often decisive factor, "friction." Once the cease-fire had been called, one of McCaffrey's goals was to prevent the defeated Iraqis from returning to recover the weapons and equipment they had abandoned and to ensure that they did not position artillery where it could threaten U.S. forces. McCaffrey interpreted the cease-fire liberally: The shooting was to stop, but American units were not precluded from moving around. (Other American commanders, especially in the neighboring VII Corps, did not believe additional movement was authorized once the cease-fire went into effect.) Adding to the confusion, McCaffrey did not know that the Hammar causeway, leading from Rumaila north to the Euphrates, was one of the escape routes the Iraqis might choose. He thought the causeway had been destroyed by allied air attacks.

Iraqi forces were even more in the dark about the disposition of American troops. They simply blundered into McCaffrey's division astride the Hammar causeway. In a perfect world characterized by perfect information, the clash at Rumaila would have been avoided, or at least stopped soon after it broke out. But friction and uncertainty conspire to ensure that commanders rarely operate in such an environment. Looking back with twenty-twenty hindsight, McCaffrey acknowledged after the war that the Iraqis were probably not looking for a fight. They "either did not know we were there or thought they could drive through us under terms of the cease-fire agreement." But when the Rumaila fight erupted, Iraqi intentions were unclear.

In the confusion of a clash such as that at Rumaila, any commander worth his salt errs on the side of "too much" force rather than too little. At the tactical and operational level of war, military necessity trumps proportionality every time.

McCaffrey's actions at Rumaila on March 2, 1991, must be examined in light of what he and other commanders thought at the time, not what we know now in retrospect. This means remembering that our perceptions of the Iraqi army were far different in 1990-91 from what they are today.

As the United States assembled a coalition and built up forces in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, there was great trepidation. No one doubted that a U.S.-led coalition would prevail eventually, but many believed the cost would be high. After all, the Iraqi army had acquitted itself well during an eight-year war with Iran.

Against the Iranians, the Iraqi army had perfected defensive tactics that were responsible for inflicting massive casualties on the attackers. Employing extensive minefields and other obstacles, the Iraqis lured Iranian formations into killing zones where they destroyed them with massed artillery fires and armored counterattacks. Finally, in April 1988, the Iraqis launched their Tawakalna Ala Allah offensive, a masterful campaign which, in five major battles over four months, drove the Iranians off the Al Fao peninsula. This campaign is still considered by some to be a masterpiece of operational art.

The pessimism that prevailed in 1990 was reflected in the views of many highly respected defense analysts. For example, Edward Luttwak predicted that the Iraqis would force the United States into the sort of war of attrition the Iraqis had fought against the Iranians and that the high-tech U.S. military would bog down in the desert. Additionally, there was great concern that Iraq would use chemical weapons against the United States and its allies.

At the foundation of Hersh's journalistic attack on McCaffrey, then, is a fundamental neglect of the way things looked at the time. Based on the record of the Iran-Iraq War, American leaders, both civilian and military, expected that the Iraqis would put up a stiff resistance. The intention of U.S. military commanders was to knock the Iraqis down and not permit them to get up. The last thing we wanted was a "fair fight." It is a lot easier in hindsight to say that Gen. McCaffrey should have had less trepidation and more sympathy when confronting an Iraqi force of uncertain intentions.

The McCaffrey affair calls to mind a passage from Field Marshall Sir William Slim's charming memoir of the inter-war period, Unofficial History. "The soldier," wrote Slim,

always knows that everything he does . . . will be scrutinized by two classes of critics -- by the Government which employs him and by the enemies of that Government. As far as the Government is concerned, he is a little Admiral Jellicoe and this his tiny battle of Jutland. He has to make a vital decision on incomplete information in a matter of seconds, and afterwards the experts can sit down at leisure, with all the facts before them, and argue about what he might, could, or should have done. Lucky the soldier if, as in Jellicoe's case, the tactical experts decide after twenty years' profound consideration that what he did in three minutes was right. As for the enemies of the Government, it does not much matter what he has done. They will twist, misinterpret, falsify, or invent any fact as evidence that he is an inhuman monster wallowing in innocent blood.

McCaffrey is surely the victim of this latter kind of scrutiny. And the tragic irony is that the true blunderers at the end of the Gulf War, the ones who produced both the confusion that trapped McCaffrey and the entirely unsatisfactory conclusion of the war, will continue to be unacknowledged.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, is professor of strategy and force-planning at the U.S. Naval War College.