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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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.