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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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.