May 17, 2000
a War Criminal?
see if legendary investigative reporter Seymour
Hersh's story suggesting that former Gulf War commander and
now "drug czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey either ordered or
condoned actions that would be viewed as those of a war criminal
if done by a foreigner turns out to "have legs," as we
say in the business. Gen. McCaffrey tried a preemptive strike against
Hersh and has been quite effective defending himself by impugning
Hersh on television and radio. And the very qualities that make
Hersh a remarkable (if sometimes flawed) investigator could lead
much of the courtier press to acquiesce in taking him down a peg
or two by ignoring this story.
reported for several years for the Orange County Register
on faltering and inconsistent efforts to implement (or resist) the
medical marijuana initiative passed by California voters in 1996
(and being in the throes of completing a book on the topic with
the working title "Waiting to Inhale") I've had some experience
dealing with Gen. McCaffrey, his office and his public statements.
He is unquestionably a skillful and determined propagandist for
his point of view in general terms that allowing patients to use
marijuana medicinally would be disastrous. His acquaintance with
the truth, however, is sometimes nodding at best.
don't know whether Seymour Hersh's lengthy (25,000-word) piece is
entirely accurate or even gets the story substantially right. (The
New Yorker, bless its snooty little heart, doesn't put the magazine
or even the table of contents for the current issue on its Web site
at www.newyorker.com, but Daniel Forbes has a fairly
long and detailed piece on Salon.com. There's fairly
decent coverage also at www.npr.org. I do know that Barry McCaffrey,
in his current role as head of the White House Office of National
Drug Control Policy, has been known to tell half-truths he simply
has to know are not the whole story and untruths he simply has to
know are not true.
most serious charge in the Hersh article is that troops under Gen.
McCaffrey's command and under his orders, conducted a four-hour
all-out assault on Iraqi troops who were in the process of retreating
two days after a cease-fire went into effect at the end of the Gulf
War. McCaffrey's outfit had undertaken the noted "left hook"
maneuver that put them behind Iraqi lines.
Daniel Forbes summarizes it: "The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
quotes numerous on-the-record combat veterans, both senior officers
and enlisted men, describing the ‘systematic destruction' of a 50-mile-long
column of Iraqi armor, vehicles and personnel making what was described
as an orderly, U.S.-sanctioned retreat.
to Hersh's report, McCaffrey ordered an all-out, four-hour assault
based on two or fewer instances of fire from the Iraqis a move that
galvanized the general's staff. The article quotes senior officers
decrying the lack of discipline and proportionality in the McCaffrey-ordered
attack. Even McCaffrey's operations officer at the time, Patrick
Lamar, is quoted dismissing the battle as ‘a giant hoax.'"
according to Hersh, Gen. McCaffrey (he had two stars then; he retired
with four) whether purposely or not, had moved his troops miles
beyond what was sanctioned by the top command and had failed to
inform superiors of the exact location of his troops. The attack
allegedly began with a helicopter blowing up an Iraqi ammunition
truck, blocking access to a bridge and bottling up the Iraqis. Then
began what soldiers called a "turkey shoot" that destroyed
700 Iraqi tanks, armored cars and trucks, killing civilians and
children as well as soldiers.
of the dead were buried soon after the engagement, and no accurate
count of the victims could be made," Hersh wrote.
writes of two other incidents in which McCaffrey's division, the
24th Infantry, fired on unarmed Iraqis. The first were
reportedly a group of Iraqi POWs who were sitting on the ground
when they were shot. The second, according to American soldiers
who were present, was a group of unarmed Iraqi civilians. McCaffrey
himself was not present during either of these incidents.
of these incidents were investigated shortly after they occurred
by the Army and even the Army Inspector General. No wrongdoing was
found, although the investigations were not made public. Seymour
Hersh notes in his story: "few soldiers report crimes, because
they don't want to jeopardize their Army careers."
quotes a retired major general as saying about the investigations,
"They'd just won a war and they didn't want to shit in their
mess kits." One investigator, who said he established that
the Iraqis fired two shots at most, commented that "If you're
a two-star general, you can do whatever you want to do, under the
confusion of war."
McCaffrey has been attacking Seymour Hersh for several weeks now,
having failed in an attempt to get the New Yorker not to
print the piece in a letter describing Hersh's "defamatory"
interviews filled with "false allegations" used because
of "personal malice."
incidences Hersh recycles were the subject almost ten years ago
of no less than four complete investigations, including two which
were separate, independently-led and exhaustive one by the Army
Inspector General and the other by the Army's Criminal Investigation
Division," McCaffrey said in a statement released Sunday. On
TV show appearances Sunday, McCaffrey called the article "nonsense,
are schools of scandal-mongering sometimes described as "revisionist"
history. But any piece of historical work undertaken with any concern
for originality, especially one based on documents or statements
not available before, is "revisionist" history in the
better sense. Indeed, you could make a case that almost all serious
history (as compared to cutting and pasting original research others
have done) is revisionist history. But Gen. McCaffrey uses the term
more for its emotive than its descriptive value.