Barry McCaffrey now has some defenders of the actions during the
Persian Gulf war for which Seymour
Hersh in the New Yorker had criticized him. The more
usual approach has been to ignore the Hersh allegations and act
as if they had no credibility or held no interest.
while Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Marine veteran of Vietnam and professor
of strategy and force-planning at the U.S. Naval War College has
done a creditable job (in a
piece done originally for the Providence Journal, then
recast and expanded
for the neoconservative Weekly Standard), of noting that
higher-ups may deserve serious criticism for the unsatisfactory
outcome of the Gulf war, he hasn't dealt with Mr. Hersh's allegations
in more than cursory detail. And he comes perilously close to suggesting
that it is all right, or at least understandable, for a military
commander to strike out on his own after higher-ups have issued
stupid or unwise orders.
doubt if General McCaffrey really wants his reputation to rest on
such a presumption.
quotes from military leaders about the inevitability of second-guessing
and Clausewitz's famous quote that "three quarters of the factors
on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater
or lesser uncertainty," and "this tremendous friction
... is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects
that cannot be measured," Mr. Owens, especially in the Weekly
Standard piece, places primary blame for the Battle of Ramaillah
on Colin Powell. You see, Colin Powell ended the war too soon.
primary military objective of the war, according to Owens, was "the
destruction of the three divisions of Saddam's Republican Guard."
The plan was to fix the Iraqi forces south of Kuwait City while
the VII and XVIII Airborne Corps did a strategic envelopment that
would trap the Republican Guards so they could be destroyed in battle.
But the attack was too successful, sending the almost universally
overrated Republican Guards into retreat. Then there was news footage
of retreating Iraqis being bombed on the "highway of death"
that looked like "piling on."
as Owens writes, "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." The first
was the bad PR resulting from news footage along the highway of
death. "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 in the history books."
claims that Powell didn't inform his civilian superiors that the
primary military objective, destruction of the Republican Guards
units, hadn't been accomplished. Furthermore, "Powell's hasty
decision to call a cease-fire before American forces had completed
their mission was bound to create confusion and ambiguity for US
field commanders, who right up to the moment they heard of the cease-fire
were scrambling to accomplish their assigned task. On February 28,
US 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
remember thinking something similar at the time, even though I was
opposed to the war. We shouldn't have gotten into the war in the
first place, I said to colleagues, but once we were in it we should
have finished it properly. Perhaps that didn't require driving on
to Baghdad and snatching Saddam in his lair, as some warhawks urged
at the time, but the cease-fire did seem premature, before all the
military targets had been mopped up.
was an armchair observer ruminating from several oceans away. General
McCaffrey, however, was a military officer in a chain of command.
Most of the commanders on the ground, as Seymour Hersh writes and
as Mr. Owens acknowledges, interpreted the cease-fire as an order
for maneuvering and movement to stop.
General McCaffrey, as Owens generously puts it "interpreted
the cease-fire liberally: The shooting was to stop, but American
units were not precluded from moving around. … 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
he did, maybe he didn't. Mr. Owens doesn't deal with the evidence
detailed by Mr. Hersh that General McCaffrey, alone among the commanders
on the ground, also managed to send inaccurate information about
his locations to headquarters. Maybe it was the fog of war, but
it was a striking anomaly. The only commander to send inaccurate
information about his location was also the only one who somehow
found himself, a few days after the cease-fire, in a position to
engage fleeing Iraqi troops.
General McCaffrey, angry and convinced that his superiors had called
a cease-fire too soon, purposely maneuver his troops so that they
were in a position to "correct" that mistake by destroying
at least one long column of Iraqi troops, along with hundreds of
tanks, armored vehicles and other vehicles? That, it seems to me,
is the most important question Seymour Hersh, at least by inference
and in some cases fairly directly, raises.
that's what General McCaffrey did, the question of whether his response
to what might well have been some tentative attacks from the Iraqis,
who had not expected to see an American force astride their escape
route, was brutally disproportionate is secondary. The primary question
is whether he was at least passively insubordinate, finding a way
to violate a cease-fire he thought was a foolish move on the part
of his superiors.
enough, an intelligent fighting force will encourage commanders
and ordinary soldiers to use initiative, perhaps even unorthodox
or not quite authorized tactics to achieve a military objective.
In the fog of battle it might be the right thing to do to fudge
an order, or even to ignore it if that's the way to get the job
the maneuvers General McCaffrey had his division perform after the
cease-fire were not undertaken in the fog of battle, but in the
aftermath not of notable battles, actually, but of what really does
seem to have been a fairly brilliant bit of movement and positioning
that involved very little contact with the enemy. And his orders
were not to engage the enemy (although even during a cease-fire
there would have been circumstances in which an engagement would
have been justified) but to observe a cease-fire.