Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

May 17, 2000

McCaffrey a War Criminal?

We'll 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.

Having 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.

I 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.


The 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.

As 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.

"According 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.'"

Apparently, 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.

"Many of the dead were buried soon after the engagement, and no accurate count of the victims could be made," Hersh wrote.


Hersh 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.

All 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."

Hersh 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."


Gen. 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."

"The 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, revisionist history."

There 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.


On August 15, 1996, as Californians were considering Proposition 215, which they eventually approved by a 56-44 margin, Gen. McCaffrey said:

"There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed. This is not medicine. This is a cruel hoax." That statement is untrue, and it's difficult to imagine that Gen. McCaffrey didn't know it was untrue at the time. Numerous government and private studies over the years have shown medical value and promising avenues of research for marijuana as a medicine.

Indeed, in 1997 the National Institutes of Health in the Department of Health and Human Services had conducted a "Workshop on the Medical Utility of Marijuana" whose proceedings included the following: "Smoked marijuana has been shown to lower intraocular eye pressure (IOP) in subjects with normal IOP and patients with glaucoma … Clinical studies and survey data in healthy populations have shown a strong relationship between marijuana use and increased eating … Inhaled marijuana has the potential to improve chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting."

On July 22, 1997, Gen. McCaffrey said: "in the view of the nation's scientific and medical community, marijuana has a high potential for abuse and no generally accepted therapeutic value." This was some six months after the New England Journal of Medicine had urged, in an official editorial that received a good deal of publicity: "Federal authorities should rescind their prohibition of the medicinal use of marijuana for seriously ill patients and allow physicians to decide which patients to treat."

Perhaps Gen. McCaffrey really was ignorant of the long history of medical use of marijuana and respectable scientific research before he commissioned the Institute of Medicine to do a report, "Marijuana and Medicine," released in March 1999. Otherwise, he might not have commissioned it. But even after it was released, he continued to mischaracterize what was in the report his own office had ordered.

McCaffrey picked out one favorite sentence in the report, that "The future of medical marijuana does not lie with smoked marijuana" to claim that it backed up what he had said all along. He never mentioned that in the next paragraph, the Institute went on to say that since alternatives to smoked marijuana would take years to develop and there were plenty of sick and dying people who could benefit from it today, the only sensible thing to do would be to authorize at least pilot tests utilizing smoked marijuana.

McCaffrey continues to call marijuana a "gateway drug" in the sense that using it leads to the use of other, more dangerous illegal drugs. The IOM report blew that idea out of the water. "There is no evidence" – none at all – the report said, "that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular drug effect.

"Whereas the stepping stone hypothesis presumes a predominantly physiological component to drug progression, the gateway theory is a social theory. The latter does not suggest that the pharmacological qualities of marijuana make it a risk factor for progression to other drug use. Instead it is the legal status of marijuana that makes it a gateway drug."

In other words, it is prohibition that makes it more likely some marijuana users will go on to harder, more dangerous drugs. Naturally, the only thing for somebody who worries about "the children" to do is to maintain prohibition.

There's Barry McCaffrey the Drug Warrior. For more choice examples, see Kevin Zeese's Common Sense for Drug Policy Web site. It will be interesting to find out if Gen. McCaffrey is also a combat war criminal.

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