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May 19, 2000


In denying that he is a war criminal who attacked retreating Iraqi soldiers and killed thousands in the Gulf War after the ceasefire, Clinton's drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey has been all over the media, booked from morning 'til night, running hard and fast to beat the charges. The Clintonians even appealed to "human rights" organizations in an effort to clear their favorite general, apparently believing that the administration's collaboration with these groups during the Kosovo war (the human rightsers were for it) deserved a favor in return. But no dice. Seymour Hersh has nailed McCaffrey but good in the [May 22] New Yorker – here is proof beyond what any International Tribunal might demand not only of crimes against humanity, but of an elaborate effort to cover it up. No matter how hard and fast he trots from "Good Morning America" – where he opined that "I think [Hersh's] story is going to melt like a snowball this week" – to midnight with Ted Koppel, he can't run and he can't hide. This snowball ain't melting: instead, given all the various sources of information supplied by Hersh, it is bound to grow larger, to snowball, as it were, until McCaffrey is buried under the sheer weight of it.


McCaffrey protests: "This is nonsense, this is revisionist history!" But revisionism is far from nonsense, as anyone familiar with the concept knows, for revision is precisely what history requires. Left to our court intellectuals and sycophantic journalists, the historical record would consist of little more than a series of paeans to the wisdom and beneficence of our rulers – and this is doubly true when it comes to the history of our various wars. World War I was depicted, at first, as a noble crusade against an inherently evil enemy, but this simplistic account was later corrected; as historian William L. Neumann noted in his essay in honor of Harry Elmer Barnes, the dean of World War I revisionism, "In April of 1917, many leading historians had already figuratively pulled off their academic robes and donned uniforms." It was only later, in the wave of disillusion that followed the signing of the Versailles treaty, that the Muse Clio regained her composure and historians were able to make a reasoned reassessment of the events leading up to the first global conflagration. As documents are made available, and researchers have time to make inquiries, the truth comes out and the historical record is revised – to bring it into line with the facts. In derisively referring to Hersh's revelations as "revisionist history," the General says more than he intends. For revisionism is what history is all about – the unearthing of previously overlooked facts, the exposure of hidden motives, the exhumation of old bones.


Quite a few old bones, it seems, have been sticking up out of the desert sand, and Hersh has all but exhumed the bodies of McCaffrey's Iraqi victims. The truth about the so-called "Battle of Rumailia," McCaffrey's great triumph, which sources within the military – his own commanders – liken to a "turkey shoot," is that the retreating Iraqis had no reason to attack vastly superior forces after a unilateral ceasefire had been declared by the US. In response to dubious claims that Iraqis had opened fire on armored American tanks, McCaffrey ordered an all-out assault that killed untold thousands of Iraqis, civilians as well as soldiers, including children. McCaffrey's fellow soldiers, those who served with him in the wartime headquarters of the 24th Division, contradict his assertion that American soldiers were attacked after the ceasefire: almost uniformly, they describe quite the opposite, an endless column of ragged boys and bedraggled old men, without equipment or even uniforms, utterly incapable of putting up much of a fight, even if they were so inclined. As one American soldier put it, he came away from the Gulf War thinking that he had been part of "the biggest firing squad in history."


The ambitious and apparently widely-hated McCaffrey has his enemies in the Pentagon, and Hersh tells us there was a veritable mutiny when he was being considered for chief of operations: his megalomania is legendary. McCaffrey is trying to play this to his advantage, by claiming that these are outrageous lies spread by his enemies and motivated by professional jealousy and jockeying for position. Yet it is the testimony of some of his top officers that the battle of Rumailia is "a giant hoax," that there never was an Iraqi attack, and that, therefore, there was never any need to launch a counter-attack. As Hersh shows, this murderous assault certainly resulted in the death of hundreds if not thousands of civilians as well as Iraqi soldiers who had already surrendered. These accusations are not the result of professional jealousy, but of professional disdain – a real soldier, at least an American soldier, would never violate the rules of engagement so blatantly and expect to get away with it.


One incident described by Hersh stands out for its pathos, and encapsulates the tragedy and criminality of McCaffrey's ersatz "victory." An advance team was assigned to block off a main highway while the American tanks refueled – and soon becomes a magnet for all the Iraqi soldiers in the immediate vicinity. The Iraqis weren't attacking – they were surrendering, in droves, coming out of the hills and down the road in all sorts of contraptions, stolen cars, camels, whatever, waving white flags. The Iraqis were throwing down their weapons in such numbers that the Americans were soon outnumbered. A hospital bus pulled up, filled with wounded Iraqis, and an Iraqi doctor who had gone to school in Chicago was among their by now hundreds of captives. "One of the first guys who came in was bawling," one Scout told Hersh, "so happy that he was safe. I told him 'You've surrendered. You're safe. Nothing is going to happen to you.'" Ah, but a lot happened to him, and to all the others who had surrendered, thinking they were safe, believing the propaganda that had rained from the skies, along with hellfire, promising them that they would live to see their families only if they surrendered. The Scouts gave them their MREs (meals-ready-to-eat, for the militarily challenged) and radioed to headquarters that they had a good number of prisoners, including a hospital bus clearly marked with a red crescent. The team received an order from headquarters to take all the weapons they had confiscated and blow them up, and, before this could be done, they were ordered to move out. The charge was lit, and the platoon took off. The prisoners were left sitting in rows, in a kind of holding pen formed by two captured Iraqi trucks and the hospital bus. And then the Bradley tanks came charging up the rear, machine guns spitting fire: according to one eyewitness, "I could tell they were hitting close to the prisoners, because there were people running. There were some who could have survived, but a lot of them wouldn't have, from where I saw the rounds hit."


One of the soldiers, John Brasfield, was in the habit of taping radio transmissions: he thought vaguely that he would send the tapes home, as a kind of slice-of-war audio verite. As his Humvee barreled across the sand, away from the spectacle of armored tanks mowing down unarmed prisoners, his radio crackles with irony, and a voice is heard: "There's no one shooting at them [the tanks]," someone says over the platoon radio-net, "why'd they have to shoot?"


Why indeed. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the text of what Hersh calls a "pep talk" that McCaffrey gave to his troops shortly before the war, in which the General declared:

"If you're driving through a village and someone throws a rock at you, shoot them! If they shoot at you, turn the tank main gun on them. If they use anything larger than small arms, call for artillery. It's as simple as that. Obey the rules of war but protect yourself."


If the "rules of war" now include a provision sentencing rock-throwers to death, then this is the first that any civilized person has heard of it. Although the General doesn't say what the proper response would be to an attack by enemy tanks, by this standard nuking them would not be overkill – just the McCaffrey Principle in operation.


Don't tell me "shit happens" and "war is hell," – and cut the crap about "the fog of war": those prisoners were deliberately killed by the oncoming Bradleys. As one witness put it: "They knew there were prisoners there. They knew they were unarmed. They knew the hospital bus was there, and they knew we were blowing the [Iraqi weapons] up." The Iraqis, a pathetic crowd huddled about a dilapidated bus, were no threat to the Americans, who "were all buttoned down in their vehicles." So why did they turn their guns on a hospital bus? In the general atmosphere of slaughter, in which the Iraqis offered little if any real resistance, the Americans were like gods: they did it because they could do it. According to an anonymous letter obviously written by an insider and sent to the Pentagon, McCaffrey had expressed a desire to "kill some of those bastards." The General's frustration, when the ceasefire was announced, was reflected in the field: here they had trained so long and so hard, they had come all the way here and hadn't slept in days and still they had never come up against any real opposition. When the ceasefire was first announced, McCaffrey gave orders that the men were to be sure to have an opportunity to fire their weapons – for the moment at inanimate targets, such as old sheds and the few standing structures. Meanwhile, the General went looking for a fight. . . .


As Hersh shows, McCaffrey overrode the objections of his own staff to launch an attack that violated the terms of the ceasefire – without consulting his superiors. It is as if we have somehow slipped back in time, back to the days of the old Roman empire when all sorts of generals and commanders would suddenly, without authorization from either the Emperor or the Senate, take off on his own and conquer some distant land. He would then return to Rome in triumph, and be crowned with laurel leaves – his political career assured. This is what happened with McCaffrey, who disobeyed orders and yet returned, the conquering hero, to become the Clinton administration's point man in the "war on drugs" – and the leading advocate of escalating US intervention to prop up the beleaguered government of Colombia.


The President of the United States was nearly impeached for much less covering up than was engaged in by McCaffrey. There were several investigations, but key evidence was either unknown or withheld: Hersh's article presents new evidence, and lots of it, that points not only to the general savagery of an unnecessary "battle," but directly implicates McCaffrey's bloodlust as motivating factor behind the massacre. Particularly damaging to McCaffrey is the fact that Hersh has his sources in the CIA and the Pentagon, who suspected McCaffrey's veracity from the start and are now apparently convinced that the man is indeed, guilty of war crimes. Driven by ambition, and his bloodthirsty doctrine of overkill, McCaffrey repulses the honorable men of the military who see his record as a stain on their own. Hersh is not attacking the military – for all of the General's accusers are military men, or ex-military, who want only to uphold their own honor. McCaffrey has the nerve to say that in exposing his own murderous role in the Gulf War, we are impugning all of those who fought in that war, and specifically those under his command. But his own soldiers have come forward to tell the real story of what went on that fateful and bloody day, of who gave the orders and under what circumstances they were given.


Hersh lays out the whole pattern of McCaffrey's insatiable need to cover himself with glory, and the details are telling: in a typical incident, he ordered his men to scour the battlefield for trophies – flags, guns, and other memorabilia of the massacre he wanted to pretend was a "battle." He even had his men procure a couple of camels, which were to be transported back to Division headquarters in the US; health officials wouldn't let the poor creatures into the country – and so they picked up a couple of camels from somewhere in the US. The General never knew the difference.


Seymour Hersh's "Overwhelming Force" so overwhelms the reader with interwoven accounts of atrocities, official complicity, cover-up, and McCaffrey's insufferable arrogance, that no honest person could deny that something is not quite right about Barry McCaffrey. Is this the man we are going to send abroad, to hotspots like Colombia – an accused war criminal? Is this who we want as the chief warrior in the fight against drugs – somebody who thinks that the only proper retaliation against rock-throwers is to blow their brains out? The charge of war crimes hangs over his head like a sword of Damocles: how soon before it falls? I say: the sooner the better. For how can he possibly do his job as Drug Czar when he spends all of his time defending himself against Hersh's article? Surely he deserves his day in court – and if there is any justice in this world, that is where he will wind up – but in the interim he needs to resign from this administration, so as to devote full-time to his defense – at his own expense, of course. In short, McCaffrey must go – and the sooner the better. At a time when the Clintonistas are posing as the great "humanitarian" saviors of the world, can they really afford to harbor an accused mass murderer like McCaffrey in their midst? I think not.


Hersh has more on McCaffrey than the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has on Slobodan Milosevic, yet the Clintonistas have defended him so far, in their classic fashion, by going after Hersh as a "careerist" – apparently a new category of "hate crime." I wonder how long before the accumulation of facts and eyewitness testimony becomes so mountainous, and the furor grows so loud, that they decide to throw him overboard? Let's try to find out. Let the word go out, to decent people everywhere, not only in the US but worldwide: McCaffrey must go. It's the right thing to do.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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