The most fascinating (albeit somewhat depressing) aspect of the almost non-ongoing discussion over whether former General Barry McCaffrey ordered a slaughter of retreating Iraqi soldiers two days after the cease-fire in the Persian Gulf undeclared war is the almost complete lack of interest in the matter. The New York Times, to its credit, ran an editorial that fairly competently summarized the story told by its former star investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. And the editorial called for an independent review panel or an investigation by the Senate or the House. That’ fine.
But the networks have virtually ignored the story since its initial two-day cycle which, because of McCaffrey’s pre-emptive strike, ran before the Hersh article actually hit the newsstands and therefore before almost anyone had read the article. I wonder how many in the mediacracy have read it yet. NPR did a decent initial story but hasn’t followed it up.
Otherwise, the Wall Street Journal gave McCaffrey himself an oped to rebut the article and Newsweek mentioned it in a May 29 issue that served mainly as a forum for McCaffrey to justify himself. Foreign affairs columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, ever a sucker for a man in uniform, did a column excoriating Seymour Hersh that failed to show solid evidence of actually having read or even skimmed Hersh’s lengthy article.
A WEAK, NON-SPECIFIC REBUTTAL
What was most interesting about General McCaffrey’s article in the Wall Street Journal (essentially a rehash of the official statement he released on Sunday the 14th as he was launching his Hersh-berating media blitz) was its failure to deal at all specifically with the most damaging allegations in Hersh’s original piece. Never mind the ancillary evidence that even though the official Army investigations didn’t lead to disciplinary actions, there is indirect evidence that McCaffrey’s conduct on March 2, 1991 was troubling enough to military higher-ups that it could well have had an adverse impact on his military career.
To be sure, it is virtually impossible to rebut everything in a 25,000-word article in a 1,000-word piece. And if you’re not going to "dignify" the attack by offering a line-by-line, incident-by-incident rebuttal to each charge, you’ll want to spend some time relying on authority figures (Colin Powell) and general denials ("it is an article that is both unfair and untrue"). But one effective way to attack a long piece in a shorter piece is to pick one incident or allegation, pick it apart convincingly, then assert that if the writer got this important aspect so badly wrong, the rest of it probably can’t be trusted either. But McCaffrey relies almost solely on general statements like "His story is dependent on accounts from people who heard rumors of events and were concerned but who themselves never witnessed anything."
IN POSITION FOR CONFRONTATION
Seymour Hersh, for example, doesn’t come right out and say it, but he offers a good deal of information that could easily suggest that General McCaffrey put his troops into a position where they were almost certain to come into contact with Iraqi troops heading toward Baghdad. "While other American soldiers and their commanders stopped and cheered the ceasefire," he writes, "McCaffrey quietly continued to move his combat forces," expanding his area of operations to be "within striking distance of a seventeen-mile access road connecting the highway to the causeway, one of the few known pathways out of the marshes and deserts in southern Iraq."
Furthermore, according to Hersh, "McCaffrey had moved his forces toward the access road without informing all the senior officers who needed to know inside his own division operations center, at XVIII Corps, and at Third Army headquarters," Hersh strengthens the case for the inference that McCaffrey had moved his troops precipitously by describing "an extended review and planning meeting at King Khalid Military City" a few days after McCaffrey’s famous victory that began with comparing the reporting logs of each division with the best available satellite data. "The officers did not dispute McCaffrey’s claim that the Iraqis fired first," according to Hersh, "but the overriding issue was the most basic one of all: why had the 24th Division moved during the ceasefire into the path of the retreating Iraqis?" It turned out, uniquely among Division commanders, that McCaffrey’s reported positions were dozens of miles off from what they really were, repeatedly.
At least this is what Hersh reports, directly quoting high-ranking military officers and an Army historian, reports. McCaffrey mentions not a word about any of this, yet if Hersh is correct it might be even more damning than the possibility that McCaffrey ordered what amounted to a slaughter on the basis of little if any genuine or dangerous provocation from the Iraqis.
ATTACKING HERSH’S METHODS
In his Wall Street Journal piece McCaffrey goes on the attack against Seymour Hersh: "Several people Mr. Hersh contacted now claim he misled his sources, fabricated statements from people he never spoke with and made clear his bias and intention ‘to bury’ McCaffrey. These claims are documented in letters and phone calls to me." These are serious charges against a journalist who claims to be a scrupulous investigator. Yet McCaffrey doesn’t name names of any of the people complaining about Mr. Hersh’s methods.
McCaffrey does have a direct quote from retired Lt. Gen. Steven Arnold, who he says wrote to the New Yorker to complain thus: "I know that my brief comments in the article were not depicted in an entirely accurate and were taken out of context When the Iraqi forces fired on elements of the 24th Infantry Division, they were clearly committing a hostile act. I regret having granted an interview with Mr. Hersh. The tone and thrust of the article places me in a position of not trusting or respecting General Barry McCaffrey, and nothing could be further from the truth."
Perhaps Gen. Arnold’s full letter is more detailed, explaining just which statements were taken out of context and how. But while the statement quoted by McCaffrey is unquestionably accusatory of Mr. Hersh, it doesn’t provide the outside observer enough information to be able to guess which version is closer to the truth.
Perhaps Seymour Hersh used questionable methods in preparing his story. Perhaps he contacted mainly people who bore some kind of grudge against General McCaffrey, who apparently rubs some people the wrong way, and who shaded their recollections, "remembered" things that simply weren’t true, or even made up things. Perhaps Hersh got some of the details right but didn’t understand the whole picture well enough to present the story accurately.
All these things are possible. The best bet would be to hold an independent investigation that pinpoints the most serious implications of Hersh’s article and uses the results and documentation of previous investigations (once they’re made public, which they should be immediately) and new investigations to try to get to the bottom of the matter. The results might not be conclusive one way or another, but they could shed important light.
General McCaffrey suggests one place to start. He asserts that "Mr. Hersh claims that the Iraqi tanks destroyed at Rumaylah were on transport trucks with their turrets locked down [actually he doesn’t claim that all of them were]. But the gun camera video footage taken from Apache helicopters during the battle clearly shows combat-ready Iraqi tanks prepared to fight."
Hmmm. He doesn’t say they were fighting but they were prepared to fight. Never mind. Let’s have the footage from the Apache helicopters that were in the air that day all of it made public so an independent assessment can be made.