General 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.
However, 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.
I doubt if General McCaffrey really wants his reputation to rest on such a presumption.
Amid 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.
The 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.”
So, 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.”
Owens 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 concerns.”
I 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.
I 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.
But 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 air attacks.”
Maybe 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.
Did 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.
If 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.
True 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 done.
But 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.
Mr. Owens is not quite so bold as to suggest that insubordination might have been justified in the face of foolish decisions from on high. But with his detailed and relentless critique of Colin Powell’s decision, he trots right up to the edge of that metaphysical cliff.
Now I’m more than happy to see Colin Powell, one of the more relentlessly overrated figures in public life, subjected to searching criticism. But a foolish decision from a superior officer hardly justifies a slaughter during a cease-fire.
It may well be that “slaughter” is an unfair characterization, that what General McCaffrey did was not only justified but, as he insists, a proud moment in his military career. The best way to determine that is to make public all the information on which the previous Army investigations into the incidents were based and give independent investigators full access.
Maybe that means a congressional investigation although as Robert Novak, who seems to become more instinctively correct and fearless as he ages, has pointed out, nobody of importance in Congress seems to have the stomach for such a potentially embarrassing effort. Maybe it simply means letting Hersh and his compadres (and McCaffrey and his defenders) have access to more and better information.
The re-evaluation should be done soon. General McCaffrey is the chief administration cheerleader for a larger commitment to the drug war, which almost certainly will mean increasing involvement in a decades-long civil war, in Colombia. The Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung, often a reliable mouthpiece for Pentagon and administration concerns, did a piece last week suggesting that Congress’ delay in authorizing extra funds for the Colombian adventure means that “U.S.-backed anti-drug programs in Colombia are running out of money and have effectively ‘ground to a halt’ as Congress delays emergency funding for military training and other activities.”
Congress should continue to delay and preferably should deny the extra funds. Not only has a group of former military officers offered a detailed critique of the somewhat inchoate American strategy in Colombia essentially throw in a lot of money and equipment and hope for the best, as near as I can tell but recent history provides an opportunity to assess with fresh eyes the judgment of the most outspoken proponent of the Colombian adventure.
Does General McCaffrey’s record during the Persian Gulf war throw relevant light on his judgment in urging more involvement in Colombia? Perhaps not. But Congress should take the opportunity to find out as much as possible before writing a blank check.