"We have good corporals and sergeants and some
good lieutenants and captains, and those are far more important than
William T. Sherman (1820-91)
in the afternoon of 26 February 1991, barely twenty-four hours after
more than fifty thousand soldiers of Iraq's Republican
Corps began their withdrawal from Kuwait and southern Iraq, the two lead
cavalry troops of "Cougar
the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, finally
caught up with Iraq's Republican Guard Corps. Taken by surprise, a
defending Iraqi armor brigade arrayed along the north-south grid line
of a military map referred to as the "73
was swept away in less than thirty minutes by salvos of American tank
and missile fire that devastated the Iraqi fighting positions.1
smashed against metal as killing round after killing round slammed into
the Iraqi army's Soviet-made tanks. A few hours later, the few
exhausted men in dirty green uniforms, huddled together as prisoners of
war in the nighttime cold. Most of the captured Iraqi troops just stared
into the darkness through eyes empty of feeling or expression while
their wounded comrades lying nearby on the desert floor received medical
attention from the American Soldiers who had just defeated them.
battle that it was, however, the Battle of the 73 Easting bore no
abiding fruit. Instead of continuing a successful attack, an attack with
almost no U.S. losses that had destroyed the Iraqi rear guard, Cougar
was halted, ordered to break contact with the enemy, and even to
withdraw behind a meaningless limit of advance. Contact thus broken, the
Corps' main body escaped.
speed and power of Cougar
Squadron's attack demonstrated the Iraqi enemy's inability to
survive a determined U.S. ground assault. It utterly destroyed the Iraqi
enemy's last defense, but it made no difference. The
generals and colonels commanding the lead divisions and brigades in the
VII Corps attack were much more concerned with what the enemy might
with what they could do to the enemy. Though their fears were never
justified by the facts, their fears were real enough in their own minds
to slow the VII Corps' movement to a snail's pace.
fruits of victory, the total destruction of the Republican
rotted on the vine while the commanding generals of the U.S. Army's
VII Corps wasted precious hours herding their divisions into a "tight
for a fight that was already passed. By the time the corps's divisions
arrived and "attacked,"
little of the Republican
remained, with the exception of the Iraqi armored brigades that mounted
a last ditch defense for the rest of the retreating corps, and much of
its equipment had already been abandoned.
the Soldiers of Cougar Squadron won on the battlefield-the
opportunity to pursue and complete the destruction of Saddam Hussein's
base of power, the Republican Guard Corps-was lost by an U.S. Army
chain of command that never saw the Iraqi opponent in a true light and
never grasped the strategic implications of their own actions. The
result was the escape of the Republican Guard and its subsequent use by
Saddam Hussein to destroy the Kurdish and Shiite Arab insurrections that
had been encouraged by the George H. W. Bush administration.
it became clear the Republican Guard had escaped, the generals
resisted the idea of extending the war by moving ground troops toward
Baghdad until American security demands were met. As a result, President
Bush and his top generals sacrificed the opportunity to leverage
American military power for significant political gain. Meanwhile,
Saddam Hussein regrouped his Republican Guard forces, two to three
divisions of which had been spared by VII Corps' inaction and the
is a good time for Americans to reassess the conduct of Operation Desert
Storm, against the backdrop of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Agreement on Complete Withdrawal"
(in plainer English, a status of forces agreement) has just been agreed
upon by the governments of the United States and Iraq. Washington is now
obligated to remove its forces from Iraq's cities and towns in the
summer of 2009 and to withdraw its forces completely before the end of
new phase is beginning. Understanding how we got here is vital.
as World War II began where World War I left off, Operation Iraqi
Freedom began where Desert Storm ended in 1991. Despite its initial
showy successes on television, reminiscent of the first Gulf War,
Americans eventually discovered that Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was
fundamentally flawed. Other than removing Saddam Hussein from power, Operation Iraqi
Freedom lacked a coherent strategic design, with catastrophic results in
human and monetary terms for the United States and Iraq.4
negative assessment is an insight not easy to develop. Desert Storm, as
the 1991 war is generally known, was publicized to the world as a total
victory and a triumph of American military might. Subsequent press
coverage, books, memoirs, and TV documentaries-despite considerable
evidence to the contrary-served to reinforce massively that
conventional wisdom rather than to question it. Medals and high-media
profiles are wonderful things, and wars are wonderfully photogenic if
appropriately sanitized-and Desert Storm was nothing if not sanitized.
Desert Storm, the generals owned the store, and no civilian-and
Congress contained an ever-dwindling band of members with military
experience-would dare to question the men and women who wore splendid
uniforms laden with rows of medals and other honors (mostly awarded by
each other for nothing more than bureaucratic deeds, but which looked
dazzling from afar).
the American system, a polarized celebrity culture conditioned to
respond to emotional buttons, clichés, slogans, uniforms, and badges
has quite astonishing power. Besides, senators and members were up to
their eyeballs in dubious practices themselves, so they were scarcely in
a position to accuse general officers of careerism, conflicts of
interest, or of feathering their own nests at the taxpayers' expense.
In fact, all that the politicians who were nominally in charge of
overseeing the military seemed to care about was getting their shares of
defense dollars, which was easy enough, given that the U.S. was spending
more on defense than the rest of the world combined, a truly
mind-boggling statistic and one that did not seem to register with the
average American taxpayer-who otherwise might have asked, "Why?"
and preparing for the next war were neglected as too disruptive.
Instead, the generals argued, "Why change? After all, we won Desert
Storm, didn't we?"
Desert Storm campaign had gone exactly as planned, went the lie, and it
had yielded a brilliant victory. Mission accomplished. Back to the main
business of the Army which certainly was not war, as far as the generals
it was unfortunate that the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds, who had risen
against Saddam Hussein on President Bush's instigation, had not been
helped by U.S. troops and had been massacred, but what was that when
compared to the sound bite of a "Hundred-Hour War"?
Desert Storm, no one asked about any of that. The club of generals
became unstoppable. General officers were no longer just generals-hey
were iconic figures, in the eyes of the American people, and they would
show up as commentators on television, basking in book deals,
consultancy sinecures, and directorships, and lobbying for contracts for
lie, as is so often the case where war is concerned, became
institutionalized; therein lies the real tragedy. If the critical
weaknesses in U.S. Army generalship displayed in 1991 had been
identified and remedied, not deliberately concealed, things in Iraq
might been very different a decade later. Whether one agreed with the
decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or not, the truth is that the blame for
the cruelty, carelessness, and incompetence of the intervention and
occupation of Iraq lies more with the Army generals in charge of the
execution of policy than with the policy makers. Policies determine
focus, but execution-effective implementation-is what makes life
is customary to blame the politicians-and they are rarely
blameless-but the record shows that whereas bad policies can often be
saved in wartime through effective implementation by competent
commanders on the battlefield, the reverse is rarely true. In short,
political rhetoric is a fine thing, but it is what the senior military
leaders on the spot do, or, fail to do, that counts. And here the
willingness of the generals to act decisively, to study their
professions seriously, and to stand up to their political masters if a
wrong course of action is ordered, was noticeably lacking.
good news is that the lower ranks of the U.S. Army are replete with
excellent Soldiers. The problems are at the top, not at the bottom. And
these problems are very serious, because as a Vietnamese proverb would
have it, "A fish rots from its head."
the Army were a corporation with a track record like Iraq, its
shareholders would be up in arms, its generals would have been fired en
masse long ago, and federal agents would be investigating its
probity-and the investigators would have no difficulty in finding
matters of serious legal concern.5
activities of the generals attracted scant attention in the 1990s, but
some were exposed, in all their greed and pettiness, by the exigencies
of war. Our Soldiers and marines lacked body armor and appropriate
armored vehicles because we weren't prepared for war; we weren't
prepared for war because too many of the generals in charge did not do
their jobs. These conditions did not emerge under "Dubya's"
administration. They emerged in the 1990s after Desert Storm.
might think that a watchful media would be alerted by so much blood and
so many hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, but the generals found
wrapping themselves in the flag effectively media proof. No editor or
reporter wants to be accused of stabbing the soldiers in the back in
time of war-and they confuse Soldiers with generals, which is like
confusing ordinary citizens with senators and presidents.
Most of the U.S. Army does not consist of generals, who today are
rarer than hen's teeth when it comes to being near direct enemy fire.
So this book focuses on the true heroes who went in harm's way; the
Soldiers who fought, died, and won in 1991.
war, the quality of leadership does not just matter, it's fundamental.
Like the United States itself, the U.S. Army is a living thing, built of
flesh and blood, not just iron and steel. Courage and competence are its
driving force. And here I speak from hard-won experience: I was involved
with both Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. I had the honor and
the privilege of leading American Soldiers into battle, to witness
firsthand the gallantry and intelligence of the American Soldier under
direct enemy fire.
of us in Cougar Squadron-the 2nd Squadron, 2nd
Armored Cavalry Regiment-were deeply affected by our experiences in
Iraq, both personally and professionally. It would have been strange had
we had been. We saw and did terrible things, because such is the nature
of war, but we also experienced combat soldiering at its peak and knew
with certainty what was possible.
Direct-fire combat is the crucible that separates the warriors from the corporate careerists, and it seasons Soldiers fast. The hard truth is that where the profession of arms is concerned, there is no substitute for exposure to the business of killing, or being killed, as a way to focus one's attention on the difference between what is important and what is mere process, pomp, and careerism.
Battle of the 73 Easting was a brutal affair. It occurred when 2nd
(Cougar) Squadron, an 1,100-man battle group of the 2nd
Armored Cavalry Regiment, was assigned to act as a spearhead for the
U.S. Army's VII Corps, the massive force of 110,000 troops tasked with
the destruction of Iraq's eighty-thousand-man Republican Guard Corps.
are scouts, albeit heavily armored scouts in our case, so our job was to
find and fix the enemy long enough for the main force, VII Corps, to
rumble up and finish the job. Fixing an enemy-essentially, keeping him
in place so he can be destroyed-means fighting, but it was clear that
on the day of the battle, 26 February 1991, the colonels and generals
were thinking in terms of air strikes and artillery, tools that would
not get the job done.
But the plans of generals rarely survive contact with the enemy, and all that much-hyped electronic surveillance seldom works as advertised, so in this case we suddenly found ourselves in a sandstorm up against a much larger force that had the added advantage of being dug in. The sandstorm meant no timely air support; so much for fixing the enemy with air strikes and artillery from a distance.
were on our own, with a very good chance of being permanently "fixed"
ourselves unless we could come up with something fast.
transpired had less to do with the kind of long-distance video game,
much characterized by the media as the face of modern war, than with the
proverbial knife fight in a telephone booth. The Republican Guard
and we were very much in range of each other. Each side had the means
and the opportunity to wreak havoc on the other.
reality, such combat bears no resemblance to a game at all. Real people
die-they don't come back-and you can see, taste, hear, and smell
the manner of their dying. Later, you can think about their mothers and
wives, and their other loved ones and friends. No one, even if unharmed
physically, is unscathed in such a battle, and the memories linger.
was a close fight of extraordinary violence and intensity, and the lead
troops of Cougar Squadron, Eagle and Ghost troops, facing a
superior, dug-in armored force supported by mines, artillery, and
infantry equipped with antitank weapons, could have been in a great deal
of trouble. Military wisdom has it that the attacker should outnumber
the defender by at least three-to-one. In our case, the reverse was more
akin to the reality.
we were confident combat Soldiers at the peak of our professional
readiness. As a unit, Cougar Squadron was exceptional, and when
you are that good, as history has shown throughout the ages, being
outnumbered is no longer an issue. The
Battle of the 73 Easting is an important reminder that victory in battle
is a question not simply of slinging masses of troops at the enemy but
of positioning, tactics, and thoughtful adaptation of men and machines
to new forms of conflict to achieve decisive victory over the enemy.
also had faith in ourselves and in our weapons. And we knew that being
second in a tank gunfight is not a place you want to be, because the
penalty is death. Victory in close combat goes to the sure and the
destruction of a tank and its crew is called a "catastrophic kill"
for good reason. Armored warfare is hair-trigger fast, frighteningly
lethal, and unforgiving. Men are vaporized, eviscerated, blown
apart, asphyxiated, or burned to death when an incoming tank projectile
or missile strikes, and the margin between victor and vanquished can be
a fraction of a second.
those of us who fought along the 73 Easting reflect on the many
thousands of Americans killed and wounded since American forces entered
Iraq in March 2003, we are more convinced than ever that this battle
should have profoundly shaped the thinking of the Army's generals
about expeditionary warfare. The value of armor-protected mobility,
combined with accurate, devastating direct fire in any environment,
urban or desert, should have been self-evident after Desert Storm, but
it was not. Our Soldiers and marines paid a high price in blood for the
lack of mobility, firepower, and protection during Iraq's occupation.
terms of raw fighting power, in 1991 the 2nd Armored Cavalry
Regiment (which hereafter I'll refer to as the "2nd
Cavalry") was composed
of more than four thousand Soldiers and 350 tracked armored fighting
vehicles, including scouts, tanks, and self-propelled guns. With the
reinforcement of supporting artillery and, for the first twenty-four
hours of the ground war, an AH-64 Apache
battalion, the 2nd Cavalry grew in strength to eight
primarily for fighting the Soviet enemy in Central Europe, the 2nd
Cavalry was organized into three reinforced ground squadrons of nearly
1,100 troops each, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, engineers, and
artillery; one aviation squadron of scout aircraft and helicopter gun
ships; and one support squadron for logistics. To simplify radio
communication, the squadrons used nicknames. The 1st Squadron
was called "War Eagle," the 2nd
Squadron was "Cougar
Squadron," the 3rd
Squadron was "Wolf Pack,"
the 4th Aviation Squadron "Red
Catcher," and the
Regimental Support Squadron "Muleskinner."
But who were these fine young Americans, and how did they come to be that good? Why did we kill so many of the enemy if, in retrospect, there was no point to it? And why did Sergeant Moller, a young gunner in Ghost Troop, die in action?
life still streaming toward him, SGT "Andy" Moller gave up
everything. Like thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines
since the beginning of America's war with Iraq, he did so without
complaint or fear. He believed we were right and that we would win.
Moller's faith misplaced? Had his life been the down payment on the
victory we fought to achieve? Would we complete the assigned mission and
smash the Republican Guard, thus ending this destructive war and
the regime in Baghdad that had started it? I was reluctant to ask these
questions in 1991, but I worried that the generals would declare victory
before the job was done. The signs were already there.
offensive to destroy the Republican Guard called for bold,
decisive leadership from the front, but we saw none of this from the
senior officers commanding us during our advance across southern Iraq.
Running the Republican Guard out of Kuwait was not enough. We knew the
regime in Baghdad had to go.
me and to the soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains I led into
battle in February 1991, that meant destroy the Republican Guard,
or Iraq would come back to haunt us.