"We have good corporals and sergeants and some good lieutenants and captains, and those are far more important than good generals."


--GEN William T. Sherman (1820-91)

Late in the afternoon of 26 February 1991, barely twenty-four hours after more than fifty thousand soldiers of Iraq's Republican Guard Corps began their withdrawal from Kuwait and southern Iraq, the two lead cavalry troops of "Cougar Squadron," 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 Easting" was swept away in less than thirty minutes by salvos of American tank and missile fire that devastated the Iraqi fighting positions.1

Metal smashed against metal as killing round after killing round slammed into the Iraqi army's Soviet-made tanks. A few hours later, the few surviving Republican Guards, 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.

Splendid 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 Squadron was halted, ordered to break contact with the enemy, and even to withdraw behind a meaningless limit of advance. Contact thus broken, the Republican Guard Corps' main body escaped.

The 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 do to them than 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.

The fruits of victory, the total destruction of the Republican Guard, 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 fist" for a fight that was already passed. By the time the corps's divisions arrived and "attacked," little of the Republican Guard 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.

What 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.

When 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 premature cease-fire.2

Now is a good time for Americans to reassess the conduct of Operation Desert Storm, against the backdrop of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "The 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 2011.3

A new phase is beginning. Understanding how we got here is vital.

Just 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

This 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.

After 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).

Within 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?"

Readiness 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?"

The 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 were concerned.

True, 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"?

After 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 decades.

The 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 work.

It 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.

The 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."

If 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

The 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.

One 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.

In 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.

All 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.

The 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.

Cavalry 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.

We were on our own, with a very good chance of being permanently "fixed" ourselves unless we could come up with something fast.

What 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.

In 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.

This 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.

But 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.

We 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 swift.

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.

As 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.

 In 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 thousand.

Devised 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?

With 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.

Was 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.

The 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.

To 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.