Probing A Slaughter

Veterans of operation desert Storm sometimes call the Battle of Rumaylah the Battle of the Junkyard, because when it was over, the battlefield was scattered with the burned-out remains of 600 Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, guns and trucks. Actually, it wasn't much of a battle. Only one American tank was lost --burned when an Iraqi tank exploded beside it --and only a single American soldier was injured.

Last week, in The New Yorker magazine, a 25,000-word article by famed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh raised serious questions about the commander who ordered this one-sided attack, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a much decorated Vietnam veteran who is now President Clinton's chief adviser on drug policy. The article quoted eye-witnesses and senior officers who questioned McCaffrey's judgment for ordering an all-out assault on a retreating Iraqi tank division two days after the war had been halted by an American ceasefire. Even if the Iraqis had fired on McCaffrey's 24th Mechanized Division with rocket-propelled grenades, as his front line radioed at the time, McCaffrey's response --a five-hour tank, artillery and helicopter-launched rocket barrage --was all out of proportion, Hersh charges.

Coming after a ceasefire, McCaffrey's onslaught does appear excessive. But in an interview with NEWSWEEK, McCaffrey vigorously disputed some of Hersh's facts. Hersh writes that "many" of the Iraqi tanks were loaded onto trucks with their barrels aimed to the rear, marking them as non-combatants. McCaffrey, who was exonerated by an Army inquiry, insists that the vanguard of Iraqi tanks was advancing in combat formation with guns loaded. The ceasefire was unilateral --the Iraqis hadn't agreed to it --and McCaffrey felt he had to shoot back to protect his troops. Hersh quotes witnesses who claim that the Iraqis posed no threat. McCaffrey says those witnesses were miles from the action. The dispute will rattle on (Hersh did not return calls), but it misses a larger context.

Operation Desert Storm was intended to be a one-sided slaughter. "We didn't go up there looking for a fair fight with these people," says McCaffrey. The "new American way of war," he says, is to pulverize the enemy with overwhelming force at the cost of the fewest possible casualties. When McCaffrey was a company commander in Vietnam, GIs fought the enemy from 20 yards away with rifles and grenades. Now the goal is to annihilate the enemy before it can get off a shot. Superior technology and training made this possible in Desert Storm. The war, remarked one British commander, was "rather like a grouse shoot."

Time after time, U.S. tanks spotted Iraqi tanks through their thermal-imaging sights before the Iraqis even knew the Americans were close. The lethal range of the main gun of an American M1A1 tank exceeds that of the gun on the Iraqis' Soviet-made T-72s by almost a mile. At the Battle of 73 Easting on the second day of the gulf war, nine American tanks killed 28 Iraqi tanks in 23 minutes --in a driving sandstorm. Not a single American tank was scratched. In the battle of Medina Ridge, six American Apache helicopters destroyed 38 tanks. Since the Apaches were three miles away in darkness and rain when they fired their Hellfire rockets, the Iraqis literally did not know what hit them. Even when the Army went "over the top" into the Iraqi trenches, the slaughter was wholesale. An armored bulldozer buried alive the Iraqi defenders, unless they came out with their hands up. Terrified, Iraqi soldiers tore off all their clothes to prove they were harmless.

Such carnage was acceptable as long as it wasn't on TV. It wasn't until video cameras recorded American warplanes shooting up Iraqi cars and busses fleeing Kuwait on the so-called Highway of Death that President Bush decided to call an end to the massacre. A decade later, McCaffrey says he welcomes a public debate over the nature and goals of war. He worries that the American people --and even younger Army officers --have forgotten about the hard slogging of ground combat in Vietnam, and that they have an unreal view of modern warfare. "Do we understand that when we use military force decisively, we are actually killing people and breaking up their equipment? Do we understand that? Do you understand that when you actually apply power, you don't want a fair fight?" McCaffrey showed no signs of repentance or even disquiet. The lopsided nature of the Battle of Rumaylah, he told NEWSWEEK, made it "one of the happiest days of my life."