Post 16. Desert Storm – The Ground War
[Featured Image: Greg Young / AP]
The Coalition’s bombing campaign ended February 23, 1991. It was the eve of a massive ground assault, code name “Desert Sabre,” to drive Saddam Hussein’s occupying forces out of Kuwait. Saddam called it the “mother of all battles,” which he borrowed from the Quran. Mecca is “Umm al-Qura,” the “mother of all cities.” But it really wasn’t much of a battle, more what the Brits called a “grouse shoot,” although that puts it much too quaintly, it was, in a word, a massacre.
On paper, Iraq’s military was impressive, the fourth largest standing army in the world, almost one million men, 47 infantry and 9 armored divisions. But the number of Iraqi soldiers actually in Kuwait was a guess based on the Russian Table of Organization – the Russians were Iraq’s military advisors – rather than hard intelligence, the number, 500,000, pulled out of the air, but easily remembered and so repeated again and again, an echo chamber. In fact, it was 300,000 tops.
And for than two months Iraqi lines had been pounded with 14,000 artillery rounds, Lockheed AC-130 fixed wing gunships and B-52 bombers. On February 19, General Schwarzkopf told reporters in Riyadh that every day Iraq was losing about two battalions of tanks, 100 tanks, to coalition air strikes, “An attrition rate,” he said, “no army can sustain,” concluding, “Iraq’s military is hurting and hurting very badly. Our assessment . . . is that they are on the verge of collapse. . . . If I was getting the same pattern of reports about my forces, I’d be dreadfully worried.”
Bottom line, Iraqi forces in Kuwait were not nearly as numerous and formidable as the Bush Administration was telling the American people, and after Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran, most of them had no stomach for going into battle again. Ordinary soldiers, many of them conscripts, were deserting in droves, despite the execution squads roving behind their lines. And they had been out there in the desert almost six months, the last five weeks with coalition bombs raining down on their heads, supply and communication lines severed, eating bread hard as stones. Starving and demoralized, they may well have felt like men on death row. They were.
Coalition ground forces were arrayed along a line that stretched from the Persian Gulf 300 miles west into the desert. At 4:00 a.m. February 24, the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne and French 6th Armored divisions raced into Iraq on the far western left flank, as U.S. 1st and 2nd Marine and U.S. Army Tiger divisions, supplemented by Saudi and Pan-Arab mechanized infantry, drove directly north along the coast, where Saddam had concentrated his forces in two defensive belts with mine fields and oil-filled ditches ready to be set afire.
But there was almost no resistance. The 2d Marines captured the Iraqi 9th Tank Battalion intact, 55 tanks and more than 5,000 soldiers, and the 1st Marine Division destroyed 21 tanks and seized 3,000 more prisoners. When the total hit 10,000, the Marines had so many prisoners they literally didn’t know what to do with them.
By the afternoon of the first day, Marine engineers using tanks with forked mine plows had cleared six lanes through the Iraqi defenses south of Kuwait City. As darkness fell, the U.S. VII Corps and British 1st Armored divisions, in the center of the line, punched into Iraq, followed by the Army’s 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1st Infantry Division. The VII Corps, led by Lt. General Frederick Franks, was an army onto itself: 142,000 soldiers, 1,500 Abrams M-1A main battle tanks, 1,500 Bradley Fighting Vehicles (armored personnel carriers outfitted with a 25mm cannon and TOW anti-tank missiles), 700 artillery pieces and 225 attack helicopters.
February 25. Round 2, the now legendary “Left Hook,” or what Schwarzkopf and his staff called their “Hail Mary” play. Using GPS – there are no road signs in the desert – and traveling at up to 30 miles per hour, the VII Corps armor spearhead crossed 200 miles of open desert in 48 hours and curled east to cut off the Iraqis’ lines of supply and retreat. General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, “Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”
The Iraqis had expected the main coalition attack to come from the south and east. Left Hook caught them looking the wrong way. With VII Corps armor columns still 40 miles away, A-10 Thunderbolts and Apache and Cobra attack helicopters hit Iraqi positions with rotary cannon fire and heat-seeking missiles, followed 10 miles out by artillery salvos, inside five miles psy-ops teams broadcast surrender warnings. This was usually enough to bring the Iraqis out of their bunkers, hands raised. Rinse and repeat.
Vince Crawley, writing for Stars and Stripes, interviewed soldiers from Iron Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. 1st Lt. Paul Calvert: “They (commanders) wanted us to pull back and dump artillery on ’em. But I wasn’t about to, not with as many white flags as I saw. As soon as our tanks started firing, we saw people coming out of bunkers. From that point we were just trying our damnedest not to shoot any people who were surrendering.”
This was no surprise to Schwarzkopf. He told reporters, “One of the things we learned immediately prior to the initiation of the campaign – it contributed, in fact, to the timing of the ground campaign – is that so many people were deserting . . . [from] a cause that they did not believe in. They [didn’t] want to be there, didn’t want to fight their fellow Arabs, they were lied to when they went into Kuwait, and then after they got there, they had a leadership [that] . . . kept them there only at the point of a gun.”
In 48 hours, more than 50,000 Iraqis had surrendered and the battlefield looked like this.
When Iraqi units chose to stand and fight, and a few Republican Guard units did, the outcome was beyond one-sided. Coalition tankers had night vision goggles, and the heat from Iraqi tank engines lit up their thermal imaging screens. “Five kilometers out, the Americans could see . . . an Iraqi soldier peeing in the bushes,” but the Iraqis were often unaware they were even there until shells from the Abrams – deadly from 2,500 yards, 25 football fields – blew up in their faces. Navy Secretary John Lehman, one can fairly say, bragged to Congress, “We own the night.”
26 February. At the Battle of 73 Easting (name based on GPS coordinates), the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, three squadrons each with 360 soldiers, 27 Abrams and 36 Bradleys, engaged the Republican Guard’s elite Tawakalna Division, commanded, ironically, by a graduate of the U.S. Army’s elite Infantry Officer Advanced Training school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
As northeasterly shamal winds kicked up a driving sandstorm, Iraqi forces were blinded, but American tankers, using infrared-imaging sights, could see, and destroyed 160 tanks, 55 taken out by one squadron headed by H.R. McMaster, then a troop captain and later National Security Advisor to the 45th President of the United States. The turrets of the Iraqi’s Soviet-made T-72 tanks often popped straight up and off with a direct hit, and after 73 Easting, “the last great tank battle of the 20th century,” “pop-tops” littered the desert floor.
Meanwhile, twenty miles from the northeast corner of Kuwait, the U.S First Armored Division encountered the 2nd Armored Brigade of the Republican Guard Medina Division, dug in defilade, on the back side of a ridge, really just small rise in the otherwise featureless landscape, but enough, theoretically, to expose the undercarriage of American tanks so that they could be picked off one by one as they crested the ridge. Not that it did the Iraqis any good.
Using thermal imaging to cut the haze, the American tankers scythed through Iraqi lines. In the low visibility conditions, the Iraqi tankers could only aim at muzzle flashes, and with a maximum range of 1,800 yards, their rounds fell short. In just 40 minutes, the First Armored backed up by Apache helicopters with Hellfire rockets destroyed more than 100 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.
Lieut. Col. Bill Feyk, brigade task force commander, told Michael Young, reporting for the New York Times, “It was like driving through Dante’s inferno.” American tankers, accustomed to hitting wooden tanks on test ranges, were awestruck seeing Iraqi tanks turn into fireballs with their crews inside, burning so hot there were almost no bodies left. Steel coffins.
Sgt. 1st Class Larry Porter, 32, from Portsmouth, Ohio, told Young, “We all had a chance to call our wives and most of the guys could not talk to them. I don’t think my wife needs to know what took place out here. I don’t want her to know that side of me.” PTSD in waiting.
Only one American was killed at Medina Ridge, a cavalry scout whose vehicle was hit by an errant Abrams round. Friendly fire, in the fog of battle always a worry, killed 35 of the 154 Americans who died in combat in the First Gulf War. The number would have been greater but for an infrared light-emitting device invented by Henry C. “Budd” Croley of Army Material Command. Attached to vehicle antennas, their purplish glow, visible for miles with night vision goggles, was key to distinguishing friend from foe. What were they called? Yup. Budd Lights.
February 26, 1:35 a.m. (5:35 p.m., February 25 in Washington), Bagdad Radio announced that Iraq was withdrawing from Kuwait in compliance with U.N. Resolution 660. President Bush derisively called Saddam’s announcement a “cruel hoax,” because he had not agreed to all of the U.N. resolutions, e.g., renouncing his claims to Kuwait, paying reparations, destroying chemical weapons, etc., etc. But Iraqi soldiers and civilians alike did not wait to be asked twice, streaming en masse north out of Kuwait even before Saddam finished speaking.
Circling over Highway 80, the main six-lane artery between Kuwait City and Iraq, a Northrop Grumman E-8 with a state-of-the-art Joint Surveillance and Targeting Radar System (J-STARS) detected a large convoy of trucks, busses, passenger cars and, mixed in here and there, Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers, 1400 vehicles in all. Retreating, fleeing in panic, whatever, fair game all the same.
A-6 Intruders from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing hit both ends of the 4-mile long column with Mark-20 cluster bombs, creating a massive traffic jam, a killing box bookended by burning vehicles. A-10 Warthogs, flying low and slow, made multiple strafing runs with 30mm rotary cannons. Shooting fish in a barrel. One pilot gasped, “There’s just nothing like it, the biggest Fourth of July show you’ve ever seen, those tanks just go ‘boom’ and then shells flying out . . . white hot. It’s wonderful!” One way to look at it.
Having taken the Mutla Ridge, the highest point for hundreds of miles, overlooking Highway 80 and controlling a major crossroads in the Kuwait City suburb of al-Jahra, the Army’s Tiger Brigade, 2d Armored Division, had front row center seats and added its firepower to the carnage.
Soon everyone wanted in on the action. For the next 10 hours, wave after wave of coalition aircraft, anything “with wings and a bomb rack,” sometimes in holding patterns waiting their turn, annihilated the trapped vehicles. Richard Randle of the Providence Journal, embedded on board the carrier U.S.S. Ranger, reported, “Air strikes . . . being launched so feverishly . . . that the crews, working to the strains of the Lone Ranger (William Tell overture), often passed on their projectile of choice . . . because it took too long to load, they took whatever was on the flight deck.” Any vehicle that managed to work its way out of the jam was hunted down and destroyed. A few hundred lucky individuals, including a woman and two children, who survived the inferno by running out into the desert, were taken prisoner.
A few miles to the east, on the four-lane coastal Highway 8 to Basra, a similar debacle was unfolding. More than 500 vehicles, including elements of the Hammurabi 1st Armored Division of the Republican Guard, were strung out over 60 miles. General Barry McCaffrey, commanding the 24th Infantry Division, called them “tethered goats,” and A-10s and Apache gunships picked them off one by one.
Joyce Chediak, a Lebanese journalist, arrived on scene a few days later: “On the inland highway to Basra is mile after mile of burned, smashed, shattered vehicles . . . tanks, armored cars, trucks, autos, fire trucks. On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun. . . . windshields melted away, huge tanks reduced to shrapnel. No survivors known or likely”
Paul Sullivan, who fought in Desert Storm and went on to create the National Gulf War Resources Center, recalled “miles and miles and miles of charred trucks, tanks, blown up buildings, pieces of arms, pieces of legs every which way.” Apocalyptic.
Here’s Schwarzkopf’s after the fact rationale: “Well, the first reason we bombed the highway . . . is if we destroyed that Iraqi military equipment [it] would not be around for them to use later on. Second, the people running away . . . [were] a bunch of . . . of rapists, murderers and thugs who had raped and pillaged . . . and trying to get out of the country before they were caught.”
Actually, many were civilians, including Egyptian, Palestinian, Pakistani and Sudanese guest workers, just trying to get out and back home. In truth, the obliteration of the convoys was not only unnecessary, it was dishonorable, if not a war crime.
Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention: “Persons taking no active part in hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those place hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely. . . .”
Whatever gloss Schwarzkopf tried to put on it, as scenes from the Highway of Death flashed around the world, the optics got very bad for the Bush Administration. Egyptians, Syrians, even Saudis and Kuwaitis, could not stomach the sight of fellow Arabs being slaughtered. And to Americans reveling in victory, it just looked bad, in football terms, not only running up the score, but stomping on the losing team all the way into the locker room.
So on February 28, just 100 hours after the onset of the ground war, Bush ordered a cease fire. In a press conference at the Riyadh Hyatt, Schwarzkopf declared victory, “We have done the job. We can stop. We have gotten them out of Kuwait.”
And decimated Iraqi forces in the bargain. The numbers tell all. In the 10 weeks between January 17, when the first bomb fell on them, and the February 28 cease fire, 35,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed – some estimates run to over 100,000 – and at least 75,000 wounded. 63,000, by rough count, surrendered, some even tried give themselves up to Baltimore Sun reporters arriving on the scene outside Kuwait City.
In comparison, of the 540,000 Americans deployed in the First Gulf War, 219 lost their lives, 154 in combat, 35 by friendly fire, and 65 in non-combat incidents. More Americans died accidentally in the lead-up to the ground war than were killed during it. Casualty rates among British, French, Saudi and other coalition forces were similarly light. Ironically, in the six months from September 1990 to February 1991, an estimated 1,200 of the 33,000 female soldiers deployed became pregnant; a total of six were killed in non-combat accidents and Scud attacks. Bottom line, they were much more likely to have a baby after the war than die in combat during it;
Iraq’s equipment losses were off the charts. Of its 4,650 tanks in Kuwait, 3,750, 85%, were destroyed, along with 1,450 of its 2,900 armored personnel carriers, and 2,925, 90%, of 3,250 artillery pieces. From start to finish, only 16 Abrams tanks were disabled, most by friendly fire or mechanical failures, not a single British Challenger was lost.
But what Schwarzkopf didn’t say is that if Bush & Company wanted regime change in Bagdad, then preventing Republican Guard units from making it back home intact was a legitimate strategic objective. But the way to accomplish that was not to indiscriminately bomb, obliterate, from one end to the other, convoys that included civilians, guest workers, women and children, rather to destroy the remaining bridges over the Euphrates River, in particular the causeway across the brackish al-Hammar lake and marshes south of Basra, and sever the Republican Guard retreat.
On March 2, two days after the cease fire and less than 24 hours before the formal surrender talks, General Barry McCaffrey’s 24th Infantry Division, on the leading edge of “Left Hook,” tried to do just that. It caught and cut off units of the Republican Guard Hammurabi Division on Highway 8 just south of the Lake Hammar causeway. As they did in the Kuwait City suburbs, coalition airplanes boxed the five-mile long convoy into a kill zone, where 24th Infantry artillery and Apache helicopter gunships pulverized 250 armored vehicles, killed at least 700 Iraqi soldiers and captured 3,000 more.
May 22, 2000, the New Yorker Magazine published an article, Annals of War, by long-time investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, based on 3,000 interviews with officers and enlisted personnel about, in trooper lingo, the “Battle of the Junkyard.”
Lt. Gen. Ronald H. Griffith, who commanded the 1st Armored Division, told Hersh, “It was just a bunch of tanks in a train, transported by trailer truck, and Barry McCaffrey made it a battle . . . when it never was one.” The 3rd Army commandant, Lt. Gen. John J. Yeosock, had the same view, “Barry was looking for a battle, . . . and ended up fighting sand dunes.” One tanker confessed to Hersh, “We were part of the biggest firing squad in history.”
McCaffrey denied deliberately cutting off the convoy and claimed he ordered the assault because two of his company commanders reported taking fire from the Iraqis. Under the U.S. – imposed cease fire rules of engagement, U.S. force could engage only if fired upon. But Lt. Col. Patrick Lamar, McCaffrey’s own operations officer, told Hersh, “It was a giant hoax, . . . the Iraqis were doing absolutely nothing . . . I told McCaffrey, I am unable to confirm incoming fire.”
McCaffrey, a former Army Ranger and Vietnam veteran twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’s second-highest award for valor, was exonerated by a subsequent Army inquiry. But after Hersh’s New Yorker article in May 2000, one retired Army officer told Robert Novak, the conservative Washington Post columnist, “Hersh has it about 85 percent right. Everybody knows that. The old boys’ network just circled the wagons.”
Right or wrong, regardless of who fired first, whether or not McCaffrey was making up his own rules of engagement, whether or not he instinctively knew that letting the Republican Guard get away was a mistake, his efforts were too little, too late. Indeed, the CIA later determined that because the Marines attacking directly toward Kuwait City had advanced so quickly, four of Saddam Hussein’s eight Republican divisions, Adnan, Nebuchadnezzar, Al Faw and 8th Special Forces, never moved south to defend it, never even entered Kuwait, and so were not in position to be cut off by the Left Hook. Bottom line, when Bush decided not to take the war to Baghdad, Saddam’s power base was secure.
Now to the home front. The fact that only 219 Americans lost their lives in the First Gulf War was cold comfort to the comrades and loved ones of those who died. The pain of these losses was captured in the iconic photo by David Turnley of three soldiers from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, two wounded and one killed on February 27, each in a different Bradley at Jalibah Airfield on the outskirts of Kuwait City.
Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz (left) and Cpl. Michael Tsangarakis (center) were waiting in a medical evac helicopter when a body bag was put in through the door onto the floor next to them. Kozakiewicz asked the medic, “Who is this? Let me see his dog tags,” only to learn that it was a fellow tanker, Pvt. Andy Alaniz. He recalled later, “I was just dumbfounded. He just got married. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.” Turnley caught the moment.
According to Tim Graham, reporting for the Buffalo News, the Army claimed that Alaniz was killed when his Bradley ran over a mine. Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis knew better. It was friendly fire. The 69th Armor Regiment had strayed too close to the 24th Mechanized, mistook the Bradleys for Iraqi vehicles, and unleashed a dozen 120 mm armor-piercing sabot rounds made with depleted uranium, i.e., nuclear waste, more than twice as dense as steel. One ripped through the first Bradley and sliced Alaniz in half, a second hit the second Bradley, wounding Tsangarakis and killing one of his crew, a third missed Kozakiewicz by 6 inches. When uranium-tipped shells explode, they release clouds of alpha radiation-emitting oxide dust, so every year Kozakiewicz goes to the Baltimore VA to make sure he does not have leukemia.
Alaniz’s pregnant widow, Catherine, his high school sweetheart, only 19, moved in with her parents and gave birth to a girl. Turnley’s photograph comforted her. “I don’t see my husband in a body bag, I see a man crying, I see my husband surrounded by people who loved him.” She hung a copy on the wall of her living room. Ken Kozakiewicz kept one hidden behind the stereo cabinet in his basement.
Americans, especially in the flush of victory, tend to forget that the deaths of the Iraqi soldiers who were killed were just as painful, devastating, for their families. Not just a number, but at least 35,000 young Iraqi men who died leaving mourning wives, children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, comrades. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Shylock, if we wound them, do they not bleed like us, if we shoot them, do they not die like us?
It did not have to be that way. Gorbachev again: “We still had a chance on the last night – as a result of very intensive contacts through the ambassador and others during the bombing. Saddam Hussein had agreed to stop the hostilities and make an immediate pullout. I told this to the Americans, but . . . they gave the command to start the land war. . . . For the American leadership, . . . prestige was the main thing. I think it was possible to reach a political settlement but, as I was told on the phone, the troops had already started their advance.”
Having amassed all that fire power in the desert, Bush, Cheney, Baker, et al., were not about to negotiate, cut a deal, with Saddam Hussein, even if not waiting to see if there was a way out through diplomacy meant that thousands of men, women and children would die. They were hell bent, by George and by Norman, on demonstrating American power and might to all the world, and expunging once and for all the ignominious defeat in Vietnam, and they did not want to wait one more day, one hour, one minute. They had forgotten, or never learned, the precept of the Chinese philosopher and military strategist, Sun Tzu:
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Postscript 2015. 24 years later, Catherine Alaniz, now remarried, tracked down Ken Kozakiewicz and arranged to meet him and Michael Tsangarakis at a Union, Pennsylvania hotel on Memorial Day weekend. The son of a retired Army recruiter and a very Rambo-like guy in the run-up to the Gulf War, Kozakiewicz was now suffering from PTSD and prone to panic attacks just driving down the highway. He was quaking in his boots about meeting Catherine. But with his wife at the wheel, he made it, and that weekend the survivors hugged, cried, and in a redo of Andy’s funeral, Ken meticulously folded the casket flag and presented it to Catherine.
Flashback. On April 19, 1995, 168 people, including Catherine’s father, U.S. Customs Agent Claude Medearis, were killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. One of the bombers, Timothy McVeigh, drove a Bradley in Desert Storm. He was convicted of murder, given the death penalty and executed June 11, 2001. Irony writ large.
Next. The First Gulf War: Aftermath.