McCaffrey’s official headquarters was the division’s mobile tactical command post, but he directed the war from what is known as an assault command post, a unit of four tanks and three or so tracked vehicles which stays in the front lines with the advancing troops. At intervals, the vehicles would stop together, and McCaffrey’s staff would pull out canvas extensions to provide shade, and set up cots for quick naps. Fresh coffee was brewed, and the area neatly served as a mobile headquarters where McCaffrey could get up-to-date briefings and hold small staff meetings.
The men in the assault command post worked intimately with McCaffrey and were the most knowledgeable about what was going on. They included Captain Michael Bell, Captain Michael Bell, an armor officer who was McCaffrey’s personal aide — the man who arranged his schedule, screened his appointments, and monitored his telephone. Bell, a West Point graduate, was married to a fellow West Point graduate, whose father was a two-star general on active duty at the Pentagon. Bell considered it his responsibility to let his boss know what he thought, in essence confronting McCaffrey with observations he sometimes did not want to hear. Whatever the cause, Bell fell out of favor. “One day, he was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Patrick Lamar, the division’s operations officer, said. And then, he said, “Bell got blitzed.”
Lamar ran the assault command post, and thus was responsible, in war, for relaying McCaffrey’s orders to the field units. The son of an abandoned Second World War French war bride, he had worked his way through Kent State University, and to an Army commission, on an R.O.T.C. scholarship.
According to Lamar, the interval after the first skirmishing by Ware’s battalion provoked a debate inside McCaffrey’s assault command post. “There was no incoming,” Lamar told me. “I know that for a fact.” He described the battle as “a giant hoax. The Iraqis were doing absolutely nothing. I told McCaffrey I was having trouble confirming the incoming.” It didn’t matter, Lamar added. McCaffrey wanted to attack.
Colonel Townsend, the division artillery commander, remains skeptical today of some of the early-morning radio discussions between McCaffrey and Le Moyne. “There was not point-blank fire,” Townsend told me. “The excitement on the command net was not there.”Townsend thought that at least one antitank round had been fired. but there was also “some indication” in the radio traffic that “something wasn’t right.”
“There was a lot of confusion,” Captain Jim Morris, a West Point graduate who worked in the command post, told me, and also “some huddling” among Lamar, McCaffrey, and General Terry Scott, the deputy division commander. “I remember Lamar outside, smoking a cigarette and shaking his head.” Major Thomas Matyok, another junior officer in the command post, had the impression, as he told me, that there was not “a lot of enthusiasm” on Lamar’s part for a renewed attack on the Iraqi forces. He added that he and Captain Morris had a running joke about the lack of Iraqi aggression: Iraq was a surprisingly patriotic country “because everybody was always waving their national flag-all white.”
As one officer recalled the discussion, “General Scott was all for the attack” — even to the point of suggesting ways to provoke an Iraqi retaliation. “He was asking a lot of questions about ‘Can we get the Scout [helicopter] out and kick some dirt up and see what happens?”‘ Log Item 53, filed shortly after 7:30 A.M., states that Scott “requests PSYOPS Helicopter.”
“Scott was sitting there saying, ‘Let’s go get these guys,’” Lamar told me. Lamar said his own view was “We didn’t need to kill more people — we’d proved our point.” But, he said, “McCaffrey had to have his armor battle.” Scott, when he was asked about his actions that morning, told me he was “emphatic that the enemy had to start it. Eventually, we became convinced that it was a real, no-shit attack by the Iraqis.”
In the course of the discussions, Lamar reminded McCaffrey of XVIII Corps’s newly revised rules of engagement, and urged him to obtain higher authority. At that point, McCaffrey made a telephone call to General Luck, or so Lamar assumed, at XVIII Corps headquarters. (Luck later told me that he did not provide any guidance to McCaffrey, or have any conversation with him, immediately before the March 2nd counterattack.) And then, Lamar said, the discussion was over.
After the phone call, McCaffrey in effect pushed Lamar aside and assumed operational command of the division himself. “He just took me out of the picture,” Lamar said.
McCaffrey abruptly left the meeting and moved his command post, without Lamar, to Colonel Ware’s battalion. “He left the operations center in the cold,” Lamar said. “Nobody knew what the hell was going on.” (The division log suggested that the time of the shift in command post was 8:27 A.M.)
“I’ll kill somebody if I have to,” Lamar told me. “But if you’re going to violate a truce you’d better have permission to do so. McCaffrey put people at risk at the peace table.” Lamar was referring to General Schwarzkopf’s formal ceasefire talks with the Iraqi leadership, scheduled to begin the next morning.
Captain Bell, who had been present during the discussions before the counterattack, came to believe that McCaffrey’s decision to move his brigades to the east of the original ceasefire line was designed to provoke the Iraqis. Referring to the deployment in force, he said, “The entire regiment moves forward. He’s pulled the whole division in line. You have an army that comes forward in the dark after a ceasefire in a confined battlefield, and of course somebody’s going to shoot at you.” There is a serious distinction, nonetheless, Bell added, between a round or two fired in panic or self-defense and McCaffrey’s insistence that the Iraqis were “attacking us.” That “is pure fabrication,” he said.
Colonel Burt Tackaberry, the division’s chief aviation officer, had been the first pilot in the air early on the morning of March 2nd, and had flown at very low altitudes over the column of retreating Iraqis. His helicopter had been an easy target, but no one had taken a shot. He had noticed Iraqi tanks with their tubes in travel-lock position and pointed away from a forward target. “My first order was to go up and make sure the causeway was cut,” he recalled. It was still open, and he could see that about a hundred vehicles had already crossed over it. He was then ordered to make sure that no further vehicles got away. (“I never say no to McCaffrey,” he told me.) In an effort to get the vehicles to stop, he fired a few rounds over them. When they didn’t stop, he fired a TOW missile at the first vehicle, which turned out to be an ammunition truck. (“It exploded for hours.”) Once that vehicle was hit, none of the others could get around it. There was a panic. “All the people took off to the marshes and squatted down, “Tackaberry said. “They were scared to death.” There was still no opposition. Later that morning, McCaffrey, running the division from Ware’s Bradley, got on the radio and ordered the division’s missile-firing Apache helicopters — Tackaberry’s helicopters — to begin a full assault.
The division log placed the time of McCaffrey’s first known battle order at five minutes after nine o’clock. According to Log Item 74, McCaffrey directed that the causeway “be targeted” — thus blocking the basic escape route for the retreating forces. The division’s Apache helicopters were to”engage from south with intent of terminating engagement.” Within moments, the assault was all-out. One company reported that it had engaged a force of between a hundred and two hundred Iraqi “dismounts.” By ten o’clock, division headquarters had begun receiving reports of extensive damage to the Iraqi forces. One group of Apache helicopters reported in mid-morning, “Enemy not firing back, they are jumping in ditches to hide.” Forty minutes later, according to another log item, McCaffrey ordered artillery to be “used in conjunction with personnel sweep to ‘pound these guys’ and end the engagement.”
The Iraqis, unable to continue driving to the north, because of the bombed-out causeway, were easy targets. In “Lucky War,” an appraisal of the Gulf War published in 1994, the Army historian Colonel Richard M. Swain (Ret.) noted, “One can continue to be troubled, however, with the fact that most of the Iraqis killed seem to have been headed north or simply milling around — and not into the defender’s lines, notwithstanding that some of their number quite clearly seem to have initiated the combat by opening fire when U.S. forces approached their position. “Two other facts remain somewhat disturbing,” Swain added: that “only a small number of Iraqis seem to have acted with hostility that morning,” and that the Iraqis, when fired upon, had been many miles beyond the 24th Division’s front lines, as they existed on the morning of the ceasefire.
Some soldiers who found themselves ordered into the battle remained dubious. Stuart Hirstein, the 124th Military Intelligence Battalion sergeant whose unit had earlier rushed to help a supposedly beleaguered combat company in Ware’s battalion only to find the Iraqis sunning themselves on top of their tanks, now watched as the division’s missile-firing Apache helicopters systematically began to annihilate the tanks. “It pissed me off,” Hirstein told me. “They were not firing.”
Charles Sheehan-Miles recalled that his 1st Brigade tank platoon also had been told that morning to rush to the rescue of an American unit near Highway 8 that was under attack by a division of Iraqi soldiers. “We went up the road blowing the shit out of everything. It was like going down an American highway — people were all mixed up in cars and trucks. People got out of their cars and ran away. We shot them.” Sheehan-Miles said that at least one of his victims was in civilian clothing. “My orders were to shoot if they were armed or running. The Iraqis were getting massacred.”
James Manchester was listening to the radio and heard Colonel Ware receive permission to engage. “All of a sudden, all hell breaks loose,” he said. “It’s surreal.” At one point, the battalion’s tanks were so eager to fire on the retreating Iraqi forces that they moved off an embankment and got mired helplessly in the sand. If the Iraqis had any intention of continuing the war, Manchester explained, the immobilized American tanks made perfect targets. The tanks were “helpless,” but kept volleying cannon fire at the Iraqis as they were being pulled out of the sand by tow trucks. What happened along the causeway, he said, was “fucking murder.”
What we did was just seal the oilfield off so he” — the enemy — “couldn’t get out,” Le Moyne told the Army oral historian. “Yup, it’s about fifteen kilometres long and ten to fifteen kilometres wide…. So by using artillery we were able to seal the top and the bottom of it, and I’ll tell you, that once we did that the panic began to set in…. The Apaches strewed panic and when the columns started rolling up there was just absolute pandemonium. Everybody began to break and run. Run in blind fear and terror…. A Hellfire missile hitting aT-72 tank — it is an absolute catastrophic destruction. The turret absolutely separates and blows off a hundred feet in the air, a hundred yards away.”
The 24th Division continued pounding the Iraqi column throughout the morning, until every vehicle moving toward the causeway — tank, truck, or automobile — was destroyed. McCaffrey, in a written response to a question, reported that his forces had removed a hundred and eighty-seven tanks and armored vehicles from the Iraqi arsenal, along with four hundred or more trucks. The Battle of Rumaila was closely reviewed at the war’s end by an analyst for the C.I.A., who confirmed that the Iraqi losses were great. The toll included at least a hundred tanks from the Hammurabi division. “It’s like eating an artichoke,” one colonel had said of combat to Captain Bell. “Once you start, you can’t stop.”
One of the destroyed vehicles was a bus, which had been hit by a rocket. The precise number of its occupants who were injured or killed is not known, but they included civilians and children. One of the first Americans at the scene was Lieutenant Charles W. Gameros, Jr., a Scout platoon leader, who called in a Medevac team for the victims. At the time, he was “frustrated” by what he saw as needless deaths, Gameros recalled in an interview. “Now I look at it sadly,” he said. Unresisting Iraqis had been slain all morning, but the deaths of the children troubled many soldiers.
Later that afternoon, a platoon sergeant informed Charles Sheehan-Miles that he and a few colleagues might be handed a grisly mission. “He said, ‘We’ve blown away a busload of kids,’ and warned us that we were going to get called for a burial mission,” Sheehan-Miles recalled. Dirty details were a way of Army life, but this one would be special. “The sergeant gave us a heads-up so we could prepare ourselves.” The call never came.
McCaffrey was triumphant at battle’s end. “He was smiling like a proud father,”John Brasfield told me. The young soldier got a good look at the commanding general, because the 2-7 Scouts had something McCaffrey wanted: Soviet and Iraqi flags. The flags were not battle trophies but had been pulled down by the Scouts very early that morning while they were walking through a deserted Soviet construction plant along Highway 8. “We got orders to drive up after the battle and present him with the flags,” Brasfield recalled. “McCaffrey and Ware were surveying the battlefield from the back of the Bradley.” James Manchester thought the scene almost comical: “He wanted that flag. It was very important that he get the flag.” The soldiers were later told that McCaffrey had made a gift of one of the flags to General Schwarzkopf.
Le Moyne was jubilant as well. At the end of the battle, David Pierson writes in “Tuskers,” Le Moyne showed up at battalion headquarters. “Hot damn,” he exclaimed, according to Pierson. “I’ve killed more tanks today as an infantryman than my daddy did as a tanker in all of World War II.” He told the Army historian, “This whole operation has been a practical demonstration of what happens when you do things right. For the right kind of reasons. This war has had no Lieutenant Calleys in it…. Has no Jane Fondas. It’s just a very professional army.”
That afternoon, Le Moyne took Linda Suttlehan on a helicopter tour. “I flew around expecting to see a battlefield,” Suttlehan told me. Instead, she saw”millions of footprints in the sand” amid hundreds of smoking vehicles. “I thought, Wow. This is not the kind of battle I thought I’d see.”
A couple of evenings later, Pierson was driving toward the causeway. “It must have been a nightmare along this road as the Apaches dispensed death from five kilometers away one vehicle at a time,” he writes. “I stopped as a familiar smell wafted through the air…. It was the smell of a cookout on a warm summer day, the smell of a seared steak.”
James Manchester also wandered among the dead after the battle, and he began describing the scene during an interview, telling me about the vast number of “burning vehicles and burning bodies.” He stopped talking, and began to weep.
Sometime after the battle, an interpreter for the 124th Military Intelligence Battalion interrogated a captured Iraqi tank commander who, according to an officer in the 124th, plaintively asked again and again, “Why are you killing us? All we were doing was going home. Why are you killing us?”
After the engagement, reporters were flown by helicopter to McCaffrey’s assault command headquarters for a briefing and interviews. McCaffrey praised the “initiative, intellect, and determinaton” of his troops, and added that “Saddam Hussein still doesn’t know what hit him.” He also said, “We dismantled the Iraqi Army, reduced it to a third of what it had been.” McCaffrey gave the press corps a statistical rundown of miles travelled, weapons confiscated, prisoners captured, and tanks and trucks demolished. An officer in his command post recalled that”one of the constant themes” was the General’s belief that “we hadn’t destroyed enough.”
Analysts in Washington and at General Schwarzkopf’s headquarters were skeptical of McCaffrey’s claim that the Iraqis fired first. A senior Iraq analyst for the C.I.A. told me that he and his colleagues had concluded almost immediately that there was “no way” the retreating Iraqi forces opened fire on the 24th Division. People at the C.I.A. understood that the Hammurabi tanks had a much more important mission than continuing an already lost war: more than half the Republican Guard units made their way back to Baghdad and helped to keep Saddam Hussein in power.
Military analysts at the coalition headquarters asked to view the battle films that were automatically recorded by cameras on board each Apache helicopter. The footage clearly showed, one officer told me, that the Iraqi tanks were in full retreat when the attack began, and in no way posed a threat to the American forces. “These guys were in an offroad defensive position — deployed in a perimeter,” the analyst added. Once the American attack reached full force, some Iraqi vehicles did attempt to return fire. “We saw T-72s in battle lines, firing away blindly in the air. They didn’t know what was killing them, but they were gamely shooting — knowing they would die.” (An American could be overheard on the footage shouting, as a missile tore into an Iraqi vehicle, “Say hello to Allah!”)
It was clear at the Pentagon, too, that something had gone awry. One colonel assigned at the time to monitor war reports at the National Military Command Center — he is now a major general, and still on active duty — told me that the reports from the 24th Division were extremely ”unsettling,” because “it made no sense for a defeated army to invite their own death. It didn’t track with anything we knew about the theatre. It came across as shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone was incredulous.”
The disquiet reached into XVIII Corps headquarters, where doubts about McCaffrey’s attack were widespread. On March 3rd, General Luck, McCaffrey’s immediate boss, flew to the 24th Division headquarters to ask McCaffrey what had gone on. Luck, who retired from the Army with four stars, said of McCaffrey, “I have a deep and abiding respect for anyone who serves his country.” But, he added, speaking carefully, “I felt when I was in command I had a parental responsibility to my soldiers. You don’t bring any limelight on yourself. Better to give it to your soldiers.”
“I went straight up there,” Luck went on. “I asked all the people I suspected, ‘What went on? Why did it happen at this time?’ I went up in a positive way and looked them in the eye. Everybody said, ‘This is a fair deal.”‘The Arms, he added, “has built everything on trust and responsibility. I’ve got to respect what they say. When you give them every opportunity to say what happened and nothing is said, what do you do?” Luck’s dilemma was acute: an official inquiry was unlikely to produce any evidence to contradict McCaffrey’s account, and would have undermined the Army’s victory in the war.
Colonel Frank Akers, who retired as a brigadier general, accompanied Luck on his visit to the division’s headquarters. “He was worried,” Akers said of Luck. The anxiety was shared by many on the staff of XVIII Corps. “Deep down, there were several of us who said, ‘Something doesn’t feel right about this,’ ” Akers told me. ” ‘It doesn’t quite add up.’ ” The response to Luck’s questioning at 24th Division headquarters didn’t help. McCaffrey’s people were “kind of looking at their feet and shuffling around,” Akers said. One of Luck’s questions caused consternation, Patrick Lamar told Army investigators in 1991. Luck”turned around and said, ‘How’s the ceasefire line going?’ We said, ‘What ceasefire line?’ ”
Lamar’s staff showed the Corps commander the division’s ceasefire deployment lines, as of March 2nd. Luck said,”This isn’t the right one, fellows.” Lamar, the loyal soldier, took the blame. “My guys screwed up,” he said. He told Luck that the division had deployed forward because someone made an innocent mistake and got the coordinates wrong. McCaffrey said nothing.
Lamar laughed at himself as he told me the story eight years later. “McCaffrey played stupid in front of Luck,” he said, adding that McCaffrey’s getting the coordinates wrong had been anything but a mistake.
A few days after the battle, McCaffrey and the other Army generals who had helped win the war took part in an extended review and planning meeting at King Khalid Military City. The talks were headed by Lieutenant General Yeosock, who, as the Third Army commander, had been responsible for much of the Army’s war planning. He was assisted by his operations officer, Brigadier General Steven L. Arnold. One of the first steps in the review, according to some of the officers who participated, was to discuss and compare the reporting of each division — the logs, journals, and situation reports — with the available satellite data fixing the division’s location.The officers did not dispute McCaffrey’s claim that the Iraqis had fired first, but the overriding issue was the most basic one of all: why had the 24th Division moved during the ceasefire into the path of the retreating Iraqis? McCaffrey, in a May 8th letter to The New Yorker, stated that all the appropriate headquarters always knew his position. “U.S. Army elements in Desert Storm,” the letter said, “were the first military force in history that almost always knew exactly where we were.” The 24th Division “never falsely reported its position,” McCaffrey wrote. “I never did so and never instructed any of the soldiers under my command to do so.”
A number of generals at the King Khalid commanders’ conference remember it differently. Most of the position reports to higher headquarters during the war were accurate to within a few dozen metres, General Ronald H. Griffith (Ret.), who commanded the 1st Armored Division in the war, recalled. “In Barry’s logs,” Griffith added,”the distances were off dramatically — dozens of miles.” McCaffrey spent much of the meeting insisting that he needed to adjust his record, and was finally permitted to do so. “We all laughed about it,” the general said. “If we’d known that he was rewriting history, we’d have protested more.”
The general’s point was that the 24th Division was not always where McCaffrey said it was. “Barry would tell you where he was going or where he had been,” General Yeosock told me later, “but his division isn’t there. Some commanders will tell you where they’re going; others will not.” For General Arnold and the Third Army planners who were plotting the Iraqi retreat, McCaffrey’s antics masked a consequential discrepancy. They did not know that the 24th Division would be blocking the causeway over Lake Hammar. “We gave the Iraqis an area” of safe passage, which included the causeway, Arnold told me. “We didn’t know there were two American brigades there. We would not have sent the Iraqis there.” The planners would have told the Iraqis to get home another way. None of the assembled generals, of course, had any reason to suspect that an official investigation would take place into the March 2nd counterattack, and the potential significance of McCaffrey’s inexact reporting escaped everyone at King Khalid Military City. Arnold recalled, “We took it as an honest mistake and attempted to sort it out.”
According to the Army historian Richard Swain, who was the only outsider allowed to attend the review, McCaffrey arrived without any detailed records, and came close to turning the proceedings into a shambles. “He got dates all wrapped around the axle,” Swain said, and unsuccessfully tried to reconcile his version of events with the versions of others. The goal of Arnold’s conference, Swain explained, was to create a broad narrative sequence of what had happened, on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis, during the war. McCaffrey “kept on insisting that things happened in different time frames. He was confused, and, being McCaffrey, assumed everyone else was wrong and he was right.” At one point, Swain said, McCaffrey was arguing about which day was which. By then, he said, the conference had degenerated into “an attempt to get McCaffrey’s times right.”
McCaffrey remained triumphant. According to “Tuskers,” he told his troops before they flew back to Fort Stewart, “You knocked them to their goddam knees in the opening day of the war and they never got up.” Later in the speech, he said.”You knocked them to their knees because they were like an eighth-grade team playing with pro football players.” He had never been “more proud of American soldiers in my entire life as watching your attack on 2 March…. It’s fascinating to watch what’s happening in our country. God, it’s the damnedest thing I ever saw in my Life. It’s probably the single most unifying event that has happened in America since World War II…. The upshot will be that, just like Vietnam had the tragic effect on our country for years, this one has brought back a new way of looking at ourselves. ”
After the offensive, McCaffrey asked his senior aviation officer, Colonel Tackaberry, to provide him with a list of pilots who deserved the Distinguished Flying Cross. This time, Tackaberry did say no to his commander. Or, at any rate, he didn’t say yes. There was a second request, and then a third. Tackaberry refused. “I put it in writing, and said, ‘I do not believe that any of these people deserved it.”‘ His reasoning was simple: none of his pilots had flown in a sustained battle, with the enemy firing at them. “Our pilots were killing from three or four miles away,” he said, and were not in a “battle,” as the authorized Army history later reported. He never gave McCaffrey any names.
There was a final Gulf War assignment for Major Brennan as well. McCaffrey ordered him to find two Saudi Arabian camels and transport them to Fort Stewart, where they could serve as constant reminders of the division’s success in the desert. “I’m the camel guy,” Brennan told me. “Got the mission personally from him. He said, ‘I want a mascot.’ ” Two camels were found, with the aid of the Saudi Arabian government, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to allow them into the country. McCaffrey persisted. “We ended up buying some from a farmer somewhere in Indiana,” Brennan said.