Leon Daniel, as did others who reported from Vietnam during the 1960s, knew about war and death. So he was puzzled by the lack of corpses at the tip of the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Iraq on Feb. 25, 1991. Clearly there had been plenty of killing. The 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) had smashed through the defensive front-line of Saddam Hussein’s army the day before, Feb. 24, the opening of the Desert Storm ground war to retake Kuwait. Daniel, representing United Press International, was part of a press pool held back from witnessing the assault on 8,000 Iraqi defenders. “They wouldn’t let us see anything,” said Daniel, who had seen about everything as a combat correspondent.
The artillery barrage alone was enough to cause a slaughter. A 30-minute bombardment by howitzers and multiple-launch rockets scattering thousands of tiny bomblets preceded the attack by 8,400 American soldiers riding in 3,000 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon of Feb. 25 that the press pool was permitted to see where the attack occurred. There were groups of Iraqi prisoners. About 2,000 had surrendered. But there were no bodies, no stench of feces that hovers on a battlefield, no blood stains, no bits of human beings. “You get a little firefight in Vietnam and the bodies would be stacked up like cordwood,” Daniel said. Finally, Daniel found the Division public affairs officer, an Army major.
“Where the hell are all the bodies?” Daniel said.
“What bodies?” the officer replied.
Daniel and the rest of the world would not find out until months later why the dead had vanished. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers, some of them alive and firing their weapons from World War I-style trenches, were buried by plows mounted on Abrams main battle tanks. The Abrams flanked the trench lines so that tons of sand from the plow spoil funneled into the trenches. Just behind the tanks, actually straddling the trench line, came M2 Bradleys pumping 7.62mm machine gun bullets into the Iraqi troops.
“I came through right after the lead company,” said Army Col. Anthony Moreno, who commanded the lead brigade during the 1st Mech’s assault. “What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with people’s arms and legs sticking out of them. For all I know, we could have killed thousands.”
A thinner line of trenches on Moreno’s left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade commanded by Col. Lon Maggart. He estimated his troops buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers. Darkness halted the attack on the Iraqi trench line. By the next day, the 3rd Brigade joined in the grisly innovation. “A lot of people were killed,”‘ said Col. David Weisman, the unit commander.
One reason there was no trace of what happened in the Neutral Zone on those two days were the ACEs. It stands for Armored Combat Earth movers and they came behind the armored burial brigade leveling the ground and smoothing away projecting Iraqi arms, legs and equipment.
PFC Joe Queen of the 1st Engineers was impervious to small arms fire inside the cockpit of the massive earth mover. He remained cool and professional as he smoothed away all signs of the carnage. Queen won the Bronze Star for his efforts. “A lot of guys were scared,” Queen said, “but I enjoyed it.” Col. Moreno estimated more than 70 miles of trenches and earthen bunkers were attacked, filled in and smoothed over on Feb. 24-25.
What happened at the Neutral Zone that day has become a metaphor for the conduct of modern warfare. While political leaders bask in voter approval for destroying designated enemies, they are increasingly determined to mask the reality of warfare that causes voters to recoil.
There was no more sophisticated practitioner of this art of bloodless warfare than President George H. W. Bush. As a Navy pilot during World War II, Bush knew the ugly side of war. He once recounted how a sailor wandered into an aircraft propeller on their carrier in the South Pacific. The chief petty officer in charge of the flight deck called for brooms to sweep the man’s guts overboard. “I can still hear him,” Bush said of the chief’s orders. “I have seen the hideous face of war.”
Bush was badly stung by the reality of warfare while president. After the 1989 American invasion of Panama – where reporters were also blocked from witnessing a short-lived slaughter in Panama City – Bush held a White House news conference to boast about the dramatic assault on the Central American leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Bush was chipper and wisecracking with reporters when two major networks shifted coverage to the arrival ceremony for American soldiers killed in Panama at the Air Force Base in Dover, Del.
Millions of viewers watched as the network television screens were split: Bush bantering with the press while flag-draped coffers were carried off Air Force planes by honor guards. Dover was the military mortuary for troops killed while serving abroad. On Bush’s orders, the Pentagon banned future news coverage of honor guard ceremonies for the dead. The ban was continued by President Bill Clinton.
Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush summoned battlefield commanders to Camp David, Md., for a council of war. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, chief of Central Command with military responsibility for the Persian Gulf region, flew from Tampa, Fla. He and Central Command’s air boss, Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, were flown from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., by helicopter to the retreat in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Md. Horner said golf carts took them to the president’s cabin. Bush was wearing a windbreaker.
“The president was very concerned about casualties,” Horner recalled. “Not just our casualties but Iraqi casualties. He was very emphatic. He wanted casualties minimized on both sides. He went around the room and asked each military commander if his orders were understood. We all said we would do our best.”
According to Horner, he took a number of steps to limit the use of anti-personnel bombs used during more than 30 days of air attacks on Iraqi army positions. Schwarzkopf’s psychological warfare experts littered Iraqi troops with leaflets that warned of imminent attacks by B52 Strategic Bombers. Arabic warnings told troops to avoid sleeping in tanks or near artillery positions which were prime targets for 400 sorties by allied aircraft attacking day and night.
“We could have killed many more with cluster munitions,” Horner said of bomblets that create lethal minefields around troop emplacements once they are dropped by aircraft.
But Bush’s Camp David orders were also translated into minimizing the perception – if not the reality – of Desert Storm casualties. The president’s point man for controlling these perceptions was Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense. To Cheney, that meant controlling the press, which he saw as a collective voice that portrayed the Pentagon as a can’t do agency that wasted too much money and routinely failed in its mission.
“I did not look on the press as an asset,” Cheney said in an interview after Desert Storm. He was interviewed by authors of a Freedom Forum book, “America’s Team – The Odd Couple,” which explored the relationship between the media and the Defense Department. To Cheney, containing the military was his way of protecting the Pentagon’s credibility. “Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed,” Cheney said of the media.
This management had two key ingredients: Control the flow of information through high level briefings while impeding reporters such as Leon Daniel. According to Cheney, he and Army Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, orchestrated the briefings because “the information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence that I could leave that to the press.”
The relentless appetite of broadcasting networks made Pentagon control a simple matter. Virtually every U.S. weapon system is monitored by television cameras either on board warplanes and helicopters or hand-held by military cameramen or individual soldiers. This “gun camera” footage may be released or withheld depending on the decisions of political bosses of the military. So when the air war began in January 1991, the media was fed carefully selected footage by Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia and Powell in Washington, DC. Most of it was downright misleading.
Briefings by Schwarzkopf and other military officers mostly featured laser guided or television guided missiles and bombs. But of all the tons of high explosives dropped during more than a month of night and day air attacks, only 6 percent were smart bombs. The vast majority were controlled by gravity, usually dropped from above 15,000 feet – 35,000 feet for U.S. heavy bombers – where winds can dramatically affect accuracy. And there never was any footage of B-52 bomber strikes that carpeted Iraqi troop positions.
Films of Tomahawk cruise missiles being launched by U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf were almost daily fare from the military. Years later, the Navy would concede these subsonic jets with 2,000 pound warheads had limited success. These missiles are guided by on-board computers that match pre-recorded terrain maps, shifting left or right as landmarks are spotted. But the faceless desert offered few waypoints and most Tomahawks wandered off, just as the French Legion’s lost platoon did in the Sahara. The only reliable landmark turned out to be the Tigris River and Tomahawks were programmed to use it as a road to Baghdad and other targets. But Iraqi antiaircraft gunners quickly blanketed the riverside. The slow moving Tomahawks were easy targets. Pentagon claims of 98 per cent success for Tomahawks during the war later dwindled to less than 10 per cent effectiveness by the Navy in 1999.
Just as distorted were Schwarzkopf’s claims of destruction of Iraqi Scud missiles. After the war, studies by Army and Pentagon think tanks could not identify a single successful interception of a Scud warhead by the U.S. Army’s Patriot antimissile system. U.S. Air Force attacks on Scud launch sites were portrayed as successful by Schwarzkopf. The Air Force had filled the night sky with F-15E bombers with radars and infrared systems that could turn night into day. Targets were attacked with laser guided warheads.
In one briefing in Riyadh, Schwarzkopf showed F15E footage of what he said was a Scud missile launcher being destroyed. Later, it turned out that the suspected Scud system was in fact an oil truck. A year after Desert Storm, the official Air Force study concluded that not a single Scud launcher was destroyed during the war. The study said Iraq ended the conflict with as many Scud launchers as it had when the conflict began.
In manipulating the first and often most lasting perception of Desert Storm, the Bush administration produced not a single picture or video of anyone being killed. This sanitized, bloodless presentation by military briefers left the world presuming Desert Storm was a war without death.
That image was reinforced by limitations imposed on reporters on the battlefield. Under rules developed by Cheney and Powell, journalists were not allowed to move without military escorts. All interviews had to be monitored by military public affairs escorts. Every line of copy, every still photograph, every strip of film had to be approved – censored – before being filed. And these rules were ruthlessly enforced.
When a Scud missile eventually hit American troops during the ground war, reporters raced to the scene. The 1,000 pound warhead landed on a makeshift barracks for Pennsylvania national guard troops near the Saudi seaport of Dahran. Scott Applewhite, a photographer for the Associated Press, was one of the first on the scene. There were more than 25 dead bodies and 70 badly wounded.
As Applewhite photographed the carnage, he was approached by U.S. Military Police who ordered him to leave. He produced credentials that entitled him to be there. But the soldiers punched Applewhite, handcuffed him and ripped the film from his cameras. More than 70 reporters were arrested, detained, threatened at gunpoint and literally chased from the frontlines when they attempted to defy Pentagon rules.
Army public affairs officers made nightly visits to hotels and restaurants in Hafir al Batin, a Saudi town on the Iraq border. Reporters and photographers usually bolted from the dinner table. Slower ones were arrested.
Journalists such as Applewhite, who played by the rules, fared no better. More than 150 reporters who participated in the Pentagon pool system failed to produce a single eyewitness account of the clash between 300,000 allied troops and an estimated 300,000 Iraqi troops. There was not one photograph, not a strip of film by pool members of a dead body – American or Iraqi. Even if they had recorded the reality of the battlefield, it was unlikely it would have been filed by the military-controlled distribution system.
As the ground war began, Cheney declared a press blackout, effectively blocking distribution of battlefield press reports. While Cheney’s action was challenged by Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, the ban remained in effect. Most news accounts were delayed for days, long enough to make them worthless to their editors.
Accounts of Iraqi troops escaping from Kuwait – the carnage on the Highway of Death – were recorded by journalists operating outside the pool system.
Schwarzkopf repeatedly brushed off questions about the Iraqi death toll when the ground war ended in early March. Not until 2000, during a television broadcast, would he estimate Iraq losses in the “tens of thousands.” The only precise estimate came from Cheney. In a formal report to Congress, Cheney said U.S. soldiers found only 457 Iraqi bodies on the battlefield.
To Cheney, who helped Bush’s approval rating soar off the charts during Desert Storm, the press coverage had been flawless. “The best-covered war ever,” Cheney said. “The American people saw up close with their own eyes through the magic of television what the U.S. military was capable of doing.”
Patrick J. Sloyan won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Desert Storm while working as a senior correspondent for Newsday. He wrote this article as a Fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation. This article has been republished with permission from the Alicia Patterson Foundation