In the annals of human conflict, the Gulf War of 1991, when the US dispatched half a million troops and a huge armada of ships, planes and tanks into the desert south of Iraq and Kuwait and then crushed Iraqi forces in both those countries in a six-week blitz from Jan. 17-Feb. 28, surely has to rank as one of the most one-sided wars since Hitler’s Wehrmacht marched through Holland in four days in 1940.
That war, called Operation Desert Storm by the Pentagon, was really just a massive live-fire exercise for US forces, which suffered only 146 casualties, 35 of them in “friendly-fire” incidents and 111 to enemy fire. Iraqi losses were estimated at 35,000, most of them killed in US air strikes as they were trapped trying to retreat to Iraq up a Kuwaiti highway that became known as the “Highway of Death,” where fleeing Iraqi troops — most of them hapless draftees — were bombed and strafed mercilessly and nonstop as they sat trapped in an epic traffic jam caused by strategically destroyed vehicles along the route.
It was also the “war” in which President Trump’s new National Security Adviser pick, Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond McMaster, “earned” his much touted Silver Star. Then a young captain in charge of a unit of nine Abrams battle tanks, he stumbled onto a dug-in group of some 80 Iraqi tanks which he then succeeded in completely destroying without losing a single one of his own tanks or men.
It sounds at first blush like something out of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s autobiography, but this “heroic action” on Gen. McMaster’s part was actually nothing more than a case of having much better equipment. The Abrams tanks he was leading were a couple of generations advanced over the antique Iraqi Russian-built T-62 and T-72 tanks and a few Chinese Type 69 tanks that he was confronting. For one thing, the Abrams tanks are constructed with depleted uranium armor — especially on the front-facing part of the vehicle — a dense metal which is virtually impenetrable to conventional Iraqi tank shells, rockets and RPGs. For another, the Abrams tanks were firing anti-tank shells that were also tipped with depleted uranium penetrators, which can puncture through normal tank armor as if it were cardboard, igniting the interiors and turning them into infernos, exploding the ordnance inside and incinerating a tank crew instantly. Furthermore, the significantly longer range of their primary cannons meant McMasters and his men could stand off in complete safety and fire at the Iraqi tanks, while the Iraqi tank shells all fell short of their targets, making the whole idea of a “battle” a joke.
McMaster’s tank action was later glorified with a name: the “Battle of 73 Easting,” and is featured in a number of books about the war, including one by novelist Tom Clancey. This is no surprise, given the limited number of actual firefights in the Gulf War that could remotely be characterized as combat, much less qualify as a “battle” worthy of immortalizing with a name. The war was really just a much larger version of the Reagan invasion of Grenada, where a US naval armada and swarming ground troops bravely battled a handful of Grenadian soldiers and a crew of Cuban airport construction workers while garnering a total of 7000 battle awards for their efforts.
My own knowledge of what happened actually went on in the Gulf War comes from what I learned from a woman who used to come and tidy up our house once a week when we were living in Spencer, NY, a small conservative working-class Republican village south of Ithaca, back in those days. We had been friendly with this woman up to the time when President George H.W. Bush began the build-up for his glorious little war against Iraq in late 1990. At that point, my wife and I became part of a small group of peace advocates opposing the incipient war. Because we were prominently pressing the local town board to go on record as opposing the invasion of Iraq (something we succeeded in doing), this woman, who said her husband was a US Marine tank gunner who had already been shipped over to a base in the Saudi desert to prepare for the invasion, announced that she’d no longer work for us.
We didn’t see her at all during that short “war,” but a few weeks after it ended, I did run into her in the local market, and she was very ecstatic, her earlier anger at our peacenik politics apparently forgotten. She said that her husband had called and was on his way home! She added that he had told her, “Gen. (Norman) Schwartzkopf told us all that if we kicked Iraqi butt in the invasion, we’d be the first ones home, and we kicked butt, so I’m headed home!”
I told her I was glad he was safe, and that he was coming home soon, and then went about my shopping.
A few weeks later, though, I ran into her again at the same local market, and she looked really troubled. I asked her if everything was okay and she replied, “No. My husband came home, but he’s really depressed. He just sits around the house and cries. He says that what his tank unit did was not a battle, but a slaughter. He says when they moved into Kuwait to fight the Iraqi tanks, all they found were burned-up tanks with body parts strewn all over the ground. They’d all been blown up already by artillery fire and rockets from air attacks. He said a lot of the bodies they saw were soldiers in civilian clothes, wearing sneakers.”
I asked her if her husband might like to talk to a Vietnam veteran I knew up in Ithaca who worked with soldiers suffering from PTSD and she took his information. I learned later from talking to my veteran friend that he had spent some time with the troubled young Marine, who was really suffering from the guilt and horror of what he had witnessed and been part of.
It sounds like McMaster’s “battle” was not much different from that young Marine’s, though McMaster got a coveted medal for his (and doesn’t seem to have suffered any guilt-induced PTSD issues over how he earned it). So that’s Gen. McMaster’s first war, and the true nature of his Silver Star.
Then there’s Tal Afar, the city in northern Iraq where, from 2004 through 2006, McMaster, then a colonel, was put in charge of a campaign to pacify that violent, ethnically Turkish region dominated by Sunni insurgents, and riven by conflicts between Sunnis and Shi’ites. McMaster is being credited with making progress in pacifying that region during his tenure, through application of a supposedly “progressive countersinsurgency concept” that involves, instead of mass killing of “bad guys,” getting to know the locals and developing a relationship of trust. Sounds good in theory, but nobody’s talking about his early days in charge there, when Col. McMaster ordered up a brutal air and ground assault on Tal Afar’s urban center, reportedly leveling some 60% of the buildings and killing many civilians. Maybe his idea was first you level a whole lot of a city and slaughter a whole lot of people — insurgents and civilians — and then you try to make friends with the survivors.
The corporate media, predictably, are almost universally praising this third-round pick to head Trump’s National Security Council, following the implosion and firing of his original choice, the retired Gen. Michael Flynn, and the refusal of an appointment to the post by Trump’s second proposed choice for the job. The foremost reason for all the kudos from the media, no doubt, is that unlike Flynn, who advocated a friendly relationship with Russia (anathema to most major news organizations), McMaster is a Russia “hawk” who has long viewed that country as a threat to the US. He famously called Russian support for embattled ethnic Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea “the end of the US Post-Cold War holiday from history.” The other main explanation for all the media enthusiasm about Gen. McMaster are both his Silver Star and a book he wrote, Dereliction of Duty, in which the concensus line is that he “boldly” blamed the US loss of the Vietnam War on ranking generals whom he claimed were unwilling to honestly report to political leaders on the actual situation in that long conflict.
But think about that last bit. We’re talking about a book written in 1997, some 22 years — a full generation! — after that war ended. How much guts does it really take for a military history grad student to write, in a PhD thesis done at a civilian college (the University of North Carolina), that generals like Gen. William Westmoreland and Gen. Creighton Abrams were rank careerists trying to earn their stars by saying what their civilian bosses wanted to hear? I would say zero, especially given that both men, and virtually all the top brass from that war, were long dead and unable to comment or defend themselves. Not to mention that by 1997, the prevailing view was already that the US military leadership in Vietnam War had been disastrous.
So really, what have we got here as our newly anointed National Security Advisor to the president? A guy sporting an inflated medal which probably should have been one of those colorful ribbon badges you get for demonstrating good marksmanship which help fill out the rainbow of little ribbons on a typical general’s dress uniform, a book that takes some easy swipes at a few dead generals, and a record of killing perhaps hundreds of civilians and sitting-duck Iraqi soldiers in the course of his two short combat commands.
Okay, so maybe McMaster’s not “in like Flynn,” but that’s setting a pretty low bar.