The New York Times did an editorial calling for a new independent
investigation or congressional hearings, but nobody in Congress seems to be
the least bit interested. Most newspapers carried brief wire service stories
that came out before investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s lengthy piece
about how Gen. (now “drug czar”) Barry McCaffrey conducted himself during
the Gulf War actually saw print in The New Yorker magazine of May 22 —
which meant hardly anybody had actually read it yet. (I hadn’t yet read it
when I did my first piece, for

National Public Radio did one decent report, and the network morning shows interrupted the celebrity gossip and cooking tips for a while one morning to deal briefly with the controversy. But hardly anybody in the standard media or in the political system has been interested enough to go beyond the standard journalistic formula — get one side of the story, get a sound bite or denial from the other side and you’ve done your duty to objectivity and fairness — to consider whether Seymour Hersh or Barry McCaffrey seems more likely to be correct about what happened March 2, 1991, two days after the Gulf War cease-fire when the 24th Infantry Division engaged Iraqi troops at the Battle of Rumaila.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. If Seymour Hersh, the reporter who nosed out the story of the MyLai massacre during the Vietnam War, is even close to correct in the story he tells — and it is based almost entirely on on-the-record interviews with soldiers and Army officers, including generals who were there or had reason to know, and who allowed their names to be used — then we have to think in terms of a war crime. No American wants to think that American military personnel would commit a serious war crime — beyond the kind of mistake or lapse of judgment or occasional example of overzealousness that can certainly occur in the confusion and chaos of the battlefield. Nobody wants to think about a respected general, now a key public figure, ordering a war crime.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it was a war crime, even if the story Seymour Hersh tells is substantially correct but off in enough details and the angle of vision skewed slightly. One should have information more probative, that resolves the conflicting accounts that Mr. Hersh acknowledges are still being told to this day before pinning such a serious label on it. But even if it wasn’t a war crime, it was not an incident that reflects well on Gen. McCaffrey — if Mr. Hersh is even close to right.

In brief, General McCaffrey, with two stars then, commanded the 24th Infantry Division, the outfit that executed the famed “left hook” in the first few days of the war, moving swiftly, boldly and deftly to get behind Iraqi lines and move to cut them off from retreat and communications and supply lines. But the war lasted only 100 hours, surprising even the most confirmed optimists, whereupon a cease-fire was called whose advisability is still being debated. But George Bush was commander in chief then, and it was his call to make.

As Hersh tells it, “While other American soldiers and their commanders stopped and cheered the cease-fire, McCaffrey quietly continued to move his combat forces. On the morning of the cease-fire, Feb. 28, they were approximately 25 miles west of the Lake Hammar causeway; by the eve of the Battle of Rumaila, two days later, he had expanded his area of operations. The 24th Division was now within striking distance of a 17-mile access road connecting the highway to the causeway, one of the few known pathways out of the marshes and deserts in southern Iraq.” McCaffrey, Hersh claims “had moved his forces toward the access road without informing all the senior officers who needed to know.”

That put him in a position to encounter a large force of Iraqi troops who, according to Hersh, were conducting a reasonably orderly retreat the top allied command had told them would be unimpeded but who, according to McCaffrey, fired on his troops, forcing him to attack with everything at his command for four hours of unexampled destruction.

When it was over, 700 Iraqi vehicles, including tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers had been destroyed. Senior commanders questioned McCaffrey’s judgment afterward and a couple of investigations were conducted into the battle. McCaffrey said he attacked because his troops were under attack and he had to protect his troops. Internal Army investigations were conducted afterward that concluded there was no reason to take disciplinary action.

But Hersh, in the course of 300 interviews, found more than a dozen officers who were willing to say, on the record, that McCaffrey was itching for a real battle and that the destruction he rained down on the Iraqis was totally out of proportion to the threat he faced — that the battle was more like a “turkey shoot.” McCaffrey ordered a vehicle bombed to block the causeway and proceeded to conduct a systematic slaughter. Nobody seems to know how many Iraqis were killed — some say most escaped on foot. But it was a massive display of firepower — or wanton brutality, depending on how you look at it.

Seymour Hersh’s article was 25,000 words long, full of specifics and of quotes from people who were there (including those who say the Iraqis provoked the battle and they’re proud to have participated). General McCaffrey’s rebuttals — begun in fact several weeks before the article was published as he got wind of what was likely to be in it — have been relatively short and quite

general in character.
That leaves Hersh’s article with several legs up in the credibility department, but not necessarily proven.

The point is that allegations as serious as those made and implied in Hersh’s article, including dozens from the lips of senior military men, should have made a bigger splash in the media and political worlds. As he goes through the investigations and the aftermath, Hersh does point out that McCaffrey, who had seemed in line to be European commander in chief and perhaps Army Chief of Staff before he retired, was instead shuffled off to the Southern Command, which essentially tries to make life difficult for Latin American drug traffickers with limited success — not the most prestigious available command. So it is just possible that while Army higher-ups didn’t decide to press charges, they figured there was enough smoke to sidetrack the McCaffrey career.

All of this, it seems to me, fairly screams for more investigation, and for making the information developed by the Army investigations public so independent investigators can sift through it. McCaffrey, in one of his few specific rebuttals, for example, says that video from the Apache helicopters shows that Iraqi tanks were clearly menacing U.S. troops rather than with their guns mostly facing backward, a sign of surrender, as Hersh maintains. The public should be able to look at those videos and decide independently of either Hersh or McCaffrey.

It will be interesting to see whether the conservative and neo-conservative press even pay attention to this controversy, or give General McCaffrey a forum as the Wall Street Journal did. Hersh does have a reputation as an anti-military journalist with a leftish slant (though he did upset the political world with a remarkably unflattering book on the Camelot years of John F. Kennedy a couple of years ago).

It is no fun to have to consider the possibility that an American general did something quite reprehensible during or after the last “good war” before the Clintonistas got in and committed us to trivial and foolish conflicts. It would be tragic, however, if he did it and came away a hero.

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