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Context of 'March 2003 and After: US Soldiers in Iraq Forced to Retrofit Armored Vehicles on Their Own'

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Demolished and disabled vehicles litter the ‘Highway of Death’ in the hours after Iraqi forces were slaughtered by US strikes.Demolished and disabled vehicles litter the ‘Highway of Death’ in the hours after Iraqi forces were slaughtered by US strikes. [Source: Public domain / US Department of Defense]Thousands of Iraqi soldiers retreating on two highways from Kuwait City, Kuwait, towards Basra, Iraq, are slaughtered by US forces on what is later called the “Highway of Death.” [PBS Frontline, 1/9/1996] The so-called “Battle of Rumaylah,” or as some call it, the “Battle of the Junkyard,” is not a battle in the classic sense, as the huge losses of Iraqi soldiers and vehicles are contrasted with the loss of a single American tank, lost when an Iraqi tank explodes too close to it. Only one US soldier is injured. In the two separate but connected US assaults that make up the battle, at least 600 Iraqi tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks are destroyed or disabled; estimates of Iraqi personnel losses vary widely, but the losses are well in the thousands. Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Palestinian civilians, including children, are caught in the heavy US assault as well as innumerable Iraqi soldiers. (Some believe the Kuwaitis and Palestinians were being taken to Baghdad to be used as hostages.) Most of the bodies are buried within hours, making it impossible to ascertain the number of dead. During the US assault, US tanks, using sophisticated thermal-imaging targeting, have little trouble sighting and destroying Iraqi tanks before the Iraqi units are even aware that they are being fired upon. [Time, 3/18/1991; New Yorker, 5/22/2000; Newsweek, 5/29/2000]
Air Strikes - Initially, a force of retreating Iraqi armored units are bombed front and rear by US aircraft during the night of February 27-28, trapping the convoy between the centers of destruction. The remaining units are targets for later air strikes. Most of the vehicles—military tanks, trucks, and armored personnel carriers, as well as civilian cars and trucks—are destroyed.
Five-Hour Air, Armor Assault - The March 2 attack on the Iraqi Republican Guard “Hammurabi” tank division is ordered by Army General Barry McCaffrey (the general who commanded the already-famous “left hook” maneuver days before—see February 23, 1991 and After), in response to what McCaffrey says is an attack on his forces with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The decision surprises some in the Allied command structure in Saudi Arabia and causes unease among civilian and military leaders in Washington, who worry about the public relations ramifications of an attack that comes days after a cease-fire was implemented (see February 28, 1991). McCaffrey himself later calls the attack “one of the most astounding scenes of destruction I have ever participated in.” The “Hammurabi” division is obliterated in the assault.
Criticism from Fellow Officers - Some senior US officers are not sure that McCaffrey’s unit, the 24th Mechanized Division, was in fact attacked; many senior US officers privately assert that McCaffrey’s five-hour assault was well out of proportion. (McCaffrey, later accused of war crimes by an anonymous but well-informed accuser, will be exonerated by an Army inquiry.) McCaffrey will assert that his troops were indeed attacked—an assertion backed by other field officers on the scene—and that he ordered the retaliation because had he not, his forces would have come under heavy attack by Iraqi armored units. Besides, McCaffrey will later say, the entire war was intended to be a one-sided affair: “We didn’t go up there looking for a fair fight with these people.” The whole war, one British commander said in earlier weeks, was “rather like a grouse shoot.” [New Yorker, 5/22/2000; Newsweek, 5/29/2000]
bullet One critic is the commander of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Unit, Lieutenant General James Johnson, who will later say: “There was no need to be shooting at anybody. [The Iraqis] couldn’t surrender fast enough. The war was over.” Johnson, whose unit is deployed near McCaffrey’s, will add, “I saw no need to continue any further attacks.” Explaining why McCaffrey ordered the assault on his own authority, Johnson will say that McCaffrey—widely perceived as CENTCOM commander General Norman Schwarzkopf’s favorite general—“does what he wants to do.”
bullet Lieutenant General Ronald Griffith, commanding the 1st Armored Division of VII Corps, will later say that many of the tanks destroyed in the assault were being transported on trailer trucks to Baghdad, with their cannons facing away from the US troops, and thus posing no threat. “It was just a bunch of tanks in a train, and he made it a battle,” Griffith will later say of McCaffrey. “He made it a battle when it was never one. That’s the thing that bothered me the most.”
bullet Major James Kump, the senior intelligence officer for the Army’s 124th Military Intelligence Battalion, is monitoring what he believes to be a routine retreat before McCaffrey’s units begin attacking the Iraqi forces. Kump will later recall: “I thought, I can’t believe what I’m hearing! There’s nothing going on. These guys are retreating.” Kump receives a large amount of electronic data indicating that McCaffrey is attacking a retreating force. “I had links to several intelligence systems—more than I can talk about,” he will later say. “And I’d have known if troops were moving toward us.… I knew of no justification for the counterattack. I always felt it was a violation of the ceasefire. From an integrity standpoint, I was very troubled.”
bullet McCaffrey’s orders will be questioned even by one of his own subordinates, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Lamar, the 24th’s operations officer. Lamar, who is in charge of the assault command post and who relays McCaffrey’s orders to the field units, will later say: “There was no incoming. I know that for a fact.” The battle is “a giant hoax. The Iraqis were doing absolutely nothing. I told McCaffrey I was having trouble confirming the incoming.” But, Lamar will recall, nothing he says matters. McCaffrey wants to attack.
bullet Private First Class Charles Sheehan-Miles, a gun loader in a 1st Brigade tank platoon, will later recall being sent to rescue an American unit under attack by Iraqi armored units. “We went up the road blowing the sh_t out of everything,” he will recall. “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 recalls shooting at least one person in civilian clothing. “My orders were to shoot if they were armed or running. The Iraqis were getting massacred.”
bullet Specialist 4 James Manchester, a member of the Scout platoon of the 27th Battalion of the 1st Brigade, will later call the battle nothing more than “f_cking murder.”
bullet Shortly after the attack, an interpreter for the 124th Military Intelligence Battalion interrogates a captured Iraqi tank commander who asks over and over: “Why are you killing us? All we were doing was going home. Why are you killing us?”
bullet After the battle, military analysts will pore over the battle films recorded by the Apache attack helicopters participating in McCaffrey’s assault. One of the analysts will later tell a reporter that the footage was clear: the Iraqi tanks were in full retreat and posed no threat to American forces. “These guys were in an offroad defensive position—deployed in a perimeter,” the analyst will recall. Some of the Iraqi tanks attempted to return fire once McCaffrey began his assault: “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.”
Many officers on the ground will later describe actions by McCaffrey and some of his senior subordinates they believe are designed to provoke a response from the retreating Iraqis and thus provide an excuse to begin a counterattack.
Massacre Factor in Decision to End Hostilities - Reporters are not allowed in the area, so no one is there to report on, or photograph, the actual assault or its immediate aftermath. But the area is heavily photographed in the following days, and the swath of destroyed, burned-out vehicles becomes at once a symbol of US military superiority and of Iraqi defeat. It is later cited as one of the factors in President Bush’s decision to accept Iraq’s surrender and cease hostilities. The decision enables the Iraqi Army to survive the war somewhat intact, and keeps Saddam Hussein in power. Bush will later explain: “If we continued the fighting another day… would we be accused of a slaughter of Iraqis who were simply trying to escape, not fight? In addition, the coalition was agreed on driving the Iraqis from Kuwait, not on carrying the conflict into Iraq or on destroying Iraqi forces.”
Dehumanizing the Iraqis - Manchester will later tell a reporter: “I was as patriotic as they come. I was a gung-ho ass-kicking Commie-hating patriotic son of a b_tch. I hated the Arabs. We all did. I dehumanized them. Did the Iraqis commit war crimes in Kuwait? Did they retreat back into Iraq to commit war crimes against their own people? The answer is yes to both questions. But does that make March 2nd justified? There have to be limits, even in war. Otherwise, the whole system breaks down.” [New Yorker, 5/22/2000]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Air Force, Ronald Griffith, Saddam Hussein, George Herbert Walker Bush, Charles Sheehan-Miles, Barry McCaffrey, US Department of Defense, James Johnson, James Manchester, James Kump, Patrick Lamar, Norman Schwarzkopf, US Department of the Army

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

US military units in the Gulf, as well as those in the US preparing for deployment, contract local welders and steel fabricators to retrofit their light-armored vehicles with makeshift armor known as “Hillbilly” or “Haji” armor. [MSNBC, 4/15/2003; Washington Post, 12/26/2003; Daily Press, 9/26/2004]

Timeline Tags: US Military, Treatment of US troops, Iraq under US Occupation

The US Army’s official guidance on the issue of “hardening” soft-skinned Humvees and other lightly-armored vehicles includes a recommendation for soldiers to put sandbags on the floorboards to reduce the impact of explosions. Since the summer, the soldiers’ preferred solution to the problem of unprotected vehicles has been to hire local contractors to add steel to the bodies of their vehicles (see March 2003 and After). [MSNBC, 4/15/2003]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Army

Timeline Tags: US Military, Treatment of US troops, Iraq under US Occupation

More than 18 months after the US began its ground invasion of Iraq, US troops are still waiting for the Army to retrofit their supply trucks. [Daily Press, 9/26/2004; CBS News, 10/31/2004]

Timeline Tags: US Military, Treatment of US troops, Iraq under US Occupation

A reinforced door on an Army truck at a base at Ar-Ramadi, Iraq.A reinforced door on an Army truck at a base at Ar-Ramadi, Iraq. [Source: Public domain via the Department of Defense]During a visit by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, Specialist Thomas Wilson asks Rumsfeld why soldiers have to improvise armor for themselves out of scrap metal. Wilson, a National Guardsman from Tennessee, is referring to so-called “hillbilly armor” or “hajj armor” (see March 2003 and After). He asks Rumsfeld, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” His question meets with shouts of approval and applause from the assembled 2,300 soldiers; an obviously discomfited Rumsfeld responds: “It isn’t a matter of money, it isn’t a matter on part of the Army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it. As you know, you go to war with the Army you have.” Colonel John Zimmerman of the Tennessee National Guard says: “What we basically have is what we call hillbilly steel, hillbilly armor. It’s real frustrating for these soldiers.” Zimmerman says 95 percent of his unit’s 300 trucks do not have appropriate armor. Specialist Blaze Crook says he was appalled when he saw the condition of a vehicle he is slated to ride in. “It’s got huge windows on the front of my truck,” he says. “It’s basically like a window of opportunity to get shot, or shrapnel or anything like that to come through. It just doesn’t make me feel good that I’m riding up there without the proper armor.” Kurt Hendler, a reservist with the Navy’s Seabees construction force, says he and his colleagues are using steel plates intended for road repairs to retrofit trucks and Humvees with better armor. “We cover up the doors and put on some three-inch plate to protect the passenger and driver’s side from IED [improvised explosive device] attacks, sniper fire, and any other small-arms fire,” he says. [ABC News, 12/8/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 156-157] White House press secretary Scott McClellan will later call Rumsfeld’s answer “a defining moment of his career—and not a positive one.” He will add, “[H]is comments helped solidify an already-accepted media narrative: the administration was sending troops that were ill equipped to fight the IED threat from terrorists and insurgents; worse still, administration officials were either unaware of the problems, unable to fix them, or totally unconcerned.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 250] Wilson will come under scathing attack from right-wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh when it is learned that he was given his question to ask by a reporter (see December 9, 2004).

Entity Tags: Thomas Wilson, Tennessee National Guard, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Rumsfeld, Blaze Crook, Scott McClellan, John Zimmerman, Kurt Hendler

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was put on the spot by a recent question from a US soldier in Kuwait about he and his fellow soldiers being forced to use scrap metal as so-called “hillbilly armor” for their vehicles (see December 8, 2004). The media now learns that the question, posed by Specialist Thomas Wilson, was given to Wilson by a newspaper reporter embedded with his unit, the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a Tennessee National Guard unit preparing for deployment in Iraq. Reporter Lee Pitts, of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, tells colleauges in an e-mail that he wanted to ask the question himself but was denied a chance to speak to Rumsfeld at the so-called “Pentagon town hall meeting.” Instead, Pitts says, he asked Wilson to pose the question. Pitts says he has been trying for weeks without success to “get this story out.” “I just had one of my best days as a journalist today,” Pitts writes. He says that when he learned that only soldiers would be allowed to ask Rumsfeld questions, he talked with Wilson and another soldier, and they “worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have.” Pitts says he “found the sergeant in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd.” Pitts writes that when Wilson asked his question, “the place erupted in cheers so loud that Rumsfeld had to ask the guy to repeat his question.” Rumsfeld’s apparently callous response—“you go to war with the army you have”—has caused a flurry of outraged responses (see December 15, 2004). Meanwhile, Wilson is weathering intense criticism for his question from some right-wing pundits and commentators. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh accuses him of “near insubordination” for daring to ask Rumsfeld such a pointed question. The New York Post claims that Wilson and Pitts “set up” Rumsfeld with the question. (Rumsfeld himself will compliment a later question about “negative press coverage” as obviously “not being planted by the media.”) Even though President Bush says he doesn’t blame Wilson for asking the question—“If I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I would want to ask the secretary of defense the same question”—Limbaugh and others are joined by Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita in criticizing Wilson and Pitts. “Town hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary of defense,” Di Rita says. “The secretary provides ample opportunity for interaction with the press. It is better that others not infringe on the troops’ opportunity to interact with superiors in the chain of command.” [Poynter Online, 12/9/2004; CNN, 12/10/2004; Rich, 2006, pp. 156-157] Author and media critic Frank Rich will later write that the subject of Wilson’s question is not news at all; news reports of troops being sent into Iraq with broken weapons and damaged vehicles have circulated throughout the print media for well over a year. What is newsworthy, Rich will write, is that a soldier publicly called Rumsfeld out on the policy of sending troops into combat with substandard equipment. Also newsworthy is the fact that Rumsfeld’s claim that the only thing standing in the way of all soldiers receiving adequate equipment is “production and capability” is a lie. Manufacturers of vehicle armor, weapons, and other essential equipment say that they could easily increase production if the Pentagon were to ask them to do so. [Rich, 2006, pp. 157]

Entity Tags: Tennessee National Guard, Frank Rich, Donald Rumsfeld, Chattanooga Times Free Press, George W. Bush, Lawrence Di Rita, Thomas Wilson, Rush Limbaugh, Lee Pitts

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

Neoconservative commentator William Kristol does not join other conservatives in lambasting Specialist Thomas Wilson for asking Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an uncomfortable question about inadequate body armor (see December 8, 2004 and December 9, 2004). Instead, Kristol excoriates Rumsfeld for his apparently flippant response, “You go to war with the army you have.” The Army has “performed a lot better in this war than the secretary of defense has,” Kristol writes, but, he continues, “Rumsfeld is not the defense secretary [President] Bush should want to have for the remainder of his second term.” He calls Rumsfeld’s response “arrogant buck-passing” and slams Rumsfeld for his apparant callousness, quoting the secretary as telling the troops: “[I]f you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored humvee and it can be blown up.” Kristol retorts sarcastically: “Good point. Why have armor at all? Incidentally, can you imagine if John Kerry had made such a statement a couple of months ago? It would have been (rightly) a topic of scorn and derision among my fellow conservatives, and not just among conservatives.” Rumsfeld has not performed well since the war began, Kristol writes, constantly resisting calls to increase troop numbers and then unfairly blaming field commanders such as General Tommy Franks and General John Abizaid for not requesting more troops. “All defense secretaries in wartime have, needless to say, made misjudgments,” Kristol writes. “Some have stubbornly persisted in their misjudgments. But have any so breezily dodged responsibility and so glibly passed the buck?” He concludes, “These soldiers deserve a better defense secretary than the one we have.” [Washington Post, 12/15/2005]

Entity Tags: William Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, US Department of the Army, Thomas Wilson

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

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