A Matter of Mindset: Iraq, Sequestration and the U.S. Army

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The M-1 tank proved itself in the battle of 73 Easting 22 years ago.

Fear-mongering is a common practice inside the Beltway.

Sequestration is simply making things worse.

Twenty-two years ago, a chorus of political pundits and generals engaged in fear-mongering, warning the American people that U.S. ground forces would suffer heavy casualties at the hands of Iraqi forces who allegedly knew how to hold ground from years of fighting Iranians.

But the fear-mongering pundits and generals were wrong.

At about 4:10 in the afternoon of 26 February 1991 — 22 years ago today — the two lead cavalry troops of an 1,100-man Armored Cavalry Battle Group, “Cougar Squadron,” the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, charged out of a sandstorm and caught Iraq’s Republican Guard Corps in the open desert along the North-South grid line of a military map referred to as “73 Easting.”

Taken by surprise, the numerically superior Iraqi armor brigade, supported by mines, artillery and infantry with anti-tank weapons, was swept away in salvos of American tank and missile fire in what turned out to be a battle of annihilation.

However, instead of exploiting Cougar Squadron’s stunning success, an attack with almost no U.S. losses, the Army generals and colonels remote from the battlefield ordered Cougar Squadron to halt, to break contact with the enemy, and withdraw behind a meaningless limit of advance, the 70 Easting. Cougar Squadron did not withdraw. It stayed and fought firing 1,100 artillery rounds and hundreds of MLRS rockets at the fleeing Iraqi enemy, but its attack was halted. Contact thus broken, the Republican Guard Corps’ main body continued its withdrawal over the Euphrates River.

The Iraqi Army did, indeed, flee from Kuwait. But there the truth ran out.

Most of the Republican Guard Corps, the 80,000-man organization that kept Saddam Hussein in power, was allowed to escape in defiance of clear orders to destroy it.

Central Command chief Army General Norman Schwarzkopf’s orders to Lieutenant General Frederick M. Franks, the VII Corps Commander, were not carried out: “Pin (the Iraqi Republican Guard) with their backs against the sea, then, go in and wipe them out…Once they’re gone be prepared to continue the attack to Baghdad.”

A month after the battle of 73 Easting, in a 27 March 1991 interview with the New York Times, Schwarzkopf admitted, “Major Republican Guard units had `bugged out’ before the main attack by American forces and crossed the Euphrates River…”

Unfortunately, thanks to the determination of politicians, journalists and generals to fill the vacuum of public knowledge and understanding with illusions of victory, the Desert Storm myth became institutionalized.

In the absence of any meaningful political oversight, the Army’s four stars were allowed to transform the Cold War Army into a smaller replica of itself, ignoring the immense power of the mobile armored force that smashed the much larger Iraqi Republican Guard and the potential for the development of a new, more potent, post-industrial Army.

What those of us involved in the fighting along the 73 Easting understood was the enormous fighting power that could emerge when a mix of mobile armored platforms, integrated with manned and unmanned aircraft and sensors, provided the coverage needed to exploit the formation’s accurate, devastating firepower and mobility. We saw the potential for new, mobile armored platforms ranging in weight from 25 to 40 tons to become the foundation for a dispersed mobile warfare design, explicitly organized for decisive operations inside the Joint force.

And, here is the tragedy. If both the critical weaknesses in U.S. Army generalship displayed in 1991 had been identified and remedied — not deliberately concealed — and if the implications of the 73 Easting had been objectively studied and exploited — the outcome after 9/11 might have been different.

Instead of waiting months for the XVIII Airborne Corps to show up with light-infantry forces dependent on air strikes for survival and effectiveness, mobile armored forces smaller than divisions, but larger than brigades — self-contained, cohesive combat formations led by young, energetic brigadier generals, men selected for performance, not careerism — would have been in Afghanistan early to ensure Osama bin Laden’s capture and al Qaeda’s destruction.

It is customary in America to blame the politicians—and they are rarely blameless—but the record shows that whereas bad policies can often be saved through effective implementation, the reverse is rarely true. In short, political rhetoric is a fine thing, but it is what the general officers on the spot do, or fail to do, that counts.

The record is not pretty.

The 2003 combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the disbandment of the Iraqi Army and State, the misguided policy of using American soldiers to establish a secular, Western-style democratic state in a region where for reasons of culture and economics it has no chance of surviving, and the Sunni Arab rebellion against the U.S. military presence, cost the American people 36,000 battle casualties and at least $3 trillion.

The much-vaunted “surge” in 2007 turned out to be the final act in a tragic series of events that replaced a secular Sunni Arab dictatorship hostile to Iran with a Shiite Islamist dictatorship tied to Tehran.

Predictably, no one in the House or the Senate cares to discuss Iraq.

For the moment, it’s far more rewarding to dwell on the errors in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including one U.S. ambassador.

Unfortunately missing is the critical insight that our political and military leaders must stop wasting lives and money in attempts to cure culturally dysfunctional societies. Missing is the crucial lesson that soldiers and Marines cannot drag backward societies through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

And, it means remembering what the Army generals did, during and after Desert Storm, when they not only rejected the sea change in warfare, they preserved the anachronistic industrial-age status quo.

When the Army four stars protest the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, Americans should remember the four stars’ resistance to dispersed maneuver and nonlinear operations in a world increasingly shaped by WMD; their strident opposition for 22 years to new methods of command, fundamentally new modernization parameters, and innovative organizations for combat.

What difference does this make?

The difference will be profound when the fight is with an enemy that can fight back, an enemy with armies, air forces, air defenses and coastal naval power.

At that point, no amount of courage and competence at the soldier’s level will compensate for deficiencies of general officer leadership and the wrong equipment set or, for that matter, years of neglect in the halls of Congress.

Douglas A. Macgregor is executive vice president of Burke-Macgregor Group, LLC. He is also a retired Army colonel, decorated combat veteran and the author of four books on military affairs, including Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.