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Context of 'Autumn 2004: National Security Expert: Bush Administration is Full of Sh_t; Iraq War Is a Disaster'

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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

An unnamed senior national security professional at one of America’s military-sponsored think tanks tells journalist James Fallows: “Let me tell you my gut feeling. If I can be blunt, the administration is full of sh_t. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy’s political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder.” [Atlantic Monthly, 10/2004]

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Iraq under US Occupation

Speaking at the New America Foundation, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, argues that power in Washington has become so concentrated, and the inter-agency processes within the Federal government so degraded, that the government is no longer capable of responding competently to threatening events—whether such events are natural disasters or international conflicts. He describes how successive administrations over the last five decades have damaged the national security decision-making process and warns that new legislation is desperately needed to force transparency on the process and restore checks and balances within the federal bureaucracy. The process has hit a nadir with the Bush administration, he says, whose secrecy and disregard for inter-agency processes has resulted in disastrous policies, such as those toward Iraq, North Korea, and Iran, and the policies that resulted in the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. “Fundamental decisions about foreign policy should not be made in secret,” he says. “You don’t have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you’ve condoned it.” He says, “[T]he case that I saw for four-plus years was a case that I have never seen in my studies of aberrations, bastardizations, and perturbations in the national-security [policy-making] process.” This approach to government also contributed to the failures in responding to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “Decisions that send men and women to die, decisions that have the potential to send men and women to die, decisions that confront situations like natural disasters and cause needless death or cause people to suffer misery that they shouldn’t have to suffer, domestic and international decisions, should not be made in a secret way.” His speech includes a very direct and open attack on the Bush administration. “What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made. And then when the bureaucracy was presented with those decisions and carried them out, it was presented in such a disjointed incredible way that the bureaucracy often didn’t know what it was doing as it moved to carry them out.” Wilkerson contrasts the current president with his father, George H.W. Bush, “one of the finest presidents we have ever had,” who, in Wilkerson’s opinion, understood how to make foreign policy work. Wilkerson likens George W. Bush’s brand of diplomacy to “cowboyism” and notes that he was unable to persuade US allies to stand behind his policies because “it’s hard to sell shit.” He explains that Bush is “not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either. There’s a vast difference between the way George H. W. Bush dealt with major challenges, some of the greatest challenges at the end of the 20th century, and effected positive results in my view, and the way we conduct diplomacy today.” Wilkerson lays the blame for the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse directly at the feet of the younger Bush and his top officials, whom Wilkerson says gave tacit approval to soldiers to abuse detainees. As for Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser and now Powell’s successor at the State Department, she was and is “part of the problem.” Instead of ensuring that Bush received the best possible advice even if it was not what Bush wanted to hear, Rice “would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president.” Wilkerson also blames the fracturing and demoralization of the US military on Bush and his officials. Officers “start voting with their feet, as they did in Vietnam,” he says, “and all of a sudden your military begins to unravel.” Wilkerson is particularly scathing in his assessment of the Pentagon’s supervisor of the OSP, Douglas Feith, one of the original members of the Cabal. Asked if he agrees with General Tommy Franks’s assessment of Feith as the “f_cking stupidest guy on the planet.” Wilkerson says, “Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man. And yet, after the [Pentagon is given] control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw themselves in a closet somewhere.…That’s telling you how decisions were made and…how things got accomplished.” [American Strategy Program, 10/19/2005; Financial Times, 10/20/2005; Inter Press Service, 10/20/2005; Salon, 10/27/2005]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Lawrence Wilkerson, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George Herbert Walker Bush

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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