Investigate Barry McCaffrey

The Army this week brushed off new reports that American forces needlessly attacked retreating Iraqi troops after a cease-fire was declared in the Persian Gulf war. The accounts, contained in a New Yorker article written by Seymour Hersh, cannot be so easily dismissed.

Though questions about the battle were raised as the war ended in 1991, and subsequent Army investigations found no fault, there is good reason for the Pentagon and Congress to revisit the matter. Some officers familiar with the American assault offer detailed testimony that one of the country’s most decorated commanders, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, ordered a punishing and unwarranted attack.

The sequence of events described by Mr. Hersh is complex and filled with the confusion and ambiguities that are common in war. There are conflicting accounts about what happened and why, and General McCaffrey, now retired from the Army and serving as the Clinton administration’s top drug-control official, has vigorously defended his actions. But none of that justifies the Army’s cavalier response to the New Yorker article.

Few matters are more important to a democracy than the conduct of its military forces, and any credible accusation of reckless or unjustified killing by American servicemen must be thoroughly investigated by an independent panel of experts. The Army’s internal inquiries are not an adequate answer.

The core issue raised by the Hersh piece is whether General McCaffrey, who was commander of the 24th Infantry Division, deliberately provoked a fight with retreating Iraqi forces after the cease-fire was in place by blocking a main escape route and then seizing on the firing of several Iraqi weapons to launch a withering assault. The ferocity of the American attack is not in question. American ground and air units all but pulverized a Republican Guard tank division on March 2, 1991, in one of the most devastating and one-sided battles of the war.

A number of General McCaffrey’s fellow commanders, including Lt. Col. Patrick Lamar, who was the division’s operations officer, told Mr. Hersh that excessive firepower was used against a weakened and retreating Iraqi force that did not seriously threaten the Americans. They believe that the American assault was a clear and willful violation of the cease-fire rules of engagement that had been established by the Pentagon. General McCaffrey maintains that he acted properly to defend his troops after the Iraqi forces initiated combat. He denies that he blocked their escape route in hopes of forcing a confrontation.

Mr. Hersh examines other serious charges involving General McCaffrey’s troops, including reports that they massacred a group of Iraqi prisoners of war, but the evidence he cites here is not definitive. The Army’s investigations of all these matters, which cleared General McCaffrey and the division, should not be the last word. The military services have a poor record of holding their own members accountable for misconduct, especially top officers.

As Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman, noted in a letter to The Times earlier this week, the Pentagon’s efforts to restrict coverage of the war denied the American people an immediate and full account of the battles American forces fought in Kuwait and Iraq. More comprehensive coverage might long ago have clarified whether General McCaffrey’s order to attack was appropriate.

The Senate did not inquire deeply into the 24th Infantry Division’s actions when it approved promotions for General McCaffrey after the war or when it confirmed his appointment to the drug policy post. Secretary of Defense William Cohen should appoint an independent review panel. If he does not, the Senate or House should conduct its own investigation.

If General McCaffrey acted responsibly, he should welcome an unflinching examination of the facts.

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