McMaster of War

Dave Lindorff

A number of military experts – including the defense secretary, James Mattis – have warned that a US war against North Korea would be hard, incredibly destructive and bloody, with civilian casualties in the millions, and could go badly for US forces. But Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, is apparently insistent that ‘a military strike be considered as a serious option’.

One of Gen. McMaster’s claims to fame is a Silver Star he was awarded for a tank ‘battle’ he led in the desert during the so-called Gulf War of 1991. As a young captain leading a troop with nine new Abrams M1A1 battle tanks, McMaster destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks in 23 minutes without losing any of his own or suffering any casualties.

McMaster’s exploit (later embellished with a name, the ‘Battle of 73 Easting’) was little more than a case of his having dramatically better equipment. His tanks were several generations ahead of the antique Russian-built T-72s of his Iraqi opponents. They were protected by depleted uranium armour – a dense metal virtually impenetrable by conventional tank shells, anti-tank rockets and RPGs – and carried anti-tank munitions tipped with depleted uranium penetrators, which can punch through steel armour as if it were cardboard. They then ignite a tank’s interior, exploding any ordnance inside and incinerating the crew. The Abrams main cannon also has a significantly longer range than the tanks McMaster was confronting, meaning he and his men were able to pick off the Iraqi tanks while the shells fired back at them all fell short.

McMaster also fought in the Iraq War of the following decade. In 2005, running counter-insurgency operations in Tal Afar, a northern city of 200,000 people, McMaster ordered up a massive ground assault and aerial bombardment that levelled 60 per cent of the buildings in the old city centre. His experiences in Iraq raise concerns that Trump’s national security adviser may misperceive war as a one-sided affair in which an invincible US, with its super-powerful war machine, can smash its enemies with impunity.

I spoke to Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired army colonel who was chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was George W. Bush’s secretary of state. ‘McMaster knows very little about the [Korean] peninsula, period,’ he told me. ‘Thus far, his comments and – I must assume – his counsel to the NSC and its head, Trump, reflects that ignorance.’ Asked whether McMaster may be underestimating the risks of attacking North Korea, Wilkerson said: ‘That could be said of almost any US flag officer and reinforced with any who had combat experience in Iraq in 1990-91 or 2003.’

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, my father, a professor of electrical engineering, was doing contract research work for the US Navy’s nuclear submarine programme. Twelve at the time, I went with him to check out a company in town that was making and selling home fallout shelters.

It was actually a septic tank firm whose entrepreneurial owner had seen a business opportunity in the crisis, and had converted some of his big asphalt-coated steel tanks into one-room hideouts to be buried in suburban back yards and stocked with food and water for the long haul. Dad climbed down the access tube into a couple of these tanks and emerged to say that the whole idea was preposterous. I think he had visions of being stuck in a septic tank for a couple of months with my mother and their three children, all of us cooped up, frustrated and getting on one another’s nerves, and figured he’d rather be dead. (A Second World War Marine veteran, he ended up a pacifist like my mother and retired from the university to become a Jungian psychoanalyst.)

Now we are seeing a new boom in bomb shelter sales as a new generation of septic tank makers looks to capitalise on an alternative source of revenue as housebuilding stagnates in Trump’s America.

In 1976, as a reporter at the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, I got hold of a list of building permits for bomb shelters from the late 1950s and early 1960s and called the current owners of the properties to see what people were doing with them. One woman who answered had a Japanese accent. I asked her what she was doing with her bomb shelter. ‘What bomb shelter?’ she replied.

I explained that town records showed there was a shelter built into the corner of her basement. ‘Wait a minute,’ she said. ‘I’m going to go check.’ A few minutes later she returned to the phone, furious. ‘You are right! I am going to have that thing completely torn out!’ She had survived the bombing of Hiroshima as a child; many of her family had not. ‘Trying to survive a nuclear attack is madness!’ she told me. ‘We should not be attempting to do that. We should be letting our politicians know that we need to make nuclear war impossible!’


  • 19 February 2018 at 9:11pm
    Camus says:
    “Duck and cover,” mark three. For those who have not seen “Atomic Cafe” these fantasies over the way to survive a nuclear attack emerged in the USA as soon as the Soviet Union obtained the Know-how on how to build a nuclear weapon. They stole the plans from the Americans you see. The United States had plans to attack all Russian cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants just in case. US generals have been itching to bomb somebody ever since MacArthur was fired by Truman.
    And Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for calling for a complete nuclear disarmament. War has always been too dangerous to be left to the generals, but it’s just as dangerous when leaders like Trump start to build up the forces for the war against .... who?

    • 20 February 2018 at 6:34am
      Joe Morison says: @ Camus
      I remember the 80s drama Threads which was about the what would happen if a bomb was dropped in Sheffield. It showed the effects at various distances from the epicentre. The scene I remember most vividly was in a tower block in the city centre: the four minute warning had gone, and the husband was trying to take off the living room door to build a shelter with it behind the sofa (as per the government advice). His wife was shouting ‘you’re not taking that door off until they drop they bloody thing’ when the bomb exploded and the block was erased like a line on a whiteboard.

    • 20 February 2018 at 7:46pm
      Blackorpheus7 says: @ Camus
      Lindorff segues too soon into autobiography. More about the dangerous McMaster and his dread potential, and less about Lindorff's sentimental family details.

    • 22 February 2018 at 12:11pm
      Dave Lindorff says: @ Camus
      You have it wrong. Obama, our Nobel Laureate of Peace, is the one who ordered up a $1-trillion "modernization" of the US nuclear arsenal, including perhaps worst of all, increasing and modernizing the number of "useable" smaller battlefield nukes in the under 5 kiloton range -- the kind of thing that supposedly could be called upon by a general in the field if his forces were being hard-pressed, or that a president could use against even a non-nuclear power to destroy a difficult target or make a threat.

      Trump has merely continued that policy.
      Dave Lindorff

  • 20 February 2018 at 1:43pm
    Rhotel41 says:
    Dave, you are learning about the depleted uranium penetrator, but still have it a bit wrong. The 120mm main gun rounds for the Abrams Tank are not tipped with depleted uranium, they are a sharply pointed depleted uranium rod with sabots that break away some time after the rod leaves the cannon barrel. They were quite effective in killing Iraqi tanks at long range and in one instance at killing one that hid behind a sand berm.

    • 20 February 2018 at 9:39pm
      BrianBruise says: @ Rhotel41
      Whatever! These types of armament are still having a deleterious effect on the Iraqi people.

      And with reference to insane Generals (Jack Ripper of Dr. Strangelove anyone?) there's Curtis LeMay a Kennedy adviser who was itching to start WWIII during the Cuban missile crisis.

    • 22 February 2018 at 12:14pm
      Dave Lindorff says: @ Rhotel41
      The point is not how it works, which is a lot of extraneous detail, but the fact that these rounds were far superior to what the Iraqi's were firing in vain in return in McMaster's "heroic" battle which is being hailed as the "last great tank battle" in the history of modern war!

      Dave Lindorff

  • 20 February 2018 at 5:10pm
    Donald Smith says:
    At intelligence school at Fort Holabird an instructor put a film-strip on the screen showing a fella walking down the street seeing a sign asking: what would you do in the event of a nuclear attack? The thought bubble which appeared over his head on the next screen said: bend over and kiss my ass goodbye. Blast from the Past is a funny movie about shelters and the times.

    • 20 February 2018 at 8:00pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Donald Smith
      As a corporal I happened to attend the army's 6-month "spy-school" course at Fort Holabird back in 1967. There was something laughable about "post security", considering it was the army's national intelligence headquarters, which meant, of course, that they also trained people in the "art and science" of counterintelligence. I could easily sneak in and out of the base at night in order to go to a neighborhood bar or catch a bus to downtown Baltimore. I merely picked a stretch of the chain-link fence around the base that was poorly illuminated, walked between buildings and over the grass perimeter and climbed the fence like any kid not deterred by a fence around an orchard or anything else.

      As to Donald Smith's note on the wise-guy response to the prospect of nuclear war, 10 years before being in the army I lived in suburban Baltimore. At the local bike-repair shop patronized by us kids, the owner, a scruffy, gruff old man, had a sign stating, "In case of nuclear war, bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass good-bye". It was not handmade but professionally printed, indicating a market for folk-wit on the subject. We kids thought it hilarious and it made us admire the shop's owner. Many parents, however, thought it disgraceful or inappropriate. The other thought that frequently passed through our childish brains was that if nuclear war actually happened, we would have quite a bit of time off from school.

  • 21 February 2018 at 10:35am
    deadsparrow says:
    "She had survived the bombing of Hiroshima as a child; many of her family had not. ‘Trying to survive a nuclear attack is madness!’ she told me."

    What does this mean?

  • 23 February 2018 at 4:08am
    Doc TH says:
    It is true that the Abrams tank outclassed the Iraqi Russian-supplied tanks, but that was not clear prior to the hostilities. Notwithstanding, McMaster's victory should not have earned a Silver Star. However, we now give out medals for nearly everything. I have observed senior officers routinely wearing eight rows of ribbons; Samuel Elliot Morrison's WWII histories show photos of Admirals Ray Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher with 2 or 3 rows.
    Despite the statement above that depleted uranium is still causing harm to Iraqis, that material can only be harmful if ingested, or if it penetrates and remains in the body.
    Also, with respect to marginally earned rewards, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Oct 9th, 2009, nine months after his inauguration. Not much time for a Nobel-relevant performance.

  • 1 March 2018 at 3:15pm
    Graucho says:
    and now this ...

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