Diary

Stephen Sackur

Major-General Rupert Smith, commander of the British First Armoured Division, was sitting with a mug of tea by his side at the table from which he had directed his troops during the ground offensive. The map on the table told its own story: symbols and arrows indicated the swathes of territory occupied by Allied troops in the previous one hundred hours, not only in Kuwait, but deep inside Iraq as well. The General had summoned me to his side in this hour of victory. That very morning President Bush had announced a cessation of offensive operations and the other Coalition members had rapidly followed his lead. Having made a headlong dash through southern Iraq, the British Division had come to rest in northern Kuwait. Little more than four days after it had begun the ground war was over.

General Smith was tired. This was obvious not just in his face, which looked uncharacteristically drawn and pale, but also in his manner, which was restless and somewhat irritable. He had, he said, been able to grab no more than a few hours’ sleep in the previous five days, stretched out on a bench in one of the armoured cars surrounding the command post. Nevertheless the interview had been his idea, not mine. His desire to elaborate on the Allied victory outweighed his desire for sleep. I had last seen the General more than a month before, when he had given me, and a handful of other ‘pool’ journalists, an informative (and of course secret) briefing on the Allied war plan and the British part in it. When the ground attack came, he had told us at this first encounter, it would be launched on several fronts simultaneously. It would exploit Allied air supremacy to hit the Iraqis in their deep as well as front-line positions, thus providing Allied infantry and armour with vital support. It would, he said, be something akin to the German ‘blitzkrieg’ strategy, applying massive force at very high speed to dislocate and confuse the enemy. ‘You saw the plan, and the plan worked.’ That was what General Smith wanted to tell me in his moment of triumph. And it was true: looking at the huge map laid out before me, I could hardly deny that the offensive had proceeded according to the plan in a most extraordinary way.

‘But the Iraqis didn’t put up a fight,’ I said. ‘There was virtually no return of fire at all.’ This observation met with an impatient response. Where they were able to fire back they did so, the General said, but in most cases the Iraqi forces were simply overwhelmed. Military men are, on the whole, convinced that civilians (and journalists in particular) understand nothing about the nature of warfare. As I talked to General Smith, I noticed more than once that a tone not far removed from contempt entered his voice. He positively snorted with derision when I asked him if any steps had been taken to minimise casualties once it was clear that the Allies were advancing almost at will through Iraqi territory. On the contrary, he said, while the war continued it was prosecuted with maximum, not minimum force. The General’s tone struck me at the time, and still does, as odd, given that it was quite clear during the four days of the ground war that British officers did spare Iraqi lives, and that it became general practice among some of the British tank regiments to give Iraqi tank crews time to abandon their vehicles before they were destroyed. Notwithstanding General Smith’s uncompromising words, I saw for myself the degree to which ordinary British soldiers were disturbed and upset by the wretched state in which many of the Iraqi prisoners of war were found. Having been deprived of food and water for days, with inadequate clothing and third-rate equipment, it would have been hard to imagine an army less suited to the battle-hardened, ruthless image which was peddled on its behalf in the weeks leading up to the ground attack. This mismatch between expectation and reality clearly had a profound effect on many ordinary soldiers. Several came up to me before the interim cease-fire was announced and told me that they felt ‘the slaughter’ had gone on long enough. The truth about the ground offensive, it seems to me, was that the Iraqi troops simply refused to fight. They were not prepared to commit suicide for a President who had already made clear his willingness to cede Kuwait – the very territory they were supposed to be fighting to keep. So they either surrendered en masse or attempted to retreat as fast as they possibly could. Only a tiny minority of British troops experienced incoming fire, and although the statistic has never been confirmed, it seems that only one of the 17 British troops officially described as ‘killed on active service’ was killed in direct combat by Iraqi fire. The vast majority of the mercifully light British casualties were caused by ‘friendly fire’ or the malfunctioning of equipment.

Taking their lead from the Americans, British commanders refused to give any indication of the casualties inflicted during their brief but effective ground campaign. There was to be no body count – it was officially regarded as ‘unhelpful’. As a result of this Allied reticence, we have no idea how many Iraqi troops lost their lives in the ground war. Estimates seem to vary from 40,000 to an extremely unlikely 150,000; all that can be said with certainty is that the imbalance between Allied and Iraqi casualties can rarely if ever have been matched in modern warfare.

‘Maximum force’ was the phrase that stuck in my mind long after I took my leave of General Smith. Was it an approach, I wondered, that remained legitimate against an enemy patently beaten and retreating in disarray? Does warfare of its nature require the application of ‘maximum force’ from the opening of hostilities to their cessation?

By a quirk of fate my doubts were intensified the very next day. I had been expecting to hitch a ride on a helicopter from General Smith’s headquarters in northern Kuwait back to my own adopted army unit, which was still in southern Iraq. But during my encounter with the General the weather had deteriorated, a clinging grey mist had reduced visibility and my return had to be postponed. So it was that the next morning, instead of heading back into Iraq, I took a seat in an Army land rover heading for Kuwait City. After bumping along a desert track for no more than five minutes we turned onto the main highway – Route 80 – which runs north from Kuwait City to the Iraqi border, and the southern Iraqi city of Basra. As we continued to head south we passed dozens of wrecked civilian and military vehicles, many gutted by fire. Now and again bodies, sometimes covered in rough blankets, sometimes not, could be seen on the side of the road. It was clear that Allied aircraft had attacked the highway with cluster bombs – the spent casings were lying all over the area. Cluster bombs are designed to break up into hundreds of little ‘bomblets’ to saturate the target area, spewing out specially-formulated metal shrapnel to maximise damage to both man and machine. They leave tell-tale pockmarks in the area of impact. The Basra road, needless to say, was covered in pockmarks.

Our land rover continued on its way towards Kuwait City, skirting round the torn metal and the abandoned corpses. But only two miles ahead the highway was blocked in an altogether more thorough fashion. We had reached the Mutla Ridge, an escarpment perhaps a couple of hundred feet high, from which, on a clear day, you can see Kuwait City itself, some twenty miles away. On the crest of the ridge were a group of buildings, including a petrol station and a police station. The Iraqis had, we were told, established heavily fortified defences on the ridge, on both sides of the highway, during the Allied offensive. The land rover could go no further, so I got out and walked. To my left was the police station, badly damaged, but still standing. Close by, on the side of the road, was a grotesque collection of charred bodies, forty in all, some frozen in mid-scream, others so badly burnt that it was impossible to distinguish their sex. In many instances the human form had been reduced to nothing more than a shapeless black lump, the colour of coal, the texture of ash.

Over the ridge, down the highway, this was where they had been incinerated. Across all six lanes of the road, and as far as the low grey cloud would allow me to see, there was nothing but devastation – saloon cars, tanks, military vehicles sitting nose-to-tail in a stalled procession. This was an escape convoy stopped in its tracks. Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait City, and some civilians too, though God knows how many, had realised on the Tuesday of the ground offensive that the game was up – Allied soldiers were already approaching the outskirts of the city. They had panicked, seizing any vehicle that looked capable of taking them to Iraq before the Allies could close in. The evidence of their desperation was still to be seen on the highway some sixty hours later. Some had commandeered Kuwaiti police cars and fire-engines; others had climbed aboard a milk delivery van; somebody had even chosen to drive a civilian bulldozer. Mostly, though, the fleeing thousands had stolen luxury saloons of which Kuwait City could offer a plentiful supply. In their last panic-stricken minutes many found time to stuff these cars with useless trinkets and consumers goods looted from Kuwaiti homes. But Mercedes, BMW or Range Rover, it mattered little: nothing offered much protection from the American bombs and shells which rained down on the convoy that night.

How did it happen? Why did it happen? The only answers I got were from an American major, Bob Williams, who had been part of the tank batallion charged with cutting off the Iraqi line of retreat from Kuwait City. Major Williams, his men and their M1 tanks – collectively known as ‘The Hounds of Hell’ – were still on the scene some three days later. According to the Major, his tanks had been involved in what he called a ‘five-hour fire-fight’ with Iraqi troops dug in around the police station at the top of the ridge. As the fight continued the highway became blocked, causing a huge tailback of traffic to build up. There were tanks, military vehicles and thousands of armed troops in the trapped convoy – it was, in short, a legitimate military target, he said. American aircraft bombed the convoy while Major Williams and his men maintained a heavy barrage on the ground. The result, he agreed, was ‘apocalyptic’.

Given that I arrived on the scene long after the shooting had stopped, and indeed hours after the inferno on the road had cooled, I have no means of providing an independent account of events. However, to describe what happened on the highway as a five-hour fight seems less than entirely honest. Yes, there were some Iraqi tanks in the convoy, but they, like the rest of the vehicles around them, were trapped. There was a handful of Iraqi tanks to be seen some distance away from the road, but they were almost obsolete T55s – no match at all for the American M1 tanks that had taken the Mutla Ridge itself. True also, the vast majority of men trapped in their vehicles were armed Iraqi soldiers: but that they were in full retreat is disputed by no one, and their automatic rifles could present no significant military threat in the face of the massive firepower the Americans had brought to the area. Major Williams admitted that during the five hours of the supposed battle he had lost just one man, killed by a bullet from an Iraqi sniper.

As to the number of Iraqis who lost their lives, the Americans would say only that they had recovered more than one hundred and fifty bodies. But numerous blackened corpses remained inside the twisted metal of their vehicles, and it seemed obvious to me that many hundreds of people must have been obliterated under the sustained American fire. It’s hard to imagine how the doctrine of ‘maximum force’ could have been given a more forcible illustration. Within the international regulations which are supposed to govern the conduct of warfare the American actions on the Mutla Ridge were legitimate. Iraqi soldiers were retreating, but they were armed and (as far as we know) they offered no formal surrender. It was the scale of the American attack that took my breath away. Was it necessary to bomb the entire convoy? What threat could these pathetic remnants of Saddam Hussein’s beaten army have posed? Wasn’t it obvious that the people of the convoy would have given themselves up willingly without the application of such ferocious weaponry? The hundreds who, by some miracle, did survive were duly taken prisoner. They included two women and a child. Further evidence suggests that Palestinian and Indian civilians were killed, along with other Iraqis and some Kuwaitis who were being taken back to Iraq as prisoners.

When I asked Major Williams to justify what had happened he said: ‘As you look at the vehicles down in this area you’ll find they are all filled with booty ... these were thieves, not professional soldiers ... our cause was just.’ A few yards away, American and British troops were rooting around the wrecked vehicles looking for Iraqi military souvenirs to take home and hang on their walls.

I came across one Kuwaiti army officer who was surveying the wreckage from further down the hill. ‘I feel very happy when I see this situation,’ he told me. ‘I feel happy when I see the Iraqi people are killed ... they tried to escape like we had to when they first came to Kuwait, but they did more than this to the people of Kuwait.’

Who were these Iraqis killed in their hundreds, burnt beyond recognition on the Mutla Ridge? It’s a fair bet that most of them were nothing more than conscripts – regarded by Saddam Hussein as expendable. The important men, the commanders and the organisers of the vile campaign of torture and murder directed against the Kuwaiti-people, are likely to have quit the city long before that Tuesday night. One can’t help wondering what would have happened to this rag-hag convoy, these dregs of a beaten army, if they had reached the ‘safety’ of Basra. Would they now be required to join in the Army’s killing of the Shia rebels, or would some of them have joined the revolt?

In the midst of all the looted video cassettes, ornaments and appliances that had spilled onto the road during the American attack, there were pathetic reminders of these soldiers’ former lives. Photographs of wives and children, diaries. Those lumps of blackened flesh dumped on the side of the highway were not mere ‘turkeys’ to be shot, nor ‘fish in a tank’ – to use the American jargon which gained common currency during the war.

As some of the British tank crews seem to have understood (with or without their senior commanders’ specific instructions), there are ways of achieving military objectives, particularly against a demoralised and retreating army, which avoid unnecessary casualties. The soldier who allows enemy troops to abandon a tank before blowing it up surely deserves praise for allowing maximum humanity to overcome maximum force.