On the Thunder Run

Ed Harriman

  • A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq by Todd Purdom
    Times, 319 pp, US $25.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 8050 7562 3

Few Western journalists saw much of the war in Iraq. Some were corralled in US central command headquarters in Qatar and dependent on Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks’s daily news briefings, some were stuck in Baghdad hotels under the protective wing of Saddam’s information minister, Muhammad al-Sahhaf, some were embedded with the coalition forces: they were all in different ways in the dark. News organisations did their best to pull together their teams’ reports, but they delude themselves and their readers and viewers if they think they were reporting the full story.

What, for instance, happened to Saddam’s dreaded Republican Guard, all eighty thousand of them? We heard that they ‘melted away’, that their units were ‘severely degraded’ by allied air strikes. Yet few if any journalists met any members of the Republican Guard, saw them in action, saw them get killed, saw them get bombed, or saw them sneak away home. We don’t know who gave their commanding officers the orders that resulted in their troops being exposed to air attack in daylight, or how many of their officers were bribed by the Americans, or how many told their troops not to fight.

Western journalists witnessed a hundred or so air-raids on Baghdad. There were more than twenty thousand coalition air-strikes in total . That’s about a thousand a day, forty an hour, one every ninety seconds. According to the US Air Force, more than thirty thousand bombs and missiles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of machine-gun and cannon fire were directed at Iraqi targets. Where did these missiles fall? Who was killed, and who escaped? US Special Forces did much of the crucial fighting on the ground before the arrival of the main columns of American armour, which were carrying the TV crews and embedded journalists. What went on during this fighting? Virtually none of this was covered.

At one point during the war, the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London gathered together all the TV and newspaper reports of a single day’s fighting, and tried to figure out in military terms exactly what was happening. They couldn’t. This is proof of the success of the Pentagon and the MoD’s news management, but it’s hardly an endorsement of the coverage of the war.

In this respect what happened at al-Hilla is instructive. Al-Hilla is a city of just over half a million people, about fifty miles south of Baghdad. Many of its residents are poor, living with their families and animals in areas of tightly packed mud-brick houses and dirt streets. On the morning of 31 March last year, the neighbourhood of Nadir, about half a mile south of the city’s main hospital, was attacked by US forces with cluster munitions which sprayed thousands of bomblets (Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions with a steel fragmentation case and an armour-piercing charge inside). More than a hundred casualties were treated at the al-Hilla hospital and 38 Iraqis, including several children, were reported to have been killed. It was the first killing of a large number of civilians by coalition forces to be well substantiated, and the Iraqi Ministry of Information was quick to bus the world’s press out from Baghdad. ‘They said: "We throw clever bombs.” Is the cluster bomb clever? Does it differentiate between the soldiers and the women, girls, boys, children? It doesn’t differentiate. I feel angry. Very, very angry,’ Dr Saad al-Fallouji, the Glasgow-trained medical director of al-Hilla hospital, said. The incident led to renewed calls for cluster munitions to be banned. The next day, the war, and the news coverage, moved on.

In October journalists, including a team from Channel 4 News, returned to al-Hilla. Unexploded cluster bomblets, they reported, still lay scattered about. In November residents told me that they had been promised compensation by the Americans; none had been seen. Al-Fallouji, who had played host to numerous Westerners promising aid and medical supplies, said little had arrived. Children rolled up their shirts to show their scars. Relatives held out pictures of their dead. Ceilings, mud walls, courtyards and doors were pockmarked with shrapnel holes. Most journalists, and indeed many of Nadir’s residents, assumed that the cluster bombs were dropped by US aircraft. They were not. Shortly after the war, Human Rights Watch went to al-Hilla and plotted exactly where the cluster munitions fell. Before the war the head of the team, Marc Garlasco, had worked in the Pentagon, where his job was to determine possible targets for the air campaign. He didn’t think Nadir was a suitable target for cluster bombs, especially since the action was ostensibly intended to destroy Iraqi armour supposedly hidden in the neighbourhood and this would have been best attacked with single high-explosive warheads, rather than showers of fragmentation bomblets.

So where did the cluster munitions come from? Human Rights Watch discovered that the US 3rd Infantry Division had bombarded al-Hilla with cluster rockets from multiple launch rocket vehicles (MLRVs). The decision to use cluster munitions has to be taken at divisional level. This is because, as indiscriminate people-shredders, their use raises important legal issues. Attached to each US division are lawyers from the US army’s judge advocate general’s office, whose job is to assess the legality of using particular munitions in particular circumstances. Colonel Lyle Cayce was the 3rd Infantry Division’s lead lawyer in Iraq. He told Human Rights Watch how he made up his mind whether or not it was permissible to use cluster munitions. ‘The hard part is how many casualties we will take. It’s a gut level, fly by the seat of your pants. There’s no standard that says one US life equals X civilian lives.’ And what about the possibility that children will be hit? ‘I was hoping kids were hunkered down, hoping with artillery fire they were not out watching.’ Safeguarding American troops (‘force protection’, to the military lawyers) always trumps the risk of wounding and killing civilians (‘collateral damage’). But why use cluster artillery shells and MLRV rockets in the first place? Why didn’t the 3rd Infantry Division use its Apache Longbow helicopters, which are designed to fire laser-guided missiles at hard targets such as tanks? The answer lies in what had happened over Karbala, to the west of al-Hilla, the previous week.

On the night of 24 March, 32 Apache helicopters set out to attack an armoured division of the Republican Guard which was thought to be north of Karbala. The helicopters were to position themselves over the town, from where they would fire on the Iraqi tanks. Apaches usually hover above their own tanks in battle, because they have to remain relatively stationary while guiding their missiles to target and are therefore in need of protection. During the Karbala attack, however, the Apaches were deployed well in advance of American ground forces. As the helicopters hovered over Karbala, the town’s lights suddenly went out. When they came back on a few seconds later, the Apaches were shot at from below by small arms, machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Apaches cost roughly $22 million each. Thirty of the 32 were damaged that night. One was shot down. After this ambush, a decision was taken – this has been unofficially confirmed from within the Pentagon – not to expose the helicopters to further ground fire if this could possibly be avoided. This meant that the 3rd Infantry Division no longer had air-launched missiles at its disposal: from now on it had to rely on artillery and MLRV cluster munitions to clear the way ahead.

The best evidence suggests that the damage at al-Hilla resulted from one salvo of six rockets from a single MLRV, a bat of the eye in a busy day’s fighting. Nothing for the GIs to write home about. But this single salvo delivered 3864 bomblets. The Americans and British used more cluster munitions in three weeks in Iraq than in six months in Afghanistan, delivering more than 12,000 artillery shells, rockets and bombs which released more than 1.5 million bomblets. Many of the cluster munitions, particularly the British ones, were old, with a high rate of duds; they are still exploding in fields and towns in Iraq today. As it approached Baghdad, the 3rd Infantry Division appears to have laid down carpets of overlapping MLRV cluster rocket salvos in front of its advancing tanks and Bradley armoured fighting vehicles. This was hardly reported.

What was reported, extensively, was the advance towards Baghdad of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division on 5 April, now known in the US as the ‘Thunder Run’. Todd Purdom, a New York Times journalist, described it in the paper’s book about the war, in breathy, histrionic tones: ‘It began at dawn. Like a convoy of armour-plated dinosaurs come suddenly to life, the column of 70-ton Abrams tanks and 25-ton Bradley fighting vehicles barrelled up the six lanes of Highway 8, the Hilla road into southern Baghdad’ and its busy industrial and residential suburbs. When it got to the big motorway interchange in front of the Um al-Taboul mosque, the column turned and headed towards Saddam Hussein international airport (since renamed Baghdad international airport), about five miles to the west of the city. The manoeuvre was supposed to test the city’s defences and to show the Iraqis that the US army could move with impunity. It was bound to be chaotic: the column was vulnerable because it had no air support and thus had to keep moving and blast its way through anything that looked likely to slow it down.

Fox TV broadcast some of the attack live. American viewers were able to watch in real time as Iraqi cars and lorries were shot up and ploughed out of control into crash barriers, their occupants, most of them civilians, machine-gunned by American troops. Ordering a column of troops, the majority facing real combat for the first time in their lives, anxious, scared and more than a little excited, to drive into Baghdad without massive air support was certain to lead to some enthusiastic shooting. Few if any Iraqis in military uniform were to be seen. Men were firing on the American column, but they were wearing civilian clothes. The risk of civilian casualties was inevitably high. Most of the Iraqis on the road were on their way to work, some were just curious. On TV the night before Iraqis had been told that US forces were miles away. Everyone was surprised.

After about three hours, the column, less one tank and with one tank commander dead, arrived at the airport, where it met up with the rest of the division, which had got there the night before, having taken a route through the countryside to the west of the city. The brigade’s commanding officer, Colonel David Perkins, told a television reporter the result of the Thunder Run: ‘We have taken out his defences. All of his prepared organic defences along with his equipment is all completely destroyed . . . And we destroyed probably in excess of a thousand dismounted infantry.’ For a commanding officer to admit to ‘in excess of a thousand’ enemy dead displays unusual confidence. How did he know that the ‘dismounted infantry’ were Iraqi military? He didn’t. What were his criteria for judging? Perkins told Human Rights Watch that the rules of engagement were: ‘Don’t take anything for granted, assume that people have the capability to kill you, but don’t assume that everyone is hostile.’ GIs said later that they were told to ‘assume that all targets were hostile’.

Colonel Perkins was not on the Thunder Run that day. His second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schwartz, was in charge. And the column didn’t get to Baghdad. It got only as far as the big roundabout on the edge of the city. Still, the New York Times can recognise good copy. In the paper’s book about the war, A Time of Our Choosing, two chapters and the introduction are devoted to the Thunder Run; there isn’t a word about what happened at al-Hilla.

The Times might not have any doubts about the Thunder Run, but the BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus quoted an anonymous colleague’s description of it as the ‘longest drive-by shooting in history’ and some members of British intelligence have wondered if the tank column took the wrong road. This seems unlikely. I spoke to an Iraqi doctor called Jalal al-Samarrai who lives on one of the main roads into Baghdad just past the interchange where the US column turned towards the airport. He told me that earlier that morning, four American tanks had stormed up the street past his house heading for the city centre. Three of the vehicles stopped. The fourth carried on, went all the way round a roundabout, then came hurtling back down the road. The GIs asked the way to the airport. The doctor told them and the four tanks sped off back towards the interchange. Presumably they were scouting the route.

The Thunder Run is fast becoming the iconic story of GIs in action in the Iraq war. Much of the description in the New York Times book resembles that in two lengthy articles by David Zucchino in the Los Angeles Times. Zucchino has now written a book, Thunder Run, which is due to be published by Atlantic Books in June. It will have an introduction by Mark Bowden, who wrote the book and then the screenplay for the Hollywood blockbuster Black Hawk Down, the story of the US Rangers’ disastrous raid in Mogadishu a decade ago. If Zucchino’s LA Times pieces are anything to go by, his book, like A Time of Our Choosing, will fit comfortably into a well-worn genre. The heroes are American. The enemy are mostly bit players, if not entirely anonymous. This is the realm of gritty determination and buddy heroism, of war stories set for bestsellerdom. Here is Zucchino in the LA Times:

Hornbuckle tried to sound positive on the radio but Twitty could hear the stress in his voice. He asked the captain to put on the battalion command sergeant-major, Robert Gallagher. A leathery faced Army Ranger of 40, Gallagher had survived the battle of Mogadishu, where he had been wounded three times. Twitty knew Gallagher would be blunt.

‘All right, sergeant-major, I want the truth,’ Twitty said. ‘Do you need reinforcements?’

‘Sir, we need reinforcements,’ Gallagher said.

The Iraqis, on the other hand, have no names, no families, no buddies, no ordinary emotions. That many of them might be civilians is of little consequence: ‘Task Force 3-15 . . . would destroy dozens of vehicles that day, many of them packed with explosives. They would blow up buses and motorcycles and pick-up trucks. They would kill hundreds of fighters, as well as civilians who inadvertently blundered into the fight . . . Twitty was astonished. He hadn’t expected much resistance, but the Syrians and Fedayeen were relentless, fanatical, determined to die.’

Two days after the first Thunder Run, on Monday 7 April, Colonel Perkins led a large American armoured column into the centre of Baghdad, occupying Saddam’s palace and chasing surprised Iraqi troops along the bank of the Euphrates. Most of us saw this on TV. GIs were left behind to hold three motorway interchanges which would have been crucial if the American column had been forced to withdraw. It was at these positions that most of the fighting took place, and the passage from Zucchino quoted above deals with this episode.

The fighting does seem to have been ferocious. This was one of the few instances during the war when regular US troops were ordered to hold positions in front of their own line. For once they were sitting targets, taking a good deal of incoming fire. Even so, they had excellent communications, as well as close air support from US A-10 ‘tank buster’ aircraft, and one of the intersections had been carpeted with 4 MLRV salvos – that’s 15,456 bomblets – before the GIs arrived. ‘There was nothing left but burning trucks and body parts,’ one GI recalled.

The Iraqis and other Arab ‘volunteers’ who took part had no communications, no tanks, no artillery, no air support, no heavy machine-guns, no heavy mortars, no body armour, and for the most part no helmets. They were attacking with what they could carry – AK-47 rifles, RPGs and hand grenades. Whatever you might think of them, they showed a great deal of bravery and commitment, and this was dangerous and frightening for the GIs. There are some useful lessons here for American military planners, and for their future enemies. Yet the result of the day’s fighting was never in doubt. US firepower and presence in Iraq and around Baghdad was by then overwhelming.

As the war’s iconic story, the Thunder Run is profoundly inadequate and misleading. This is what Jalal al-Samarrai had to say about what it was like in his neighbourhood during and after the attack.

On 7 April, at six o’clock in the morning the tanks came, shooting at people and anything that moved on the road. Cars were destroyed here . . . Many people were killed on the road here, about 15 . . . One of them was the landlord of this building. He came out of his building and was shot. Their bodies were on the street for five days, until the Americans withdrew, so people could get out to get food and see who was dead and who was alive. They used a megaphone to tell the people not to go outside. We didn’t leave our homes but we saw the bodies on the ground through the windows.

A French camera crew recorded doctors at the nearby Yamuk hospital burying the bodies of civilians. One was shouting at the US troops: ‘You’re killing civilians, you assholes.’ This wasn’t shown on British or American TV.

In the hypertrophic world of Black Hawk Down and Thunder Run, who cares? We now have the heroic story of the war in Iraq, of ‘our boys’ in action. Without the Thunder Run, there would be few stories of GIs under fire in Iraq for Americans to celebrate. In the meantime, what happened in al-Hilla will probably be forgotten, except by the families of Nadir and those who want to sell the army more Apache helicopters and cluster bombs.