Continuing the attack beyond the limit of advance was consistent with a command climate that not only encouraged, but also demanded that junior leaders take initiative. Colonel Holder, told us during training in Germany that, “Because of the pace of the action and the size of the cavalry battlefield, important decisions have to be made quickly by junior leaders in contact. . . all Regimental leaders must train their juniors to do the right things and then trust them to act independently. . . . Leaders must teach and practice mission orders.” It was a message all leaders in the Regiment internalized.
The furious action lasted twenty-three minutes. The troop stopped when there was nothing left to shoot. Sporadic contact ranged from nuisance machine gun fire to one company-sized counterattack of T-72s and BMP armored personnel carriers. Tanks and Bradleys destroyed enemy vehicles at long range from the dominating position on the ridge. Three Bradleys from first platoon, led by Lieutenant Michael Petschek, encountered and destroyed four T-72s as they moved north to reestablish physical contact with G Troop. Medics treated and evacuated enemy wounded. Crews cross-leveled ammunition. Mortars suppressed enemy infantry further to the east as our fire support officer, Lieutenant Dan Davis, called in devastating artillery strikes on enemy logistical bases. Scouts and a team under the control of First Sergeant Bill Virrill cleared bunkers using grenades and satchel charges, and then led a much-needed resupply convoy through minefields to our rear. A psychological operations team broadcasted surrender appeals forward of the troop and the troop took the first of hundreds of prisoners including the brigade commander. Soldiers segregated, searched, and secured prisoners through the night. Many prisoners cried because they had not expected such humane treatment; their officers had told them that we would execute them. The prisoners were incredulous when our soldiers returned their wallets without taking any of the money that they had looted from Kuwait City. Just after 2200, 1ID conducted a forward passage of lines in Third Squadron’s area of operation to our south.
The morning after the battle, soldiers were exhausted. Many of the approximately fifty T-72s, twenty-five armored personnel carriers, forty trucks and numerous other vehicles that the troop destroyed were still smoldering. Our troop had taken no casualties. We thanked God and were determined to keep our edge. We implemented a rest plan and escorted parties of enemy prisoners to bury their fellow soldiers killed during the assault. The troop’s leadership huddled to conduct an after action review. As news of a cease fire reached us, we discussed the previous day’s fight to identify what we might do to improve our readiness for the next battle should we called upon to continue the offensive.
In the ensuing months, we reflected on our training and preparation and identified what we thought best explained the outcome of the battle. We concluded that the tough, realistic training conducted in Germany and after arrival in Kuwait gave our troop the ability to overwhelm the Iraqis in close combat and gave our soldiers and teams the confidence to suppress fear and close with a numerically superior enemy that possessed the advantages of the defense. Specialist Rodrigo Martinez, a tank gunner wrote after the battle that he never really experienced fear because, “we had trained so hard and often it just seemed like another field problem.” After the battle, our loader, Private First Class Jeffrey Taylor, told me, “I’m not going to lie, I was about to panic, but I said ‘don’t panic, do your job." Staff Sergeant John McReynolds, scout section sergeant in Third Platoon, recalled that, “the crew didn’t have to be told what to do. It just kinda came natural.” Third Platoon leader Lieutenant Timothy Gauthier observed that his platoon’s actions were “almost businesslike.” That skill and confidence was not unique to Eagle Troop. It derived, in large measure, from Army-wide reforms in doctrine, training, leader development, and modernization that followed the Vietnam War.
In a 1996 study of the battle, Steven Biddle came to a similar conclusion, arguing that the U.S. advantage in both skill and technology best explained the lopsided outcome in Desert Storm. The commanders of the three armored cavalry troops that saw the preponderance of the action at 73 Easting entered West Point in 1980, a decade prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. A renaissance in our Army was already underway. After Vietnam, Army leaders overcame a crisis in readiness associated with the strain of fighting a long war without mobilization; draft policies that undermined the quality of the force; the watering down of officer and especially non-commissioned officer education to fill spaces for Vietnam; a lack of resources for training and modernization; breakdowns in discipline and standards including racism and drug abuse; and a difficult post-war transition to a smaller all-volunteer Army. Although our Army does not face a crisis as it did after the Vietnam War, the need to anticipate the demands of future battle and prepare our soldiers to fight and win against determined and adaptive enemies is unchanged. Future enemies learned from the overwhelming tactical victories in Desert Storm. They emulated some U.S. capabilities while developing countermeasures to U.S. advantages and adopting asymmetrical approaches to fighting.
Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley’s guidance to Army leaders is clear: focus above all else on the readiness of soldiers and units to fight and win under all conditions of battle. Because U.S. technological overmatch over potential enemies is narrowing due to decreased funding for Army modernization and the ease of technology transfer, our differential advantage in skill is even more important. Although future battles will likely be fought against more capable enemies and under more challenging and complex conditions, there are lessons from battlefield victories twenty-five years ago that remain relevant to combat readiness today and in the future. Well-trained, confident platoons and companies provide the foundation for our Army’s and Joint Force’s ability to fight. As General Ernest Harmon, the commander of Second Armored Division observed prior to the invasion of Normandy in World War II, “The division will succeed only as the platoon succeeds.”
Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is the Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center and Deputy Commanding General, Futures, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. This essay is based, in part, on the author’s original account of the battle. Parts of that account appear in Leaders in War: West Point Remembers the 1991 Gulf War and War Stories of the Tankers: American Armored Combat, 1918 to Today.
This essay first appeared in the Bridge.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy.