As a new generation of main battle tanks came on line during the 1980s, neither the US nor USSR had the chance to pit them in combat. But once the Cold War between the superpowers waned, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein provided that chance with his invasion of Kuwait. Finally the new US M1A1 tank would see how it fared against the vaunted Soviet-built T-72.
On the morning of August 2, 1990, Iraqi armored divisions invaded the tiny emirate of Kuwait. The Iraqi Army, after its long war with Iran, had more combat experience than the U.S. Army. Who knew if America’s untested forces could be shipped across the world and thence contest the battle-hardened Iraqis on their homeground? The Kuwaitis had collapsed easily enough, but the invasion drew fierce condemnation from the UN, which demanded Saddam’s withdrawal. Undeterred by the rhetoric, the Iraqi dictator massed his forces along the Saudi Arabian border and dared the world to stop him. In response, the U.S. led the world community in a coalition of 34 nations in what became known as Operation Desert Storm – a violent air and ground campaign to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. Leading this charge into Iraq were the men of Eagle Troop in the US Army’s 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Commanded by then-Captain HR McMaster, Eagle Troop was the lead element of the US VII Corps’ advance into Iraq. On February 26, 1991, Eagle Troop encountered the Tawakalna Brigade of Iraq’s elite Republican Guard. By any calculation, the 12 American tanks didn’t stand a chance. Yet within a mere 23 minutes, the M1A1 tanks of Eagle Troop destroyed more than 50 enemy vehicles and plowed a hole through the Iraqi front. History would call it the Battle of 73 Easting.
Based on hours of interviews and archival research by renowned author Mike Guardia, this minute-by-minute account of the U.S. breakthrough reveals an intimate, no-holds-barred account of modern warfare.
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About the Author
Mike Guardia is an internationally recognized author and military historian. A veteran of the United States Army, he served six years on active duty (2008-2014) as an Armor Officer. He is the author of the widely acclaimed Hal Moore: A Soldier Once…and Always, the first-ever biography chronicling the life of LTG Harold G. Moore, whose battlefield leadership was popularized by the film “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson.
He has twice been nominated for the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Book Award and is an active member in the Military Writers Society of America.
Read an Excerpt
The Fires of Babylon
Eagle Troop and the Battle of 73 Easting
By Mike Guardia
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2015 Mike Guardia
All rights reserved.
FROM THE ASHES OF VIETNAM: THE ARMY OF 1990
Major Douglas Macgregor, the operations officer (S-3) of 2d Squadron, 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment, surveyed the damage in front of him. It was unbelievable: in less than 100 hours, American ground forces had destroyed the fourth-largest army in the world. From among the huddle of POWs, one Iraqi officer made an appeal: "Why do you not go to Baghdad? You have the power. Your army rules the heavens and the earth. Do you think we love Saddam? Saddam killed our best generals. He kills everyone. Major, you must go to Baghdad and end this. You must save Iraq."
Macgregor wished he could, but orders were orders. President George Bush had already announced the cease-fire, making it clear that America's mission was to restore the sovereignty of Kuwait, not to conquer Iraq. Still, the Iraqi officer's remark that the US Army commanded "the heavens and the earth" struck a tender nerve with Macgregor. From the appearance of the battlefield, he found no cause to argue. But this victorious army was a far cry from the one Macgregor had joined in 1975. Back then, the US Army ranked just above sanitation workers in a survey of public confidence.
Emerging from Vietnam, the Army found itself crippled by a crisis of confidence and a growing culture of "apathy, decay, and intolerance." Throughout the early seventies, nearly half of the soldiers stationed in Germany and Korea admitted to drug use — including heroin, hash, and marijuana. Desertion and violent crime were on the rise and barracks became war zones in their own right as soldier gangs ruled through fear and intimidation. Racial unrest had also found its way into the Army. On one occasion, a race riot between black and white soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina spread into the streets of nearby Fayetteville. In garrison communities across the country, officers, non-commissioned officers, and even their families, were frequently attacked by renegade soldiers.
Amidst this public backlash from Vietnam, the Army routinely lowered its recruiting standards just to maintain its end-strength. But even with these lower entry standards and the transition to an all-volunteer force, the Army still fell 20,000 men below its quota. By 1975, nearly forty percent of new recruits had no high school diploma and many more had criminal records. Meanwhile, young officers and non-commissioned officers found themselves "trying to lead an Army stuck in Purgatory." Faced with the prospect of a thankless job, a hostile American public, and increasingly undisciplined soldiers, these young leaders began leaving the Army by the thousands.
The first attempt to revive this shattered Army began in 1973. Both at home and overseas, the Army adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for drugs and began enforcing new standards of discipline. In Europe alone, the Army discharged more than 1,300 soldiers who were known to be drug addicts, gang members, and other small-time criminals. By removing these criminals from their ranks, the Army could once again focus on training and rebuilding soldier discipline.
During the latter years of Vietnam, unit training and readiness had sunk to an all-time low. The single-minded focus on counterinsurgency had eroded many of the Army's core competencies and ignored the more immediate threat from the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, "training" had been reduced to classroom instruction — where soldiers and officers learned the theory of warfare instead of practicing their craft in the field. According to Brigadier General Robert Scales, "the most realistic peacetime battlefield for infantrymen and tankers was still the firing range."
Determined to reverse these trends, senior Army leaders established the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) in 1973. TRADOC emphasized a return to realistic field-based training that focused on small unit tactics and basic combat skills. To this end, TRADOC created the Army Training and Evaluation Program (ARTEP) in 1975. As a gauge for meas uring combat readiness at the company, battalion, and brigade-level, ARTEP exposed units that "looked good in garrison, but failed to meet the standard in the field."
Alongside ARTEP, Army officials began to push for more modernized equipment. By 1975, many of the Army's combat vehicles had fallen a generation behind their Soviet counterparts. While Americans continued training on their 1950s-era equipment, the Soviets fielded the T-72 Main Battle Tank and the dreaded BMP — the first true "infantry fighting vehicle." To keep pace with the Warsaw Pact (and make up for time lost during Vietnam), Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams put forth a new weapon systems plan known as "The Big Five." Specifically, Abrams sought to develop five new platforms that the Army needed to regain its tactical edge. These included a new main battle tank, an infantry fighting vehicle, two helicopters — an attack aircraft and a troop transport — and a missile defense platform. Respectively, these weapons became the M1 Abrams, the M2 Bradley, the Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, and the vaunted Patriot missile.
But even with new training methods and the promise of new equipment, the Army still had difficulty attracting and retaining quality recruits. Although the Army was steadily dragging itself out of the post-Vietnam malaise, the American public (and potential recruits) remained skeptical of the Army's vitality. Straddled by massive budget cuts and a lukewarm Congress, a soldier's quality of life steadily declined throughout the 1970s. Because military pay and allowances had failed to keep pace with inflation, many soldiers found themselves living off food stamps. Also, for the first time in history, many junior enlisted men were having families of their own. This meant that, under the current pay scale, a corporal with a small family would be living below the poverty line.
Beginning in 1980, however, Congress approved more money for military spending. Over the next two years, soldier salaries increased by twenty-five percent and the Army launched its "Be All You Can Be" campaign. Realizing that the existence of an all-volunteer force wasn't enough to attract quality recruits, the Army aimed to convince America's youth that military service was a marketable skill. "Thanks to the positive image-making and improving quality of life within the Army, the 'Willie and Joe' image from the drafted Army gave way to the Army's new image as a caring, challenging, high-tech outfit." By the end of the 1980s, nearly 100 percent of new recruits were high school graduates. As the Army attracted higher-quality recruits, the incidents of AWOL, desertion, and drug abuse fell dramatically.
The push for more money and better recruits went hand-in-hand with a revitalization of the Army's tactical doctrine. As the focus returned to the defense of Western Europe, General Donn A. Starry, commander of the Army's V Corps, realized that the current doctrine of "Active Defense" couldn't defeat the Warsaw Pact in a conventional showdown. The concept of Active Defense stipulated that NATO ground forces could fix and destroy the first wave of the Soviet invasion at key points along the Inner-German border. After the first wave of Soviets were destroyed (or at least neutralized), the NATO defenders could then re-group and engage the following echelons. However, Starry noticed that V Corps had neither the time nor resources to "reset the defense" before being overwhelmed by the second echelon.
Starry's solution, therefore, was to attack the enemy's rear echelons before they had a chance to mobilize them. This required integrating Air Force assets at the Corps-level, something which had never been done in the Cold War-era Army. Utilizing strike and reconnaissance aircraft, NATO could severely disrupt the enemy's rear echelons before they could engage the West German defenses. Simultaneously, NATO artillery fire and electronic warfare would disrupt the enemy's frontline battle rhythm. Starry's principles became known as "AirLand Battle," codified in the 1982 edition of FM 100-5 Operations. AirLand Battle served as the blueprint for the ground attack phase during Desert Storm and remained the backbone of Army tactical doctrine well into the twenty-first century.
Little by little, these trends lifted the Army out of its post-Vietnam malaise. However, the most glaring testament to the Army's revival was the conduct of its soldiers in the field. During the 1970s, West German and other NATO forces often commented on the lethargy of American tank crews. During joint maneuvers, American tankers frequently caused collateral damage to German homes, businesses, and farms. Whenever an American tank broke down or became immobile during maneuvers, the crew would often sit atop their vehicle, light a few cigarettes, and wait for their vehicle to be recovered. By 1985, however, American tankers had earned a much better reputation.
Tank crewmen now sprang into action fixing and troubleshooting their vehicles. Two years later, an American tank crew won the Canadian Army Trophy Gunnery Competition for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. Meanwhile, at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, rotating units were continuously defeating their mock-aggressor forces in staged battles across the Mojave Desert.
In less than two decades, the Army had transformed itself from a decrepit, post-Vietnam rabble into the most professional, high-tech fighting force the world had ever known. This was the Army of 1990, the revitalized Army that had defeated Saddam Hussein in less than 100 hours — the Army that ruled "the heavens and the earth."CHAPTER 2
"Fellas, the next order I brief to you will be in the deserts of Arabia." Captain Herbert Raymond "HR" McMaster was certain about that. It was a typical summer afternoon when Eagle Troop gathered around their commander to receive the operations order for Troop Challenge '90 — a joint exercise conducted with the British Army and one of several maneuvers that the 2d Armored Cavalry conducted with its NATO partners. Atop an outdoor basketball court, McMaster and his men had built a terrain model — a scaled representation of the maneuver area to which they would take their vehicles. A medley of chalk, yarn, grass, and dirt had been painstakingly crafted to represent roads, hills, vegetation, and other aspects of the West German countryside.
But as McMaster began his brief, pointing out the key terrain features and suspected enemy positions, the men of Eagle Troop pondered their commander's opening remarks. Many were excited. After years of squaring off against mock aggressors in the Fulda Gap, they would finally have a chance to prove themselves in combat. Others had cause for concern. Despite the brief interludes in Panama and Grenada, the US had not seen a large-scale ground war in nearly twenty years. With memories of Vietnam still fresh in their minds, the older troops wondered if the US even had the political will to conduct another high-intensity conflict. Still others thought that this crisis in the Gulf would simply pass them by. After all, the Cold War had ended and some European-based divisions had already been tapped for deactivation. Come what may, McMaster remained dedicated to providing a tough and realistic training regimen for his men. In the unforgiving game of war, his troops deserved nothing less.
With a booming voice and a stocky, muscular build, HR was the very essence of a cavalry soldier. Dead-honest, professional, and with a touch of "fire and brimstone," McMaster had a reputation as one of the toughest commanders in 2d Squadron.
Perhaps it was inevitable that McMaster would pursue a career in the military. His father had been a career infantryman — earning his stripes during the Korean War and receiving a direct commission from first sergeant to captain at the height of Vietnam. Attracted to the Army lifestyle, young HR decided to follow in his father's footsteps. "I attended high school at Valley Forge Military Academy," he said, "which is about ten miles from my home in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia. It was a great experience in terms of leadership at a very young age."
During his senior year, McMaster applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. "I chose West Point because I thought it would prepare me best for a military career." When HR entered the academy in July 1980, there was no doubt in his mind that he would pursue a commission in the Infantry. This notion changed, however, during his senior year when Army Aviation became an independent branch. "I had read about the air cavalry in Vietnam, and decided to become an aero scout." After graduating from West Point in June 1984, he attended Airborne School at Fort Benning, and the Armor Officer Basic Course (AOBC) at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on his way to flight school.
However, during his flight school physical, the flight surgeon revealed that McMaster had an astigmatism in his eye, which prevented him from becoming a pilot. He therefore had no choice but to remain in the Armor Branch.
Determined to make the best of the situation, McMaster met with an Armor Branch representative to discuss a possible assignment in West Germany. In 1984, the Cold War was at its peak, and an assignment along the Inner-German Border was considered prime posting for young officers who sought to make the Army their career. However, the assignment officer had a different piece of advice. He recommended the young McMaster go to the 2d Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas. According to the Armor Branch rep, the 2d Armored Division (nicknamed "Hell on Wheels") was the only fully-modernized division in the Army and one of the few stateside units equipped with the new M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. "I took the officer's advice," he said. Before his arrival at Fort Hood, however, McMaster reported to Fort Benning for Ranger School.
An intense nine-week leadership course, Ranger School focused on dismounted patrolling tactics. The course was considered a rite of passage for infantry officers, but for non-infantry types like McMaster, the Ranger tab commanded unparalleled respect. Not many Armor officers wore the heralded Ranger tab, but those who did were often given the best assignments and had better prospects for early promotion.
Throughout Ranger School, McMaster learned just how much punishment the human body could take. He and his classmates received only two meals per day and averaged about three hours of sleep every night. It wasn't unusual for Ranger students to lose twenty or even thirty pounds over the course of the nine-week program. For HR McMaster, Ranger School reinforced the notion of teamwork; if the students didn't work well together, the Ranger Instructors made it harder for everyone. Despite the tribulations of Ranger school, however, McMaster graduated from the course in March 1985.
With a new Ranger tab emblazoned upon his uniform, McMaster drove from Fort Benning to Fort Hood, where he reported to the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment. Although eager to climb aboard an M1 Abrams, his first assignment was to be the battalion's support platoon leader — responsible for supply and transportation. Traditionally, this was the job that no lieutenant wanted. Support platoon leaders often became targets for an angry battalion commander whose rations or fuel didn't arrive on time. Nevertheless, HR held the job for eight months with a record of solid performance, after which he was transferred to Bravo Company and awarded command of a tank platoon.
Excerpted from The Fires of Babylon by Mike Guardia. Copyright © 2015 Mike Guardia. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Forword General Fred Franks, USA, Ret 9
1 From the Ashes of Vietnam: The Army of 1990 17
2 The Troopers 23
Scouts Out! 42
Hedenskog and Ohelr 55
Lee and Rhodes 60
The Attitude Track 65
3 "Deforger-90" 75
4 Life in Descrt 103
5 Into Iraq 135
6 Day of Battle 153
7 Ceasc-Fire 177
Epilogue: After the Storm 195
Appendix: Eagle Troop Battle Roster 205