as did others who reported from Vietnam during the 1960s, knew about
war and death. So he was puzzled by the lack of corpses at the tip of
the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Iraq on Feb. 25, 1991. Clearly
there had been plenty of killing. The 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized)
had smashed through the defensive front-line of Saddam Hussein’s
army the day before, Feb. 24, the opening of the Desert Storm ground
war to retake Kuwait. Daniel, representing United Press International,
was part of a press pool held back from witnessing the assault on 8,000
Iraqi defenders. “They wouldn’t let us see anything,”
said Daniel, who had seen about everything as a combat correspondent.
destroyed Iraqi tank rests near a series of oil well fires during
the Gulf War on March 9, 1991 in northern Kuwait. Hundreds of fires
burned out of control, casting a pall of toxic smoke over the Emirate
and raising health and environmental concerns.
The artillery barrage alone was enough to cause
a slaughter. A 30-minute bombardment by howitzers and multiple-launch
rockets scattering thousands of tiny bomblets preceded the attack by
8,400 American soldiers riding in 3,000 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks,
Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, armored personnel carriers and other
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon of Feb. 25 that the press
pool was permitted to see where the attack occurred. There were groups
of Iraqi prisoners. About 2,000 had surrendered. But there were no bodies,
no stench of feces that hovers on a battlefield, no blood stains, no
bits of human beings. “You get a little firefight in Vietnam and
the bodies would be stacked up like cordwood,” Daniel said. Finally,
Daniel found the Division public affairs officer, an Army major.
“Where the hell are all the bodies?” Daniel said.
“What bodies?” the officer replied.
Daniel and the rest of the world would not find out until months later
why the dead had vanished. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers, some of them
alive and firing their weapons from World War I-style trenches, were
buried by plows mounted on Abrams main battle tanks. The Abrams flanked
the trench lines so that tons of sand from the plow spoil funneled into
the trenches. Just behind the tanks, actually straddling the trench
line, came M2 Bradleys pumping 7.62mm machine gun bullets into the Iraqi
“I came through right after the lead company,” said Army
Col. Anthony Moreno, who commanded the lead brigade during the 1st Mech’s
assault. “What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with people’s
arms and legs sticking out of them. For all I know, we could have killed
H. Norman Schwarzkopf is shown at ease with his tank troops at Operation
Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, January 12, 1991.
A thinner line of trenches on Moreno’s
left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade commanded by Col. Lon Maggart.
He estimated his troops buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers. Darkness halted
the attack on the Iraqi trench line. By the next day, the 3rd Brigade
joined in the grisly innovation. “A lot of people were killed,”’
said Col. David Weisman, the unit commander.
One reason there was no trace of what happened in the Neutral Zone on
those two days were the ACEs. It stands for Armored Combat Earth movers
and they came behind the armored burial brigade leveling the ground
and smoothing away projecting Iraqi arms, legs and equipment.
PFC Joe Queen of the 1st Engineers was impervious to small arms fire
inside the cockpit of the massive earth mover. He remained cool and
professional as he smoothed away all signs of the carnage. Queen won
the Bronze Star for his efforts. “A lot of guys were scared,”
Queen said, “but I enjoyed it.” Col. Moreno estimated more
than 70 miles of trenches and earthen bunkers were attacked, filled
in and smoothed over on Feb. 24-25.
What happened at the Neutral Zone that day has become a metaphor for
the conduct of modern warfare. While political leaders bask in voter
approval for destroying designated enemies, they are increasingly determined
to mask the reality of warfare that causes voters to recoil. There was
no more sophisticated practitioner of this art of bloodless warfare
than President George H. W. Bush. As a Navy pilot during World War II,
Bush knew the ugly side of war. He once recounted how a sailor wandered
into an aircraft propeller on their carrier in the South Pacific. The
chief petty officer in charge of the flight deck called for brooms to
sweep the man’s guts overboard. “I can still hear him,”
Bush said of the chief’s orders. “I have seen the hideous
face of war.”
Bush was badly stung by the reality of warfare while president. After
the 1989 American invasion of Panama – where reporters were also
blocked from witnessing a short-lived slaughter in Panama City –
Bush held a White House news conference to boast about the dramatic
assault on the Central American leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Bush was
chipper and wisecracking with reporters when two major networks shifted
coverage to the arrival ceremony for American soldiers killed in Panama
at the Air Force Base in Dover, Del. Millions of viewers watched as
the network television screens were split: Bush bantering with the press
while flag-draped coffers were carried off Air Force planes by honor
guards. Dover was the military mortuary for troops killed while serving
abroad. On Bush’s orders, the Pentagon banned future news coverage
of honor guard ceremonies for the dead. The ban was continued by President
Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Bush summoned battlefield
commanders to Camp David, Md., for a council of war. Army Gen. H. Norman
Schwarzkopf, chief of Central Command with military responsibility for
the Persian Gulf region, flew from Tampa, Fla. He and Central Command’s
air boss, Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, were flown from Andrews
Air Force Base, Md., by helicopter to the retreat in the Catoctin Mountains
near Thurmont, Md. Horner said golf carts took them to the president’s
cabin. Bush was wearing a windbreaker.
“The president was very concerned about casualties,” Horner
recalled. “Not just our casualties but Iraqi casualties. He was
very emphatic. He wanted casualties minimized on both sides. He went
around the room and asked each military commander if his orders were
understood. We all said we would do our best.”
According to Horner, he took a number of steps to limit the use of anti-personnel
bombs used during more than 30 days of air attacks on Iraqi army positions.
Schwarzkopf’s psychological warfare experts littered Iraqi troops
with leaflets that warned of imminent attacks by B52 Strategic Bombers.
Arabic warnings told troops to avoid sleeping in tanks or near artillery
positions which were prime targets for 400 sorties by allied aircraft
attacking day and night.
“We could have killed many more with cluster munitions,”
Horner said of bomblets that create lethal minefields around troop emplacements
once they are dropped by aircraft.
of Defense Dick Cheney, left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell,
center, and Desert Storm Commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf wave
from the reviewing stand after they led a ticker tape parade through
the streets of New York, June 10, 1991.
But Bush’s Camp David orders were also
translated into minimizing the perception – if not the reality
– of Desert Storm casualties. The president’s point man
for controlling these perceptions was Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense.
And, to Cheney, that meant controlling the press which he saw as a collective
voice that portrayed the Pentagon as a can’t do agency that wasted
too much money and routinely failed in its mission. “I did not
look on the press as an asset,” Cheney said in an interview after
Desert Storm. He was interviewed by authors of a Freedom Forum book,
“America’s Team – The Odd Couple,” which explored
the relationship between the media and the Defense Department. To Cheney,
containing the military was his way of protecting the Pentagon’s
credibility. “Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed,”
Cheney said of the media.
This management had two key ingredients: control the flow of information
through high level briefings while impeding reporters such as Leon Daniel.
According to Cheney, he and Army Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, orchestrated the briefings because “the
information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a
lot of confidence that I could leave that to the press.” The relentless
appetite of broadcasting networks made Pentagon control a simple matter.
Virtually every U.S. weapon system is monitored by television cameras
either on board warplanes and helicopters or hand-held by military cameramen
or individual soldiers. This “gun camera” footage may be
released or withheld depending on the decisions of political bosses
of the military. So when the air war began in January 1991, the media
was fed carefully selected footage by Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia and
Powell in Washington, DC. Most of it was downright misleading.
Briefings by Schwarzkopf and other military officers mostly featured
laser guided or television guided missiles and bombs. But of all the
tons of high explosives dropped during more than a month of night and
day air attacks, only six per cent were smart bombs. The vast majority
were controlled by gravity, usually dropped from above 15,000 feet –
35,000 feet for U.S. heavy bombers – where winds can dramatically
affect accuracy. And there never was any footage of B-52 bomber strikes
that carpeted Iraqi troop positions. Films of Tomahawk cruise missiles
being launched by U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf were almost daily
fare from the military. Years later, the Navy would concede these subsonic
jets with 2,000 pound warheads had limited success. These missiles are
guided by on-board computers that match pre-recorded terrain maps, shifting
left or right as landmarks are spotted. But the faceless desert offered
few waypoints and most Tomahawks wandered off, just as the French Legion’s
lost platoon did in the Sahara. The only reliable landmark turned out
to be the Tigris River and Tomahawks were programmed to use it as a
road to Baghdad and other targets. But Iraqi antiaircraft gunners quickly
blanketed the riverside. The slow moving Tomahawks were easy targets.
Pentagon claims of 98 per cent success for Tomahawks during the war
later dwindled to less than 10 per cent effectiveness by the Navy in
Just as distorted were Schwarzkopf’s claims of destruction of
Iraqi Scud missiles. After the war, studies by Army and Pentagon think
tanks could not identify a single successful interception of a Scud
warhead by the U.S. Army’s Patriot antimissile system. U.S. Air
Force attacks on Scud launch sites were portrayed as successful by Schwarzkopf.
The Air Force had filled the night sky with F-15E bombers with radars
and infrared systems that could turn night into day. Targets were attacked
with laser guided warheads. In one briefing in Riyadh, Schwarzkopf showed
F15E footage of what he said was a Scud missile launcher being destroyed.
Later, it turned out that the suspected Scud system was in fact an oil
truck. A year after Desert Storm, the official Air Force study concluded
that not a single Scud launcher was destroyed during the war. The study
said Iraq ended the conflict with as many Scud launchers as it had when
the conflict began.
Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Gen. Colin Powell, with President Bush
at his side, addresses reporters May 23, 1991 in the White House
Rose Garden after the President announced that he was reappointing
Powell to a second term. Bush praised Powell for his advice and
leadership in the war against Iraq and the invasion of Panama.
In manipulating the first and often most lasting
perception of Desert Storm, the Bush administration produced not a single
picture or video of anyone being killed. This sanitized, bloodless presentation
by military briefers left the world presuming Desert Storm was a war
without death. That image was reinforced by limitations imposed on reporters
on the battlefield. Under rules developed by Cheney and Powell, journalists
were not allowed to move without military escorts. All interviews had
to be monitored by military public affairs escorts. Every line of copy,
every still photograph, every strip of film had to be approved –
censored – before being filed. And these rules were ruthlessly
When a Scud missile eventually hit American troops during the ground
war, reporters raced to the scene. The 1,000 pound warhead landed on
a makeshift barracks for Pennsylvania national guard troops near the
Saudi seaport of Dahran. Scott Applewhite, a photographer for the Associated
Press, was one of the first on the scene. There were more than 25 dead
bodies and 70 badly wounded. As Applewhite photographed the carnage,
he was approached by U.S. Military Police who ordered him to leave.
He produced credentials that entitled him to be there. But the soldiers
punched Applewhite, handcuffed him and ripped the film from his cameras.
More than 70 reporters were arrested, detained, threatened at gunpoint
and literally chased from the frontlines when they attempted to defy
Pentagon rules. Army public affairs officers made nightly visits to
hotels and restaurants in Hafir al Batin, a Saudi town on the Iraq border.
Reporters and photographers usually bolted from the dinner table. Slower
ones were arrested.
Journalists such as Applewhite, who played by the rules, fared no better.
More than 150 reporters who participated in the Pentagon pool system
failed to produce a single eyewitness account of the clash between 300,000
allied troops and an estimated 300,000 Iraqi troops. There was not one
photograph, not a strip of film by pool members of a dead body –
American or Iraqi. Even if they had recorded the reality of the battlefield,
it was unlikely it would have been filed by the military-controlled
distribution system. As the ground war began, Cheney declared a press
blackout, effectively blocking distribution of battlefield press reports.
While Cheney’s action was challenged by Marlin Fitzwater, the
White House press secretary, the ban remained in effect. Most news accounts
were delayed for days, long enough to make them worthless to their editors.
Accounts of Iraqi troops escaping from Kuwait – the carnage on
the Highway of Death – were recorded by journalists operating
outside the pool system.
Schwarzkopf repeatedly brushed off questions about the Iraqi death toll
when the ground war ended in early March. Not until 2000, during a television
broadcast, would he estimate Iraq losses in the “tens of thousands.”
The only precise estimate came from Cheney. In a formal report to Congress,
Cheney said U.S. soldiers found only 457 Iraqi bodies on the battlefield.
To Cheney, who helped Bush’s approval rating soar off the charts
during Desert Storm, the press coverage had been flawless. “The
best-covered war ever,” Cheney said. “The American people
saw up close with their own eyes through the magic of television what
the U.S. military was capable of doing.”
©2002 Patrick J. Sloyan