GUY RAZ, host:
On a single day in February 1991, a U.S. American Army squadron, about 1,100 men, nearly wiped out a brigade of elite Iraqi troops more than twice as large. To military history buffs, the Battle of 73 Easting is legendary because it was the largest U.S. Army tank battle since World War II, and it's considered one of the Army's greatest post-war tactical victories.
It took place along a north-south gridline of a military map in the Iraqi desert. The unit at the tip of the spear was the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, better known as Cougar Squadron.
The man who led Cougar Squadron into battle was then-Major Douglas Macgregor. He received a Bronze Star for Valor. He's now written a memoir of that fight. It's called "Warrior's Rage." And Douglas Macgregor is in the studio with me.
Colonel DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Retired U.S. Army; Author, "Warrior's Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting"): Thank you.
RAZ: Douglas Macgregor, that day, February 26, 1991, your squadron had destroyed more than 90 tanks and left perhaps as many as 1,500 Iraqi Republican guardsmen dead. Take us back to that day. Where were we in the first Gulf War? Where were we at that point?
Col. MACGREGOR: At this point, we're three and a half days into the ground campaign.
RAZ: The air campaign had already begun.
Col. MACGREGOR: The air campaign had been going on for almost 40 days at this point. We go through, we destroy unknown numbers of tanks, at least 35 to 40 in the initial assault, and we run out of targets to shoot.
RAZ: Eventually, the higher ups through the chain of command order you to halt and then to turn back. And you argue in this book that that was an incredibly consequential turning point in this war - in the '91 Gulf War.
Col. MACGREGOR: Well, the halt - of course, I had no - not much influence over continuing the attack. And I said I see no reason for us to give this ground up. We had fought for this. We'd come through. Why should we fall back? Fortunately, the Regimental - Deputy Regimental Commander Steve Robinette heard the radio conversation and gave us permission to stay where we were. So we ended up staying for several more hours and engaged the enemy.
Finally, after midnight, other units, who had been eight, nine, 10 hours behind us finally come through. But, of course, by the time they moved through, most of the enemy who had previously been there had long since left and gone to Iraq - gone back there.
RAZ: After the first Gulf War of 1991, there was a victory parade here in Washington, D.C. There's a ticker tape parade…
Col. MACGREGOR: Yes.
RAZ: …in New York City. You call it the lie of 1991. The myth, you write, that the first Gulf War was actually a success. And in your view, if anything, it was a hollow success.
Col. MACGREGOR: Oh, absolutely. And we lost a man, Sergeant Mueller(ph). And the question is: for what are we sacrificing all of these lies? What did he ultimately die for? Now, he believed he was paying part of the price for victory. To him, victory meant the removal of this regime in his mind and in the minds, I think, of all of us.
It wasn't simply running people out of Kuwait who didn't belong in Kuwait. We allowed this force to escape and we allowed this regime to persist. And we made our return to Iraq inevitable.
RAZ: A lot of officers, Doug Macgregor, were genuinely concerned about unnecessary U.S. casualties and many of them had experience in Vietnam. People like General Schwarzkopf, people like General Colin Powell, who was the chief of staff. Can you blame their reluctance? I mean, can you blame them for ordering a halt?
Col. MACGREGOR: Yes. The general officer corps that you have today and the corps that has emerged over many many years…
RAZ: This is post-Vietnam?
Col. MACGREGOR: Yeah. Post-Vietnam is a very bureaucratic, highly conservative, risk averse, cautious and timid. These are people who absolutely do not want to fight unless they are compelled to do so and they see only one way to fight, and that is to bring in hundreds of thousands of men and huge numbers of equipment and pulverize everything from the air.
If you go back to 1991, this air campaign was designed to defeat Germany in 1943 and '44. It…
RAZ: This is the bombing campaign that began in mid-January of '91?
Col. MACGREGOR: Right. I mean, this is this biblical air campaign - 40 days and 40 nights of destruction. It was unnecessary. The real enemy was sitting down in Kuwait and in Southern Iraq. It was called the Republican Guard Corps. It was the foundation for Saddam Hussein's power. That was your enemy. We needed to dispatch it. We didn't. It escaped and this war has dragged on as a result.
And the worst of all possible outcomes is now being achieved; and that is Iran is now dominant in Iraq - the very thing that everyone in 1991 rightly worried about, and it is the thing that has happened.
RAZ: Critics of your book and of you, because you have been vocal in your criticism of both the Iraq and the Afghan Wars, point to the fact that a lot of people mentioned in this book who made cameo appearances, if you will - David Petraeus, HR McMaster, Doug Lute - they were all eventually promoted, they became generals and that you were not promoted after you achieved the rank of colonel, and that this is simply a reflection of your bitterness.
Col. MACGREGOR: Well, you know, my book, "Breaking the Phalanx," was published in January of 1997, and it advocated the radical reorganization and reform of the Army. When that book came out, it was abundantly clear to me, given the response of the retired and active Four-Stars, that I was not going to be promoted any longer. After 1997, the idea of ever being a general was pretty much put out of my mind.
RAZ: That book was not liked by them because?
Col. MACGREGOR: Well, I disbanded the large divisions and created large five to 6,000-man battle groups. I reoriented the force to a different structure.
RAZ: Something that looks pretty similar to what the Army has done today with combat brigades.
Col. MACGREGOR: Well, they've done some of it. The things that they've done have not fundamentally altered the basic structure and content of the Army.
Now, what we are doing, I think, which is very ill-advised, is that we are converting more and more of the Army to this light infantry constabulary force.
RAZ: Counter insurgency.
Col. MACGREGOR: Yes, on the grounds of counter insurgency, which - and remember, insurgency simply means you are suppressing rebellions against your presence. And as result, the kind of force that performed so brilliantly in 1991, that force is vanishing.
RAZ: I mean, but what should the Army of today learn from that battle? I mean you're talking about an armored unit...
Col. MACGREGOR: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: ...a tank battle. How does that translate in any way to the way the Army should confront the Taliban and al-Qaida, for example, in Afghanistan?
Col. MACGREGOR: Armor, fire power and mobility combined trump everything on the battlefield. It's how you wage war.
In Iraq, several times we came very close to losing control of the country, and in each case we sent in armor. The Canadians in Afghanistan have brought in Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, probably the best tank in the world. And as soon as they introduced Leopard 2s into the equation in Afghanistan, their casualties dropped to virtually zero.
My point is that there is no substitute for mobility, armor and fire power, because the enemy is quite delighted to fight you on his terms. And remember, his terms are rifles, machine guns and mines, not armor.
RAZ: Douglas MacGregor is a retired Army colonel. His new book is called "Warrior's Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting." He joined me here in the studio.
Doug MacGregor, thanks so much.
Col. MACGREGOR: And thank you very much.
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