In the Gulf, about as many US servicemen died in munitions accidents as in combat

Share
Related Topics
Five years ago today, the allies suspended military operations in the Gulf. A couple of days earlier, a small tragedy unfolded in Iraq: it went largely unremarked, and very few people knew what really happened. As Kuwait City was being liberated, seven US combat engineers died while clearing an airfield in Iraq of little bombs (Blues). These had been dropped in their thousands before the Allies' advance. Many of them were unexploded, and the advancing forces had to clear up their own munitions before they could operate safely.

As the engineers worked on 25 February 1991, they were watched by a sergeant from a specialist explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unit, who had been sent to look after big munitions. This bomb disposal expert wrote a log of what he saw. A few weeks later, I was given a copy of his writing, which was terse and anguished. At one point he notes: "These guys are totally screwed up. Their idea of clearing Gator mines is to go down in arm-to-arm formation like a range [small arms ammunition] clearance type sweep. We tried several times to put in our two cents worth about the mines, but they don't want to hear it.... Want to leave these people as soon as possible. Got a real bad feeling."

His comments escalate as the day wears on: "...these guys apparently do not believe in Murphy's laws." On the day of the accident, the EOD experts gave the engineers further warnings and safety advice, but the EOD sergeant remarks that they went on being "Not real bright". The engineers insisted that the EOD people stood back and let them get on with their work.

In the end, in flagrant disregard of normal safety procedures, and contrary to constant advice from the specialists, the engineers appear simply to have picked up unexploded Blues and lobbed them onto a pile, which they then stood around. Perhaps because someone then tossed on one more bomblet, the whole lot went up, killing them all.

In the following months, I gave the essentials of this story to the Independent on Sunday, and Phil Reeves (then in the US) cleverly uncovered almost all the rest. I hadn't dared pass on the log (though I knew it had been seen by the relevant military authorities), because I feared for those who had given it to me.

There was barely any comment on the Independent's story in the US. The engineers' commander, who died with his men and who arguably caused their deaths by serious negligence, had been decorated as a hero. Perhaps consideration for the families of the dead men makes it right for the matter to stay closed.

Anyway, after many calls to various bits of the US Army in the past couple of months, I could raise no one who would admit that anything odd had happened, even though this was the second biggest single group of US personnel to have died in the war. Military and Congressional inquiries, both promised, seem to have fizzled out quickly, and resulted in no public statement that I can discover. True, one history of the war mentions the incident, but in terms of bemusement that good practice wasn't followed, rather than with the horror that knowing anything about it seems to warrant.

In the Gulf, about as many US servicemen died in munitions accidents as in combat. Worse: in any modern war there will be masses of unexploded mines and bombs. In Bosnia, sheer carelessness seems to have killed at least one US soldier. So it seems sensible to learn all one can from the accidents that have happened, rather than to gloss over them.

A British observer is bound to add a thought. Our famously closed society would have got to the bottom of this incident in short order. I am less inclined than ever to believe that the great appearance of openness in the US is anything we need admire.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45000: SThree: SThree Group have been well es...

Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

£20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Between the covers: Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, opposite Colin Firth's Mr Darcy, in the acclaimed 1995 BBC adaptation of 'Pride and Prejudice'  

To talk about 'liking' a character may be a literary faux pas, but I don't care

Memphis Barker
Hinkley Point A to the right of development land where the reactors of Hinkley C nuclear power station are due to be built  

Should the UK really be putting its money into nuclear power in 2015?

Chris Green Chris Green
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen