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

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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.

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