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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Shanghai  

Is Russia and China’s ‘Nato of the East’ more than a Potemkin alliance?

Nigel Morris
A petition calling for Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, to be included has been signed by nearly 200,000 people  

Let me list the reasons that the Green Party should definitely not be allowed into the TV election debates...

Mark Steel
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

What are Jaden and Willow on about?

Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

Cold war

How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

Isis takes a big step back

Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

How to shop politically

Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

Sex on the brain

Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection