Bombing Caused 200,000 Iraqi Troops to Desert, U.S. Estimates
New evidence indicates that allied bombs killed far fewer Iraqi soldiers during the Persian Gulf War than previously estimated but caused enemy troops to desert in such large numbers that some defensive lines were left virtually unmanned, according to U.S. military commanders.
In fact, senior American officers reviewing the latest data on the war now believe that the primary contribution of the relentless bombing campaign was not the physical destruction it caused but the unexpected extent of the psychological impact it had on Iraqi soldiers.
At least 200,000 Iraqi soldiers are now believed to have fled their positions during the five weeks of the air campaign, according to senior officers here and in Washington. The new estimate, based on extensive prisoner of war interrogations, would mean that two Iraqis in five had deserted by the time the ground war began.
The officials said that it remains unclear how many Iraqi soldiers were killed in the air raids. But they said an earlier estimate of 100,000 now is regarded as far too high, noting that the number of deserters in some units exceeded casualties by 10 to one.
“What was telling about the air campaign was the psychological effect that it had on (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s) soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Steven Arnold, chief of operations for Army forces in the Gulf and one of dozens of senior officers who are assessing the factors involved in the allied victory.
“The actual number of killed . . . was not a great number,” Arnold said in an interview, citing accounts provided by captured Iraqi commanders. “But the number of desertions was enormous. And where they lost their strength was in the desertions.”
In separate interviews, allied ground commanders across Saudi Arabia similarly have described the depleted ranks and shattered morale of Iraqi forces as perhaps the single most striking feature of the battle.
“There were some units that said they were defeated even before they were attacked,” said Lt. Col. Raymond Cole, referring to the contents of Iraqi logs captured by his 1st Marine Division.
The debilitating psychological effect of the allied bombardment was regarded as somewhat unexpected because the Air Force sought primarily to target equipment rather than troops. And experience gained in the Vietnam War and World War II had appeared to discredit the theory that the terror caused by a bombing campaign could prove decisive.
But in what could emerge as an important lesson of the Gulf War, the unprecedented ferocity of the allied air attacks on Iraq appears to have effectively shattered the spirit of enemy soldiers to a greater extent than it threatened their physical well-being.
“We created a tremendous shock impact,” Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak said in an interview. “Iraqi EPWs (enemy prisoners of war) said they were really pretty well terrorized and demoralized by the attacks, which I think is what caused the propensity to surrender to the nearest post office box.”
At the same time, the fact that many Iraqi soldiers managed to survive the air attacks unscathed provides what officers described as new evidence of the ability of dug-in troops to withstand the most intense forms of aerial bombardment.
“Maybe from our standpoint, desertions are better than killed anyway,” one senior officer said. “But it sure looks as if those who stayed managed to put up with a lot.”
The new estimate that the rate of desertion among Iraqi soldiers reached 40% over the five weeks of the air campaign makes clear that the speedy victory by American ground forces was won over an enemy whose strength had been greatly depleted.
A senior military officer here acknowledged that American commanders had expected at the outset of the ground war to combat an enemy force numbering 540,000 troops, an estimate based on “solid evidence” of Iraqi equipment within the theater of operations.
Instead, the officer said, the number of Iraqi troops in the theater when the ground war began was probably closer to 312,000. He insisted that there was “no way” the Americans could have known in advance of the attack how extensive the desertions had been.
“A guy goes home, doesn’t come back,” said the officer. “How could you even tell that? I don’t think (the Iraqi leadership) even knew it.”
In Washington, the Defense Intelligence Agency has said it is impossible to measure the number of Iraqi deserters with precision. But Defense Department officials, citing the mounting prisoner-of-war accounts, said late last week that they believe the desertion rate in some units approached 50%.
As recounted by American ground officers, the most important effect of the mass Iraqi desertions may have been in minimizing resistance along the front-line obstacle belts where the attacking allied forces were most vulnerable.
Instead, Army and Marine officers said in interviews, many Iraqi trenches proved to be empty, equipment and weapons simply abandoned.
The American officers said that their brief encounters with Iraqi prisoners of war had left little doubt that the bombing campaign had been principally responsible for the collapse of the enemy’s morale.
At one point, Col. Richard Hodory, the 46-year-old commander of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Regiment, was talking with a surrendered Iraqi battalion commander when an American F/A-18 flew overhead.
“You have too many of those,” the distraught Iraqi officer told the colonel.
American pilots have said that they sought to add to the psychological effect of the bombing campaign by dropping bombs even when bad weather or cloud cover prevented them from pinpointing their targets exactly.
“These things falling on their heads really kept the pressure up,” said F-16 pilot Steve Mallery of the New York Air National Guard.
Even if the intended target was not hit, he said, “it let them know we were determined to keep the pressure on until they said uncle.”
In Washington, one Pentagon official said that the extensive Iraqi desertions may have begun even before the commencement of the bombing campaign, when Iraqi soldiers were typically given a week’s leave after five weeks in the field. Many simply returned to their villages and never came back to the front, the official said.
After the air campaign began, however, the “very significant” trickle turned into a torrent. “Once the air war started, you just had people packing up and walking out,” one Pentagon official said.
“Many of the privates voted with their feet and (fled) the area,” said Gen. Arnold.
The furious aerial bombardment by allied warplanes continued almost nonstop from the first hour of the war. Tens of thousands of raids were conducted by a variety of American warplanes, including even transport aircraft carrying 15,000-pound bombs.
In accounting for the massive desertions, Iraqi POWs have told interrogators of their fear of lumbering B-52s, which dropped bombs that shook the earth for miles, as well as smaller aircraft that peppered the Iraqi positions with deadly accurate precision-guided weapons.
McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters Friday that an allied leaflet campaign also had a powerful effect in encouraging desertions.
The leaflets, written in Arabic, told soldiers that they would not be killed if they were walking north alone and pointedly warned that the air bombardment was focused on destroying equipment. If the soldiers kept their distance from their weapons, the leaflets promised, they would not be killed by allied aircraft, McPeak said.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy in Washington contributed to this report.