Friday 13 March 2015

History Corner: Chemical Weapons in Iraq, Then & Now

Source:  BBC
Film this week of ISIL setting nasty IEDs* with a bit of chlorine gas involved reminds us that chemical weapons ... are what Iraq is all about!  Yup, this time around it started with the search for WMDs, which were always anticipated to be chemical or biological: even Tony "I'll believe anything" Blair didn't think there were any nukes.

There is no mystery as to why folk thought Saddam might have chemical WMDs in the early 1990's:  (a) he definitely once had a complement of Scuds (and used them against Israel in 1991); and (b) he definitely had a CW capability, which he had used extensively against the Iranians in the 1980's, not to mention his 'own people'.  

But - and it's a big, big But - this was a tactical CW capability, not 'MD' at all.

It was in fact quite an advanced tactical capability, consistent with several competent aspects of the 1980's Iraqi military as I'll explain.  But, to round off the present-day aspect: it's no surprise to find ISIL using CW, because their mainstream fighting capability is based on a core (indeed, a corps) of fairly proficient Iraqi army officers of the Saddam era, whose combat experience is second to none on the planet.  Likewise, I am guessing there will be no shortage of Iranian soldiers who will recall Saddam's gas attacks from bitter personal experience - and may know what to do about them as well.

*  *  *  *

Back in 1982, Saddam had a problem.  He'd attacked Iran in 1980 on the assumption it would be weakened by the anti-Shah revolution: but it turned out to be a hornet's nest, and soon he was facing an invasion from the other side, human-wave assaults from berserker revolutionary guards and all.

Source:  Wiki
Among the 'solutions' deployed by the Iraqis were chemical weapons.  Nothing new there; but that part of the world is very hot, and his own troops had to be suited-up with protective clothing and gas-masks.  I don't know how many of C@W's gentle readers have ever donned a 'noddy suit', but let me tell you it is uncomfortable to the point of oppressive.  Its use is practised in rooms full of CS gas, and it is not unusual for soldiers to tear off their respirators even in the full knowledge of the pain and suffering that is a face-full of CS at close quarters.  I am very grateful that in my own time in Oman, NBC drills were never required.

Saddam's boys came up with a truly novel device.  When they were about to use chemicals, their own front-line troops foregathered in tents containing a massive slab of ice.  They would suit up and sit around the slab remaining cool - literally - until the order came to storm into the gassed Iranian position; do the business ASAP; then fall back and strip off.

(Ingeniously, the blocks of ice served another purpose.  As with the British Army on which they were modelled, Iraqi infantry units were raised geographically.  Thus, as in WW1, there was always the possibility of mass casualties being suffered amongst a cohort all hailing from the same town or district, with the distinct possibility of unrest at home if a large number of bodies were sent back all at once.   So the ice was used to get the bodies back to a depot in decent order, whence they were released to their relatives in dribs and drabs over several ensuing months.)

The ice trick is not the only example of striking innovation in Saddam's military.  I'll mention two more.
  • the Iraqi high command formed the view that the generals who were the best at, say, conducting an offensive, were not necessarily as well suited to organising a defence.   The logical development of this plausible observation was to coin the notion of commanders with recognised specialisations.  They would be deployed accordingly, and substituted when the battle moved onto a different phase.  I know of no other army that has used this doctrine (does anyone else?)
  • they were being forced to fight along a much wider front than was comfortable, and tanks were a precious commodity.  It was determind that they were to be used only at the optimal point in the battle, then swiftly withdrawn for redeployment elsewhere.   To achieve this on a strategic scale, Iraq invested in the greatest fleet of low-loaders known to man.  This is not an entirely novel doctrine: Israel reckons to be able to switch forces between its eastern and western fronts very rapidly, too.  But the distances involved are much less.   
The Iraqi army of the 1980s was a large, well-seasoned and, relative to the bitter battles it fought against Iran, competent force.  It is a measure (I like to think) of allied superiority in all dimensions that they were swept aside in 1991.  As I've written before, this deeply impressed the Russians, who had a ringside view.  It only happened because, inter alia, there was healthy attention and respect given to what George Bush Snr's mighty NATO-led coalition was up against. 


*why are they called 'improvised' EDs ?  They may have been once, back in Afghanistan in 2002, but not any more.


Bill Quango MP said...

I remember reading a 'top100' greatest military leaders of all time book once.

Norman Schwarzkopf was in the top ten, which I thought unlikely.

But the author stressed the criteria he used was numbers and types of forces commanded. Casualties inflicted, losses sustained, speed of campaign and success of outcome.

Which, if you put it that way, is correct.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

The ones that impress me are the Generals who achieve things with the scrapings of the barrel and don't have overwhelming technical and materiel superiority. Slim comes to mind.

Bill Quango MP said...

Seb W.
Thinking about that the other day.

Its not widely appreciated just how good Wellington's victory at Waterloo was.

Forces wise, the French and Allied are about equal. Maybe the French are 10% over in manpower. But they are almost all veterans. And Napoleon has commanders who have been winning for years.

Wellington took a gamble defending Waterloo. Like Robert Lee at Antietam.

Both should have lost.

{In Lee's case, his audaciousness is unparallelled. He had, effectively , lost the battle. He held of the vastly superior numbers of Union forces for the day, but used all of reserves and almost all his supplies. yet, despite every one of his ablest generals telling him to retreat that night, he stood fast.
And his opponent, who outnumbered him 3:1, hesitated to attack again.
So when Lee finally sloped away he could convincingly claim he hadn't lost. Which,he hadn't.}

James Higham said...

Yes, chemical and comical Ali

Suffragent said...

An Education as always. Thanks fellas

dearieme said...

I never did learn why the Portuguese government refused to send some of Wellington's old experienced troops to help out in the campaign. Do you happen to know?

Bill Quango MP said...

I don't think it was the Portuguese.
Much of the Peninsula army was shipped to America for the war of 1812.
Some of Weelington's brigades were regulars and veterans at Waterloo. But nowhere near as many as the French had.

Hence Wellington's usual caution turning to wholly defensive for Waterloo.

For a general who never lost a battle he made sure his retreat was kept open at Waterloo!
He was worried about the battle as no other.
With good cause. It really was a close run thing.

Anonymous said...

Having visited the battlefield one can appreciate Wellington's choice of ground as a defensive position. A flat field he'd (and we'd)have had it.
Love the museum there, it's like the Corsican corporal never lost and everything is to his glory.

Elby the Beserk said...

Your truly, Mr. Man on the Clapham Omnibus, thought that when all that fuss was going on about WMDs, that OF COURSE SH was not going to be unequivocal about what he had and did not have - just across the border in Iran was a country and an army that loathed him. Was he going to tell them he was in effect defenceless compared to last time round.

Of course he was not.

Seemed obvious to me. Same as it seemed obvious to me that to invade was to open a Pandora's box we might wish we had left closed.

Still. What do I know?

Elby the Beserk said...

"Anonymous Sebastian Weetabix said...
The ones that impress me are the Generals who achieve things with the scrapings of the barrel and don't have overwhelming technical and materiel superiority. Slim comes to mind."

Mu old man's top WWII Brit General. Dad went into the TA after the war, and ended up CO of the 40/41st RTR. A fighting man, who knew what he was talking about. Boy did we have fun in those Centurions on the ranges on the moors outside Oldham :-)

Jer said...

George MacDonald Fraser of "Flashman" fame fought in the Burmah campaign and obviously admired Slim. Read his autobiography "Quartered safe out here" brilliant.

Having said that, Tamerlane is the greatest battlefield general of all time. Not just one campaign, but year after year, and with troops that weren't anything special by local standards. Invaded the Russian Steppe with success too.