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The tank battle that came to define the early career of H.R. McMaster

Burned out Iraqi T-72 tanks sit in the desert of southern Iraq during the Gulf War.

COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES

By THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF | The Washington Post | Published: February 21, 2017

Long before Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster was tapped for the job as President Trump's national security adviser, he led 140 men into one the last major tank battles of the 20th century.

Known as the Battle of 73 Easting, after the north-to-south running map line it occurred on in Iraq, the Persian Gulf War clash on Feb. 26, 1991, lasted less than half an hour and resulted in the loss of more than 25 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks. Studied countless times and often used as an example of modern tank tactics, the battle made McMaster one of the rising stars of the post-Vietnam War Army and cemented his reputation as a combat leader.

McMaster's Eagle Troop, an armored company of nine M1 Abrams tanks, 12 M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and a handful of supporting vehicles, was one of hundreds of units supporting the U.S. advance from Saudi Arabia into Iraq's western desert. The goal was to strike the exposed western flank of the Iraqi army after it had dug in expecting a more southerly attack along the Saudi-Kuwait border.

After crossing into Iraq on Feb. 23, McMaster's unit, along with other troops of the Second Squadron, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment, encountered a few enemy reconnaissance units and the occasional defensive position. On the night of Feb. 25, it rained and on the morning of Feb. 26, McMaster's unit, along with scouts from neighboring Ghost troop, engaged three Iraqi armored personnel carriers that were approaching their position, according to an after-action account McMaster wrote.

Throughout the day, McMaster's Eagle troop moved sporadically, pushing about six miles to the 60 Easting by noon. The night's rain had given way to an early morning fog, but by 3 p.m., when McMaster's tanks began pushing toward the 70 Easting, the mist had turned into blowing sand, limiting visibility and, in turn, air support.

About 3:25 p.m., according to McMaster's account, his troop was given orders to attack toward the 70 East. Less than half an hour later, his lead platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles was hit with artillery fire but it continued advancing, only to run into a village bristling with Iraqi Republican Guard troops and equipment. McMaster decided to bypass the village, firing into it with nine of his tanks before continuing to push east. It was then, after cresting a near-invisible rise in the desert, that his men encountered the main Iraqi tank contingent.

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McMaster wrote:

"It was 4:18 p.m. The sandstorm had not let up. I was issuing final instructions to the Troop when my tank crested another, almost imperceptible rise. As we came over the top, Staff Sergeant Koch yelled "tanks direct front." I then saw more of the enemy position at which Moody was firing. In an instant, I counted eight tanks in dug-in fighting positions. Large mounds of loose dirt were pushed up in front of the vehicles and they were easily discernible to the naked eye. They had cleverly established their position on the back slope of the ridge (reverse slope defense) so they could surprise us as we came over the rise. We, however, had surprised them. We had destroyed their scouts earlier in the day and, because of the sandstorm, they had neither seen nor heard us."

McMaster's tanks and fighting vehicles, using a mixture of 120 mm guns, 25 mm cannons, TOW antitank guided missiles, accelerated through the Iraqi lines, firing as they progressed and leaving the Iraqi forces devastated. At 4:40 p.m. just shy of 74 Easting, the troop halted.

In his report, McMaster would write of the charred bodies and the flaming tank hulks that burned well into the next day. That night, about 6 p.m., Eagle Troop repelled unsuccessful counterattacks and the following morning McMaster was ordered to move his vehicles to the south.

Writing of the battle and its lessons 25 years later for the website the Strategy Bridge, McMaster highlighted 10 key lessons from the engagement. One point was titled: "Take Risk to Win."

"We had surprised and shocked the enemy; stopping would have allowed them to recover," McMaster wrote. "As Erwin Rommel observed in Infantry Attacks: "The man who lies low and awaits developments usually comes off second best. . . . It is fundamentally wrong to halt - or to wait for more forces to come up and take part in the action."

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Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster speaks to students, staff, and faculty during a visit to U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
JAMES E. FOEHL/U.S. NAVY

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