An old army myth that was not questioned for too long


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For some leaders of the United States Army, the images were intoxicating: Iraqi soldiers cringed in fear when dozens of American rockets and artillery shells opened above them. Thousands of explosive grenades fell on their positions, destroying lives and equipment and forcing them to surrender en masse. “Save us from this” rain of steel, “the Iraqi soldiers allegedly implored their American adversaries.

Although the narrative has differed somewhat depending on the narrator, the essence of the story was basically the same: during Operation Desert Storm, the Army’s new second-generation cluster weapons, called improved dual-purpose conventional ammunition, or DPICM, they broke the Iraqis’ will to fight, and it was the Iraqi prisoners of war who called them “rain of steel,” because the grenades were made of that metal and fell into bushes over large areas of the desert.

I encountered this great story over and over again in recent years while studying how American cluster munitions often killed American and Allied troops during the Desert Storm. Some of those allied soldiers were killed by DPICM grenades without detonating, but emerging from Desert Storm was a narration of heroes around these small submunitions, and one without any official documentation to back it up.

Digging in the archives showed how such a story entered the conscience of the Army without being questioned. We publish That story this week in At War.

This was not the first time that the military overvalued new artillery weapons. The first generation of Army artillery shells originates from the bitter experience of the service in the face of human wave attacks in the Korean War. A post-war top secret program at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey ran to create a new generation of weapons called COFRAM, for Controlled Fragmentation Ammunition. The idea was to design artillery shells that opened in the air, distributing small grenades that exploded into pieces of more uniform size than previous ammunition. They discovered that the key was to mark the inner walls of the body of the grenade in a striped design. (The M67 fragmentation hand grenade still in use today is a direct descendant of the COFRAM program). By covering large areas with smaller ammunition, they hoped that human wave attacks could be defeated.

These COFRAM ammunition remained secret until early 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson panicked at the possibility that North Vietnamese forces invaded the Navy base in Khe Sanh. The president discussed The possibility of using small nuclear weapons with the Pentagon leadership to defend the base, but its commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, suggested that nuclear weapons would not be necessary. In January, the Pentagon agreed with Westmoreland’s request to declassify COFRAM for use in Vietnam.

The official history of the Marine Corps war shows that less than a month later, a brigadier general flew to Khe Sanh with the first pallets of cluster artillery rounds of 105 millimeters, and a noncommissioned officer delivered handwritten instructions on his use. On February 7, 1968, the Marine Corps howitzers fired the first artillery shells in support of the Special Forces camp in Lang Vei. The marine artillery commander who was ordered to use the new high-secret ammunition only fired a few rounds and “doubted much of its effectiveness.” He fired normal rounds of high explosive again, but continued to inform his superiors that he was using the ammunition. New cluster munitions.

These weapons continued to cause problems when and where they were used, leaving behind numerous rags that the Viet Cong often harvested and incorporated into mines and explosive traps used against US troops.

The failures of low-cost mass-produced artillery submunitions in Vietnam were evidently forgotten, or it was presumed that they were repaired in the second-generation Army weapons that debuted in Desert Storm. Although the enemy in 1991 did not turn these rags against American ground forces as they had in Vietnam, at least 16 US troops ended up dead and wounded anyway by hand picking them up, often thinking they were harmless memories.

But the Army still clings to the myth of its effectiveness. Today, a painting titled “Rain of Steel” depicting National Guard soldiers firing rockets containing DPICM grenades during the Desert Storm hangs in the Pentagon. Reporters like me, who entered the building from the entrance of the Metro, passed it on the way to the press operations office, along with paintings depicting other stories.

Here are five articles from The Times that you may have missed.


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