On a single day in Feb. 1991, an American Army squadron defeated an elite Iraqi brigade almost twice as large in what is now regarded as the largest U.S. Army tank battle since World War II. To history buffs, the "Battle of 73 Easting" is legendary. To the man who led the squadron, the battle was a portent of things to come.
It happened on Feb. 26 around a gridline on a military map known as "73 Easting." The unit at the tip of the spear was the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, known as "Cougar Squadron."
The man who led that group into battle was then-Maj. Douglas Macgregor, who writes about the lead-up and the aftermath of the battle in a new memoir called Warrior's Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.
His unit was ordered to confront a contingent of the Republican Guard dug in along a defensive line in southern Iraq. That morning, as Cougar Squadron made its way toward 73 Easting, bad weather and a sandstorm obscured its range of vision. Macgregor tells the story in a play-by-play manner:
"You had black rain [from the oil fires] mixed with sand ... filling the skies with black soot. Most of us were covered with this by the time the battle ends," Macgregor tells Guy Raz.
Once Cougar Squadron made contact with the Iraqi soldiers, a heavy tank battle began that lasted several hours.
"We break the back of the enemy defense and we run out of the targets to shoot," Macgregor says. But shortly after, Cougar Squadron was ordered to "break contact" — stop the attack.
"The sad truth of the matter is that the body of the Republican Guard Corps — this 80,000 man force — had escaped intact," he says.
Macgregor recalls speaking with an Iraqi officer who had surrendered. He told Macgregor "Major, you must go to Baghdad and end this. You must save Iraq."
"He literally was pleading with me to continue the attack," Macgregor says. In other words, to carry on and destroy Saddam Hussein's regime.
The order to halt and withdraw turned out to have been one of the most consequential turning points in the war, Macgregor says. And, he adds, by allowing Saddam's regime to persist, "we made our return to Iraq inevitable."