An Old Army Myth That Went Unchallenged for Too Long

By John Ismay

A Times reporter explains how he started investigating a gulf war-era tale of artillery superiority and its questionable origins.

An inert DPICM grenade with its ribbon stowed, as it would appear when loaded in a M.L.R.S. rocket or in an artillery shell.
An inert DPICM grenade with its ribbon stowed, as it would appear when loaded in a M.L.R.S. rocket or in an artillery shell.Credit...John Ismay
John Ismay

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For some United States Army leaders, the imagery was intoxicating: Iraqi soldiers cowering in fear as dozens of American rockets and artillery shells broke open above them. Thousands of explosive grenades streamed down onto their positions, destroying lives and equipment and forcing surrenders en masse. “Please save us from this ‘steel rain,’” the Iraqi soldiers supposedly implored their American adversaries.

Though the narrative has differed a bit depending on the storyteller, the meat of the story was basically the same: During Operation Desert Storm, the Army’s new second-generation cluster weapons — called dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, or DPICMs — broke the Iraqis’ will to fight, and it was Iraqi prisoners of war who named them “steel rain,” because the grenades were made of that metal and they fell in thickets over large areas of the desert.

I came across this tall tale over and over again in recent years while studying how dud American cluster munitions often killed American and allied troops during Desert Storm. Some of those allied soldiers were killed by unexploded DPICM grenades, but emerging from Desert Storm was a hero narrative around these little submunitions — and one without any official documentation to back it up.

Digging into the archives showed how such a story entered the Army’s consciousness unchallenged. We published that story this week in At War.

This was not the first time the military overhyped new artillery weapons. The Army’s first generation of artillery cluster shells was born out of the service’s bitter experience facing human wave attacks in the Korean War. A top-secret postwar program at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey raced to create a new generation of weapons it called COFRAM, for Controlled Fragmentation Munition. The idea was to design artillery shells that broke open in midair, dispensing little grenades that exploded in more uniformly sized pieces than earlier munitions did. The key, they found, was to score the inside walls of the grenade body in a crosshatch type of design. (The M67 fragmentation hand grenade still in use today is a direct descendant of the COFRAM program.) By blanketing large areas with smaller munitions, they hoped human wave attacks could be defeated.

These COFRAM munitions stayed largely under wraps until early 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson panicked over the possibility of North Vietnamese forces overrunning the Marine base at Khe Sanh. The president discussed the possibility of using small nuclear weapons with Pentagon leadership to defend the base, but his commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, suggested that nukes would not be necessary. In January, the Pentagon agreed with Westmoreland’s request to declassify COFRAM for use in Vietnam.

The Marine Corps’ official history of the war shows that less than a month later, a brigadier general flew to Khe Sanh with the first pallets of 105-millimeter cluster artillery rounds, and a warrant officer delivered handwritten instructions on their use. On Feb. 7, 1968, Marine howitzers fired the first artillery cluster rounds in support of the Special Forces camp nearby at Lang Vei. The Marine artillery commander who was ordered to use the new top-secret ammunition only fired a few rounds and “doubted very much their effectiveness.” He went back to firing normal high-explosive rounds but kept reporting to his superiors that he was using the new cluster munitions.

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These weapons continued to cause problems whenever and wherever they were used, leaving behind numerous duds that the Viet Cong often harvested and incorporated into mines and booby traps that they used against American troops.

The failures of the cheaply made and mass-produced artillery submunitions in Vietnam evidently were forgotten, or were presumed to have been fixed in the Army’s second-generation weapons they debuted in Desert Storm. Although the enemy in 1991 did not turn these duds against American ground forces as they had in Vietnam, at least 16 American troops ended up dead and wounded anyway from picking them up by hand, often thinking they were harmless souvenirs.

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

That is the approximate number of plaintiffs in a 2016 lawsuit filed in federal court by wounded veterans and the families of dead service members against the Iranian government, which they argue aided a series of attacks that killed or maimed American troops. The incidents are said to have been bolstered by the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, an elite paramilitary unit led by Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani until his death two weeks ago. The lawsuit claims that Suleimani provided Iraqi militias with the weaponry necessary to carry out the attacks against American service members during the height of the Iraq war. In August, a judge ruled that evidence gathered by investigators and intelligence officials clearly showed that “material support” for the seven attacks she examined had “flowed through” Suleimani’s Quds Force. It’s unlikely that Iran could be made to pay up directly. Read the full Times report on the lawsuit here.

— Jake Nevins, Times Magazine editorial fellow

Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.

“ISIS has begun to reorganize and plan invasions and attacks.” The decision to restart military operations in Iraq came less than two weeks after Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel all American forces from Iraq. [Read the story.]

“Peace for our people means the end of violence.” Reducing violence levels in Afghanistan is seen as crucial to paving way for finalizing a peace agreement the United States and Taliban have been negotiating over the past year. [Read the story.]

“Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the department that the allegations were unsubstantiated.” A cabinet secretary, a House committee chairman and an inspector general are at odds after a congressional staff member said she was sexually assaulted at a V.A. hospital in Washington. [Read the story.]

“There are no happy endings here.” “Race of Aces,” John Bruning’s action-fueled World War II narrative, follows the elite fighter pilots who competed to shoot down the most enemy planes. [Read the review.]

“The harm of the base now is not worth it being there.” Bagram’s economy is tightly bound to the American military, but what once made it a boom town today leaves it more a target. [Read the story.]

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