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A War Against History

July 2024
7min read

It's the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War. America certainly didn't lose, but what else do we know about it?

Just before dawn on August 2, 1990, a war of a sort began in the Middle East. An Iraqi army of 100,000 troops crossed the frontier of Kuwait and swept south toward the capital city. Before the day was out, Iraq had occupied virtually all Kuwait, and Iraqi formations were seen as far south as the Saudi Arabian border. Neither observers on the spot nor Western intelligence agencies were able to say what the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, intended to do next. Hussein offered only the most gossamer justification for the invasion, a revanchist policy based on the dubious claim that Kuwait was actually another province of Iraq, one that had fallen into the hands of a soulless commercial elite and which he was returning to the Iraqi family of provinces. No one was much impressed. On the same day, the United Nations Security Council resolved to condemn the invasion and call for the immediate withdrawal of all Iraqi forces. Six months later, on January 17, 1991, the world was able to watch the first air strikes on Baghdad. After six weeks, Iraq agreed to an informal ceasefire. By the end of March 1991, Kuwait was free of occupying forces.

In the decade since, these events have had as much difficulty finding a name as Hussein had in finding a justification for them. We have “The Persian Gulf Conflict” or “The Gulf Conflict.” For those who wish to emphasize the conflict’s significance, nothing less than “The Persian Gulf War” or “The Gulf War” will do. If one grants, for the sake of argument, that what happened was indeed a war, even if not officially declared by virtue of Constitution and Congress, one must admit that 10 years later there is some confusion about the shape of the thing. Seen in historical terms only, the Persian Gulf War seems to belong with grand old-fashioned imperial enterprises, a cracking good punitive expedition.

Wars presumably have beginnings, middles, and ends. Only the middle of this one seems clear. Every few days, we have news of another air strike against some Iraqi target; in between the strikes, allied warplanes enforce a “no-fly zone” over nearly two-thirds of Iraq. U.N. inspection teams whose mission was to oversee the destruction of certain Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” are no longer permitted in Iraq. What remains of the U.N.’s sanctions against Iraq may be charitably characterized as being in disarray. Those who like their history neat, who insist on closure, have been disappointed.

We should be able to make sense of the Gulf War by now, should we not? It must have been the object of the most intense media attention in the history of journalism. Allied forces employed 60 military satellites, and uoward of three-auarters of a million military calls or messages were exchanged every day. Yet the media consumed twice the bandwidth in reporting the war as did the allied forces in fighting it. The time and treasure consumed by domestic journalism, both in broadcast and in print, are perhaps now beyond calculation.

Despite this intense coverage, the world knew less about the war than it might have thought. Media operations were restricted mainly to “pools” in Riyadh. Military “public affairs” officers assiduously managed a press corps content to be dependent upon the allies for basic support. No small part of the reporting from the Gulf was taken up by the kinds of vapid profiles perfected during intermissions at sporting events, so the world came to know the hulking figure and Pattonesque temper of the American commander in chief, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and learned mostly irrelevant details of his personal history and official life but virtually nothing of anyone else in his chain of command. Whether as a result of something like Douglas MacArthur’s media policy during the Pacific War or merely because of journalistic incompetence, no one then or later could name the major commanders on either side of the war. Imagine attempting to understand World War II without knowing of Göring, Rommel, or Yamamoto, or Eisenhower, or Patton.

Somewhere just beyond the evening news and the instant “in-depth” analysis lies the vague dividing line between journalism and history. Certainly the war has been over long enough to generate a literature, but with a few exceptions it tends to be curiously pro forma , reticent, or glib (see box on pages 86-87). How successfully does this literature represent the Gulf War before the bar of history? Were one to imbibe the whole of it, would one have a closer understanding of the war, 10 years after the fact? I wonder.

No doubt there is enough raw material for factmongering, but some may have noticed that most of the facts originate on one side. To this day we still do not know what Saddam Hussein actually intended to accomplish when he launched his army into Kuwait. Did he want only Kuwait? Or did he harbor the idea of going all the way to Riyadh? We do not know, and history may never tell us.

Whether Hussein’s ambitions were limited or grand, his invasion of Kuwait must go down as one of modern history’s masterpieces of strategic mistiming. He launched his war at precisely the wrong time. The Cold War was so recently over that the United States and its allies had not had time to begin retrenching. Most of America’s readiest, heaviest forces were still stationed in Europe. It was true that they were not the most strategically mobile of our forces, having been fixed in place for going on 40 years, but neither were they the only ones available. For all intents, the forces belonging to the Western democracies were newly unemployed. As President Bush himself remarked immediately after the invasion, for the first time in nearly half a century a crisis had erupted that was not somehow a product of superpower competition.

Moreover, the United States was trying on a new military doctrine. As several books about the conflict have shown, the shadow of Vietnam was still influencing how the U.S. foreign policy elite went about managing international crises. At the darkest corner of the so-called Vietnam syndrome there lay the suspicion that the American people themselves were not up to the challenges posed by military crises and that they would withdraw their support if the war was not going their way. If it is true that this view was ungenerous and distorted, it is also true that this myth formed an important part of the world-view of those who then bore responsibility for the commitment of American military power abroad. Accurate or not, this tendentious reading of recent history helped supplant an operational tradition of gradual, incremental application of American military power. Under the new doctrine, which was especially appealing to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, and many other officers of the Vietnam generation, only overwhelming military force, applied as nearly simultaneously as possible, was acceptable. In future American wars, victory was to be won so quickly that neither the enemy nor Congress nor the American people would have time to react. By the time of the Gulf War, the United States had already given the new doctrine a successful test run, during the invasion of Panama.

From the first air strikes in January 1991, the war took 42 days in all. Iraq had deployed more than half a million soldiers dug into defensive positions. The allied coalition had more than 640,000. What the cost in allied casualties would be when these two great forces collided, no one could say. Official and quasi-official estimates ran as high as 30,000 casualties. No one suggested calling off the war, but before Schwarzkopf would launch the ground offensive, he insisted that his air forces kill half of the enemy’s ground forces. Thirty-eight days later, on February 24, just before dawn, Schwarzkopf ordered the ground offensive to begin. Airpower had done what Schwarzkopf had demanded of it.

What followed in the next 100 hours has been characterized best by Richard Swain, writing in Lucky War , as something akin to a drill bit cutting into a rock face. In only four days, allied forces bored into enemy positions and drove what was left toward the Iraqi border. Untold numbers, certainly tens of thousands, of Iraqi soldiers were killed during the allied onslaught. Large numbers of Iraqi soldiers surrendered, and large numbers, about a third of the total, escaped across the border. Perhaps as much as half of Hussein’s elite force, the Republican Guard, escaped with its heavy equipment intact. The allies seemed happy to let it go. In this war, 383 Americans had been killed, 458 wounded. Their allied comrades-in-arms had suffered 510 casualties in all. History records few such tactically decisive wars as this one. But as military thinkers observed long ago, no degree of tactical success can overcome a strategic miscalculation.

The allies’ writ ran only to expelling the Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait and returning it to its rightful owners. The United Nations resolution under whose authority the allies operated did not authorize the invasion of Iraq or the overthrow of its government. The Iraqi genie was to be put back in its bottle and kept there. In November 1990, President Bush had promised there would be no “murky ending” to this war, but he was to be disappointed. Hussein survived and revived, and two Presidents later, he still rules in Baghdad. If he did not win control over the oil he wanted, neither did he lose control over his country. In the end, so far as there has been one, the Gulf War won for the allies only status quo ante bellum.

After Vietnam, America’s professional soldiers had something to prove, and if they got the chance to prove it in the Iraqi desert rather than on NATO’s ramparts, that was just as well. That is why the reader will detect more than a little triumphalism in books like the Army’s official account, Certain Victory . In their view, the years between Vietnam and Iraq amounted to a struggle for professional redemption. For America’s professional soldiers, and the Bush administration as well, the Gulf War’s success banished the ghosts of Vietnam once and for all. Indeed, for many of them it was as if all history since Vietnam had pointed toward that one direction. From those in Washington who set the policies and made the decisions to those who directed their execution in the field, all else sometimes appeared to be irrelevant. As far as the professionals were concerned, they might as well have been fighting to liberate Tibet. For these men, the Gulf War was a war to overturn history itself, and when it was over, they believed they had done just that.

All during the spring and summer of 1991, America welcomed the troops home. In Washington, on June 8, a grand review for the President was staged, led by General Schwarzkopf himself. The parade seemed to belong to a different age, long past—strangely for a war that had been so technologically advanced. Columns of troops in desert-camouflaged battle dress marched smartly past the reviewing stand, happily rendering their salutes to the Commander in Chief. The President’s public approval rating had soared at one point to 88 percent. But the parades and their memories faded, as parades and memories do, and President Bush was unable to sustain his popularity on foreign victories alone. The admiring soldiers marched away. This was to be his one and only term in office.

Ten years after the war fought its way onto the front pages and TV news, only a few take notice when these dates come around. The decade turned toward new business and left the war to march into history. There it waits patiently with its commanders, its tanks and guns and planes and ships, for the next historian to open time’s doors and bring it back to life.

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