25th Anniversary

The Gulf War Victory That Never Was

When US-led coalition forces drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the campaign was heralded as the antidote to Vietnam. A quarter century later it looks a lot less impressive.

02.21.16 5:01 AM ET

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, notorious Iraqi strongman, triggered the first great international crisis of the post-Cold War era by invading Kuwait and declaring it Iraq’s nineteenth province. With Kuwait in his back pocket and the fourth largest army in the world at his disposal, Saddam effectively controlled two-thirds of the earth’s oil reserves, and had every hope of establishing Iraq as the dominant power in the region.

As the Iraqi military build-up continued apace in Kuwait, fears of an invasion of Saudi Arabia mounted. On August 6, George Bush declared, “This will not stand, this aggression of Kuwait,” and he meant it. Quickly the American president obtained UN Security Council resolutions condemning the attack, imposing an embargo on Iraq, and seizing its foreign assets.

An extraordinarily diverse military coalition consisting of more than half a million American and 200,000 international troops, including those of key Arab states, was formed under the command of Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, and deployed along the Kuwait-Saudi Arabian border over the course of the next several months. The coalition’s initial mission, Operation Desert Shield, was to prevent an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia while diplomats, Western and Arab alike, sought to persuade Saddam to withdraw his forces. Its second mission—Operation Desert Storm—was to force Iraq’s withdrawal by force of arms if diplomacy failed.

Saddam, believing the United States had no stomach for a conventional war bound to produce heavy casualties in the tinderbox of the Middle East, proved intractable. On the morning of January 17, 1991, phase one of Operation Desert Storm—the air campaign of what the world would soon know as the Persian Gulf War—began.

Desert Storm was the first major test of an all-volunteer U.S. military that had been rebuilt from the ground up following the debacle of Vietnam, and the impact of that experience on the services was everywhere in evidence. From the point of view of doctrine and training, the new American military eschewed protracted and messy insurgencies and inconclusive “operations other than war” in favor of conventional conflicts against regular armies.

The new American military had been kitted out with a welter of new precision-guided weapons, high-tech command-and-control information systems, state-of-the art stealth fighter-bombers, and Abrams tanks that could hit targets 2,500 yards away while traversing rugged terrain in excess of 30 miles an hour with astonishing accuracy.

In short, the new American military possessed a level of speed, mobility, and striking power unprecedented in the history of warfare.

With much of the world watching the action live, courtesy of CNN, F-117 Stealth bombers and cruise missiles made devastating attacks against key command-and-control targets in downtown Baghdad in the first hours of the conflict with impunity. The air-to-air combat phase of the campaign that followed was lopsided and brief. Within three days coalition fighters knocked out 35 Iraqi fighters without a single loss. British and American fighter-bombers handily neutralized Iraq’s considerable arsenal of surface-to-air missiles. Then Allied air attacks went on to destroy power plants, military and civilian communications centers, Iraq’s menacing chemical and nuclear weapons production facilities, seemingly at will, and with minimal collateral damage.

Around January 24, the awesome air assets of the coalition turned their attention to the 300,000-man Iraqi army in Kuwait. Over the course of the next 30 days, Allied air power pounded the Iraqi army’s lines of communication and supply, heavily damaged their fortifications, and destroyed well over 2,000 tanks and artillery pieces, leading to the desertion of about 80,000 Iraqi troops.

No battlefield in the history of warfare had been so well prepared for a ground offensive. Before dawn on February 24, the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions spearheaded the secondary ground attack straight through the middle of the Iraqi forward defenses in southwestern Kuwait, driving relentlessly in the direction of several key oil fields, and Kuwait City itself. The Marines advanced so swiftly through the Iraqi Army’s shattered defenses that they encountered only scattered counterattacks, and reached the outskirts of Kuwait City after only two days of fighting. Arab forces were given the honor of liberating the city the next day.

The main ground attack was a massive, “left hook” enveloping maneuver launched from 150 miles west of the Kuwait border in the Saudi Arabian desert by VII Corps, which consisted of 150,000 troops and five heavily armored American and British divisions. After its flanks had been secured by other forces, VII Corps rumbled through the Iraqi desert in the direction of the Rumaila oil fields and Basra, turned sharply to the northeast, and punched hard into the vulnerable right flank of the Iraqi defenses in Kuwait. Its objectives were to cut off the main routes of supply and communication to the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, envelop the elite Republican Guard divisions there, and destroy them.

In the largest armored assault since World War II and the fastest in the history of warfare, coalition forces eviscerated at least ten Iraqi divisions in a mere four days of fighting. In a number of combat engagements, Republican Guard divisions put up fierce resistance, but smoke, rain, and darkness rendered both their commanders and their tankers virtually blind.

Meanwhile, thanks to satellites, GPS, and complete air superiority, the American generals retained a clear picture of the battlefield, and the Abrams tanks’ thermal sight technology was readily able to detect enemy targets and destroy them, regardless of the elements. On February 27, the Medina Division of the Republican Guard set up its tanks in a six-mile long skirmish line to try to block the American advance. In the largest tank engagement of the war, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Cavalry Division knocked out 69 tanks and 38 armored personnel carriers in 45 minutes, without losing a single tank of its own to enemy fire. “It was more like a one-sided clay pigeon shoot than armored battle,” wrote Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in The Generals’ War.

Baghdad announced a complete withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait on February 26, but coalition forces continued to press the attack until the morning of February 28, when President Bush ordered a cease-fire after only 100 hours of ground combat. The casualty figures reflected the lopsided nature of the fighting: between 25,000 and 65,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 75,000 wounded. American losses were 148 killed in action and 467 wounded, while the rest of the coalition suffered 292 killed and 776 wounded.

A cease fire was negotiated on March 3, in which Iraq promised to abide by all UN resolutions.

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In the wake of the coalition’s lopsided victory, the Bush administration, the media, and defense intellectuals made expansive claims for the war’s significance. A wave of patriotism and euphoria swept across the country, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the victories over the Germans and Japanese 45 years earlier.

“Victory in the Gulf leaves us with such feelings of awe,” wrote Anthony Lewis, the venerable and urbane New York Times columnist. “By God,” declared President Bush, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

“This is the end of decline,” said Michael Novak of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The mother of all battles turned into the daughter of all disasters for the declinists. For years, people are going to cite the lessons of the Persian Gulf.” The campaign, said a RAND Corporation study, “constituted a remarkable milestone in military history.”

Indeed, the Gulf War heralded an entirely new American way of war, opined a prominent DOD strategist, Andrew Marshall, “in which the information dimension becomes central to the outcome in battles and campaigns. Long-range precision strike weapons coupled to systems of sensors and to command and control systems will fairly soon come to dominate much of warfare.”

The victory had indeed finally exorcised the ghosts of Vietnam; a completely recalibrated U.S. military, practicing a new high-tech way of war, had vanquished a brutal dictator and upheld a fundamental principle of international law: thou shalt not invade a sovereign nation’s territory. In the first great post-cold war crisis, the U.S. military emerged with enormous prestige. It was widely hailed as the pre-eminent military force in world military history, the mighty Wehrmacht or Roman legions notwithstanding.

That army, with its unprecedented capabilities, would be a vital deterrent to future mischief-making. It would serve as the world community’s primary asset in preserving peace and stability in what George H. W. Bush and others referred to as the “New World Order.”

Thus, the Persian Gulf War was viewed as a watershed not only in American military history, but in international politics as well.

Yet within a matter of a few months, the bloom began to wear off the rose. Although decapitation of Saddam’s Baathist regime had never been a military objective of Desert Storm per se, Washington had ardently hoped that its crushing defeat in the desert would inspire Saddam’s overthrow by the Iraqi people, thereby significantly enhancing stability in the region. But the war, it turned out, had been halted too soon. Saddam retained sufficient forces, and then some, to crush brutally two internal uprisings, the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. The American and British air forces had to establish no-fly zones in order to stanch the bloodletting.

What had gone wrong? The Marines’ attack on Kuwait City had been meant to tie down the vaunted Republican Guard in combat long enough for the Army’s massive left hook to come in behind those elite forces and destroy them. But the Marine thrust had been so devastating and fast that it precipitated the Republican Guard’s rapid withdrawal back into Iraq. By the time President Bush had called for a ceasefire to prevent the appearance of unnecessary slaughter—a political rather than a military decision—fully half of the Republican Guard divisions and hundreds of their armored vehicles had escaped deep into Iraq unscathed.

Meanwhile, as the dust settled and cooler heads prevailed in the think tanks and war colleges, it was widely agreed that General Schwarzkopf and his staff had greatly overestimated the capabilities of the enemy. By and large the Iraqi army was creakily obsolescent, poorly led, and brimming over with demoralized conscripts who had deserted their posts en masse rather than stand and fight.

Thus, the splendor of the coalition’s victory began to fade, but not sufficiently to stanch the emergence of a new foreign policy consensus among an influential group of civilian intellectuals within the Pentagon, and in the conservative media, that had big things in mind for Greatest Army in World History. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States was the world’s sole superpower. Indeed, it was the only “indispensable nation.”

It had a moral responsibility both to preserve the new world order, and to spread the universal values of freedom, self-determination, and democracy throughout the world. It must punish the enemies of the new order with the help of the world community if possible, but if not, America must be prepared to act unilaterally to do so.

This new creed of military interventionism was hubristic and idealistic at the same time, and drew on a tradition of American exceptionalism as old as Puritan John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon of 1630. Americans were a unique people, with a special role to play in world affairs.

A cadre of prominent neoconservatives, spearheaded by Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, and William Kristol, spread the gospel of U.S. military intervention as a kind of panacea for all sorts of international problems and crises. “Military strength alone will not avail, counseled Robert Kagan, “if we do not use it actively to maintain a world which both supports and rests on American hegemony.”

 The Clinton administration embraced the new creed of military interventionism with gusto, as would the Bush administration that followed it. As the Department of Defense Annual Report of 1997 put it, “There is and will continue to be a great need for U.S. forces… not only to protect the United States from direct threats but also to shape the international environment in favorable ways… and to support multinational efforts to ameliorate human suffering and bring peace to the regions torn by ethnic, tribal, or religious conflict (italics mine).

During the entire Cold War era, there were a total of six major American military deployments. Between 1990 and 1997 alone, U.S. forces conducted operations on foreign shores—peace keeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian relief, traditional combat missions, etc., etc.—more than 30 times, according to Department of Defense sources.

Ironically, the new interventionism completely rejected the Powell doctrine upon which the military had been reconstructed after Vietnam, and the Gulf War had been fought. That doctrine held that if military force was to be used at all, it must be used overwhelmingly, and only in defense of vital national interests, with the full support of the American people, for clearly defined political ends, and with a clear and quick exit strategy.

One of the doctrine’s chief objectives was to insure that the military and the nation never again found themselves mired down in another protracted insurgency war with unclear or protean objectives.

As it happened, the much vaunted new world order never materialized, but the new world disorder surely did. Without the built-in constraints imposed by the East-West rivalry, the international community faced a welter of crises from failed and rogue nation states, disgruntled ethnic groups, insurgents and, increasingly in the mid ’90s, Islamic terrorism.

American foreign policy decision makers turned to the new American military with unprecedented frequency as a kind of “salvation army,” deploying it in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Haiti where American interests appeared to be anything but vital, and with decidedly mixed results. Then came 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After a period of striking initial success in conventional operations, both wars turned into nightmarish protracted counterinsurgencies that resembled nothing so much as Vietnam.

The most expensive and capable military force in world history found itself completely out of its depth, unable to cope with either the political or military complexities of sectarian guerrilla warfare in cultures it did not understand. Firepower, mass, maneuver, and advanced technologies—the sine qua non of the post-Vietnam American way of war—were hardly the keys to victory against lightly armed insurgents living among the people Americans were meant to protect.

 Just after victory in the Persian Gulf in March 1991, a very wise MIT military expert named Barry Posen had cautioned foreign policy decision makers, “Don’t get the idea it will always be this easy. The terrain was favorable to our high-tech weapons, and we were up against a second-rate gangster. We must not confuse what we did here with using military power to redirect the domestic politics of a society.” Neither George W. Bush nor his chief advisors had bothered to listen to Posen, or to a score of other strategists who had carried his message forward into the early 2000s.

And so an entirely new counterinsurgency doctrine for the Army and Marines had to be cobbled together, even as troops en route to the battlefields were rushed through crash counterinsurgency training courses in the California desert. The new field manual, Counterinsurgency, was published in 2006, as U.S. forces struggled to adapt mid-stream to avert defeat in two agonizing and inconclusive conflicts that persist even to this day, albeit under different names.

Notably, the Counterinsurgency field manual instructed American troops to reject many of the tenets, tactics, and ways of thinking that had passed for conventional wisdom about war fighting in the high-tech army of the 1990s and early 2000’s. Today, after more than dozen years of continuous combat, the fighting rages on in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the possibility that substantial American ground forces will once again return to one or both countries is all too real.

After all, these wars are unfinished business, and the new American business, as scholar Andrew Bacevich has eloquently pointed out, is permanent warfare. The Obama administration may have sworn off large deployments for the moment, but in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, “drone attacks employed pursuant to a campaign of targeted assassination [have become] the signature of Obama’s new way of war.”

Looking back on the post 9/11 perpetual cycle of military operations in his book, The New American Militarism, Bacevich asks, “What has this vast outlay of treasure and this harvest of death and suffering purchased? Simply put, not victory.” Meanwhile, the American public’s disturbing reaction to this reality, outside the relatively small world of the military itself, has been indifference rather than outrage.

Seen from the vantage point of 2016, the “stunning victory” that was the Gulf War of 1991, that great turning point in American military history and international politics, seems to have lost its former luster. Indeed, the war now appears to have been nothing so much as a lopsided but misleading prequel to the nightmarish civil war in Iraq, and the event that, more than any other, fed the tragic illusion that American military power could and should shape the world environment to fit our imperial will.