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Tales of the Desert
Searching for Context for the Persian Gulf War
Eliot A. Cohen is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. From 1991 to 1993 he was Director of the Gulf War Air Power Survey, an independent study commissioned by the Secretary of the Air Force.See more by this author
The Gulf War appears, in retrospect, a study in emotional extremes disproportionate to its fundamental reality. A relatively weak and isolated Third World country, whose gross national product was perhaps a third the size of the U.S. defense budget, took on the world’s only superpower, which was funded by the entire developed world and assisted by several major military powers. Having placed its forces in a hopelessly, and quite literally, exposed set of positions in the desert, Iraq lost ignominiously after five weeks of pounding by air and four days of retreat on the ground. From the vantage point of 1994, the anxieties expressed before the war in somber testimony before Congress about the risks of an American bloodbath on the battlefield, and the exuberant celebrations on Main Street after the war seem not merely excessive, but even somewhat bizarre. According to the memoirs of General Schwarzkopf, he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, wanted to use the deck of the battleship Missouri, the location of the Japanese surrender in 1945, for the Iraqi capitulation. If true, this suggests that it was not only pundits, senators and private citizens who lost their sense of perspective during the war.
Despite its overwhelming operational success, the war has left a curious unease about the way it was conceived and conducted, and how it was covered by the media. To make sense of the war at the time one relied, of course, on the press, which inundated the Persian Gulf with hundreds of journalists, ranging from professional war reporters who had spent a generation on the edge of combat to stringers from hometown newspapers eager to hear the rumble of tanks charging across the desert. Most of these journalists were frustrated by the military’s system for handling them and by a suite of briefers who looked a lot better than their questioners on television.