Courtesy Reuters

Tales of the Desert

Searching for Context for the Persian Gulf War

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.

Two of the abler journalists have written of their war stints, and their accounts are revealing, although not always in the ways their authors might have hoped. Television correspondent Peter Arnett’s memoir devotes barely 80 pages to his experiences covering Baghdad. Most of the discussion deals not so much with the war as with himself and CNN, the television network that employed him. CNN’s self-absorption is mirrored by Arnett’s. The Gulf War was good for CNN, which reveled in having a correspondent in Baghdad on the air, even if he could not see all that much of interest or cover the Iraqis in a serious way. The network was delighted by the inadvertent commercials offered by air war planners, who confirmed the success of their attacks on the Iraqi electrical grid by watching the lights go out in Baghdad on cable television.

CNN’s relentless self-promotion (including preening during air time usually devoted to commercials) helped create the mystique of a ubiquitous Western news service, one that made the conflict transparent to those watching it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Arnett was able to see a few sites where bombs had landed, he lacked the linguistic skills, historical expertise, freedom of movement and access to give more than the most superficial of impressions. The thinness of television coverage, not its ubiquity, stands out in retrospect.

Molly Moore’s account of her time with the Marines is far more informative about some of the substance of the Gulf War, although it too exhibits modern journalists’ fascination with exploring their emotions at the expense of portraying unfolding events. Moore accompanied Marine commander Lieutenant General Walter Boomer throughout the ground war. Boomer, who had served as the head of public affairs for the Marine Corps, well understood the utility of keeping the press close, shrewdly guessing that the Marines would gain an advantage in the battle of public opinion. The Marines, on the slenderest budget of all the services, live by their wits, and in this case as in others they outmaneuvered their more conventional colleagues.

Moore’s narrative begins with a blast at the rest of the military bureaucracy, which she believes successfully stiff-armed the press throughout most of the war and will try to do so again. The book ends with an (incorrect) assessment of the lethality of air attacks across the front and a screaming match between her and a military audience back in the United States. It is striking that a journalist who received such exceptional access to commanders and their plans came away so bitter and mistrustful toward the armed forces.


Journalists and soldiers have long looked askance at one another. William Tecumseh Sherman sourly recalled in his memoirs, "Newspaper correspondents with an army, as a rule, are mischievous. They are the world’s gossips, pick up and retail the camp scandal . . . They are also tempted to prophesy events and state facts which, to an enemy, reveal a purpose in time to guard against it . . . Time and moderation must bring a just solution to this modern difficulty." They have not. The Gulf War, moreover, reflected a worsening of the relationship between the press and the U.S. military. Many soldiers, even those who had entered the service after the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973, shared the view that the Vietnam debacle had stemmed in large part from the malicious and hostile reporting of the American press. For their part, reporters were often dealing with an alien world of which they had no firsthand knowledge before the crisis and which they regarded with suspicion and perhaps some intellectual disdain. Having in most cases isolated the press on the battlefield and outshone them in briefings, officers occasionally gloated at the discomfiture of a profession they neither understood nor respected. But, like the one-sided victory over the Iraqis, the military’s victory over journalists may merely pave the way for more ambiguous and harder-fought struggles in future years.

The journalists of the Gulf War did not set it in a larger context, but the significance of the conflict has proved no less elusive to those who have studied it since 1991. Was it a watershed event in military history, the mark of an impending revolution in military affairs, or did it merely confirm the wisdom of betting on big battalions? Was the inability to bring down Saddam Hussein a failure of American policy, or did it reflect cunning calculation that a weakened but intact Baathist regime would serve American interests? It will be years before such questions receive satisfactory answers. Meanwhile, a number of authors have produced serviceable narratives that at least make the war’s outlines clear.


The first wave of publications came from journalists, sometimes working in teams, who cobbled together hasty book-length accounts of the Gulf crisis and war, which were soon superseded. The second came from the U.S. government, and included a report by the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Congress, as well as various volumes produced by the services. (Having directed one such study, I leave it to others to comment on these efforts.)

In the past year a third group of studies has emerged from journalists and analysts who not only covered the war but studied it at some length. Rick Atkinson’s Crusade fills the niche of narrative history well, although there is less of "the untold story" here than the title promises. Atkinson, a fluent if occasionally florid writer, goes in heavily for the anecdotal and technological aspects of the story, although he gives a serviceable account of the crisis and war. The book has attracted attention because of its unfavorable portrait of Norman Schwarzkopf, but this actually occupies little space; combat vignettes and accounts of committee meetings dominate the book. Here, too, contemporary journalistic practice, as exemplified in the works of Bob Woodward, has corrupted the art of historical narrative. Two expedients in particular produce a false sense of omniscience: the practice of presenting the mere recollection of remarks as a quotation (uncited), and the pretense of describing a person’s innermost thoughts. All that notwithstanding, Atkinson’s book reads well and has an interesting tale to recount.

Some of the war anecdotes are quite telling. Atkinson describes one of the first U.S. pilots taken prisoner shouting to fellow Americans, "If you can hear me, let me remind you what we were told back in Saudi before the war started: there’s nothing up here worth dying for." Herein lies one of the major departures of this war, which was also reflected in the injunction of the air commanders to their pilots: "No target is worth an airplane" (the notable exceptions being cases where enemy units are engaged with friendly forces or during search-and-rescue missions). In this and other respects, the pall of Vietnam lay over allied commanders. The generals of the Gulf War had served as field-grade officers in Vietnam. They may have abhorred what they knew or had heard of civilian micro-management of the war, but more quietly, yet no less violently, they despised the military’s waste of human life in Southeast Asia. They came away from Indochina cynical about politicians and political purposes, but determined to conduct the next war competently, violently and fast. As part of the retooling of the American military after Vietnam, they invested themselves emotionally in the welfare of the rank and file to a degree unprecedented in American history. If a choice came between the lives of their soldiers and a margin of political advantage at war’s end, the former would win every time. Thus, Atkinson’s title is perverse: it was the commanders’ refusal to think of the war as a crusade that shaped their tactics, their operational style and the way the war ended.


Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s forthcoming book, The Generals’ War, which focuses more on high-level decision-making, makes this case eloquently and offers the most comprehensive and probing examination thus far of the Gulf War’s strategy and operations. It is likely to remain for some time the best single volume on the Gulf War. If Atkinson attempts to cut Schwarzkopf down to size, Gordon and Trainor set their sights on the hitherto untouchable chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell. They document Powell’s initial reluctance to fight the war and assign him a fair amount of the blame for its premature conclusion and the resulting escape of more than 50 percent of the Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein’s praetorians and the bulwark of his regime. This takes courage, given that Powell had become an unassailable figure by the end of his tenure in office. Here and in an article of the spring 1994 issue of The National Interest by Richard Kohn, one of the country’s leading military historians, one sees the beginning of an overdue critical assessment of Powell’s role in the Pentagon.

Beyond this, Gordon and Trainor put together the larger picture of the war. They point out that the Khafji fighting of January 29-31 represented a major Iraqi attempt to start a ground battle, which neither American journalists nor the high command understood at the time (Schwarzkopf, judging by his memoirs, still does not). They make a convincing case that each of the services, despite the rhetoric of joint action that pervaded the public presentation of the war, fought its preferred version of the war. They describe particularly well the way in which a military machine designed largely for a Europe-centered conflict with the Soviet Union applied the same style of warfare to different, and in many ways far less demanding, circumstances. The great wheeling left hook of the American movement on the ground, which centered on the movement of U.S. Army VII Corps (deployed from Europe in the nick of time to launch the ground war), moved at a plodding pace that drove Schwarzkopf to distraction. But VII Corps did so in large part because it conceived of the enemy as Soviets who spoke Arabic, a force against whom deliberate operations by massed forces were required. Schwarzkopf himself, as his anxiety about heavy casualties indicates, shared this view, at least initially.

Much of what Moore and other journalists ascribed to unnecessary manipulation of the news before and during the war, and unseemly braggadocio after it, merely reflected the military’s own exaggeration of the powers of the Iraqi army. The military felt strongly the need to deceive the enemy (if necessary by using the press) before the war, and was understandably exultant in its aftermath. Very few people on the American side had a comprehensive picture of what motivated the Iraqi regime or how effective its government and military were likely to be. None of the books under review here gives a convincing account of the Iraqi decision to invade Kuwait or of Iraqi calculations (such as they were) throughout the crisis and war. This reflects primarily the extreme difficulty of obtaining either interview or documentary material that would adequately illuminate Iraqi decisions and intentions. But it also reflects the peculiar way in which the United States and its allies fought an enigmatic, if villainous, foe. Iraqi secretiveness and the passivity of the Iraqi military during much of the war contributed to the oddly one-dimensional picture of the war we still have. One cannot help but note, the American government’s difficulty in coming to grips with a political and cultural system as alien as that of Baathist Iraq. Atkinson’s recounting of the ill-fated conversations between the American ambassador in Baghdad and Saddam Hussein show how pervasive this failure was on the eve of the Kuwait crisis.


The personality and character of Norman Schwarzkopf, known to his troops as "the Bear" and to editorial writers as "Stormin’ Norman", come under closer scrutiny in these more recent works. Atkinson, in particular, reveals much more of the general view of Schwarzkopf within the army: an irascible, volatile, insecure bully. At least once, and perhaps on more occasions, his superiors considered relieving him; that they did not reflects the extraordinary degree of control that General Powell exercised over his emotional subordinate. Indeed, by Schwarzkopf’s own account as well as Gordon’s and Trainor’s, the chairman, although in theory merely a conduit between Schwarzkopf and the civilians, ran the war.

Schwarzkopf’s memoir, although a terrific commercial success, is an unreflective work. There is an interesting contrast to be made with Admiral Sandy Woodward’s One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander, which gives a far more thoughtful account of high command in a chancier campaign a decade earlier. For Schwarzkopf, however, as for many other senior participants, the story of the Gulf War is a straightforward triumph, not to be blemished by overmuch brooding on the disputes and hesitations of the runup to the war and its conduct.

Although Schwarzkopf fancied himself an expert on Arab affairs, his own account suggests the reverse. He warns his superiors that Arabs will not accept unconditional surrender, "they will die first", although plenty of Arab (and, for that matter, European) armies have yielded to such conditions. After insisting that the Iraqis would be brought to heel in the negotiations, he acquiesced to their insistence that American military police search him for weapons before he entered the negotiation tent. To be fair, Schwarzkopf’s permission to the Iraqis to conduct armed helicopter flights after the ceasefire, which paved the way for the brutal crushing of the Shiite insurrection in the south, stemmed in large part from an absence of clear direction from the top. The civilian leadership appears not to have given much thought to surrender terms, nor indeed to the overall shape of the peace settlement it wanted. Schwarzkopf, moreover, despite his flaws, knew how to preserve the unwieldy coalition President Bush had created, which was no small achievement. If he betrayed throughout a deep reluctance to take casualties (he hints, for example, that he and his chief of staff would have accepted an eleventh-hour Soviet proposal to end the war before a ground attack began), he no more than shared a common military attitude. If he mistrusted, and in some cases despised, his civilian superiors, he again simply epitomized a tension between soldier and statesman that had become ingrained in the American military since Vietnam.


The uncomfortable conclusion one might reach in reading these books about the Gulf War is that the United States blundered into this conflict after pursuing a misguided and ill-informed policy vis-a-vis Iraq and that it won a war that it feared more than it ought, with forces that overwhelmed the enemy more by their size and weight than by the adroitness of their tactics and operations. Such a harsh judgment, however, would miss an important part of the truth. Few commercially published books will give proper and deserved attention to the more notable technical successes, the aviators’ intricate demolition of the Iraqi air defense system or the ground forces’ carefully planned artillery raids, to take only two examples. Nor do most civilians appreciate the magnitude of the logistical achievement of the United States and its allies. Still, the cumulative effect of postwar writing has been to diminish the luster of a victory that looked well-nigh perfect in the spring of 1991.

Such revisionism, which has yet to run its course, will probably go too far. There are two tests of American military performance in the Gulf War. One is the astonishingly low casualty rate suffered for the magnitude of destruction inflicted on the enemy. The other is the likely shape of Persian Gulf politics had the war not been fought. That Saddam Hussein survived to persecute the Kurds of northern Iraq and the Shiite Arabs of southern Iraq is unfortunate, but it will be years before Iraq again poses a threat to world oil supplies or to the sovereignty of its neighbors. Nor is it likely to burst on the world armed with nuclear weapons in this decade, as would almost surely have occurred absent the war.

The soldiers and statesmen who won the Gulf War made their share of blunders, stretched or obscured the truth and occasionally forgot their dignity in squabbles and fits of temper. They were not exceptional leaders. But they performed the tasks before them and did so, by and large, with competence more than adequate to the challenges they faced. For that they deserve much, if not all, of the praise they have received.³