Courtesy Reuters

Tales of the Desert

Searching for Context for the Persian Gulf War

In This Review

Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones
By Peter Arnett
Touchstone, 1995
464 pp. $29.95
The Generals' War : The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf
By Michael R. Gordon,General Bernard E. Trainor
Back Bay Books, 1995
576 pp. $19.99
A Woman at War
By Molly Moore
Scribner, 2002
352 pp. $23.95
Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War
By Rick Atkinson
Mariner Books, 1994
608 pp. $17.95
It Doesn't Take a Hero : The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
By Norman Schwarzkopf
Bantam, 1993
640 pp. $7.99

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,

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