A War Against History

PrintPrintEmailEmailJust 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.