A War Against History

PrintPrintEmailEmail It was true that they were not the most strategically mobile of our forces, having been fixed in place for going on 40 years, but neither were they the only ones available. For all intents, the forces belonging to the Western democracies were newly unemployed. As President Bush himself remarked immediately after the invasion, for the first time in nearly half a century a crisis had erupted that was not somehow a product of superpower competition.

Moreover, the United States was trying on a new military doctrine. As several books about the conflict have shown, the shadow of Vietnam was still influencing how the U.S. foreign policy elite went about managing international crises. At the darkest corner of the so-called Vietnam syndrome there lay the suspicion that the American people themselves were not up to the challenges posed by military crises and that they would withdraw their support if the war was not going their way. If it is true that this view was ungenerous and distorted, it is also true that this myth formed an important part of the world-view of those who then bore responsibility for the commitment of American military power abroad. Accurate or not, this tendentious reading of recent history helped supplant an operational tradition of gradual, incremental application of American military power. Under the new doctrine, which was especially appealing to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, and many other officers of the Vietnam generation, only overwhelming military force, applied as nearly simultaneously as possible, was acceptable. In future American wars, victory was to be won so quickly that neither the enemy nor Congress nor the American people would have time to react. By the time of the Gulf War, the United States had already given the new doctrine a successful test run, during the invasion of Panama.


From the first air strikes in January 1991, the war took 42 days in all. Iraq had deployed more than half a million soldiers dug into defensive positions. The allied coalition had more than 640,000. What the cost in allied casualties would be when these two great forces collided, no one could say. Official and quasi-official estimates ran as high as 30,000 casualties. No one suggested calling off the war, but before Schwarzkopf would launch the ground offensive, he insisted that his air forces kill half of the enemy’s ground forces. Thirty-eight days later, on February 24, just before dawn, Schwarzkopf ordered the ground offensive to begin. Airpower had done what Schwarzkopf had demanded of it.

What followed in the next 100 hours has been characterized best by Richard Swain, writing in Lucky War , as something akin to a drill bit cutting into a rock face. In only four days, allied forces bored into enemy positions and drove what was left toward the Iraqi border. Untold numbers, certainly tens of thousands, of Iraqi soldiers were killed during the allied onslaught. Large numbers of Iraqi soldiers surrendered, and large numbers, about a third of the total, escaped across the border. Perhaps as much as half of Hussein’s elite force, the Republican Guard, escaped with its heavy equipment intact. The allies seemed happy to let it go. In this war, 383 Americans had been killed, 458 wounded. Their allied comrades-in-arms had suffered 510 casualties in all. History records few such tactically decisive wars as this one. But as military thinkers observed long ago, no degree of tactical success can overcome a strategic miscalculation.

The allies’ writ ran only to expelling the Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait and returning it to its rightful owners. The United Nations resolution under whose authority the allies operated did not authorize the invasion of Iraq or the overthrow of its government. The Iraqi genie was to be put back in its bottle and kept there. In November 1990, President Bush had promised there would be no “murky ending” to this war, but he was to be disappointed. Hussein survived and revived, and two Presidents later, he still rules in Baghdad. If he did not win control over the oil he wanted, neither did he lose control over his country. In the end, so far as there has been one, the Gulf War won for the allies only status quo ante bellum.

After Vietnam, America’s professional soldiers had something to prove, and if they got the chance to prove it in the Iraqi desert rather than on NATO’s ramparts, that was just as well. That is why the reader will detect more than a little triumphalism in books like the Army’s official account, Certain Victory . In their view, the years between Vietnam and Iraq amounted to a struggle for professional redemption. For America’s professional soldiers, and the Bush administration as well, the Gulf War’s success banished the ghosts of Vietnam once and for all. Indeed, for many of them it was as if all history since Vietnam had pointed toward that one direction. From those in Washington who set the policies and made the decisions to those who directed their execution in the field, all else sometimes appeared to be irrelevant. As far as the professionals were concerned, they might as well have been fighting to liberate Tibet. For these men, the Gulf War was a war to overturn history itself, and when it was over, they believed they had done just that.


All during the spring and summer of 1991, America welcomed the troops home. In Washington, on June 8, a grand review for the President was staged, led by General Schwarzkopf himself. The parade seemed to belong to a different age, long past—strangely for a war that had been so technologically advanced.