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The History Thus Far

June 2024
3min read

A DECADE OF GULF WAR LITERATURE

The books started as soon as the war ended. The U.S. News & World Report staff was perhaps first off the starting block with its insta-book, TRIUMPH WITHOUT VICTORY , a compilation of the magazine’s reporting on the war. James Blackwell, who became something of a fixture on American television during the war, produced THUNDER IN THE DESERT at about the same time, and to the same effect. Bob Woodward’s THE COMMANDERS was not far behind. It could hardly wait until the conflict was over and, in fact, it deals mainly with the decision to go to war. THE COMMANDERS refers not to those who commanded in the field but to the foreign policy elite who directed from afar. Woodward’s worshipful depictions of these officials says less about the conduct of modern American statecraft than about the admiring self-image of the conductors.

Rick Atkinson’s CRUSADE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE PERSIAN GULF WAR survives as the best of the early books on the subject. Unlike many of his colleagues, Atkinson was conversant with the arcana of modern military operations and with the professional subculture that directs them. He is a critic, but not an unsympathetic one, and he is better at the narrative depiction of the war than any writer before or since.

The Gulf War may be notable for many reasons, but the quality of its memoirs will not be one of them. Schwarzkopf’s much awaited IT DOESN’T TAKE A HERO took a year and Peter Petre’s help to produce. The book betrays many of the flaws and none of the virtues of most military memoirs. Following their commander’s lead, if not his quick start, several military memoirists have attempted their own contributions, with little success. The best of these is a modest volume, published recently by Kent State University Press: THE EYES OF ORION , a collective memoir by, of all things, a gaggle of lieutenants. If it sometimes descends to the level of Boy’s Own stories of old, the book is at least a genuinely felt work.

None of the above is likely to teach the informed reader much about what actually transpired during the war, or why. Professors Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh finished the first and, in many respects, best of the early analytical studies in their work THE GULF CONFLICT, 1990-1991 . The two seasoned analysts conducted their own field interviews of leading participants, in preparation for a television documentary. They used publicly available information and an intimate knowledge of Middle East history and politics to set the Gulf conflict into the longer perspective lacking in other works.

One would expect the passage of time to correct the historical nearsightedness common to books done immediately after war. Instead, the next wave of Gulf War literature was dominated by official writings of varying scope, quality, and objectivity. It tended toward the narrowly technical or bureaucratic, including the General Accounting Office’s report on the war. An interesting subclass developed in a contest among the American armed forces to establish how the war was to be interpreted. Mirroring events during the war itself, the competition between the Air Force and the Army was especially bitter, with one or the other running close to claiming to have delivered victory almost unilaterally. The Air Force’s remarkable study THE GULF WAR AIR POWER SURVEY took World War ll’s Strategic Bombing Survey as its point of reference and produced a work with comparable intellectual and bureaucratie power. Meanwhile, the Army’s official entry in the race, CERTAIN VICTORY: THE U.S. ARMY IN THE GULF WAR , was an old-fashioned narrative chronicle written by a committee under the command of a brigadier general.

A far more analytical work, written by the professional officer who served in Riyadh as the Army’s theater historian during the war itself, is LUCKY WAR: THE THIRD ARMY IN DESERT STORM . This was the intellectual counterpart to the Air Force’s GULF WAR AIR POWER SURVEY , although its author, Richard Swain, and his project were invisible by comparison. Indeed, Swain’s informed criticisms of the Army’s operations were regarded by many of his superiors as impudence at best and disloyalty at worst. But if military professionals had been disappointed by the historical and analytical depth of histories of the ground war written so far, after this book appeared they no longer had cause to complain.

Students of the Gulf War will probably have to subsist on these secondary works for some time to come. Only Anthony Cordesman, a long-time student of, and prolific author on, contemporary strategic and military issues in the Middle East, has since demonstrated the requisite knowledge and persistence necessary to penetrate further into the dark science of planning and executing a modern military operation. The fourth volume of Cordesman’s “Lessons of Modern War” series, THE GULF WAR , may mark the decade’s last real contribution to understanding the war that began it.

—R.J.S.

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