Operation Desert Storm: How the First Gulf War Made Me the Historian I Am

We are in the middle of the twenty-five year anniversary of Gulf War I–Operation Desert Storm, which culminated in the ground war of 24-27 February, 1991. Naturally, we are seeing a lot of articles looking back and offering a variety of lessons. Carafano’s piece at The National Interest is pretty good, as is Ingrid Formanek’s CNN piece on her experiences in Baghdad. Tess Owen at Vice.  Al-Marashi at Al Jazeera on Desert Storm’s “enduring legacy.” There are pieces on how the war “changed the Air Force through innovation”: Steven Metz talking about the Desert Storm, Yugoslavia, and current war; War History Online talking about the Highway of Death; photo essays and look-backs, including this one from Business Insider, this one from We Are the Mighty and this great one from The Atlantic; discussions with veterans and leaders in that conflict–lots of news by and about veterans. There will doubtless be more to come this week (some digitized documents can be found here, from 2001, and a bibliography of contemporary sources can be found here).

I have often thought about Operation Desert Storm, because it had a profound impact on what I study and how I study it. This largely stemmed from my uncle’s service in the Tiger Brigade, 2nd Armored Division, attached to 2nd Marine Division in front of the Saddam Line. We would sit up late at night, huddled around the radio, listening to the BBC World Service, who had, we thought, the best news coverage of any major network. We didn’t have a TV at the time, though we managed to see some news, but radio, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report supplied most needs. The Iraqi Army had been portrayed as a formidable fighting force, and a huge air of worry and uncertainty hung over most people you would meet. On prominent display, of course, were the “smart weapons” that reassured us our enemies could not compete. Colin Powell impressed with his press conferences, and Norman Schwarzkopf quickly became our hero for his bluntness and no-nonsense attitude. By mid-January, the nation was tensely anticipating the ground campaign.

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Operation Desert Storm

The Rise and Fall of Empire. Desert Storm ushered in a tremendous decade of accomplishment and failure, of promise and betrayal, of potential and disappointment. At least, that’s how I remember it. And one of the things that most impressed me at the time was the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, which was a fact by December 26, 1991, and the rise of what was being termed “the New World Order.” In particular, I remember the vivid and, to my young mind, heroically terrifying images of the resistance in the Baltic republics, particularly Lithuania. The shape and patterns of world history, the reasons for the rise and fall of great powers and what that means to individuals who live through such events, were not just concepts in a book–they were actual, live transformations that you could see day by day.

Just War, International Law, and the Creation of Narrative. Another lesson of Desert Storm didn’t set in right away; not until 1995-6 did I begin to absorb the other narrative of the first Gulf War–the questionable legal premises on which it had been waged, the propaganda which had papered over the complicated legal and economic relationship of Iraq and Kuwait, as Joshua Holland described in detail in 2014. Five days after Desert Storm officially began, a poll found support very high, though not optimistic. A decade after the war, a majority of Americans thought it was a “good thing,” according to Gallup. The debates over Gulf War syndrome also made an impression, and would not go away until Gulf War 2 overwhelmed public consciousness. It is not incorrect to view the PR side of Desert Storm as a carefully stage-managed publicity stunt, based on perceptions of negative press as crucial to the erosion of support in the Vietnam War–even though many studies, according to William Darley in 2005, have exploded the myth of press-as-fifth-column. The debate over sanctions of Iraq, the failure to do anything to support the Kurds or the marsh tribes in the “wetlands of southern Iraq,” and the plain truth that the Reagan administration had given Saddam his chemical weapons to begin with, were all unpleasant facts that we as a nation did our best not to think about. At least that is my impression. It left me with a strong sense of the tension between events on the ground, out of which lasting memories of the conflict were made, and the larger narrative, causation, and significance of the conflict, which had little to do that front-line reality, and often, on closer inspection, played fast and loose with our comfortable definitions of morality and legality. It is a tension that I’m still exploring in  my research.

This was only compounded by the general lack of information coming to us from the theater of operations. As I tell my students, this wasn’t 2003, when reporters “embedded” with military units. Reporters were simply not allowed in the front lines. Perhaps my most vivid memory of all is that period from February 24 to February 27, when all anyone knew was that there was a massive tank battle taking place somewhere in Iraq or Kuwait. You could strike up a conversation with random strangers on the street corner on the topic. That collective sense of the unknown, the possibility of sudden knowledge of loss, is something I will probably never forget. The relationship between the war front and the home front is a tenuous and often misunderstood one, not least by those on the war front side of things. What was the measurable impact of battle on public morale and national consciousness, when the two reside in such different planes of existence? To turn Chris Hedges’ title into a question, how does war become a force that gives us meaning? It is, I would submit, a far easier question to answer for soldiers than it is for civilians. And the civilian answer matters.

The Crucial Importance of Tactics and the Face of Battle. The importance of understanding what John Keegan called “The Face of Battle” was another lesson from Desert Storm. What happens on the actual field of battle matters. Testimony of men and women who were there matters. Because it it their reality that is being used, recast, and fashioned into political slingshot and arrows by us all, military and political elites, intellectuals and plebeians alike. As my favorite historian Veronica Wedgwood once wrote, understanding the how often goes a long way to explaining the why, and prevents “much learned putting of carts before horses.” Not that one can ever fully understand a battle if one has never experienced such a thing; but knowing what you don’t know and listening carefully to veterans will go a long way. The tactical nuts and bolts of what happened at 73 Easting are as important as why we were there to begin with, because, like it or not, tactics, as the bedrock of narrative memory, will always have some impact on strategy and policy.

The Utility of Force, the Future of War, and the Relationship of Politics and Strategy. When asked about why the coalition didn’t push on to Baghdad, Schwarzkopf said, “I can tell you exactly why. Because we were not ordered to.” This quip covered up what has become the biggest question mark about this particular war: should the U.S. have toppled Saddam Hussein in 1991? There are many voices raised today that have argued, after ten-plus years in Iraq, that MacArthur was right after all–“in war, there is no substitute for victory.” I don’t recall what twelve-year-old me thought about the decision to stop at the Euphrates and Shaat al-Arab, because clearly we had won a great victory, and there were joyous homecomings and parades.

But I do recall at various times in the ’90s feeling that other conflicts weren’t as “satisfying.” The 1990s were actually filled with vicious conflicts. The Bosnian War started in 1992–I vividly remember the magazine stories of Mirsada Buric running through sniper fire in Sarajevo, and wondering what kind of world that was (“It still doesn’t make any sense” she said in 2008). The Somali debacle of 1993 (called “Operation Restore Hope” by the U.S. military) included newspaper images, shocking to a young teenager, of a dead U.S. soldier being mutilated in the streets of Mogadishu (warning: graphic content). The whole affair proved to many that the UN was a useless institution, a feeling perversely compounded by the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, of which American and other world leaders had advanced warning and clear knowledge, and yet did nothing.  Samantha Powers’ 2001 article for The Atlantic still makes profoundly depressing reading for those inclined to romanticize the 1990s, which I do, mostly because it was the last great era of used bookstores. The disastrous humanitarian intervention in Haiti, Operation Uphold Democracy, from 1994 to 1996, is barely remembered anymore.

The truth of the matter is that Desert Storm was merely one more episode in what Andrew Bacevich calls “America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” Failing to understand that leads us to telescope the operation into a straightforward World War II-style conventional triumph that reinforces simplistic, comfortable thinking about what military force can or cannot achieve. Naturally, that is what people want to believe, and after Vietnam the U.S. military definitely wanted to only engage in conflicts where such parameters could be maintained-which makes sense, since they help to ensure an acceptable cost to the American people. Yet the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, while it is good sense at the operational level, is largely tautological (what does “winning” actually mean),  a-historical and therefore questionable at the strategic level, and also puts us out of touch with military conditions in the rest of the world (especially after Desert Storm)–it certainly is of little use against Russia’s new “hybrid war” concept. Looking back at the last twenty-five years of conflict, the chief virtue of the Powell Doctrine, to my mind, is one it doesn’t directly address: making sure military action is directed  towards a political rather than a social or cultural objective. The Modern War Institute just published a rumination on Desert Storm and the Powell Doctrine on Monday, so people are still thinking of these things. I know that, in the last two decades, I have been thinking of them.

But these kinds of nuances were lost to the general public during and after 1991. Ultimately, nostalgic discussions of Desert Storm tell me more about our neuroses concerning war and the utility of force, our deep-seated desire to have a “good war” and a clear, total battlefield victory, than they do about the operation itself.

Within strategy and policy circles, Operation Desert Storm proved to have a rather pernicious influence as well, for several reasons beyond those suggested above. Above all, it was taken, by Donald Rumsfeld, Eliot Cohen, and the Office of Net Assessment (e.g. Andrew Krepinevich) among others, to signal the beginning of a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) in which technology would transform the battlefield of the future, and open new possibilities for military force to shape culture and societies, not simply politics (this expanded applicability is after all at the core of neo-conservative and neo-liberal ideas about the utility of force). This reaction is all the more remarkable given the numerous conflicts, listed above, which would have suggested that Desert Storm was the product more of a particular set of circumstances, with implications certainly for the future, but not a wholesale rebirth of war. Astute analysts such as Stephen Biddle argued in 1996 that technology in Desert Storm would not have been nearly so impressive had not the Iraqi military made numerous and costly mistakes.  LTG H. R. McMaster, who fought at 73 Easting and who has never accepted technology and RMA as the U.S. military’s personal saviors, or panaceas for policy, said in 2013 that the 1990s experience has gotten the American military addicted to technology–“[l]ike a vampire, it keeps coming back”–“It’s a capability and it’s masking as a strategy for future war.”

In 2014, on a campus visit to a department that seemed quite uninterested in me (and doubted that I was actually a military historian), I remember being asked a question to the effect of “what made you interested in what you study?” I wasn’t given an opportunity to answer (it was that kind of visit), but if I had, I would have said much of what I have written above. Operation Desert Storm had a crucial impact on the kinds of questions I seek to answer and why I think they are important. It, and the subsequent events of the 1990s, made me the historian I am today.