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The True History of the Gulf War

One book, George Bush’s War by Jean Edward Smith, is particularly useful in following just how President Bush maneuvered to take the country into the war.34 Smith points out that Bush committed himself to force Iraq out of Kuwait on August 5, 1990, the day before the meeting of Secretary Cheney with King Fahd.35 From that point on, Bush had apparently made up his mind to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, while insisting publicly that he was merely trying to protect Saudi Arabia.

By August 8, the first troops of the 82nd Airborne had arrived in Saudi Arabia. On that day, Bush for the first time made a statement of his policy. It was peculiarly double-edged, because it explained that the mission of the troops was “wholly defensive” and at the same time demanded “the immediate, unconditional and complete withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait.” How the second aim could be accomplished, if the troops were in Saudi Arabia just to defend it, was left a mystery.36 At a press conference at that time, Bush even spoke favorably of economic sanctions instead of war. By this time, moreover, the danger of an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia was known in Washington to have passed.37 As General Powell later admitted, Iraqi forces could have moved into Saudi Arabia virtually unopposed for three weeks after having taken over Kuwait. If they did not do so, it was because they had given up any intention of invading Saudi Arabia. In that case, there was no need to continue pouring thousands upon thousands of US troops into Saudi Arabia, if all they were supposed to do was to defend it.

By August 21, the original, defensive rationale clearly could not hold. When Bush was asked whether he still maintained that the military mission was purely defensive and whether he ruled out driving Iraq out of Kuwait, he replied equivocally: “I don’t rule in or rule out the use of force.” To Smith, this reply was disingenuous—“the defense of Saudi Arabia was merely window dressing to get American forces to the Gulf.” By September 11, in an address to the joint session of Congress, Bush spoke only of undoing Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait and made no more mention of defending Saudi Arabia. Smith considers this speech “a decisive transition in American policy.”

On October 31, when Bush decided to double the number of US forces in Saudi Arabia, then already 230,000, war was clearly on the way, though at a press conference on November 8 he preferred to say that he merely had “not ruled out the use of force at all.” When Bush offered to send Secretary Baker to Baghdad and to invite the Iraqi minister, Tariq Aziz, to Washington in the days before the US forces went on the offensive, nothing came of it, because Bush changed the dates as soon as the proposal was accepted. To Smith, it was “a public relations gambit and nothing more.” His verdict is harsh: “Throughout the crisis, Bush dissembled.”

In his reconstruction of Bush’s road to war, Smith uses such terms as “disingenuous,” “less than candid,” “a ruse,” “minimum candor,” and “dissembled.” In his view, the American people were led step by step into a war by a president who deliberately misled or beguiled them.

Meanwhile, the immensity of the US military buildup to 580,000 troops by January 15, 1991, required a similarly elephantine estimate of the Iraqi enemy’s military resources.38 The centerpiece was Saddam Hussein’s “million-man army.” As Secretary Cheney put it, there was no one in the region “to stand up to Saddam Hussein’s million-man army.” The war against Iran, he said, had left Saddam “with a warhardened military force—disciplined, organized, and tough.”39 General Schwarzkopf improved on Cheney by giving Iraq a 1,500,000-man army, together with 5,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft. According to Schwarzkopf, “If he [Saddam] chooses to, he could bring a tremendous amount of military might to bear in an attack on Saudi Arabia.”40 In and around Kuwait alone, General Powell stated, Iraq had 500,000 troops, including approximately 4,000 tanks, 2,500 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, and 2,700 artillery pieces.41

In 1990, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College put out an analysis of “Iraqi Power and US Security in the Middle East” that reflected influential military opinion. It contained these nuggets:

For the foreseeable future, debt repayment will fully occupy the [Iraqi] regime; it will have neither the will, nor the resources to go to war.

Baghdad should not be expected to deliberately provoke military confrontations with anyone.

[Iraqis are] capable of tenacious defense of their homeland and well practiced at the tactical level with intricate defensive systems.42

One of the mysteries of the Gulf War is how such an analysis from such a source could have been so wrongheaded. It was put out before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and reflected a current of opinion that sought to downplay the danger from Iraq. After the invasion, the official military line went in the opposite direction and overplayed the military threat from Iraq, with the result that the American and allied forces deployed in the area were grotesquely excessive.


In fact, the Iraqi army put up almost no defense at all. The war took the form of forty-two days of allied air bombardment and one hundred hours of ground attack. The sides were so mismatched that it was hardly a war at all.

The best authority on the nature of the war is General Schwarzkopf. He said of the Iraqi air force:

The only thing that’s really surprised me, as I’ve already stated many times about the Iraqis, is the fact that their air force, particularly, hasn’t chosen to fight, and also how easy it was to completely take out his air-defense system in such a way that we have freedom of action.43

As you know, very early on we took out the Iraq air force.44

Instead of fighting, Saddam Hussein sent part of his air force into safekeeping in Iran. On January 20, 1991, Schwarzkopf announced that “we’ve flown more 30,000 sorties, and we’ve lost only 19 aircraft.” 45

The ground offensive opened at 4 AM on February 24, 1991. At the end of that afternoon, Schwarzkopf said, “there was nobody between us and Baghdad. If our intention had been to overrun and destroy Iraq, we could have done it unopposed, for all intents and purposes, from this position at that time.”46

On February 27, Schwarzkopf was asked whether he thought “this would turn out to be such a cakewalk as it seems.” He did not balk at the term “cakewalk.” His reply was:

First of all, if we had thought it would be such an easy fight, we definitely would not have stocked 60 days’ worth of supplies on these log bases…. So we certainly did not expect it to go this way.47

Mass Iraqi surrenders began as early as February 24. Three days later, over 50,000 prisoners were taken. Indeed, they had been deserting even before the initiation of the ground attack. Clearly based on the interrogation of prisoners, Schwarzkopf gave an interpretation of this phenomenon:

One of the things we learned immediately prior to the initiation of the campaign—it contributed, as a matter of fact, to the timing of the ground campaign—is that so many people were deserting. What’s more, the Iraqis brought down execution squads whose job was to shoot people in the front lines. I have to tell you, a soldier doesn’t fight very hard for a leader who is going to shoot him on a whim. That’s not what military leadership is all about. So I attribute a great deal of the failure of the Iraqi Army to their own leadership. They committed them to a cause that they did not believe in. They are all saying they didn’t want to be there, they didn’t want to fight their fellow Arabs, they were lied to when they went into Kuwait, and then after they got there, they had a leadership so uncaring that they didn’t properly give them water, and in the end, kept them there only at the point of a gun.48

This statement raises the question of why so many Iraqi soldiers were needlessly slaughtered. The ratio of Iraqi to American losses has been estimated as a thousand to one.49 US losses were 148 dead, of whom 38 were killed by friendly fire. One American military source pointed out that fewer Americans died in the war than had died accidentally in Saudi Arabia before the fighting. “It was actually safer to be in combat on the ground in Kuwait or Iraq than to walk some parts of major American cities.”50

A British correspondent, Stephen Sackur, happened to come across the remains of an Iraqi convoy that had “panicked, seizing any vehicle that looked capable of taking them to Iraq before the Allies could close in.” The scale of the American attack on this helpless convoy appalled him:

Was it necessary to bomb the entire convoy? What threat could these pathetic remnants of Saddam Hussein’s beaten army have posed? Wasn’t it obvious that the people of the convoy would have given themselves up willingly without the application of such ferocious weaponry? The hundreds who, by some miracle, did survive were duly taken prisoner. They included two women and a child….

Who were these Iraqis killed in their hundreds, burnt beyond recognition on the Mutla Ridge? It’s a fair bet that most of them were nothing more than conscripts—regarded by Saddam Hussein as expendable.51

The story of one division seems to have been typical:

The 24th Division, for example, raced more than sixty miles into Iraq before meeting a single enemy soldier. Even then, the enemy was always looking the wrong way. “Never once did we attack an enemy force that saw us coming or was dug in prepared to defend against our attack,” said Major General [Barry R.] McCaffrey. “They were unaware we were there and they were looking the wrong way.”52

Little more needs to be said about the character of the war than what General Schwarzkopf told David Frost:

They chose not to stay and fight. That’s why, when the armchair strategists are now all saying, “Well obviously there couldn’t have been as many people there because the war was over so quickly…” They could have had ten times more people, but the people have to decide to stay and fight. If they don’t…you know, a football game can be over very quickly if the other team decides not to play. And that’s what you had in this case. I mean, when the kick-off came, O.K., our team was there to play. Our team came to play ball. And, they were not willing to fight.53

  1. 34

    Smith provides the sources for his narration; it is mainly a compendium from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Commanders by Bob Woodward.

  2. 35

    This will not stand. This will not stand—this aggression against Kuwait” (The New York Times, August 6, 1990).

  3. 36

    My military objective is to see Saudi Arabia defended. That’s the military objective.”

  4. 37

    On August 9, 1990, the Defense Department spokesman, Pete Williams, said that the Iraqi forces in Kuwait “seem to be in a defensive posture.”

  5. 38

    Estimates of the troop buildup are given by Dunnigan and Bay, From Shield to Storm), p. 248.

  6. 39

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, pp. 522, 529.

  7. 40

    Interview with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf,” September 13, 1990, in Pyle, Schwarzkopf: The Man, The Mission, The Triumph, p. 156. This otherwise quickie book usefully contains the full text of Schwarzkopf’s briefings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

  8. 41

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, p. 544.

  9. 42

    Stephen C. Pelletiere, Douglas V. Johnson II, Leif R. Rosenberger, Iraqi Power and US Security in the Middle East (Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 1990), pp. x, 39, 41, 71. Johnson is a lieutenant colonel on active duty; the other two authors are civilians. The commandant of the US Army War College is Major General Paul G. Cerjan; the director of the Strategic Studies Institute is Colonel Karl W. Robinson. This publication, while not official, could not have come from such a source without reflecting some influential military opinion. It was expressly addressed to “specialists in the Middle East” as well as “any officer interested in the operational art and the relation of the military to civilian policy making” (foreword).

  10. 43

    Briefing on January 27, 1991, in Pyle, Schwarzkopf: The Man, The Mission, The Triumph, pp. 194–195.

  11. 44

    February 27, 1991, in Pyle, p. 241.

  12. 45

    Pyle, p. 208.

  13. 46

    Briefing on February 27, 1991, in Pyle, p. 246.

  14. 47

    Briefing on February 27, 1991, in Pyle, pp. 253–254.

  15. 48

    Briefing on February 27, 1991, in Pyle, p. 256–257.

  16. 49

    William J. Perry in Foreign Affairs (Fall 1991), p. 67.

  17. 50

    Friedman, Desert Victory, p. 5.

  18. 51

    Stephen Sackur, On the Basra Road, pp. 25–26.

  19. 52

    Quoted in Cohen and Gatti, In the Eye of the Storm, p. 288. But this did not prevent them from writing patriotically: “The war was won by brilliant generalship, not lost by sheer Iraqi incompetence” (p. 300).

  20. 53

    General Schwarzkopf interview with David Frost, March 27, 1991.

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