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The True History of the Gulf War

The British forces found the same lack of resistance. Stephen Sackur, who covered the war for BBC Radio, reported:

Deprived of food and water for days, with inadequate clothing and third-rate equipment, the Iraqi Army could hardly have been less suited to the battlehardened, ruthless image which was peddled on its behalf in the weeks leading up to the ground attack. This mismatch between expectation and reality clearly had a profound effect on many British troops. Several came up to me before the interim ceasefire was announced and told me that they felt “the slaughter” had gone on long enough. The truth about the ground offensive, it seems to me, was that the Iraqi troops simply refused to fight.54

There is even reason to believe that the Iraqi forces in sheer numbers did not outnumber the Americans in battle, as General Schwarzkopf claimed. He said that “they really outnumbered us about three-to-two,” and considering the heavy service contingents in American ranks, “we were really outnumbered two-to-one.”55 An experienced British correspondent, John Simpson, has cast serious doubt on these figures:

Intelligence estimates put the number of Iraqi troops in the theatre of war at 540,000. After the war was over it became known that, when the Iraqi army was at full strength in early January [1991], there were fewer than half that number: approximately 260,000. Once the bombing began, the desertions began in earnest…

When the ground offensive began the coalition forces numbered almost 525,000, though by no means all of them took part in the final assault…

By the time the ground offensive began the Iraqi strength must have fallen well below the initial figure of 260,000: possibly even below 200,000. The Allied Forces had an advantage of between two and two-and-a-half to one, depending on how large the Iraqi rate of desertion was. That was far more than the number required to do the job. US military intelligence, which had provided the grossly exaggerated Iraqi troop figures, was one of the main failures of the entire campaign. It wasn’t only the quantity but the quality of the Iraqi army which was inflated.56

An American source explained what was wrong with the intelligence data:

From early in the campaign, Allied intelligence analysts estimated that there were nearly a half a million Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq. This number was arrived at from information obtained from satellite photos and intercepted radio messages. From that data came the estimate that there were at least forty [Iraqi] divisions in the area…

With only periodic (several times a day) satellite overflights, it was possible to get “snapshots” of what the Iraqis had on the ground and draw up a list of the major formations (combat divisions) being moved to the area…. But despite all this effort, one item in particular could not be counted with precision: people. This was not considered crucial, as it was known how many troops there were in a combat division. Or at least it was known how many troops there were supposed to be in a division, and that’s apparently where the problems arose in getting an accurate head count.57

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak seems to have advised the Americans in advance that the Iraqi soldiers would not fight. In November 1990, Representatives Cury Weldon of Pennsylvania and Arthur Ravenel, Jr., of South Carolina were members of a congressional delegation visiting Egypt. At a congressional hearing in December, Weldon said that President Mubarak had told them that “at the first sign of any type of military offensive…the initial troops who border the Kuwaiti line would turn and run because they are not committed to this conflict.” Ravenel confirmed that Mubarak “has a very low regard for the professional capabilities of the Iraqi military….” According to Mubarak, Ravenel said, you could take out Saddam’s air, which could probably be done in a matter of hours. You could also remove his identifiable missile firing sites and cut off his food and water. There would be no place to hide in the desert. There would be supply problems with the tremendous amount of people that he has deployed in Kuwait, and “Mubarak said on several occasions,…the rest would just run away.” General Powell listened to them and replied that he did not want to take a chance that Mubarak might be wrong.58

Mubarak was not the only one. According to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, members of Congress who visited Saudi Arabia in August 1990 were told that “Saddam Hussein’s command centers and communications, his air bases, offensive missiles and anti-aircraft emplacements can be destroyed by US and Saudi air power in a matter of hours.” They were assured that Saddam’s army numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 men, not one million. One Saudi official said: “They will panic. Without communications, how will they know what to do?”59

An American prophet who also proved to be uncannily right was former chief of the Air Force, General Michael Dugan. In an interview in The Washington Post of September 16, 1990, he incautiously disclosed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided to use “massive bombing” to defeat Iraq. He declared that the Iraqi Air Force “has very limited capability,” that the Iraqi pilots “did not distinguish themselves in the war against Iran,” and that the Iraqi army was “incompetent.” He also wanted to target Saddam Hussein, his family and personal guard, as a way of ending the war quickly. He was almost immediately dismissed for his indiscretions, but he had taken the measure of the Iraqi forces and had come much closer to what was needed to beat them than Powell and Schwarzkopf, with their excessive demands.

These predictions, made before the event, were so close to what actually occurred that they make one wonder on what the official assessments of the Iraqi forces were based. In the event, one thing is clear about the Gulf War: It was not a glorious victory and could not have been a glorious victory against an enemy that was so outclassed and did not fight.


General Schwarzkopf’s flair for public relations obscured the humiliation and degradation to which American and allied journalists were subjected by the US army in the field. A study by John J. Fialka of the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal for the Media Studies Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, based on his experiences and those of over a hundred fellow journalists who covered the war, should be required reading by every publisher, producer, editor, and journalist with any interest in war reporting or just honest reporting. Readers and television viewers would benefit from it, too.

After the war was over, seventeen of the major news organizations, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the four main television networks, and others, protested to Secretary of Defense Cheney against the “real censorship” during the war which confirmed “the worst fears of reporters in a democracy.” 60 But Cheney gave them the brush-off, and nothing more has been heard of the matter since.

Pentagon officials and “media chieftains” negotiated for more than six months on a policy for covering the war. They negotiated to such effect that, according to Fialka, the 159 journalists covering US units alone “were an undigestible lump being fed into a military press-handling system that was already woefully short of resources and teetering on the verge of collapse.” The Pentagon had insisted that reporters had to be accompanied by “military escorts,” but there were not enough escorts and vehicles to do the job. In the Civil War, accounts of the battle of Bull Run reached New York in twenty-four hours; accounts of the Gulf War took three to four days and in one case two weeks to get from the battlefield to the headquarters in Dharan. One news photographer’s film took thirty-six days and some photographs never got back at all.

The reporters were not all guiltless; many had never covered a war, did not know how to do it, and asked ignorant or silly questions. The Marine Corps was far more hospitable than the Army to reporters and as a result the marines received more coverage than their role in the war deserved, especially on television. But the main impression left by this study is the unprecedented control of the press by Army commanders. Generals, not editors, often picked favorite reporters to cover their units and gave them privileged communications. Even when reporters had a story, they could not get their copy or film sent off from the desert except through an Armydesigned “pony express” of couriers and escorts, who were “hopelessly undermanned, underequipped, and poorly trained and motivated for their jobs.” But there was worse—sheer malignant hostility.

Fialka relates incident after incident in which reporters were hampered and frustrated. He names names and places; so many reporters went through the same ordeals that they take on a systematic character. Some officers were clearly out to revenge themselves on the press for having “lost” the war in Vietnam. An Associated Press photographer, Scott Apple-white, was handcuffed, beaten, and had one of his cameras smashed by US and Saudi military policemen when he photographed the crash of an Iraqi Scud missile on a barracks near Dharan. The antics of the “escorts” and public affairs officers would have made a Marx Brothers movie. Army generals decided what was fit to print or see, often down to the most absurdly finicky details:

Scott Pelley, a CBS news correspondent, found his escorts in the 18th Airborne Corps had been instructed not to let the television crew shoot pictures of soldiers arguing. Steve Elfers, a photographer with the Army Times, was about to take a picture of a First Cavalry Division soldier with a rag wound around his head when his escort told him that the division commander, Major General John H. Tilelli, had decreed that no pictures could be taken of troopers unless they had their helmets on and their chin straps buckled.61

Martha Teichner of CBS summed up the experience of the press in the Gulf War:

You’ve got incompetence from the bottom up and you’ve got resistance from the top down and it met where we were, in the pool. It all came together, and it was disastrous.

It did not have to be like that. British reporters were helped, not hindered, by their army. The American press was left without electronic equipment in the field, because the military required that it be left behind in Dharan; the British Army helped their press to set up and use satellite phones and satellite broadcasting equipment in the battlefield. As a result, British readers and viewers knew more about their troops and more quickly. A postwar report by the British International Press Institute stated:

  1. 54

    Sackur, On the Basra Road, pp. 21–22.

  2. 55

    Briefing on February 27, 1991, in Pyle, p. 240.

  3. 56

    John Simpson, From the House of War (London: Arrow Books, 1991), pp. 332–333.

  4. 57

    Dunnigan and Bay, From Shield to Storm, pp. 374–375.

  5. 58

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf, pp. 100, 573.

  6. 59

    The Washington Post, September 7, 1990.

  7. 60

    The New York Times, July 3, 1991.

  8. 61

    As the historian of the 84th Infantry Division in World War II, I can testify that generals must have changed since then.

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