If Vietnam is an example of a war that was a debacle in conventional terms, but a considerable success in war-of-detainder terms, then Desert Storm was the exact opposite: a smashing American success viewed conventionally, but a terrible misadventure in geopolitical terms.
In early August of 1990 Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops into Kuwait, wiping out the country’s defenses in a mere twelve hours. The Kuwaiti royal family fled the country, along with most everyone else of importance. While much of the world condemned the invasion, there was little appetite for any military response.
However, Saddam ultimately declared Kuwait to be a province of Iraq and he began to make threatening gestures toward Saudi Arabia, a far more important country to the West. Meanwhile, Kuwait had engaged the American public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, to gin up enthusiasm for an invasion. H&K arranged for a supposed Kuwaiti nurse to testify to Congress that she had seen Iraqi soldiers yanking Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators and tossing them on the floor to die. Although it would later be shown that the woman was a fraud – she was neither a nurse nor was even present in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation – her testimony changed enough votes that the US Senate narrowly approved the attack, voting 52-47.
The War in Vietnam had ended nearly twenty years earlier, but American generals hadn’t regained their mojo. They were tentative and uncertain of their own capabilities and they were terrified of incurring casualties. Norman Schwarzkopf was tapped to lead the US intervention and he demanded and got an invasion force that America might have assembled to stop the Red Army as it barreled across the plains of Europe: more than 500,000 US troops plus nearly 200,000 coalition troops and state-of-the-art equipment across-the-board.
To justify this preposterous(1) military force, the Pentagon peppered the American public with alarming stories about the capability of the Iraqis. Iraq, we were told, boasted the fourth largest army in the world with over a million men in uniform, 5,000 tanks, and 700 combat aircraft. Its troops were battle-hardened following a brutal ten-year war against Iran. The elite Republican Guard ranked with the best soldiers in the world.
In the event, the Iraqi army turned out to be exactly what you would expect: a hodge-podge of poorly trained Third World conscripts deploying shoddily-maintained and ancient Chinese and Soviet equipment, led by corrupt and incompetent (and mainly Ba’athist) officers. However brave these soldiers might have been under other circumstances, they certainly weren’t interested in dying for the likes of Saddam Hussein. Almost every battle followed the same format: the Iraqi troops would fire a few rounds for show and then promptly surrender – or turn and run.
The entire war lasted only 100 days, but in that time 35,000 Iraqi troops were killed in action and another 75,000 were wounded. The US lost (I’m not making this up) 146 battle-related deaths, of which 35 were the result of friendly fire. The vaunted Iraqi armored units lost nearly 4,000 tanks, while the US lost a grand total of 18, most to friendly fire. US warplanes flew more than 100,000 sorties, losing only 44 aircraft to hostile action.
Back in the US, we celebrated our crushing victory. But Desert Storm looked very different to the people of the Middle East. The Pentagon’s overkill fed directly into the existing feeling that Americans were simply bullies. American soldiers, went the narrative, were not braver and tougher than the Iraqis, they were simply cowards hiding behind their superior military weaponry. When the going got tough – as the US vanguard approached Baghdad and the US faced the likelihood of hand-to-hand fighting and soaring casualties – the US cut and ran. Leaving in place, not incidentally, one of the most brutal dictators on the planet, free to continue harassing his neighbors, supporting global terrorism, and doing his best to obtain “weapons of mass destruction.”
This was unfair to the Americans, of course, but unfortunately it contained a kernel of truth, thanks to our use of disproportionate military force. Worse, as happens in every war, bad things happened during Desert Storm and America’s enemies made the most of them. There was the “slaughter” of defeated Iraqis along the “Highway of Death.”(2) There was the burying alive of Iraqi troops along the “Saddam Hussein Line.”(3) Worst of all was the American “betrayal” of the Kurds. After President Bush strongly encouraged the Kurds to revolt against Saddam, they rose up and captured most of the northern Iraqi cities. But the anticipated US assistance never materialized and the Kurds were brutally suppressed. The US Ambassador to Iraq would later apologize for America’s inaction.
America’s conventional victory in Iraq proved to be a geopolitical nightmare. It succeeded, for example, in doing what most people would have thought impossible: gin up sympathy for the brutal Saddam. From the perspective of the Middle East, Desert Storm served mainly as a terrific recruiting poster for Al Qaeda and its ilk. If we wanted to, we could draw a straight line from the sands of Desert Storm to the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
(1) If it was true that the American objective was simply to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and keep them out, 25,000 US marines could have done the job without breathing hard. A decade later, when the US objective was vastly more ambitious – the unconditional surrender of the Iraqis, the conquest of Baghdad and the seizure and execution of Saddam Hussein – we deployed fewer than half as many troops as Schwarzkopf thought he needed in 1991.
(2) US forces arrived in Kuwait in early 1991 to find Iraqi troops surrendering en masse. Other Iraqi troops threw down their weapons and raced back towards Iraq along Highway 80. But US aircraft bombed the lead vehicles, boxing the Iraqis into a huge traffic jam, after which the retreating troops were sitting ducks for American air strikes. As the lead American Air Force general put it, “some people … wrongly chose to believe we were cruelly and unusually punishing our already whipped foes.”
(3) In an attempt to destroy Iraqi trenches blocking the US invasion, armored units attached plows to their tanks and buried Iraqi soldiers alive in the sand.
Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 9
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