Debunking the Myths of Desert Storm

Twenty years ago today, ground operations in Operation Desert Storm came to a halt. American arms had won their most dazzling success in two generations, perhaps ever.

After five weeks of round-the-clock air strikes, forces under Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf shattered Saddam Hussein's army, the biggest and most heavily armed in the Middle East, in just five days. The victorious 34-nation coalition lost only 392 killed, 294 of them Americans. Saddam had been driven from Kuwait; his regime teetered on collapse. A bright, new, world order seemed in the offing.

But two decades later we can see how many Americans, including our leaders, drew the wrong lessons from Desert Storm--creating myths that haunt us to this day.

One myth is that Desert Storm was the "good war" in which America and the world drew together to defeat a tyrant, compared to the deep divisions over the more recent Iraq war.

The army sent to fight in Iraq was the surviving shadow of that Desert Storm force. It's still fighting for us in Afghanistan--yet politicians in Washington say we need to put it on an even stricter diet.

In fact, resolutions authorizing military action in Kuwait faced fierce opposition from the likes of then-Speaker Dick Gephardt, future Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Chuck Schumer and then-Sen. Joe Biden, and passed the House and Senate by inches. The first President George Bush went ahead despite the nay-sayers and prophets of doom and the thousands of protesters chanting "no blood for oil"--essentially the same folks who'd later brand his son a liar and war criminal.

A similar myth hovers over that amazing coalition, with not just the Brits and Aussies but also France (which sent 18,000 troops) and Greece and Pakistan, not to mention Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Its success bred the notion that the rightness of US military action rests on the number of nations willing to support it.

In fact, that coalition was a one-time event. There was no new world order, only an American president taking bold action and other countries calculating it was in their best interest to go along.

Plus, pressure from that same coalition helped to cut the campaign short and left Saddam in power--a gross mistake that would give Iraq's dictator more than a decade to rebuild his power base, at brutal cost to the Iraqi people, before the United States under George W. Bush returned to complete the job. That is, it was thanks to that vaunted coalition that Americans threw away the advantages gained in the most successful military campaign any of them had ever witnessed.

And that was the other problem. Night after night, we saw videos of precision-guided smart bombs blowing up Iraqi positions with breathtaking accuracy. Smart weapons go back to Vietnam, but in Desert Storm they were 74 percent of all bombs dropped. Together with Stealth bombers and the new GPS guidance systems, they made war seem a clean, bloodless video game.

As we've learned since, most if not all wars aren't like that. Grinding and violent, they require boots on the ground, boots from tough hardened units like Marines and airborne. They require men ready to charge a position and take it fighting room to room, bayonet to bayonet--as Marines did in Fallujah in 2004.

Wars also require a moral commitment to victory, a stoic endurance and patience at home as well as abroad. Desert Storm made the burden seem easy; when the Iraq campaign failed to be a rerun of 1991, many Americans asked for their ticket-money back. What they needed instead was a dose of sober realism about what our military could do after years of Clinton budget cuts, and how long it would take.

Desert Storm was the last hurrah of a military fed on Cold War budgets. It wasn't GPS or smart bombs that destroyed Saddam's military but old-fashioned planes and tanks and training--training that enabled our tank crews to shoot faster than the Iraqi automatic loaders.

The army sent to fight in Iraq was the surviving shadow of that Desert Storm force. It's still fighting for us in Afghanistan--yet politicians in Washington say we need to put it on an even stricter diet.

Don't believe it. To those who served in Desert Storm, we owe a tremendous debt and thanks. To those who come after them, we owe them the tools to do the job--any job--we ask of them.

That should be the true lesson of Desert Storm.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army/SPC Clinton Tarzia

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About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
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