Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
None of this is to suggest that the soldiers and Marines moving into their final attack positions on the night of February 23–24 could rest easy. War is always fraught with hazard. Only by actually encountering their adversary would coalition troops be able to take his measure. And however impressive the achievements of the air campaign, enormous uncertainties remained. Prominent among them was the likelihood that, having ordered the use of chemical weapons in the past, Saddam might do so again. Although U.S. troops routinely trained to fight in such conditions, none had actually done so since World War I. The prospect of doing so now—more or less the equivalent of donning deep-sea diving gear as battledress—evoked little enthusiasm.
Still, when the ground offensive began at 4:00
on G-Day, February 24, things went astonishingly well. Expected to encounter tough going as they advanced toward Kuwait City, the Marines met light resistance. In the VII Corps sector, forces assigned to breach forward Iraqi defenses did so with remarkable ease. Further west, XVIII Corps, covering VII Corps’ open flank, “took off like a rocket.”
If anything impeded forward movement, it was difficult terrain rather than enemy resistance. Everywhere casualties were well below expectations. To Schwarzkopf’s enormous relief, Iraqi forces refrained from using chemical weapons. Meanwhile, the conscripts occupying forward Iraqi defensive positions “declined the role of cannon fodder and surrendered in large numbers.”
By day’s end, Saddam was directing his forces to withdraw from Kuwait. How many Iraqi units actually received this order is difficult to say. Few were in a position to comply.
Early success was throwing CENTCOM’s elaborately orchestrated scheme of maneuver out of sync. If the strings are two beats ahead, that leaves the reeds two beats behind. One immediate effect was to exacerbate simmering tensions between Schwarzkopf and the commander of VII Corps, Lieutenant General Frederick M. Franks, Jr. Sharing the same Vietnam-induced hang-ups, Franks and Schwarzkopf differed in both temperament and demeanor. Nicknames told the story. Schwarzkopf’s was “the Bear.” Among his peers, Franks was known as “Freddy.” He was quiet, thoughtful, thorough, and methodical.
The Bear was counting on Freddy to deliver the knockout punch that would dispatch the Republican Guard for good. He had, therefore, provided Franks with a truly imposing force—five heavy divisions and an armored cavalry regiment, with four artillery brigades and seven attack helicopter battalions in support.
In all, VII Corps consisted of 50,000 vehicles and 146,000 soldiers.
The plan that Franks devised to employ these assets emphasized deliberation and control. A carefully unfolding sequence of actions would ultimately bring to bear massed combat power against the flanks of the Republican Guard. Conceptually, according to the U.S. Army’s official campaign history, the result was “less like the deep rapier thrusts of Guderian or Rommel” and more like the great wheeling Schlieffen Plan that formed the cornerstone of Germany military strategy in 1914.
A monument to detailed staff work, that plan had proved upon implementation to be something of a straitjacket. Something similar occurred here.
As Franks saw it, developments over the course of G-Day affirmed the basic soundness of his approach. Visits to his subordinate commanders in the field corroborated that view. Monitoring events from his command post underneath the Saudi ministry of defense in Riyadh, Schwarzkopf had a different take. So too did Powell, even farther from the action, back in Washington. They wanted Franks to pick up the tempo. To the east, the Marines were well ahead of schedule. To the west, mechanized elements within XVIII Corps were moving farther and faster. Why couldn’t Franks do likewise?
This otherwise trivial intramural dispute was to have large implications for America’s unfolding War for the Greater Middle East. Franks never did pick up the tempo, at least not enough to suit Schwarzkopf. The disconnect between the two ultimately affected the Desert Storm endgame, yielding an outcome that appeared decisive but was shot through with ambiguity. The victory-that-might-have-been in 1991 promoted fantasies of victories certain to be won by exhibiting the ostensible boldness not seen during Desert Storm.
In the event, when Schwarzkopf checked the situation map on the morning of February 25 and found that VII Corps had not moved overnight, he erupted in fury. Franks needed to get going or else. Yet as pressure on VII Corps to close with the Republican Guard measurably increased, so too did the disparity of perspectives between the two commanders. As Schwarzkopf saw it, the battle was entering the exploitation phase. All that remained was to finish off a beaten enemy. That was not the way it looked in the VII Corps command post. There, it seemed, the real fight still awaited.
Perhaps afflicted with a case of “chateau generalship,” Schwarzkopf now showed an increased appetite for risk.
Victory beckoned. Seizing the moment began to eclipse other concerns such as casualty avoidance. Meanwhile, Franks, troubled by the number of casualties resulting from friendly fire, was becoming even more risk-averse. It was now his turn to wonder what all the hurry was about.
On the morning of February 26, VII Corps did finally encounter the Republican Guard, inflicting considerable damage. Throughout that day and the next, despite adverse weather, logistics challenges, and growing fatigue, VII Corps units took turns tearing into the badly overmatched enemy. In one engagement, for example, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division demolished an entire brigade of the Medina Division, destroying sixty-one tanks and thirty-nine other armored vehicles at the cost of a single American killed. The entire fight lasted barely an hour.
In another action, at a spot in the desert that the Americans called 73 Easting, a company-sized American armored unit encountered and utterly obliterated an Iraqi formation roughly four times its size, all without sustaining a scratch. In something like twenty-three minutes, E Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Captain H. R. McMaster, had destroyed twenty-eight enemy tanks along with sixteen personnel carriers and thirty trucks. Army generals saw in this demonstration of total dominance the promise of more such victories to come. The action at 73 Easting, in their estimation, defined the future of war—a bit like researchers announcing a cure for cancer based on a one-time, small-scale trial of an experimental drug.
Desert Storm was a replay of Operation Praying Mantis, albeit on a far grander canvas. By nightfall on February 27, American commanders estimated that given one more day the demolition of the Iraqi army would be complete. Before that day could arrive, however, Desert Storm ended.
In Washington, where destroying the Republican Guard had never figured as a particular imperative, priorities were shifting. Concern for appearances was displacing serious strategic analysis. To some observers, it looked like the Americans were piling on a hapless and defeated foe. The optics were changing in ways that threatened to tarnish perceptions. When to call time was emerging as the question of the moment.
Powell was quick to sense—and embrace—the new mood. “The doves are starting to complain about all the damage you’re doing,” the closeted four-star dove told Schwarzkopf on a call to Riyadh. “The reports make it look like wanton killing.”
What would Schwarzkopf think about calling a halt on the 28th? After briefly hesitating, the CENTCOM commander gave way. The idea of winning a Five-Day War, outdoing the vaunted Israelis by one day, caught his fancy. (The several weeks of bombing that had preceded the ground attack did not figure in Schwarzkopf’s arithmetic.)
Soon thereafter, Powell updated President Bush and his senior aides in the Oval Office. “Mr. President, it’s going much better than expected. The Iraqi army is broken. All they’re trying to do is get out,” he reported. “By sometime tomorrow the job will be done.” Norm concurred in this assessment, Powell emphasized.
“If that’s the case,” the commander in chief asked, “why not end it today?” Once again, Bush was far in front of his subordinates. Ducking into the president’s study, Powell quickly called Riyadh. What if the president terminated hostilities later that very day? “I don’t have any problem,” Schwarzkopf replied. “Our objective was to drive ’em out and we’ve done that.” In best lessons-learned-from-Vietnam manner, the field commander’s views settled the issue. Desert Storm would end at midnight Washington time, the president decided, a nice, tidy one hundred hours after the ground offensive had begun.
With the clock ticking down, Schwarzkopf, channeling MacArthur, seized the moment to lay down his own narrative of the events that had unfolded. In a globally televised presentation subsequently known as the “mother of all briefings”—Saddam had vowed to defeat the Americans in the “mother of all battles”—the CENTCOM commander declared victory. It was a masterful performance, alternately pugnacious, sarcastic, humane, and self-deprecating. His overarching theme emphasized the historic, indeed unprecedented, nature of the U.S.-led coalition’s military achievement. In a “classic tank battle,” it had all but obliterated the Iraqi army. Any remnants that survived were trapped. “The gates are closed.” It was time to stop. “We’ve accomplished our mission.”
The problem was that he had not. And the gates were not closed.
Later that same night, Bush himself appeared on television. Absent Schwarzkopf’s bombast, he affirmed Schwarzkopf’s verdict. “Kuwait is liberated,” the president announced. “Iraq’s army is defeated. Our military objectives are met.” It was time to move on. “This war is now behind us.” The first of Bush’s claims was indubitably correct, the second partially so. Unfortunately, the last two assertions missed by a wide margin, with considerable implications for the future.
In fact, substantial elements of the Republican Guard remained intact. Nor were they hemmed in. The unilaterally declared ceasefire offered the prospect of escaping back to Baghdad. They wasted little time in doing just that.
Compounding the error, Schwarzkopf bungled the ceasefire’s implementation. In a position to impose, he chose instead to concede, with regrettable consequences. The fault was not his alone. Strangely enough, the suspension of operations caught American political and military leaders alike by surprise. No one in a position of authority had given much thought to what should happen next.
(This oversight would again crop up in 2003 at a critical juncture of Persian Gulf War 3.0.) Washington had provided CENTCOM no instructions regarding the terms of any agreement to terminate hostilities. So Schwarzkopf drafted his own, which he carried to a meeting with the obscure Iraqi generals whom Saddam Hussein, still alive and well in Baghdad, had appointed to represent him.
Schwarzkopf’s own views were quite straightforward: “Our side had
so we were in a position to dictate terms.”
Yet when that meeting convened on March 3 at Safwan, an Iraqi airfield not far from the Kuwaiti border, satisfying the presumed demands of History competed with more substantive considerations. The atmosphere was rife with grandstanding. Earmarking furnishings for the Smithsonian Institution “in case they ever wanted to re-create the Safwan negotiation scene” had emerged as a priority. When the proceedings began, Schwarzkopf quickly assured his counterparts, “We have no intention of leaving our forces permanently in Iraqi territory once the ceasefire is signed.” He and the soldiers under his command were eager to vamoose. So Saddam Hussein had nothing to worry about on that score. To demonstrate that he harbored no grudges against his adversaries, Schwarzkopf magnanimously granted an Iraqi request to resume their use of military helicopters. “Given that the Iraqis had agreed to all of our requests,” he later explained, “I didn’t feel it was unreasonable to grant one of theirs.” So much for the prerogative of dictating terms. The event adjourned with comradely salutes and handshakes all around.
That was that. The ceremonies may not have quite measured up to those over which MacArthur had presided on the deck of the USS
in 1945, but they offered a reasonable facsimile. (Schwarzkopf had actually pondered using the
afloat in the Persian Gulf, only to conclude that assembling all of the various dignitaries there posed too many complications.)
In any event, Gulf War 2.0 had officially ended. The Iraqis freed the few coalition troops that they had captured—for Schwarzkopf a key goal. The many tens of thousands of Iraqi POWs in coalition custody were likewise released.
At home, the narrative of Desert Storm as Vietnam-done-right—“a drama of dazzling display, brutal crispness, and amazingly decisive outcome”—gathered momentum and became all but irresistible. As
put it, Desert Storm spelled “the end of the old American depression called the Vietnam syndrome, the compulsion to look for downsides and dooms.” Victory in the Gulf heralded “the birth of a new American century—the onset of a unipolar world, with America at the center of it.” Such hyperbole commanded widespread assent.