George Bush was President, Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense, and an unscrupulous zealot was flexing his muscles on the Arabian Peninsula. What had begun as a shield against his advances escalated into a Coalition storm. But did it go as smoothly as advertised? Did the liberation of Kuwait—Marines raised the colors at its international airport on 27 February 1991—go far enough? A decade later, four of the top U.S. commanders assess Desert Storm.
General Walter E. Boomer, Commanding General, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force
I didn't look at Desert Storm from a strategic perspective because that wasn't my job. I had to look at it from an operational perspective. Very little went wrong at the operational level, but there were things that should have and could have been done better. From an intelligence perspective, there was one hell of a lot that could have done better. For example, we made initial miscalculations about the strength and morale of the Iraqis. . . It was not clear (at least to me) until fairly late in the buildup and planning for Desert Storm what they might or might not do. Moreover, it was an accumulation of little bits of information that finally caused me to believe we were certainly going to prevail. This belief was not the product of superb intelligence, because in my view we never received any.
Our intelligence failings are being glossed over now. But right after the campaign there was a flurry of panels in Washington, all addressing what went wrong from an intelligence perspective. What went wrong from my perspective was that I didn't get much intelligence. It was floating around out there somewhere, I think mostly back in Washington, but it wasn't coming to us in Saudi Arabia. As result, and for the most part, we had to figure things out on our own. And that's what we did.
We did not know in advance of the offensive whether we were going to be attacked by chemical weapons. Only after Desert Storm had gotten under way did we discover that the Iraqis would not resort to chemical warfare. I don't know whether anybody knew this, but it was certainly an important question that needed to be answered for us. In any event, we attacked with chemical suits on.
Most of our clues about what was going to happen came from Iraqi prisoners of war who had surrendered before the start of the offensive. In that regard, I must tell you we had a little brouhaha with the Saudis, because they did not want to give us access to Iraqi prisoners. So we just took them. We picked them up ourselves, did not turn them over to the Saudis, and we began to question them. Once we did that, some parts of the picture began to fall in place.
In our sector, the attack, which was led by Marine division commanders [Lieutenant General William] Bill Keys and [Major General James M.] Mike Myatt, was carried out almost flawlessly. Some 22,000 Iraqis were captured; I don't know how many were killed, because we never stopped to count. I came to believe that about 25% of the Iraqis wanted to fight and did, while the other three-quarters gave up.
One reason the attack went flawlessly was air power. There's no question about that.
Could we have pushed even faster? Some say yes, but I'm not so sure. One night we halted simply because we felt we had almost overreached ourselves. Plus, the night was made doubly black because of the smoke from burning oil wells. But had we pushed a little faster at this juncture, we might have cut off the Iraqis' escape route.
Intelligence began to improve with information that came from JSTARS [joint surveillance/target attack radar system]. This was the only bright side of the intelligence picture. As JSTARS information was coming to me, we could see that the Iraqis were indeed escaping from Kuwait. From that point, we pushed as fast as I believe possible.
After the Iraqis had been expelled from Kuwait, or had run away, or had been killed or captured, we were poised to go on. I had a conversation with [Commander-in-Chief, Central Command, Army General Norman] Schwarzkopf shortly after Myatt had taken the airport. Keys had pushed through farther to the west, and that great Army brigade that we had attached to us had pushed up into the comer of Kuwait and cut off the escape of the few Iraqis who were left in the country. I told Schwarzkopf where I was and that we were capable of moving if he wanted us to do so. We were indeed poised to go on to Basra. I did not know what was happening out to the west. If [Army General] Fred Franks knew what was going on in our sector, he knew a hell of a lot more than I did, because I didn't have a clue as to what was going on in his sector. And so, after this conversation with Schwarzkopf, we simply sat there. Of course, we were not asked to move forward.
One final point about the so-called Highway of Death. I was on that highway while the Iraqi truck engines were still running. The media exaggerated the situation on the highway. Not as many Iraqis were killed there as the media would have you believe. The Iraqis weren't stupid, they were just terrified. As the traffic jam began to extend back toward Kuwait City and they were being bombed, they simply bailed out of their trucks and ran away, headed for the coast up around Basra. Most of those who ran were captured the next day. By then, Iraqi forces were on the ropes. In another two days, I think we would have easily finished off the remaining Iraqi forces that were just to the north of us.
Lieutenant General John J. Yeosock, Commander, Third Army
It's always very easy to sit down and decide what could have been, would have been, should have been. So we should look back and describe the truth of the situation as we knew it in 1990.... And the truth as we knew it in 1990 clearly was that we had to pursue a policy of dual containment with both Iran and Iraq.
There was perhaps a deeper concern on the part of many of our Coalition partners that the problems in the region were not merely a temporary aberration that started with Iraq administering a bit of punishment to Kuwait and then becoming overzealous.... Rather, there was the view, particularly in the Gulf States, that a long-term threat to the region existed, and that it came from Iran.
This view had a tremendous bearing on our strategy formulations, providing a basis for consensus, in both the United States and the international community, that our objective in the region must necessarily be of a limited nature. That objective, being limited, was also unambiguous: we were to eject Iraq from Kuwait. Thus, at any point before Walt Boomer's forces crossed the line of departure, the Iraqis might very well have walked out of Kuwait; and, had they done so, we would have achieved our strategic objective.
Because of current events in the Gulf we may be frustrated by our decision not to have undertaken Saddam's ouster during the Gulf War. Such frustration can certainly provide interesting topics of conversation, focusing on what we might have done to effect changes in the Iraqi leadership. But, again, this was not our aim. We must acknowledge the fact that we had very simplistically articulated and understood military and political objectives. We had precisely defined what constituted military victory and clearly identified the political objectives, and these did not entail dividing Iraq into three different nation states, or engineering the demise or downfall of Saddam Hussein....
We have to go back to the first week of August, when Secretary [of Defense Dick] Cheney and others met with the leadership of Saudi Arabia to reach a basic agreement on victory objectives. The terms of reference that were established were simple. There were no documents exchanged, no memoranda of understanding, no codified alliances, no agreements, no nothing, other than a message conveyed by Secretary Cheney from President [George H. WJ Bush that said, in essence, "We will come if you ask, we will leave when you tell us."
Thus, we must understand that the Saudis were the glue that held the Coalition together. We take undue credit when we congratulate ourselves for the great Coalition that was put together by the Americans, the British, the West, whatever. That's just a lot of backslapping. The truth of the matter is, the Saudis put the Coalition together through the crafting and establishment of bilateral relations with each and every nation that entered therein. We forget that, and then we wonder why we are frustrated today by what's going on in the Gulf.
It must also be understood that each and every party that joined the Coalition had its own interests at heart and that the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and the [United Arab] Emirates were serving as the bill payers. In effect, the Coalition nations providing the bulk of military forces were hired guns for a host that was underwriting all the costs and incurring all the debt. There were nations like Pakistan, which was quite hesitant to participate in the effort because of its domestic political situation, but which nevertheless got involved—and paid dearly for it. Jordan has paid dearly for the stance it adopted. But a number of other people saw that Coalition membership was a matter national self-interest and readily raised their flags on the Coalition's flagpole. With the exception of the British, the French, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and certain others, most Coalition nations made little or no significant military contribution. To the contrary, the forces they did provide were probably an encumbrance simply by being there. For example the Mujahedeen, who arrived in Saudi Arabia with virtually no equipment, were certainly an encumbrance, even though it was great to have their flag flying at the Coalition command post.
In closing, I would like to respond to remarks made by [retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General] Bernard Trainor . . . [who] found fault with me for establishing Third Army's command post in Riyadh. In doing so, Trainor said, I had placed myself "too far back" from the front to properly exercise operational command. As a result, Trainor said, I had no real feel for the situation at the front, a circumstance that "complicated [the Army's] maneuver possibilities." In Trainor's opinion, I should have been farther forward.
I would first point out that planning a military operation is a continuous event.... I was charged with the planning but I was not given the requisite legal authority to do so. I had no Arab-Islamic charter, but I was nonetheless responsible for pulling it all together. This lack of legal authority caused problems at the end of the war. Everyone had a great picture of the tactical-operational aspects of Desert Storm, of how to fight and win the war, but no one had given very much thought to the difficulties and exigencies of conflict termination .... Thus it fell to the Army to handle conflict termination, which included but was by no means limited to dealing with Iraqi prisoners of war, setting up and running hospitals, reinstating the government of Kuwait, and so forth. But the Army could not take any action toward resolving the many issues of conflict termination without first consulting with the Saudi government. And the Saudi government was in Riyadh. So we had to be in Riyadh, too.
Admiral Stanley R. Arthur, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command
First and foremost, from the Navy's standpoint, we must find a different way of dealing with the problem of sea mines. We knew the Iraqis were laying mines, and we worked very hard to keep track of their efforts, but our intelligence let us down in this regard. Though I was chiefly responsible for deciding where our surveillance aircraft flew and for what they did, I was prevented from sending the planes far enough north to waters where Iraqi mine-laying activity was most intensive. Consequently, we developed a pretty good picture of Iraqi activity in the area, but due to the standoff ranges imposed on our aircraft, our pilots were three to four miles away from the location of the mines.
Restricting the operational reach of Navy surveillance aircraft is an outgrowth of the notion—widely held by the other armed services—that the Navy is always out to start the war, whatever that war may be. The attitude seems to be: "The Navy wants to shoot at something, it wants to sink something; therefore, we have to keep the Navy out of the way until we're ready, because it may start something we're not ready for." I think that's not an appropriate measure of what we're about. Moreover, I'm certain that the sinking of Iraqi mine-laying ships would not have precipitated an all-out war. It would have made some noise, and that's about the extent of it.
In any case, we should have gone after the Iraqi minelayers. Because the fact is, if you want full mobility and flexibility of your forces, the enemy's ability to hinder your movements must be eliminated or at least diminished. The Coalition's failure to take appropriate mine countermeasures ensured that the Navy's options for maneuver and action in the northern Gulf would be limited, thus limiting as well its power to influence Iraqi thinking and operations before and during Desert Storm. The folks in Riyadh had very little understanding of this problem, until finally, we got General Schwarzkopf aboard a ship and explained to him how long it takes to clear an established minefield.
Another issue that should be addressed—and I believe it relates to current events in the Gulf—concerns Iraq's business dealings with the rest of the world. Early in the crisis (but after I arrived on the scene), there seemed to be great agreement among Coalition members that we would destroy Iraq's ability to conduct maritime commerce. This policy changed virtually overnight and without prior notice. A political decision was made to allow Saddam to reconstitute his seagoing trade immediately upon the war's end.
I still don't know the reason for this change. In my opinion, it was a grave mistake. I made the argument that, if you're worried about Saddam having a tanker fleet with which to sell his oil, there are enough tankers around the world sitting idle that he could lease or purchase once the war was over... We could agree to allow him to procure ships if and when he needed them. Instead, we left the port facilities, the off-load facilities, and a lot of his commercial shipping alone. As a result, he was able to bootleg oil and other commodities out of Iraq almost as soon as hostilities had ceased, thus diminishing our ability to affect his behavior through economic sanctions. This is the price we have paid over the years for our failure to destroy Iraq's shipping and port infrastructure.
Finally, there is the issue of locating my command at sea aboard the USS Blue Ridge [LCC-19] instead of in Riyadh with CinCCent [Commander-in-Chief, Central Command], as I would have preferred.
I was the Navy component commander of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force when that organization became United States Central Command in January 1983. Thus, I became CentCom's [Central Command's] first Navy component commander, designated NavCentCom. As such, I was responsible for setting up the command arrangements between CinCCent and the Navy component. In doing so, I took into account the fact that CinCCent would be land oriented, because any campaign in his theater would likely have the same orientation. That being the case, I deemed it essential that the Navy component commander should collocate with CinCCent's staff in order to advise and help script the role that forces afloat would play in any action taken in the CentCom theater. In this scheme, the Navy battle group commanders would serve as NavCentCom's action arm at sea.
This configuration changed at the outset of the Gulf crisis when, on 19 August, Central Command's Navy component commander was replaced by Vice Admiral Henry Mauz, who was also the Commander of Seventh Fleet. Mauz arrived in the Gulf aboard Seventh Fleet's flagship, USS Blue Ridge, with no prior working experience of CinCCent issues outside of planning for the transit of his fleet assets and components between the Mediterranean and the Gulf.
On 1 December 1990, I relieved Mauz as NavCent and Seventh Fleet Commander. I immediately went to Schwarzkopf and expressed my willingness to establish myself in Riyadh and thus be available for him in the role I had originally envisioned for NavCent. There was only one catch: The move from ship to shore would take two weeks in order to set up the communications that would enable me to work comfortably with both CinCCent and my people at sea. Told by Schwarzkopf that he couldn't give me two weeks, I opted to remain at sea. Consequently, I was unable to provide the hands-on expertise CinCCent's staff needed to properly coordinate naval force operations with the operations of the ground and air forces.
This configuration has since changed: The Navy component commander is now clearly attached to CinCCent, as I had intended. The Navy, however, is not satisfied with this arrangement. It was a hard sell, and for that reason we could revert in a millisecond back to our old ways of doing business.
General Charles A. Horner, Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command
In answer to the question of what we should have done differently in the Persian Gulf War, I would first point to our failure to formulate a strategy for dealing with Iraq's leadership. I don't necessarily mean that we should have removed Hussein from power; forcing him to alter his behavior, hence the behavior of Iraq toward other nations, would have been an acceptable outcome. But we achieved neither objective.
The reason for this failure, I think, is that we tended to look at the problem through American eyes, using an American value system, when in fact we should have taken a broader view of the issue. William Arkin, a former military analyst for Greenpeace and a contributing editor for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, gave me the most insightful debriefing of the war I've ever heard. Arkin had previously roamed around Iraq as a guest of Saddam Hussein, who had assumed that when Arkin, a known peace activist, returned to the United States, he would lambaste our military. Unfortunately for Hussein, Arkin has great integrity, and he reported everything just as he saw it. And it so happened that he was highly complimentary of the way the Coalition conducted its air campaign. But he asked me, "Why did you hit the back of Hussein's headquarters?" I replied, "Well, we wanted to embarrass Saddam Hussein." And Arkin said, "Embarrass Saddam Hussein? He shoots his people and sends the family a bill for the bullets. You're not going to embarrass Saddam Hussein."
And I got to thinking about what Arkin had said. I grew up in Iowa, and I thought, suppose I was out on the north forty on my John Deere, and my wife came running out of the house and said, "Chuckie, they've just blown up the Department of Agriculture building in Washington." I'd probably finish plowing the north forty because I really wouldn't give a damn about that building, other than to feel badly about anybody who might have been killed or injured. All of which is to say that Saddam wasn't embarrassed by the bombing of his headquarters, because he's too ruthless to be embarrassed, and because nobody in Iraq really cared that his headquarters were bombed.
Intelligence was also a real problem. For example, the nuclear, biological, and chemical targeting grew six-fold when the inspections started after the war.... Our intelligence was miserable. We ought to be honest about this. Because of our Cold War-centric view, we knew more about the interior of Russia than we knew about what was ten miles across the Saudi border in Iraq. We have classification levels that are absolutely ridiculous. For example, we cannot admit that we use satellites to take pictures from outer space, unless we're talking about Spot Image and other commercial satellite imaging services currently available. What is more, we have agencies in Washington that protect their prerogatives at the expense of human life on the battlefield. I find that tragic. I say that just as viciously as I possibly can. I know there are many good people in the intelligence community and I know they do good work. But you should have had to work with the CIA during the Gulf War; then you would understand my anger. The CIA might have been doing wonderful work in Washington, but the intelligence they gathered filtered down to us as little more than gossip.
I think we made a mistake after the Gulf War by remaining in the region. I argued very hard to get all of our people out of there. It's not our country. We make it very difficult for our Arab friends by being there, because they have to defend our presence. And it is quite easy for radical elements to attack us....
Our presence in the Gulf region also ensures that Saddam Hussein will continue to be a problem. And Saddam Hussein should not be a problem. He's a tinhorn gangster. In America we love to villainize Saddam Hussein.... But in villainizing him we are in fact playing into his hands, putting him in a position where he can pull our chain any time he wants and make us dance to whatever tune he calls. That's why I think our continued presence in the region works very much against us.
We do have a problem with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This problem encompasses our own nuclear arsenals as well as the nuclear arsenals of Russia, Israel, Libya, and Iran. And yet we seem to focus on Iraq's nuclear arsenal, which really works against us in terms of dealing with the problem of international proliferation.
Finally, the one thing you need to understand if you're going to understand Desert Storm is that the relationship among the four people at this table—Arthur, Boomer, Yeosock, and me—was highly unusual. Such a relationship probably has never existed before, and it probably won't exist in the future. The trust and respect we had for one another was unbelievable. This was a function of personality as much as a desire to get the job done.... [U]nless you understand our relationships, then you really won't understand what went on in Desert Storm, all the good and bad-and there was plenty of each.