Did America Really Lose the First Gulf War?

An Iraqi Type 69 main battle tank burns during Operation Desert Storm. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

How Desert Storm taught us all the wrong lessons.

In the heady days following the spectacular U.S. victory over Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard armored divisions in Operation Desert Storm, military experts in Washington celebrated the fact that the U.S. military was vastly superior to every armed force on the planet. Even officials and experts in Russia and China grudgingly acknowledged the claim. President George W. Bush declared that the “specter of Vietnam” had been authoritatively vanquished with the stunning military victory in Kuwait. Twenty-five years later, however, the only thing that was vanquished appears to have been objective analysis. The unequivocal military success may have resulted in a dangerous strategic defeat for the United States.

On this date in 1990, I was a second lieutenant with the Second U.S. Armored Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) in the Saudi port city of Jubail, feverishly preparing my armored fire support vehicle for the coming ground campaign against the Iraqi troops that had invaded Kuwait the previous August. 2ACR had been designated as the vanguard of the U.S. VII Armored Corps, ordered to lead theater commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s armored thrust into Saddam’s strongest combat divisions, the Republican Guards, in northern Kuwait. I had been an officer in the Army barely a year.

In early January 1991 our unit departed the friendly confines of Jubail for the open deserts near the border with Kuwait. We began a series of large scale maneuvers including thousands of troops and literally hundreds of Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and other armored vehicles spread out over scores of square miles. Even before the 2ACR left our base in Germany, we knew the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 678, which issued an ultimatum to Saddam.

It demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait by January 15, 1991, or states allied with Kuwait will be authorized “to use all necessary means to uphold and implement” UNSCR 660, which demanded that Iraq “withdraw immediately and unconditionally all its forces” from Kuwait. On January 12, Congress gave President Bush authority to wage war against Iraq if it did not withdraw by the deadline. Meanwhile, six thousand miles from the Capitol building and four days later, the engine in my armored vehicle blew out and had to be replaced.

Knowing that the UN and Congress-authorized deadlines had just passed, I had to have my vehicle towed several kilometers in the pitch-black Arabian night on January 16. The maintenance crew finished replacing my engine at about 2:30 in the morning and I began the trek back to my troop command post. But at about 3 a.m., I discovered to my great agitation that the mechanic had failed to correctly replace a component of the transmission and the vehicle quit running halfway back. I called the maintenance crew to come tow me back.

While I waited, I sat on the top of my vehicle with a night-vision device looking into the darkness for the recovery vehicle’s arrival, which was moving in blackout drive and under radio listening silence. Suddenly I noticed the nonstop sound of jets overhead. Moments later, I could see trace fire coming up from the northern horizon, followed by bright flashes and then yellow glows against the low cloud cover. A few minutes later I was greeted with a low, muffled boom-boom-boom in rapid succession. The air war had begun!

The next day the repairs to my vehicle were completed and I rejoined my unit—Eagle Troop, Second Squadron, 2ACR. At that time, we didn’t know how long the aerial bombardment would continue before the ground invasion was ordered, but we thought it would be no more than a few days. The regiment was ordered to a position overlooking the Saudi-Kuwait border to await the orders to attack. Look, I’ll be honest: we were not nervous, afraid, or hopeful Saddam would capitulate. We were anxious to cross the line of departure.

But the days passed, and then turned into weeks. Still no attack order was given. Our anxiousness had turned to annoyance, and finally something close to anger. In mid-February 1991, we were told by VII Corp headquarters that the time to assault across the border was growing close. We were like pit bulls with our ears pinned back, eager for the green light. Then on February 21, over Armed Forces Radio we got news that hit us like a sucker punch to the gut: Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet premier, had made a diplomatic overture to Saddam Hussein, in consultation with President Bush, that might result in Iraq’s withdrawal.

We were sick. Literally. Many of us lay disconsolate while awaiting the outcome of the negotiations, fearing that Iraq would accept the Soviet proposal. The thought that after deploying halfway around the world, training for two months in the Saudi deserts and being poised within sight of the Iraq border for an attack, we would then be told to stand down, pack up and return without having fought was nauseating. Saddam Hussein himself, however, soon quashed those concerns.

President Bush had been willing to give Gorbachev’s initiative a chance, but he put a strict deadline on the effort, saying that if no agreement was reached by February 23, he would order the attack. Saddam was not willing to give in to Gorbachev’s conditions, and believed that by inflicting substantial casualties on the United States, he could hold on to Kuwait. The next day, he would discover how wrong he was.