Victory Came Too Easily; Review of Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War

Victory Came Too Easily; Review of Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War

Mini Teaser: Review of Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993), 560pp.

by Author(s): Paul Wolfowitz

Review of Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Gulf War (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993), 560pp., $24.95.

Rick Atkinson has written an excellent account of the victory of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, a work impressive for both the breadth of its research and for the drama of its narrative. That said, perhaps the most serious problem with the book is its somewhat misleading title.

The title--Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War--comes from one of two epigraphic quotes, this one from Karl Shapiro, identified as an "American poet"; "Every war is its own excuse...That's why they're all crusades." (The other epigraph, from the Duke of Wellington, contains far more truth: "Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.")

Unless one regards all wars as crusades, it would be hard to find a war in American history that less resembled a crusade. The term crusade more aptly describes some previous American wars, and in particular the two World Wars, which were fought for the objective of total victory and which tend to confirm Tocqueville's assessment that democracies are slow to go to war but difficult to restrain once aroused. The Gulf War, however, was a war fought with almost dispassionate skill by an all-professional military. It was a war which demanded almost nothing from the American civilian population, not even higher taxes. It involved almost none of the massive mobilization of popular sentiment that has characterized a number of American wars and, on the crucial vote, the Gulf War gained only a slim majority of support in the Congress.

Most important, the Persian Gulf War was quintessentially a limited war. As Atkinson correctly points out, "before the war began, Bush had established limited objectives for a limited campaign. Through six weeks of combat he stuck to those goals with fixed determination--a quality Clausewitz held among the highest attributes of a successful commander." Where the United States has fought limited wars in the past, as in Korea, those limitations were imposed on us by military necessity. The Persian Gulf War was perhaps a unique case of the United States limiting its war aims as a deliberate act of self-restraint.

In Atkinson's defense, he introduces the concept of "crusade" to explain something real and quite puzzling: "why...given the [war's] catalogue of accomplishments, did the sweet savor of victory so quickly turn to the taste of ashes?" In Atkinson's view, the principal explanation lies in the contrast between President Bush's carefully limited war aims and his rhetoric, "which encouraged the nation to consider the war a great moral crusade--a struggle of good versus evil, right against wrong. By demonizing Saddam, Bush aroused passions that would remain unsated."

As someone who served closely with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the Gulf War, I am still frequently asked whether the war itself was not the result of a failure of American diplomacy before the invasion of Kuwait, and why the war ended with Saddam Hussein still in power. Rarely am I asked how such a decisive victory was achieved. The very fact that the war seemed relatively easy has tended to make people underestimate the achievement. Ironically, if more American lives had been lost in defeating the Iraqi army and liberating Kuwait, there would probably be more widespread appreciation for what those actions accomplished; certainly fewer people would suggest that perhaps we should have gone on to Baghdad. (In fact, the predictions of American losses by several military experts and leading members of Congress were so high that a majority of the Democratic members of both the House and the Senate voted against the war.)

The truth is that the President never succeeded in enlisting the country in a crusade, if indeed that was ever his intent. As Atkinson acknowledges elsewhere, the conviction of President Bush that this was "a wholly righteous conflict: the right war, at the right place, at the right time, and against the right enemy" was "not widely shared by his fellow Americans." Before the war, the doubts of his countrymen arose largely from fear of the terrible costs that would be involved. Yet if it is true that "within a year the war would be widely regarded as inconsequential, even slightly ridiculous," this was in large measure because the victory came too easily.

"Only through the lens of history," as Atkinson writes, "could the significance of the war be seen as clearly as its shortcomings." No doubt contemporary assessments have been distorted by partisan considerations: by the tendency of those who had opposed the war to deprecate its significance and to focus on ancillary issues of pre-war and post-war policy; and by the tendency of President Bush and his supporters to claim too much for a victory that was impressive enough without claiming that it had "transformed a nation at home" or established "a new world order." Atkinson seems confident that the eventual historical judgment will be largely positive, that someday "the tide would change and revisionist sentiment would bring the war into proper perspective," as it has done with the "jaundiced discontent" that was common after other American wars.

When that historical assessment is made, Atkinson's book will make a significant contribution, in part because it captures much of the danger and drama that were obscured by the seeming ease of the victory. Like his earlier book, The Long Gray Line, this is a dramatic and fast-paced narrative that captures powerfully the fears of pilots flying through heavy flak over Baghdad, the courage of POWs brutalized in Iraqi prisons, the daring of British and American commandos operating hundreds of miles inside Iraqi lines in search of Scud missile launchers, and the violence and horror of men being killed by the devastating weapons of modern warfare.

By etching so clearly what individual losses were like, Atkinson makes us grateful that there were so few of them. By making clear the dangers and risks faced by individual soldiers, sailors, and pilots, he makes us recognize the bravery required of everyone who went into combat, bravery which is in no way diminished by the miraculously low casualties that were actually suffered. Atkinson provides the perspective necessary to appreciate the moral courage of commanders whose orders sent those men and women into combat, and not least of the commander-in-chief, President Bush. It is this aspect of the President's leadership--his willingness to take large risks and assume personal responsibility for potentially dangerous decisions--that most distinguished his performance in the Persian Gulf crisis. The firm resolve he communicated, much more than the frequency of his contacts with other world leaders, was the key to assembling the successful coalition. That is the most important lesson of the diplomacy of the war.

Schwarzkopf's Volcanic Temper

Atkinson also provides historians with a wealth of previously unreported detail about the planning and conduct of the war, derived from hundreds of anonymous interviews with participants, including this reviewer. While historians will complain, with some justice, that it is difficult to know in the absence of sourcing how much to rely on particular information, without this technique Atkinson could not have obtained access to the wealth of information he reports. I find the account impressively accurate in those parts of which I have first-hand knowledge and am inclined to place confidence in the rest, with the caveat that one always has to try to guess the source of the information and to make allowance for some personal animus, as well as for the fact that no one comes off second best in his own account of events.

The accounts of General Schwarzkopf's monumental temper and petty tyrannies have drawn more attention than perhaps any other aspect of Crusade. These traits were widely known among American military officers but were obscured by the adulation surrounding Schwarzkopf after the war. Subsequent revelations, while perfectly plausible, were no doubt motivated to some extent by jealousy on the part of those who felt that Schwarzkopf was getting more glory than he deserved, by resentment from those who had felt the lash of his temper, or by indignation on behalf of the commander of VII Corps, General Frederick Franks, who bore the brunt of some overstated and unfair criticism by Schwarzkopf in his own book. In the end, for all the attention to Schwarzkopf's volcanic and sometimes abusive temper, one is struck by the fact that it had so little real consequence, apart from its demoralizing effect on his immediate staff. For all his frequent threats to fire people, Schwarzkopf apparently never did. Even when he had the opportunity to replace one of his commanders who left during the middle of the war for gall bladder surgery in Germany, Schwarzkopf instead allowed him to return, telling another disappointed commander that "you've got to dance with the girl you brought to the ball."

Curiously for someone whose private temper was notorious, Schwarzkopf distinguished himself above all by his public skill as a soldier-diplomat. In his final assessment of the general, Atkinson provides a balanced perspective on the more colorful incidents that dominate the book. If Schwarzkopf's generalship was "hardly unblemished," the blemishes were not primarily his temper--indeed, he had "generally encouraged initiative and intrepidity among his subordinate commanders" even though he was "stingy" about giving them credit. The blemishes had much more to do with two strategic observations: most of the planning, particularly the air campaign, was the work of others; and in both the planning and the conduct of the campaign Schwarzkopf had "stubbornly resisted turning his attention to the only Iraqi gambit that could have threatened him strategically--the Scud missile attacks against Israel."

Even this last criticism does not loom large in a broader perspective. In Atkinson's words, "the man had risen to the task": unifying the coalition; making sound tactical assessments; committing "no significant error of strategy or tactics;" projecting "an image of strength and resolve;" and bringing home alive "far more of his soldiers than even the most optimistic strategists in Washington had dared hope." Above all, of course, "he had won. Norman Schwarzkopf had earned his due."

Coming To Judgment

The overattention to anecdotes about Schwarzkopf's temper, followed by a trenchant assessment of the general's strengths and weaknesses, parallels Atkinson's treatment of the war itself. Atkinson quotes, not once but several times and in apparent agreement, the statement of an Air Force general that "There's not a damn thing worth dying for in Iraq." Elsewhere, he says that the "central what point was a man's life a legitimate fee for the liberation of Kuwait? [could] never be answered with certainty." Yet by the end of the book Atkinson's own answer is reasonably clear though slightly hedged: "An avaricious despot had been stopped in his tracks, and the barbarity of his occupation avenged"; the decision not to march on Baghdad had "spared countless lives and incalculable political complications"; and even though Iraq "might require allied vigilance for years or even decades," this was true regardless of Saddam's fate. Thus, Atkinson closes by concluding that the war was neither "the greatest moral challenge facing America since 1945," as Bush had declared, nor the "pointless exercise in gunboat diplomacy portrayed by his severest critics." Instead, "the truth lay somewhere on the high middle ground awaiting discovery."

Why has the truth been so difficult to discover? Several factors have already been mentioned: the dissatisfaction of democracies with limited wars and their inevitably murky endings; the unexpectedly low casualties which whetted the appetite for a more complete victory; and the partisanship which rendered much of the early post-war debate less than honest. There is, however, a more general difficulty, fundamental in assessing any timely and successful military venture. By and large, wars are not constructive acts: they are better judged by what they prevent than by what they accomplish. But what a war has prevented is impossible ever to know with certainty, and for many observers is never a subject of serious reflection.

The essential achievement of World War II, for example, was not the establishment of democracy in Germany but the reversal of the Nazi conquest of Europe. Precisely because Allied intervention was not timely, we saw rather clearly what it was that we were preventing. Had the Western powers intervened earlier, to prevent Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland or his conquest of Czechoslovakia, their achievement (we now know) would have been far greater: millions would have been spared the deaths and horrors of the Second World War. But lacking knowledge of the tragedy that had been averted, that argument would not have been available. A timely victory in the Rhineland or in Sudetenland might nevertheless have seemed incomplete, had Hitler himself remained in power in Germany, and unnecessary even if he had been removed.

The point is not once again to compare Saddam Hussein to Hitler, but rather to observe that Iraq's timely defeat in Kuwait stopped him from accomplishing an extremely dangerous ambition. The astonishing size of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program uncovered after the end of the war makes it clear that Saddam was bent on something much larger and more menacing than the conquest of Kuwait. Had he succeeded in the latter, it is almost certain that he would have gone on to control the rest of the Arabian peninsula--either by conquest or intimidation--and would have eventually confronted both Iran and Israel, armed militarily with nuclear weapons and politically with control over the world's economic lifeblood. To have prevented a war of conquest on that scale was the single greatest achievement of the Gulf War, but to appreciate that accomplishment requires some historical imagination.

This is not to say that there were no immediate positive results of the war. In fact, the Gulf War transformed the security structure of the Persian Gulf, a region that is almost certain to remain the source of a large fraction of the world's energy supplies for decades to come. Having demonstrated the ability to protect the states of the Arabian peninsula effectively, the United States and its allies have provided a positive foundation for the security of those states against their much stronger neighbors to the north. This new responsibility also represents an extraordinary opportunity to base the security of this vital region of the world on something safer and more reliable than the unstable balance between Iran and Iraq. Moreover, with the Iraqi threat to Israel removed and with American influence enormously enhanced, negotiations between Israel and the Arabs that could not have been held before have now become astonishingly routine.

As someone who argued for more resolute opposition to Iraqi threats, not only during the crisis that immediately preceded the invasion of Kuwait but for many months before that, and who later argued that we could and should do more at the end of the war, I do not want to deny that there is room for debate about both these policies. At the same time, these arguments need to be put in the proper perspective, as Atkinson does very well.

Mistakes, Before and After

Whether more vigorous action might have deterred the Iraqi invasion is fundamentally unanswerable. I believed at the time that we should have done more, but I honestly doubt that it would have made any difference. In fact, there was far more preparation than is commonly recognized--shifting the whole focus of our defense planning for the Persian Gulf (in late 1989) from the scenario of a Soviet invasion of Iran to the scenario of an Iraqi invasion of the Arabian Peninsula--and this military planning took its place alongside an overall policy aimed at moderating Iraqi behavior. (In fact, it was an integral part of the new, post-Cold War Regional Defense Strategy briefed to the President and General Scowcroft in June, and packaged for a major Presidential address planned for August 2 in Aspen, Colorado.)
These actions were noticed by Saddam, and they helped to explain a "paranoia" that Atkinson calls "baffling" in light of what he (incorrectly) labels "Washington's efforts to appease [Saddam]."

Nevertheless, we had to be careful throughout (and particularly in the days immediately preceding the Iraqi invasion) not to act in ways that would cause our Arab allies to accuse us of provoking conflict. This concern for the views of Arab moderates, and particularly Egypt's President Mubarak, certainly muted the tone of U.S. actions and warnings at the time, but helped ensure the unqualified and steadfast support of these leaders after the invasion. Moreover, it seems very doubtful that Saddam Hussein, who paid no attention to all the warnings he received prior to Desert Storm, would have paid much attention to stronger American rhetoric in July of 1990. He seemed to have concluded, from observing both the Vietnam War and the U.S. withdrawal from Beirut, that the United States lacked staying power, and he clearly underestimated the ultimate resolve of the Arab moderates. In those circumstances it is doubtful that deterrence could have worked even if it had been demonstrated more strongly. And the ultimate irony, of course, is that had deterrence succeeded, we would now be confronting a much stronger Iraq, with a nuclear weapons capability the size of which we had not imagined.

Thus, with the benefit of historical hindsight, the mistakes that were made before the war did no lasting damage and may even have been unintentionally useful. The same cannot be said of the mistakes made after the war, although it is important to be very clear about what mistakes we are referring to. Nothing could have insured Saddam Hussein's removal from power short of a full-scale occupation of Iraq. Very few participants in the pre-war debate have any standing to suggest that President Bush should have done this, given the widespread opposition even to the more limited objective of liberating Kuwait. MacArthur's disastrous experience in Korea after the stunning victory at Inchon should be warning enough against the assumption that the occupation of Iraq would be as easy as the liberation of Kuwait. Even if easy initially, it is unclear how or when it would have ended.

Atkinson lays out well the reasons for stopping the fighting when we did and it is hard, even in retrospect, to see what would have been gained by still greater destruction of the Iraqi army, much less anything that would have warranted the risk of additional American casualties. But with hindsight it does seem like a mistake to have announced, even before the war was over, that we would not go to Baghdad, or to give Saddam the reassurance of the dignified cease fire ceremony at Safwan. Even at the time it seemed unwise to allow Iraq to fly its helicopters, and all the more so to continue allowing them to do so when it became clear that their main objective was to slaughter Kurds in the North and Shi'a in the South. Some U.S. government officials at the time appeared to believe--despite strong urgings to the contrary from the Saudis--that we had less to fear from Saddam Hussein than we would from a Shi'a government in Baghdad. It was clearly a mistake, moreover, as Atkinson suggests, not to have retained a large demilitarized zone in southern Iraq to maintain pressure on Saddam Hussein.

The reasons for these mistakes were complex, and there were widely disparate views within the U.S. government. In part it was a failure to recognize the enormous differences between the Arab Shi'a of southern Iraq and the Shi'a extremists who governed in Tehran. In part it reflected an overemphasis on the goal of preserving the integrity of a unified Iraq--and the corollary mistaken belief that Iraq's unity could be preserved under a regime like Saddam's which in fact simply insured permanent rebellion by the Kurds and Shi'a. And in no small part it reflected a miscalculation by some of our military commanders that a rapid disengagement was essential to preserve the luster of victory, and to avoid getting stuck with post-war objectives that would prevent us from ever disengaging. A more deliberate withdrawal might in fact have prevented the Iraqi behavior that has forced us to maintain significant deployments in both Turkey and the Arabian peninsula and that has resulted in a complicated set of no-fly zones, and other requirements, to be enforced.

Two conceptual misunderstandings, however, were particularly important and they persist, rhetoric aside, in the Clinton administration as well. The first is the failure to appreciate that Saddam Hussein's continuation in power is a problem. It is true that he has been neutered militarily, and there is little reason to be confident that whatever replaces him will be any better. Yet, as demonstrated by the attempted assassination of George Bush, Saddam will remain a threat to all the governments that supported us and particularly to the Arab Gulf states.

In addition, there is no reason to assume that the pressure on Saddam can be sustained indefinitely. There is already great pressure from some coalition partners, greedy for Iraqi contracts, to lift the sanctions; and Saddam can already boast that he has outlasted many of the leaders who opposed him. A resurrected Saddam would be a threat not only to many of the moderate Arab governments but also to the promising but fragile Arab-Israeli peace process. It is a great mistake, therefore, to "depersonalize" our differences with Iraq, as President Clinton promised, or to think--as both administrations have shown signs of doing--that Saddam would stop being a problem if we would just stop talking about him. It would be an equally great mistake to believe that we could quit the Gulf and return to the status quo ante, if and when Saddam Hussein is not a factor.

The United States and the entire industrialized world have an enormous stake in the security of the Persian Gulf, not primarily in order to save a few dollars per gallon of gasoline but rather because a hostile regime in control of those resources could wreak untold damage on the world's economy, and could apply that wealth to purposes that would endanger peace globally. Given this permanent stake in the security of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf War provided an opportunity to base security on a foundation of credible commitment by the United States and its coalition partners. Atkinson's book provides a valuable perspective on the conflict which is the starting point of that effort.

Essay Types: Book Review