Did America Really Lose the First Gulf War?
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.
On February 24 my commander, then Captain H.R. McMaster (now a lieutenant general), made a radio call to all battle stations of Eagle Troop: “Gentlemen, the moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived. We have been given the order to attack.” Again, there was nothing like fear among most of us troopers. It was closer to elation.
The initial breach across the border defenses proved to be anticlimactic, because after substantial artillery bombardment with 155-millimeter shells and multiple air strikes, the engineer bulldozers that plowed their way through the dirt berms and defensive works revealed no enemy troops defending the other side. We spent the rest of that day through the following night mainly conducting long, intensely boring road marches to get to the northern part of Kuwait. There were a few skirmishes against Iraqi armored patrols, but nothing of note. February 26, however, proved to be pivotal for the entire battle.
General Schwarzkopf’s famous “Hail Mary” armored assault featured the VII Corps, which included the First Armored Division and First Infantry Division, spearheaded by the Second U.S. Cavalry Regiment (of which my Eagle Troop was a suborganization). The plan was that the 2ACR would find the Republican Guards, make initial contact with them, but then pass the main fight to the heavy armored divisions. Due to a heavy sand storm that limited our vision to less than fifty yards at time, we were not able to use the Air Force or our helicopter scouts to identify where the main enemy line of contact would be. Eagle Troop would have to discover it the old-fashioned way: by driving until we saw enemy tanks.
At exactly 4:09 p.m. Kuwait time on February 26, Eagle Troop tanks crested a small hill in the open desert. Our vision was still heavily limited by the sandstorm. But when the commander’s tank treads hit the far side of the hill’s crest, he was face-to-face with the gun tubes of eight enemy T-72 tanks. He had four U.S. tanks on his left and another four on his right, but they were still on the other side of the crest and could not yet identify the Iraqi armor. I can remember hearing his commands over the tactical radio net like it was yesterday.
“Enemy tanks direct front!” As he was ordering one tank platoon to advance on his right and the other to roll up on his left, he was simultaneously firing at the three closest T-72s. Within the first ten seconds of battle, three enemy tanks were burning on the battlefield. The remaining Eagle Troop tanks came into range seconds later and demolished the other five tanks. The battle got even more furious at that point, as all nine M1A1 tanks and twelve Bradley Fighting Vehicles engaged a brigade of the Iraqi Tawakalna Division. Though the battle—later called “73 Easting” based on the grid location where the fighting took place—lasted until about 1 a.m., the fiercest and most intense part of the battle lasted a mere twenty-three horrifying minutes.
I and my fire support crew were positioned with the forwardmost scout section of two Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and had as close a view of the tank-on-tank battle as anyone in Kuwait. I watched M1s firing tank rounds at T-72s that literally blew the turrets off the Iraqi tanks, fifty-caliber machine guns, Bradleys firing twenty-five-millimeter chain guns and antitank missiles, and my own 7.62-millimeter machine gun. Later in the battle an entire battalion of self-propelled 155-millimeter howitzers, our mortar team and a rocket battery crushed everything else in the battle zone.
Altogether, the U.S. crews destroyed over fifty armored vehicles and an estimated two hundred enemy troops. Eagle Troop suffered not so much as a single soldier wounded in action. American losses across the board suffered small numbers of wounded and killed in action. By any metric, the United States crushed the Iraqi army in one of the most lopsided military victories in history. How, then, can I claim a quarter century later that the war represented a U.S. loss?