As the 1991 Persian Gulf war drew to a close, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told an anxious nation that an American-led juggernaut had swept across the desert, stunned its foe and evicted Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.
“We’ve accomplished our mission,” the commander declared in a presentation deemed such a tour de force that it was known as “the mother of all briefings.” “The gate is closed,” he added confidently, on Iraq’s “war machine.”
Now, General Schwarzkopf’s death, and the hospitalization of former President George Bush, 88, have returned the spotlight to the war they prosecuted together, which some of its architects have cast as a model for a successful intervention abroad.
The gulf war appeared to have it all: a foreign tyrant who committed an indisputable act of aggression, a president who rallied the international community to roll back the occupation of a defenseless oil-rich nation, and an American military eager to prove itself in its most demanding test since Vietnam.
For some former officials it was, plain and simple, the “good war” — a war that set limited objectives against an invader, was waged in a mere six weeks and was then punctuated by victory parades. The battles yet to come, more open-ended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, proved to be far more costly in lives and treasure.
And yet the Persian Gulf war occupies a more complex place in military history than the hagiography suggests. The generalship was not without its faults, and the White House decision to bring the conflict to a close before all of Mr. Hussein’s Republican Guard divisions were destroyed has remained a subject of debate, even among ranking officers who were on the battlefield.
The 1991 gulf conflict may have been a “war of necessity,” as its supporters say, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq a “war of choice.” But it was the outcome of the first gulf war, which left Mr. Hussein in power and forced the United States to carry out more than a decade of air patrols over northern and southern Iraq, that presented the United States with that choice.
The act that precipitated the gulf conflict was Mr. Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, an attack that caught the White House flat-footed despite intelligence warning of the Iraqis’ military preparations. The first task was the defense of Saudi Arabia, which General Schwarzkopf’s command took on from a position of considerable disadvantage.
His Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla., had no forces to speak of in the region, or even a regional headquarters. As the months went by, the planning shifted to offense as Mr. Bush and his team set their sights on evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III secured the backing of the United Nations Security Council and garnered broad international support. Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Syria were part of the fighting coalition. Maintaining support at home was more challenging.
The Senate resolution authorizing the use of force was adopted by a narrow vote of 52 to 47. (Senators Al Gore of Tennessee, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Harry Reid of Nevada were among the Democrats who voted for the measure, but Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware voted “no,” as did Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia.)
Iraq had a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. Yielding to American warnings, the Iraqis did not employ poison gas. But nobody on the American side could be sure it would not be used. Guided by Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States assembled an overwhelming force.
The four-day ground war was preceded by more than five weeks of bombardment. When the shooting ended, it was clear that the all-volunteer military had been a success. Stealth aircraft and precision weapons had proved themselves on the battlefield.
Though the United States deployed about 540,000 personnel, 148 were killed in action or died of their wounds, according to the Defense Department. Importantly, the ghosts of Vietnam had been exorcised. For the first time since that bloody war in Southeast Asia, the United States armed forces demonstrated that they could win a major land war in a foreign land.
Still, the gulf war was not as decisive as some of its proponents had hoped. Trying to secure their hold on Kuwait, Iraqi commanders had erected a defense in depth. The most expendable Iraqi forces were arrayed in southern Kuwait behind mine belts, sand berms and oil-filled ditches that were set aflame.
Iraq’s armored and mechanized forces were arrayed in the interior of Kuwait, along with considerable artillery. Behind them were Republican Guard divisions, the best-equipped and most loyal units in Mr. Hussein’s army. Iraq’s plan was to bloody the American forces as they pushed north into Kuwait so that the Republican Guard troops could deliver decisive blows.
General Schwarzkopf sought to turn the Iraqi strategy on its head. The plan was for the Marines, fortified by an American armored brigade, to attack into Kuwait and draw the attention of Iraqi commanders. A Marine amphibious force afloat would also be used as a feint to tie down Iraqi troops.
Then the Army’s VII Corps, which was deployed to the west of the Marines in Saudi Arabia and reinforced by a British division, would outflank the Republican Guard forces. The Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, which was deployed in the far western desert in Saudi Arabia and reinforced by the French, would also participate in the envelopment, which became known as “the left hook.”
The goal was not merely to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait but also to destroy the Republican Guard units in order to deprive Iraq of the ability to menace Kuwait and other gulf states in the future. But the American strategy did not entirely work as planned. Instead of being lured into a kill zone, many of the Republican Guard troops began to flee.
General Schwarzkopf found it difficult to accelerate the main Army attack, and the war tuned into a race. The Army’s 24th Mechanized Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division were beginning to catch up and hoped to bottle up the fleeing Republican Guard forces near Basra, in southern Iraq.
At a 2011 conference at Texas A&M University, Walter E. Boomer, the retired general who led the Marine attack into Kuwait, recalled that he had told General Schwarzkopf over the radio that his Marines were also prepared to pursue the fleeing Iraqi forces.
“I said, ‘We’re poised to launch for Basra, and we will police up the rest of these folks if you want us to,’ ” General Boomer said. “He said, ‘Stand by.’ And then the next message that I received was not directly from him but through my headquarters that we had in fact stopped.” With American warplanes attacking Iraqi columns fleeing Kuwait City, Mr. Bush was eager to avoid the charge of piling on.
He decided to end the ground war at 100 hours, with the strong encouragement of General Powell. General Schwarzkopf supported the decision, though it later emerged that amid the confusion on the battlefield not even he knew the precise location of some of the attacking American units. “On balance, we had accomplished the mission,” General Powell said at the conference.
“The Iraqi Army was fleeing. And it is easy to say, ‘Well, you should have just kept killing.’ But this is an army that we did not want to totally destroy.” But General Boomer offered a different perspective in a 2011 interview with a North Carolina radio station. “I continue to be asked if we stopped too soon,” he said.
“The answer in retrospect is ‘yes.’ ” According to American intelligence, half of the Republican Guard tanks escaped as of March 1, 1991. Significantly, headquarters units also survived, and this helped Iraqi generals reconstitute their forces and put down the Shiite uprising that began in the south afterward.
At cease-fire talks that were held in Safwan, Iraq, General Schwarzkopf agreed to an Iraqi request that the Iraqi military be allowed to fly helicopters in southern Iraq because so many bridges had been destroyed. But the Iraqi military abused this concession by using the helicopters to attack the Shiite insurgents.
The United States, along with its British and French allies, did not establish a no-fly zone in southern Iraq until August 1992. Ousting Mr. Hussein would have gone beyond the formal mandate for the military campaign, and Mr. Bush and his aides were determined not to march on Baghdad and take on the burden of occupation, a decision supported by Dick Cheney, who was Mr. Bush’s secretary of defense.
But declassified memorandums from Mr. Bush’s presidential archives made clear that he had hoped the war would facilitate the dictator’s exit. In a discussion with Mr. Bush on Nov. 19, 1991, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, delivered a message from King Fahd, the Saudi monarch.
“We have a lot to do to finish with Iraq,” Prince Bandar said. “Tell him not to worry,” Mr. Bush replied. “We must do whatever it takes to get rid of the guy. Tell him we are not changing one bit. We are talking about ways of undermining him. There will be no letting up on sanctions or inspections. We are looking into what we can do with broadcasts. We will not go back to the status quo ante.”