Desert Storm — War Done Well
I returned from Operation Desert Storm in mid-May 1991, after having been deployed to Saudi Arabia and Iraq for slightly less than six months. Our military objective for the conflict had been achieved, and with it a handful of political objectives that were amenable to military action. Those political objectives were to counter blatant aggression, to enforce the international concept that established borders should not be changed by unilateral military action, to demonstrate the authority of international law, and to strengthen the foundations of world order. The military objective to achieve all of this was straight-forward: crush the Iraqi military that had invaded and occupied neighboring Kuwait and push it out of that small Gulf Kingdom.
A decade later there was another confrontation with Iraq, one now commonly called the “Second Gulf War.” Depending on when one wants to say this effort ended, its least duration was eight years and its longer is — currently — eighteen years. We still have some American forces in Iraq, although a small fraction of those mobilized for the initial invasion.
Six months verses (at best) eight years. What happened? Why the enormous difference? Before detailing some of the more erudite explanations, let me offer three brief vignettes that are compelling illustrations.
In 1982, Israel launched an invasion into southern Lebanon with the announced intention of clearing forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of an area extending forty kilometers north of the border between Israel and Lebanon. This was accomplished in a few days. But then, the Israeli government decided to go further and ordered its army to march north to Beirut attempting to not only drive the PLO out of Lebanon altogether, but to also re-order the Lebanese political structure by strengthening the hand of the Christian-dominated Phalange Party.
The effort was a disaster. Over a quarter million Israelis eventually gathered in front of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) protesting the invasion; Prime Minister Menachem Begin was forced to resign; and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was essentially found guilty of war crimes by the Kahan Commission, an Israeli investigation into the mass murder of hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps outside Beirut.
What went wrong? As I detailed in my book, 40 Kilometers Into Lebanon, what began as a mission with clear and limited military objectives expanded into something beyond military capability. The Israel Defense Force knew how to defeat insurgents and clear territory, it was not designed or trained in regime change and political transformation. In essence, the original mission, having clear military objectives, morphed into a broader political mission where the military instrument was an inappropriate tool.
Perhaps even more concerning was the American role that followed this incursion. In an effort to stabilize the situation, the Reagan Administration inserted a Marine Amphibious Unit into Beirut to create a buffer between the Lebanese confessional factions that by then were fully at war with one another. But the Marines became part of the problem rather than a solution, and eventually fell back into a defensive posture at the Beirut airport while Washington debated what to do. In October 1983, nearly 250 Marines died when a terrorist truck bomb drove into their main barracks area.
Like the Israeli invasion, the Marine mission had become unclear. Before the barracks bombing, this was well illustrated when a senior Pentagon official went to Beirut to visit the Marines at the airport. As he was speaking with a young Marine manning a guard post on the airport perimeter, the official asked if there were any questions he might answer. The young Marine said he had one question, “Why are we here?”
The Pentagon official recalled that he slipped into the official policy of the moment and told the young Marine something like, “You are here to create the conditions for restoring the authority of the central Lebanese government.”
The young Marine thought for a moment before replying, “Yeah, but what do I do?” In other words, the young Marine on the perimeter was asking what precisely was the military objective that would lead to the stated political objective, and was expressing his view that hunkering down at the airport while the war swirled around him did not seem to be achieving any specific end.
This is a stark contrast to a second vignette, one I experienced a couple of days before the launch of the ground war against Iraq in late February 1991. As an artillery battalion commander, I was visiting one of my howitzer batteries and had gathered the soldiers to give them some information about the coming operation as well as a pep-talk. After my comments, one senior sergeant thanked me for my talk, but then added, “Sir, thanks for filling us in, but all we really want to know is when we’re going to go north and kill these bastards so we can go home.”
It was a brutally straight-forward request, and it conveyed to me a message that sharply contrasted with the Marine sentry in Beirut in 1983. My soldiers knew what they were there to do — go north, find the Iraqi Republican Guards, destroy them as a fighting force, chase their remnants out of Kuwait, and go home. That was the military objective, and achieving it would also achieve the political objective of greater regional stability and the enhancement of world order.
In terms of political order, it was clear that after our ejection of the Iraqi army the Kuwaiti royal family would return and restore their government. As for Iraq, whatever happened to the Baathist regime in Iraq was up to the Iraqis.
As for the third vignette, there was a brief period of indecision after the Iraqi army had been crippled and limped north. One day I was at an aid station we had set up on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border about ten miles southwest of the Iraqi city of Basra. The aid station was mainly treating Iraqis fleeing Basra and heading to Kuwait. I was looking at Basra through binoculars from the top of a protective berm we had dozed up around the site when my division commander arrived, a charismatic Army two-star general named Butch Funk.
General Funk and I watched rockets and tracers flying through the late afternoon sky above Basra, and saw numerous explosions around the city, their loud reports reaching us a few seconds later. After a few minutes observing this, I asked Funk if he was expecting orders for us to go into Basra and restore order, presumably by somehow separating the fighting groups. I was certain the factions doing the fighting were poorly organized southern Iraqi Shia groups confronting what was left of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated army.
Funk shook his head. “Not so far as I know,” he growled. “But that decision is well above my pay grade.”
I nodded, knowing that it was well above his pay grade, but added anyway, “Well, sir, if anyone does ask you, my vote is we stay out of it. We’ve done what we came here to do. Whatever happens in Iraq after this is up to them.”
In my view, we had in essence accomplished the 40-kilometer mission of the Israelis in 1982 and doing anything more would be another “march on Beirut.”
I recently had an email exchange with a gentleman who claimed the US military hadn’t won a conflict since World War II. I argued we had, offering Desert Storm as an example. He was unconvinced, arguing that it was a failure because we had to go back into Iraq in 2003 and have been stuck there ever since. He missed the point.
General Colin Powell, who was the JCS Chairman during Desert Storm, was asked a couple of years ago if he felt it had been a mistake back in 1991 to not push on to Baghdad. “You know,” he replied, “no one has asked me that question after we did just that in 2003.”
On the political side, about ten years ago I attended a discussion session where the main speaker was former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who had been the Deputy Secretary of State during Desert Storm. After his comments and as the room was clearing, I went up to Eagleburger and told him that in my view he and the entire national security team under President George H. W. Bush had performed fabulously well during Desert Storm. Eagleburger smiled, reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, thanked me and my soldiers for our role, and added with a grin, “Well, one thing’s for sure — we knew when to stop.”
Columnist George Will once commented about the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that it illustrated what happened when, “You give a can-do organization a can’t-do job.” Two centuries earlier, the German military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz articulated his famous dictum that, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” These two concepts should be viewed in tandem. War must have a political objective or, as Clausewitz also noted, it is “a senseless thing without a purpose.” But the political objective has to reduce to achievable military objectives. History is full of examples where such a connection and such a reduction was not clearly or effectively made. All militaries, the United States’ included, can do certain things and do them well. Moreover, they’ll certainly try to do what they’re ordered to do. Replacing political systems, re-ordering societies, and changing perceptions that are centuries old is not among them.
Desert Storm, as orchestrated by President Bush, Secretaries James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, and Generals Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, was “war done well.” The political objective reduced to clear military objectives. The mission was accomplished, and the casualties were few. The next time political leaders pick up the phone and call the Pentagon, the political leaders need to be asked: “What’s the political objective? How long are you willing to pursue this? How great a cost are you willing to pay? And why do you think the military is the best way to achieve your goal?”
The late General Andrew J. Goodpaster, a key aide to the President during the Eisenhower administration, once commented that when Washington policymakers start calling for sending in troops, they need to be asked, “Will the engagement of American soldiers contribute to the overall betterment of the American people?” Goodpaster then stated, “If the answer is yes — we go in. If the answer is no — we don’t go in. If the answer is we don’t know — then come back to see me when you do.” This is a practical, contemporary reduction of the old Clausewitzian construct.