It was a nasty fight with grandiose operational names (Desert Shield and Desert Storm), but the 1990–91 Gulf War was America’s post-Vietnam catharsis—the first large-scale conflict the nation had won since evacuating Saigon. It was also a demonstration of General Colin Powell’s doctrine of having a clear objective, assessing the risks, ensuring widespread support, and using overwhelming force to end the conflict as quickly as possible.
All that was accomplished, but did America achieve victory? The enemy went home and regrouped, just to rehash the conflict a dozen years later. The U.S. objective had been clear— kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait— but the job was left unfinished.
The war began when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, claiming that the Kuwaitis were stealing Iraqi oil through slant drilling, and that Kuwait—a region arbitrarily split off by the British after World War I—was actually an Iraqi province. The United States jumped in to defend Kuwaiti sovereignty but more so its own oil interests in both Kuwait and its threatened ally Saudi Arabia, unleashing a six-month bombing and Tomahawk-missile campaign against Baghdad and Iraqi defenses.
At 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1991, the ground portion of the war began with a coalition armor advance from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait. Much of the force attacked straight into Kuwait, but an entire corps shifted 135 miles to the west, planning to hook around behind Saddam’s forces and trap his Republican Guard.
Two iconic scenes from Operation Desert Storm resonate through the decades. One is the sky completely blackened by the 700 Kuwaiti oil wells the retreating Iraqis torched. The other is the utter destruction along Highway 80, which came to be known as the Highway of Death—the six-lane superslab running from Kuwait City to the border with Iraq.
When Saddam’s military lost control of the situation within Kuwait, the highway quickly filled with vehicles heading back toward Iraq, and coalition aircraft pounced. Yet of the estimated 1,900 vehicles bombed and gunned on Highways 80 and 8 (which continued from the border to Basra, Iraq), only about 2 percent were tanks or armored personnel carriers. The rest were buses, trucks, tractor-trailers, farm vehicles, stolen Kuwaiti luxury cars and anything else that could carry loot and desperate Iraqis. They were fleeing, not fighting.
Armor needs air cover. Without an air force to protect them, Iraqi vehicles were sitting ducks. To the dismay of the brass, who didn’t want the job to sound so heartless, coalition pilots began referring to their operations as “tank plinking.”
Don’t let public opinion trump strategic aims. The devastating air assault paved the Highway of Death with vehicles and charred bodies, so President George H.W. Bush ended hostilities, fearing further attacks would be perceived as simple slaughter. Thus Saddam withdrew to Baghdad with the cream of his army intact.
Don’t let a moral crusade morph into a PR problem. If Saddam was the Hitler that Bush so vividly painted, why did the coalition leave him in power?
Don’t assume enemy self-correction. Planners widely thought Saddam’s officers would depose him for having made a hash of the war, and that the U.S. would only need to oversee the transition to a friendlier despot. Never happened.
Desert warfare is for the strong. It awards logisticians who can support forces over long distances, provides the enemy no hiding place, frees the tactician from the constraints of linear warfare, allows airpower the freest rein and turns withdrawal into rout.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.