#5 The Mother of All Battles, part 3
At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992)1
Late January 1991. In all likelihood many in the 24,000-strong Marine decoy force were watching the war unfold on CNN while they idled away their hours on board their ships.2 What purpose did the top brass have in mind, keeping these men afloat in those warm Gulf waters? That of making Saddam Hussein believe an amphibious assault was in the offing, and thus forcing him to commit a substantial portion of his forces (this turned out to be between 60,000 and 80,000 men) to the defence of the Kuwaiti shoreline, weakening his defensive line along the border with Saudi Arabia, where the actual Coalition ground offensive was to take place. But Saddam clearly felt this was not enough to protect his coastal flank, so he took further steps.
Toward the end of January massive amounts of Kuwaiti oil began to spill into the Persian Gulf, the result of a deliberate act of sabotage on the part of the occupying Iraqi army, one that may have been intended to prevent that much-feared amphibious assault. Each day for a week, Kuwait’s Sea Island Oil Terminal spilled between 70,000 and 80,000 tons of crude into the sea.3 As a defensive measure it likely wouldn’t have been enough, if push came to shove, to hold the Marines at bay. But maybe that wasn’t ‘the madman of the Middle East’s’ primary aim anyway? With this act of gross ecological vandalism Saddam seemed to be expressing his snearing contempt for his enemies. Not only was it a symbolic slaying of the new Western sacred cow, the environment4, it also drew specific attention to the oil, that black gold—as if to say, We all know why you’re really here. Throughout the war there was a marked contrast between Saddam Hussein’s contemptuous, sarcastic, and largely ineffective (in purely military terms) actions and the dispassionate, clinical and war-winning rationalism of the Coalition. This contrast contributed to the Gulf War being perceived as a simple struggle between good and evil, which is certainly how I saw it as a naïve 14-year-old entranced by the stealth fighters and smart bombs, the cruise missiles and night-vision cameras. And of course it was exactly the view of the conflict the US and its allies wanted the world to have.
A few weeks after the sabotaging of the oil terminal Saddam ordered his men to set the Kuwaiti oil wells alight, as if to drive home that point about what the Coalition had really gone to war over. In early February US satellites detected the first black smoke plumes; after two weeks so many wells were burning that the plumes had become vast, drifting over hundreds of square kilometres of desert. As with the deliberate oil spill, this sabotage was likely carried out for military as well as for symbolic purposes: the thick smoke could screen the now-retreating Iraqi army, hindering the use of laser-guided missiles and bombs and frustrating efforts to observe the battlefield with spy satellites.
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