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#1 The Mother of All Battles, part 1
The first part of a meditation on the Gulf War.
Thirty years ago today, in the dead of night, a small force of US Army and US Air Force helicopters snuck over the Iraqi-Saudi border. Task Force Normandy consisted of eight US Army AH-64 Apache gunships (with a ninth as backup), a UH-60 Black Hawk for combat rescue if needed, and, leading the unit, two US Air Force MH-53 Pave Low special ops helicopters. Normandy’s mission was to destroy Iraqi radar sites close to the Saudi border. One of the Apache pilots, 1st Lt. Tom Drew, announced the firing of the first shots of Operation Desert Storm with the words “Party in ten” - this meant the Apaches’ Hellfire missiles had been launched and would strike their targets in ten seconds. The Iraqis were taken by surprise and both the targeted radar sites were destroyed, allowing a force of Air Force EF-111A Ravens and F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters to fly to the Iraqi capital without threat of early detection. That night they opened the Coalition’s bombing campaign with attacks on targets in downtown Baghdad.
From the start of the campaign, the media made much of the technological wizardry deployed by the Coalition forces - in particular the ability of ‘smart’ weapons to take out urban military targets, or destroy infrastructure, while leaving any surrounding civilian buildings intact. Grainy black and white videos showing the pov of laser-guided bombs as they plummeted down chimneys and through skylights became a regular source of entertainment on news programmes the world over. One much-replayed clip showed one very lucky Iraqi crossing a bridge in a truck, seconds before the structure was obliterated in a massive explosion.
All of this fetishisation of technology is of course very familiar to us in the 2020s, and what I’ll argue in these posts is that the Gulf War anticipated - one might even say foreshadowed - many aspects of the predicament we find ourselves in today.
That echo of the Second World War in Task Force Normandy’s name was surely no accident. Ever since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the Western media, taking their cues from the White House and the Pentagon, had made every effort to portray the Iraqi strongman as ‘another Hitler’, a grave threat to world peace and stability. The comparisons were a little dubious - Saddam’s challenge to the global order could never be on the same level as Hitler’s. Granted, at the time Hussein commanded the fourth-largest army in the world and was in control of one tenth of the world’s oil supply. Yet even those advantages were unlikely to be sufficient to tip the balance in his favour, for the simple reason that the region’s desert terrain, those vast expanses of windblown emptiness, massively favoured the better-trained and technologically far superior forces the United States and its allies could potentially field.
Did Saddam reckon with a strong military response from the West? Possibly - it may be that Saddam thought major military intervention, led by the United States, was likely, but reckoned that however much punishment his forces were likely to take in the first few days and weeks of hostilities, they would still inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and their allies, sufficient to make them lose the political will to continue fighting. Alternatively, he may have fully expected to lose badly, but with the awareness that merely taking on the United States would earn him huge cachet in the Arab world, where the culture of martyrdom would ensure he and his devastated army would be celebrated regardless.
In any case, it soon became clear President George H W Bush was sending men and materiel to the Gulf on a vast scale (incidentally, the trip-hop band Massive Attack changed their name to ‘Massive’ for a time from early to mid 91, on the advice of their manager - he believed the outfit would find it hard to get radio airtime otherwise). Hussein played up the bloody clash that looked to be in the offing, pre-emptively calling it ‘the mother of all battles’. Most military experts saw through this hyperbole, well aware the Coalition’s state-of-the-art weaponry was highly likely to make short work of the Iraqi Army in a matter of months, if not weeks. What was less clear was whether Saddam had chemical or biological weapons in his arsenal, and if so, whether he would be so reckless as to use them.
During the build-up of Coalition forces - Operation Desert Shield, the ostensible aim of which was to protect Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf nations from further aggression - Bush and other Western politicians were fond of saying Hussein had ‘miscalculated’: the word, and the frequency with which they used it, revealed their belief that Saddam thought in a manner as simple, as straightforward and as Western as they did. The notion that Saddam might be intending to make a blood sacrifice of his forces in order to not only remain in power, but to even strengthen his position as dictator of Iraq - in all likelihood this never occured to them.
No doubt mindful of the public relations disaster that Vietnam had turned into, the Pentagon, in collaboration with the media, resolved to convince Western publics that the Gulf War, once it was underway in earnest, was a largely bloodless affair, thanks to the miracle of modern Western technical know-how and arms. And for the most part they succeeded.
Firstly, there were hardly any casualties on the Coalition side, so that aspect was taken care of (the casualties of Gulf War Syndrome notwithstanding, but nobody had any inkling of that at the time). The ‘humane’ aspect of the wonder-weapons was emphasised, and once the ground war was underway there was much fanfare surrounding the news that some Iraqi units were surrendering or fleeing. What were kept quiet at the time were less pleasant events like the massacre on the highway from Kuwait City to Basra, which became known as ‘the highway of death’. Coalition pilots caught thousands of Iraqis fleeing for home in vehicles of every description, military and civilian. The result was a turkey shoot, and the aftermath was grim: charred cars, trucks and bodies littered the highway for mile after mile.
It should’ve been obvious that the bloodless war was a delusion, and the fact that it wasn’t shows just how strong a hold millennarian fantasy has always had on the modern Western mind. People wanted to believe the West had advanced so far that an entirely new, humane way of waging war was now possible. In a sense they were happy to be duped.
How did the military establishment pull it off? Well for one thing, it had learnt a key lesson from Vietnam: in a major war the press and the television networks needed to be kept on a tight leash. The desert theater helped facilitate that. Journalists were attached to units and travelled with them - they could hardly have done otherwise even if they’d had the option to, such was the nature of the terrain and the style of warfare. In complete contrast to Vietnam, there were very few up-close-and-dirty encounters with Saddam’s forces. Action happened at a distance, and often at night - without nightvision goggles all there was to be seen during these battles was a confusion of tracer bullets. Journos were left almost entirely dependent on their military hosts for information and video footage. Obviously no independent and objective reporting was going to occur under these circumstances: a foretaste of how the media would operate as a matter of routine a couple of decades later.
That concludes part one. In part two I’ll consider further the various ways in which the Gulf War anticipated our own time, and the relationship we now ‘enjoy’ with technology and the media.