With the commitment to go to war established, the US began the protracted process of obtaining the necessary UN resolutions, as well as rounding up international support. On November 29, 1990, the UN passed Resolution 678, effectively legalising US military action against Iraq, providing Hussein failed to withdraw his troops from Kuwait by a January 15, 1991 deadline. In much of the international community, however, there was an attitude of sceptical reluctance over the issue of US military intervention. It was felt that Iraq’s issues with Kuwait were a Middle Eastern affair, best left to the jurisdiction of the region’s own powers. Why did the US feel compelled to interfere?
The recruitment of international assistance was carried out in a fashion that has by now become all too familiar. In cases where support was not readily granted, the US used coercion by either offering economic assistance or threatening to remove it. So persuasive was the leverage of the world’s most powerful nation that the US went to war with the military support of an additional 33 states. Germany and Japan, unable to supply troops by the dictates of international restrictions, contributed financial assistance instead.
All told the full, combined Coalition deployment of troops in the Gulf War numbered 959,600 – almost three times the number of troops that would be deployed in the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. The troop deployment called upon the support of military hardware including 1,820 combat aircraft, 3,318 tanks and a full naval complement of battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines. It was the largest mass military deployment since the Vietnam War, and far in excess of the forces available to Saddam Hussein. In the build up to the conflict, much was made of the “formidable” capabilities of the Iraqi army, supposedly consisting of 1,000,000 tough and capable troops, “battle hardened” in the Iran – Iraq War. In actual fact, Hussein’s forces had been devastated by Iran. His army by this point consisted of maybe 500,000 troops, the majority of them raw conscripts. By and large, the Iraqi army was ill disciplined, under trained and poorly equipped. It would have no answer for the overwhelming might of the US war machine.
Operation Desert Storm kicked off with a massive and sustained campaign of aerial bombardment. Over the course of the conflict, US combat planes flew approximately 100,000 sorties and dropped 88,500 tons of ordinance on Iraq. It was a carpet bombing on an apocalyptic scale, at a level unheard of since the days of World War II. The destructive capacity of the total ordinance utilised in Desert Storm is estimated to be more than seven times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. In the world media, much was made of the supposed “smart” capabilities of modern bombing technology. Such was the accuracy of modern weapons delivery systems, that bombs could destroy military targets without damage to the surrounding environ, and with minimal civilian casualties. Advanced technology was supposed to have rendered the execution of war a relatively humane affair. In actual fact, less than 7% of the ordinance used in Desert Storm utilised any kind of “smart” technology at all. The rest were simply free falling “dump” bombs, used as indiscriminately as they were in Dresden or Hanoi. Bombs frequently missed their targets and landed in populous areas, causing mass civilian devastation.
No serious attempt was ever made to count the number of Iraqi dead by US authorities, but a comprehensive study conducted by the Medical Educational Trust in London in the aftermath of the war suggests that the number of civilian casualties could have been as high as 15,000. Direct civilian casualties only tell a part of the tale, however. The same study estimates that as many as 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes by the US bombing raids. And many of the targets designated as “militarily viable” were actually crucial to civilian survival. The totality of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure was essentially reduced to rubble under the sustained bombing. Bridges, roads, sewerage disposal systems, power plants, communications networks and industrial and agricultural facilities were all targeted for destruction. The effect was to deprive the civilian population of access to food and medical supplies as well as clean water and health services. Civilian disease and mortality rates skyrocketed in the wake up the Gulf War, remaining at levels described by UN health inspectors as “genocidal” for the next decade, as Iraq struggled to rebuild its devastated infrastructure in the face of sustained economic sanctions.
In response to the air strikes Hussein launched SCUD missiles at Israel, in the hope of luring them into the conflict. Israel’s involvement in the Gulf War would have created friction among the Arab allies of the US. However, the missile attacks caused little in the way of significant damage, and at the request of the US, Israel refrained from rising to the bait and did not attempt to retaliate.
The Western media coverage of the conflict was a curious blend of tightly controlled information and awed reverence for the extent of US military superiority. Perhaps no war in history had received such extensive media coverage, yet so little genuine investigation into the nature of the conflict, or what was actually taking place on the ground. There was a strong feeling of resentment in the US military brass over the perceived role of the media in “costing” the US victory in the Vietnam War. As a result, the media was placed under severe restrictions. Much of the press information actually came from briefings conducted by the military. Only a handful of carefully selected journalists were allowed access to the front lines. Interviews were always conducted in the presence of US military officers. Press reports were subject to a military approval process before release, often involving strict censorship. Stories about journalists actually being beaten up by military personnel for attempting to circumnavigate press restrictions were not unheard of.
For the first time in history, television audiences could actually witness live footage of air craft in mid mission and missiles striking their targets, all from the comfort of their armchairs. But there would be no footage of napalm coated children or charred civilian bodies on the streets of Baghdad, as there was during the Vietnam War. The press coverage became a surreal highlight reel demonstration of the might of the technocratic US war machine. A special effects show of rockets, lights and awesome explosions, totally divorced from the reality of the carnage actually being wrought on the ground. Live updates were available around the clock on cable news carriers such as CNN, but the actual reporting was shallow and inconsequential. The kind of brave and incisive journalism that exposed the horrors of the Vietnam War was almost entirely absent.
By the time the ground campaign was underway – 39 days after the launch of Operation Desert Storm – it almost qualified as an anti-climax. Iraq had already been virtually levelled by the sustained ferocity of the aerial bombardment, and Hussein’s capacity to direct any meaningful response utterly disrupted. Where Coalition forces encountered any resistance at all, it was in loose, scattered pockets. Most of Hussein’s army was already on the run, and simply fled in the face of the oncoming onslaught.
Without much in the way of training, discipline or up to date equipment, cut off from access to supplies and almost entirely lacking in morale or motivation, Iraq’s supposedly “battle hardened army” could only offer up the most feeble and disorganised resistance. The ground campaign essentially became a duck shoot. Little quarter was given, however. On the evening of February 26, when Iraqi forces began departing Kuwait en masse on the main highway north of Al Jahra, the fleeing troops were set upon mercilessly by US fighter aircraft and the column of some 1400 vehicles was utterly destroyed. The highway was rendered a twisting, charred ruin of vaporised vehicles enmeshed with blackened and smoking corpses. Because the assault had come from high altitude aircraft, there was no opportunity for the retreating forces to surrender. And when advancing US forces encountered entrenched Iraqi defences, bulldozer blades were affixed to the front of tanks and the trenches simply ploughed over, burying the defending troops alive.
By February 27, US forces had entered Kuwait City, effectively liberating the nation from Iraq’s occupation. With much of his military in total disarray and US ground forces making headway into Iraqi territory, Hussein had little option but to accept a cease fire arrangement. The war was over. In terms of its pure effectiveness as a military campaign, the Gulf War was a resounding success for the US. The ostensible goal of forcing Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait had been attained, with Coalition forces sustaining a mere 379 casualties. It’s telling that almost half of that figure came from accidents or friendly fire. US military personnel faced as much danger from themselves as they did from Iraqi resistance. The financial cost of the war was largely paid for by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with support from various other nations. The US was only required to foot an aproximate 15 % of the overall $61 billion bill.
Much of the debate in the immediate aftermath of the war, carried on right up until the present day with the current Coalition invasion of Iraq still underway, centred on whether US forces ought to have pushed on into Baghdad and deposed Hussein from power. The decision not to do so, however, was the correct one, and rightly recognised the limits of US military power, whatever technological might it has at its disposal. Hussein’s removal would have unleashed a viper’s nest of conflicting factions divided along religious, ethnic and political grounds, all vying for power. It would have plunged Iraq into a long, messy, complicated and bloody civil war with little hope of a clean resolution. And it would have placed US military forces in the cross fire of a sustained and costly guerrilla war of which they were utterly inequipped to deal with. This, in fact, is precisely what happened in the aftermath of the 2003 Coalition Invasion of Iraq, the repercussions of which the US is still struggling to deal with today. In removing Hussein from power andattempting to exert control of Iraq on the ground, the US ignored all of the advice heeded in the earlier Gulf War, when the top military advisors of George Bush cautioned against it.
The ultimate consequences of the Gulf War were far reaching. Encouraged by CIA sponsored propaganda campaigns, minority Kurds and Shi’a Muslim groups had rebelled against Hussein’s dictatorship in a series of internal uprisings. After the cease fire was negotiated, Hussein regrouped his retreating army and ordered them to crush the rebellion. With the war over, the US abandoned the rebels to their fate, despite earlier promises of support. The result was a mass slaughter, leaving tens of thousands dead. Thousands more attempted to flee over the border. In the aftermath of the liberation, Kuwait expelled some 400,000 Palestinian workers from the country, as a result of PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s vocal support of Hussein during the Gulf War. It was a particularly vengeful and unnecessary act, resulting in mass displacement and human suffering, as the Palestinian workers bore the brunt for a political figurehead’s public comments. Saudi Arabia expelled as many as 100,000 Yemeni workers as punishment for Yemen’s refusal to join the Coalition against Iraq. They also used the opportunity to push anybody else who appeared to be a burden on the state – drug addicts, cripples, beggars and criminals – over the border and into abject conditions in refugee camps.
The widespread use of depleted uranium ammunition (effectively ammunition manufactured from radioactive slag) by US forces was to have a toxic environmental impact on many regions of Iraq, and on the health of their inhabitants. And in the years after the war, thousands of US servicemen would report a conglomerate of debilitating symptoms that became known as “Gulf War Syndrome” – the exact causes of which are yet to be established. Despite a refusal to acknowledge the extent of the problem on the part of the US military, as many as 30% of American servicemen in the Gulf War are thought to have suffered from the condition.
The economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations in the wake of the invasion of Kuwait were sustained for the next 13 years, only lifted on the eve of the 2003 Coalition Invasion of Iraq, by which time they were rendered meaningless in any case. The sanctions involved a near total blockade of trade in or out of Iraq, effectively preventing the nation from restoring its devestated infrastructure or recovering from its drastically depleted economy in the aftermath of the war. The effect this has had on Iraq’s civilian population has been calamitous. Incidents of infant mortality, malnutrition and disease rose dramatically in the post war years, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Two United Nations Humanitarian Coodinators in Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned in succession in protest over the severity of the sanctions. Halliday described the effect of the sanctions on Iraq’s civilian population as being “genocidal”. While the santions were probably intended to weaken Hussein and eventually force him out of power, they actually achieved the opposite effect. Hussein could no longer pose a threat to his neighbours, but he was able to exert a tighter grip on his subdued and impoverished population.
Even then, the UN sanctions were not considered sufficient punishment for the already tormented nation. Beyond the tenure of George Bush and into the years of the Clinton White House administration, the US continued to strike Iraq with sustained bombing campaigns, ostensibly as a result of “no fly zone” violations and failure to comply with UN weapons inspections. The validity of the no fly zones set up in northern Iraq have been called into question, as has the seriousness of the weapons inspection violations, which would appear to be quite minor when compared with the severity of the aerial bombardments carried out in response. From 1993 up until 2001 – the entirety of Clinton’s White House tenure – thousands of tons worth of additional ordinance was deployed against Iraq. Effectively, the nation was bombed into a condition resembling a pre-industrial state during the Gulf War, and then kept there with a combination of UN sanctions and further US military strikes.
Perhaps the most dramatic fallout from the Second Gulf War, however, was the legitimisation of open military intervention in world affairs. Long considered untenable after the dramatic failure of the Vietnam War, full scale conflict in the name of “noble” and “high minded” causes was suddenly back on the agenda for the US Administration, and largely applauded in the Western media. The Gulf War was celebrated as a new kind of conflict, in which battles would be fought and triumphed not out of self interest but in the namesof justice and freedom. Kuwait had been liberated from an evil oppressor, and a malaevolent dictator brought to heel. The atrocity that followed in the wake of the Gulf War was largely devoid of media coverage, and almost totally unknown to the Western public at large. However, the bulk of the devestation and suffering in the War and its aftermath was born by the Iraqi civilian population, innocent victims of the machinations of wider powers. In Bill Clinton’s White House administration that followed shortly afterwards, the new paradigm of “idealised” warfare reached its zenith. Conflicts and military strikes were launched across the globe, in Somali, the former Yugoslavian states, Iraq and Sudan. Ostensibly in the name of “high minded” causes and out of a refined sense of “liberal values”, in reality masking an agenda of self interest. The White House and its allies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere congratulated themselves on their heightened moral sensibilites, while the corpses stacked up and cities burned.
Was there ever a just cause for US intervention in the Second Gulf War? Perhaps. But only after all of the diplomatic channels and other available avenues had been exhausted. They were not. The decision to go to war was a nakedly aggressive one, and once the decision had been taken, the full force of political, public and media manipulation was applied to manufacture consent. However successfully the military campaign was managed, and it was an overwhelming victory for the US and its allies, the war ultimately accomplished very little. It was a war to maintain the status quo of the Middle East: a bitterly divided region struggling to define itself in the emerging modern world, victimised and eternally disrupted by the repeated meddling of foreign powers. Iraq’s civilian population suffered calamitous consequences, with the torment of what has surely become one of the most tortured nations on the face of the planet still without respite today, 19 years after the Second Gulf War began.
This the final installment of a 3 part overview of the 2nd Gulf War.
Part 1 can be viewed here.
Part 2 can be viewed here.