1991 GULF WAR 24 Feb 2003

The lead from an old MSNC.com article linked to on today’s story page:

NEW YORK, Jan. 6 – The Gulf War is remembered as a walkover by many Americans – a late 20th-century blitzkrieg. In reality, the U.S. military had a legion of troubles in the 1990-91 conflict, many of which caused unnecessary deaths to allied troops and Iraqi civilians alike. Other tragedies were averted merely by luck or Iraqi incompetence.

First of all, the Gulf War WAS a walkover. Even the French put up more of a fight in ’40 than the Iraqis did in ’91. Even the FRENCH, for Pete’s sake. Forget air power and “smart” weapons for a moment. The large-scale ground engagements with the vaunted Republican Guard, like Medina Ridge and 73 Easting, demonstrated the superiority of our men, equipment, and tactics. Those particular Iraqis were well-trained, reasonably well-equipped, and very willing to fight. But they didn’t have a prayer against our army. Probably never in history has there been a large war so one-sided. To tell it differently is dishonest revisionism and an insult to the men (and women) who planned the operations and carried them out. (In fairness, the article itself isn’t all that bad, and it brings up many good points. Check it out. But the overall mood of the piece really irritates me. “Merely by luck” indeed!)

There WAS a “legion” of troubles, of course. Name a military campaign without one. But to magnify those troubles, to put the friendly fire incidents in the spotlight while minimizing the courageous victories on the battlefield, and to attribute averted tragedies to “luck” and “Iraqi incompetence” is unfair and misleading.

Friendly fire is, of course, a real problem. That will probably never change. It always has been an issue, much more so since the start of the 20th century and the invention of more efficient ranged killing machines like automatic weapons, farther-reaching and more deadly artillery, and aerial bombs. It takes just a split second for mistaken identity, itchy trigger fingers, or just plain bad judgment to cause a “blue-on-blue.” Also, the uniforms and vehicles of so many armies are so very similar in appearance, and the window of opportunity to win an encounter is so very short. The decision to fire or not fire has to made in milliseconds, and the weapons are incredibly lethal. (SARCASTIC COMMENT: Maybe if we dressed our troops in bright red uniforms, lined them up in neat, tightly-packed formations, and announced our approach with drums, bugles, and flags, we’d be sure not to shoot our own guys. It almost worked for the Brits in the 70’s, didn’t it? Oh, wait, that was the 1770’s.) New technology like thermal sights and night-vision goggles gives us an incredible advantage over foes without such devices, but telling those foes from our friends through them can be very difficult. And calling in air support for troops on the ground will inevitably end up getting some of your own guys hit if you’re in close proximity to the enemy. Which is exactly when immediate air support is the most critical. I don’t think many guys on the ground would be willing to give up close air support due to the risk of friendly fire.

One reason why friendly fire made such headlines during the Iraq war is that the Iraqis weren’t killing very many of our troops. Because the Gulf War was a walkover. The percentage of American deaths from friendly fire was so high not because we were particularly careless, but because we suffered, in military terms, pretty insignificant combat losses. The largest single incident of Iraqi-caused death was that Scud (in fact the Iraqis heavily modified the Scuds they bought, but whatever) hit on that barracks where we lost (I think) 28 people killed. Apologies to the family and friends of those lost that night, but 28 is nothing compared to the first few seconds of the cross-channel attack in Normandy, 1944.

Critics are quick to point out that the Patriot missiles that were supposed to be defending the area where that barracks was located couldn’t lock on to the incoming missile. I’ve got two things to say about that: 1) The Patriot is not an anti-missile system. It is an anti-aircraft system. Software and equipment upgrades have enabled it to engage incoming ballistic missiles with some success, but that isn’t the job that it was designed for. It’s primary mission is to shoot down enemy airplanes that threaten the area. Every victory over a Scud (and there weren’t as many as we were initially told) was pure icing. New, truly anti-missile versions of the Patriot are now available and are mentioned in the article. 2) One of the main reasons that the Patriot battery couldn’t lock on was that the Scud FELL APART during flight. I’ve heard that the particular battery in question was lacking the latest brand-new software patch that may have helped some, but the targeting system simply couldn’t distinguish between the warhead and the wreckage of the missile. Unwittingly, the Iraqis developed a ballistic missile with radar decoys. Combined with the advanced, real-time “CNN targeting system” (“Quick, tune in to Headline News and see where it hit!”) Saddam had a real war-winner. We sure were “lucky” there, weren’t we? That was a “tragedy” caused by, not averted by, “Iraqi incompetence.”

As for the Iraqi civilians, I’d hesitate to say our “legion” of troubles led to many unnecessary deaths. At least unnecessary Iraqi deaths. The trouble and expense we went to in order to avoid civilian casualties put our fliers more in harm’s way and probably spared many Iraqi combatants and military assets housed in (or under) civilian buildings. Everything’s relative, but compare Baghdad in 1991 to London, Dresden, and Tokyo (or Nagasaki) in the 1940’s and tell me our “troubles” in Iraq led to unnecessary civilian deaths.

Another war in Iraq almost certainly won’t be as easy or as quick as it was in 1991. If a large number of troops stay loyal to Saddam (and I’ve got trouble buying that droves of them will simply drop their guns the minute the shooting starts) there could possibly be savage fighting in the streets of Baghdad and Basra and in the hills and caves of the harsh Iraq landscape. That will be messy and expensive. If Iraq possesses the weapons of mass destruction that we think they do, and they choose to use them this time, the losses could be catastrophic. I’m praying that the biggest problems we have are friendly fire and failures to shoot down a couple of conventionally armed Scud-type missiles. Regardless, if Iraq won’t change its ways, its ways need to be changed for them. This won’t be the last time we’re in the position of trying to disarm lawless, rogue forces with no regard for society or morality.

But whatever happens, it won’t change what our military (and nation in general) earned in 1990 and 1991. It won’t change the fact that we PASTED the Iraqi military. When the shooting started, Saddam had the 4th largest army in the world. Two months later he only had the 2nd largest army in Iraq. We won, we won big, and we won because our men and machines were just that much better than the enemy’s. They still are. It’s something to be proud of. America and its allies won that incredible victory because we spent and we planned and we trained to win it. The 1991 Gulf War was a walkover. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.


  1. 1) The Patriot is not an anti-missile system. It is an anti-aircraft system. Software and equipment upgrades have enabled it to engage incoming ballistic missiles with some success, but that isn’t the job that it was designed for.’ That’s sort of true, and sort of not true. I believe (but am not sure) that the original, original design was for an anti-aircraft system. However, before the system was actually built, the customers (US Army I think?) specified that it needed to have the ability to engage small, low-flying targets (cruise missiles) and some limited tactical anti-ballistic missile capabilities. Tactical meaning Scud/Al-hussein/etc. not ICBMs. During the development, they found adapting it to be used in the ABM role was difficult, but that cruise missiles were OK because they’re basically just small aircraft, so as long as the radar is powerful enough and sensitive enough to pick them up and the missiles are pretty accurate and powerful it works fine against them. So, the Patriot went into the field with very limited ABM capabilities in order to avoid delaying the project any more. After all, it did very well in the other roles, why not deploy it and work on the ABM capabilities later? So yes, it was supposed to have ABM capabilities (although I bet that was specified after the design was almost complete and the contractrs just said ‘yes, we can do that too’). However, in its original state it had almost no hope of intercepting a ballistic missile. Later, software upgrades were made to improve this capability. They were rushed into service with the start of the [n]th Gulf War. So in effect, the war was a test of those capabilities. They were supposed to have been properly tested first but there was no time. It’s pretty hard to criticise that a system which is being ‘tested’ is a failure, especially if it has some success. I think the problem is that nobody told the media at the time what was really going on. I’m sure they would have made a big fuss so that’s kind of understandable. As a result of these tests, software upgrades have been made, and also the decision was made to upgrade the missile and also bring in the new, smaller PAC-3 missile which is more maneuverable and is therefore better able to engage very fast (i.e. ballistic missile) targets. It’s shorter range but since missiles are flying towards you from above that isn’t too much of a problem. (Aircraft are another issue). I don’t have insider information but the above is what I’ve pieced together from a number of accounts, many of them coming from the Army.