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Crusade
The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War

By Rick Atkinson
Houghton Mifflin Company, 520pp. $16

   
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Chapter One: First Night

U.S.S. Wisconsin, Persian Gulf

Dark tubes of water peeled back from the battleship's prow, curling along her hull before fanning symmetrically east and west toward the horizons. Watchstanders on the bridge peered fore and aft, checking the navigation lights of the other warships sailing with her at six-mile separations: red to port, green to starboard. Overhead, stars jammed the moonless sky with such intensity that they seemed to hang just beyond the upper poke of Wisconsin's superstructure.

The crew stood at general quarters. Earlier in the day -- Wednesday, January 16, 1991 -- they had scrubbed the teak deck, scoured the gutters, polished the brass fittings, and swept the corridors. Under Condition Zebra, all watertight doors were latched shut. In the officers' mess, seamen had lifted the ship's silver punch bowl from a glass display case and stowed it in a wooden crate. Even the trash was collected, the bags then punched with holes -- so that they would sink and not be mistaken for mines -- and heaved overboard. Over the public address system, the Roman Catholic chaplain absolved the crew of sin, then hurried to his office for a box of plastic rosaries and a flask of oil to use in anointing the dying. Now Wisconsin waited for war with dreadnought forbearance, silent except for the throb of her four great screws turning beneath the fantail.

Below decks, in the soft blue light of the ship's Strike Warfare Center, thirty men prepared the battleship for combat. In contrast to the tranquillity above, tension filled the crowded room. Electronic warfare specialists listened on their headsets for the telltale emissions of attacking enemy aircraft or missiles. Other sailors manned the radios, the computer consoles controlling Wisconsin's Harpoon antiship missiles, and a dozen other battle stations. A large video screen overhead displayed the radar blips of vessels crossing the central gulf; a smaller screen showed the charted positions of Wisconsin and her sister ships, plotted and replotted by a navigation team.

In the center of Strike the battleship's skipper, Captain David S. Bill, perched in his high-backed padded chair. Although he occasionally glanced at the screens above, the captain's attention was largely fixed on the men clustered around four computers lining the far bulkhead. Something had gone awry with the ship's Tomahawk missile system.

Lieutenant Guy Zanti, Wisconsin's missile officer, leaned over a crewman sitting at one of the consoles. "The launch side still won't accept the data," the sailor said glumly. He tapped his keyboard and pointed to the green message that popped onto the monitor. "See, it says `inventory error.'" Zanti nodded, his forehead furrowed in concentration. Now not only Captain Bill but everyone else in Strike turned to watch the lieutenant and his missile crew.

For nearly six months, Wisconsin had prepared for this moment. Five days after the invasion of Kuwait, she had weighed anchor from Norfolk, Virginia, quickly steaming through the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal to arrive on station off the Saudi coast on August 24. As Gulf Papa, the coordinator of Tomahawk launches from the Persian Gulf, Wisconsin was responsible for the seven warships that would shoot an initial salvo of four dozen missiles from the gulf. The targets and their ten-digit authorization codes had arrived with a tinkling of teletype bells just after sunset on January 16. A half-dozen officers and crewmen spent the evening drafting instructions for the other shooters, carefully choreographing their movements so that each ship would steam into the proper launch basket at the correct time. Wisconsin would fire first in half an hour; her initial Tomahawk was scheduled to rocket from the gray launcher box at 1:37 Thursday morning for the ninety-minute flight to Baghdad.

But now Gulf Papa faced imminent failure. For reasons no one in Strike could fathom, the Tomahawk computers seemed confused, refusing to transfer the necessary commands from the engagement planning console to the launch console. The resulting impasse -- "casualty," in Navy jargon -- meant the missiles could not be fired.

Again the missile crew ran through the launch procedures. All switches were properly flattened, all electrical connections secure. The console operator reloaded the software program and tried once more. Again the infuriating message popped onto the screen: "Inventory error." Still the captain seemed unfazed, as though this was just another repeat of Nemean Lion, the Tomahawk launch exercises -- named for the mythical beast slain by Hercules as the first of his twelve labors -- that the Navy had practiced before the war. But disquiet spread through the crowded room; one officer's jerky motions and rising voice grew agitated. "Keep your head together," Lieutenant Zanti snapped. "Let's think the problem through."

Failure here, they all knew, would be very bad, not only for the war plan but for the Navy. Skepticism about the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, or TLAM, was rampant in the military, even among some naval officers. Although more than a hundred missiles had been fired in exercises -- including one recently shot from the Pacific at a target in Nevada -- none had flown in combat. The closest a Tomahawk had come to being fired in anger was in August 1989, when the United States edged to within hours of attacking Hezbollah camps in Lebanon after the kidnapers of Joseph Cicippio threatened to execute the hostage.

Perhaps the greatest -- certainly the ranking -- skeptic was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Alternately fascinated by and distrustful of the weapon, General Colin Powell in October had warned Norman Schwarzkopf's chief targeteer, "I don't give a damn if you shoot every TLAM, the Navy's got, they're still not worth a shit. Any target you intend to destroy with the TLAM, put a fighter on it to make sure the target's destroyed." Tomahawk's role in the attack planning had grown and diminished along with prevailing military confidence in the weapon. The Navy had finally pulled together eight years of test data, sketched a diagram of a baseball diamond, and vowed that if the target was the pitching rubber, the overwhelming majority of warheads would detonate within the perimeter of the base paths, even after a five-hundred-mile journey.

Yet other complications persisted. The gray steel boxes housing the missiles topside contained secrets to which few men were privy. One secret -- which would remain classified even after the war -- was the route the Tomahawks would fly to Baghdad. The missile's navigation over land was determined by terrain-contour matching, a technique by which readings from a radar altimeter were continuously compared with land elevations on a digitized map drawn from satellite images and stored in the missile's computer. Broken country -- mountains, valleys, bluffs -- was required for the missile to read its position and avoid "clobbering," plowing into the ground.

For shooters from the Red Sea, the high desert of western Iraq was sufficiently rugged. But for Wisconsin and other ships firing from the Persian Gulf, most of southeastern Iraq and Kuwait was hopelessly flat. After weeks of study, only one suitable route was found for Tomahawks from the gulf: up the rugged mountains of western Iran, followed by a left turn across the border and into the Iraqi capital. Navy missile planners in Hawaii and Virginia mapped the routes and programmed the weapons. They also seeded the missiles' software with a "friendly virus" that scrambled much of the sensitive computer coding during flight in case a clobbered Tomahawk fell into unfriendly hands. A third set of Tomahawks, carried aboard ships in the Mediterranean, were assigned routes across the mountains of Turkey and eastern Syria.

Not until a few days before the war was to begin, however, had the White House and National Security Council suddenly realized that war plans called for dozens and perhaps hundreds of missiles to fly over Turkey, Syria, and Iran, the last a nation chronically hostile to the United States. President Bush's advisers had been flabbergasted. ("Look," Powell declared during one White House meeting, "I've been showing you the flight lines for weeks. We didn't have them going over white paper!") After contemplating the alternative-scrubbing the Tomahawks and attacking their well-guarded targets with piloted aircraft -- Bush assented to the Iranian overflight. Tehran would not be told of the intrusion. But on Sunday night, January 13, Bush prohibited Tomahawk launches from the eastern Mediterranean; neither the Turks nor the Syrians had agreed to American overflights, and the president considered Turkey in particular too vital an ally to risk offending.

Now it was the Navy's turn to be surprised. Again communications broke down: planners on the Navy flagship U.S.S. Blue Ridge learned of the White House prohibition less than four hours before the first launch was to take place. With frantic haste the Blue Ridge planners cut new orders, redistributing the Mediterranean shooters' targets to ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, thus increasing the workload of each task force by a third.

On Wisconsin, where the scheduled launch time was now just moments away, the men in Strike were running out of solutions. "All right," Lieutenant Zanti announced, "we'll start from the beginning." The data for the eight Wisconsin shots -- three pages of detailed coding for each missile -- would be retyped into the computer. The task was tedious and time-consuming. He turned to Captain Bill and the ship's weapons officer.

"Sir, we need to ask for more time," Zanti told Bill. "If we don't get an extension, we can't shoot."

The captain agreed. As the request flashed up the chain of command to Blue Ridge, an excited voice from one of Gulf Papa's nearby shooters crackled through Strike over the radio intercom: "Alpha, alpha. This is the Paul F. Foster. Happy trails."

Happy trails: the code phrase for missile away. The war had begun without Wisconsin. Deep within the battleship the missilemen labored over their keyboards, clicking furiously.

Ar Ar, Saudi Arabia

Barely seventy-five feet above the dark Nafud, one of Saudi Arabia's three great deserts, the helicopters pushed toward the border in a line as straight as monks filing to vespers. A gap precisely five rotor discs' wide separated each aircraft from the next. Two Air Force Pave Lows stuffed with sophisticated navigation gear led as pathfinders, followed by four Army Apaches, laden with rockets and missiles and extra fuel tanks.

Frigid night air gushed into the lead Apache. The pilot, Warrant Officer Thomas R. (Tip) O'Neal, fumbled with the heating controls. The flapper valves on the helicopter's filtration system seemed to be wedged open, apparently jammed with sand. As O'Neal pressed a gloved hand against the vent, his co-pilot, Warrant Officer David A. Jones, came on the intercom from the back seat. "Tip, you see that glow off to the north? That might be it."

O'Neal scanned the horizon through his night-vision goggles. The headset had two protruding lenses that amplified the ambient starlight to give even the darkest landscape a crepuscular definition. He saw it now, a hazy splotch far ahead. But they were still twelve miles south of the border -- they'd just skirted the Saudi town of Ar Ar -- and the target lay another thirty miles into Iraq.

Abruptly O'Neal's goggles flushed with light, like small starbursts blooming around the helicopter. "What the fuck is that?" he called.

Jones, now concentrating on the Apache's infrared scope, which registered heat emanations rather than visible light, saw nothing. "What? What?"

"That!" O'Neal insisted. "Down there! God!" He pushed the goggles up, his naked eyes straining through the darkness. Machine gun fire poured from the Pave Low just in front of them. Two streams of bullets slanted down and beneath the Apache. "Don't worry about it, Dave," he said with relief. "It's just the Pave Low clearing its guns."

Three helicopters back, in the trail Apache dubbed Rigor Mortis, Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cody knew better. He had clearly seen the first burst of fire from below, followed by a missile streaking just abeam of the line of aircraft. "Jeez, Brian," Cody called to his co-pilot, "did you see that?" The gunfire had come either from nervous Saudis or, more likely, an Iraqi commando patrol aiming at the rotor noise. After the brief retaliatory burst from the Pave Low, the shooting stopped. The helicopters pressed on at 120 knots.

Cody was not by nature a reflective man. Commander of the 101st Airborne Division's attack helicopter battalion, he was a creature of action and instinct, an aggressive pilot with fifteen years' flying experience. But he had occasionally wondered in the past four months whether he had oversold himself for this operation.

The mission planning had begun in late September, when Cody first met with Schwarzkopf's special operations commander, a grizzled Army colonel named Jesse Johnson. Here's the problem, Johnson had explained with conspiratorial zest: in the first minutes of the war, the Air Force intended to destroy Scud missile launchers threatening Israel from western Iraq. But Iraqi air defenses wove such a tight belt around the country's perimeter that bombers would be detected by radar as they crossed the border, providing as much as twenty minutes' warning before the American attack.

If two or three radar sites were destroyed and a keyhole cut through the warning net, the Air Force could strike before the Iraqis had time to defend themselves or launch their Scuds. (A smaller wave of F-117 stealth fighters, essentially invisible to radar, would angle toward Baghdad without the need for such assistance.) The options, Johnson added, included hitting the radars with Air Force bombers, striking with Special Forces troops on the ground, or attacking with Apaches.

Jesse Johnson believed helicopters were best suited to the task, but he wanted guarantees. In April 1980 he had commanded the security force for Operation Eagle Claw, the catastrophic attempt to rescue American hostages in Tehran. Nearly half the helicopters had malfunctioned on that mission, and eight men died when a helicopter collided with a fuel-laden C-130- "In any career you can only afford one time to be waiting in the desert for helicopters," Johnson told Cody. "I've already checked that block. We have to have one hundred percent success."

One hundred percent success. The phrase had haunted Cody for months. Schwarzkopf had shown keen personal interest in the mission, at one point -- his alarmed subordinates reported -- even flinging his glasses in anger after a misunderstanding about precisely who would be crossing into Iraq and when. Clearly, having the raiding party shot down on the Saudi border was not what Johnson or the CINC had in mind.

Cody had tried to anticipate every possible flaw in the plan, which now involved destroying two linked radar outposts twenty miles apart. After picking eight Apache crews for his strike force, Cody divided them into two teams, Red and White, and matched them to the targets. To double the flying time of his helicopters, he halved the number of rockets they would carry and installed an external fuel tank -- to the chagrin of pilots leery of the 1500-pound gasoline bomb now bolted to each aircraft's belly. To gauge the reliability of Hellfire missiles, he test-fired a dozen at a fleet of old Saudi school buses, reducing the vehicles to a heap of springs and blackened chassis. To rehearse the plan, he scrutinized satellite photos, built a sand-table model of the targets, and made his pilots explain each and every detail of the attack.

On January 13, Cody and his men had flown far to the west, to their staging base at Al Jouf. This morning at 12:56, Team Red lifted off and headed northwest toward its target, code-named Nebraska. Seven minutes later Team White lifted off with Cody in trail, angling northeast toward target Oklahoma. Cody's orders were to destroy both Nebraska and Oklahoma at precisely 2:38 A.M. That meant having at least eight missiles in the air simultaneously at two locations separated by twenty miles of desert.

Cody checked his watch: just after 2 A.M. The border now lay well behind them. The attack plan called for the Pave Lows to lead the Team White Apaches northeast of the target, as if -- should the raiders be spotted -- they'd seem to be angling toward an Iraqi armored unit in that direction.

With languid deliberation the Pave Lows swung left in a lazy arc, pointing directly toward the target and dropping almost to the desert floor to mask their movement in the ground clutter. The bright haze from the Iraqi radar compound grew more vivid now, looming just over the horizon.

Two green bundles of chemical sticks tumbled from the Pave Lows, shimmering below like small piles of radium. The signal meant they were 12.5 miles from the target, close enough for the Apaches to find their own way; the Pave Lows hovered for a moment as if in silent salute, then peeled south toward Saudi Arabia.

The Apache pilots updated their navigation systems and began their final stalk. At nine kilometers out, Cody and his wingman moved up on the right. Jones and O'Neal shifted left in battle-spread formation. Four abreast, the helicopters flew toward the waiting glow in the west.

Riyadh

The city was braced for war. Masking tape cross-hatched the smoked windows of apartment houses and government offices. Saudi soldiers on street corners crouched inside their sandbag bunkers, alternately fingering worry beads and the triggers of their machine guns. In the royal palace, King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz waited with the appropriate anxiety of a monarch whose throne has just been tossed on the gaming table. He had learned of the imminent allied attack from his nephew and ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who called from Washington with a coded message: "Our old friend Suleiman is coming at nine o'clock this evening. He's sick and I'll ship him out, and he'll get there at nine." As Fahd and Bandar had arranged, the king added six to the hour to calculate H-hour: 3 A.M. At midnight Fahd mustered his closest ministers -- not an unusual summons for the nocturnal Saudis -- and commanded that no one leave his sight until the first bombs fell.

Yet the center of the kingdom this night was not the palace but a cramped bunker, barely bigger than a tennis court, forty feet beneath the concrete fortress of the Ministry of Defense and Aviation. The select few authorized to enter rode an elevator down three flights, passed through two checkpoints and several steel vault doors, then walked down a fourth flight to the fluorescent netherworld of Norman Schwarzkopf's war room.

It was sparely furnished, stripped to fighting trim. Maps papered the four walls. A pair of television monitors, linked by closed circuit to the operations center next door, listed significant intelligence or combat actions under way. Three clocks told the hour in Riyadh, Washington, and Greenwich (known as Zulu time). Staff officers manned a horseshoe arrangement of desks behind a rectangular table where the senior American commanders sat.

Lieutenant General Calvin A.H. Waller leaned back in his brown leather chair, slightly smaller than Schwarzkopf's black leather throne -- now vacant -- on his immediate left. The CINC was never one to bungle an entrance, Waller knew. He would be here in due time, probably with a flourish befitting the occasion. Other officers began to enter the room, each bringing a fresh charge of tension. Waller had no doubt that the allies would win, but at what cost? He considered losses of ten to twenty allied aircraft likely tonight; others feared fifty.

Waller again scanned operations order 91-001, dated 17 January 1991. Allied objectives in the coming war had been boiled down to a single sentence: "Attack Iraqi political-military leadership and command-and-control; gain and maintain air superiority; sever Iraqi supply lines; destroy chemical, biological, and nuclear capability; destroy Republican Guard forces in the Kuwaiti Theater; liberate Kuwait." There it was, in thirty-four words. Unlike Vietnam, the mission was succinct, tangible, and limited -- precisely the qualities demanded by the military of their civilian masters for twenty years. If things went awry this time, Waller knew, no one in uniform would be able to blame the country's political leaders for ambiguous guidance.

Lieutenant General Waller was a handsome, broad-shouldered man, born in Baton Rouge, much admired for his common touch and geniality. His Army commands had included an infantry brigade, the 8th Infantry Division, and, most recently, I Corps at Fort Lewis, Washington. Now, as deputy commander-in-chief of Central Command, he was Norman Schwarzkopf's principal lieutenant in more than three decades of military service, this was Waller's fourth occasion to serve with Schwarzkopf, an honor he had stoutly resisted until Colin Powell himself called in early November and barked, "What's this about you not wanting to go to Saudi Arabia? Get your stuff packed." Yet nothing Cal Waller had seen since leaving his corps in the Pacific Northwest and arriving in Riyadh as DCINC had allayed his initial qualms.

Waller knew as well as any soldier that there was much to admire about Norman Schwarzkopf: intelligence, combat prowess, loyalty to his troops. But after two months in country, Waller was weary of the tirades, the histrionics, the regal trappings.

Small, imperial rituals offended Waller's native simplicity. Each of the affectations seemed inoffensive; collectively, he thought, they signified a man infatuated with his position and himself. "He's the CINC," Waller had complained in exasperation; "he's not Your CINC-ness." Before Schwarzkopf entered a briefing room, for example, an enlisted aide would precede him and, with the care of a grandmaster setting chess pieces, place on the table the CINC's polished glasses, a tumbler of water, a glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee, and a glass of chocolate mocha.

Or when Schwarzkopf left his headquarters, he seemed to require a motorcade larger than Fahd's, and he sat in the back seat of a staff car armed with a handgun, surrounded by bodyguards. "That's the last time I ride with you," Waller had declared a few weeks earlier after one foray with Schwarzkopf. "Shit, man, I'm more afraid of you with that damned weapon and all these stupid guards trying to force people off the road than I am of any terrorist attack."

The latest move that irritated Waller was the CINC's relocation of his bedroom into the headquarters' basement. Commandeering an office down the corridor from the war room and one of the two latrines on the floor, Schwarzkopf had converted them into his own quarters. Though the CINC's reasons were sound -- he wanted to be close to the war room at all times -- the change threw the crowded basement into an upheaval and forced more than a hundred people to share the single remaining toilet.

Waller swiveled in his chair. Such grievances were certainly petty in the grand sweep of the war about to begin, but they galled him. Flamboyance could be a useful element in the general's art: a George Patton packing his ivory-handled revolvers, or a Lucian Truscott in his bright leather jacket, visible to all the troops at the front. But Waller wondered whether Schwarzkopf's showmanship was becoming an end in itself.

The war room door swung open. "Gentlemen," someone announced, "the commander-in-chief." Schwarzkopf entered, jaw set, eyes bright with emotion. Waller and the other officers came to their feet. As the men fell silent, the CINC moved to the front of the room and nodded to the chaplain, Colonel David Peterson. Heads were bowed, eyes pinched shut.

"Our Father," Peterson began, "on this awesome and humbling occasion we are grateful for the privilege of turning to you, our sovereign and almighty God. We believe that, in accordance with the teaching of your word and revelation, we are on a just and righteous mission."

Drawing from the psalmists, the chaplain prayed for the souls of those about to die, then asked "for a quick and decisive victory. Your word informs us that men prepare for battle, and we have. But victory rests with the Lord. Therefore, we commit our ways to you and wait upon the Lord. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen."

Amen, the officers echoed, many with a catch in their voices.

Then Schwarzkopf read his message to his troops, nine sentences addressed to the "soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines of the United States Central Command," and ending: "Our cause is just. Now you must be the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm. May God be with you, your loved ones at home, and our country."

Finally, Schwarzkopf's aide produced a portable cassette recorder and punched the play button. The room filled with the cloying warble of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," which already had become the unofficial anthem of the American expeditionary force. As the last strains died away, Schwarzkopf looked around. "Okay, gentlemen," he said brusquely, "let's go to work."

Washington, D.C.

The Washington counterpart to Schwarzkopf's war room lay deep inside the Pentagon in the National Military Command Center, where the eight-hour time difference with Riyadh meant it was only 6 P.M. on January 16. Contrary to the popular image of the Pentagon's nerve center as an immense, Strangelovian auditorium with oversized video screens, most of the work in the NMCC was done in a warren of offices with subdued lighting, wall-to-wall carpeting, and Wang computers atop the desks. Soft music droned from aluminum loudspeakers to provide "cover sound" against electronic eavesdropping. The yellow corridor walls were bare except for several aphorisms spelled out in block letters: "The Best Strategy Is Always to Be Strong -- Clause-Witz," "Forewarned, Forearmed -- Benjamin Franklin," and "A Wise Man in Time of Peace Prepares for War -- Horace."

Although war was less than an hour away, the atmosphere in the NMCC remained calm, almost sedate. Twenty-five thousand people worked in the Pentagon, but fewer than a dozen had been told in advance that the attack would begin at 7 P.M. Eastern Standard Time. Even in the NMCC, elaborate measures had been taken to ensure security. The Crisis Action Team -- a group of 135 military and civilian specialists formed in August after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait -- changed shifts, as usual, at 6 P.M. without any disclosure that war was imminent. Several senior officers, including the joint Chiefs' operations officer, Lieutenant General Tom Kelly, made an ostentatious display of going home for supper, strolling casually out of the NMCC and past vigilant reporters staking out the Pentagon's adjacent E-Ring. (Kelly would return through a back door precisely at 7 P.M., H-Hour.) Only a handful of officers standing watch in the cramped Current Situation Room, the sanctum sanctorum of the NMCC, tracked events from the war zone as they were reported from Riyadh.

To further preserve the illusion of normality, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, stayed in their E-Ring offices away from the command center. Cheney's day had begun at dawn, with a meeting at 7:15 in the White House West Wing. There, over breakfast, he, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft had reviewed a detailed notification chart that listed individuals to be called before the allied attack began, the time they were to he alerted, and the American official who would make each call. The timetable contained several dozen names, including leaders of every nation in the coalition, the Soviets, the four living American ex-presidents, congressional leaders, and the United Nations secretary general. President Bush would make many of the calls, particularly to foreign heads of state. Baker would call, among others, Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, and Alexander Bessmertnykh, the Soviet foreign minister. (Mikhail Gorbachev's subsequent efforts to contact Saddam Hussein, detected by American eavesdroppers minutes before the war began, would infuriate Pentagon officials, who suspected the Soviet president of trying to alert Baghdad to the impending attack.) Scowcroft's deputy, Robert Gates, was to inform House and Senate leaders in a clandestine trip to Capitol Hill at dusk. The public would be informed of the attack in a three-sentence announcement from the White House after the first bombs fell, followed two hours later with a televised speech by Bush.

Cheney had returned to the Pentagon after breakfast. At nine o'clock he made one of the first notification calls, using a newly installed secure satellite telephone, code-named Hammer Rick, to phone Moshe Arens, the Israeli defense minister. The Americans had promised the Israelis ample advance notice on the assumption that Saddam Hussein would make good on his threat to attack Israel should war erupt. Cheney told Arens the H-Hour and promised to keep the Israelis informed as the campaign unfolded. Arens, who seemed unsurprised by the call, thanked the defense secretary and hung up.

Most of the other preparations for launching the war were already completed. A top secret warning order had been sent to Schwarzkopf on December 29, advising the CINC to be ready to attack by 3 A.M., January 17, Riyadh time, less than twenty-four hours after the expiration of a United States deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. In the Oval Office, at 11 A.M. on January 15, Bush had signed the two-page National Security Directive formally authorizing the attack unless a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough resolved the crisis. Six hours later, in the defense secretary's office, Powell and Cheney had signed the execute message necessary to "activate" the warning order of late December. Powell had then personally faxed the document to Schwarzkopf. The operation was code-named Desert Storm.

Now, with little to do and his calendar cleared of routine business, Cheney waited. A Marine guard in dress blues stood at attention outside the anteroom door, a few steps from a framed print, entitled Passing the Rubicon, that depicted the American Navy forcing its way into Japan in 1853. The defense secretary knew Schwarzkopf's timetable well enough to realize that another Rubicon had been crossed minutes before with the initial launches of Tomahawk missiles. The TLAMs could not be recalled.

After so many months of tense preparation, Cheney felt a sense of relief unblemished by doubts or second thoughts. He had an image of a huge machine in motion, a machine no longer in his control. Saddam had squandered countless opportunities to avoid war; now he would feel the wrath of the allied coalition. That, Cheney believed, was as it must be. On the television near the secretary's desk, correspondents reporting from Baghdad for the Cable News Network described the placid scene in the Iraqi capital. Cheney listened carefully. It struck him as eerie, even surreal, that they should be unaware of the massive attack about to descend on Baghdad, while six thousand miles away he had such a clear image of the missiles and aircraft pressing toward Iraq.

Suddenly he was hungry. A long night loomed ahead. Cheney's secretary phoned a nearby Chinese restaurant for takeout food, and soon the round table on which the war order had been signed was strewn with tiny paper cartons of rice and eggrolls and steamed vegetables.

One floor below, in the chairman's office, Colin Powell tried to relax. Like Cheney, he listened to the CNN correspondents, straining for any hint that allied security had been breached. So far the grand secret appeared to be intact.

Earlier in the afternoon, Powell had telephoned Schwarzkopf for their final conversation before H-Hour. The chairman knew that his field commander, high-strung in the best of times, would inevitably be more nervous than generals sitting in the comfort of the Pentagon. A thousand tactical details nagged at the CINC, a thousand things that could go wrong. Powell kept the call brief and businesslike, masking his own anxieties behind a bluff optimism. "I won't bother you," he told Schwarzkopf. "You take care of that end, I'll take care of this end. Norm, good luck."

"You're always confident in the plan," Powell once said, "until the shit hits the fan." On paper, the allied war strategy seemed brilliant. But the chairman knew that history was littered with clever war plans gone awry. Sitting alone at his desk, the television droning in the background, Powell reviewed the initial targets: radar sites, electrical plants, communications towers, command posts. Some would be attacked by Tomahawks, others by warplanes. In the next few hours, hundreds of bombs and missiles would detonate across Iraq in a pattern that had been etched with half-second precision. Saddam, the chairman believed, had no conception of the fury of the attack that was about to rip open his country.

But Powell worried that Americans, including many in the government, had come to expect a level of military performance that was impossible to meet, as though an operation of this magnitude were no more complicated than walking put to the parking lot and climbing into a car. Would the TLAMs work as the Navy believed they would? Would pilots find and destroy their targets? Such issues were obviously important, but the overriding question, Powell believed, was how many allied airplanes would return safely. That would not be known for several hours, when the first raiders flew back to their aircraft carriers and air bases. Only then would Powell, Schwarzkopf, and the other commanders be able to gauge the quality of Iraqi defenses; only then would they have a battlefield sense -- not one based on computer models or paper projections -- of the price to be paid for the liberation of Kuwait.

Colin Powell had spent more than thirty-two years in uniform, thirty-two years preparing for this moment. Now it all boiled down to one question: How many men would come back?

Baghdad

Baghdad's last day of peace had been preternaturally calm. Warm winter sunshine splashed over the deserted streets, normally crowded with pedestrians and honking motorists. The souks stood empty save for an occasional vendor peddling oranges and dates. Shops, which in recent months had been flush with the booty of ransacked Kuwait, from Rolex watches to Armani dresses, now were shuttered and padlocked. Stolen Kuwaiti Land-Rovers and Mercedes Benzes, so commonplace on Baghdad's boulevards, had been locked in garages or hidden in the countryside. Along the meandering Tigris River, pretty pastel houses wore the forlorn look of homes abandoned in haste.

Not all of Baghdad's five million souls had fled, of course. Republican Guardsmen in berets strolled the sidewalks with studied insouciance. At street corner checkpoints, militia troops wearing red-and-white-checked kaffiyehs cradled their Kalashnikovs, swapping jokes and cigarettes, as peasant women with tattooed faces hurried past. Saddam Hussein was everywhere: a thousand smiling portraits beamed down from billboards and lampposts, reassuring no one. Deep beneath the capital, his eleven-room command vault -- complete with swimming pool, wainscoting, and chandeliers -- waited for a marked man too wary to use it.

Even on the eve of war Baghdad was a city with pretensions, bent on recapturing a glorious past. Founded in the eighth century, the metropolis had been a hub of Islamic learning and culture for five hundred years at a time when Europe was mired in barbarism. Baghdad's own dark ages began in 1258, after Mongols slaughtered the caliph and several hundred thousand of his subjects. The city was a provincial backwater for more than seven centuries until it revived as the new capital of independent Iraq in 1921. After Saddam and the Ba'athist Party seized power in 1968, Iraqis forged a tacit social compact with their president-leader-marshal: he would provide the trappings of modernity -- skyscrapers, universities, hospitals -- in exchange for absolute dominion enforced with a huge army and a vast secret police network. The endless convoys of Kuwaiti loot rolling into the capital since August were but latter-day payments on the covenant.

The city in recent weeks had prepared for war, after a fashion. Iraqi officials staged mock evacuations and civil defense drills. Citizens received instructions on how to construct gas masks from kitchen towels. Saddam appeared on television in green Ba'athist fatigues or Bedouin robes to urge pluck and fortitude. After a few American air strikes, he had predicted, the coalition would weary of war and leave Iraq to pursue its destiny.

In the southwestern suburb of Amiriyah, schoolgirls in blue uniforms had attended English class as usual on this final day of peace. "I am happy, you are kind, he is sad," they repeated dutifully. Down the street stood a fenced compound with a sign at the gate in English and Arabic -- Public Shelter Number 25 -- listed on American target documents as the Al Firdos bunker.

At the nearby Baghdad Horsemanship Club, jockeys in scarlet, gold, and green paraded their ponies around the paddock while several thousand tweedy bettors cheered from the grandstand with the jaunty air, as one journalist observed, of sportsmen "watching a game of deck quoits on the Titanic." In the first race, at 4:10 P.M., the favorite, a long-legged filly named Scheherezade, had galloped down the stretch to a win. She paid five to one.

The American view of Saddam's seizure of Kuwait had not been troubled by shades of gray. The deed soon was equated with the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, and the German conquest of Poland in 1939. By the standards of modern sovereignty, the invasion was unpardonable; by the standards of human decency, the subsequent pillage and murder were criminally vile. Yet, however tawdry, the attack was not entirely the act of "unprovoked aggression" denounced by George Bush. Saddam nurtured grievances. Some were preposterous, others legitimate.

Only Iraq had been bold enough in the 1980s to thwart Iranian ambitions for hegemony in the Persian Gulf, although certainly Saddam was motivated less by a desire to champion Arab moderates than by his desire to dominate the Arab world. The eight-year war with Tehran had cost Baghdad 375,000 casualties and half a trillion dollars. When the conflict ended, in August 1988, Iraq found itself $80 billion in debt, a condition aggravated by a plunge in oil prices from $20 a barrel to $13 during the first six months of 1990.

Saddam considered his Arab brethren both inadequately grateful for his challenge to Iran and indifferent to plummeting petroleum prices. He had, with some cause, accused Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates of cheating on oil production quotas and flooding the world market. This latest offense compounded other Iraqi complaints against Kuwait, including the "theft" of more than $2 billion by slant-drilling into the vast Rumaylah oil field, the bulk of which lay beneath Iraqi territory.

Iraq also had long disputed the border with Kuwait and even the emirate's sovereignty, claiming that both were imposed by colonial powers earlier in the century. (Here Baghdad ignored several inconvenient facts: Kuwait's historical autonomy within the Ottoman Empire; the two-hundred-year rule of the emirate by the al Sabah family; and Kuwait's status as a British protectorate from 1899 until independence in 1961.) Saddam felt particularly aggrieved by his neighbor's possession of two Persian Gulf islands, Bubiyan and Warbah, which effectively controlled Iraq's access to the sea.

Bankrupt, desperate, and congenitally bellicose, he chose to attack. In seizing Kuwait -- a country slightly smaller than New Jersey -- he gambled on Arab apathy toward the fate of a nation long resented for its arrogance and wealth. (Per capita income in Kuwait was twenty times that, for example, of Egypt.) He also counted on Western indifference toward a feudal monarchy where only 4 percent of the population was enfranchised, where parliament and the national constitution had been suspended, and where advocates of democracy had been suppressed with police truncheons and mass arrests.

By annexing the emirate as the 19th Province of Iraq, Saddam would reap a windfall of $20 million a day in oil revenues. He would control 20 percent of the world's petroleum reserves. And he would demonstrate the perilous consequences of ignoring Iraqi demands.

But now, five months after the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq would reap only the whirlwind of miscalculation and overweening ambition. Dusk had overtaken Baghdad, velvety and Mesopotamian, rolling across the city from the east like a dome. The aroma of kebob and carp, grilled by a few intrepid restaurateurs on Abu Niwas Street, drifted along the riverbank. Streetlights flickered to life. Old men in seedy cafes drained their teacups, wiped their mustaches, and shuffled home. Midnight passed, yielding to the wee hours of Thursday morning. The city waited, sensing catastrophe.

Baghdad had been here before: sacked by the Mongol Hulegu Khan and again by Tamerlane, overrun by Turks and Persians, Ottomans and Englishmen. The tribal memory of siege and disaster was strong; foreboding seemed familiar. But in this city of a thousand and one nights, few had been longer than the one now fallen.


© Copyright 1993 Rick Atkinson

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