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President George Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on television during Desert Storm.
By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer

Not since the Spanish-American War, and perhaps never in U.S. history, has the United States waged such a relentlessly successful military campaign as the 42-day juggernaut that was the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In terms of military objectives conquered, allied casualties minimized and popular support on the home front sustained, the war appeared to be that rarest of prizes in the age of relativity: an absolute victory.

Of the nation's 10 major wars, this one was the cheapest in blood and treasure. One hundred and forty-eight Americans were killed in action, a body count far lower than commanders and arm-chair strategists alike had anticipated before the war opened on Jan. 16, 1991 at 7 p.m. EST.

The $60 billion price tag for the United States to transport and sustain an expeditionary force of more than a half million troops was largely underwritten by the Saudis, the Japanese and other wealthy allies. The American military, 20 years in the rebuilding after the searing debacle of Vietnam, displayed competence, valor and extraordinary potency. In Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the nation rediscovered the pleasure of adoring a military hero.

Yet the sweet savor of victory in the subsequent eight years has turned to the taste of ashes. This largely reflects the gap between the nation's expectations and the war's results – -and the fact that the United States and Iraq have tangled in four substantive armed conflicts and several smaller skirmishes since the ceasefire.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf with his tank troops in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 12, 1991. (AP Photo)

The December 1998 raids were the heaviest since Desert Storm. They certainly damaged Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program and battered parts of his military, but few in the U.S. government believe the damage is more than a temporary inconvenience. The 650 strike sorties flown against 97 targets paled compared to the 48,000 strike sorties flown against more than 1,200 targets in the gulf war. Nor is there a clear sense of where the anti-proliferation effort goes from here, given the virtual collapse of the U.N. inspection regime and the absence of broad international support for further bombing.

Before the 1991 war began, President George Bush had established limited objectives for a limited campaign. Through six weeks of combat he stuck to those goals with fixed determination. He resisted the temptation to march on Baghdad, certainly a decision that spared countless lives and incalculable political complications.

At the same time, Bush had encouraged the nation to consider the war a great moral crusade ... a struggle of good versus evil. 'Nothing of this moral importance,' the president had proclaimed, had occurred 'sinceWorld War II.' By demonizing Saddam Hussein, Bush aroused passions that would remain unsated when the Iraqi despot remained in power. He also pledged closure, vowing in November 1990, 'I pledge to you: there will not be any murky ending.'

By definition, however, limited wars achieve limited results. 'Murkyendings' have been the rule rather than the exception in modern warfare.In the months following Schwarzkopf's triumph, the ending grew ever murkier. By mid-1992 the CIA concluded that Saddam Hussein was tightening his grip on Iraq ... partly through the prodigal employment of firing squads ... and had become more secure than at any time since the ceasefire of February 1991.
    photo The battleship USS Wisconsin fires a Tomahawk missile on Jan. 17, 1991, the beginning of the Gulf War (Riyadh time).   

In the years since, a predictable pattern has developed: Saddam Hussein becomes recalcitrant, America retaliates ... often through the employment of Tomahawk cruise missiles ... a period of quiescence follows, but leads to more recalcitrance.

That cycle of obstinance and punishment played out again this month after Baghdad refused to provide the full cooperation to U.N. weapons inspectors demanded by Washington. Having launched and then recalled an attack in November, President Clinton followed through this time with a 71-hour pummeling of Iraq with Tomahawks and bombs, codenamed Operation Desert Fox.

The use of military force in Iraq has been under continual reappraisal since the gulf war ended, and the latest volley of bombs and missiles only deepens the debate. The military lessons of the confrontation with Iraq remain surprisingly hard to parse. Few can doubt the full emergence of air power as the pre-eminent factor in modern combat, although sensible leaders recognize that the optimal conditions that rendered air attacks so lethal in the last war are by no means assured in the next. Those who consider air power the linchpin of a new Pax Americana, as landpower had characterized Pax Romana and sea power Pax Britannica, need only recall Vietnam to remember the limitations of bomber fleets against a determined foe sheltered by mountains and thick foliage.

Even against Iraq, the impact of the air campaign was mixed and remains bitterly debated. A two-year independent study commissioned by the Air Force found little evidence that attacks against Baghdad and other targets north of the Euphrates were critical to the allies' ultimate success.

Despite destroying nearly all of Iraq's petroleum refining capacity, for example, such attacks 'bore no significant military results' ... in part because the war did not last long enough for fuel shortages to severely hamper enemy forces. Also, despite hundreds of attacks against leadership and other command targets, Saddam Hussein remained alive and his regime in power.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the relentless onslaught ...including some 22,000 strikes against the Iraqi army ... battered the enemy to near senselessness. The wrangling over air power's efficacy,begun nearly a century ago and reignited by Operation Desert Fox in December, seems likely to continue for at least another generation.

Rick Atkinson, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, covered the Defense Department and the Persian Gulf War and is author of "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War."

Editor's Note: Delve into detailed analysis of the battle for Baghdad from project author William Arkin and Gen. Charles Horner.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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