The war that defanged Saddam


CRUSADE: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. By Rick Atkinson. Houghton Mifflin. 575 pages. $24.95.

RICK Atkinson proposes to tell in a single volume "the untold story of the Persian Gulf war," a conflict that was characterized by the U.S. military's stranglehold on the news and largely hTC successful efforts to keep reporters far from the front.

Mr. Atkinson, author of "The Long Gray Line" and a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, succeeds marvelously in recounting a host of untold stories in "Crusade." It is a narrative steeped in detail, studded with military acronym and absorbing.

The reader in many places is brought up close to the swift horror of a high-tech war that routed the Iraqis from Kuwait and removed the prospect of Saddam Hussein's controlling the Persian Gulf oil fields.

Mr. Atkinson's descriptions are vivid and accessible to readers only remotely acquainted with the methods and materiel of making war in the late 20th century. The flights of Tomahawk cruise missiles (some of which, he discloses, crossed Iranian airspace on the way to Baghdad), the fiery launches of Patriot interceptor missiles and the "dreadful, evolutionary beauty" of the Abrams M1A1 tank are all masterfully presented.

Months before its autumn publication date, "Crusade" was making news. The Washington Post in July reported the book's most stunning findings -- the appalling behavior of the commander in chief of the allied armies, H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Obliquely or directly, Mr. Atkinson writes, General Schwarzkopf "had threatened to relieve or court-martial his senior ground commander, his naval commander, his air commanders and both Army corps commanders. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had worried sufficiently about General Schwarzkopf's temper and his yen for imperial trappings to consider the possibility of replacing him."

Before Mr. Atkinson's digging -- he reports having interviewed more than 500 participants, some of them several times -- the commander's furies were little known. In "Crusade," General Schwarzkopf comes off as tyrannical, abusive and petulant, prone to "immature and dysfunctional" rages.

Mr. Atkinson writes that instead of dismissing the general, Mr. Cheney assigned an Army lieutenant general, Calvin A.H. Waller, to act as a buffer between the commander in chief and his dispirited staff. General Waller was able to deflect or defuse General Schwarzkopf's wrath, sometimes by telling him "a corny joke or . . . a bit of folklore passed down from [Waller's] grandmother in Louisiana. . . On other occasions, he would simply kick General Schwarzkopf's boot under the table.

But it's more than the revelations about General Schwarzkopf that makes "Crusade" an exceptional work of recent military history. It is impressive in scope and perspective, noting, for example, the parallels between the ground war in the Kuwaiti theater with desert conflicts of the past. Conflicts in the desert have shared an important characteristic since Roman times, Mr. Atkinson writes: The "battles tended to be decisive" because battered armies "could not rely on topography to shield a retreat."

And, in the end, so went the ground war in the gulf. Reeling from the Allied assault, Iraq's outgunned forces retreated pell mell from Kuwait, exposing themselves to murderous air strikes along the "Highway of Death" back to Iraq.

Bush administration officials feared a public uproar about the slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops, and that prompted them to order an early halt to the fighting. The move, critics now argue, was premature by a day or two -- the time it would have taken to complete the encirclement of the remainder of Iraq's best forces the Kuwaiti theater.

The United States demonstrated in the Persian Gulf that superpower status could be "calculated not simply in nuclear megatonnage but also in more prosaic capabilities: Only America could have amassed more than nine million tons of war materiel, hauled it 6,000 miles to the Middle East, fought a war, then carted the stuff home again," he writes. "All in all, weapons and tactics worked well, troops performed with admirable skill, commanders showed themselves equal to the challenge.

"Finally, and perhaps more significantly," he writes, "the war defanged Saddam Hussein."

Joseph Campbell wrote this for the Hartford Courant.

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