Atkinson, Rick, Crusade, The Untold Story Of The Persian Gulf War, Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993
Rick Atkinson’s Crusade The Untold Story Of The Persian Gulf War is a blow by blow account of the planning and execution of the Gulf War by the American military. It starts with the Iraqi surrender and then flashes back to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American response. It’s a quick moving story with information for both the casual reader and the military historian. It’s main focus is upon General Normal Schwarzkopf and his strengths and weaknesses.
Atkinson portrays Schwarzkopf as someone who was pompous, driven and cautious. Many fellow officers believed Schwarzkopf was full of himself. He wanted to be pampered and be the center of attention. He constantly pushed all of his subordinates and often cursed them out because he always seemed to be angry. Finally the general was a cautious planner. He overestimated the strength of the Iraqis and built up a military force far larger than was necessary to retake Kuwait. He then held off on the start of the Gulf War because he didn’t think the troops were ready. The author still thought Schwarzkopf got the job done and his plans worked. In doing so Atkinson gives a well-rounded portrayal of the man. He wasn’t perfect and had many faults, but he was effective.
The book brings up some interesting points about the Gulf War. One was that some Air Force planners believed the conflict could be won by strategic air strikes upon Iraq’s leadership and infrastructure. They actually controlled most of the air campaign at first, much to the consternation of Schwarzkopf who believed the main target should be the Iraqi army in Kuwait. After the war an Air Force study found the strategic bombing had little impact upon the outcome of the war while the bombing of the Iraqi forces was much more effective. Iraq suffered the long term consequences as much of its power grid was taken down and not fully rebuilt afterwards affecting health and services in the country for years.
Another issue was that the U.S. never adequately confronted what it thought would be its main opponent Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. During the war one of the Guard’s divisions was destroyed and another was devastated after the ceasefire but most of the rest escaped back into Iraq. Schwarzkopf wanted the units constantly hit by air strikes but the strategic plan and other targets meant the Guard didn’t get the attention the general wanted.
Finally, The Untold Story deals with what became the most controversial part of the Gulf War the decision to end it. Joint Chiefs of Staff head General Colin Powell was the first to advocate for a ceasefire believing that continued fighting had diminishing returns. The Iraqi forces were quickly broken and retreating so more fighting would accomplish little. General Schwarzkopf didn’t object although after the war he claimed he had misgivings because the Republican Guard wasn’t destroyed as he liked. The White House didn’t complain either. Many argued afterward that the quick conclusion to the war allowed the Republican Guard to escape and keep Saddam in power. Atkinson believes there were plenty of Iraqi forces besides the Guard to accomplish that. The bigger problem was President Bush portrayed the Gulf War as having the limited aim of freeing Kuwait but posed it as a moral crusade against the evil of the Iraqi dictator. When he not only survived the war but caused problems for the U.S. over the next decade it undermined the New World Order Bush promised after the conflict. He believed Saddam would be overthrown in a coup or be contained and pose no more issues but the president proved wrong. That was the real legacy of the Gulf War and led to the 2003 invasion.
Rick Atkinson’s book is a good read with limitations. It provides a very good story of the lead up and implementation of the U.S. war plan. It has engaging stories about the soldiers involved as well as tackling the bigger issues like the differences over how to confront Iraq and the decision to end the conflict. At the same time it has little on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or the politics involved. That means The Untold Story could be the start of understanding the Gulf War but other books would have to follow.
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