Recalling history: The first Iraq war

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

In the wake of the second Iraq war the question of why Saddam wasn’t finished off in the first round continues to be argued.  In the light of the study of war, however, there is no argument in the Clauswitzan sense—the stated objective, the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait was attained, war to fulfill a political objective was achieved.  To comprehend the thinking behind the objective, of the nature of Iraq and its army must be realized.

Today’s map of the Middle East was drawn by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and rival Anglo-French claims to its remains. The Sykes-Picot agreement and others shaped the Middle East, as did the rise of the Sauds to dominance on the Arabian Peninsula. In the revolt against the Ottoman’s, the Ottoman officers who went over to the Sharifian army of Fysal (Lawrence of Arabia was the advisor) were almost all Iraqis. It was they who would become the main pillar of the new Iraqi army and state.

Awarded to the British by treaty after World War 1, Iraq was a land of conflicting tribal claims amidst a mixture of Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, and Chaldean Christians. As a nation, it did not even exist until 1923 when the British-sponsored Husseins (cousins of the present-day King of Jordan) were installed on the throne. (The great British interest was in the oil fields of Mosul, vital as a fuel supply to the Royal Navy.) Known throughout much of its history as Mesopotamia, Iraq is one of the earliest sites of civilization, a legacy Saddam Hussein capitalized on by proclaiming himself an inheritor to the Babylonian legacy, as well as pronouncing his link to the great Muslim leader, Saladin (ironically a Kurd, a people Saddam has tried to 


The army, as in other Arab nations, views itself as the repository of national virtue and progress–not a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism. On this point it has not been reticent about staging coups to assert its view of society. The first, in 1936, succeeded in bringing about the acquiescence of the king in the resignation of the government. The second was much more bloody. In 1958 a conspiracy of army officers not only overthrew the monarchy, but murdered the king, crown prince, and the prime minister. The new head was Karem Quassim. One of his supporters was Saddam Hussein. But Quassim’s days were numbered. An insidious Baathist party conspiracy burrowed its way into the military establishment and succeeded in not only ousting Quassim but in executing him in a coup in Feb. 1963. Riot and disorder ensued as the Baathists made their ideology the governing philosophy of the nation. This does not mean that the party became the dominant element. In any conflict between party and army, officers remained loyal to the army, those who did not, or whose loyalty was questionable, were removed. Saddam was part of the Baath party; he knew full well that in the course of modern lraqi history the price of failure could be death. In examining the coups and factionalism of Iraqi politics, the purges, the executions, Hussein behaved no differently than his counterparts or predecessors. A testimony to Saddam’s competence and ruthlessness was his ability to climb to the top of the greasy pole and mobilize his forces against their fellow Shiites in his war on Iran.

Nor was he behaving differently when he grabbed Kuwait. Quassim had tried to seize the kingdom in 1961 when he was stalled by rapidly deployed British forces from Aden, and East Africa. The Arab League opposed Quassim unanimously. The British force was later replaced by a combined Arab army from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Sudan. A British protectorate from 1899 to 1961, Kuwait, as had Egypt, had been nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. Saddam’s logic that Kuwait belongs to Iraq because the Ottomans had ruled it as part of Basra province is bogus. If his argument were valid, then Iraq should revert to Turkey because Mesopotamia too, was part of the Ottoman Empire. The agreements of World War I invalidated all prior arrangements. None of his arguments of course take into account the fact that the al-Sabahs have ruled Kuwait for two hundred years or the fact that Kuwait existed before Iraq was conceived.


Following independence in 1932 the army’s main occupation became suppressing internal dissent (Saddam’s assault on the Kurds was business as usual). The war with Iran was the longest sustained conflict the Iraqi army has encountered. Its previous battle experience was in 1941 against Britain, and in 1948 and 1973 against Israel. Its performance was unimpressive.

Since coming to power Saddam had relied heavily upon the Soviet Union and its henchmen for his military equipment and doctrine. The employment of sustained artillery barrages in the Iran-Iraq War was Soviet as was the construction of well-entrenched defensive positions. But Soviet doctrine also called for blitzkrieg to break the enemy line, Saddam’s army seemed more inclined to “sitzkrieg” when faced with a powerful opponent.

In assessing Arab military prowess, however, it would do well to pay heed to the Israeli experience. Chaim Hertzog in his Arab and Israeli Wars credits the Arab army’s defensive ability, but is critical of their ability to mount an offensive. Hertzog attributes this to “the inability of junior officers to adapt to changing circumstances and political bickering.” The Israeli military considered Iraqi ability in the ’73 War “mediocre”, although Iraq’s ability to move troops from Iraq to the Golan Heights on short notice was regarded as impressive. Israeli analysts regarded Hussein’s engineers as his best troops. But engineers don’t stage coups, tankers and infantry can, and the possibility of a coup, for whatever reason, must be constantly on his mind. With that worry, truly effective combat forces are as much a threat to his rule as a support of his ambitions.

The modern political-military view of the Arab world toward the West was formed in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis in 1956.  Nasser’s army was beaten within days of the Anglo-French-Israeli offensive and Suez regained, but President Eisenhower’s diplomatic pressure forced the withdrawal of the allied force. Nasser kept the canal sending the signal that anything could he done under the guise of “democracy”, “nationalism”, or “anti-imperialism.” For decades Nasserite rhetoric held sway. The oil crisis of 1970, the seizing of the American embassy in Tehran, always the West retreated — until now. Hussein thought his bluster would carry the day and the West would again retreat for fear of being seen as “imperialist.”  But President Bush and Prime Minister Major did not read the old script, the West acted; a new play had begun.

The question was now one of strategy and tactics. Having had the benefit of Soviet advice and doctrine Hussein should have realized that the “correlation of forces,” the sine qua non of the Soviet canon, was now moving against him as the coalition numerically and technologically grew stronger. With his forces dug into the desert and behind ramparts, barbed wire, and minefields Saadam may have envisioned himself another Ataturk slaughtering the British on the beaches at Gallipoli when the Allied ground attack began. But if he thought this, he showed himself ignorant of American military history. The American army fought by the philosophy of Gen. Grant — overwhelming force, total destructive power. When Schwartzkopf said that Grant was his hero, he revealed his hand; Hussein wasn’t listening.

Before the offensive opened American forces took out Iraqi warning and communication systems.  When the land war began “one shot, one kill” became a reality of armored warfare and counter-battery fire and MLRSs turned Iraqi defensive positions into tombs.  There was another Grant idea at work as well. Grant’s strategy of avoiding frontal assaults when possible had been updated in the island-hopping strategy in the Pacific in World War II. The desert was like the sea, going around the strong points and putting them under siege was a proposition Hussein never even considered.

With the Iraqi army in tatters and hell-bent on retreating to Baghdad, why not push on and obliterate every shred of military capability?  Because to do so would have been self-defeating in the eyes of Washington and London.


In the Gulf the American government faced the challenge of restoring peace without so totally destroying Iraq as to leave a power vacuum from which Iran or Syria might emerge as the next villain. Ending the war with enough Iraqi force left to defend itself against Iran was necessary. Grant’s obliteration doctrine was put on hold. President Bush’s insistence on following defined war aims prevented “mission creep” and saved the allies the cost in life and treasure of having to occupy a nation and face guerrilla warfare.  Would the American public have stood for the Intifada with which Israel has contended? Unlikely.  Colin Powell quavered at the site of the “highway of death” and feared American support of the war would dwindle if Americans saw their armed forces as butchers.  Public support was based on a quick, clean war.  The memory of Vietnam, a war that went from public support to anti-war demonstrations, lingered. 

Would the Arab allies have acceded to a war of conquest against Iraq? As it was the Arabs little trusted each other.  T E Lawrence had considered chicanery a primary Arab trait.  Constancy and consistency were never a virtue in the Middle East: In the 1973 war against Israel Egypt had been willing to double-cross ally Syria when it suited Egyptian interests. A war of conquest was more than the Arabs bargained for and a large American occupying force, which would have been necessary, would shortly have been viewed as the return of imperialism. There was also the problem of US-Israeli relations and Hussein’s rocket attacks on Israeli cities.  Israel had to be kept out of the war if the coalition were to survive.

What of the Europeans?  Britain would have stood by America, but French interests in the region did not countenance a long war, or one which went beyond stated aims.  France was reluctant to war on an outlet for French exports.


Was the Gulf War, then, a successful limited war?  Yes.  It met its objectives: the liberation of Kuwait, restoring international borders, and checkmating Iraqi power.  It was never intended to be a conquest of Iraq. There was no intention of destroying civil society (every attempt had been made to concentrate bombing to military targets and limit collateral damage).  The Persian Gulf War ought to be viewed as an 18th-century balance of power war, circumscribed by political considerations, and fought for limited objectives: restoration of the status quo ante and preventing anyone (Arab) nation from dominating the region. In this instance, it was similar to the continental wars of the 18th century when Britain would intervene on the side of the weaker to prevent the stronger from dominating the continent and threatening British interests.

In light of the facts available, President Bush pursued the correct course of action: A viable Iraq would counter a well-armed and messianic Iran and an avaricious Syria. By playing off one side against the other a rough stability could be maintained and the oil continues to flow –to everyone’s benefit.

The fault in the plan was Saddam Hussein’s unforeseen survival. He knew full well that in the course of Iraqi politics, the price of failure was death.  Having failed to defeat, or hold the American coalition at bay, it was reasonable to assume, based on Iraqi history, that he would be overthrown and killed by his own people.  Furthermore, Washington hoped that the Iraqi Army, which saw itself as the national guardian, fearing that it might be obliterated by the war, would overthrow Hussein in an act of self-preservation; negotiations with a new government could then follow.  But Saddam was more treacherous than anyone estimated.  By keeping his inner circle limited to his Takriti village relatives and associates and by employing a ruthlessly efficient secret police, he remained in power in spite of events.

Nevertheless, the war aims were largely achieved. It is an irony of history, however, that the United States is now shackled to the imperial role Britain once played – Middle East peace enforcer.  It is an irony made more awful because the post-World War II hostility of a naïve United States to the salutatory imperialism of Britain and France helped to speed their retreat from the region and its descent into brigandage.


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