Gulf War veterans have mixed ideas on meaning of conflict
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: February 27, 2016
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Some see it as a war that ended badly, even in victory.
Others see it as a precursor to a global revolution in battle that led to a more dangerous world. Still more see it as a huge step in American leadership that assembled one of globe's largest coalitions.
In just 100 hours' worth of fighting on the ground, the 1991 Persian Gulf War created enough opinions to fill decades.
Lt. Col. William Hersch, who teaches strategy at the Air Force Academy, said the Gulf War is still talked about because it forever changed how America fights.
"The planning and execution was a departure from the way always things had been done," he said.
In the war, America faced off with the world's fourth-largest military. At issue was Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, an American ally.
President George H.W. Bush brought together a coalition of 39 countries -- nearly a quarter of the planet -- to deter Iraqi aggression and later oust the forces of dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Allies included unlikely friends -- Afghanistan and Syria joined in.
In battle, America and its allies showed off precision bombing, GPS, new tanks, drones and other technology.
"It is fair to say that people have come to expect precision warfare," said academy history professor Charles Dusch, a retired lieutenant colonel. It was also the first major war for America since the battles in Vietnam that divided the nation.
"There was such a reversal out of the first Gulf War," said Aurora U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who fought in the conflict with the Marines. "The American people really felt proud."
It also showed off two decades' worth of military might driven by boosted defense spending in the Reagan years. Forces were pulled from America and Europe to assemble 370,000 soldiers and Marines along with 1,200 combat aircraft. Allies sent an additional 200,000 troops.
"We were able to mobilize so quickly," Dusch said.
Iraq was touted as a strong foe that had built up its army over a decade of fighting with neighboring Iran. Iraqi troops had some of the latest in Soviet military technology, including tanks, fighter planes, helicopters and missiles.
"They had one of the best air defense networks in the world," Dusch said.
When America launched airstrikes in January 1991, though, that air defense system crumbled. Bombs took out radars, control networks and command centers, blinding the Iraqis.
"We were able to deny them the ability to use those systems," Hersch said. "You are paralyzing the enemy's ability to do much or respond."
It was the biggest air campaign since World War II, with as many as 1,000 strikes a day on Iraqi targets.
U.S. forces poured over borders on Feb. 24, 1991, and proceeded more quickly than the most optimistic plans. The Iraqi collapse led to rapid peace negotiations.
"I don't think they had any fight in them," said retired Army Lt. Col Ralf Zimmerman, who fought in the war with the 3rd Armored Division.
Retired Colorado Springs Command Sgt. Maj. Terrance McWilliams remembers wondering why America halted its offensive before toppling Hussein, which other troops would undertake 12 years later.
"It didn't make sense," he said.
Coffman, who later fought in the Iraq War, said that after the peace treaty, U.S. leaders should have backed a rebellion in southern Iraq that followed Hussein's defeat in Kuwait.
"I think there could have been regime change with the Iraqis sorting it out themselves," he said. "It's a tragedy."
Zimmermann, however, said Bush was right to stop short of toppling Hussein.
"In hindsight, one could say that President Bush did the right thing when he decided to merely liberate Kuwait and stay within the given U.N. mandate," Zimmermann said. "Despite his tyrannical rule, Saddam Hussein kept the strategic balance with Iran, something that was profoundly changed with our 2003 invasion. Now we have to do the balancing act ourselves, don't we?"
Outside the Middle East, the Persian Gulf War caused nations to re-examine their defenses. Few had anticipated Iraq's rapid defeat and took the war's outcome as a signal to shore up their forces. Having more troops was no defense against the new American way of war.
"The other guy can have way more tanks," Hersch said. "You can overcome the greater mass because of how you are applying your capabilities."
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