'The Mother of All Battles': 20 Years Later

Two decades ago today, on February 28, 1991, George H. W. Bush announced the end of the Gulf War. "Kuwait is liberated. Iraq's army is defeated. Our military objectives are met...This is a victory for all mankind, for the rule of law and for what is right."

But for Americans, a war that began as a perfect Desert Storm, soon felt like a hollow success.

The story began in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. The Iraqi dictator was short of cash after the Iran-Iraq War, and believed that a brazen assault on his oil-rich neighbor would provide a quick fix.

In response, President Bush introduced UN sanctions against Iraq and constructed a large allied coalition in the Gulf. When Saddam refused to leave Kuwait, allied forces launched an air campaign on January 17, 1991. Six weeks later, on February 24, the allied tanks began to roll. Shocked and awed, Saddam's troops fled out from Kuwait in disarray. In their eagerness to give up, some Iraqis even surrendered to U.S. reconnaissance drones.

The war was a remarkably one-sided affair. Only 148 Americans died in combat. To put that in perspective, during the build-up of troops in the Gulf, as many as 1,200 female U.S. military personnel may have become pregnant. In other words, for every American soldier killed in battle, eight U.S. personnel were expecting.

When Bush applied the brakes, and Saddam survived, the victory ultimately felt empty.

Saddam promised "the mother of all battles." What he got was the battle of all mothers.

At first, it felt like a model war--World War II all over again.  When Desert Storm began, there was an intoxicating sense of collective unity, as Americans rallied around the flag, the president, and the military. The U.S. media tumbled, jumped, and cheered. Lee Greenwood's song "God Bless the USA," originally released in 1984, was dusted off, and became the theme tune of the war. Meanwhile, the yellow ribbon symbolized grassroots participation in the struggle.

Bush's approval ratings jumped 18 points to 82 percent. Impressively, after taking the nation into war, there was a 27-point surge in Bush's score for "making progress" at "keeping the nation out of war."

But while the U.S. victory was impressive, it was not total like in World War II. Bush called a halt to the fighting after freeing Kuwait, leaving Saddam Hussein in power.

It was the right decision. Escalating the war by marching on Baghdad would have destroyed the allied coalition. It would also have been illegal. The United Nations mandate only covered the liberation of Kuwait, not overthrowing the Iraqi dictator. And regime change would have left the United States in charge of creating a new government in post-war Iraq--a task for which it was not in the least bit prepared. As Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney remarked in 1992:

And the question in my mind is, how many additional American casualties is Saddam (Hussein) worth? And the answer is, not that damned many. So, I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the President made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.

But Americans had other ideas. During the war, well over 70 percent of the public favored a march on Baghdad. Even when pollsters reminded people that the United Nations had only authorized a war to free Kuwait, a majority of Americans wanted to fight for regime change anyway. And strikingly, most of these hawks were willing to sacrifice thousands of extra U.S. lives to remove Saddam.

In American eyes, the war was morally black and white--necessitating total victory. After all, Bush described the conflict as: "good versus evil, right versus wrong, human dignity and freedom versus tyranny and oppression."

Americans were determined to punish Saddam. He was a picture-perfect villain, who invaded a weaker neighbor, took Americans hostage, fired Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia, and burned oil fields. In a January 1991 poll of West Virginians, Adolf Hitler only narrowly defeated Saddam Hussein for the title of most evil leader of the twentieth century (43 percent to 36 percent).

"People in Nebraska want this guy dead," reported Senator Bob Kerrey about opinion in his home state.

When Bush applied the brakes, and Saddam survived, the victory ultimately felt empty. Like cheap champagne, the euphoria soon fizzled out. By 1992, over two-thirds of Americans thought that the Gulf War wasn't even a victory, because Saddam remained in power. No wonder Bush got so little credit for the military campaign in the 1992 election against Bill Clinton.

Samuel Kaplan, a professor at Swarthmore College, described the national mood: "[It] reminds me of what Rita Hayworth once said about herself: 'Men go to bed with Rita Hayworth and wake up and find it's only me.' America went to bed with a great victory and woke up with a victory that no longer seems so great and a world filled with problems that we basically aren't able to do anything about."

In 1991, Americans wanted to remove Saddam, and were willing to sacrifice thousands of lives to get their man.

A decade later, we received our wish and we paid our price.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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