Contents | June 2003
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on Michael Kelly:
A statement released by The Atlantic the day after Michael Kelly's death.
A list of articles written by Michael Kelly for The Atlantic.
Michael Kelly's full biography.
Articles written about Michael Kelly since his death.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 2003
ot long after the Gulf War ended, there was a victory parade held in Washington
and, as I happened to be back in the United States at the time, I went to it.
It was an oddly disquieting affair. The parade was all that that sort of thing
should be, a splendid evocation of military might and military discipline—ranks
and ranks of marching troops and America's great machines of war, overwhelmingly
the best in the world, streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House.
What was lacking was any real passion. Although the day was sunny and pleasant,
the crowd that had turned out for the parade was surprisingly small, and there
was something of a perfunctory feel to it. I saw a lot of people—both
participants in the event and onlookers—who seemed happy to be there,
pleased with themselves and life that day, but I didn't see anybody in the slightest
danger of losing emotional control. There was no sense that I could detect of
immense joy or vast relief and thanks be to God, the sort of emotions one associates
with victory and the return of the victorious army. Indeed, it seemed to me,
there was an undercurrent of let-down to the day.
A Transformative Moment
The following is excerpted from the afterword to
Michael Kelly's book Martyrs' Day, about the first Gulf War. Kelly was killed in Iraq in early April as he accompanied American forces advancing on Baghdad
by Michael Kelly
I figured this to be fanciful, a product more of my own mood than anything real,
but I don't think so now. I think even then there were the beginnings of a sense
that we had come out of this thing with a great deal less than we should have—that
we had in a sense muffed it. This sense that we had somehow managed to snatch
a quasi-defeat out of victory soon grew much stronger and became much more defined.
It was clear within a few months after the war that the Bush Administration's
determination to end Operation Desert Storm at the so-called "Hundred Hours"
marker, to allow what was left (and quite a lot was left) of Saddam's Republican
Guard to escape, had been a disastrous decision—disastrous on a historic
level, and disastrous in a way that led directly, if in a complex way, to the
catastrophe of September 11, 2001, and to the belated, forced resumption of
an unfinished war.
Above all, the United States missed its greatest transformative opportunity
since the close of the Second World War. A unique thing about America is that
although it is a colossal power it is not, in its heart or in its strategies,
an imperial one. Alone among the super-nations through history, America has
generally (there are exceptions) not sought to exploit its victories to rule
over other nations. What transformed America's relationship with Europe was
not just America's defense of Europe from fascism, but, even more extraordinary,
America's behavior after fascism's defeat—its determination to stay in
Europe not as a conqueror but as a protector against the continuing threat
of communism, and to help rebuild Europe into what would become America's greatest
economic rival. This postwar demonstration of the American ethos in action shattered
the old dynamic between Europe and America and forged a new dynamic rooted in
an earned respect and affection toward America on the part of the average European
that would prove strong enough to sustain itself through half a century of cold
war trials, and is sustained still.
What was above all lost in the decision to quit too soon in Iraq was the opportunity
to demonstrate to the Arabic and Islamic nations the truth about America that
Europe came to learn. What would have happened had the allied forces led by
the United States in the Gulf War fought on into Iraq with the aim of destroying
Saddam Hussein's army and ending Saddam Hussein's regime?
The effect of this in the dynamic between the West and the Arabic and Islamic
nations would have been extraordinary, I think. As Americans have become much
more aware since September 11, the extremist (and ascendant) strain in these
countries draws its strength from several perceptions of the United States:
that it is at bottom weak and fearful, that it is corrupt, that it is cynical
and untrustworthy, that its motives for meddling in the Middle East are all
about oil and power and imperialism. All of this could have been given the lie
by a successful conclusion to the Gulf War; all of it was seemingly confirmed
by the conclusion of the Gulf War that was allowed to occur. As far as anyone
could see, the facts of the case were plain as day: To preserve its cheap oil
and imperial prerogatives we sent in an army to prop up one kleptocracy (Saudi
Arabia), rescue another (Kuwait), and destroy the regime of the only Arab state
that had ever dared openly to challenge us. But in this latter goal we failed,
because we were cowards and we ran away, and in running away, we chose to betray
the poor people whom we had seduced into rising up against Saddam with promises
of support—and we had thereby, cynically, sent thousands to their deaths.
This lesson, which was so destructive to any American hopes of building upon
its tentative new identity forged in the Gulf War as an ally to Arab peoples,
was repeatedly reinforced in the years following the war, and all of the reinforcing
messages stemmed directly from the consequences of quitting too soon. Quitting
too soon meant that Saddam stayed in power. In turn this meant that Saddam continued
to refuse to cooperate with the strictures of weapons inspections and air control
to which he had agreed in his treaty for peace. And that meant the United States
and the United Nations must continue economic sanctions against Iraq, weapons
inspections, and what would become in effect the longest (and most lopsided)
air war in history, ten years as of this writing and still winging along.
From the archives:
"Looking the World in the Eye" (December 2001)
Samuel Huntington is a mild-mannered man whose sharp opinions have proved to be as prescient as they have been controversial. By Robert D. Kaplan
Historians looking back on the time from the waning days of the Gulf War until
September 11 will, I think, tend to see it as a sort of phony-war time, a time
of delusion and inattention at the highest levels of policymaking. The general
delusion was that we were living, to borrow a phrase, at the time of the end
of history—a time of no great thematic struggle, no clash of ideologies.
Some, most notably the historian and theorist Samuel Huntington, argued the
counter-case. We were not living in the era of the end of thematic struggle
but in a dawning era of new (or rather very old) thematic struggle: not between
competing political and economic ideologies, but between competing nationalist
movements and competing cultures: a clash of civilizations.
Seen in this light, the Gulf War was no mere operation, no discrete and isolated
"crisis" that could be contained well or poorly but was at any rate containable.
But the views of such as Huntington were not welcome during the two Clinton
administrations, which, in foreign policy terms, were characterized by a policy
structured nearly entirely around sporadic crisis-management. Somalia came and
went, and so did Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and all of these were just
"crises," to be contained by "operations." In part, this mind-set reflected
the inadequacies of a president who, until very late in his term, was astonishingly
uninterested in anything to do with matters apart from domestic politics. In
at least as large a measure, however, the crisis-management way of looking at
the world reflects a larger mind-set, the mind-set of the U.S. military and
the U.S. government in general, the mind-set that called the Gulf War an operation,
and declared it ended for reasons no more rational than my favorite one, publicly
given at the time: "The Hundred-Hour War" had a nice ring to it. That, I hope,
is all done with now.
Copyright © 1993, 2001 by Michael Kelly. From the book Martyrs' Day, by Michael Kelly, reprinted with permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2003; A Transformative Moment; Volume 291, No. 5; 23-27.