In the fall and winter of 1990, you couldn’t turn on the news and not hear the word “Vietnam”. America’s war in South East Asia was front and center in the minds of the country since almost 500,000 Americans were deployed to the other side of Asia in Saudi Arabia. For months Operation Desert Shield, the Coalition plan to defend Saudi Arabia, was the hot topic on the evening news, and more importantly, virtually the only topic on the world’s first 24 hour news channel, the new Cable News Network, or CNN, which by broadcasting all day, essentially drove the narrative.
On paper, America’s involvement in South West Asia in 1990 did look like a folly: Iraq had the 4th largest army in the world, and arguably the most experienced. Iraq’s entire military had just emerged from an eight year blood bath with Iran: every one of its soldiers was battle hardened. The Iraqi Republican Guard was on every pundit’s list of the top ten most feared and respected military formations in the world. And after overrunning Kuwait in a day in August, they had had months to dig in. America had fought some small engagements in the 80s, but had only last seen large scale combat eighteen years before in 1972, when it seemed that it was ignobly run out of Vietnam. America had air power for sure, but four years before Muammar Gadhafi had easily weathered that and survived.
None of this was lost on GEN Norman Schwarzkopf, the Coalition commander. For months he had shepherded a fragile coalition of longtime friends and former adversaries, developed a plan of unheard of audacity, and dealt quickly and severely with interservice rivalry and meddling from the Pentagon. Desert Shield was the first real test of former President Ronald Reagan’s new upgraded military, the new AirLand Battle Doctrine, and the much needed reforms and forced jointness of 1986’s Goldwater-Nichols Act. Even though the US military was built to fight the Soviets, Schwarzkopf knew the stakes were greater than the liberation of Kuwait. On 12 January 1990 in a conference with his staff, and corps and division commanders, he said, “America is watching, we can’t fuck this up.”
On 15 January 1991 Schwartzkopf received the final approval from Pres HW Bush to commence offensive operations on the 17th. That afternoon outside of Riyahd Saudi Arabia, Schwarzkopf told the press that he had almost a million soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from America and 33 other countries, and more importantly, that he was prepared to take offensive action to oust occupying Iraqi military forces from Kuwait. The press conference was part of an information campaign to give Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein one last chance to leave Kuwait.
He didn’t take it.