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Even those inclined to view the 1991 Iraq War as a turning point in the history of warfare concede that this is a matter of legitimate debate, a proposition about which reasonable analysts can disagree. That the war was a turning point for the American military, however, seems almost incontestable. As American and coalition forces gathered in the Arabian Desert in the winter of 1991 to do battle with Iraq, memories of Vietnam and the self-doubt the war engendered were never far from the surface. The outcome in Vietnam had shaken the U.S. military to its core, and the recovery over the subsequent decade and a half had been difficult and sometimes painful. Some may have seen the 1991 Iraq War as a test of abstract theories of changing warfare, but for the American military the stakes were less esoteric. The war provided an opportunity for institutional redemption, a chance to finally exorcise the ghosts and demons of Vietnam. It was certainly a surprising opportunity, and not merely because of the near universal failure to anticipate the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Throughout much the 1980s, the United States viewed Iraq as something of an ally, a bulwark against the spread of Iranian fundamentalism and influence. The unexpected nature of the 1991 Iraq War reminds us that nations and their militaries do not always enjoy the luxury of fighting the opponents for whom they prepared and trained.
On May 1, 2003, President Bush, wearing full flight gear, made a dramatic landing on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off the California coast to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq. The setting was stirring, the sailors applauded, and the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner hung prominently in the background. Although careful to warn that work remained, Bush's message was clear: the difficult part of Operation Iraqi Freedom was over. Saddam had been deposed and few Americans lost their lives in bringing him down. There was every reason to think the troops would start to come home before long. No one on that deck would have predicted that American forces would still be fighting in Baghdad half a decade later.
Two weeks later, Paul Bremer, the former diplomat Rumsfeld tapped to head the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), arrived in Baghdad and began issuing a series of controversial orders. The first related to the “de-Baathification of Iraqi society” and eliminated tens of thousands of Baath Party members from positions throughout the government, regardless of whether they were oil ministry engineers, hospital administrators, or university professors. The second order followed a week later and disbanded the Iraqi Army and much of country's police and internal security forces. Although precise numbers are difficult to verify, Bremer's orders left several hundred thousand Iraqis, many with military training and weapons, jobless and angry. Both orders surprised military commanders in Iraq, many of whom objected strenuously.
Almost two decades have elapsed since the gulf war provided the first glimpse of a range of technologies and weapons heralding the revival of American military power and a possible revolution in the conduct of warfare. The war publicized and intensified the debate about a contemporary revolution in military affairs in which technological advances were supposedly leading to profound changes in warfare on par with some of history's great military transformations such as the introduction of gunpowder weapons, the Napoleonic reforms, and Germany's mechanized blitzkrieg. The debate has proceeded along two intertwined tracks. On a theoretical level, there were broad, general, and even grandiose predictions about the emergence of new forms of war reflecting the information revolution sweeping the society as a whole. On a policy level, the focus was on exploiting these new technologies to solve the United States' most pressing military and strategic challenges. Desert Storm appeared to confirm predictions of an RMA while validating the direction of the American defense policy since Vietnam. Recent experience in Iraq, however, has taken the shine off the RMA and called into question much of American defense policy derived from such notions. Some have even come to view the RMA with nostalgia, the military equivalent of the hula-hoop, which has little relevance for post–Iraq debates about warfare and defense policy. “Ah, the ‘revolution in military affairs,’” Frank Hoffman begins wistfully before dismissing it as “a blast from the past, a piece of pre-9/11 prehistory.”
Many saw the United States' decisive victory in Desert Storm (1991) as not only vindication of American defense policy since Vietnam but also confirmation of a revolution in military affairs (RMA). Just as information-age technologies were revolutionizing civilian life, the Gulf War appeared to reflect similarly profound changes in warfare. A debate has raged ever since about a contemporary RMA and its implications for American defense policy. Addressing these issues, The Iraq Wars and America's Military Revolution is a comprehensive study of the Iraq Wars in the context of the RMA debate. Focusing on the creation of a reconnaissance-strike complex and conceptions of parallel or nonlinear warfare, Keith L. Shimko finds a persuasive case for a contemporary RMA while recognizing its limitations as well as promise.
Although there had been indications toward the end of July of suspicious Iraqi troop movements, the August 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait came as a surprise to almost everyone. The invasion was swift as the Kuwaiti military was able to offer only token resistance. Kuwaitis able to flee the country did so, leaving their less fortunate compatriots to suffer Iraq's brutal occupation. Saddam no doubt hoped the speed of conquest would present the world with a fait accompli. No one in the region possessed the military power to evict Iraq by force, and there was little reason for him to think that more distant powers would intervene on Kuwait's behalf. He must have expected that the world would eventually come to terms, however grudgingly, with Kuwait's incorporation into Iraq. Within a week of the invasion the conquest was complete, and Kuwait was declared part of a new nineteenth province of Iraq. Kuwait had ceased to exist as an independent state before anyone had a chance to react.
In that first week, however, Kuwait's fate was not the most immediate concern. There was little that could be done at the moment for Kuwait. The more pressing issue was whether the conquest of Kuwait was an end in itself or merely the prelude to an attack on the bigger prize of Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi military might put up more of a fight, most bets would have been on Iraq in that matchup.
The conduct and outcome of the first Iraq War in 1991 came as something of a revelation to the majority of Americans who had little reason to follow the previous decade's advances in military technologies and innovations in war-fighting doctrine. It was, in the words of Colin Gray, “a flash in the sky of strategic consciousness.” The war's conduct was unusual in that weeks of relentless bombing preceded engagement with Iraqi ground forces, leaving many wondering when the real war would begin. In the absence of actual ground combat by the coalition, pressure mounted to let the American people know exactly how Kuwait was going to be liberated. Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf agreed on the need to provide more information about the war's progress and the plan for victory. At a news conference a week into the war, they explained the coalition's actions and strategy. Powell described the plan to defeat the Iraqi army in vivid terms: “Our strategy to go after the enemy is very, very simple. First we're going to cut it off and then we are going to kill it.” Powell and Schwarzkopf arrived at the press conference armed with visual aids. After showing footage of a lone car crossing a bridge through crosshairs, Schwarzkopf declared the driver the “luckiest person in Iraq” as a guided bomb raced toward the bridge, hitting it dead-on just as the car appeared to reach safety on the other side.
It is hard to argue with success, and there is little doubt that Desert Storm was a success, at least in military terms. Certainly the war revealed deficiencies, and nothing is ever perfect. But on the whole, the war's result was taken as a vindication of American defense policy over the preceding fifteen years. Not everyone had been convinced that the United States was on the right track. Politicians and defense analysts associated with the “military reform movement” in the early 1980s, for example, viewed with suspicion the Defense Department's fascination or fixation with high-tech weapons they considered too expensive, complex, and unreliable. Better they thought to acquire a larger quantity of cheaper weapons that worked than some technological marvel prone to breakdown that might be too expensive to risk losing in battle. The Gulf War appeared to resolve this debate as key weapons systems performed better than even many of their supporters hoped. This positive evaluation of the road taken was easily transformed into a prospective judgment about the road ahead: American defense policy should continue along the same trajectory that brought it from Vietnam to Desert Storm. Not only is it difficult to argue with success; it is also best not to mess with it.
Reflecting an assessment similar to that of the Gulf War Air Power Survey, Michael Vickers argues that “when the Cold War ended and victory in the Persian Gulf endowed the United States with the mantel of the ‘world's only superpower,’ Americans found themselves in the possession of a force already exhibiting incipient RMA capabilities – stealth, precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and all weather-imaging satellites, for example.
When his campaign for the presidency began, George W. Bush's foreign and defense policy views were something of mystery. There was little indication that he had devoted much thought to international issues of the day, and as a two-term governor of Texas, there was no need for him to do so. To be taken seriously as a future commander-in-chief, however, he could not remain a blank slate, especially since Senator John McCain was expected to be his chief rival for the Republican nomination. Given McCain's distinguished military career and nearly two decades in the Senate, he was sure to paint Bush as a foreign and defense policy neophyte, although whether this line of attack would carry much weight in the relatively serene international environment of the late 1990s was unclear. But Bush did not wait long to stake out his position, using a speech at the Citadel military academy in September 1999 to provide the first indications of his vision for American foreign and defense policy.
Bush's speech began unremarkably, consisting largely of widely voiced conservative criticisms of the Clinton era. Bush promised to “renew the bond of trust between the American President and the American military,” suggesting, of course, that the antimilitary and borderline draft-dodging Clinton had severed the bond. Claiming that “not since the years before Pearl Harbor has our investment in national defense been so low as a percentage of GNP,” he pledged to reverse the decline in defense spending begun by his father and continued under Clinton.