“Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged. This conflict started Aug. 2, when the dictator of Iraq invaded a small and helpless neighbor. Kuwait, a member of the Arab League and a member of the United Nations, was crushed, its people brutalized. Five months ago, Saddam Hussein started this cruel war against Kuwait; tonight, the battle has been joined.”
– President George H.W. Bush, Jan. 16, 1991.
On today’s date, January 16 in 1991, U.S. and Allied air forces commenced an attack on Iraqi military forces both in Iraq and Kuwait. The attack was the first phase of Operation Desert Storm, which was designed to forcibly eject the Iraqi army from the nation of Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded the previous August.
Saddam Invades Kuwait
On August 2 in 1990 Saddam Hussein, the Dictator of Iraq, ordered his army to invade and occupy his small neighbor to the Southeast, Kuwait. His reasons for this remain unclear, but he had using Soviet made tanks such as the T72, built his army into the fourth largest in the world. He was quite likely trying to “take his place” as the preeminent leader in the Arab world, and by grabbing the oil rich Kingdom of Kuwait he put himself in control of some 20% of the world’s oil supply and put himself to within reach of another 20% in Saudi Arabia. This would give him vast new sums of money with which to build his military machine, and possibly build his stock of chemical weapons. Saddam was a ruthless Dictator, and had shown himself willing to use such weapons against his own citizens.
President Bush Takes Action
To United States President George Herbert Walker Bush, such an invasion was clearly a violation of International Law, and could not be allowed to stand. In the days that followed, he would work the phones from his office and assemble a coalition of over twenty nations to oppose what he called naked aggression by Iraq against a helpless neighbor. Of course there was a question of Oil. But there was also a moral factor which animated Bush’s actions. As he recorded in his private diary:
“Hearing stories about Iraq’s treatment of Kuwait. Brutalities committed against it’s people. The atrocities really hit me, giving urgency to my desire to do something active to respond.”
Towards that end he assembled a huge force not only to deter any further Iraqi aggression, but to force Saddam out of Kuwait. He also adopted a strategy of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions to leave no peaceful means untried. As James Baker put it: “We developed a policy of coercive diplomacy. In effect saying ‘You get out, you get out unconditionally. and if you don’t we’re gonna use political sanctions, economic sanctions, anything we can to get you to leave, and if you don’t leave after all that, then we’re gonna throw you out.”
Desert Storm Commences
The deadline set in U.N. Resolution 678 was January 15, 1991. And in spite of exhaustive diplomatic efforts toward a non-lethal solution, it came and went. At 6:38 pm on this evening in 1991, bombs and anti-aircraft fir lit up the skies over Baghdad (see the image at the top of this posting). That evening, I was practicing for an Austin Symphony rehearsal,
but I had a small TV set on following the news. Dr. Judith Jellison, a fine teacher of Music Education came into my office to watch for a bit. The announcer said “An attack is apparently now in progress..” and Judith and I exchanged worried looks. “Insanity!” she said. The news people in Baghdad were caught between taking cover and trying to cover the lethal light show that was going on in Baghdad. CNN’s Bernard Shaw (above) reported the news while James Baker watched. Shaw (broadcasting from a Baghdad hotel): “I am just crouching down here on the floor and it is eerily quiet right now…” Baker: “The deadline’s passed and not much is happening, and all of a sudden the sky lit up!” Shaw: “In the sky to my left to my right, flashes, flashes of light, and then the ground shook..” Baker: “And they dived under their desks..”
The newspapers the next morning were full of the previous night’s news. “It’s WAR!!” trumpeted the Cincinnati Post (above). “WAR IN GULF” said the Austin American Statesman. “US AT WAR” was in huge letters across the top of the Cincinnati Enquirer. It is interesting to note the first paragraph of each publication’s coverage. The Enquirer: “President Bush summoned US and Allied forces into war with Iraq on Wednesday night, declaring, ‘The Battle has been joined’ to free Kuwait.” Austin American Statesman: “War with Iraq began Wednesday as hundreds of US, British and Saudi Arabian warplanes bombed strategic targets in Iraq and occupied Kuwait after fruitlessly demanding for 5 1/2 months that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait.” And finally the Post (From the A.P. Wires): “President Bush plunged America into war against a defiant Iraq, saying ‘the world could wait no longer’ to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.”
The Air War is a Success
The first phase of this war was to utilize overwhelming force to crush the Iraqi defenses. Coalition forces unleashed a “shock and awe’ air campaign. F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighters, Tomahawk Cruise Missiles launched from Battleships, Apache Attack Helicopters, and laser guided smart bombs targeting early warning radar sights, military facilities, and key communication centers. Within 24 hours Saddam’s air defenses had been utterly annihilated, leaving the Allied pilots to attack their targets virtually at will for the next several weeks, weakening Iraqi defenses for the ground campaign which was certain to come. That first night 56 missions were launched, and 56 pilots returned safely.
“The Commander in Chief: Inside the Oval Office – The Gulf War” Military Channel Documentary, Ex. Prod. – Stephen David, Written by Ed Fields, and David Schaye, May, 2013.
The Cincinnati Post, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Austin American Statesman, all from their editions of Thursday morning, January 17, 1991.