Authors View the Conflict From a Historical Perspective WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

They have covered warfare from a variety of perspectives: Neil Sheehan has written about the Vietnam War, James McPherson about the Civil War, Carlo D'Este on World War II and Kenneth J. Hagan on naval history. In interviews with The Sun, they discussed their impressions of the war in the Persian Gulf in relation to their own specialties.

Neil Sheehan

Mr. Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1989 for his epic "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam," which grew out his days covering that war for the New York Times in the 1960s. To him, the recent hostilities in the gulf pointed out the paradox of wars -- that they can be both startingly similar and strikingly unique.

"The war in the gulf bore no resemblance to the war in Vietnam," Mr. Sheehan said from his home in Washington. "The problem in Vietnam was never a military one -- it was a political and social problem. Force was never a solution in Vietnam. It is a fundamental misreading of Vietnam to think if the U.S. had only used more force it would have won the war."

But he added: "Vietnam did affect the war in the gulf in that in Vietnam the American generals violated a fundamental principle of war -- they fought on the enemy's terms. They fought out in the jungle, on Vietnamese terms.

"As the late George Patton used to say, any damn fool can get killed for his country -- the point is to make the other poor s.o.b. die for his country. The American generals this time did not fight on the enemy's terms. They never attacked the minefields and the fortifications head-on. They went around, which was the intelligent thing to do. Intelligent generals do that in all wars."

Not fighting on the enemy's terms, he says, is one of two lessons to be learned from the gulf war, he said. The other "is not the lesson that people would like to draw. This war was an exception. Wars are not easy, and if you conclude they are you could end up in a catastrophe. This war was like you or me getting into the ring with Muhammad Ali at the height of his prowess. There was no way the Iraqis would win."

James McPherson

Mr. McPherson, one of the leading scholars of the American Civil War, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989 for "Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era." A professor of history at Princeton University, he notes that "it's hard to see any parallels in the military operation" of the gulf war and the Civil War, but sees "a couple of similarities."

"Both wars were about sovereignty," Mr. McPherson said. "In both cases, both sides saw sovereignty as an uncompromising issue. Lincoln insisted that the federal government had sovereignty over all the states. The South insisted it was sovereign over 11 of them. Lincoln said to the South, 'You have no right to form an independent government' -- just as Bush said to the Iraqis."

And, he says, "There was no maneuvering ground for any kind of settlement. Lincoln insisted on unconditional surrender, just as Bush insisted on unconditional withdrawal."

Carlo D'Este

An Army officer from 1958 to 1978, Mr. D'Este has written two critically acclaimed books on World War II -- "Decision in Normandy" and "Bitter Victory," the latter about the war in Sicily -- and a third book, "Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle of Verona," will be published in June by HarperCollins. Reached at his home on Cape Cod, he spoke about his admiration for the U.S. soldiers in the gulf war.

"World War II was fought by a people's army, largely made up of conscripts and people who were drafted to augment the terribly small regular army we had going into the war," he said. "This time it was a volunteer, professional army.

"The singular thing the two armies have in common is the courage of the average GI and the officers. The training and everything else, there were major differences. It was very evident that the training has really paid off."

Like many others, Mr. D'Este was struck by the advances in technology in the gulf war.

"At Anzio, guys were almost frozen half to death in the mud in a stalemated situation. Anzio simply wouldn't be possible today because of the air mobility and the high technology. The air has played a new role. This is the first time where the air battle has had a fairly significant role in the ground battle. It didn't win it but certainly set it up."

Kenneth J. Hagan

Mr. Hagan is professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and director of the Naval Academy Museum, as well as the author of "This People's Navy: the Making of American Sea Power," recently published by the Free Press. To him, the gulf war has obvious parallels with another war few Americans today know much about: the Spanish-American War of 1898.

"One, they were enormously popular," he said. "I don't think we've had this level of popularity in a war in a long time. World War II was popular, yes, but it dragged on for so long. And that's the second parallel: like the Spanish-American war, this one was very, very short.

"Third, we were fighting a much, much weaker power. Spain was overestimated. It collapsed the way Iraq collapsed."

He also noted that the Navy in the two wars had been designed for what he called "major-fleet battles," or large-scale involvements, yet had great success using other tactics. "For instance, we had battleships such as the Missouri, which were designed for fleet engagements with the Japanese, used for off-shore involvement."

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