WASHINGTON -- The way military historian Trevor Dupuy sees it, the lesson of the gulf war is as ancient as warfare itself.
"The most important lesson is that the fundamental principles of war that were valid at the time of Alexander the Great were as true today as they ever were: mobility, mass and maneuver," Mr. Dupuy said. And because the United States adhered closely to all three, he said, Operation Desert Storm "was probably as close to a flawless operation as has ever been done."
It also didn't hurt to have secret warriors on the prowl behind enemy lines in the desert, unsung robotic simulators that helped train pilots to "Top Gun" sharpness, up-to-the-minute satellite photos of practically every enemy position, warplanes free to roam wherever they wanted and an opposing commander as rigid as the Sphinx.
Among the pleasant surprises were the secret fighting units, also known as Special Operations units, or "special ops." While Americans at home watched the pyrotechnics of the air war beginning over Baghdad, these outfits were parachuting behind enemy lines into Kuwait and Iraq, in places as far off as Kurdistan, then moving by night to their missions in muffled, ultralight dune buggies.
"They were in there from the very beginning," said James F. Dunnigan, a military analyst working on a Persian Gulf war book, From Shield to Storm. "They were up in Kurdistan, they were all over the place. They think they've lost a number [of these soldiers] which they haven't confirmed yet. But that's the rules they play by."
The units "were invaluable for intelligence," he said.
One thing they did was cut the fiber-optic lines that connected Iraqi units to their commanders, he said.
Less likely as a hero, and even more unsung, are the robotic flight simulators found on U.S. bases where pilots are trained. But they played a key role in the air war, which in turn was the key to the ease of coalition success.
"The simulators played a big role," Mr. Dunnigan said.
"You can do things you wouldn't dare do [in a real plane]," Mr. Dunnigan said. "They might say, 'Let's see you bring it in with half the wing gone,' or, 'Let's see you try to take it in at 50 feet off the ground and see if the bombing will work that way.' "
As a result, he said, many planes got back to base that wouldn't have without a pilot who had already "flown" by trial and error in such conditions.
The biggest pleasant surprise of the war was the incredibly low rate of U.S. casualties once the ground fighting started.
And, as military analyst and consultant Harry Summers, of Bowie, said: "From the fact that [commanding Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf] stockpiled 60 days of supplies, it was obvious he didn't think it was going to be this easy, either."
But a clue to why victory came so easy might be found in the biggest miscalculation of the war by U.S. military intelligence. Though an estimated 450,000 Iraqi troops were said to be arrayed in the war zone, Army officials now say privately the figure may have been as low as 250,000 by the time the ground offensive began.
Mr. Dunnigan thinks the latter figure is too low, but he agrees that the earlier numbers "just didn't add up. . . . It was probably more like about 300,000."
How did the mistake occur?
Mr. Dunnigan blames two factors. Satellite photos, he said, showed 40 Iraqi "formations," which normally would include about 10,000 troops each, plus others in medical and supply outfits.
"But how many of these units actually got up to strength is hard to say. A lot of guys apparently didn't show up for the train ride south, perhaps to the extent of 30 or 40 percent. It's apparently pretty easy to disappear in Iraq. They're not going to go look after Mohammed the farmer. He can go to his cousin's village and work in the fields for a while."
Also, once the troops were in place, it probably wasn't that hard for some soldiers to desert despite the threat of execution for those who were caught.
But this error, at least, didn't cost any U.S. lives. "It was one case in which I was gloriously happy to have been wrong," Mr. Summers said.
Other surprises included several poor-mouthed weapons systems that performed far better than expected. The M-1A1 tank, for instance, had been decried as a breakdown waiting to happen. Instead, as Mr. Herman said, "They just moved 1,500 of those things across the desert at lightning speed."
But not all the expensive weapons now being touted as successes were tested on the very things that were supposed to be their weaknesses.
The Bradley Fighting Vehicle, for instance, supposedly had trouble in field trials in shooting down air targets unless they were standing still. In the gulf war the Bradleys had virtually no air targets to fire at.
Also, considering the opposition, Mr. Dunnigan argues that even the successes of the M-1A1 (which he praises as "a gonzo weapon") might have been just as easily achieved with less expensive weapons.