How Will the Persian Gulf War be Recorded in History?

March 01, 1992|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,Michael Hill is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

A year ago, America was basking in the afterglow of Desert Storm. The much-feared ground offensive into Iraq and Kuwait had turned into a nearly-unopposed romp across the sands. The cease-fire was two days old.

The pendulum of popular culture has already swung, as the orgiastic excess of the post-war pride has become an oddly-distant memory, clouded by the economic storms of more recent troubles.

That's a year later. What about five, ten, 20, maybe 50 years from now? How will the war in the Persian Gulf go down in history? What is its lasting significance?

"I think that depends on how it turns out," said Stephen Ambrose, a history professor at the University of New Orleans who often writes on military matters. "There are a lot of different scenarios, not very many of them pleasant.

"This war was so sharply divergent from our experiences in World War I and World War II. It was more like Korea. We didn't march in and take over the enemy's capital and get rid of its leader. In World Wars I and II, we were the clear victor. That's not the case here."

Though the focus in the past year has been on the stunning success of the military and the ambiguities of the diplomatic situation with Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq, most historians interviewed felt that the war will eventually be seen as having an important diplomatic and political impact while its military significance will be negligible.

"Bush will get credit for his diplomacy, for uniting a coalition to oppose naked aggression," Dr. Ambrose said. "That is something that has not been done very often in history."

"I think it will go down as a success," said Michael Mandelbaum, a professor who specializes in American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington.

"It is a limited success, limited more by the nature of the region than by anything else," Dr. Mandelbaum said, pointing to the inevitable complexities of Mideast politics.

"The problem is that the war was oversold," he said of the pendulum swing in popular opinion. "It did improve the possibilities for democracy and stability in the Middle East, but it didn't create a new world order. There was no way it could."

"How the war is viewed in history will depend on if anything comes out of the current Mideast peace negotiations," William ,, Roberts, an associate professor at the Naval Academy's history department, said.

Dr. Mandelbaum and Peter Rodman, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute in Washington, agreed that what the war did do was to strengthen the United States' ability to control the peace processes in the Middle East.

"The war broke the back of the Arab rejectionist front," Mr. Rodman said, referring to those states, led by Iraq and Syria, that had blocked any negotiations with Israel.

"The balance of power shifted to the moderate states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It allowed the Palestinians to start talking to Israel about autonomy over the objections of a weakened PLO.

"The point of the war was to keep Hussein from becoming the dominant power in the region and from controlling OPEC. That's why he invaded Kuwait," said Mr. Rodman, who was a National Security Council official in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "I think if we hadn't gone to war, Hussein would have had a nuclear bomb by now. These objectives were worth going to war for."

Despite the overwhelming military success, the Naval Academy's Dr. Roberts, a specialist in the history of the Army, said that the most lasting impact on the military will not be in the area of tactics or strategy or weaponry.

"The Gulf War experience changed the viewpoint of the military toward the rest of society, and it changed the status of the military in society," he said. "I think that effect on the military's morale will be a lasting influence of the war. A year ago I would have said the war did the same thing for the morale of the country, but that turned out not to be the case."

"It was a very impressive and professional military victory," Dr. Mandelbaum said. "But it must be remembered it was against a Third World army that didn't want to fight and didn't fight. This wasn't World War II."

Despite the impressive success of air power -- the videotapes of hits by "smart" bombs are among the war's most lasting images -- Roger Dunsford, a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force currently teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, said that the cadets are being taught that few lessons can be learned from Desert Storm.

"We teach that you cannot make conclusions about the abilities of the Soviet equipment from this war," he said. "Even though the Iraqis were Soviet-equipped and Soviet-trained, they did not fight with the Soviet tactics you would expect. Another army with this equipment could have put up a much stronger fight."

The historical lessons for the Navy were even more limited, according to Robert Love of the Naval Academy's history department.

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