Detailed 'Crusade' sheds light on decisions, dramas of the gulf war

October 24, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia

Title: "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War"

Author: Rick Atkinson

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 523 pages, $24.95 Not long after the Persian Gulf War ended in March 1991, men and women who had just survived the most harrowing experience of their lives came home to wildly enthusiastic public acclaim. But many discovered that little of what they knew of the war against Iraq had reached the home front, despite the journalists encamped in Saudi Arabia and the relentless, repetitive coverage of the "action" on live television.

The Pentagon's heavy-handed control of the press, compounded by various field commanders who kept reporters at bay, forced news-hungry Americans to focus narrowly on how the war was being managed in Washington and the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf ran his underground command post.

Few dispatches from the front described the fighting, the true extent of damage caused by air strikes, or even how the fog of war caused Americans to kill each other on the battlefield.

With limited access to military units in the field, reporters chewed over the great Scud hunt, preparations for the ground war and whether Marines would hit the beaches of Kuwait. But there wasn't much to report about other wartime developments: the B-52 bomber raids, the special operations forces, the raging interservice rivalries and the sometimes competing interests of the allied armies, to name a few.

What Rick Atkinson attempts in "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War" is to fill in most of the gaps, and he does it with remarkable skill and precision. The book aspires to be more than mere reportage; its ambitious telling of the buildup to war and the 100-hour rout of Iraqi forces by the U.S.-led coalition is reminiscent of some of the best military histories of World War II, especially John Keegan's "Six Armies in Normandy."

Mr. Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter for the Washington Post, covered most of the war from the Pentagon. For this book, he interviewed more than 500 participants and tracked down the after-action reports to reconstruct the course of the war. He drew liberally from media "pool" reports, articles in The Sun and other publications, and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Other sources are used to full advantage, including drafts of military studies that have just been released and books by Post colleagues Bob Woodward and Molly Moore. While this exhaustive research contributes to the book's historical sweep, Mr. Atkinson doesn't spend too much time recounting other people's work.

When he treads on familiar ground, the author adds new detailsto sharpen the narrative and make it fresh and compelling. The book sorts out exactly what Israel, Britain, France and the Soviet Union were doing in the war and sheds new light on shadowy wartime operations, such as the Scud-hunting missions Delta Force commandos and the unleashing of non-lethal weapons to sabotage Iraqi's electrical systems.

Much of the prepublication publicity about the book has centered on its portrayal of General Schwarzkopf as a foul-mouthed leader with a dysfunctional temper who needed to be cajoled and humored by his deputy, Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, and his superior, Gen. Colin L. Powell.

But Mr. Atkinson suggests that this personality flaw may have been part of the man's genius as the gulf war commander. The general terrorized his subordinates but his constant questioning, prodding and even bullying forced them to come up with operational plans that were creative but not reckless.

General Schwarzkopf is also depicted as showing admirable restraint. Despite an inability to keep Scud missiles from raining down on Israel, the general rejected a desperate Air Force plan to divert nearly all allied aircraft to a three-day campaign to flatten west of Baghdad. The American people "would not abide certain acts of war, however justifiable from a military standpoint," Mr. Atkinson writes.

For all the fascinating behind-the-scenes intrigue, the best parts of the book describe the war from the point of view of the Americans who fought it, telling the stories of fear, courage and heroism that the military inexplicably kept from reporters and the public as the war unfolded.

Dozens of individual dramas are woven into this fast-paced, chronological account of the war, some of them crafted to convey much of the fear and suspense felt by the men under fire.

Whether by design or not, many of these war stories show how chance -- or dumb luck -- and an unsophisticated enemy contributed to the personal triumphs of the superbly trained U.S. combatants. Little things often went wrong, intensifying the uncertainty and danger.

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