Preview: "The Gulf War" looks back, through the hype, and buries the notion that Desert Storm was a great victory for the United States.


January 09, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you think Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell are great generals, and that the defeat of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1991 was a brilliant victory, you need to see "The Gulf War," a provocative two-part "Frontline" special starting at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (26).

The four-hour report, whose second part is tomorrow night at 9, is one of the first television efforts to take viewers beyond the jingoism of Lee Greenwood's "I'm Proud To Be an American" and the staged pictures and public relations lies that CNN and network news so willingly fed to the American public on behalf of the military. This is PBS' "Frontline" at its journalistic best.

Tonight's installment sets the stage for the air battle that came to prime time five years ago on Jan. 16, when anti-aircraft fire lit the skies over Baghdad. The theme is that America's military could not think about challenging Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait without remembering America's defeat in Vietnam. As a result, the report says, the generals did not think clearly.

"Vietnam is the poltergeist in this whole thing," says Rick Atkinson, author of "Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War."

And, because of Vietnam, "there was very little enthusiasm in the military for throwing Saddam out of Kuwait militarily," according to Robert Gates, the former deputy national security adviser.

Britain's chief air marshal, Sir Patrick Hines, says he was "astonished" to hear Colin Powell tell him that economic sanctions, which were put in place against Iraq, were sure to work and that we should hold off on any military action for at least two years while the sanctions drove Saddam out of Kuwait.

The one military man who did not think sanctions would work and who was willing to use force, though, was the one who mattered: George Bush, commander-in-chief.

Bush, unlike Powell and most of the others in charge at the Pentagon, did not see military matters and foreign affairs through the prism of Vietnam. His model was World War II, which was also the model for Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "Frontline" documents Thatcher's influence on Bush and the president's subsequent demonization of Saddam Hussein as a Hitler. Maggie was the one who put the starch in George's spine with her talk about how "bullies must be thrashed," according to the report.

But tonight's revelations about what went on backstage leading up to Jan. 16, 1991, are small potatoes compared with what we find out about how the generals behaved off-camera once the war started.

The Allied ground and air commanders were at each others' throats. The air planners thought strategic bombing alone could win the war, but the ground commanders wanted the air commanders to quit bombing Baghdad and start bombing Iraqi troops on the front lines.

Army Lieutenant General Call Waller proudly recounts his dealing with Air Force General Buster Glosson: "I distinctly remember telling Buster Glosson one day, 'Buster, if you divert another flight of aircraft without my approval, I'm going to choke your tongue out.' I think he got the message."

If you think that sounds just a bit over the top, wait until you hear Powell describe Schwarzkopf's explosion when Schwarzkopf was told that Bush wanted him to quit waiting for perfect weather and start the ground war already. Powell quotes Schwarzkopf as saying to him: "You do not understand my problem. You're talking in political terms. And, if you don't care about young people, well, I do."

Powell says of his own response: "That did it. I started shouting back, 'I care as much as you do, but there's a limit, and I have to work in both the political world and the military world.' "

According to Powell, Schwarzkopf then said: "Colin, I think I'm losing it. I feel my head's in a vice."

Powell says he talked Schwarzkopf down, and the battle began.

That's not the cocky, swaggering Schwarzkopf who starred in the prime-time press conferences from Saudi Arabia. Virtually everyone interviewed in the report describes Schwarzkopf's battle plans as one wrong call after another. Luckily, for the generals, the Iraqis were more inept than anyone could have imagined, and television news mostly reported only what was fed to it by the military.

Without being heavy-handed, "The Gulf War" is a damning indictment of television news coverage during the war. CNN and the networks got into bed with the military when it struck the following deal: The military would give them hot visuals, and the network news managers would ignore their responsibility as gatekeepers by feeding government-controlled words and unfiltered images into our living rooms.

As for Powell, his political-military advice during and after the war seems just as misguided as his certainty before the fighting that sanctions could bring Hussein to heel. Powell is the one who did not want to finish off Hussein and his Republican Guard, according to the report. Powell is also the one who told Bush we should not intervene after the Persian Gulf war when Hussein started slaughtering Kurds and Shiites.

"There is an aggressor, Saddam Hussein, who is still in power," says Thatcher, the former prime minister. "There is the president of the United States [Bush], no longer in power. There is the prime minister of Great Britain [Thatcher], no longer in power. I wonder who won."

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