Security

A Fascinating, Unique View from the Greatest US Military Campaign: Desert Storm

Most people will never have a front row seat to one of the seminal moments of world history, a moment that helped shape our 21st century world. I would argue that the 1991 Gulf War, also known in popular lore as Operation Desert Storm, was easily and far and away the finest moment in the history of US Military Science. One of the great fortunes of my life is that I squarely found myself, by sheer chance, smack dab in the very middle of that glorious and dominant US victory, as a civilian 12 year old no less. It all happened safely for my family and I, though I was afraid that wouldn’t be the case at the time. Admittedly at that age nothing, nothing could possibly be cooler to me than watching Team America and the awesome international military coalition it led bring a devastating amount of violent firepower to bear against Iraq starting on January 17.

Desert Storm was in fact a perfect storm. This splendid little war had it all. Most importantly, here was a cause that was generally viewed as morally just in comparison to past US military misadventures such as Vietnam or the ones that came later. First, we had a rare laser focus by the US government- unveiling its shiny new laser-guided arsenal for the very first time, to project overwhelming force over an enemy far from the homeland and then go home upon completing the objective. Next we have that exquisitely evil villain of comic book proportions, the cruel Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who invaded and took over his tiny neighbor Kuwait with gruesome violence and gleeful torture, commanding one of the top 5 military machines in the world at the time, instilling fear across the region and around the world. A heroic, no-nonsense American battlefield commander straight out of central casting, appropriately named “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf masterfully led his troops with an excellent plan, while also methodically explaining the ferocious action day by day to the American public and to the rest of the world. January 1991 also featured a thrilling backdrop, where communism was collapsing and democracy seemed to be winning. An alliance of concerned nations led by American ally Saudi Arabia, the next most vulnerable state on Iraq’s border. A wildly successful air campaign led by the United States using precision guided weapons, which relentlessly decimated the Iraqi forces while minimizing civilian casualties, and pretty much won the entire war practically from the skies above. An almost comically minuscule count of casualties on the side of the good guys; to wit, after etching almost 60,000 names of our war dead on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, America buried just over 100 fallen soldiers from Desert Storm- after deploying over 500,000 to the combat zone. Let’s add an American mainstream media industry at the time that was actually worth a damn. An American 24/7 cable network called CNN at the height of its power and influence brilliantly and courageously reported on the entire war from wire to wire from within Baghdad and other fronts, for the first time in history opening up blow by blow, play by play a massive war for anyone sitting in the safety of their living room around the world with access to the cable channel. American troops during and after the war enjoyed the full support and adulation of civilian leadership and the proud US public, along with its oil-rich host in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, with whom US bilateral relations are now badly frayed. The whole gargantuan enterprise was captained competently by a US President, George H.W. Bush, who transcended bipartisan politics and international feuds to build a successful coordinated war machine involving dozens of countries. We may never see this level of domestic and international consensus in conflict ever again.

What all this adds up to is by far, by any and all possible objective measures, the most glorious moment in the history of the US armed forces establishment before or since. I’ll take this bet all day, my personal experience set aside. It was the pinnacle of the elusive and controversial concept of Team America, World Police. Sure, the dramatic end of WWII still represents the finest moment in US history since George Washington’s ragtag guerrilla victories against the Redcoats, period, but at the cost of heavy casualties to Americans and their allies, ultimately stained by perhaps the darkest deed ever committed in the name of US taxpayer dollars, the nuclear bombs dropped on Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Unlike many of you however, much of my experience of Desert Storm wasn’t just CNN or newspaper articles. My own war at just 12 years of age was IRL- In Real Life. And despite the passage of time it made such an unbelievably rich set of exciting and also frightening moments for me that I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday 32 years later.

It all started in August 1990, when Saddam’s forces overran Kuwait and occupied its oil-rich deserts, suddenly giving this power-hungry jerk control of an extraordinary fraction of the world’s oil and gas production. My family moved to the neighboring Saudi Arabia in 1987 from Bloomington, Indiana. At that time my father was a cancer-focused physician, researcher, and professor in Abha, Saudi Arabia, a gorgeous mountain town in the Southwest 7,000 feet above sea level with awesome weather year-round, in each direction outside of town a thousand beautiful parks featuring picnic points surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery. Just imagining again Abha’s awesome street food still makes me salivate 32 years after the last such transcendental morsels of flavor. Not exactly the perception most might have of Saudi Arabia, which is largely made up of brutally unforgiving desert and strict Islamic laws which made it a weird playground, or house of funhouse mirrors to live in. There was no alcohol, and women could not leave the front door of their home alone or drive cars back then. Yes, this was 1991 and not 991 Saudi Arabia.

I attended 6th grade at a small American private school called Asir Academy, named after the mighty Asir mountain region that rises near the Red Sea, nestled within a top-secret US-Saudi joint airbase near Abha’s twin city, Khamis Mushayt. Asir Academy was my daytime home for four years and was operated by the US military industrial complex, founded primarily to service the kids of military personnel and those supporting airbase operations. Also in attendance was a veritable United Nations of kids in grades K-9 from friendly countries such as Australia, Germany, Denmark, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Netherlands, Egypt, and from every American region, instructed in English by American teachers and textbooks, a time which I can describe as some of the best and most interesting days of my childhood, which shaped my global worldview and deep-rooted philosophies as an adult geopolitical thinker.

After Saddam took Kuwait, the United States embarked on the herculean logistical task of shipping a whopping 500,000 additional US troops from all armed force branches to Saudi Arabia adding to the force already in place there, including about 3,000 extra soldiers to bolster our Khamis Mushayt airbase by fall 1990 from what I heard (I bet this was classified information at the time, as is much of what you’ll read here). My school bus had to go through layers of security each morning, with a lot of badass-looking American military personnel in camo uniforms and armed to the teeth pointing heavy machine guns all around the checkpoints we passed through on the way in and out of the school campus. On a daily basis we got close enough to these guys to wave and say hi. They must have been amused about their totally random mission to protect us kids making up the most diverse elementary school in the world hidden in the heights of the Asir mountains. We were also very far away from the Iraqi border on the Northeast side of Saudi Arabia, so it wasn’t exactly near any front line, and for that reason perhaps a bit more relaxed than other bases. Plus it was an airbase- basically a giant airport complex with the runways mere feet from our classrooms where the world’s top military aircraft took off and landed regularly and we could get a close look at these jets whenever we wanted. I can’t think of a cooler elementary school environment to be in.

However, as the drumbeats of war started rising in volume late in 1990, in greater and greater earnest, many of my friends and my parents’ friends from abroad began evacuating the country one by one as a precaution, as most expats had a safe place to go to. All my best friends, all boys, methodically left with either their whole families or with their moms and siblings that fall, well before Desert Strom. My sixth grade class ended up consisting of a skeleton crew of our teacher, Mrs. Denise Barker, 7 or 8 girls from different countries, and…me, this shy pre-pubescent brown kid who absolutely did not enjoy the company of girls and spent most of the school day cringing at the endless string of inside jokes and giggling, waiting patiently for recess when he could play basketball or eat lunch with the boys in other grades in a reprieve from the nest of raging estrogen in homeroom. Interestingly most of these girls were a step ahead of me in their puberty development. Can you imagine that? To Mrs. Barker’s great credit, she spent a lot of extra time to make sure I was weathering the 12 year old female hormones around me. Tragic coincidence or not, surely if it were just one year later after some hormones of my own had kicked in, it would have been a whole different Desert Storm experience for us; instead I had no idea how to deal with these girls vying for attention, no doubt confused by my nervous attempts to make fun of them, or reroute conversation toward my safe spaces: Transformers or Indiana Hoosiers basketball.

My parents did something in late 1990 that I believe took a lot of general courage, and also a surprising level of trust in their middle school aged son. They resolved not to leave even if war broke out, although our apartment building, my dad’s hospital, and my school were clearing out of foreign nationals who went back home to avoid even the prospect of war. But all needed to remain running. Again, my best friends were gone, making for days of parrying female advances from an international coalition of middle school girls while having no friends to play chess or basketball with in my neighborhood after school or on weekends. My parents repeatedly and strongly encouraged me to move to India, a 3.5 hour flight away where my loving grandparents were requesting for me to stay with them to be safe from potential hostilities. I also had many friends and cousins my age in India who wanted me to get over, these relationships cultivated over my frequent visits from Saudi. I spent days agonizing over the decision, going back and forth time and again.

And then one fine day in December, I finally decided to go back to India. My parents were relieved, though again to their credit they did not force this major, consequential life decision on me (as they did other aspects of my 12 year old life). My mom called my grandfather to arrange my enrollment in the Indrali School in Udupi, where I’d already done some education before; my sister was already happily living with our grandparents and attending high school there after graduating from Asir Academy in 9th grade. My dad was making calls to travel agents to find my flight. My suitcase was even fully packed; I distinctly remember the contents included a big bottle of Orange Tang, then unavailable in India as it was literally the year before foreign trade opened up, and the powdered tasty treat most Western kids would take for granted promised to make me a highly popular kid in local Udupi youth circles. I also had a shiny green new American biology textbook from Asir Academy, beautifully illustrated in color, that I was eager to show off to my teachers and relatives upon reaching Indrali, a school which issued ragtag and poorly illustrated black and white Indian textbooks that looked crappier but were more advanced than American ones.

I was no hero. Yes, I felt a recurring knot of fear as I stayed up nights trying to decide whether to stay in Saudi Arabia with my parents, or run for safety and comfort- including disgustingly luscious levels of spoiling by my grandparents and their professional housemaids in India who took care of me on every visit since birth and were like family. Imagine zero chores, copious amounts of any food you wanted at any time of day or night, hours of cricket, carrom, and other play without my mom or anyone else restricting me, and various other adventures for a 12 year old only India can provide. I knew there would be no shame in leaving a potential conflict zone. The media showed on an endless loop frightening scenes of the just-concluded Iran/Iraq War, the massive and impressive-looking Iraqi army formations marching through Kuwait and Iraq, of Saddam and his goons looking scary, and retrospective looks at US failures like Vietnam. I distinctly remember people being less confident of an easy US-led victory before it all descended into real battle in the months before January 1991. And many were hoping and praying that war could be avoided entirely. On this question too I went back and forth, oscillating between fear and fascination at the prospect of being close to a war for the first time.

However, I noticed my parents were not afraid and had no intention of leaving, along with a small cabal of others they knew- mostly bachelors or in the case of married guys, just the man of the house staying behind after sending his wife and kids overseas. I listened intently as these adults talked every night in serious tones about the fast-moving situation. The main reason to feel confident in our physical safety around Abha in case of war breaking out was geography; while being in Saudi we were still far from the expected contours of the front line. Counterpoint, we were within range of Saddam’s arsenal of SCUD missiles, bomber jets, and could be potential targets like any Saudi city of chemical or biological weapons everyone knew he had and seemed willing to use. These prospects seemed all too real, the media of course played them up, some of the expats around us got hysterical, and to be honest such possibilities terrified me throughout my complex calculus of should I stay or should I go now? Thanks to the very real danger my dad as a US citizen was in fact appointed by the US State Department to help coordinate immediate evacuation of a group of other US citizens in our area if the US embassy put down the somber order based on the threat matrix. I remember him staying closely in touch with the other Americans. Finally, I’ll never forget seeing a program on Saudi television about gas masks which would be distributed in case of Saddam unleashing a chemical attack. Gas masks just look mortifying and didn’t make me feel better about the possibility of chemical attack, which I barely understood. On top of these images, I distinctly remember adult talking heads or teachers worrying how things could get escalated if Israel got involved, or Iran, or Yemen (a traditional Saudi nemesis), which was just a few miles from the Asir mountain range we lived on.

Despite all this at the 11th hour, suitcase packed, at some point in December 1990 I made a dramatic U-turn, cancelled all preparations for India, and decided to stay with my parents in Saudi Arabia, despite understanding the risks, even though I knew full well the country could turn into an active hot war zone with unknown consequences. I’d like to claim I made this decision out of bravery, or out of wanting to stay close to my parents during a time that promised to be deadly and dangerous. Instead, honestly, I decided to stay in Saudi Arabia of my own volition, despite my parents and extended family pushing me in the opposite direction, because I thought living near a war zone was going to be exciting. So I dug in, anxiously at peace with my decision to witness war up close, and have never regretted that huge life decision for a moment.

This perfectly coincided with something special that became an object of my adoration, and the impetus for me to write this 32 years later. During the run-up to January 17th my schoolmates, school staff, and I still remaining at Asir Academy were treated to a strange new phenomenon lurking just above our heads that was both sublime and spine-chilling. A new type of aircraft to us, jet black in color, evoking images of bats or vampires showed up to our airbase in large numbers, announcing their presence with agile maneuvers and booming sounds. We would later learn these were F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighters, arriving on the scene in preparation for their first major deployment in major battle in case Saddam felt like eating it. We were mere feet away from this awesome squadron of powerful weapons, which flew over in a top-secret mission I was among the few to know about. Just look at this gorgeous piece of aircraft artwork melded with American engineering ingenuity. More on this later.

The week before January 17th, 1991 was an unforgettable whirlwind of drama, debate, and mixed signals about what was really going on. Talking heads on CNN thought that peace had chance to prevail up to the last minute. Peaceniks begged in vain for the world to listen to reason and pleaded to save civilian lives with a negotiated settlement. I was nearly convinced by a friend of my parents from India that there was no chance of war, and America was just all bluster, so confident and knowledgeable he seemed. Well, there was still a chance as of that week for peace. If the Iraqis could be convinced to leave Iraq peacefully, President Bush and Secretary of State Jim Baker promised Iraq the entire assembled coalition would stand down. A part of me comprehended how important non-violence was, and like all Indian kids I had learned of the exploits of Mahatma Gandhi to defeat the British without a war. I thought Saddam leaving Kuwait peacefully was a good idea and might save valuable life.

But another part of me wanted to see a lot of bad guys get blown up real bad. Real bad. And to me at the time, in my unsophisticated view of the world, every Iraqi seemed evil right along with Saddam.

One night, my family attentively watched CNN in our living room as a highly anticipated last-ditch meeting took place between the top US diplomats and Iraqi diplomats. By the way CNN was the only thing showing most prime time hours on the only English channel available in the entire country. So by default we watched a lot of CNN around then. Secretary of State and elder statesman Jim Baker led the US delegation, and just afterwards gave a charged speech concluding that Iraq was not going to budge despite the threats the Americans and the rest of the world had unambiguously shared, and it was time for Iraq to face the consequences. At the end of this pivotal speech my dad jumped up and stated loudly and confidently: “There’s going to be a war!” Wow. It was finally about to get real, it seemed, after what felt like many long months of uncertainty and mixed signals. I felt a mix of emotions right then- excitement, anticipation, terror, sadness, relief, and deep pride in being an American. Unlike most Americans, I had taken the oath of citizenship in a judge’s private chambers in Indianapolis in 1989, and had readily promised to fight for America if called upon to do so from all enemies foreign or domestic. Although in 1991 I wasn’t old enough to sign up to fight, I felt that being nearby there was at least the next best thing.

One of the next few mornings was January 17th, 1991, and as soon as I woke up my mother informed me somberly that President Bush had ordered the first bombs to be dropped on Iraq. Desert Storm had finally begun, and I was going to be right there for it. I couldn’t help but smile and start watching the dramatic footage unfolding on CNN.

School went on as normal at Asir Academy for the duration of Desert Storm, but now laced with a new, unfamiliar, frantic buzz. We received emergency communications and did safety drills in the unlikely case of Iraqi air raids or missiles reaching our remote mountain region. We observed in fascination and fear as Iraqi SCUDS began to land in parts of Saudi Arabia not terribly far from us. Our teachers spent a lot of time teaching us about what was going on and letting us all watch the news for long stretches- probably because they wanted to watch the news as much as we did while dramatic developments unfolded daily over the course of the war. There certainly couldn’t be a better social studies education than that, as those of us expat kids remaining in the area were about to learn cultural, political, and historic contexts about the United States and the Middle East in a way that nobody outside the region possibly could. This was made even more interesting because of the wildly different national and ethnic backgrounds that made up the student body. We weren’t all Americans after all, and the families of my classmates from, say, Pakistan understandably had divergent views and feelings around what was unfolding.

For my part, being a self-proclaimed patriot who loved the United States unconditionally, I ate up the steady diet of US air war domination CNN showed us, and mourned the reports of coalition casualties. I freaked out over the Western pilots shot down, captured, and tortured as prisoners of war in Iraq. And early on in the conflict I was able to make a mind-blowing connection between the devastating and relentless air campaign and my own life: a significant percentage of the sorties were clearly being conducted by the aircraft housed right where I was in Khamis Mushayt. In fact, many mornings during Desert Storm as my school bus passed through the security gates onto campus, we could see parades of aircraft landing after bombing Iraq overnight. And the most glorious sight of all was the F-117A Nighthawks just above our heads as we pulled into school in the mornings, coming back to base for rest and refuel. CNN informed us these fighter-bombers were responsible for an inordinate amount of damage in Iraq, from “an undisclosed location in Southwestern Saudi Arabia” the caption accompanying footage of the awesome Stealth fighter-bombers flying above mountain terrain- those were my own mountains and those were the same planes I saw in real life engaging in all that sweet, deadly action!

As we all now know, the F-117A had a wildly successful run in Desert Storm beyond the hopes of even the military planners who sent them there. With their effective combination of stealth that allowed them to fly freely above enemy airspace, and laser-guided precision munitions, they rained so much hellfire upon Iraq to arguably retain the claim to being the most effective weapon in America’s most successful war of all time. They easily evaded Iraqi air defense systems. A short ground war followed the air campaign to mop up whatever Iraqi fighting forces were left, but this 4-day affair led by tanks and armored vehicles was just a formality by that point with lines of Iraqis surrendering immediately or burning Kuwaiti oil wells. America’s air forces had done the vast majority of the damage, and even considering the successful destruction wrought by other classes of US jets such as the F-15 Eagle, another bird we frequently saw flying around us while at school, there can be no doubt that the Nighthawk was the ultimate hero of Desert Storm, the tip of the spear of the tip of the spear.

After the war ended in resounding success for the United States, the mood at home and school became both jubilant and relieved. I had some harrowingly tense moments. On a weekend afternoon about halfway through Desert Storm when my parents were out and I was home alone, a loud and piercing local air raid siren went off. It sounded exactly like the ones we all heard in footages of Baghdad while Wolf Blitzer or Bernard Shaw explained the Iraqi capital was under bombardment. It was a super eerie sound, and suddenly I feared for my life and there I was, freaked out, home alone, with no way of contacting my parents in an era before cell phones. Was it a chemical attack from Saddam? Or just a drill? I didn’t know, and wasn’t taking any chances. We didn’t have any gas masks at home. I remembered being told by a classmate at school that the next best thing to having a gas mask in a chemical attack was to soak a big towel in water and cover your face with it. So that’s exactly what I did, cowering in the living room away from any windows and nervously watching TV for any local emergency broadcast updates. There were none. The siren system was just being tested as a drill, which lasted for an absolutely terrifying half an hour. When it was over and I felt like the air and my breathing were just normal, I sighed in relief.

Desert Storm came to a successful end at least for the good guys. The best part was yet to come now that the war was over. With security concerns loosened and the well-earned leisure time for the deployed USAF personnel that came with it, our school got to finally take a field trip for the first time to the joint US-Saudi airbase right by our school, meet a bunch of the USAF pilots, and actually receive a guided tour of the hangars where a number of Nighthawks were housed in all their quiet glory. To this day that field trip is one of the thrills of my lifetime. We got to get up close and even touch the beast, with the badass pilots of the “Ghostrider” squadron as they called themselves, in full uniform, personally instructing us on the technology of the stealth airplanes and answering all of our juvenile questions. These guys were everything I was hoping they’d be during personal interaction: cool, fearless, smart, rugged-looking, kind, and funny. They seemed genuinely glad to patiently hang out with us expat kids, no doubt missing their people back home including during the holiday season because of their long deployment to a far-off theater, probably unable to even disclose where they were to loved ones. These pilots I met that day represented everything I’d want from the warriors out there risking their lives for the idea of America around the world then, and ever since. All this, just after these same imposing Nighthawks had led America in embarrassing Saddam and winning its best war ever. Even writing about that field trip now 32 years later still gives me tingles. This was all made possible by being at the same time and the same place as the Nighthawks by stroke of destiny.

However, destiny would later bring me to another time and another place, much darker circumstances involved and easily the worst day of my life. On 9/11/01, I was in New York City, fresh out of college with a degree in International Relations, and working at my first-ever full time job for New York City government itself. 9/11 was already a personal attack on me; it became exceedingly more so once I learned several terrible truths. That day many people were lost, including the brave men and women of City government including FDNY and NYPD. I knew people who passed or were hurt that day. Not only were 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers Saudi nationals around my age, but in fact 5 of those were from Abha and the surrounding Asir region– a revelation that continues to devastate me, as I shared my childhood around the same beautiful place at the same time as these suicidal kamikaze terrorist who took down flights full of innocent people and the iconic Twin Towers. And I have no doubt that local hatred of that airbase contributed somehow to Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts in the Asir region.

This is ultimately also a tragic story of unintended consequences from a morally justifiable war in Desert Storm back in 1991. We learned that the Saudi royals’ fateful decision to call Uncle Sam in to defend them and the holy Islamic mosques from Saddam Hussein back then, instead of Osama Bin Laden’s Afghan Arab Army is what caused Bin Laden’s permanent exile, and created Al Qaeda and its alliance with the Taliban which put 9/11 plans into motion starting in the late 90s. Meanwhile, in 2003 George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq to finish the job his father never did, using flawed rationale such as WMDs, tenuous 9/11 connections to Iraq, and democratic nation building as stated objectives, following the terrible advice of his team of chickenhawks. This resulted in grave, lasting damage to the United States and the region both. Both events pulled America into being bogged down in a bloody and costly 20 year War On Terror that did not exactly start or end well, though we at least succeeded in taking out bad hombres like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadaffi, and Bin Laden along the way. Sadly for us all the second Iraq War and the Afghanistan War lacked on the part of American leadership the laser focus, moral high ground, coalition consensus, unity at home, and principles of overwhelming force, all while avoiding deadly mission creep bordering on colonialism. These were the features that made Desert Storm so effective, and the 21st century follow-up wars so shambolic.

I hope we have learned the right lessons from all of them as we stumble into an uncertain, treacherous, and complex future in our foreign policy. I for one am glad to have gotten a front row view from the tip of the spear at the hour of America’s finest military conquest, a campaign that showed the world what America is capable of at its best with a stealth fighter-bomber in the vanguard.

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