Persian Gulf War

This was written shortly after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Most of it is still good, though there are a few naive spots that I can see now.

I have always been mildly interested in things military. Last August when the world became a tense place to live I started following events much more closely than usual. During the war I read every day several newspapers and the Clarinet newswire feed, and looked up magazines and so on from time to time. I was fascinated. I couldn’t help but learn.

I also felt strangely far away from events, as though they didn’t affect me. I know a few military people, but nobody who went. It seemed unreal.

political media

I was surprised to discover that the mainstream news media in the U.S. are all mildly anti-government. They aren’t very strenuous about it, but they are steadfast; they slant everything, and your only defense is their mention-everything-briefly pseudo-objectivity which makes it possible to get at some bare facts. I imagine that everybody else already knew this, and I only just twigged onto it.

Looking back, it’s amusing to see how this attitude trapped the media during the war. People stuck together and became pro-government, so of course they were anti-media. Media people themselves seemed a little shocked to be yanked out of what they saw as their opinion-setting role. Some organizations, like Clarinet (see below), seemed to make deliberate editorial adjustments to change their alignment, but this just made the anti-government minority distrust them too. That was my interpretation, anyway.

comparing the media

Television was fast, but steeply tilted and sloppy with facts. Newspapers were slower, but more thorough and more accurate. The newswire was in between, which is bad, because they had the chance to be as accurate as newspapers while still being faster. The New York Times was the most thoughtful of the papers I read, but it was peppered with minor factual errors. Much to my surprise, USA Today gets the award for fairest coverage. When every other source was quoting people who said they were civilians and had been bombed on the east-west highway between Jordan and Baghdad, USA Today was the only one to print an observation by a British journalist that about 90% of the traffic on that highway was military. (Speaking of which, I suspect that the U.S. knew well in advance that Jordan was sending hardware to Iraq, and hushed it up to keep relations steady with Jordan. This is just a random suspicion, but doesn’t it look that way?)

those protests

The left and the right both have strong grass-roots organisations, but their strengths are different. The NRA can deluge Congress with postcards all out of proportion to the actual public support for their positions—they are mobilizing support on a narrow question and using it to hold up a broad issue, is what it looks like to me. And the left can throw up political protests all out of proportion to their support too, as happened during the war—it’s the same trick. Both sides manipulate.

Unlike Kir [Kir Talmage], I thought the coverage of the protests was relatively fair. I have to qualify that—TV coverage is the most important, and I didn’t see any of that. But in the newspapers, major protests were covered seemingly in full, not much exaggerated nor much ignored. It seemed to me proportionate to actual opinion.

I want to tell the story of Clari. Early on, the newswire covered every protest, no matter how minor. There was an article about several people marching at a gas station in a small town, and lots of other insignificant events that didn’t deserve national distribution. But after a couple weeks I guess they started to notice some backlash, and they seemed to change their editorial policy. They switched to covering only the biggest protests, and then only lightly. It was such an obvious shift that it must have been a deliberate decision.

I won’t ever believe that news is news. News is politics.


The last time I watched television before January 1991 was January 1986 [the Challenger explosion], and it turned out to be a mistake then. I didn’t see anything but the same replay over and over, and learned nothing that I couldn’t have waited for in the next day’s paper. I did not understand why they kept running a news show when they had no news.

This time it was not such a big mistake. In the TV lounge in the basement I saw the videotape of that first air attack on Baghdad, which captivated me. It was immediately obvious that the Iraqis were unprepared; they started shooting nearly a half hour before there was anything to shoot at, and yet when the bombs fell the city was still not blacked out. The gunners looked uncoordinated; some were obviously spraying shots around at random.

They said they had four hours of this videotape. Out of this they edited together one sequence of a few minutes, which they broadcast over and over. They kept polishing up their computer-graphics theme animation, but the news tape they just repeated. That shows what they cared about.

They also invited experts, some of whom were, and asked them silly questions. One “expert” remarked on how unusual it was to have higher technology fighting against greater numbers. I can’t believe they paid money to talk to a man who doesn’t remember the Vietnam War, or the Korean War, or any of a zillion colonial wars.

My favorite booboo was the report on the first night that 100,000 Republican Guards had been killed in B-52 strikes. They passed this on, not saying it was true, but implying that it was at least plausible. Either they are so stupid that they thought it was possible, or they thought we’re so stupid that we’d believe it. I concluded that they did it for the spectacle, and that television is yellow, but maybe the answer is that they’re stupid.

So after a few days I gave up on television again, and didn’t return until the ground attack started. Maybe in five more years I will watch television again. [Nope!]

what it was all about

Opponents of the war said it was about oil, with the implication that money and energy are not worth fighting over. The claim is right, as far as it goes, though the implication strikes me as crazy. (If I steal your electricity, would you fight? Calling the police counts as fighting, because they will use violence if necessary to capture me.) Proponents mostly focused on Kuwait itself, saying it was war about freedom for these people. That’s true, but it doesn’t go far enough either. Bush said, sometimes, that it was a war for the new world order. This is a lie, since the new world order is mythical, but in my view it’s closer than the other two.

I thought it was a war about world power. Saddam Hussein’s long-term goal, at least according to claims, is to unite the “Arab nation”. I believe it, but it doesn’t matter; we have to act as if it were true. You have to assume that people are at least as evil as they claim to be, just in case they’re telling the truth.

If it is true, then Iraq’s army was only pausing at the border of Kuwait, and would have eventually taken over all the oilfields in marching range, after which the embargo would have been in danger because of distress in Western countries. If this succeeded, Iraq would have been well on its way to becoming a world power. Richer than China or India, Iraq might well become more powerful. Having another evil empire (Reagan was right about that; the Soviet Union was an evil empire) would be bad for everybody, now and in the long run, and bad for future peace.

So at a minimum, sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia was justified. Once they began to arrive, Saddam Hussein had the option of war with the United States at any time.

Beyond that, the question is whether to sit there and wait for the blockade to work, or to cut it short and attack Iraq immediately. This is the issue that was most debated, which was sensible because it’s a hard choice. One or the other must be done, and both options are risky. Embargo will take probably two or three years, giving plenty of time for propaganda maneuvers and unpredictable political changes to mess things up, and it might fail altogether if Iraq can rearrange its economy for self-sufficiency and set up efficient smuggling operations—the coalition might eventually break, and Saddam’s long-term plan would get under way again. On the other side, war is inherently unpredictable. In this case the two sides were grossly mismatched, but there was plenty of opportunity for other countries to become involved, either through Iraq’s thrashing around or by Israeli klutziness.

The choice is, which of these has the better consequences, for the world, in the long term. War kills more people now, but it may kill fewer than a totalitarian government in the long run (an evil government is every bit as dangerous to individuals as a war—more dangerous, if it also thwarts economic development). Either alternative may fail and leave the world worse off than it was. Neither, even if successful, can break Saddam’s long-term plan, if he manages to hang on to power; armies can be rebuilt even after a crushing defeat. There is no way to estimate the risks, so it comes down to a judgment call. You can take your pick.

It was an oil war; Iraq would not have threatened the world’s stability as a whole if there had been no oil in the region. It was a good deed to return Kuwait to relative freedom (their government is repressive and incompetent by Western standards, but way nicer than Iraq’s), but that’s not the important thing for the world.

These arguments seem straightforward to me, but they don’t look much like the ones politicians used in public. Politics is messed up.

I’d like to bring up a final point that must have affected Bush’s decision. In the U.S., the power of the president depends partly on their public support at the time. Opinion polls matter. And there’s a consistent pattern of opinions in a crisis: when the president takes decisive action, people swing into line and the approval rating goes up; when nothing happens for a while, people think for themselves and the approval rating gradually runs down. Failure to take decisive action in a crisis can eventually hamstring a president—didn’t that happen to Carter? The office has a built-in incentive to be dramatic.

how well did the U.S. military do?

Many people were surprised to find out that the military knows what it’s doing. Losing a war makes an army pay close attention to its quality, and getting big bucks, as the U.S. military got from Reagan, gives it the ability to do something about it.

(Now, of course, the army has won a war, which will tend to make it—and, even more, Congress—complacent. And their funding is being cut, reversing the situation completely. We can expect that the next war will be a more difficult one than this turned out to be. [Nope! Bad prediction!])

I knew that the military was better than it ever had been before in the country’s history, but I was still surprised at how good a job they did under pressure, and despite the arduous politics of a coalition. The U.S. Air Force commanded every country’s aircraft, which you might expect to make minor coalition members unhappy. But I have seen only praise for the Air Force’s work from any source. Some of this praise must be political (good relations with the U.S. military are important for all its allies), but still, not one quarrel was important enough to throw to the public, even in the safety after the war. French pilots complained about their own government, but said the Air Force acted correctly. Targets were assigned by capability, not by prejudice or politics: U.S. Army helicopters were judged best for surprise attacks on radar sites, despite interservice rivalry; British jets were good at airfield attacks, so that’s what they got; and so on.

The military also adapted with great speed. They expected Murphy and were ready to fix things. After the first big friendly-fire mistake, the Army collected several identification devices which industry inventors had hurriedly come up with, tested them in realistic conditions, chose one, improved it, manufactured it in quantity, and had a few installed before the ground attack started. The Air Force adjusted tactics for attacking mobile missiles and dug-in positions to the point of completely reworking them. They realized that they needed a new earth-penetrating bomb to destroy deep command bunkers, and they improvised, tested, and used it in a matter of weeks. Feats like these are ordinary for a flexible military like Israel’s, but for one that is usually bureaucratic and inertia-bound, they are extremely impressive. (If their new bomb had gone through the usual channels, bureaucrats would still be passing paper around about what should go into the Request For Proposals.)

air power

Critics of air power must have overlooked that aircraft are gaining more and more power. At some point, it will become possible for air forces alone to defeat poorly-defended ground forces. It does make sense, at each stage of development, to argue over whether that point has been reached yet.

Now, of course, everyone has seen what happens to poorly-defended ground forces, so air defense will become a higher priority around the world. I read an analysis from 1988 which said that Iraq had always been unhappy about its Soviet-designed air defense system, but I’m sure both they and the Soviets were shocked to see how easily it was chopped apart. It didn’t need to be destroyed, only cut up so that its parts became uncoordinated—an integrated defense is way more effective than a piecemeal one.

The technology exists to create an integrated air defense which is hard to chop apart. (The U.S. recently put export restrictions on some of this technology. One of the main ideas is redundant data networks, where you have to break many links to cut off one part of the network from other parts.) Strong air defenses have historically caused heavy losses to strategic bombing campaigns, and there’s no reason to think that that has changed. The RAF hurt the Luftwaffe badly in the Battle of Britain, and the Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany also had serious losses, until finally enough hits were made on Germany’s energy infrastructure to cripple it. We can’t count on air power to be as devastating in the next war. (There’s always a next war.)

Military “combined forces” doctrine holds, and it must be correct, that you get the greatest effect by concentrating different kinds of force on a single objective. Where an air attack alone, or a ground attack alone, will be repelled, a combined forces attack may yet succeed. The political division of the military into Army, Navy, and Air Force (oh, and Marines) tends to muddle the military’s view of this—but in principle, they believe that all the forces are essential, and must be coordinated (as they were in the war). It’s a mistake to concentrate too much on one of them.

ground power

Some people have gone so far as to draw the lesson that ground forces are needed only to mop up, after the air force has done the hard work. But a determined enemy will not fold under air attack, and a competent enemy will know how to fight a blitz. Take Russia, which earned long ago its reputation of tenacity in war. They threw back the Nazi blitzkrieg only with huge effort and at enormous hardship, far worse at the front than what Iraq went through. And having had this experience, unlike Iraq, they have learned the lessons of the blitz.

That is why the coalition forces won so easily: they were prepared to fight a world class enemy, and ended up fighting a third-rate one. Drawing the lesson that all enemies are third-rate, and will collapse under sustained bombardment, would be foolish.

Some Iraqi units surrendered right away, while others felt they had to put up a token fight first, and the Republican Guard fought regardless of being overmatched. If the coalition forces had not had big advantages in technology and organization, some of the token fights would have succeeded, resistance would have stiffened as Iraqis saw that there was a chance, and the war could have gone on much longer.

space power

The U.S. military reconnaissance and communication satellites proved extremely valuable during the war—to the point of being overloaded. Europe has picked up on this, and it looks like Europe and the U.S. will be putting a higher priority on the military uses of space.

[Since then, it’s become clear that other countries learned the lesson, too.]


After the fact, it is obvious that Iraq’s army was overrated. The coalition did not discover this until the battle of Khafji, and the public did not discover it until the ground attack was under way.

I don’t consider that overrating an enemy is an error. If you are contemplating war, it is best to consider the worst case. Hitler underrated the Russians in WWII, and lost; the U.S. discounted the possibility of Chinese intervention in the Korean War, and had to fight on years longer than necessary; the U.S. underestimated the North Vietnamese determination to prevail, and lost; Iraq underreckoned the steadfastness and firepower of the coalition forces, and got crushed. Always overestimate your enemy.


I was surprised to see after the war that there was still argument over the value of stealth aircraft. Those against stealth are running either on politics or on ignorance, because the answer is now in.

First let me go after the ignorance. A stealth aircraft hides from radar by reflecting it away, instead of reflecting it back. It is shaped so that a radar pulse that strikes it will be reflected into relatively narrow rays pointing in different directions, making it unlikely that any radar receiver will be in the path of a radar return—and if it is, it won’t be for long. This “beam-shaping” is not perfect; because of surface irregularities, and the properties of materials, some radar energy will be reflected back to the source.

The beam-shaping trick does not work against long-wavelength radars. The original British radars used in the Battle of Britain would have picked up stealth aircraft just fine, because the long-wavelength pulses basically don’t notice what shape aircraft are. As technology has made shorter wavelengths possible, though, radars have moved to them; the shorter the wavelength, the smaller the antenna you need, and the better the information you receive back from returns. The Soviet Union still operates some antique radars that can pick up stealth planes, and several countries (including the U.S.) have over-the-horizon radar which can see them too.

A stealth aircraft hides from infrared sensors by diffusing its exhaust. A short-wavelength infrared sensor can only see things that are very hot, such as the metal of a jet engine or its exhaust plume. The F-117 is designed so that its engine can be seen only from a narrow region directly behind, and its jet exhaust is spread out to cool it down before it is ejected.

A thermal infrared sensor, which operates at a longer wavelength, can see a stealth plane easily against the sky. A thermal infrared sensor can detect things which are merely warm. However, thermal infrared sensors are bulkier than short-wavelength infrared, and harder to maintain, because they require cooling. You need either a refrigerator or a reservoir of liquid nitrogen.

So stealth planes are not hard to detect, in principle. But being merely harder to detect is already a major advantage. On a bombing mission, the farther you can go without being seen, the better off you are—obviously. In an air-to-air battle, if you can see your opponent first, you have the first chance to fire long-range missiles; and even if you have no long-range missiles, or if your rules of engagement prevent you from using them without making definite visual identification, you have the choice of maneuvering for an advantageous position to attack from, or of running away. The other side doesn’t get that choice.

A stealth plane is not supposed to be so much difficult to detect as difficult to track. A ground station or a big radar aircraft can have a long-wavelength radar, but a fighter can’t; the antenna is too big. A fighter can carry a thermal infrared sensor, but the range is much less than a radar’s, so you need a lot of patrols to defend a large area. In attacking a capable enemy, stealth planes would fly low; ground stations could detect them easily, but only for a brief time while they were above the horizon, and surveillance aircraft flying high would have to carry complex computer gear to detect them in ground clutter. It’s thought that the computer gear would be too hard for the Soviet Union.

Another advantage of stealth planes is that they are hard to shoot down. A missile can be guided to a stealth plane by short-wavelength radar, but only if the range is very short so that the radar return is strong enough. It can’t be guided by long-wavelength radar, even under ground command, because that kind of radar can’t locate aircraft precisely enough. The missile will miss. The same argument goes for radar-directed guns.

All existing infrared antiaircraft missiles use short-wavelength infrared sensors, so they are poor for shooting down stealth aircraft. A missile with a thermal infrared sensor is possible, but it would be heavier and more expensive, and unlike current missiles it would have trouble attacking from above because of the ground clutter problem.

A fourth advantage of stealth planes is that countermeasures against being detected or attacked are easier. If your radar return is weak, then spoofing or jamming the other side’s radars is easier. This is important.

Anyway, as I said at the top of this overlong discussion, the answer is in. The example is a nuclear facility near Baghdad. A conventional attack with many F-16’s, complete with radar jammers and fighter cover, failed; defensive fire was too heavy. Smaller attacks with F-117A’s succeeded easily. [This story turned out later to be partly Defense Department propaganda. The truth is more complicated.] The F-117 did best what it was supposed to be best at: attacks against small, heavily-defended targets.

The Air Force also has an argument about how the F-117’s and support cost less than the F-16’s and support, but this is bogus and should be ignored. The F-117’s are specialists, and the F-16’s are multi-purpose. If there are any arguments to be made, though, they have to be about cost and not about utility. Utility is solid.

updated 28 June 2000; minor decorative changes in January 2012