Five Lessons on War From My Desert Shield/Storm

August 7, 2015

According to navy lore, a sea story starts with “there I was” — and everything that follows is a falsehood. So there I was, 25 years ago today, staring out across the vast Atlantic as a gunnery officer in the battleship USS Wisconsin. Destination: Persian Gulf. Herewith, five takeaways from Operations Desert Shield and Storm a quarter-century hence.

In war, the outcome is never final. Upon Wisconsin’s homecoming in 1991, I remember hazarding my very first political prognostication: that it was great to be back from the first Gulf War. War is negotiation in a real sense. The defeated must agree that they’ve been defeated for the postwar order to prove durable. Otherwise the losers can try to overturn the outcome. They can resume the fight later by military means, after they’ve regenerated combat strength. Or they can deploy political measures to isolate the victors, degrade or splinter hostile coalitions, and otherwise shift the balance of power in their favor. They can nullify the verdict of arms.

Saddam Hussein was the quintessential refusenik. He defied a series of United Nations Security Council ceasefire resolutions, spent most of the 1990s taking potshots at allied warplanes policing no-fly and no-drive zones in northern and southern Iraq, and deftly divided the permanent five Security Council members among themselves. By 2003, an Anglo-American caucus stood firm on sanctions enforcement while a loose consortium among France, Russia, and China took a softer line. Schwarzkopf was right: Saddam was a slipshod military strategist. But he played a weak diplomatic hand shrewdly. Give the devil his due.

Culture matters. Why did Iraq’s reasonably well-equipped, experienced military fight so poorly? You need not go as far as historian Victor Davis Hanson does to conclude that culture shapes encounters between armed forces hailing from disparate sociocultural milieus. Hanson maintains that a centuries-old tradition of “shock battle” gives Western militaries a go-for-the-jugular instinct that separates them from non-Western foes. That endows Western warriors with distinct advantages on the battlefield, or at sea, or aloft.

There’s doubtless some truth to this, although it borders on cultural determinism. Me, I tend to interpret the mismatch between Iraq and its coalition antagonists as the difference between totalitarian and free societies, not Arab and Western societies. Groupthink makes you stupid. Leaders who brook no contrary views — or punish devil’s advocates with extreme prejudice — deprive themselves of the intellectual ferment that begets sound war-making methods. That’s Saddam Hussein to a T. No general would contradict the supremo; to do so was suicidal. Ergo, soldiers fed him only good news. Willful self-deception makes for slapdash strategy and tactics.

Now, it is doubtful Saddam’s army could have vanquished coalition forces outright, no matter how adeptly led. But it could have given a better account of itself, salving Iraqi pride. It could have exacted costs so fearful that Western capitals granted better ceasefire terms. At the time I remember thinking I — or one of my shipmates — could have given Western forces a bad day had I been granted command of Iraqi defenders, and the freedom to do my job. I also remember thinking we would have beaten the Iraqis even had we swapped inventories of tanks, planes, and ships with them. That’s the cultural factor at work.

Eighty percent of life is showing up. So says the strategist Woody Allen. And staying is other 20 percent. Our captain in Wisconsin was an ancient mariner from the hills of Kentucky. He was an enthusiastic spokesman for battlewagons like our ship and Missouri, which joined us in the Gulf for Desert Storm. When delegations from Congress, the Bush administration, or the press were on board — a not-infrequent occurrence in the fall and winter of 1990 — the skipper’s brief seemed to boil down to: We’re here, and we can stay here! He wasn’t touting gee-whiz capabilities like Tomahawk missiles or guns able to vault a VW over twenty miles. No, it was our vast fuel and stores capacity coupled with our capacity to refuel and resupply “small boys,” or smaller combatants, while riding the waves.

We youngsters made merry of these lowbrow-seeming talking points at the time — but the Old Man was right. Think about Admiral J. C. Wylie, who points out that to control something, you need men on the scene with guns. And if you want to control that scene for a long time, you’d better fashion logistical arrangements to support an enduring presence. Rotating ships into port for beans, bullets, and black oil dilutes a naval contingent’s presence on station. Fielding a robust fleet of combat logistics ships — or quasi-logistics ships like carriers and battleships, equipped to dispense as well as take on war materiel at sea — helps a navy exert control in Wylie’s sense.

Naval diplomacy is crucial. And it needs to address audiences foreign and domestic. Battleships were showboats, attracting visitors in large numbers. Everyone wanted to tour a World War II relic updated for modern sea combat. That gave crews an opportunity to explain our capabilities not just to sister U.S. armed forces but to NATO allies, coalition partners, elected officials, as well as print and TV reporters.

Armed-service leaders place great store in military-to-military ties, and for good reason. Such contacts do represent a way to relate American purposes and capabilities to others while promoting a modicum of international understanding. But naval diplomats must also speak to the home crowd. One day in the fall of 1990, I gave a U.S. senator a tour of one of Wisconsin’s gun turrets. We had a great talk, and in that pre-cellphone age he agreed to call my wife after returning to shore. (Which was nice of him since we weren’t his constituents, and he had zilch to gain politically.) But when I escorted him to the fantail to catch his helicopter, he looked back and marveled at how great it would be if the turret could rotate! As though warships have to maneuver to point fixed weaponry at targets, rather than firing off-axis. Wow.

Such is the state of military fluency, even among prominent lawmakers. Rank-and-file military folk should miss no opportunity to educate officialdom and laymen about what they — and the weapons they carry — do.

Old stuff can be made new. Americans are a revolutionary, world-made-new people. History is more or less bunk, right? We should temper that worldview, in the martial sphere at least. A lot of 1930s-era engineering wisdom was baked into Wisconsin’s hull and innards. She was stoutly built, on the assumption that ships take hits in battle, and had better be constructed to absorb and work around battle damage. And redundant systems — boilers, engines, generators, you name it — meant that no single piece of gear was indispensable. Lose one piece of kit, and you started another. Steam, water, and electricity could be rerouted around damage to keep things running. Sound naval architecture, all in all.

And it’s possible to repurpose old hardware, synthesizing an effective hybrid between the antiquated and the modern. Need long-range precision-strike capacity? Plop armored box launchers on the upper decks to disgorge Tomahawk cruise missiles. Want to improve the main battery’s accuracy beyond the visual horizon? Marry up remotely piloted vehicles — rudimentary drones — with the ship’s 1940s-vintage mechanical computers to spot and correct gunfire at long range. Not every gadget has to be revolutionary or ultra-high-tech. It’s possible to alloy the old with the new to good — and affordable — effect.

It’s a truism that history never repeats itself but does rhyme. The first Gulf War, a regional conflict that could rhyme with future events, holds timeless lessons galore for students and practitioners of military affairs. Happy studying!