Desert Storm

An outdated Iraqi T-72 is used by Coalition members to clear a minefield. Much of Kuwait is flat, and Coalition tanks were able to snipe Iraqi tanks from many kilometres away. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring and summer of 1990, relations between Kuwait and Iraq began to break down. Iraq had borrowed huge amounts of money to wage the Iran-Iraq War, and Kuwait (a small, oil-rich nation on the Persian Gulf) wanted it repaid. By way of response, Iraqi diplomats issued a laundry list of complaints, stating that Kuwait was asking for too much money, it was exceeding its oil quotas and – best yet – was actually a part of Iraq. On August 2nd of 1990, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait and signalling the beginning of the Gulf War. Although Iraq’s forces were somewhat worn out from battling Iran for 8 straight years, their nearly 1-million soldiers quickly overwhelmed Kuwait’s defenders.

ASAP: Iraqi troops were absolutely ruined by advanced Coalition forces, and the world witnessed a shocking American show of force.

Read on for details!
American Airborne troops acclimatize to the heat in their MOPP (chemical warfare) suits during Desert Shield. (Wikimedia Commons)

The international community reacted quickly. Saddam Hussein (Iraq’s leader) was easy to caricature as a scary, villainous dictator with his cartoon moustache and beady little eyes. The invasion threatened stability all through the Middle East, threatened the world’s oil supply and worried Saudi Arabia (an important American ally in the region). The United Nations quickly passed Resolution 660, calling for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal. Economic sanctions followed. But these measures were ignored, and by January of 1991, over half a million Coalition (mostly US, British and other Middle Eastern nations) troops had arrived in Saudi Arabia as a part of Operation Desert Shield. On January 17th, the Coalition’s air assets began bombing targets in Kuwait and Iraq. By February 24th, Coalition command deemed that Iraqi forces were significantly weakened and Operation Desert Storm – the invasion – began.

A map of Coalition movements during Desert Storm. (Wikimedia Commons)

Facing over a million battle-hardened Iraqi troops with roughly 880,000 of his own, US General Norman Schwarzkopf secretly worried that he was walking his forces into a death trap. Schwarzkopf’s own experience in Vietnam made doubly cautious, and Hussein enjoyed boasting about his country’s chemical-weapons capabilities. But he needn’t have worried: it quickly became clear that Desert Storm was a clash between two different ages, akin to the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Iraqi tanks – old-fashioned Soviet models like the T-55 – repeatedly got lost in the desert, were unable to move without being picked off by Coalition aircraft, and were unable to hide due to the long-range target-finding equipment on Coalition tanks like the M1 Abrams.

Special forces like these British SAS (Special Air Service) troopers played an important part in marking targets for Coalition air assets. (

Schwarzkopf controlled the air, controlled the airwaves, and within 100 hours he controlled most of Kuwait. US President George H.W. Bush quickly called a ceasefire, concerned that the invasion would be perceived as a massacre. In some ways, it was – American bombers shelled Iraqi soldiers running away on the Highway of Death, in the most famous instance.

Coalition air assets like these American F-117 Nighthawks – stealth fighters invisible to enemy radar – played an important part in the destruction of Iraq’s military. (AF-Mil)

Nicknamed the “Video Game War” for the clean, precise and remote-controlled image it had in the media – most footage given to news stations was of precision bomber footage – the Gulf War was far from clean. Nearly 50,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed, mostly whilst taking cover from Coalition bomb strikes; 147 Coalition soldiers died in combat. But the brief war renewed the belief that NATO and in particular the United States were unbeatable superpowers possessed of god-like technological superiority. It did away with much of the war-wariness instilled by Vietnam, and gave the US enhanced confidence going into the 21st century. (This over-confidence in technology’s ability to win wars arguably cost the US in recent wars against “unsophisticated” enemies like the Taliban and Al Qaeda). Perhaps most importantly, Desert Storm reminded the world that, at the end of the Cold War, there was only one undisputed superpower left standing – and it was capable of savage violence.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? 880,000 Coalition (American, French, British, and others) vs roughly 1 million Iraqi soldiers. The Coalition was led by US General Norman Schwarzkopf; the Iraqis were micromanaged by Saddam Hussein in many instances.
  • Where? Kuwait, a small and oil-rich (coincidence? I think not!) country in the Middle East. Coalition forces staged out of Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield.
  • When? Relations between Kuwait and Iraq broke down in July and August of 1990; the invasion took place on August 1st, 1990. The Coalition moved in after and launched their first air strikes on Iraqi forces on January 17th, 1991. The ground war – Desert Storm – began on February 24th of that year. It was over 100 hours later.
  • What? Operation Desert Storm was the Coalition’s attempt to get Iraq out of Kuwait. Months of relentless airstrikes on Iraq’s outdated army left it weak and worn out. By the time Desert Shield became Desert Storm, the Iraqis were unable to put up much of a fight. Coalition forces drove rapidly into Kuwait and picked off the remaining defenders with high-tech tanks and air support.
  • Why? Iraq was already seen as a bad-guy nation in the Persian Gulf region. Kuwait was immediately backed by most of the international community because of its apparent innocence and huge supply of oil. As well, Hussein’s invasion threatened Saudi Arabia – an important regional ally for the US.
  • Result: Decisive, almost unfair victory for the Coalition. Iraq was quickly driven back to its borders and further weakened militarily. America wins back some of its military reputation and its newfound overconfidence leads it to make mistakes in future wars. The Gulf War also served to cement America’s place as the sole remaining superpower post-Cold War.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • What are some of the underlying reasons for the international community’s support for Kuwait, beyond those mentioned above?
  • Examine the toll Desert Storm took on ordinary Kuwaitis.
  • Were “the Highway of Death” and related incidents war crimes?
  • What is the significance of Desert Storm in a post-Cold War world order?
  • Examine the media’s depiction – in the US and elsewhere – of the conflict. Was it organic or carefully tailored by Coalition leadership?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Tétreault, Mary Ann. “Kevin Don Hutchison, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm: Chronology and Fact Book (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995). Pp. 286. – Harry G. Summers Jr, Persian Gulf War Almanac (New York: Facts on File, 1995). 
  • Seymour, Janet L., and A. Sue Goodman. “Documenting Desert Storm.” American Libraries 22, no. 7 (1991): 624-25.
  • Jan, Tarik. 1991. Gulf War: causes, consequences and future scenarios. Islamabad: Institute of Policy Studies.
  • Hoskins, Andrew. 2004. Televising war: from Vietnam to Iraq. London: Continuum.
  • Cairo, Michael F. 2012. The Gulf: the Bush presidencies and the Middle East. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

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