Cheers for Gulf War Fade as US Economy Staggers
BOSTON — ONE year after the winds of war lifted Desert Storm into a shining United States military and patriotic success, that campaign lies dulled and all but buried in the quicksand of a severely faltering US economy.
Unlike earlier US military ventures in Panama and Grenada, the Gulf war against Iraq was massive by comparison. Patriotism was fueled by emotional TV coverage. From start to finish, the war that began the morning of Jan. 17, 1991, lasted a matter of weeks. The ground war lasted a mere 100 hours.
Now, a year later, and even though history will probably continue to amend the shifting sands of opinion, what impact did this short war in the Persian Gulf have on the US culture and people?
"I'm not sure there will be a lasting legacy for the Gulf war," says Larry Rivers, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). "Three or four months ago Bush could have pointed to it with success. But now the economy is in such bad shape that many of the heroes of the war are likely to be out of a job," he says.
Mr. Rivers says the war "helped overcome the guilt from the Vietnam War" and went a long way in restoring our national confidence.
"It was the right thing to do, but I'm not sure we didn't do anything that wasn't expected of us as a superpower," he says.
Rivers suggests that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was "a weak foe" and that history may not treat kindly the decision not to pursue him to the finish.
The answer to whether United States and other coalition forces won the war hinges for some on the traditional military definitions of winning and losing. Certainly the US chased Iraq out of Kuwait, and helped put out a cauldron of desert oil fires.
"I don't think we won anything," says William Lutz, professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak. "Saddam is still in power and we spent a lot of money there."
"Have you seen those bumper stickers: 'Saddam has a job and I don?" adds Professor Lutz. "That's a [reality]. What the war showed was the power of the Pentagon to control video images and language."
The National Council of Teachers of English agrees. The council objected to Pentagon terminology used during the war and awarded the Department of Defense the 1991 Doublespeak Award for using such terms as "servicing the target" as a euphemism for killing the enemy.
The council cited other terms used by military spokesmen: "force package" for an airplane, "human remains pouches" for body bags, and the well-known "collateral damage" to describe civilians killed or nonmilitary targets leveled by bombs.
"The Pentagon wanted to convey the idea that the war was neat, tidy, and bloodless," says Lutz. "In an era of sophisticated technology we also have a lot of people in the Pentagon with advanced degrees in public relations. Battlefields in all wars are filled with bits and pieces of humans."
For Bernard Paul, president of International Hobby Corporation in Philadelphia, the company that sold 28,000 models of Scud missiles in the last year, the war "took the country out of the doldrums for a while."
"It made us feel better about all the money pouring into the military," Mr. Paul says.
"There was practical value to it. We had heard so much about $280 toilet seats bought by Pentagon, and then we learned that this kind of stuff was the exception and not the rule.
"If we had allowed Saddam to stay in Kuwait, and he marched into Saudi Arabia, we would have lost all the oil," Paul adds. "The war was about oil, period. And we lost only 148 men in stopping Saddam."
Of those 148 soldiers, according to the Pentagon, 35 were killed by "friendly fire" (American troops firing mistakenly at each other). In addition, 72 US soldiers were wounded.
As a result, the United States Army announced recently that it will spend $20 million in training and technology to reduce friendly fire casualties during any future battles. The percentage of total casualties from friendly fire was 10 times as high in the Gulf war as in any other war in the 20th century, based on analysis of US Army statistics.
Weak Christmas sales of Desert Storm-related items were one measure of the public's current lack of interest in the Gulf war. In the few months following the war, Desert Storm cards, key chains, sweatshirts, toys, and countless other memorabilia were hot-selling items in stores.
"We used to sell a ton of the stuff," says Mike Delorenzo of It's a Whole New Ballgame, a baseball card and memorabilia store in Edison, N.J. "Now, nothing."
"We've got boxes and boxes of sweat shirts in the basement," Mr. Delorenzo says. "A series of Desert Storm cards issued in the Gulf to the soldiers themselves is still fairly valuable, but nothing else."
During the war, map publisher Rand McNally had to go into eight printings of its Middle East wall map.
"It was the biggest-selling map since World War II," says Joyce Hodel, a spokeswoman for the company. "But when the soldiers came home, sales trailed off."
At Bay State Coin Company in Boston, assistant manager Joe Benedetti says, "Desert Storm collector cards sold like hot cakes during the war, but over Christmas I was down to using them as giveaways."
Dozens of books about the war have been published. "Sales were very good just after the war for the books that came out quickly," says Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly in New York City.
"Even the Koran sold well," Ms. Maryles says. "But I don't think overall sales for Gulf war books were that good at Christmas."
A spokesman for Bantam Books in New York City says there is no publication date yet for a book on the war to be penned by Desert Storm commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Bantam is reported to have paid General Schwarzkopf a $6 million advance. The book is being written with co-author Peter Petri.
How will future historians treat the Gulf war?
"That's a tough one," says Kenneth Phillips, managing editor of Empire Press in Leesburg, Va., which publishes a dozen military magazines. "If you ask 10 people, you'll get 11 opinions. Yes, we accomplished our objective, to drive Saddam out of Kuwait. I supported that, but I don't consider it a complete victory.
"If you want to kill a snake, you cut the head off, not just the tail," says Mr. Phillips. "In my opinion Saddam has not been stopped."