Note: This article is about the 1990-1991 war in the Persian Gulf and Kuwait, also known as Operation Desert Storm. If you are looking for what some refer to as "Gulf War II", then please see The War on Terror. In fact, that is the third Gulf War and this is the second: The Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s was originally called the Persian Gulf War because of its impact on shipping.
The Cold War was all but over by 1990, but the first Gulf War served as a demonstration of what the United States could have been capable of if things had gone hot in the 1990s or later. While Iraq used obsolescent export-quality Soviet equipment and some of its officers received training in the USSR, their forces were both grossly outnumbered and outclassed and did not use Soviet Operational Art. It is interesting to note, however, that many casual analysts and military fanboys see the poor performance of the Iraqi military's Soviet-produced equipment as definitive proof that the USA would have won the Cold War in Europe if it had been a conventional conflict — this is in large part due to their enthusiasm for equipment and weapons at the expense of boring and irrelevant things like actual strategy or logistics.
On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein interpreted a comment by U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie ("we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait") as a green light to launch a military invasion of Kuwait, a small emirate that borders Iraq.note He also thought that the Soviet Union would veto any attempt to take firm diplomatic action. He figured very wrong.
The initial U.S. and allied move was to increase the defense of Saudi Arabia, moving aircraft there in case Saddam tried to make a move on that country too. That operation was referred to in America as Operation Desert Shield. UN resolution after UN resolution calling for an Iraqi withdrawal were ignored, and the U.S. built up a coalition of 34 countries—the final total buildup of troops was over half a million, and six U.S. carrier groups were involved. With a troop drawdown happening in Europe, the U.S. was free to shift over an entire corps-sized formation from Germany to the Middle East.
For all that, though, the U.S. almost did not enter the war. Iraq had the world's fifth-largest military and a very capable air force (on paper, at least). Remembering Vietnam, many U.S. legislators were very reluctant on the issue. Kuwait hired a PR firm and had a woman testify before the Senate that Iraqi troops had removed babies from incubators and left them to die. It was completely false. That and other atrocities that did occur proved enough to get the resolution approving the U.S. involvement passed.
On 29 November 1990, the United Nations Security Council, by a 12-2 vote (China abstained; Cuba and Yemen were against; the Soviets actually voted in favor), passed Resolution 678, which stated:
- Authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements, as set forth in paragraph 1 above, the abovementioned resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area;
That meant, "Get out of Kuwait or face war." Saddam didn't get out, so he faced war.
On 17 January 1991, Operation Desert Storm began. Iraq possessed one of the densest air defence networks in the world, which was centered around a French air defense system named "Kari". It basically lasted one night due to the Americans' secret weapon. Okay, the F-117 had already been revealed and taken part in the DEA operation that was Panama, but that had been easy. This was harder, and it proved itself. An EF-111 got a kill without firing a shot by forcing an Iraqi jet to maneuver itself into the ground, B-52s set the world record for a long-distance airstrike by flying from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, firing cruise missiles, and going home, and Iraq's air defenses were crippled. Iraqi fighters didn't do much better. Some pilots ejected when they saw the enemy, and eventually the Iraqi Air Force left en masse for Iran, who said "Thanks for the planes" and duly confiscated them.
The Gulf War was notable for the levels of use of precision-guided weapons. They had not been used to this level before, leading to the war being called the first "computer war". Comparisons of night-vision video footage to video games were abundant for a few years after, including by Terry Pratchett.
Saddam, who understood the psychological impact of ballistic missiles even before they started falling on him, decided to launch modified "Scuds" at Israel and bring it into the war. He hoped to shatter the UN coalition, many of whom didn't like Israel and might balk at helping defend it. U.S. MIM-104 Patriot antiballistic missiles made a go at stopping them, but, as a weapon system that hadn't even been proven in its intended role as an anti-aircraft missile faced missiles that accidentally broke up on reentry and Saddam not aiming them at anything in particular, they couldn't do much.
Attempts to find and destroy the launchers in Western Iraq had limited success, mainly because they were mobile. Two future military novel authors along with other SAS members ended up getting captured by the Iraqis while doing this in the Bravo Two Zero mission. Ultimately, Israel was kept out of the war with finesse rather than firearms. Elsewhere, Saddam's forces dumped oil into the Persian Gulf and burnt Kuwaiti oil wells.
After six weeks of air strikes (one of which accidentally killed hundreds of civilians in a shelter), the ground liberation of Kuwait began. The UN forces, led by "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, then pulled the oldest trick in the book. They made noise in the press about an amphibious Marine invasion from the east, launched a feint attack from the south, and sent the bulk of their forces into the western desert to swing around and cut the Iraqis off from behind. It turned into a rout. On February 26 1991, a group of retreating Iraqis got subjected to air strikes on Highway 80 for several hours, which played badly in the world press. The event later became known as the "Highway of Death" because the highway was full of wrecked and burnt vehicle hulls, creating one of the most infamous image of the war note . For whatever reason, a full-scale invasion of Iraq did not take place. Kurdish and Shia uprisings against Saddam were brutally crushed. In essence, the United States conducted the sort of offensive that they had planned to defend against.
On 28 February 1991, a ceasefire came into force. Iraqi military deaths were at least 20,000, possibly up to 50,000, while the number of civilian deaths was the subject of much debate. 80,000 Iraqis were taken prisoner and the vast majority of the Iraqi Army's military equipment (several thousands tanks, armored carriers, artillery systems, and so on) were destroyed. 379 UN soldiers had died, but only 190 to enemy fire, with about forty tanks and other armored vehicles lost. In fact, far more soldiers were debilitated by "Gulf War syndrome", a mysterious ailmentnote suffered by hundreds of thousands of returning veterans, than by actual combat. And as for Saddam, he was tried for his war crimes and hanged in 2006.
In Moscow, the head of the Voyska PVO, the USSR's air-defense force, had to explain how the Iraqis lost so convincingly. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were not used because it was made very clear to Saddam that nuclear weapons would follow. This issue would not go away. Iraq would stymie UN weapons inspectors for years afterwards, until the U.S. finally ousted him from power in 2003.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day…
Appears in the following works:
- In 1990s media, it was very common to establish a character's military credentials with a mention that they had fought in the Gulf War, replacing the purpose which The Vietnam War served in 1980s media.
- Cherry (of all characters) in "Sgt. Cherry and her Squealing Commandos" in Cherry Comics. (And, yes, it is a satire.)
- Plasmer features the three ‘Sleepers’, British doomsday robots created to activate and seek revenge if the UK is conquered in war. The first two were created for the two World Wars - but the third, the most powerful one, was created during the Gulf War. The characters do lampshade this, acknowledging that there was a very small window when the UK felt the war could go that badly…
- The Punisher, whose backstory was originally that of a Vietnam veteran, for at least one story was retconned into being a Gulf War vet instead. The logic given by the writer is that if he was a Vietnam vet he would be approaching his seventies, while he wanted to portray Frank as a man in his early forties.
- A storyline published while the war was going on, "The Brattle Gun", was a stand-in for the conflict itself using fake names (Trafia and Zukistan instead of Iraq and Kuwait), including a foreign weapons designer building a supergun for one side and being assassinated later, clearly inspired by the story of Gerald Bull. The covers for the comics dropped the allegory with taglines like "Caught in a DESERT STORM!" and "Next stop: Baghdad!"
- In Independence Day, it is mentioned that the relatively-youthful President Thomas Whitmore served as a fighter pilot during the Gulf War. It comes in handy.
- Three Kings takes place in the closing days of the war, in which four American soldiers attempt to steal some gold from the Iraqis after finding a treasure map hidden on one of the surrendering Iraqi soldiers.
- Jarhead tells the story of US Marine sniper Antony Swofford from boot camp to a tour of duty during the Gulf War. An adaptation of the autobiograph of the real Swofford.
- The Big Lebowski takes place during the Gulf War. The Dude says "this aggression will not stand, man," echoing George HW Bush's televised speech, while Saddam Hussein (played by Jerry Haleva, who repeatedly portrayed Hussein in movies) appears in The Dude's infamous dream sequence.
- The remake of The Manchurian Candidate changes the Korean War backstory to Gulf War.
- Courage Under Fire stars Denzel Washington as a Colonel haunted by a Friendly Fire incident he caused during the war that killed a good friend of his. He's since resigned himself to a desk job in the Pentagon, and winds up being assigned to investigate whether a Medal of Honor should be awarded to Captain Karen Walden, a medic and helicopter pilot, which would make her the first woman to receive the medal for a combat role.
- Drillbit Taylor the title character was a soldier who served in the gulf war but didn't see any real combat, and AWOL from the army.
- Bravo Two Zero and The One That Got Away, two movies based on the Bravo Two Zero operation, based on (controversial) eponymous non-fiction books respectively written by Andy McNab and Chris Ryan, two SAS operatives who took part in the operation.
- Anthony Swofford's memoir, Jarhead.
- Joel Turnipseed's memoir, Baghdad Express
- Only You Can Save Mankind is set during the Gulf War and makes comments about the similarities between video games and the news coverage of that war.
- The First of God by Frederick Forsyth is before and during the war.
- The Man from Barbarossa is set just before the war starts, and the bad guys plan use it to frame their enemies for nuking people, before setting up a coup in Russia and starting a global war.
- JAG: Several references to the conflict are made throughout the series. In the fourth season episode "Mr. Rabb Goes to Washington", rumors are spread on a cable news network (ZNN) that Sarin nerve gas was used by U.S. Marines during the invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
- Gunnery Sergeant Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS served as a Marine in Desert Storm and was severely injured, spending nineteen days in a coma. The murder of his wife and daughter while he was in Kuwait did not help things.
- Dennis from Just Shoot Me! often claimed to have driven a tank during the war.
- Robert McAllister in Brothers & Sisters is a Gulf War veteran, injured in that conflict. He won a medal that he doesn't feel he fully deserved- he froze in combat.
- Drop the Dead Donkey referred to the exploits of the Globelink News team during the war; including Damien dunking cormorants in oil in order to provide visuals for a story on the ecological impact of the war.
- Glee's Finn was told by his mother that his dad died while fighting in the Gulf War. Except he didn't. He was dishonorably discharged and died of an overdose while back in America.
- Major John D. MacGillis from Major Dad writes a letter to George H. W. Bush asking to fight in Kuwait.
- House of Saddam, chronicling Saddam Hussein's reign, features the Gulf War, although it mostly shows the aftermath.
- In the 1997 pilot of Stargate SG-1, Samantha Carter is introduced with a mention that she "logged over one hundred hours in enemy airspace during the Gulf War". In the 1999 episode "A Matter of Time", Jack O'Neill mentions that a failed mission resulted in him spending four months in "some stinkin' Iraqi prison", implying that he also fought in this war.
- In Person of Interest, while spending time as a police tactics instructor, Reese gives an explanation to a curious student who notes his use of military tactics despite not having a military background that "my first tactics instructor was a Gulf War veteran." (Actually, Reese himself probably is one: he was an Army Ranger before joining the CIA after 9/11, but his current cover ID is a non-veteran.)
- Henry McCord in Madam Secretary flew F-18s for the Marine Corps in Desert Storm.
- In The Last of Us (2023), Joel's brother Tommy was a veteran of the Gulf War, as indicated by the bumper sticker on his truck.
- Genesis' 1991 song "Tell Me Why" was a direct response to the widespread displacement of Kurdish people in the wake of the war, inspired by a news report that frontman Phil Collins saw on TV.
- In Insane Clown Posse's "Taste", Jumpsteady, who served in the War, raps that he'd be willing to "pay a little extra to the gallon" if it meant that the government would pay more attention to the violence of the inner cities instead of sending troops overseas.
- Judas Priest's "Hell Patrol" is a roaring tribute to the US Air Force during Desert Storm.
- Sabaton's song "Reign of Terror" is a "The Villain Sucks" Song aimed at Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.
- Roger Waters' solo album Amused to Death was strongly influenced by the Gulf War and especially the way that it was covered by the media, much like how Pink Floyd's The Final Cut (which was functionally a Waters solo album) protested The Falklands War.
- Sgt. Slaughter turned heel and became an "Iraqi Sympathiser" during the war, defeating the Ultimate Warrior for the WWE World Heavyweight Title at Royal Rumble 1991 and then dropping it to Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VII, after the war finished (although, in one of wrestling's most embarrassing incidents, the end of the war was not acknowledged on WWF TV until Hogan had the belt again).
- Conflict: Desert Storm and its sequel are both set during the Gulf War.
- The Battlefield 1942 mod Desert Combat.
- One of the final chapters of Eternal Darkness is set in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, putting you in the shoes of a Canadian firefighter sent to extinguish oil fires set by the Iraqis. The game seems to like less-depicted conflicts, given it has a chapter set in World War I but not its more well-known successor conflict.
Wherever disaster and death lurk, there is likely to be an Ancient just beyond our senses, waiting. They prey on our misfortune and exploit it for their own twisted ends. When hundreds of oil fields are set ablaze on the heels of war, the Ancient's grip tightens, knowing that lives will be forfeit and resources squandered. Yet there are those who make a difference. People like Michael Edwards - a Canadian industrial firefighter hired to put an end to the insanity at the end of the war. Unfortunately for him, the insanity was just beginning...
- Popular Electronic Arts helicopter game Desert Strike.
- SETA Corporation's Shoot 'Em Up/Fighter Sim A.S.P. Air Strike Patrol (AKA Desert Fighter), despite the deliberate use of fake names. Among other things. Notably averts the Follow the Leader trend mentioned below; part of the game's main mechanics involve managing public opinion while not wasting supplies (fuel/aircraft/ammo) and quickly destroying enemy targets as much as possible. This is harder than it sounds.
- Tons and tons and tons of period arcade action games that all had "War Is Glorious" as a unifying theme because the relative lack of casualties and the media's portrayal of Desert Storm as a total Curb-Stomp Battle made it acceptable again to believe that war was cool. Primary offenders include Total Carnage, MERCS, Desert Assault, and many more.
- Liquid Snake of Metal Gear Solid is said to have fought in the war, being captured near the end and freed years later. He and the protagonist Solid Snake later discuss the war, with Liquid revealing that the "Gulf War syndrome" experienced by veterans of the conflict was the result of the same sort of gene therapy experiments that lead to this game's Genome Army; the "official" story of it being caused by exposure to depleted uranium in tank armor was a cover-up in this game's universe.
- Supposedly, PTSD caused from his time in Iraq, combined with a nasty divorce when he came home, is what caused the DC Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, to go on his killing spree. His stated intent was to round up orphans and train them into a militia and overthrow the government.
- Similarly, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War vet and credited it with his Start of Darkness.