Desert Storm

The Battle of Mogadishu: Redefining American Hegemony

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it marked a period of transition for United States foreign policy. The next two years would see the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe. By the end of 1991, the United States forged a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and was alone atop the world. The US was the sole super power, or hyper power, if you must. But that role, while gigantic, was still undefined. Was the US going to be the Policeman of the world now that the USSR was gone? Was it going to assert its influence at will or would it pick and choose? Would the US become a hegemonic machine throughout the world?

The concept of the US being the world’s policeman was almost 100 year’s old. Teddy Roosevelt saw the US in that role in the early 1900s.
The role did not suit the US well as it continued to grow economically and socially in the wake of the industrial revolution and expansion into world markets. By the 1920s, the US had backed off its entry into world affairs and reverted back to isolationist policies and was more concerned with Western Hemisphere issues. After World War I, the US failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and did not join the League of Nations. It would, almost literally, stick its head in the sand.

After World War II, the US restructured its foreign policy in the remnants of devastation. Relying on the UN, Harry Truman tried to stop the spread of communism by using the UN in a “police action” in South Korea. However, in 1964 and 1965, Lyndon Johnson went in alone in South Vietnam for the same reason. After Vietnam, the role of the US in the world changed dramatically. What Jimmy Carter called a “malaise” lasted throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Military actions in Grenada and Panama helped restore US confidence. Operation Desert Storm pushed the confidence to a hubris. Questions grew as the US began asserting its influence more and more in third world nations because it felt it had to. If the US did nothing, then the world did nothing. This was the thinking of George H.W. Bush when he committed troops to Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. Bush said of the aid effort,

“Every American has seen the shocking images from Somalia. The scope of suffering there is hard to imagine. Only the United States has the global reach to place a large security force on the ground in such a distant place quickly and efficiently and thus save thousands of innocents from death.”

Bush initially sent 2.500 troops to help with aid.

In August of 1993, 440 US Army Rangers arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to help distribute food and medical supplies to citizens torn apart by a civil war. Up to 14 armed factions disrupted the aid and medicine. The one faction the US was most concerned with was the one led by Mohammed Aidid. Little did the US know at the time, but nearby in Sudan, Osama Bin Laden had his eyes on the turmoil there. Bin Laden did not appreciate the US being on Somali soil to help guard food shipments. Bin Laden began to aid factions like Aidid’s.

The US forces were stationed at the airport. Using helicopters, they could fly over the congested city to any point within minutes. Sgt. Randy Ramaglia said of flying in helicopter in Mogadishu,

“It was a total sense of power, being in the helicopter over that city. You know, I don’t like to come across like that, but I- I tell you what. It was, like, all business.”

When Pakistani relief workers were killed in Mogadishu that summer, arrest warrants went out for Aidid. The US along with other United Nations peacekeeping forces began to hunt the man. On October 3, 1993, two of Aidid’s top aides were rumored to be meeting near a hotel in Mogadishu. The US put together a plan to go and get them.

The plan to capture Aidid

The plan to capture Aidid

When the US helicopters took off after 3 p.m., little did the soldiers know it would become one of the most memorable 24 hours in US military history.

Somehow the mission had changed. The US and UN had gone from being there to distribute food to know being a legitimate police force in a civil war. The US had now put itself in a position where it became the moral authority in another nation. The mission on October 3 was to only last 30 minutes.
target The mission, codenamed “Irene,” took off toward a part of Mogadishu nicknamed, Indian Territory – a part of town considered to be hostile. A combination of 19 helicopters took off and Delta Force was on its way.

The initial force raided the building and arrested 20 Somalis. However, word of the US presence spread quickly. First dozens of fighters, soon hundreds, and then thousands of Somalis joined the attack. Tires were set of fire to alert other Somalis where to go. On the ground, the Rangers also had a ground convoy dispatched to the scene. Hand held rocket-propelled grenades shot down a Black Hawk helicopter nearby. Piloted by Cliff Wolcott, the helicopter crashed to the ground in between the buildings. The next 24 hours would not be pretty. The mission had changed to a rescue mission. Wolcott did not survive. 30 Rangers from another helicopter dropped down to help find and guard the down copter. Aidid saw this as an opportunity which he could not pass up to kill and destroy American forces on the ground.

The US forces set up positions in nearby buildings and waited for help to arrive to arrive. As the US controlled the air, Somalis on the ground dragged one dead American through the streets of Mogadishu. This sent shock waves through the US television showed the graphic images. Americans felt they were supposed to be helping the Somalis and were mortified by the Somali desecration.

The night of October 3rd arrived and the US forces tried to find all of its missing men. Over night, the US embarked on an overnight mission to recapture all 99 lost and downed men. The firefight dragged on into the next day between the surrounded Rangers and the Somalis. Many civilians died in the crossfire. It was estimated that over 1000 Somalis died but accurate numbers of any kind could not be attained.

On October 4, a convoy led by American tanks thought they had rescued the troops. Around 6 a.m. the last American convoy set out towards to a rallying point set up by the Pakistanis at a nearby Soccer Stadium. Running behind them for a mile were several Rangers who were not accounted for when the convoy sped away. Another, Ranger Michael Durant, was captured by Aidid and put on TV, and later Durant’s face graced every magazine in the country. It took a show of force, including off shore gun ships, for President Clinton to gain Durant’s release after the battle was over.

Three days later, President Clinton addressed the nation on October 7, 1993.

My fellow Americans, today I want to talk with you about our nation’s military involvement in Somalia. Let me express my thanks and my gratitude and my profound sympathy to the families of the young Americans who were killed in Somalia. My message to you is your country is grateful, and so is the rest of the world, and so are the vast majority of the Somali people. Our mission from this day forward is to increase our strength, do our job, bring our soldiers out and bring them home. Thank you and God bless America.

Within days, the US began pulling out of Somalia. Aidid would die from a heart attack shortly after receiving a gunshot wound in 1996.

The coming years would see the US reticent to do anything abroad except in the Balkans. The third world was now off-limits. Over a million would die in Rwanda and Sudan in the next decade, yet the US did little or nothing. For Somalia, the leaving of the US and further plunged the country into more years of darkness from which it still has not emerged. For the US, its presence in that part of the world is still a thorn. As for Africa, the US has stayed out of the region militarily while providing only financial and humanitarian aid. The hegemony the US thought it would spread in the wake of the end of the Cold War, was now shattered.

For further study
The Battle of Mogadishu: Firsthand Accounts from the Men of Task Force Ranger by Matt Eversmann
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden




Operation Desert Storm – The Ground War

On February 24, 1991, after 39 days of a devastating air campaign, the U.S. led coalition began to liberate Kuwait and systematically destroy most of Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s army, the 4th largest army in the world. 100 hours was all it took. Four days of a stunning display of speed and technology.

On January 17, 1991, U.N. Resolution had expired for Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait. The next 5 weeks saw an air campaign destroy the capability of Iraqi forces to conduct combat operations that the ground war was almost over before it began. Two other key factors would play a huge role in the ground war: Night Vision and G.P.S.

Night vision allowed the coalition forces to seek and destroy Iraqi Republican guard forces at will. The vision system gave coalition forces the ability to detect Iraqi armor through heat detection. In most cases, Iraqi troops were scrambling to even get in their vehicles before U.S. Forces fired. Night vision enhanced the speed capabilities of Bradley Fighting vehicles and the Abrams tank. In addition, the vision systems also provided the ability of the Abrams tank to fire up to a mile and a half away from its target.

New to the battlefield in 1991, GPS, or global positioning system, gave coalition forces a distinct advantage. In a desert, it is easy to get lost. There are no roads, no signs, nor vegetation to give one a clue as to where one is. GPS did. Coalition forces could maneuver, and out manuever, the enemy at will due to the fact that it knew where it was at all times. The US would be able to send forces into a region of Iraq even the Iraqis refused to enter and thereby gain an advantage in outflanking the enemy.

The operation to now liberate Kuwait (Operation Desert Sabre) began and ended quickly. The biggest fear in America was that Saddam would use chemical weapons against ground troops. As the invasion began, the world held its breath. It did not have to hold it very long. Iraqi forces pummeled in the air campaign were physically and mentally incapable of combat. Several Iraqis surrendered to news agencies. In fact, news agencies made it into Kuwait City before the coalition.

As the coalition moved along a single front, a second force sped north into the open desert to outflank the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard. Schwarzkopf called this maneuver a left hook. The left hook provided what some call a turkey shoot of retreating Iraqis and what has since come to be known as the “Highway of Death”. As Iraqis tried to get back to Iraq with all of Kuwait’s treasures, they were met with a barrage of power ending the retreat.

Four days earlier, Americans had been filled with trepidation. After 100 hours of combat, On January 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush called off the operation as Kuwait had been liberated. It was a controversial move. James Baker, then Secretary of State, commented the fear the US had at the time was of angering the Saudis and other Arab members of the coalition. Many Americans felt the US should have gone on to Baghdad and ousted Saddam Hussein. One person who did not was Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. Listen to this…

Dick should have listened to himself some nine years later.

In early March of 1991, Iraq agreed to terms of the cease-fire. These included a no fly zone over southern and northern Iraq. Also, inspections of weapons facilities were a part of trying to keep Saddam in check.  Two more US presidents would struggle to enforce these terms.

What Desert Storm proved was the US military was back – faster, stronger, and much more technical than ever before. After over 40 years of trying to contain communism, the US military had met with limited and poor results on the battlefield. First in Korea, then in Vietnam, the U.S. was still reeling by the mid 1980s. By the end of 1991, the USSR was no longer a major player on the world stage. The cold war was over. The US was the only major player left, a hyper power in the mold of a Roman Empire. The victory of Desert Storm renewed American enthusiasm at home. The malaise of the 1970s dissipated and the transformation of American optimism was in fashion.

Unfortunately, it would be the highpoint of Bush’s single term in office. A tax hike a year later would doom his presidency. The might of US forces in the Middle East would not last. With limited aims as a peacekeeping force in Somalia two years later, the US would struggle as it had in the 1970s.

But the oil did flow after Desert Storm. The Persian Gulf became a major base of operations for US to protect that flow. By 2001, the US had moved its bases from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. These three countries would be the staging grounds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operation Desert Storm began the hegemonic role of the US in the Persian Gulf.

Desert Storm: The Air War

It is hard to believe it has been 20 years since the Operation Desert Shield turned into Operation Desert Storm. On January 15, 1991, coalition forces began a five-week campaign to liberate Kuwait. The war, however, turned out to be something out of a science fiction movie. Most people expected something out of Armageddon, a slug fest if you will. As the world sat waiting on January 15, 1991, Norman Schwarzkopf surprised the world with an amazing display of force via the air.

What I remember most about the conflict at the time was the fear. America had a palpable fear for what was about to happen. Saddam Hussein, we had been told, had the world’s fourth largest army.  That army, had spent the most of the last decade fighting against Iran in a bloody conflict. Americans were most afraid of chemical warfare and of the conflict spreading, taking on biblical proportions. As a result, the Cable News Network (CNN) became the go-to source for up-to-the-second information. Wolf Biltzer and Arthur Kent became stars and careers were launched. But back in Saudi Arabia….

As the U.N. deadline passed, the world waited. But the unexpected happened. Not one coalition force crossed the border into Kuwait. Schwarzkopf, instead, avoided a prolonged ground assault and using a new form of blitzkrieg, launched the most precise air attack the world has ever seen. Using a combination of stealth technology, laser guided weaponry, unmanned planes, cruise missiles, and precision guided weaponry, the US began to turn this conflict from a three-dimensional war into a two-dimensional conflict. Within days, US and British planes took out Iraqi communication systems, power generators, airfields, airplane bunkers, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure Iraqis needed to make war. American fears still were there, but Schwarzkopf’s briefings began to assuage many fears and to show the awesome power of American technology and air superiority. Go to 5:08 in this video to see an example of the precision, and the humor of “Stormin’ Norman”.

This conflict had very few objectives. National Security Directive 54 stated the objectives of the forces were…

1. to effect the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces in Kuwait;
2. to restore Kuwait’s legitimate government
3. to protect the lives of American citizens abroad; and
4. to promote the security and stability of the Persian Gulf.

In support of these objectives, the coalition forces conducted an air campaign beginning on January 17, 1991 that lasted five weeks until February 23, 1991. This part of the war included over 100,000 sorties. Amazingly, the US only lost 75 planes during the five-week span. The effect of this air campaign was devastating. First, the US took out Iraqi capabilities to communicate and command. The US and British planes ruled the sky within a few days and the Iraqi air force was a non-existent combatant. The only threat posed by Iraq during the whole conflict was SCUD missiles. The Soviet made missile hit several targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Saddam had hoped to widen the conflict and to turn Arab coalition partners to switch to his sides and to push Israel to retaliate. More often, the fear of a SCUD armed with chemical missiles was pervasive, but in reality, the SCUD was a weapon whose accuracy was not reliable.

Back in Kuwait, US and British planes began to target Iraqi forces on the ground. It would prove to be successful. However, just how successful would not be known until the ground war began. For several weeks, with a clear dominance in the sky, the US turned the conflict into a two-dimensional war for the Iraqis. Iraqi forces on the ground were pummeled and demoralized by weeks of constant bombing. The mental and physical toll on the Iraqi soldiers hunkered along the Saudi border  was staggering. They were in no shape to fight after five weeks of constant bombing. In fact, several surrendered to CNN when the ground war began.

Surprisingly, Americans were relieved to see the superiority of American and British planes in the air. For almost 20 years, American military forces, and its supporting public, had been in a malaise since Vietnam and Watergate, Americans were not trusting of what their government was telling. On the other hand, the command of US forces did not allow the US press to go anywhere and everywhere as they did in Vietnam. The Department of Defense strictly controlled the flow of information in all forms throughout the war.

In the end, the air campaign was so devastating to the capability of Iraqi forces to conduct combat operations that the ground war was almost over before it began. The greatest effect of air assault may have been on the end of the Cold War. America, acting in concert with a coalition, was going to be the dominant force in world affairs in a post-Cold War world. The US was on its way to becoming a hyper-power and the air dominance first achieved in World War II, and mismanaged in Vietnam, was now technically superior to any other force on the planet.

Next month, I will conclude the 20th anniversary of the conflict with an examination of the four-day ground assault and the ramifications of how it ended.

There have been two great videos that have come out on the conflict…
The first one is Dogfights: Desert Storm

The Second is 20th Century Battlefields from Peter and Dan Snow of the BBC and has the best special effects of any educational film I have seen.

Operation Desert Shield – 20 Years Later

It has been a tangled web we have woven the last twenty years. On Thursday, August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, “without provocation or warning, invaded and occupied the state of Kuwait, there by placing vital U.S. interests at risk.”1 Within two weeks, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions 660 and 662 calling for the immediate removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait. While the UN would say this was about Kuwait, along with President George H.W. Bush, everyone knew what the conflict was about. It was about oil, simply oil.

For any one to say it was not was not paying attention. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein had racked up huge debts fighting Iran. The war was costly in terms of both money and manpower. Saddam knew he had one way to pay off those debts and it was oil. Saddam tried unsuccessfully to get other oil countries to raise the price of oil. So, Saddam did the next best thing. He used on old territorial dispute with the tiny nation of Kuwait to get more oil.

“Our action in the Gulf is about fighting aggression and preserving the sovereignty of nations. It is about keeping our word, our solemn word of honor, and standing by old friends. It is about our own national security interests and ensuring the peace and stability of the entire world.” — President George Bush Remarks to Pentagon Employees, 15 August 1990

President George H.W. Bush denied it was about oil.

In the public, everyone knew it was about protecting the flow. “THE OIL MUST FLOW!” could have been taken directly out of the book Dune. In the coming weeks, Bush used his many years of contacts in the CIA and U.N. to build a coalition to stop Saddam Hussein from further expanding the conflict. Within 100 miles of the Kuwaiti border lay the richest oil fields in the world in Saudi Arabia. Bush began assembling forces to protect those fields. For if Saddam Hussein invaded Saudi Arabia and took those oil fields, he would control more than half of the world’s oil supply.

The U.S. had a tenuous relationship with the Middle East. Starting in 1933, the U.S. originally was helping the Saudis find water when it found oil instead. From President Franklin Roosevelt on up to Bush, every U.S. President tried to hold together that relationship. At times it was not easy – especially following the establishment of Israel. But somehow, the doors to the Kingdom always opened to the money of the US. Initially, Roosevelt and King Saud struck an oil for security deal back in 1945 and President Bush was going to live up to that bargain. The mission would be called Operation Desert Shield.

An experienced Saudi millionaire also offered his services to defend the Kingdom and the holy sites free of charge. This Mujaheddin freedom fighter who had spent the last few years fighting the godless communists in Afghanistan was rebuffed by the Kingdom. His name was Osama Bin laden.

The strange thing about what would become Operation Desert Storm was the UN would pass almost twenty resolutions to try to get Saddam out of Kuwait. Hussein would have none of it. Finally, Hussein was given until January 15, 1991 to get out of Kuwait. Saddam began to rattle his own sabers and proceeded to spout his version of trash-talking by putting down the royal family in Saudi Arabia as well as the US led coalition.

Over the course of four months, the circus played out on worldwide television. The conflict turned CNN from a fledgling cable network into the source of all information – in real-time. During the Vietnam War, the media was allowed to go wherever and whenever it wanted to but it was always a few days late with the real story. During Desert Shield, everything was captured live before the deadline of January 15, 1991. After that date, it was a different story, but the point is this conflict was going to be televised.

Despite the aggression, and despite reports of atrocities and stories of abuse, the buildup was not an easy sell in the U.S. The last war America had did not go so well. America was wary for a reason. Under the War Powers Act, the President needed the approval of Congress to send forces into the desert. After stories of babies being tortured were spread in the news did the measure pass the Senate by a slim 52-47 vote. Visions and prophecies of Nostradamus and the end of time flooded televisions. Americans were preparing for the worst. No one really knew what to expect as over 500,000 Americans poured off of ships and planes into the desert to protect the Kingdom. Saddam turned surreal as he began using human shields, hostages, and Kuwaiti children in his public appearances. It was getting weirder by the minute. Adding to the fact, images of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (with hair) and Secretary of State James Baker were put on the news as the two men made last gasp attempts at diplomacy. Baker even claimed the conflict would create jobs

In the end, the mission succeeded in defending and deterring the Kingdom from invasion by Saddam Hussein. The presence of US forces on Saudi soil would have repercussions later. The whole situation proved to be Bush’s finest moment. His whole political career had been about cultivating relationships. In the fall of 1990, Bush called in every contact he had made in his twenty-plus years in D.C. and used them to build a stunning coalition of force. This was a new test for the US in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War was on its deathbed. The USSR would be gone in less than a year. The US was the only superpower left. If it did not protect the oil, who would? No matter what Bush said, everyone knew it was about oil. “The oil must flow…the oil must flow.”

Operation Desert Shield ended on January 15, 1991. It became Operation Desert Storm.

Next Post: Operation Desert Storm: The Fear of War