‘Lessons’ From the Gulf

Tom Peters

Do you really need one more column on “lessons” from war? To be told that high-tech weapons turn out to have merited their stratospheric price tags? To be urged to quickly recruit our peerless generals to lead a deadly commercial charge against the Japanese? Maybe the most important lesson is “don’t leap to hasty conclusions.” In that spirit, this offering:

1. Somebody lied. Conventional wisdom gives our intelligence an A+ for its work: We knew what breakfast cereal each Iraqi general ate every morning, and when he ate it. Well, if we knew so much during the war, why had we pegged Saddam and the average Iraqi soldier as 10-foot-tall nail eaters up until January 15? It reminds me of the long-time Pentagon budget dance: The Russians are tops at everything when it’s time to dial for defense dollars; but when asked if we’d trade armies with them, our generals dismiss the question as absurd.

2. The weapons debate ain’t over. Our weapons were better than critics predicted. (By the way, the harshest critics, in the so-called “military reform movement,” are mostly military men—not doves.) On the other hand, these weapons were by and large not put to the test. The “awesome” Patriot anti-missile missile, for example, was not designed to cope with one-a-day, Chaplin-esque attacks: our gear was created to deal with a tough, sophisticated Soviet army—with lots and lots (and lots) of equipment. The worst possible “lesson” we could learn is that high-tech weapons in small numbers (because of insane unit costs) are the answer.

3. “Agile”? Smitten with the wisdom of ancient Chinese military sages, behemoth America has learned to be fleet-of-foot on the battlefield. General Schwartzkopf’s brilliant flanking maneuver proved that we have become the prima ballerina of the world’s armies. Right? What we proved is that if we go up against a second-rate air force, and completely cripple our adversary’s intelligence capability, we can shift troops at will.

To be fair, it was a hell of a maneuver. But could such a massive shift have been hidden for days from the Soviets, their air force, and their satellites? Get serious.

4. There are good generals. The stereotypically rigid, bombastic, modest-IQ image of a general has always been misguided. The simple fact is that there are a handful of superb generals, a fair number of good generals, a lot of average generals, and a few klutzes. That is, the military is like the private sector. Norman Schwartzkopf and General Electric’s Jack Welch are both darn good at what they do for a living. So?

5. Leave it to the guys in the field. President Bush seems to have avoided the Lyndon Johnson trap of playing general. Johnson picked bombing targets. Bush, General Powell, and the rest of Washington’s desk jockeys apparently let the guys closest to the scene do the day-to-day work with a minimum of interference. Thank God we learned something from Vietnam.

6. It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Put a lot of troops in the field, then do it: We seem to have doped that out, too—though it obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with war against the Soviets. It was so frustrating, in the ’50s, to watch the Russians run roughshod over Hungary in 72 hours—then confront the world with a fait accompli. When Bush all but ignored Gorbachev’s self-serving diplomacy on the eve of the land war, he arguably out-Sovieted the Soviets.

7. MVP. As I see it, the war’s Most Valuable Player is not The Bear, or our Commander-in-Chief. It’s the gang that didn’t shoot back: Israel. Can there be any doubt that an effective, violent Israeli response to the first (or 21st) Scud attack would have turned the Gulf affair into a political nightmare? I think not. It’s another of life’s odd cases, where the “not do’s” are as important as the “do’s.” By the way, if it’s true that we bribed the Israelis with $13 billion to keep their guns in their holsters, it’s probably warfare’s all-time bargain.

8. MVP II. This one to CNN. Yes, the press was shut out from a lot of the action; so they often resorted to innocuous interviews with front-line troops, talking about the weather and food. Fine. Via such interviews, we were repeatedly reminded that wars are mainly about 19-year-olds who give their lives to pay for the political sins of 60-year-olds. (Saddam, of course, is a goon. But the U.S. bears a huge burden, too—for years we responded to Saddam’s thuggery with benign neglect; no wonder he thought we were wimps.)

9. Man is a carnivore. I supported Mr. Bush before January 15, and I spent two tours in Vietnam—i.e., my hawk credentials are in order. Yet I am deeply distressed by our collective glee at “kicking butt” in the Gulf—i.e., killing several tens of thousands of Iraqi boy-soldiers.

10. The more things change, the more they stay the same. A lot has happened in the last two months. That’s for sure. Are we closer to a lasting Middle East peace than on January 15, 1991? Go buy a history book. I.e., don’t bet on it.

So what do we know for sure? That heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield could beat the tar out of me—and it wouldn’t take him 100 hours.

(C)1991 TPG Communications.

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