Smart Bombs, Scuds, And Way Too Cool Images


By Rick Atkinson

Houghton Mifflin x 575pp x $24.95

War, we know, is hell. But that was hard to tell during the Persian Gulf War, when censored, sanitized images of high-tech combat often displaced real news. Tens of thousands died in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, among them 390 Americans, but the carnage rarely found its way to the TV screen. What persists in public memory is the war as miniseries, accompanied by the dangerous illusion that modern warfare can be, in author Rick Atkinson's words, "surgical, simple, and bloodless."

War--even the lopsided gulf war--has never been any of those things. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War tears away the deceptive facade painted by the Bush Administration and Pentagon image-makers to provide a realistic and richly human account of the seven-week war for oil.

Atkinson, who covered the war for The Washington Post, doesn't dwell on blood and guts. But neither does he flinch from them, writing of "the stench of burning hair and flesh" drifting across battlefields. Atkinson gives the Pentagon and the defense industry their due for developing an array of reliable high-tech weaponry, but he also gives the lie to the endlessly repeated television depictions of bombing missions as way-cool video games.

The fact is, hundreds of civilians were killed by so-called smart bombs, and dozens of allied soldiers were killed or wounded by weapons fired by their comrades. The military obfuscated and even lied about the capabilities of anti-missile defense: The wildly hyped Patriot was actually a dud at downing Scuds.

Yet Crusade is no anti-military screed. The gulf war was a rousing success for the American military, finally liberating it from the aura of defeat left over from Vietnam. The victory is compellingly recounted here, from the first stealthy, heart-pounding Apache helicopter raids on Iraqi radar installations in January, 1991, to the battlefield rout of the Republican Guard, to the victory parade in Washington, D.C. that summer. Fast-paced and hard to put down, Crusade delivers the tension and excitement of a Tom Clancy thriller--with good writing to boot.

The subtitle's promise of "the untold story" is a bit misleading. Don't expect big revelations, unless reading that General Norman Schwarzkopf often acted like a hotheaded jerk after the TV cameras shut down comes as a surprise. What has been untold until now is the comprehensive story of the war, by an author without an ideology to push or a personal ax to grind.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning military correspondent and author of the The Long Gray Line, a celebrated biography of the West Point class of 1966, Atkinson has extensive military contacts. In four pages of small print, he thanks nearly 500 soldiers, sailors, and airmen for their help. All that first-hand reporting is augmented by color and detail drawn from pool reports generated by journalists who also covered the war and by Atkinson's knowledge of military history.

Atkinson has a knack for conveying drama and bravery without resorting to cheap machismo. He is most riveting when he focuses on the exploits, tragedies, and heroism of individual servicemen and servicewomen: Special Forces soldiers who, because they refused to kill a little girl uho discovered their hiding place, had to battle Iraqi troops in a daring escape; an A-10 Warthog pilot who remained overhead, covering for a downed comrade, until he, too, was shot down and killed. Throughout the book, Atkinson tracks indomitable Air Force Colonel David W. Eberly, felled by anti-aircraft fire and captured by the Iraqis. He was beaten, tortured, and starved, then nearly killed by allied bombing raids.

Schwarzkopf comes off far less heroically. While never seriously questioning his soldierly abilities, Atkinson depicts him as a tyrant with a hair-trigger temper who consistently expected the worst of his subordinates. Schwarzkopf was deaf to Israeli concerns about Scud attacks--calling the missile a "pissant" weapon--and had to be pressured to devote troops and planes to hunting down Scud launchers.

George Bush also comes in for criticism. Aware that a new world order based on cheap oil and benign monarchies wouldn't rally the nation to war, the President cast the conflict as a morality tale. Atkinson says he went too far: By demonizing Saddam Hussein as another Hitler, he inflated his foe and diminished Hitler. Although the war's aims were limited, Atkinson writes, "Bush aroused passions that would remain unsated" with Saddam still in power.

General Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the book's golden boy, always making highly intelligent and politically astute decisions. Maybe that's so. But here, as in Bob Woodward's The Commanders, a chronicle of events leading to the war, Powell is clearly a key source, and one suspects he is being treated with kid gloves.

There are a few other flaws in Crusade. A glossary would have helped readers who don't know a Warthog from a Weasel. The narrative flags a bit during the ground war, when "other than surrendering or dying, the enemy was doing little." The contributions of non-U.S. combatants are slighted. And Atkinson doesn't even begin to address the appalling complicity of the press in government censorship. Still, this is by far the best book yet on what Atkinson calls "a brilliant slaughter."

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