The Great War of…1990

6 November 2013, 0709 EST

The year 2014 is nearly on us, and reflections on World War One are already weighing down bookshop shelves. In my own research, I’ve stumbled across an odd tendency: that whereas in Britain the cause of World War One, if not its conduct, attracts strong supporters as well as critics, the first Gulf War is remembered as a bit of a disappointment.

Consider the difference with one of history’s archetypal ‘limited’ wars, which few seem keen to defend.

In early 1991, having defeated the fourth largest army in the world after a bombing campaign and 100 hours of ground war, President Bush I called a halt to operations and stopped US forces at the Iraqi border. Despite majorities in polls supporting the overthrow of the defeated but surviving enemy Saddam Hussein, despite the belief of commander General Schwarzkopf that the US could drive on to Baghdad with virtually no resistance, despite the apparent opportunity to finish the job, Bush held back.

Ever since, observers have debated whether this consciously limited war was worth it. A rough consensus emerged in the literature – both journalistic and historiographical -that this was a hollow victory. It achieved its central declared aim, of expelling the Iraqi invader from Kuwait whose sovereignty was restored. But it failed to achieve the aim that gathered force as the war proceeded – more of a hope than an aim – that defeat would lead to Saddam’s demise at the hands of a palace revolution or popular uprising.

This unsatisfying outcome led to a decade of drift, a containment regime that was breaking down and serial breaches of UN resolutions. Critics also complained that the defiant Saddam used the opportunity to arm himself with apocalyptic weapons, but that line of critique has fallen out of fashion. So too has the loose counterfactual, that America could just have occupied the country and overseen a transition to democracy at minimal cost. That also is heard less often these days. But for critics, it was, allegedly, a ‘triumph without a victory.’

Speaking of which, that is the verdict British historian Brian Bond in his account of the pursuit of victory in the modern world. For Bond:  ‘The ironic result of the Gulf War seems to be either Saddam Hussein will be left in power to build up his forces for renewed aggression or, by some means short of another great coalition war, he will have to be deposed. There can rarely have been a case in history where the chasm between a decisive military victory and an unsatisfactory political outcome has been so wide. It was a “triumph without victory.’

Bond and I would have to agree to disagree on this one. The Gulf War was fought primarily to expel an invader from a territory, prevent Saddam’s regime from threatening the wider balance of power, keep his foot off the West’s windpipe, and shackle a predatory state. That American diplomacy (and indeed Arab diplomacy) had helped to generate this problem does not remove the question that Bush’s war addressed: was the invasion to be tolerated or not?  To judge wars only worthwhile if they achieve far more, if they destroy regimes or transform regions, is to ask too much. Most conflicts, even the ‘good’ ones, leave other tragic legacies in their wake. Just try telling Poles about the moral triumph of World War Two, or Serb minorities about the justice of the Balkans interventions.

Unless we fall prey to that ahistorical, utopian standard, its fair to say that whatever else happened, the 1990 war achieved a negative gain: a recession-fatigued, Vietnam-haunted America under a UN mandate with a broad coalition turned back an invasion and annexation of a small state. What’s more, Bush did try to convert this momentum into a settlement of sorts over Palestine, having just thwarted the main rejectionist regime in the region. But that is another story.

Regardless of all this, here is what’s truly odd. Having judged Bush’s war in the Gulf to be an extreme case of battlefield victory and political failure, Bond a few years later had this to say about Britain’s Great War of 1914-1918:

“It was, for Britain,a necessary and successful war, and an outstanding achievement for a democratic nation in arms.”

There’s something very wrong here. By what standard should we define and measure victory?  The Gulf War was hardly a picnic. It cost the US four casualties but killed thousands of Iraqis, and smashed up a good deal of infrastructure, and led to sanctions that ravaged Iraqi society. But compare it to the big one: to the first day of the battle of the Somme, or just about any day of Ypres, or the crippling naval blockade on Germany, or the atrocious occupation of Belgium, or  the disastrous aftermath and legacy of Leninism, economic dislocation, hypernationalism…by what standard, exactly, do Haig and Lloyd George get commended while Bush and Schwarzkopf are condemned?

Heavy costs and tragic unanticipated consequences came with both causes, the cause of preventing the Kaiserreich from crushing Europe, and the cause of preventing Saddam Hussein swallowing up Kuwait.  Whether one or both were worth it comes down to difficult value judgments that political change over time can alter. But as 2014 looms and poses the question of what standards to hold up to these questions, some proportion might be in order.

Cross-posted at The Offshore Balancer