Colin Powell Remembers Desert Storm 25 years later
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Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, 78, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in early August 1990 when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his army to invade Kuwait. Within days, then-President George H.W. Bush vowed that Saddam's aggression “will not stand.”
The president and then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tasked Powell and the then-commander of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., to launch Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia and begin to build a powerful military coalition. Six months later, that coalition, which included forces from Britain, France, Italy, Egypt, Syria, and other states, liberated Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.
U.S. casualties in the Persian Gulf War included 148 battle deaths and 467 wounded. A total of 694,550 Americans deployed for Desert Shield or Storm and 235 died in theater of noncombat injuries or ailments. Many more thousands later died or became disabled from Gulf War-related illness linked to a variety of environmental and chemical hazards.
In remembrance of the war fought 25 years ago, Contributing Editor Tom Philpott interviewed General Powell.
As a military power, how did America view itself in 1990?
I'll start with the invasion of Panama in December 1989. Military dictator Manuel Noriega long had ignored warnings against harassment of American citizens and then one American was killed. President Bush authorized what our commander there, [Army Gen.] Max Thurman, and I had been thinking: a full coup de main. We sent in 13,000 troops on top of 13,000 already there and took down the whole [Panamanian Defense Force]. It was a good operation. Not a huge war, but it worked. We got rid of a dictator and put in the elected civilian president who had been in hiding.
It was a first test for me and Max and the Joint Chiefs. We did it well. It showed what combined operations were like these days. So we heard from the American people: “Hey, you guys can do something.” They've had peace in Panama with no American soldiers present for the last 26 years.
After the invasion, in my first full year as chairman, I faced the biggest task we had. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had to figure out how to reduce our armed forces in response to the end of the Cold War and pressure from Congress. It would require a major transformation of U.S. forces to pay a peace dividend, yet we had to do it in a way that our forces remained as capable and strong as at the start of transformation, just not as large.
We worked on that for most of early 1990 and had a plan in place to cut 25 percent of the force. On Aug. 2, the same day President Bush was to give a speech on the new force structure, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
On that date, how would you assess U.S. military capabilities? Were there weaknesses you hoped to address during the drawdown?
The transition hadn't begun, so our military was quite large and strong. The Soviet Union was no longer an immediate threat. It was coming to an end, and we were in good standing with the Russians. So not only did I have all of the forces based in the U.S. available but a significant force in Germany. We were going to fight a war we had prepared for decades but without mountains or trees. All of the tactics, equipment, procedures, and doctrine, all the training and leadership we had rehearsed to deal with the Soviet army invading West Germany, would now go to the Persian Gulf.
In those first days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, we had to understand what we might have to do. It's been reported we had debates within the administration. That's not unreasonable. My position was: Mr. President, tell us what are you prepared to do, and we'll show you how we'll do it.
General Schwarzkopf and I and some of his people had laid out plans, first to defend Saudi Arabia and, if we needed, to go on the offense. If the Iraqis did not leave Kuwait in response to U.N. sanctions and all the diplomatic and economic pressure applied, our planning was to make them leave, plus any additional missions the president might assign.
That first weekend, briefing the president, we even gave him an estimated cost. It was almost exactly what the cost of the operation turned out to be, six months later.
How was the rest of the world responding?
One of the biggest successes came on the president's decision to pull the entire international community to our side: the Russians, the United Nations, Congress, everybody. Only Jordan and the Palestinians opposed what we were doing. We were even able to get a Syrian division and an Egyptian division to be part of General Schwarzkopf's force.
But you asked about shortcomings. We pretty much had everything we needed except enough transport to move our force around in theater. We managed to do that by borrowing from the Egyptians hundreds of trucks and tank carriers that they had purchased from the Soviet Union over the years. So it really was a coalition effort.
What about airlift and sealift of forces, equipment, and supplies?
By late fall, the president had agreed with our recommendation to double the size of the U.S. force to liberate Kuwait, from 250,000 to 500,000. We activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet [CRAF], though everybody was worried about the impact on package transport during the Christmas season. Well, this was a war; we'd worry about the Christmas season later.
With the CRAF activated and providing additional lift, we were able to put it all in place. Success in war often is a matter of logistics. How to get it all there, clothe and feed the troops, provide water, field hospitals. How do we move that corps north, all the way up the pipeline road almost to the Iraqi border? How do we position them in the western area of operation?
We had the genius of one logistician, [Army] Lt. Gen. William G. “Gus” Pagonis. I had served with Gus many times over the years. He was a two-star, and as soon as we saw what he was doing, we promoted him to three stars.
So goals were to protect Saudi Arabia, build up forces for liberating Kuwait, expand alliances. What were the challenges to overcome?
Almost all of the challenges were not related to how to fight the war, although that got controversial, but to the logistics, complicated by patriotic Americans. Nice people in the United States wanted to send ice cream to the troops. Well, ice cream melts in the desert. Frozen pizzas thaw. My friend Arnold Schwarzenegger called to say troops have to stay in fit condition, so he was sending a truckload of exercise equipment.
By late fall, America's response to troops preparing to fight was so overwhelming that they were bombarding us with gifts and food and cookies and all kinds of things, most of which we did not need. Schwarzkopf called and said, “You've got to do something. All this stuff is stopping the flow of things we need.”
I said, “Norm, I will give you more resources. But we can't tell the American people they can't do this.” It meant so much to them and was part of our effort to maintain morale and esprit de corps. So logistics was a serious problem.
But the thing on my mind all the time, and on Norm's, was the question constantly asked: What will this war cost in casualties? How many young men and women will we lose? Estimates from some think tanks, of 10,000 to 20,000 killed from attacking the world's fourth-largest army, given fire ditches they had constructed across the border and the chemical and biological weapons, were much higher than Norm and I thought.
Chemical and biological weapons were an emotional and media concern more than my concern or Norm's. We had prepared to fight the Russians in this kind of environment for decades. We had MOPP [mission-oriented protective posture] gear. If subject to a chemical attack, you move out of it. We were pretty sure we could fight our way through a chemical attack. I was even less concerned about biological weapons, which are very hard to use. Also, we had warned the Iraqis that if they use any weapons of mass destruction, then don't be surprised at what we do to them in return.
But we were concerned about casualties. Norm and I finally concluded, with no science behind it, that there might be a couple of thousand. Not more. But we warned our leaders what it could be so they understood the risks.
As U.S. forces prepared for war, how aware were you, how aware was the American public, that this would be the first war of all volunteers?
When we ended the draft in the early 1970s, I was a battalion commander in Korea. Professionals like me stayed in the Army, but a lot of colleagues left, feeling the American people had abandoned us. I commanded mostly volunteers then, but it was the beginning of the [all-volunteer force (AVF)], so we weren't getting high-quality youngsters. As we trained them, we also helped some get a high school education and taught others to speak English.
By the time I became a brigade commander of the 101st Airborne Division in 1976, we could see a change. These were good soldiers. They wanted to be there. It wasn't like draftees. If these volunteers, mostly high school graduates, didn't perform, we could fire them. It made for a higher-quality Army. The American people saw them for the first time and were very proud. They were behind us a thousand percent.
What about military equipment?
That's another thing Americans didn't know but were about to find out: how good our equipment was. Our new M-1 tanks, Patriot missiles, cruise missiles used to get criticized, likewise our high-priced planes and ships. In this war, they would see them in action, and they worked!
With every war, the U.S. military develops a certain relationship with the media. This war was marked by CNN 24-hour news coverage. Did you feel that handcuffed military leadership, either in the Gulf or in Washington, in any way?
It was helpful but also annoying. My philosophy over many years of service was that I, my commanders and subordinates, and the media have the same responsibility: to inform the American people about what we are doing in their name and how we are using their young men and women. The media always wants to know more than I want to tell them. I have secrets that are none of their business because keeping them protects the troops.
When I was talking to the press, I always knew I had five audiences. The least important was the reporter asking the question. The others were the American people, the enemy, and coalition partners who have their sons and daughters at risk under our command. The fifth audience was the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines watching on the Armed Forces Network, including aboard ships. I knew they listened just as hard as Saddam Hussein might listen. I know a lot of military-and-the-media studies were done later, and I would guess most of your colleagues thought we were a little unreasonable. I accept that criticism, but the American people didn't think we were. I knew our view became prevailing when Saturday Night Live started to parody you guys, with skits of reporters asking questions like, “General Powell, when is the attack going to start?”
Soon after the air war began, in late January, you and Cheney appeared at a joint press conference and gave a briefing that the nation perceived as reassuring.
Let me tell you the story of that day. After the first night, with Tomahawks going through windows and all kinds of wonderful things occurring, there was this great euphoria in the media. But the euphoria lasted about a week, and then you guys were on us, saying, ''Aha, you're not getting it done.” I had to call some of your colleagues and say, “Calm down. It's not over. It's just starting.” I told Mr. Cheney, “You and I have to go and calm this down.” He agreed.
So Dick and I went down for a press conference [Jan. 23, 1991, six days into the air war]. He gave the political situation and strategy at a senior level. Then I went through operational details, how we were taking out the air defense systems, and those sorts of things. And I used a line I had rehearsed. I said our strategy in going after the Iraqi army was very, very simple. “First we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it.”
That became the headline. That became the dominating theme for the next several weeks.
Do you remember any particular conversation with President Bush after the air war began, perhaps on his perspective on how the fight was going and what was being accomplished?
The president was, well, wonderful. That's kind of an over-the-top word but an accurate one. He understood what we were doing. He had been briefed every day on the plan and how the conflict was going. He had confidence in Mr. Cheney. He and Mr. Cheney had confidence in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in General Schwarzkopf. So we had no interference.
There were days when they needed a lot of information right away because the press was on them, like the day of a regrettable bunker strike on Iraqi civilians where we had to be more forthcoming than we might otherwise want to be. But I never found myself in conflict with the White House.
One occasion early on, when still preparing details for the ground war, the White House wanted a briefing before we really had the ground operation worked out. They were persistent. So I told Norm, “Like it or not, you've got to send me a brief so I can keep the White House happy.”
So he did. And when he briefed the Joint Chiefs before we went to the White House, we didn't like it. So we called ahead and said, “Look, this is a tentative plan. It isn't approved by General Schwarzkopf or the Joint Chiefs.” But when we did brief it, they had a similarly negative view. They were afraid we weren't getting ready for the ground conflict. So there was a bit of criticism of me and of General Schwarzkopf. I kept telling them, “This is early. We know how to do this.”
Finally we showed them the great left-flank enveloping maneuver. The reality is it was an obvious plan any captain at infantry school should figure out. Most credit for it goes to Norm, but we all were involved.
As the air war was ending and we readied for the ground war, I sat down with President Bush and Secretary Cheney and said, “You have to be prepared for uglier scenes from ground combat.” When a fighter aircraft gets hit and goes down, we've lost a plane and a pilot. If a tank gets hit, it's four guys. If a platoon of tanks gets hit, it's a lot of guys, perhaps bodies burning outside of tanks. So I said, “You have to stiffen your resolve because the images will be all over television. Understand that this is what war is about.”
What was their reaction?
He and Cheney took it all aboard. And when the ground war started and there were initial casualty reports, both the president and Secretary Cheney did not overreact or start feeling they had to make justifications to the American people.
There were three events I've always been disappointed with, but it's what happens in war. The first involved the loss of an AC-130 [gunship that was supporting coalition ground forces in the Battle of Khafji. The air war had begun Jan. 17. On Jan. 29, Saddam ordered Iraqi forces to invade Saudi Arabia from southern Kuwait.] AC-130s always flew at night for protection against ground-to-air missiles. But on
Jan. 31, one of the planes stayed up after daylight. It got hit, and we lost 14 people. I was disgusted. It was not what they should have been doing, and so brave young men made the supreme sacrifice.
The second event involved that bunker in Baghdad that was a command center. Unbeknownst to us, local civilians went to that complex for protection. We hit it one morning in February with two laser-guided bombs and killed a lot of civilians who had gone there for refuge. After that, we slowed down our targeting and bombing.
The worst day came at the tail end of the operation, when a lucky Iraqi Scud missile hit a tent complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where U.S. troops were barracked. Twenty-seven died. Those are the things that bothered me the most.
Several days into the ground offensive, Feb. 27, 1991, General Schwarzkopf explained that maneuver to the world in what become known as “the Mother of All Briefings.” He described in remarkable detail how coalition forces were destroying Saddam's forces. Do you remember discussing with him how he would brief that day?
We talked every day. I didn't know he was going to be quite as flamboyant as he was, and it was a little more than I was expecting. But it was not an issue or a problem for me or for Mr. Cheney. Norm captured the media's attention on the enveloping plan. It was well-deserved.
What surprised you about the character or commitment of Iraqi forces at that point?
First days of a ground war are always tricky because you think you know everything. As German Field Marshal [Helmuth] von Moltke put it, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. It was clear to me early on that what the Iraqis chose to do was sit there. With divisions right across the border in eastern Saudi Arabia, facing our troops and Marines, they were not moving. They had three or four divisions on the coast that weren't moving. The Republican Guard, in reserve positions up toward Kuwait City, had staged themselves out [of the fight]. As we put this huge force in motion, everybody could see it moving to the west to envelop, and yet the Iraqis didn't move. As somebody described it, they essentially had tied themselves to a stake in the ground and made it easy.
That caused me some problems because the Marines wanted to do an amphibious operation on Iraqi positions on the coast. I refused. Norm said, “No, there's no need to lose a Marine fighting them on the beaches.” That caused some distress among some colleagues.
What seemed to be Iraq's strategy? Do sufficient harm to coalition forces to win some sort of draw?
That was the only hope they had. I assume that's the hope that existed among leaders in Baghdad, to include Saddam Hussein. I'm not sure it was the hope of the young Iraqi infantrymen and their commanders on the border watching us build up. They talked big and bad in Baghdad. But in interviews with Iraqi generals captured later, they did not display that same sort of confidence.
Would you describe the decision to stop the fighting?
The last day was a fascinating one. In briefing the president, I said Norm and I thought that in another couple of days we would be asking him to end the war. The Highway of Death was all over television at that point.
The president said, “Well, if we've accomplished the mission, and I think we have, then what's the point of killing more people. Why not end it in the next 12 to 18 hours?”
I agreed. Mr. Cheney agreed. Norm agreed. All the president's advisors agreed. And that's what we did. We gave Norm like 12 hours to stake out a line, figure out where everybody was to give up, and halt the war at that point. It was the subject of great controversy afterward.
For more than 10 years, I had people asking me, “Why didn't you go to Baghdad?” I explained why, as did the president and Mr. Cheney. Then, in 2003, we went to Baghdad, and nobody asked me again.
You defended that decision perhaps first in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1992. Did you continue to defend it through the years?
I defended it every time the question was asked. Congress had authorized us to do what we were doing and nothing more. The U.N. resolution, which did a lot to create that great coalition, anticipated kicking the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and nothing else. President Bush from the beginning made clear he did not want to occupy an Arab or Muslim country. He would just right a wrong, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. We never had a single discussion about doing more than that. In fact, the president's guidance to me was he wanted troops home by July Fourth.
So we had done what we went there to do. We believed some residual standby force was necessary. But Kuwaitis were back in power, and the president did not want to get sucked into anything.
That Saddam was still there was controversial, though he was pretty much contained. His army had been knocked down to 40 percent of its original size. We did not want to destroy the Iraqi army because Iran was right next door. We didn't want to make it so easy that the Iranian army could just walk across the border.
There was criticism about negotiations that subsequently took place with Iraq. “You left their helicopters flying, and all those gunships shot up the Shias.” That criticism is somewhat misplaced. The Shias were in no position at that time to undertake an operation that would have taken them to Baghdad. The only fair criticism was that we stopped a little too short. We should have gone another couple of days.
What would a couple more days have achieved?
It would have destroyed more of the Republican Guard. Otherwise, it wouldn't have changed the situation. It would have killed more young men on both sides. We already had 70,000 prisoners. I can't say it might have been better or worse. But others have criticized it over the years. That's the only criticism I think is fair.
Critics forget that Saddam Hussein did not commit the whole Republican Guard to Kuwait. He kept a lot of it at home to put down any problems he had in Baghdad. So it's fair criticism, but criticism I can handle and counter.
How did the war affect America's perception of its military?
There was enormous pride, parades all over the place. We thought we would never get through with them. Every town wanted one. And everybody wanted to lionize Norm. Norm was king of the world.
We offered him a couple of jobs in the military. He called me and asked me about them. I said, “Norm, you don't understand because you haven't come home yet. You're too big! Your personage has outgrown anything we can give you in the military. Come home and take a look. I think you'll realize it's time to retire.” I mean he'd become super-life-size.
Wasn't that also true for you, to a large extent?
Yeah … and I'm still going to lunch on it. [Laughter.]
I had no intention of leaving because my term was going to be over in a little while. I stayed until the next administration came in and then retired. I didn't do anything with the Pentagon. I'm on no defense contractor boards. I've gone off to a different life. I talk about those days, but you're the first person who has interviewed me about them in a long time. I'm interested in other things now, such as youth programs. I've got 10 schools named after me, and [I'm] proud of all of them. I visit all of them. So my life has moved on to something else, just as Norm's did, only just a little later.
How did the Gulf War change the military's perception of itself?
The only thing that dinged it a bit was that after the war, I had to get back on my original goal to reduce the size of the military. The Soviet Union was gone as of Dec. 26, 1991. So we had to cut the size of the military before Congress did. The difficult part of that was releasing a lot of servicemembers who had just been successful in Iraq and Panama. A lot of officers with plus-20 years asked, “Why am I being asked to go?”
You just have to do it. For the good of the service, we had to reduce to something more in tune with the demands that would be placed on it.
It was a tough time.