PBS Lands Direct Hit With Gulf War Saga


Peace euphoria is blowing across the desert.

Hearing the war is over and they’re going home, jubilant U.S. troops pump their arms above their heads to the soul beat of James Brown singing, “I feel good,” as Old Glory flies somewhere in the lunaresque expanse behind them.

This joyous footage, a living Hallmark card from the recent past, greets you near the end of a two-part PBS documentary recalling five years ago when the United States and its junior coalition partners kicked some serious butt over oil in the Middle East, only to have the battered kickee dust himself off, crush his enemies at home and resume being the tyrant of Baghdad. Or as President Bush, in mobilizing support for his gulf policy, had labeled despised Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein: “Hitler revisited.”

“The Gulf War” is even fresher history revisited, four hours of stinging insights and terrifically watchable, provocative television from “Frontline” and the BBC that you dare not miss. Oh, it could do with at least a blip on the narrow pool coverage imposed on the media, which many found objectionable. It also could use more than just a fleeting allusion to the military’s tight control of combat visuals that was designed to keep the folks at home blissfully fond of the war. And purists surely would can the “Frontline” program’s mood-swaying spasms of music. Why such intrusiveness?


Speaking powerfully for itself, after all, is a narrative that includes a former Marine general bluntly faulting former Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, accounts of other sharp conflicts within the U.S. military, an Iraqi insider’s memory of a demoralized Hussein after his army’s defeat and revealing anecdotes about a dovish Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In other words, this hybrid of suspense and scholarship is as good as war documentaries get, given that it was erected in the very shadow of the gore--beware of black-charred bodies of Iraqi soldiers and other grim sights that yank the veil of abstraction from battle casualties--and the closeted political intrigues it examines.

Perhaps never has a war so militarily one-sided received so much second-guessing by the apparent winners, who suffered remarkably few losses while mass-bombing much of Baghdad to bits and then swiftly crushing Hussein’s ground forces and forcing the occupiers from Kuwait. Who ultimately did win, however, is still debated in some circles. And even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Bush’s most zealous ally in the anti-Hussein coalition, wonders aloud here if the Gulf War achieved what it should have achieved.

History teaches that miscalculation and misunderstanding underpin conflict. Thus, we hear from “Frontline,” Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent six weeks of warfare were dominoes kicked over largely as a result of misreadings on both sides.

“Frontline” unfurls the history, misstep by misstep. It’s July, 1990. Fresh from meeting with Hussein in Baghdad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reports to the White House that the Iraqi dictator is “bluffing” about invading Kuwait. Wrong! Hussein apparently later infers from a meeting with U.S. ambassador April Glaspie that he has nothing to fear from the United States should he take Kuwait. Wrong! And so on and so on.

Everyone was “dead wrong” about Hussein’s intentions, says former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. Just as U.S. generals, we’re told here, overestimated Iraqi officers and the will of their soldiers to confront the smaller but technologically superior coalition forces. Why did the Hussein not use his dreaded chemical weapons on U.S. forces as he had on Kurds and Iranians? “We thought it was not wise . . . with such an enemy,” says Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz, meaning, apparently, that Hussein feared the consequences.


Meanwhile, Hussein himself was errant in reportedly thinking that Bush would lack the resolve to initially oppose his move on Kuwait--which owns 10% of the world’s oil--if only because the traumatizing experience of Vietnam still weighed heavily on the United States and its top generals.

“Every time he had to make a major strategic decision, Saddam guessed wrong,” says Middle East expert Rick Atkinson. According to “Frontline,” that also included dropping Scud missiles on Israel in the belief that an inevitable Israeli counterattack would topple the U.S.-led coalition because its Arab members would never side with the Jewish state against fellow Arabs.


The issue was moot when Israel didn’t respond militarily even though, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens says here, “probably not a single Scud was intercepted” by those highly lauded Patriot missiles sent to Israel by the United States. Instead, we’re told, the Scuds often broke up in the skies on their own, and when the U.S. missiles did hone in on and explode something spectacularly, they were hitting that falling junk.

No President, from Wilson to Clinton, has advocated dispatching troops abroad without first seeking to sell that policy to the public. As such, “The Gulf War” is especially fascinating when monitoring the campaign by Bush and his team to demonize Hussein--whose record of butchery made that easy--as justification for sending U.S. troops to protect Saudi Arabia’s oil fields.

Aiding their cause was an anonymous 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl’s tearful, memorably televised testimony before a congressional committee. Among the atrocities she personally saw was Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait City yanking premature babies from their hospital incubators and leaving them to die. Bush would make her horror tale the center of his relentless Hussein-Hitler linkage, although it was later disclosed that she was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States, calling into question the veracity of her alleged eyewitness account. The ambassador tells “Frontline” that the committee knew the girl was his daughter, but a committee member denies it.

In any case, the Hitler analogy still resonates in the criticisms of those who believe Bush ultimately failed by ending the war so soon and leaving Hussein in command of Iraq with enough military might to smash the subsequent uprisings against him that the President himself had publicly encouraged. Although the announced aim of the Gulf campaign was Hussein’s removal from Kuwait, not from power, his survival, after Bush likened him to Hitler, seems almost surreal.


How curious that gone from the scene are victors Bush and Thatcher, but the demon they defeated is still there.

* “The Gulf War” airs in two-hour installments on “Frontline” on Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.