On January 17, 1991, US and allied forces launched an air assault on Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait. By the time they declared a cease-fire 43 days later, they had won a stunning victory. Many people simply assumed that a conflict that was going so well must be being fought as a total war, both applying force in lavish quantities and using that force in unrestricted ways.
The reality was otherwise. The US forces in the Persian Gulf in 1991 had to get along with less manpower than the US forces in Southeast Asia in 1968. Lyndon Johnson had not dared to draft too many young men; George Bush simply didn't draft any, so he had a considerably smaller military to work with than Johnson had had in the 1960s. Even what he did have was not, by any means, all committed to the war. The US Air Force, for example, only sent to the Middle East about half of the combat aircraft that had been in the continental United States at the time the crisis arose. Not having committed a huge number of aircraft to the conflict, the US forces ended up dropping a tonnage of bombs each day that was only about half that attained during peak periods of previous wars.
The substitution of technology for manpower, in an effort to hold American casualties down, was carried much farther in the Gulf War than in Vietnam. In Vietnam, American air superiority was great enough in most areas to hold losses down to low levels, but the Americans did not allow fear of losses to deter them from attacking targets that were strongly defended. Plane after plane was shot down, for example, trying to destroy the Ham Rong Bridge in Thanh Hoa province of North Vietnam. In the Gulf War, on the other hand, the doctrine was that no target was important enough to be worth losing a plane. Only targets that the Americans believed could be bombed without any loss to the attacking force got bombed.
At the same time, the US tried harder to avoid bombing civilians in the Gulf War than it had tried in Vietnam.
The stereotype of limited war as a loser's game is so firmly fixed in the American popular mind that even those who complain that the US should have gone farther--overthrown Saddam Hussein--very rarely use the phrase "limited war" to describe what the US did in the Gulf War. But limited war is what it was.
Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 24, 1998.