It started in the morning as a low rumble, barely audible above the debate of small-arms fire raging between a squad of M1 Abrams tanks and a line of Iraqi soldiers dug into a slender trench nearly one mile long. Soon the source of that rumble, an armor-plated M9 combat earthmover fitted with a 9-foot-high plow blade, rolled forward and began filling in the Iraqi position with sand, burying alive more than 1,000 men. The incident, reported only months after the Gulf War had ended, eventually became part of the steely mythology surrounding Operation Desert Storm, General Norman Schwarzkopf's 100-hour Super Bowl, which ended Saddam Hussein's short-lived annexation of Kuwait and crippled his hapless army.
While it has never been the objective of war to kill the smallest number of enemy soldiers necessary in the most painless fashion possible, the M9 affair has become an ugly metaphor for American might at century's end, an image of power run so capriciously amuck that our army would discard conventional tools of destruction in favor of turning its opponents into human landfill. But then, it was that kind of war, one for which President Bush couldn't give a reason for fighting, other than to speculate that it was necessary to preserve our “lifestyle.” It was also the kind of war in which Navy fighter pilots watched porno videos onboard their carrier to relax before flying sorties; a war in which pantyhose were used as replacements for defective oil filters in Abrams tanks; a war in which some stateside soldiers refused to ship out with their units to Saudi Arabia because, hey, they hadn't joined the military to actually fight; a conflict in which Israel absorbed more damage from Scuds shot down by U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles than by undeflected Scuds themselves.
Above all, it was America's feel-good war, an orgasmic redemption both for the military that had disgraced itself in Vietnam and for the civilian public that had once so petulantly snubbed that conflict's veterans. (If nothing else, it provided a season of yellow ribbons, rallies and victory parades.) It was finally time, the country giddily decided, to stop feeling bad about ourselves, to stop feeling so goddamned guilty for being rich, for devouring the world's oil and polluting its air and ripping its ozone layer, for wearing fur and eating red meat . . .
The Gulf War ran two acts: Desert Shield (the peace pantomimes of George Bush, performed in tandem with the Pentagon's half-million troop buildup in Saudi Arabia) and Desert Storm (armor-plated bulldozers). While the four-and-a-half-day “war” was fought according to classic West Point/Colorado Springs tactics for ground and air combat (wheeling pincer movements, saturation bombing) and for familiar ideals (petroleum supplies, the need to prop up a corrupt ruling family), there was definitely something new and nutty about it. Consider some of the things suddenly made voguish during that brief time: “collateral damage,” “the mother of all wars,” Humvees, hardened bunkers, night-vision goggles, berms, CNN.
Today, what we remember most from that time is hype – lots of hype. To begin with, everything had an apocalyptic, end-times ring to it. Saddam was Satan, or at least, according to George Bush, Hitler; here was a monster who enjoyed watching his opposition literally dissolve in brimming baths of acid (why do you think they called it the Baath Party?), whose megalomania out-Qaddafi'd Qaddafi, and whose excessive blinking proved (to Time magazine, anyway) that he was an anti-Western madman. His army, unsurprisingly, robotically followed in its leader's cloven footprints to such unspeakable acts as ripping premature newborns from their Kuwaiti incubators.
Teamed to these images of horned evil were official and semiofficial warnings that the Iraqi forces, especially Saddam's shock troops, the Republican Guard (invariably described as “elite,” “vaunted” or “battle-hardened”), were among the most formidable and fanatical fighting legions known in the book of war, and that any valiant Western soldiery would be confronted with moats of burning oil, mysterious chemical weapons, waves of MiG kamikazes and, inevitably, huge casualties.
After America's rent-a-cop action had been completed (or, regarding some of these stories, during the engagement), we learned differently, learned that the incubator and acid-bath fables had been fabrications and that massive Iraqi desertions had begun with the appearance of the first F-16 over Baghdad. Too, by then, the other half of the official mythology – our military infallibility – had begun to unravel, with reports of bitter intraservice rivalries, defective “smart” weaponry (the London Independent's Patrick Cockburn reported that every destroyed Iraqi target had been hit by about 44 tons of “dumb” bombs and 11 tons of smart ordnance), and that nearly a quarter of American combat deaths had resulted from “friendly fire.” (It is interesting to note that of America's 293 Gulf War fatalities, half are listed by the Defense Department as “other,” noncombat deaths.)
While the job of mythmaking and rumormongering belonged to the Pentagon and White House “information” offices, even the raciest propaganda needs helpers to transmit it to the public, and many willing helpers there were – nearly the entire United States press corps. Not since the sinking of the Maine had official policy benefited from media so eager to accept such humiliating regimentation as that demanded by the Pentagon. With most news reporters confined to carefully supervised pools, and with their copy and video uplinks subject to onsite military censorship, the country never read about or saw the carnage, military and civilian, that had been purchased by its tax dollars. There had been grumblings and protests early on, but in the end all the major networks and publications caved in, partly from cowardice, partly to refute the right wing's charges that they were part of a liberal, unpatriotic and unelected branch of government that had helped lose Vietnam.
For its part, the military was hell-bent to eradicate the so-called Vietnam syndrome, which it claimed paralyzed it from pursuing excellence on the battlefield. Above all, the generals didn't want to suffer from the original sin of that war – having to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. What the landscape of Vietnam might have looked like had the Pentagon been allowed to shoot its wad is anyone's guess, though downtown Baghdad suggests the possibilities. And while some pacifist sentiment in the Pentagon apparently blocked the use of thermonuclear devices, the generals got to fight their war the way they wanted and left the theater of action without any of the blue-balled discomfort experienced in Indochina.
In any American town older than its McDonald's, you'll find a monument to our Union dead, some verdigris statue of a doughboy, or a plaque hammered into a high school bench engraved with the names of grads who fell in battles from Belleau Wood to Chosin, and, maybe, a newer sheet of bronze specially cut for Vietnam. And if you look long enough on an otherwise nondescript lawn in San Pedro's Fort MacArthur, across from the Korean peace bell, you'll even find a forlorn-looking rock the shape and size of a big meat loaf, bearing a tiny inscription saluting Desert Storm's 293 body bags.
Office workers brown-bagging it beneath a town-square statue, or kids making out on that high school bench, may not think much about these memorials, but such bits of bronze and concrete probably give them some subconscious assurance of national purpose – or, at least, of good intentions. Who knows, though, what feelings the meat-loaf rock at Fort MacArthur inspires. What kind of America is it that squanders its wealth to send soldiers 8,000 miles to smother another army with bulldozers? Not the same country whose men of arms swung open the gates of Bergen-Belsen, or even, for a brief moment, glimpsed an American peace through the smoke of Hiroshima. Instead, we are the kind of country that could absorb Vietnam and Desert Storm in the national bloodstream even while we threw Frisbees, watched TV, listened to the Stones, made money. These things we still do – and now we think we can bury the world alive.