Crusade : The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War – Rick Atkinson

Generally, my thought was that I would alternate my reviews on this site between fiction and non-fiction, but lately I’ve been reading nothing but non-fiction, so my apologies for failing to provide enough variety to readers seeking good fiction. Don’t worry, I’ll probably swing to the other extreme in the near future….

As Gulf War II: The Sequel is now manifestly preparing to get underway, I thought it might be useful to go back and re-read Crusade, the definative overview of the 42-day Persian Gulf War, which, among other things, made SCUD a household world, and catapulted CNN into the major leagues of reporting.

Crusade tells a complete story of the war, from its early beginnings to its questionable end, with an exhaustive account that outlines strategies, tactics, weapons and politics, and more importantly, the people behind them. From Marine recon units trapped by the Iraqi assault on Khafji to the windowless basement rooms of the command center, the book keeps rolling along, mixing anecdotes with good, solid strategic analysis and background. Atkinson does an excellent job outlining the give-and-take of structuring the plans behind the war, and delving into the sometimes acrimonious relationships between the various arms of the military (namely the proponents of air power versus ground force (with the Navy toddling along last, like an irritating little brother, continuously piping up “Me to, I wanna play!”).

Of particular interest was General Norman Schwarzkopf, whose incandescent rages made him a figure of terror to much of the command staff. Atkinson spends a good deal of time examining “Stormin’ Norman” and his role at the center of the storm. The book also illuminates a number of interesting side-issues that, quite frankly, still offer highly valid observations for the upcoming conflict (Assuming it actually kicks off). These include some good discussion on why the war was halted so abruptly (arguably allowing much of the Republican Guard to escape); on why, despite repeated attempts to curtail them, Iraqi mobile SCUDs still managed to pop off shots at Israel and Saudi Arabia (and why Norman Schwarzkopf hated the Special Forces and repeatedly resisted their use); how the most low-tech weapons the Iraqi’s used (sea-mines) proved to be the most damaging weapon they deployed; and the marginal usefulness of the chemical and biological defenses that the military touted.

The most engrossing thing about the book by far are the characters of the people involved, from exhausted pilots ill from flying at night for a month straight, to a flamboyant British tank commander who, living in absolute dread of trigger-happy U.S. gunners, attaches an enormous British flag to his vehicle to prevent fratricide (It was somewhat successful in that he himself was not fired upon by U.S. forces however it is telling and sobering to note that all but a handful of British casulaties of the war were inflicted by U.S. troops.).

Overall Crusade is an excellent and fairly well-balanced account of the Gulf War. Whatever your war sentiments and opinions happen to be, the book should be a must-read towards understanding where we are today and how we arrived at this perilous state of affairs.

And now, for good or bad, Atkinson can write a sequal…..

There are a large number of books, studies and publications on the Gulf War, far too many to list here, but if you enjoy the ground-pounder’s view of the action, try Bravo Two Zero by Andy MacNab for a riveting true account of an 8-man SAS team inserted into “SCUD-alley”. Not for the faint-of-heart.

Online, you can find one of the best sites on the Gulf war at PBS. PBS’s Frontline produced a number of excellent documentaries on both the war, international terrorism, biological warfare and Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Check it out at Frontline: The Gulf War. Completely engrossing.

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