A New Military (1975–2001)


A sandstorm blew across southern Iraq, which reduced the visibility of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment to less than 220 yards. Captain H. R. McMaster, commander of Eagle Troop in the 2nd Squadron, navigated using a Global Positioning System, or GPS. While crossing the longitudinal reading of 70 Easting, his M-1 Abrams tank operated in the center of a wedge formation with nine tanks. “As a platoon leader or company commander,” the West Point graduate observed, “you must be forward to have a clear picture of the situation.”

At exactly 4:19 p.m. on February 26, 1991, McMaster saw eight T-72 tanks of the Iraqi Republican Guard ahead. He barked a command to Eagle Troop: “Fire, Fire Sabot.” In less than a minute, his men and machines destroyed everything in their range.

Amid the deafening noise, multiple fireballs, and thick smoke, McMaster pressed forward without hesitating. With M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles to the rear, the American tankers sped through minefields. Machine gunners mauled Iraqi infantry running for trenches or shouldering rocket-propelled grenades. As an enemy tanker traversed to fire on Eagle Troop, a round stuck in the chamber of an Abrams in McMaster's wedge. The loader grabbed hold of the hatch and kicked the round, which allowed the breech to close and the gunner to fire. Another Soviet-built T-72 exploded in flames.

While McMaster cleared the western defensive position, he received a radio message from an executive officer voicing caution. The line of 70 Easting marked his limit, but the commander of Eagle Troop rolled onward. “Tell them I'm sorry,” he radioed back.

McMaster reached 73 Easting, where the enemy's reserve included more tanks as well as the brigade commander's bunker. After capturing the commander, Eagle Troop took the entire position in 23 minutes. The firing ceased, reported McMaster, once “we had nothing left to shoot.” In the Battle of 73 Easting, Americans destroyed 50 T-72s, 25 armored personnel carriers, 40 trucks, and other equipment without suffering a single casualty.

Figure 15.1 M-1A1 Abrams main battle tanks of Co. A, 3rd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, December 9, 1990. Photo DA-ST-92-07289, Department of Defense, http://www.defenseimagery.mil/


Americans in the desert displayed awesome military prowess, which helped the U.S. to leave behind the unpleasant memories of the previous war. Before the war in Iraq, widespread opposition to fighting “another Vietnam” made the commander-in-chief less likely to use force overseas. President Jimmy Carter, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, offered pardons to Vietnam-era draft resisters and expressed support for international human rights after taking office. While the Pentagon attempted to restore the fighting capabilities lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia, military professionals vowed to discourage armed conflict without the backing of the American people. Economic weakness further undermined national confidence, as ambivalence toward foreign adventures continued to raise doubts about American power.

Owing to the buildup of American power in the 1980s, U.S. forces regained the respect of the nation. Force modernization not only reinvented the battlefield but also revised strategies, tactics, and logistics. Faith in nuclear deterrence and collective security flagged, but the Army, Navy, and Air Force tested new doctrines and concepts. With a rising tide of patriotism, conservatives such as President Ronald Reagan promised to secure peace through strength. “Freedom is for everyone around the world,” wrote a service member deployed to Saudi Arabia, “not just Americans.” American troops stood strong at the end of the Cold War, when the world no longer seemed divided by the narrowness of ideology.

Watching the world turn in the blink of an eye, a generation raised in the shadow of the Cold War remained anxious about national defense. In the absence of conscription to replenish the armed forces, it seemed imperative to devise ways to win future wars without heavy casualties. It also became clear to many that downsizing the force structure posed a serious problem for a nation preoccupied with all-or-nothing wars. Equipped with high-speed networks for communication and high-tech weapons of precision, men and women in uniform found themselves conducting peace operations in faraway lands such as Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.


The cultural fallout from the social movements of the 1960s left young Americans prone to question authority. In the absence of a draft, replenishing the military required savvy appeals attuned to the marketplace. Competing with civilian occupations for labor, each of the branches struggled initially to attract qualified recruits. The all-volunteer forces eventually became smaller, leaner, and better, which revived the nation's defense posture in the wake of Vietnam.

By 1976, potential volunteers were required to complete the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Test, or ASVAB. Given to all high-school seniors for free, the pencil-and-paper test helped to determine an appropriate Military Occupation Specialty, or MOS, for a prospective recruit. Generally, recruiters earned incentives for those scoring in the superior categories and holding high-school diplomas. Because fewer males with the highest aptitudes appeared willing to volunteer, officials in Washington D.C. worried about fielding “hollow” forces.

To field forces with better test scores, the American military became increasingly interested in the untapped pool of females. Once male conscription ended, the number of women in uniform grew rapidly. In 1971, women comprised only 1.3 percent of the enlisted ranks. By the end of the decade, the number had risen to 7.6 percent. Furthermore, Congress opened the service academies to women in 1975. Although the Coast Guard Academy admitted women first, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point admitted 119 female cadets for the fall of 1976. By 1978, the Army had eliminated the separate Women's Army Corps and mixed women into non-combat units with males. Reflecting the impact of “women's lib” on civil society, the military establishment took charges of sexual harassment and gender inequity more seriously. The Carter administration requested that Congress require females to register for the Selective Service system in 1980, but his request died in committee.

Carter selected the nation's first African American Secretary of the Army, Clifford Alexander. He feared that the quantitative measures of quality veiled patterns of racial discrimination, although the percentages of racial and ethnic minorities in uniform actually grew. Despite the close relationship in aggregate data between indicators of quality and the completion of enlistment, he intended to keep the Army from discounting the unrecognized potential of those lacking high-school diplomas or hailing from inner-city ghettos. Consequently, the Army instituted policies that ensured equal opportunity across the ranks.

Consistent with the Total Force policy, the National Guard provided key personnel to complete or to “round out” the Army's reduced divisions. By 1979, the Capstone program had identified all units necessary to fulfill wartime missions and aligned them with appropriate Army headquarters for active duty. For most inactive personnel, it allowed detailed preparations for combat in Europe. By design, the Pentagon relied more heavily than ever on the reserve component.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon attempted to revitalize the training of all service members. The Army's Training and Doctrinal Command, or TRADOC, developed a comprehensive and interconnected program to assess not only individual competence but also unit proficiency. Each soldier mastered the skills appropriate to his or her grade, which included ongoing measurements of readiness through a series of tests. Authoritarian forms of discipline and punishment gave way to positive reinforcement, as commanders eased regulations around the barracks. For commissioned and non-commissioned officers, training instilled the Zen-like concept of “Be-Know-Do.”

The AirLand Battle Doctrine influenced the most significant concepts for training. General William E. DePuy, the commander of TRADOC, crafted a new edition of FM 100-5 Operations in 1976. Based upon the lessons learned from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, the revised Army field manual underscored maneuver warfare in addition to air power. It touted “active defense,” though subsequent revisions accentuated offensive tactics, sophisticated technology, and indirect movements in the theaters of operations. Simply stated, the AirLand Battle Doctrine stressed preparing to win the first battle of the next war.

When General Donn A. Starry assumed command of TRADOC the following year, he improved the AirLand Battle Doctrine with language about the “extended battlefield.” He worked intently with Lieutenant Colonel Huba Wass de Czege, an officer at the Command and General Staff College, on field manual updates that categorized operations as close, deep, and rear. In close operations, large tactical formations fought an enemy using maneuver, direct engagement, and indirect fire support. Moreover, deep operations helped to win the battle by engaging enemy formations through deception, surveillance, and interdiction. Likewise, rear operations assembled and moved reserves into secure areas while continuing the logistical efforts to sustain momentum in campaigns. Victory hinged upon the initiative, agility, and synchronization of all combat arms, which kept the enemy off balance with an edge in lethal weaponry.

Irrespective of the new concepts, the Carter administration made few improvements to U.S. forces. The president canceled the B-1 bomber program, slashed the Navy's shipbuilding plans, and reduced DOD outlays for operations, technology, and maintenance. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 indicated that détente had failed to deter communist aggression in the Third World. Light infantry divisions comprised elements of a new Rapid Deployment Force for the Middle East, but critics complained that the “deployability” of 200,000 troops failed to offset their lack of heavy armor. Congress wanted only modest increases in defense spending. While Americans experienced a crisis of confidence, the White House grew more belligerent toward the Kremlin.

During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980, an American rescue attempt known as Operation Eagle Claw turned into a debacle. With the failure of the rescue mission in mind, military leaders organized the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. They readied elite units to conduct specialized missions for national defense in the future.

Although anti-militarism persisted in the U.S., public support for national defense began to build. For years, the Pentagon attempted to rebrand the military by publicizing the benefits of “buddy” systems, European tours, paid vacations, free housing, and job training. Opinion surveys indicated that Americans shared favorable impressions of the Air Force and the Navy. The former urged service members to “aim high,” while the latter promised that they would “see the world.” With great pride, the Marine Corps boasted about wanting only “a few good men.” Military recruiters abandoned public service announcements while reveling in marketing campaigns featuring catchy slogans and glossy advertisements.

No one did more to upgrade the marketing campaign of the Army than General Maxwell R. Thurman, who earned the nickname “Mad Max” after taking over the Recruiting Command in 1979. Instead of recruiters simply filling boots, he insisted upon the use of metrics to assess the quality of the prospects. Under his command, a computer-based system called Request permitted counselors at Military Entrance Processing Stations, or MEPS, to make “guarantees” about enlistments, training, and jobs. After several “come to Jesus” meetings with the advertising firm N. W. Ayer & Son, he pushed them to craft a clear and coherent message for an “all-recruited Army.” One member of the creative team, Earl Carter, suggested “Be All That You Can Be” for a new slogan, which stirred Thurman to tears. Once the television and radio ads premiered in late 1980, the lyrics for an inspirational jingle resonated with the nation: “I know the world is changing / Changing every day / And you've got to know your way around / If you're going all the way / Be all that you can be / Because we need you / In the Army.”

The launch of the marketing campaign corresponded with the election of Reagan to the U.S. presidency that year. Speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars about the “Vietnam syndrome,” he called the last war against communism “a noble cause.” If men and women in uniform were to fight again, he pledged that the nation would muster the means and the determination to prevail whatever the costs. “Above all,” Reagan proclaimed with his first inaugural address, “we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”

The Reagan administration intended to secure world peace through military strength. In spite of mounting debt, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger pressed Congress for robust appropriations each year. With annual increases averaging 8 percent, the federal government spent over $2 trillion for national defense on his watch. Larger budgets meant pay raises for service members as well as generous benefits and enlistment bonuses. For a nuclear deterrent, budget lines supported the MX missile, Trident submarine, and B-1 bomber. Taxpayer money also procured equipment such as the M-1 Abrams tank, M-2 Bradley fighting vehicle, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter. Night-vision devices allowed ground troops to “rule the night.” The Air Force refined its F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon fighters and unveiled the B-2 Spirit bomber, while the Navy accumulated almost 600 ships in an expanding fleet that included supercarriers. Reaffirming the nation's status as a superpower, the U.S. funded the greatest buildup of the armed forces since World War II.

Thanks to the buildup, the all-volunteer forces filled with talented individuals. Although the original GI Bill expired in 1976, Congressman G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery of Mississippi helped to revive America's promise of educational assistance to service members. After the Montgomery GI Bill of 1985, enlistees received partial funding to attend a college or a university upon agreeing to serve for six years. Instead of a civic obligation, military service became a respectable path to a higher education.

The American military experienced a revival during the 1980s. The press circulated sensational stories about the overpriced hammers and toilet seats of the Pentagon, but few questioned the value of what Time magazine called “a corps of Yuppies in uniform.” Strengthening national defense became the hallmark of the Reagan administration, which lifted U.S. forces out of the doldrums.

A Strategic Defense

The origins of antiballistic missile systems predated the 1980s, but the vision of strategic defense belonged to Reagan. After a 1979 tour of the Colorado facilities for the North American Aerospace Defense, or NORAD, the future commander-in-chief desired “some way of defending ourselves against nuclear missiles.” A year later, the Republican Party platform called for “vigorous research and development of an effective anti-ballistic missile system, such as is already at hand in the Soviet Union, as well as more modern ABM technologies.” After winning the presidential election, Reagan met with physicist Edward Teller, who described the possibility of satellites using futuristic lasers to intercept enemy projectiles. Thus began the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI.

Although the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 restricted SDI, the Reagan administration poured money into state-of-the-art countermeasures to nuclear warfare. The president posited that the Soviet Union “can't keep up” with American innovation and prepared to take risks to “roll back” communism. Furthermore, he predicted that a “great revolutionary crisis” would leave Marxist and Leninist regimes “on the ash-heap of history.” National Security Decision Directive 32 outlined global objectives that substantially increased pressure upon the Soviet bloc. The State Department opened the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START, but negotiations stalled following the communist crackdown on Poland. During 1982, the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, resulted in the brief ascension of hard-liners in Moscow.

NATO prepared to deploy Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles as a countervailing force to Soviet SS-20s, but peace activists worldwide shouted “No nukes!” Polls revealed that more than two-thirds of the American people agreed with the “nuclear freeze” movement, which called upon the superpowers to halt the arms race. In fact, an anti-nuclear rally in New York represented the largest political demonstration in American history. Backed by religious bodies and labor unions, a “nuclear freeze” resolution gained endorsements in Congress. However, Reagan's proposal for a “zero option” in intermediate-range nuclear forces received no support from the Kremlin.

In early 1983, the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed Reagan on options to strengthen national defense. General John W. Vessey, the chairman, reported that “forward strategic defenses” might move a nuclear battleground away from “our shores and skies.” Accordingly, he endorsed defensive systems able to “protect the American people, not just avenge them.” The president asked the Chiefs – one by one – for their views on SDI, and they all agreed with it.

After denouncing the Soviet Union as “an evil empire,” Reagan surprised members of his own administration by touting SDI publicly. During a television address on March 23, 1983, he announced plans to embark on a high-technology program that offered the American people a new hope. While critics dubbed it “Star Wars,” he foresaw the construction of orbiting battle stations able to vaporize intercontinental ballistic missiles. Providing a celestial shield for the continental U.S. and perhaps elsewhere, SDI potentially made nuclear warfare obsolete.

Later that year, the specter of nuclear warfare dominated the news. The Soviets downed a Korean Air Lines jumbo jet, killing 61 Americans on board. Afterward, the U.S. and NATO conducted a “war game” in Europe named Able Archer 83, which simulated a nuclear missile launch. However, the Kremlin suspected that the military exercise foreshadowed an attack and placed its fighters on alert. Robert McFarlane, a former Marine officer and a National Security Advisor, noted that Reagan seemed convinced that the world was “heading toward Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil.”

During the presidential cycle of 1984, Reagan's re-election campaign aired television ads that depicted a fearsome bear in the woods. The narrator reminded audiences that the Soviets remained a threat but the incumbent kept them safe. Whereas the Democratic Party made a “nuclear freeze” part of its platform, Reagan easily won re-election on his record.

Following re-election, the Reagan administration made SDI central to a long-term policy to reduce the risk of nuclear warfare. The Pentagon created the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, which spent billions of dollars on a collection of research and development programs. Congress held hearings in regard to antiballistic missile systems mounted on ships, aircraft, or other platforms, but the expense appeared stratospheric and the outcome remained unknown. While military experts discussed advances in directed-energy weaponry and high-speed computers, the primary focus of defense laboratories remained land-based kinetic interceptors with upgraded projectiles. Programs for the Patriot missile system and Precision-Guided Munitions, or PGMS, evolved with “smart” technology, although they emerged before the “Star Wars” concepts. Whatever the likelihood of “space weapons,” SDI redefined the arms race into terms that gave the U.S. a comparative advantage over the Soviet Union.

Worried about the militarization of space, the Soviets agreed to discuss arms control with Secretary of State George Shultz. Privately, McFarlane likened the negotiations to a “sting operation.” Beginning in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, met face-to-face with Reagan in a series of summits. While the latter bargained from a position of strength, the former feared that keeping up with SDI might “wear out” the Soviet economy.

During a one-day meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, the two sides nearly reached a deal to abolish nuclear arms. Gorbachev would not agree unless Reagan abandoned SDI, though. “Let's go, George,” the president said to Shultz and donned his raincoat. Stunned by the move, Gorbachev asked what more he could do. “You could have said yes,” Reagan replied while leaving in a huff. A few months later, Reagan visited the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, and shouted a challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Eventually, the superpowers agreed to the “zero option” for intermediate-range nuclear forces. In late 1987, Gorbachev came to Washington D.C. to sign the INF treaty, which removed all cruise, Pershing II, and SS-20 nuclear missiles from Europe. Before signing, Reagan repeated a Russian proverb that stated “trust but verify.” The following year, he flew to Moscow for a capstone summit. Strolling through Red Square with his former rival, he remarked that the Cold War belonged to “another time, another era.”

Use of Force

Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. responded to geopolitical crises in a forceful way. The Reagan administration called for the active support of anti-communist movements wherever they emerged. Without officially promulgating a Reagan Doctrine, the commander-in-chief opined that “support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” Although the operations remained limited, the American military gained valuable insights into small wars around the globe.

Given the signs of Soviet vulnerability, American policymakers abandoned the notion of détente outside the European theater. The Mujahideen, a group of Islamic fundamentalists fighting against the Red Army in Afghanistan, accepted aid from U.S. operatives. For example, they received Stinger missiles to wield against Soviet helicopters. Arms flowed to Angolan groups in Africa as well. For years, U.S. bases in Honduras channeled money and weapons to paramilitary forces in El Salvador and in Nicaragua. While the CIA directed the covert operations, military advisors played key roles in frustrating communist activities in Central America, Africa, and Southwest Asia.

In addition to the covert operations, the U.S. contributed forces to international peacekeeping missions. In 1982, an American task force arrived in the Sinai Desert, where it served as a buffer between Israel and Egypt. Likewise, Marine units entered Lebanon to enforce a ceasefire agreement. Druze and Shi'ite militia fired upon them, while U.S. warships and planes responded with a series of bombardments. On October 23, 1983, a truck-bomb exploded underneath the Marines' barracks at the Beirut International Airport. As a result of the terrorist act, 241 Americans died and 60 were injured. It marked the deadliest single attack on the American military since World War II. The next year, Reagan ordered the Marines to withdraw from Lebanon.

After a communist coup seized control of Grenada in 1983, Reagan ordered an invasion of the small Caribbean island. Beginning on October 25, Operation Urgent Fury involved elements of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Fighting ensued for six days, as the total number deployed to the island reached 7,000. Unfortunately, the uncoordinated use of radio frequencies undermined communications between Marines in the northern sector and Army Rangers in the southern sector. In fact, one soldier placed a long-distance telephone call to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to request C-130 gunship support for his unit. Despite poor planning and flawed intelligence, U.S. forces overwhelmed the Grenadan military and the Cuban troops. While occupying the island, Americans sustained 19 dead and 116 wounded. Consequently, the military action restored the legitimate government and rescued American medical students.

With growing confidence, the Reagan administration authorized military actions across the Middle East. Over the Gulf of Sidra, Navy fighters shot down two attacking jets of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator. In retaliation for the dictator's sponsorship of a deadly terrorist attack in Berlin, Reagan authorized air strikes on several targets inside Libya. On April 15, 1986, Operation El Dorado Canyon significantly degraded the military capabilities of Qaddafi's regime. The U.S. also safeguarded oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, where the Navy and Marine Corps confronted Iranian gunboats threatening Kuwaiti vessels. An Iraqi fighter hit the U.S.S. Stark with a missile, which killed 37 sailors and injured 21 more. While the Iran–Iraq War further destabilized the Middle East, officials in Washington D.C. concentrated upon protecting America's vital interests.

In Washington D.C., reports surfaced about the Iran–Contra affair. Despite Reagan insisting that the U.S. refused to negotiate with terrorists, his administration secretly sold arms to Iran while attempting to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The transaction with Iranians helped to subsidize Nicaraguan rebels called the “Contras,” even though Congress in 1984 prohibited governmental measures to fund them. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, an aide to the National Security Council and a decorated Marine, ran a clandestine effort from the White House basement. McFarlane resigned as National Security Advisor and attempted suicide, while his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, was convicted on five felony counts. The Iran–Contra affair embarrassed the Reagan administration, because congressional hearings revealed the misuse of power by officials at the top.

With the first major reform of the military establishment in almost 40 years, Congress attempted to improve the interoperability of the armed forces. Passed in 1986, the Goldwater–Nichols Defense Reorganization Act strengthened the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Though respecting the principle of civilian oversight, it elevated the designated post as the principal military advisor to the commander-in-chief. Moreover, it gave theater commanders significant control over assets while conducting military operations with greater unity and coordination. In addition, it overhauled personnel management within the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Most of all, it forced each of the branches to become more tightly integrated within the Pentagon and more attuned to the concept of “jointness.”

By the close of the decade, “jointness” became the rallying cry for a new generation of military leaders such as General Colin L. Powell. A professional soldier for over three decades, he was the highest-ranking African American in the armed forces. Before becoming a four-star general, his positions ranged from senior assistant for Weinberger to National Security Advisor for Reagan. On his watch, the Cold War thawed fast. During 1989, President George H. W. Bush tapped him for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Figure 15.2 Major General Colin L. Powell, August 27, 1984. Record Group 330: Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921–2008, National Archives


Eager to test operational concepts, Powell advised Bush to confront General Manuel Noriega of Panama. Grand juries in the U.S. indicted Noriega for drug trafficking and money laundering, but Panama's National Assembly named him “Maximum Leader.” His command of the Panamanian Defense Forces, or PDF, allowed him to survive several coups and to suppress opposition parties. He proclaimed a “state of war” with the U.S. and encouraged assaults on American troops in the Canal Zone, which was scheduled under a treaty to revert to Panama in stages.

Beginning on December 20, 1989, American troops intervened in Panama. “Mad Max” Thurman, commander of U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, coordinated the military action. Named Operation Just Cause, more than 20,000 personnel and around 300 aircraft participated in five military task forces. The new F-117 stealth bomber struck key targets, while infantry, airborne, and armor units defeated the PDF and secured the country. After installing a new regime, they turned their attention to capturing Noriega. Blocked from escape by Navy SEALs, he surrendered to U.S. forces after an 11-day stand-off at the Vatican embassy. A military helicopter flew him to Howard Air Base in Panama City, where agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrested him. American losses from combat numbered 23 dead and 325 wounded. However, Panamanian casualties included hundreds of civilians. Within weeks, the mission in Panama shifted from combat to peacekeeping.

After accomplishing the mission in Panama, the American military extolled what was known as the Powell Doctrine. Echoing principles previously outlined by Weinberger, Powell justified the use of the armed forces in operations only when vital interests were threatened. “Have a clear political objective,” he posited, “and stick to it.” Furthermore, he encouraged using “all the force necessary” without apologizing for “going in big if that is what it takes.” Decisive force “ends wars quickly,” which he claimed saved lives in the long run. Whatever the emerging threats, the Powell Doctrine formed the bedrock of strategic thought for years to come.

Line in the Sand

On the morning of August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator of Iraq, invaded Kuwait, a tiny, oil-rich neighbor. Controlling the fourth largest army in the world, he intended to annex what he called a “lost province.” Within days, most Kuwaitis surrendered or fled their country. Iraqi forces looted Kuwait City, while Hussein turned his attention toward Saudi Arabia and its abundant wealth. If successful, he would control nearly half of the world's oil reserves. Though caught off balance, the United Nations passed multiple resolutions demanding the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

With global oil markets shaken by the turbulence, the Bush administration took action to block Iraqi forces. “Mr. President,” Powell asked during an emergency meeting, “should we think about laying down a line in the sand concerning Saudi Arabia?” Bush answered with an affirmative: “We're committed to Saudi Arabia.” Immediately, Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz accepted American military assistance to protect his kingdom.

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who headed U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, took charge of American military assistance. Six days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, personnel from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the Arabian peninsula. Drawing from Operations Plan 1002-90, CENTCOM dispatched the 101st Airborne Division and the 24th Infantry Division as well. Likewise, elements of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing and 1st Marine Expeditionary Force joined them. The 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, arrived that September. The Military Airlift Command, or MAC, transported the personnel, equipment, and supplies to the Persian Gulf. Bush ordered the Pentagon to commence mobilization of the reserve component, especially support and service units. Code-named Operation Desert Shield, the primary objective was to deter Iraq from invading another Arab state.

Hussein refused to yield Kuwait, but the aggressive diplomacy of the Bush administration helped to confer legitimacy to Desert Shield. Secretary of State James Baker convinced leaders from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America to support a trade embargo. While the Navy maintained a tight blockade, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Iraq for non-compliance with previous resolutions. Although the Soviets supplied most of Iraq's arms in the past, Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister, issued a joint statement with Baker to condemn Hussein. To alleviate the mounting costs of the military operation, the “United Fund” raised money from Japan, Germany, and Korea as well as from the Gulf Cooperation Council. A total of 34 nations sent troops to the Gulf, but the U.S. provided more than two-thirds of the boots on the ground. Despite the unease about the multinational coalition, numerous flags appeared along the Saudi border.

Hoping to make Hussein think twice before crossing the Saudi border, Schwarzkopf measured his words carefully during briefings and interviews with the media. Privately, he worried about a “window of vulnerability” while ramping up the operation. U.S forces and coalition partners deployed rapidly, but he estimated that a fight might cost as many as 5,000 casualties. Preparing to defend enclaves that included ports and airfields on the Gulf coast, he counted on air power to disrupt a potential Iraqi drive across the desert. In other words, the first cohort of American troops represented little more than “speed bumps.”

Desert Shield introduced American troops to a formidable environment, which offered no ground for anyone to hide. Daytime temperatures often surpassed 120 degrees, while the evening chill dropped to 30 degrees at times. U.S. armored vehicles became so hot at midday that some soldiers actually fried food on them. Shortages of the desert-pattern battle-dress uniforms, or BDUs, left many with only one set of camouflaged clothing and boots to wear. Defending a line in the sand, the scattered units endured five months in the arid wasteland.

Units arriving in the Gulf encountered alien customs and unfamiliar traditions. Because Saudi Arabia held the holiest sites of Islam, U.S. commanders encouraged personnel to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of the host country. For example, the reading and the display of the Bible remained confined to military camps and compounds. The presence of women in uniform challenged the prevailing assumptions of gender, which demanded coverings from head to toe. To the chagrin of many Muslims, female service members worked with arms bared and barked orders to men. Although the hoisting of the Stars and Stripes aroused some alarm, the Saudis generally appreciated the American colors.

Despite the logistical challenges, Schwarzkopf trained Americans for battle over the ensuing months. Outnumbered nearly three to one, they faced an adversary equipped with tanks, artillery, aircraft, and missiles. The enemy's elite corps formed the Republican Guard, which reported directly to Hussein in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Furthermore, American intelligence detected the emplacement of mines, trenches, ditches, bunkers, and barbed wire inside Kuwait. In addition to a nascent nuclear program, Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons.

For the next phase of the operation, Schwarzkopf planned for combat against Iraq. He turned to a team of officers from the School of Advanced Military Studies, or SAMS, at Fort Leavenworth, where graduates earned the nickname Jedi Knights. During September, they met in Riyadh and developed options for a ground attack. Air Force Colonel John A. Warden proposed an air campaign known as Instant Thunder, while Army logistics favored the option of a corps going “straight up the middle” to kick Hussein out of Kuwait. However, a sweeping “left hook” to the west of the Iraqi lines represented another option. After reviewing the options that October, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney suggested revising them “with a little imagination this time.” Bush promised to double the number of troops after the midterm elections, which emboldened the planners to exploit the mobility of a second corps. The final iteration of the plan retained a direct advance into Kuwait to pin down the Iraqi forces, but additional U.S. forces would maneuver in concert on the western flank to envelop them.

In early November, Bush issued Executive Order 12733 to authorize the mobilization of combat units from the National Guard and Reserves. With the president's signature, the Defense Appropriations Act enabled him to place the citizen soldiers on active duty for up to 360 days. The number activated reached 227,800, while another 10,000 volunteered for immediate deployment. Cheney postponed sending the “round out” brigades to join their parent divisions for as long as possible, but nearly half were sent to the theater of operations eventually. While preparing a rotation policy, the DOD counted on the reserve component in the Gulf.

By the close of the year, U.S. forces in the Gulf exceeded a half-million men and women. Along with carriers, battleships, and aircraft, massive quantities of armaments flowed into the region. When sanctions failed to bring an end to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, the United Nations delivered an ultimatum for a withdrawal by January 15, 1991. Both houses of Congress voted to authorize the use of force, albeit reluctantly. As the deadline approached, Americans waited in the desert for what Hussein would call “The Mother of All Battles.”

Desert Storm

Two days after the deadline passed, Operation Desert Storm unleashed one of the largest and most sophisticated collections of weaponry ever amassed for war. Beginning at daybreak, Apache helicopters and Tomahawk missiles struck targets across Iraq. The initial phase also included aerial attacks by B-52s, F-117s, F-16s, A-10s, and A-6s. People around the world watched on television, which broadcast footage of “smart bombs” along with scenes of “collateral damage.”

A television reporter wanted to interview Major Bobby “Jet” Jernigan, who returned from a tactical strike by his South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 fighter-bomber unit. The 37-year-old exited his aircraft and walked across the runway with his helmet under one arm. While the reporter chased him with a microphone and a camera, Jernigan turned to say thanks to God for the safe completion of his mission and “for the love of a good woman.” Pausing once more, he added with a grin: “I want to thank God that I'm an American fighter pilot.”

Owing to the precision of American firepower, Iraq plunged into darkness. The multiphase air campaign demolished Hussein's radar facilities, communications infrastructure, and power grid. Damage assessments of the bombardments suggested that the Iraqi Army appeared on the verge of collapse. Moreover, the Iraqi Air Force ceased to exist. Thousands of sorties destroyed enemy planes in the sky and on the ground, while more than 100 Iraqi aviators fled with their aircraft to Iran. Nevertheless, Hussein launched Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia and Israel. During the “Great Scud Hunt,” Air Force and Navy jets knocked out several mobile missile launchers. With air supremacy achieved, coalition forces continued to work together to eliminate Iraqi command-and-control sites.

On January 29, Iraqi soldiers crossed the border to attack the deserted Saudi town of Khafji. From houses and buildings inside the town, two Marine reconnaissance teams directed artillery and air support against their opponents. Less than 48 hours later, the Battle of Khafji ended with an Iraqi defeat. Thousands of Hussein's troops perished during the first land battle of the Gulf War, while most American casualties came from “friendly fire.” An aerial counterstroke reached deep into Iraqi-held territory to disrupt the flow of supplies and reinforcements to the forward positions, which indicated the importance of air power in shaping the battlefield.

While General Chuck A. Horner directed the air power of Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf, who aptly named the operation, planned to begin the ground attack in mid-February. However, General Walter E. Boomer, commander of the Marines, needed more time to align his two divisions. Given the weather forecast for Kuwait, Powell agreed to February 24 as the date to commence the next phase – G-Day. After Iraqi troops dumped crude oil offshore and set oil wells ablaze, Schwarzkopf called his commanders to say that “it's a go.” No commander doubted the outcome, especially after the 38-day air campaign loosened Hussein's grip on Kuwait. A campaign of misdirection convinced the dictator that the Marines intended to conduct an amphibious assault against Iraq's deepwater ports in the Gulf. A feint up the Wadi al-Batin by the 1st Cavalry Regiment caused the Republican Guard to miscalculate the location of the main advance. Consequently, nothing Hussein hurled at the coalition forces slowed their carefully synchronized and highly focused offensive.

As the offensive commenced, the coalition forces engaged the enemy along three axes. Accompanied by an all-Arab corps, Boomer sent the Marines through a minefield into Kuwait. Nearly 200 miles west of the Gulf coast, General Frederick M. Franks of VII Corps prepared to deliver the “left hook” to knock out the Republican Guard. On the extreme western flank, General Gary E. Luck directed XVIII Airborne Corps into southern Iraq and maneuvered toward the Euphrates River. To the delight of military planners from Riyadh to Fort Leavenworth, the offensive swept through the desert with speed.

Figure 15.3 Operation Desert Storm


During the first day of the offensive, the coalition forces nearest the Gulf advanced 20 miles into Kuwait. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force captured around 10,000 Iraqis and seized Al Jaber Airfield. An Iraqi division counterattacked the next day but was quickly repulsed. Afterward, the Marines isolated Kuwait City, secured Kuwait International Airport, and seized Mutla Ridge. Amid the burning oil wells, the air they breathed became darkened with soot. By February 26, the offensive liberated the capital city. Thousands of Kuwaitis cheered in the streets: “Thank you, thank you, U.S.A!”

Meanwhile, XVIII Airborne Corps penetrated over 90 miles into Iraq. The 101st Airmobile Division seized a forward operating base and dispatched a brigade to the Euphrates by the second day. Ahead of schedule, American helicopters maneuvered to interdict Iraqi troop movements along the northerly routes into Kuwait. After driving overland to the Euphrates, General Barry McCaffrey, commander of the 24th Infantry Division, steered his mechanized regiments eastward to assist VII Corps in smashing the opposition.

The infantry, armor, artillery, and aviation of VII Corps formed a mailed fist, which consisted of 142,000 soldiers and 48,500 vehicles. The 2nd Cavalry Regiment entered Iraq at Phase Line Becks, while their loudspeakers broadcast Wagner's “The Ride of the Valkyries.” Striking the defensive positions down range, field artillery batteries with Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, or MLRS, fired more than 11,000 rounds in only a half-hour. The 1st Infantry Division breached berms, minefields, and barricades across a 9-mile front, where armored bulldozers entombed the enemy in shallow trenches. Within two days, the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions rolled around the western edge of the obstacle belt and proceeded to envelop the Iraqi forces to the east. The Abrams tanks of the 2nd Cavalry outflanked, outranged, and outgunned the Iraqi's T-72s at every turn. Gathering momentum, VII Corps amassed a wall of tanks and armored vehicles nearly 80 miles wide.

On February 27, the 1st Armored Division under General Ron Griffith fought the Battle of Medina Ridge – the largest tank battle in American military history. In the northwest corner of Kuwait, 166 Abrams tanks from the 2nd Brigade smashed into a line of T-72s approximately 7 miles long. The brigade commander, Colonel Montgomery C. Meigs, ordered the tankers to “move gently but deliberately and kill all those people.” For 40 minutes, they fired, reloaded, and fired again. Many Iraqis abandoned their vehicles and ran for their lives. Without losing a single tank to hostile fire, Americans pulverized a division of the Republican Guard.

The rest of the Republican Guard screened for elements of the Iraqi army that fled Kuwait. The last major escape route was Highway 80, which stretched across the desert from Kuwait City toward the Iraqi town of Basra. However, the four lanes became a shooting gallery for American fighters in the skies. With all roads across the border choked by traffic, the charred debris of nearly 1,500 military and civilian vehicles littered the “Highway of Death.”

Before images of the “Highway of Death” appeared on television, Bush asked Powell: “Why not end it?” The latter consulted with Schwarzkopf on February 27, when “Stormin' Norman” agreed to a suspension after only 100 hours. Despite the commander-in-chief's earlier demonization of the Iraqi dictator as “Hitler revisited,” he decided to leave Hussein's regime in power. He liberated Kuwait as promised but refused to send U.S. forces to Baghdad. “Our military objectives are met,” Bush announced from the White House that evening.

Bush's announcement ended the “Hundred Hour War,” which appeared far less costly to Americans than anyone had predicted. The worst loss of life for the U.S. occurred in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where a Scud missile struck a military barracks and killed 28 activated reservists. U.S. forces counted 148 dead and 458 wounded from battle, while coalition partners reported another 99 killed in action. The bombardments by the Air Force and the Navy killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, including some used as “human shields” by the Iraqi military. Although estimates about Iraqi soldiers varied, fatalities from combat operations surpassed 20,000. In addition, a total of 86,000 surrendered on the battlefield. Despite the lopsided American victory, a number of Republican Guard units escaped from Kuwait partially intact.

In the aftermath of Desert Storm, Schwarzkopf met with a handful of Iraqi military leaders just north of the Kuwaiti border in Safwan. According to the terms of the ceasefire, Iraq agreed to fully comply with UN Security Council resolutions in respect to Kuwait. Moreover, they eventually agreed to abide by all resolutions regarding the international inspection of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons facilities. As American troops returned home to cheering parades, Hussein brutally suppressed uprisings within his country by Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north. For the rest of the decade, U.S. forces in the Gulf patrolled no-fly zones, provided humanitarian relief, and sparred with the Iraqi military.


The principles of liberal democracy seemed to inspire the outbreak of almost bloodless revolutions around the globe. Beginning in 1989, communist regimes fell in Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. As the Soviet bloc came apart, free men and women danced atop the broken sections of the Berlin Wall. Germany soon reunified, but hard-liners in China retained power after crushing demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Since the Red Army no longer threatened to invade NATO nations, the superpowers agreed to reciprocal cutbacks in nuclear arms on land and at sea. In 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. The communist regime in Moscow collapsed thereafter. The “evil empire” ceased to exist, which marked the beginning of what Bush called “a new world order.”

The Bush administration began touting the prospects of a “peace dividend” in the U.S., because Americans seemed focused on domestic priorities after a half-century of armed vigilance. While the national economy slipped into a recession, Congress intended to stimulate a recovery by slashing defense appropriations. To be sure, the Pentagon lamented even the modest cuts in weapons programs as well as in military personnel. Powell responded with the “Base Force” concept, which defined the minimum troop levels necessary to fulfill peacetime missions. Looking forward to reduced taxes and balanced budgets, few in Washington D.C. acknowledged any risks to national security.

Whatever the national security risks, America's all-volunteer forces absorbed sizeable losses from the drawdown. Given the fiscal crisis created by exploding federal deficits, the Army, Navy, and Air Force struggled to maintain a force composition that projected a strong posture of defense. Nevertheless, each of the branches retained a remarkably diverse demographic pool. The reforms of the past decade improved racial and gender equity. Even though females were not permitted to join actual combat units, they effectively served in combat situations. The American military constituted “the greatest equal opportunity employer around,” or so Bush told West Point cadets.

After Bush lost his bid for re-election in 1992, the new president, Bill Clinton, sensed that it was time for a change. During the presidential campaign, he promised to lift the military's ban on the service of gays and lesbians. His first meeting with the Joint Chiefs focused almost entirely on the issue of homosexuals in the military. Whereas Powell defended the preexisting restrictions, Clinton wanted to extend equal opportunity regardless of sexual orientation. Eventually, Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia helped to broker a compromise in Congress.

On November 30, 1993, Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act with revised provisions regarding the ban on homosexuals in the military. Subtitle G of the public law formulated what was popularly called “Don't ask, Don't tell.” Accordingly, military personnel faced a discharge from service for engaging in homosexual conduct but not for suspicion of sexual orientation. If a person openly acknowledged his or her homosexuality, then he or she seemed likely to engage in homosexual conduct. However, investigation became warranted only if “credible information” arose regarding homosexual acts. Otherwise, superiors were not to ask men and women in uniform questions about it. Though upheld in federal courts, the policy did little to reduce harassment of lesbians and gays in the armed forces.

While delivering a commencement address at Harvard University, Powell faced protests organized by the lesbian and gay community on campus. As he surveyed the crowd, he saw hundreds of balloons bearing the words “Lift the Ban.” He spoke about the role of the armed forces in ending the Cold War, but activists in the audience and on the stage literally turned their backs on him. “We took on racism, we took on drugs,” Powell responded to the protests, “and we will do the same with the controversial issue of homosexuals in the military.”

Often at odds with the Clinton administration, Powell opposed using the military to “do something” in the Balkans of southeastern Europe. After the fall of the authoritarian regime in Yugoslavia, the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia declared independence. In Belgrade, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic resolved to expand his territorial claims in the region. Accordingly, he authorized “ethnic cleansing” to remove and to eliminate non-Serbian populations. In a tense White House meeting, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the UN and eventual Secretary of State, asked Powell: “What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?”

Shortly before Powell retired, the Pentagon revised the “Base Force” concept through a process Clinton dubbed the “Bottom Up Review.” Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, a former congressman from Wisconsin, planned to draw down troop levels to match the president's promises for deeper cuts in the military. Although all of the branches lost personnel, the Army shrank to only 10 active duty divisions. The reserve component identified “enhanced readiness brigades” for national defense, which gradually replaced the “round out” program that existed for the previous two decades. While confronting the dangers posed by non-state actors such as terrorist cells, criminal gangs, and drug cartels, the nation maintained sufficient forces to fight “two nearly simultaneous regional conflicts.” In the words of Clinton, the U.S. “must continue to lead the world we did so much to make.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. faced a widening gap between the rhetoric and the reality of “a new world order.” On the one hand, the end of the Cold War resulted in a steady and substantial decline in defense resources. On the other hand, the commitment to strengthening security and stability increased the demands upon the men and women in uniform. Throughout the 1990s, Americans called upon the military to do more with less.

Pax Americana

As the end of the millennium approached, the American military accepted challenging missions in troubled areas of the world. General John M. Shalikashvili, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, expressed support for a new defense strategy named “peacetime engagement.” In addition to deterring wars by preserving peace, the armed forces performed non-combat roles to reduce the prevalence of conflict abroad. As both participants and observers, they fostered direct military-to-military relationships with foreign counterparts. They became more versatile, but their interpositions also made them potential targets for enemies. Though wary of possible casualties, the U.S. assumed greater responsibility for peace operations that promoted democratic ideals and relieved human suffering.

In conjunction with a United Nations relief effort, the Clinton administration endorsed a peace operation on the eastern horn of Africa. Bush originally sent the Unified Task Force in response to a catastrophic famine, but Clinton extended the mercy mission. From his Florida headquarters, General Joseph Hoar, the CENTCOM commander, directed the distribution of food to the people of Somalia. Nevertheless, Muhammed Farrah Aideed of the Habar Gidir sub-clan fostered violence, hoarded food, and starved thousands in defiance of UN resolutions. While conducting Operation Restore Hope, the American military made no effort before the summer of 1993 to disarm the rival warlords of Mogadishu, the capital city.

As the failed state became a lawless land, the U.S. presence in Somalia peaked at 25,400 service members. Force reductions, however, left the difficult mission of humanitarian relief to a few thousand U.S. soldiers working with multinational peacekeepers. The UN Security Council eventually authorized Aideed's arrest, which prompted the Pentagon to dispatch Task Force Ranger to pursue him during Operation Gothic Serpent. Reinforced by the elite Delta Force, Army Rangers conducted a month-long hunt for the elusive Aideed.

On October 3, 1993, Aideed's forces used rocket-propelled grenades to down two Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu. Wielding AK-47 assault rifles, Somalis trapped several members of Task Force Ranger at the crash sites. Amid the chaos, elements of the 10th Mountain Division conducted a rescue mission with tanks and armored personnel carriers. Tragically, 18 Americans died in the Battle of Mogadishu, while another 73 were wounded. As many as 1,000 Somalis died in the firefight. In America's bloodiest day of combat since the Vietnam War, the world witnessed television footage of corpses dragged through the city streets by a jubilant population. After Aspin resigned as Secretary of Defense, the Clinton administration announced the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Somalia within six months.

The next year, a bloody civil war in Haiti prompted the Clinton administration to take action to restore the deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide. After negotiations with the coup leaders failed, the UN Security Council passed a resolution permitting the “application of all necessary means to restore democracy in Haiti.” U.S. and coalition forces assembled off the coast in preparation for an invasion that September. However, a delegation led by Carter, the former president, convinced the coup leaders to step down. Under the command of General Hugh Shelton, members of the 82nd Airborne Division landed in Haiti without firing a shot.

More than 20,000 troops participated in Operation Uphold Democracy, which grew in size but not in scope. Most were welcomed by cheering crowds in Port-au-Prince, although dangers lurked in the shadows. In fact, the rules of engagement precluded U.S. soldiers from disarming Haitian military and paramilitary forces. Attempting to curb the violence, they patrolled the towns and the countryside. After Aristide resumed power, thousands of Haitian refugees returned home. On March 31, 1995, the U.S. handed over constabulary duties to the newly established UN Mission in Haiti.

For years, the U.S. kept several thousand troops at bases in the Middle East to contain Hussein and his brutal regime. His intelligence service encouraged militants to devise an elaborate plot to assassinate former president Bush, which prompted Clinton to order a cruise missile attack on Baghdad in 1993. While the Iraqi dictator forced UN weapons inspectors to leave his country, policymakers in Washington D.C. continued to support no-fly zones and economic sanctions. In 1998, the president signed the Iraq Liberation Act that called for regime change. “It should be the policy of the United States,” the federal law announced, “to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace the regime.” Operation Desert Fox that year featured aircraft and missile strikes against strategic targets within Iraq, whereas training exercises rotated U.S. forces into Kuwait. During Clinton's impeachment and trial, the media fostered derisive speculation about possible motives for a “push-button” war.

While the U.S. contemplated a new war against Iraq, stateless organizations threatened American lives in alarming ways. Back in 1993, terrorists detonated a truck bomb in the underground garage of New York's World Trade Center. Although six people died, the attack failed to topple the buildings. Three years later, an explosion in Khobar Towers at the Dharhan military base in Saudi Arabia killed 19 service members. Retaliating for another deadly attack on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton lobbed cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan during Operation Infinite Reach. The missile strikes targeted the terrorist network of al-Qaeda – an anti-American group founded by a former Mujahideen and Saudi expatriate named Osama bin Laden. He issued a call for jihad, which summoned radical Muslims to kill Americans everywhere in the world. His followers steered a small boat with explosives into the U.S.S. Cole on October 12, 2000, and killed 17 American sailors on board.

Meanwhile, American airmen and soldiers became engaged in multilateral efforts to bring peace to the war-torn Balkans. During 1995, NATO launched tactical air strikes to disrupt the Serbian campaign of “ethnic cleansing” near Sarajevo. The U.S. remained reluctant to intervene but supported the Dayton Peace Accords that fall. Although Congress deemed the conflict peripheral to national defense, the Clinton administration dispatched troops to Bosnia. In total, NATO provided 60,000 peacekeepers to enforce the ceasefire agreement. Given the restrictive rules of engagement, the goal of force protection represented the top priority for U.S. commanders. Their unwillingness to arrest war criminals or to provide civil administration, though, made it more difficult to keep the peace.

Within months, renewed conflict between the armed forces of Serbia and Kosovo disturbed the peace. Over 90 percent of the Kosovars were ethnic Albanian Muslims, whereas the Christian Serbs claimed the rural region as their own sacred ground. Milosevic encouraged another outbreak of “ethnic cleansing,” which included burning villages, murdering men, raping women, and displacing Muslims. While thousands died in the mayhem, many refugees fled to Albania. Peace talks in Rambouillet, France, fell apart in early 1999, when Serbian forces launched a major offensive in Kosovo.

“We act to prevent a wider war,” explained Clinton, who called an American intervention in Kosovo “a moral imperative.” Aviators flew airlift missions to deliver humanitarian supplies. Combat engineers and military contractors hastily constructed camps and bridges for refugees. General Wesley K. Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, resolved to thwart Serbian aggression but insisted upon taking “no casualties.”

Starting on March 24, 1999, NATO forces – primarily U.S. aircraft – conducted a strategic bombing campaign known as Operation Allied Force. While flying at high altitudes to avoid anti-aircraft defenses, they targeted command-and-control sites, vital infrastructure, and power plants in and around Belgrade. Nevertheless, Serbians inside Kosovo held their dispositions in defiance of air power. Armed with tanks, helicopters, and artillery, U.S. soldiers in Task Force Hawk deployed nearby but never fired a round. After 78 days of aerial bombardment, Milosevic finally began withdrawing Serbian forces from Kosovo. Without incurring a single American combat death, Clark boasted that the “accuracy of our strikes and minimal collateral damage set new standards for a military operation of this size, scope, and duration.”

At the behest of the commander-in-chief, an American contingent of NATO peacekeepers entered the occupation zones of Kosovo. Called the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, they disbursed provisions, conducted patrols, established checkpoints, and maintained security under a UN mandate. The tensions eased, though everyone remained on guard. When venturing beyond their bases, Americans dressed in “full battle rattle” with Kevlar helmets and body armor.

Because of the American response to the Kosovo War, Milosevic eventually faced justice. He received indictments from an international criminal tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He soon lost power in Serbia. NATO's first offensive campaign in its 50-year history achieved impressive results from the air, while the U.S. provided boots on the ground for a peace operation that secured “safe havens” in the Balkans.

U.S. commanders remained divided over the proper role of the military in peace operations. As the 1990s unfolded, the brass in the Pentagon began referring to them as “military operations other than war.” The phrase turned into the acronym MOOTW, which some pronounced awkwardly as “mootwah.” It included such disparate missions as countering terrorists, protecting ships, interdicting narcotics, delivering relief, aiding refugees, and enforcing agreements. Even though “peacetime engagement” implied a new kind of doctrine, the armed forces remained largely unprepared for the road ahead in the next millennium.


No period of American history produced a more striking transformation of the armed forces than the Reagan era. With defense spending rising to unprecedented peacetime heights, the Pentagon attempted to find a balance between conventional and nuclear forces. Innovations in weapons programs paralleled refinements in the force structure, which depended upon volunteers in all branches of uniformed service. SDI resulted in investments in multiple-use technologies that did not yield dividends in the short run, but defense-related research and development gave a tremendous lift to the U.S. as a whole. As Soviet power waned, the United Nations authorized coalition warfare against Hussein's regime in Iraq. The unambiguous victory for U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm resonated with the Powell Doctrine, even if Washington D.C. insisted that America was not the “world's policeman.” The peaceful yet sudden end to the Cold War made the U.S. the only remaining superpower on the planet.

Americans in the military achieved an extraordinary degree of professionalism in the last days of the Cold War. Whatever the operational imperatives, the transition from conscription to recruitment for filling the ranks reaffirmed the bonds between service members and civil society. While civilizations throughout history claimed to field “peoples' armies,” the Reagan administration actually built one to confront communist foes. Developing nations around the world turned to the U.S. to furnish well-trained personnel for humanitarian interventions. All too often, Americans – and only Americans – were prepared to act in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Peacekeeping involved handling low-intensity combat in threat environments, especially in what amounted to small wars against disorganized enemies. Despite a general reluctance to engage in nation-building, the DOD embraced the concept of full-spectrum dominance as a joint vision for the American military during the late 1990s.

With the dawning of the information age, new assets gave the American military unrivaled power and knowledge. For years, U.S. commanders used detailed maps, grease pencils, and GPS surveillance to track military actions in the theater of operations. Before the coming of the Internet, staff officers obtained a photo of a target, confirmed its coordinates, outlined the mission, and delivered fresh orders to a unit in a matter of hours. Network-centric warfare promised to achieve even better results in less time, because of intelligence sensors, synchronous communications, and precise weaponry. Making U.S. forces faster and more lethal than ever, state-of-the-art technology enhanced situational awareness, provided target assessment, and distributed appropriate firepower. Headsets and lasers helped to guide movements, while grainy images bounced off satellites in space. As a result of the feedback, a real-time picture appeared on computer screens for the benefit of new-age warriors.

Perhaps nothing helped Americans to remember new-age warriors more than the simulacra of military action on the big screen. Released in 2001, the motion picture Black Hawk Down depicted what happened when a U.S. mission in Somalia went awry. In pursuit of accuracy and authenticity, the filmmakers paid the Army $3 million for the use of helicopters, equipment, and troops. The resulting film unveils a postmodern battlefield with scenes of unrelenting violence. While portraying the valor of celluloid soldiers, the boggling clashes in the Bakaara Market highlight the challenges of operating in ambiguous situations around the globe. Command-and-control issues contribute to a series of unfortunate events, even as technology makes firefights quite remote from the experience of the audience. Without questioning the validity of peacekeeping in a combat zone, the blockbuster reminds Americans of the warrior creed: “Leave no man behind.”

Essential Questions

1 What factors contributed to the revival of the American military?

2 Which technologies affected the outcome of Operation Desert Storm?

3 To what extent did America become the “world's policeman” during the 1990s?

Suggested Readings

Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Bailey, Beth. America's Army: The Making of the All-Volunteer Force. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Baucom, Donald R. The Origins of SDI, 1944–1983. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Bowden, Mark. Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1999.

FitzGerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Gordon, Michael R., and Bernard E. Trainor. The General's War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.

Halberstam, David. War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Hallion, Richard P. Storm Over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Hutchthausen, Peter. America's Splendid Little Wars: A Short History of U.S. Military Engagements, 1975–2000. New York: Viking Press, 2003.

Iskra, Darlene M. Women in the United States Armed Forces: A Guide to the Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.

Kagan, Frederick W., and Chris Kubik, eds. Leaders in War: West Point Remembers the 1991 Gulf War. New York: Frank Cass, 2005.

Lambeth, Benjamin S. The Transformation of American Air Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Locher, James R. Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater–Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002.

Powell, Colin A., with Joseph E. Persico. My American Journey. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Scales, Robert H. Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War. Washington D.C.: Brassey's, 1994.

Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Wirls, Daniel. Buildup: The Politics of Defense in the Reagan Era. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

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