March 3, 2016
The 25th anniversary of America’s victory in Operation Desert Storm passed without much fanfare on Sunday, February 28. Much to the chagrin of some of my fellow veterans of that conflict, the Pentagon held no official observance. Having gotten more than our fair share of accolades at the time, I’m not sure more are owed to us now.
A Washington Post feature reports that many, like Scott Stump, president of the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association, are “fuming” over the snub. Fred Wellman, a board member of the organization, complained, “We are ignoring one of the greatest military victories in world history that was led by the U.S. because it’s ‘just another anniversary’?”
I would note that the Pentagon is rather busy these days. Unlike the peacetime/Cold War military that I joined, which had gone 17 years without a major combat operation between our withdrawal from Vietnam and our entry into the Gulf War, we’ve been on more-or-less constant war footing since. In addition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been more than half a dozen major interventions into civil conflicts, the fight against the Islamic State, and seemingly endless drone strikes and special operations raids against terrorist targets around the world. Stopping to recognize what in hindsight was a relatively minor event is not the highest priority.
But, oh, what a priority is was back in 1991. In six short weeks of fighting—and only a one hundred hour ground war—we managed to not only push Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, but also roll back the Vietnam malaise. Indeed, President George H.W. Bush giddily proclaimed a “New World Order” that would be policed by an America that not only had its confidence back but was able to lead a grand coalition that even included our longtime Soviet adversaries.
There was a ticker tape parade down the streets of New York City for some 200,000 triumphant veterans of the conflict, attended by the President and Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, the CENTCOM commander who became an international television star through his daily briefings. While I didn’t attend that particular parade, having redeployed with my unit back to Germany, we did march in one there, resplendent in our chocolate chip desert camouflage fatigues issued to us for the plane ride home (we’d fought the war in our woodland camouflage).
Ours was the first major American war fought in the all-volunteer era, and thus the first when its veterans were universally hailed as heroes for the simple act of doing our jobs. We got more medals than my dad’s generation did for the far longer and more arduous fight in Vietnam. In addition to a Bronze Star, I was awarded a Southwest Asia Service Medal with two campaign stars and everyone, whether they deployed or not, was given a National Defense Service Medal. After I left the Army, I was awarded a third campaign star (the period during which we were waiting our turn to go back home coincided with Operations Provide Comfort and Southern Watch). A couple years later, we were awarded a Liberation of Kuwait Medal by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Soon thereafter, the Kuwaitis gave us one, too. So, for the five months I was in theater, I received five medals.
Not only is that more than my dad got for eighteen months in Vietnam, it’s more than some of my colleagues and students got for multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. While there were more “campaigns” in both those wars, they were longer. So it was possible to deploy to either of them two or three times and only be recognized with one campaign star. And, as of yet, neither of the countries has issued a thank-you medal to American troops; one suspects they’re not forthcoming.
Further, unlike veterans of our more recent conflicts, we had an achievable mission and thus the satisfaction of being able to claim victory. And, thankfully, very few battle deaths, catastrophic injuries, and cases of posttraumatic stress.
Beyond that, we have the great fortune to be living in an age where official celebrations are unnecessary. Even as most of us are hitting our 50s, we’re able to reconnect with our old bosses, peers, and troops through Facebook and other social media platforms. My old Gridsmasher battalion has had several reunions and constantly shares recollections online.
I look back with pride and fondness at my long-ago service and now have the honor to teach and mentor another generation of warriors. Theirs has sacrificed more than mine, and others that went before sacrificed much more. They, too, have been thanked enough for their service.
Rather than expending a lot of time and energy on planning parades to commemorate anniversaries, I’d prefer our political and military leaders spend it instead on getting the wars we’re fighting now and will fight in the future right. And to doing a better job taking care of those injured in wars past and future. Their duty is to those who’ve volunteered to go into harm’s way and to their families. We old timers can handle the auld lang syne.