And so the ground war, as quickly as it had started, was ending.
There was no grand pronouncement signaling hostilities were over. There was simply a subtle shift from being prepared to mow down anything that moved to resisting that impulse. We’d gone as far north as the Kuwaiti International Airport, found there was simply no one left interested in a fight, and had ground to a halt. Then came the official word – President Bush had issued a cease-fire.
And a merciful cease-fire it was. We had executed Schwartzkopf and Powell’s masterful ‘left hook’ assault, a lightning fast westward flanking attack, to near perfection. We had outmaneuvered and surprised the Iraqi forces, and were in the process of decimating any that elected to resist. Most did not. Those that did paid a horrible price.
President Bush’s decision to cease hostilities just 100 short hours after the ground war began was not without controversy. Many of my own Marines angrily questioned why we’d come to this foreign place, trained for 6 months, only to stop short of solving the ‘Saddam Problem’ permanently? Why not push on, all the way to Baghdad, and finish the job? The Iraqi’s wanted none of us. The vaunted Iraqi military had proven to be a straw man incapable of mounting a real defense against us – militarily, we could have done anything we wanted. Seeing the shambles of the Iraqi Army in clear daylight, and recognizing the state of their morale, weaponry, fighting capabilities, and will to fight, you couldn’t help but be angry. Angry that these thugs lead by a tin pot dictator had invaded their peaceful neighbor, angry at the destruction, death, and waste evident every where you looked, angry that our own lives had been interrupted and in some cases lost in order to deal with them. And angry in the knowledge that we could’ve wiped the floor with Saddam’s forces 5 months earlier had we not been so cautious. I felt the same urges my Marines did – an ugly desire to punish someone for screwing it all up so badly for everyone.
But the truth is, the cease-fire, however personally dissatisfying it may have been to US Marines, was President Bush’s finest hour. At a moment of total and undisputed dominance, with all the weaponry of destruction at his fingertips, with a hated enemy under his thumb, he did the inexplicable. He lived up to his word. He followed the mandate of the UN resolutions. He did exactly what he’d promised he’d do. Liberate Kuwait, expel the invading Iraqi forces from it, and go home. And in doing so, President Bush proved his critics, in the UN, in ruling bodies around the world, and at home, wrong. I knew when I got word of the cease-fire that US forces would someday be back to this part of the world to finish the job. And seeing it happen just 12 years later, it would be easy to second guess the President’s decision. But the impact of a US President living up to his word, and demonstrating for all the world to see that there are nations which, possessing the military might and skill to dominate others, are capable of restraint, should not be underestimated.
It was the morning of 28 February when we got the news that the war was officially over. An exhausting week filled with surreal moments was to end with another one. My company had collected thousands of Iraqi POWs, and guarded them nervously for days. This had been no small feat. The surrendering Iraqis came to us eagerly, almost gleefully. They handed us leaflets, dropped to them from US planes before the ground campaign which promised in cartoonish color food, protection, and mercy from us if they surrendered, and a horrible death if they did not. They wanted to cash their checks. Instead of feeding and protecting them (we had no food and nowhere to send them), we herded them into groups of hundreds, packed them like sardines into tight clusters, and guarded them with a handful of Marines around the group’s perimeter. It was nerve-wracking and scary. Had they decided to rush us, there would have been precious little we could have done to stop them, save sending a few examples on their way to Allah. Slowly, we relinquished our guests to their new masters, Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian military officials. I have wondered many times what the fate of those prisoners ultimately was, but given the looks on the Iraqi troop’s faces as they were handed over to our replacements, I don’t imagine it was a fortuitous one. What concern or guilt I felt handing off these prisoners to those they had oppressed I balanced with the memory of the crimes they’d committed against countless Kuwaiti innocents. They were about to reap what they had sown. I assigned no right or wrong to that reality – it was simply the way things were done there. We were alien to their culture, and judging what might occur to the Iraqis seemed wrong. So we handed them over and walked away.
The day the war ended seemed, from the start, different. Upon waking, there was one stunning and obvious change – the dense, choking, petroleum-laced fog that had hung over us for days, coating us with soot and making it hard to breathe, had lifted. The sun shone warmly upon our shoulders. Like a Hollywood happy ending to a feel-good movie, the Director had called for optimistically hopeful-for-the-future life-affirming weather, and gotten it. Of all the ‘damn I’m happy to be alive this morning!’ mornings, it remains the happiest of my life. All of the deeply-buried fears, of losing Marines, of not performing to my own expectations, of death or mutilation, evaporated with the steamy morning mist. Life was back. It felt so good. Relieved of our prisoner of war duties, we climbed into waiting 5 ton trucks. As we pulled out, headed to tent cities awaiting our arrival, we gave Kuwait and the devastation stretching as far as the eyes could see, one last hard look. Despite the still-burning oilfields in the distance, twisted metal of what had once been tanks and artillery peices, and countless prisoners being herded by their new taskmasters, something seemed different, almost hopeful. And as if God were some cosmic practical jokester, as we headed southward away from Kuwait, war, and the stress of a 6 long months, one last vision caught our eyes. There, one hundred yards away from us, dancing mystically in some inexplicable circle, were a horse, a goat, and a mangy sheep dog. I’m not sure what grand message God was communicating with this bizarre scene, I’ll only say I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. We watched the 3 animals and their strange celebratory parade until we could no longer make them out in the distance.
‘Yes friends’ the Universe seemed to be shouting, ‘Whether 2 or 4 footed – it is good to be alive!’
The weeks that followed seemed to take forever. Getting out of the Middle East and home was a task as monumentally difficult as getting there had been. We’d returned to the tent cities where our journey had begun 6 months previously. We lounged on cots, listened to cassettes we’d listened to a hundred times since our arrival, and traded them to buddies for others we’d listened to hundreds of times. We PT-ed endlessly. Cleaned weapons over and over again. But mostly, we just waited. The return home came in fits and trickles. A couple of seats on a transport here, space on a cargo plane there. 1st Bn, 3rd Marines was finding it’s way home a few Marines at a time. We’d been in-country as long as anyone. We wanted out. Now. The wait was nothing short of excruciating. But finally, our turn came, and homeward we headed. I was tasked along with a squad of my Marines, with escorting our Battalion Armory home. I believe if they’d told us they had to box us up along with the mortars, M-16A2’s, and grenade launchers, we’d have gladly accepted.
The long flight back to Kaneohe, Hawaii is a blur to me. I don’t remember the route, where we stopped, how long it took. Nothing. I only remember having butterflies the entire ride back. I’d been married only a year when I was plucked from my happy, normal life in paradise and tossed unceremoniously into Operation Desert Shield. I’d received letters, and even had the chance to make a hurried, static-filled, desert phone call or two over the past six months. But basically, my loving wife had been little more than a memory, an ‘idea’, for half a year. The thought of seeing her again made me inexplicably nervous, almost queasy. The C-130 we’d hitched a ride back on hit the tarmac at Oahu’s Kadena Airfield and crawled to a stop on St. Patrick’s Day, 1991. As we gathered our personal effects, I stole a glimpse out of one of the cargo windows. There, in a sea of strangers, stood my beautiful wife Valerie.
I was home.
We drove to our base at Kaneohe Bay, traded our personal weapons for cold cans of beer they had waiting on ice for us, and were excused for the next week. I won’t regale you with boring stories of just how wonderful the return to civilization and all its comforts was. Suffice it to say that none of us truly appreciate what we have. Not really. The Lava Dogs of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines had returned triumphant. We were ‘heroes’. We were lavished with awards and medals, paraded through the streets of Waikiki in front of adoring throngs. You couldn’t pay for your own beer or meal for months. And that was as it should have been. We had been through something, and in my mind, we were celebrating having lived through it as much as any particular military accomplishment. In the pauses between the celebrations, I tried to take stock of what I’d been through, and sort through what, if anything, it all meant. I thought a lot about Mike Monroe, my fellow Lt., lost in a stupid training accident. I thought about his family, and how seeing others return home from the Gulf must have made the agonizing hole in their lives and hearts ache all the more. And I thought about veterans of other wars, who’d experienced far more pain, suffering, and loss in the engagements of their generations and received welcome homes that looked or felt nothing like the glorious and thankful one we had.
An unwritten military rule is that those who ‘have done something’, don’t talk about it. If you ever meet someone in a bar who tells an amazing story of military heroism or war-time adventure, you can bet they never got within a hundred miles of harm’s way. Those that have, keep their mouths shut. Why? I’m not sure, but it’s probably because to talk about one’s personal experiences reeks of ‘self’. And ‘self’ is something the United States Marine Corps places a very low value on indeed. I hope, having broken that silent vow, that I told my little story with some humility, and that the unbridled affection I have for those that traveled along with me on my little journey, and for whom, I have undying respect, shone through in the telling.