white house

Today, January 15, is a historical anniversary I remember less from reading about it in history and more from my own personal memory. Twenty-three years ago today, January 15, 1991, was the deadline set by a United Nations resolution calling upon Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, to begin his unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, which he’d invaded in August 1990. If Saddam didn’t budge, military forces arrayed around the Gulf area–led by the United States–were authorized to use force to get him out. Saddam didn’t budge.

It may seem strange, but I remember the deadline as more traumatic than the actual start of the war. In 1991 January 15 was a Tuesday. I was an undergraduate student at Portland State University, and throughout the autumn the PSU campus–in the middle of downtown Portland–was the epicenter of what passed for an “anti-war” movement. I remember the weather was bitterly cold, cloudy and dreary. No one really expected Saddam to cave, but the passing of the January 15 deadline was depressing because it meant that war was basically inevitable. We knew bombs and casualty counts were in our future, but it hadn’t started happening yet. In many ways anticipation of a bad event is worse than the event itself.

This may seem a rather strange take on the whole thing, but you have to put yourself back in the time it happened. Pinpoint interventions excepted (Beirut, Grenada, Panama, etc.), the United States hadn’t been involved in anything resembling a real war since the end of Vietnam. Although the United States with its vastly superior technology, logistics and training was a lopsided match against Saddam’s Iraq, no one in January 1991 was predicting that the war would be a breeze lasting only a few weeks, not even President George H.W. Bush. Although it was certain we’d win, that was almost beside the point. How many months or years of grinding warfare in the desert–and how many hundreds or thousands of dead troops–would it take to get Kuwait back? Moreover, was Kuwait worth it? Only a few days before the deadline, Congress had issued a resolution giving Bush the legal authority to wage the war. The debate leading up to it was pretty heated. No one was sure what was going to happen.

kuwait oil fires

The environmental horror of the Kuwaiti oil fires was one of the unanticipated consequences of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Saddam did it deliberately, cracking open the pipelines and ordering wells to be torched.

The grim irony of our two wars in Iraq was, the first time around many people expected the outcome that actually happened the second time around–a long, protracted war of attrition–and the second time, optimists expected that the outcome of 1991 would repeat itself. The 1991 conflict cost the United States a few hundred lives and the Iraqis perhaps tens of thousands. The second conflict was on a totally different and vastly more catastrophic scale for both countries. But on January 15, 1991, no one could have dreamed that there would one day be another war in Iraq, with the same enemy, but much different stakes.

History records that the first Persian Gulf War began on January 17, seemingly two days after the deadline passed. Actually it was closer than that. Due to the time difference, the predawn hours of Thursday, January 17 were still Wednesday, January 16 in the United States. On the west coast, the war started a bit after 5:00 PM. It happened while I was walking home from a bus stop. When I heard the news I was strangely relieved. At least we didn’t have to wait long. The period of depressing anticipation was over.