10 years ago today, 92 thousand Marines were at war

16 Jan 2001 | Lance Cpl. John Lawson, III

A decade has passed since Saddam Hussein conquered Kuwait and postured with threats to deliver the "mother of all battles."

We now know that what the Iraqi dictator got, among other things, was the mother of all Marine operations.

In the first two months of 1991, a coalition of nearly 40 nations, brandishing a combined force of 670,000 troops, humiliated the pesky tyrant with the bushy mustache. After 43 days of war, Saddam's devastated army fled Kuwait.

Among the more than 400,000 Americans who participated in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm were 92,990 Marines. Never before or since have so many Marines participated in a single operation, according to material from the Marine Corps Historical Center.

Twenty-four Marines gave their lives in battle, and 26 more lost their lives tending to their duties in the desert. In the context of warfare's grim statistics, however, the Gulf War was a victory of unimaginable proportions. All told, according to the World Almanac, American forces lost 766 men and women during the Persian Gulf War.

By contrast, the World Almanac reports approximately 85,000 Iraqi casualties. On top of that, 175,000 Iraqis were taken prisoner, many of them with a comical willingness to abandon their allegiance to Saddam.

From the cease-fire on Feb. 28, 1991 on to the present day, there has been a tendency to view the war as a mismatch - the equivalent of an NFL team playing a high school football team. Turn the clock back to August of 1990 and you get a much more sobering view.

Saddam was holding one fifth of the world's oil supplies. His army, hardened by eight years of war with Iran, was poised to strike at Saudi Arabia. "Among the world's standing armies, Saddam's ranked in size behind only those of China, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam," wrote the leader of the coalition forces, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Within days of Saddam's invasion, the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade and elite Army units were establishing a toehold in Saudi Arabia to deter Saddam's lust for conquest. Operation Desert Shield had begun.

With everything from Soviet T-72 tanks to French M-1 Mirage fighters, Saddam had a lot more in theater than the allies did in those early days, Gen. Schwarzkopf recalls in his memoirs. "We would need three months to mass enough combat power to be absolutely assured of fending off a full-scale Iraqi attack."

The Marine Corps geared itself up. Then-Commandant Gen. Al Gray described the fall of 1990 in a statement that Col. Joseph H. Alexander preserved in his history of the Marine Corps, "A Fellowship Of Valor." Said Gen. Gray, "We now have four kinds of Marines: those in the Gulf, those going to the Gulf, those who want to go to the Gulf, and those who don't want to go to the Gulf but are going anyway!"

To give the Corps the extra manpower it required, 24,703 reservists were called up, according to literature from the Marine Corps Historical Center.

Throughout the buildup, the world wondered if Saddam would back down, seize the initiative, or try to jostle the coalition with prolonged diplomatic subterfuge. Additionally, many wondered how much the United States was still haunted by the Vietnam War.

While commentators wrestled with these questions, Marine morale remained high. The Commander In Chief, President George Bush, showed his appreciation and support when he and his wife, Barbara, joined the deployed Marines for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Finally, on Jan. 16, the allies were ready to fight, while Saddam hadn't budged. The air war began as Desert Shield gave way to Desert Storm. Conventional bombs, smart bombs, and missiles greatly weakened the Iraqis, but they weren't enough to evict the invaders.

So, on Feb. 24, the ground war began. The 2d Marine Division and the 1st Marine Division with its four main task forces - Ripper, Papa Bear, Taro, and Grizzly - charged from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait. Posing as the main element of the allied attack, the Marines stormed into the teeth of the Iraqi defenses, according to literature from the Marine Corps Historical Center.

Army Gen. Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war, and he recalls in his memoirs that the Marines played a very dangerous but very necessary role.

In addition to danger of being outnumbered, there was the specter of Saddam's chemical weapons arsenal. The Marines wore charcoal-lined suits and carried gas masks on their belts, Gen. Schwarzkopf recounts in his memoirs.

As Marine forces charged to the northeast with tremendous success, the main body of the allied attack smashed the Iraqis with a powerful swing from further to the north.

Also diverting the Iraqis were the Marines of the 4th and 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigades, according to literature from the Marine Corps Historical Center.  Simply by remaining afloat in the Persian Gulf, they tied up large numbers of Iraqi troops who feared the Marines would launch another of their famous amphibious landings.

On Feb. 28, President Bush ordered a cease-fire. Kuwait was free.

The Harriers had proven themselves. The F/A-18 Hornets had proven themselves. The M1-A1 Abrams tanks had proven themselves.
And, once again, the Marines had proven themselves.

Headquarters Marine Corps