Bombs Over Baghdad

After months of preparation, the United States and its allies unleashed the full power of their military might on Iraq. The first night of bombing was unprecedented in the history of combat: almost everything worked, including weapons never tested on the battlefield. Modern warfare would never be the same.

It started, as all battles will from that day on, with the push of a button. More than 400 miles from Baghdad, aboard a blacked-out battleship, the coming of war was announced with a raucous electronic bleat that lasted barely a second. It was followed by a sound like every door in the Pentagon slammed at once, a boom that shook the dust of World War II out of the ventilation ducts in the engine rooms far below. With a deep roar and a cloud of eye-stinging smoke, a Tomahawk cruise missile burst through the seal of its launching tube and seemed to hang in the air for a moment; then its engine ignited in a small, brilliant white flare and it pitched over and disappeared into the black night.

At the same time, hundreds of miles to the west over Saudi Arabia, a vast armada of warplanes was circling the skies in darkness and radio silence broken only by orders from the AWACS flying command posts. AWACS had been flying continuous alerts, and over the last few nights had been transmitting bogus coded messages to mislead the enemy; there was therefore no clue that this night the exercise was in earnest. The first planes across the border were around two dozen Air Force Stealth fighters, headed for communications centers in and around the Iraqi capital. Invisible to Iraqi radar, the Stealths could take careful aim at individual buildings with little danger from Baghdad's anti-aircraft defenses; for the duration of the war, no other allied planes were used against the capital itself. Behind them came F-15C Eagles, air-superiority fighters intended to clear the skies of enemy interceptors; then more bombers, the F-16s, F-15E Strike Eagles and F-111s, Navy A-6s and British Tornadoes. And at the head of this pack, jets that carried not guns or bombs, but radio equipment to detect, mislead and neutralize a single "strike package" of a dozen F-16s would be guarded by no fewer than eight electronic countermeasure aircraft--and just four escort fighters. A single EF-111 carries 10 high-powered transmitters to jam as many radar installations from as far off as 100 miles. Five such planes could virtually immobilize the Warsaw Pact air-defense radars from the Baltic to the Adriatic; more than 100 of them took part in the opening battle of Operation Desert Storm. In the modern battlefield, he who controls the ether controls the air; American pilots entered Iraq behind and invisible shield of electrons.

It was now past midnight Thursday morning in the Persian Gulf, late in the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 16, in Washington. The New York Stock Exchange had closed up more than 18 points in moderate trading; the Senate Ethics Committee was concluding two months of hearings into five senators who had taken large campaign contributions from S&L executive Charles Keating; and the Navy announced it h ad canceled a program to train dolphins to guard nuclear submarines at their base on Puget Sound. The phone rang in the office in Washington where Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon analyst turned antiwar activist, was helping to organize opposition to American involvement in the Persian Gulf. He had been arrested the night before in a demonstration outside the White House and spent the night in jail. It was his 54th arrest.

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The caller, a journalist with impeccable sources, told Ellsberg that the bombing would start at 4:30 p.m. Ellsberg thanked him and switched on a television.

He had a while to wait. The cruise missiles, flying at around 550 miles an hour, headed for a landfall at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on Iraq's narrow strip of coast. Overland, the Tomahawks guide themselves by comparing a radar image of the ground below to maps preprogrammed into their computer memories, which means that in the flat Arabian desert they can't necessarily take the most direct route, but instead must chart a course over landmarks such as mountains or riverbanks. Only 20 feet long, flying as low as 100 feet off the ground, they are virtually impossible to defend against. As the first Tomahawk neared its target, it flashed a brilliant strobe light, illuminating the path ahead for a final course adjustment based on photographs of the specific building it was meant to hit. Around the same time, radar screens all over Iraq and Kuwait went blank, blinded by hundreds of airborne jammers and a laser in the nose of a Stealth focused from thousands of feet in the air on the roof of Baghdad's main telephone building. Right behind it was a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb.

An instant later the skies over Baghdad lit up with tracers; on the ground below, pilots reported that the roads leading out of the capital were jammed with cars trying to flee. In Riyadh, Lt. Gen. Chuck Horner, commander of the American air forces in the gulf, was in the Tactical Air Command Center in the headquarters of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Jammed with communications equipment of all kinds, it nevertheless lacked a television set, and Horner had sent an aide to his office upstairs to watch CNN. "What are they saying?" Horner asked anxiously. "Bernie Shaw's under the table and he's got the mike out the window," came the reply. Horner checked his watch. The communications center was scheduled to be hit an nine minutes past the hour, and Horner knew that CNN's feed was routed through the telephone exchange.

"What's he saying now?" Horner asked again.

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"He just went off the air."

The videotape of that initial attack, replayed endlessly over those first euphoric days, is the image that most Americans will remember from this war: the tall, flatroofed building, a gray square in the eerie infrared moonscape, dumbly awaiting its fate in the center of the cross hairs; the bomb gliding invisibly through the night, the impact dead center on the roof and black smoke erupting from all four sides as the phones go dead all over Baghdad. At long last, a successor had emerged to the mushroom cloud as the emblem of America's military prowess, and good riddance.

The first wave of attacks on Iraq exhibited a phenomenon virtually unheard of in modern warfare: almost nothing went wrong. The targets, including communications centers, military headquarters, air-defense installations, Scud missile launchers and military air bases, were struck with accuracy that military officials put as high as 80 percent. The allies benefited from the weather--which was clear, moonless and chilly, perfect conditions for infrared imaging--and from the weakness of the Iraqi air-defense system. With their radar and communications knocked out, only a handful of Iraqi pilots took to the air, mostly to flee to safe bases farther north. Not that night, nor in fact at any time during the war, did they shoot down a single allied plane in air-to-air combat. Before they stopped flying altogether, the Iraqis lost at least 42 planes, including one--possibly the first kill of the war--to an American electronics-warfare plane that doesn't even carry weapons. The EF-111A Raven, piloted by Air Force Capt. Jim Denton, was on a mission over an airfield in western Iraq when an enemy Mirage F-1 rolled in a mile or so behind it and launched an air-to-air missile. Denton released chaff and flares to confuse the missile's radar and heat-seeking guidance systems. As the missile closed at high speed, he dove to within a few hundred feet of the ground and threw his plane into a hard right turn. As the missile passed harmlessly by, Denton saw a fireball erupt behind him as the Iraqi pilot, trying to get into position for another shot, wiped out on the ground. It was, Air Force officials believe, the first air-to-air kill to be credited to an unarmed airplane.

A Soviet news agency claimed that among the first Iraqi casualties of the war were two Air Force commanders, victims of friendly fire--executed by Saddam for the incompetence of their pilots. Although American officials could not confirm the reports, they granted them certain plausibility; as the Pentagon's genial briefer, Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly, put it, Saddam has "a fairly dynamic zero-defects program." Iraqi antiaircraft guns and missiles mounted an impressively noisy display of firepower, but hit hardly anything, in part because as soon as their radars locked onto an allied plane they became a target for American radar-seeking HARM missiles. After 3,100 combat sorties in the first 48 hours of the war, the allies had lost a total of eight aircraft. (At the start of the 1973 Mideast war, the last comparable battle between technologically advanced air forces, Israeli air casualties ran at three to four craft per 100 sorties.) Saddam was later to boast on television that even when "the vultures were coming like rain...[the Iraqi defenders] never relinquished their guns. They never left their places." And, he might have added, they never turned on their radar, either.

The bombs falling on Baghdad echoed around the world, carried live by CNN, which alone among American television networks had leased a direct connection to Amman (and thence to America by satellite), bypassing the demolished Iraqi telephone system. Peering out the window of their room in the Al-Rashid Hotel, the three CNN correspondents were unable to report much more than booms and flashes of light (antiaircraft tracers filled the sky "like a million fireflies"), but just the fact of their presence in an enemy capital under American bombardment was astonishing, as if Edward R. Murrow had been reporting World War II from Berlin. The next morning found Baghdad quiet and relatively intact, except for the specific buildings that had been targeted; Iraqi television showed Saddam Hussein walking the largely deserted streets, smiling at civilians and shaking hands. In the United States, there was euphoria at what seemed like a quick and all but bloodless victory. The stock market on Thursday jumped nearly 115 points and oil prices dropped sharply. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney felt compelled to warn reporters that the nation was still "in the very early stages of an operation that may run for a considerable period of time."

Saddam also delivered a speech on Iraqi television. He detailed his war aims: to make King Fahd of Saudi Arabia "rot in hell" and to destroy the "poisonous whole nest in Tel Aviv." Israel, which was not nominally a party to the dispute between Iraq and Kuwait, nonetheless would become a principal target. A few hours later, Americans switching on their television sets at home--the networks had canceled regular programming and were showing news around the clock--were startled by the sight of reporters in Israel and in Saudi Arabia struggling into gas masks. Mobile launchers in the western desert that had been missed during the previous night's bombing of Iraq sent eight Scud missiles across Jordan and into Israel. No one knew whether Iraq had armed its missiles with chemical warheads, or what the real dangers were if they had. As it happened, all the Scuds were carrying conventional explosives. Unlike the jet-powered Tomahawks, Scuds are ballistic missiles. The rocket engines fire once to send them up and then momentum carries them to their targets; they can reliably hit a city but nothing much smaller.

Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat used to joke that any Iraqi missile aimed at his city would be turned away because there was no place to park; as it turned out, one of them headed straight for a densely populated neighborhood and crashed into one of the few open spaces around, a parking lot. Even as weapons of terror, the Scuds proved vastly overrated. After three separate attacks in the first three days of the war, the Israeli casualty list consisted of several cars and houses and a large number of people suffering from mostly minor injuries--or the effects of having mistakenly injected themselves with the atropine antidote for nerve-gas poisoning.

The American installations in Saudi Arabia were more fortunate; they were defended by the American Patriot anti-missile system. The Patriot is a weapon wholly lacking in military glamour and polish, consisting of a van full of electronic equipment and a battery of launch tubes with the general shape of a Dumpster tipped on end. The missile itself is commanded by radio from the van and explodes with a proximity fuse when it closes in on an incoming round. "I'm sitting in my jet, getting ready to go," recalled Air Force First Lt. Steve Kirik, who witnessed an epochal moment in the history of warfare from the cockpit of his F-15. "I looked over at my port engine, and there it was. It was like a big, brilliant flare. It jumped off the ground, snaked back and forth a couple of times and then boom! It was pretty spectacular." For the first time in history, a hostile ballistic missile was destroyed in flight, and the authors were a couple of humdrum Army artillerymen--First Lt. Charles McMurtrey, of Montgomery, Ala., and St. Joe Oblinger of South Bend, Ind.--who happened to be on duty. "We didn't expect [the Scud] at that moment," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Leeroy Neel. "It was there, we reacted properly, and it was gone."

But Israel, which had been working for years on its own anti-missile system, didn't have Patriots--or none that worked, anyway. The United States had shipped over two batteries just before the war, but Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens had rejected the offer of American crews to operate them. Israel had defended itself for 40 years without relying on anyone's soldiers, he told Cheney, and it wasn't about to start now. That, however, was just what President George Bush feared most: that Israel's insistence of fighting its own battles would lead it to strike back at Iraq, placing Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt in the awful position of fighting alongside Jews. In traveling to Arab capitals the week before, Secretary of State James Baker had received quiet assurances that, with the possible exception of Syria, the allies would accept a one-time Israeli response to an Iraqi attack. But no one was anxious to put them to the test, especially since to reach Iraq, and Israeli strike force would have to fly over either allied (Syria, Saudi Arabia) or neutral (Jordan) Arab airspace. And if Iraqi missiles carried poison gas to Israel, Pentagon officials feared, the planes going in the other direction might be carrying nuclear bombs.

Cheney had spent the nights of Jan. 16 and 17 in his office, but with the air war going so well he had knocked off Friday evening and was asleep at home when the news of the Scud launch reached Washington. He sped back to the Pentagon and called Arens on a direct satellite link that had been installed for just such an emergency. The situation was desperate. Arens reported that 12 Israeli F-16s were in the air and were prepared to strike at Iraq. All they needed were the pass codes that would identify them as friendly to the allied fighters, so they wouldn't be shot down by mistake. Arens demanded that Cheney either supply the codes or suspend the coalition's air operations for four hours to leave the way clear for the Israelis. And that was just the beginning, Arens went on; if the Scud attacks continued, Israel planned a ground assault using hundreds of airborne troops to knock out the launch sites in western Iraq. He wanted Washington to secure permission for the Israeli flotilla to cross Jordanian or Saudi airspace.

Cheney told Arens that he couldn't grant any of this, but he promised to bring it up with the president. Within the hour, Bush's top aids assembled in the office of national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Bush placed a call to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He expressed condolences for the attack. He repeated the arguments against Israel entering the war on its own, with the danger of splitting the coalition against Iraq. He offered to ship Patriots from American bases in Germany, with crews to operate them, and this time Israel accepted. He also promised Shamir that American pilots would redouble their efforts to track down Iraq's remaining Scud launchers. At the time this was assumed to be a few days' work. The fixed launch sites were easy to find and destroy. The mobile launchers could be hidden almost anywhere during the day and rolled out at night to fire a volley, but American intelligence had estimated that Iraq possessed fewer than 40 of these. In fact, they had as many as 200.

But Bush kept his promise. With the nervous Israelis on the phone to him every time a missile landed in their country, he had no choice. Destroying Scuds was given top priority, accounting for as much as 15 percent of the American air effort in the first few weeks. A spy satellite was deployed full time to searching for the telltale red flares of the launches. A communications satellite kept open a dedicated channel--a prized luxury for which commanders clamored--sos that as soon as a Scud was spotted the location could be flashed to patrolling F-15s, in hopes of catching the launcher before it was rolled back into hiding. Delta Force and Green Beret commandos were airlifted into western Iraq in teams of three or four, roaming the desert on camouflaged dune buggies. When they spotted a Scud launcher, they fixed their position with a satellite navigation system and called in an airstrike--sometimes "painting" the target with a handheld laser for the benefit of a laser-guided missile.

Nevertheless the Scud attacks--there were 81 in all, almost evenly divided between Israel and Saudi Arabia--continued up until virtually the last day of the war. Sometimes the Patriots were ineffective. They were intended to protect relatively small targets such as airfields, for which it was sufficient just to knock the warhead off course without destroying it. But over a city, this sometimes just meant it hit in one neighborhood rather than another. Several Israelis died in the raids--apparently the result of heart attacks rather than injuries, but victims nonetheless. Bush sent Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Jerusalem to keep Israel on the team. Eagleburger recognized that the Israelis were responding from something deeper than rational self-interest. "You've got to understand Israel's psychology," he told Baker. "After 2,000 years of letting someone take care of them--and the Holocaust as a consequence--never again are they going to do that." But for once, they did.

The first few days of combat also saw a sudden mobilization of the antiwar movement in America. Ironically--for those with memories of Vietnam--early opponents to Bush's deployment of troops in the gulf included many Republicans, especially conservative Republicans. With hardly any communists left to fight in the world, onetime hawks such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert Novak were reviving the long tradition of right-wing isolationism. The bare-knuckled right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan said last August that only two groups "are beating the drums for war in the Middle East; the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States." As late as the third week of February, when Saddam was looking for a face-saving way to give up and Bush was refusing to take "yes" for an answer, Buchanan found himself improbably allied with Jesse Jackson as the two doves on CNN's "Crossfire," opposed by a hawkish coalition of liberal Michael Kinsley and a former Reagan National Security Council staffer.

But once fighting actually began, most conservatives stifled their doubts. The antiwar coalition enlisted a fantastic amalgam of groups from the left and fringe right of American politics--mainstream peace groups such as SANE/Freeze; Palestinians, taking their cues from the PLO; Jewish-conspiracy theorists such as the Liberty Lobby and the Lyndon LaRouche organizations; environmentalists who considered it ridiculous to fight for something as useless as oil; gay-rights and AIDS advocates who never quite made it clear how their causes were linked to the Persian Gulf War but were happy for the opportunity to wave their banners in front of television cameras.

There was, though, another large contingent that many Americans found it harder to ignore, the families of soldiers sent to fight in the gulf. Unlike Vietnam-era protestors, who often took out their frustration on the hapless GIs (themselves mostly draftees), the antiwar movement this time insisted on treating the servicemen and -women as victims of policies beyond their control. It is hard not to feel sympathy for the parents of young men and women sent into deadly combat. But the argument that the government had no right to require soldiers to fight has a fairly desperate ring to it, especially as applied to a volunteer army. There was at least a faint plausibility to the argument that the Army had lured impressionable teenagers with promises of job training and upward mobility, while burying in the fine print the danger of getting gassed to death by a madman on the other side of the world. This case was made especially on behalf of black soldiers, who make up nearly 29 percent of the Army, more than twice their share of the American population as a whole. But most of the soldiers called upon to fight didn't see it that way. Judging by what they told reporters, they seemed to regard fighting as an unpleasant but necessary part of their job, and a reasonable price to pay for the benefits that had brought them into the military in the first place.

It went largely unnoticed at the time, but the early days of the gulf war marked a significant reconciliation between America's military and civilian cultures, something that Ronald Reagan's eight years of trumpet fanfares and drumrolls never fully accomplished. Most Americans had not given much thought to their soldiers since 1973, and the image they had retained was the one fixed in the terrible final years of the Vietnam War: an army of alienated losers, drug-ridden and riven by racial and class antagonism. Why they saw on television instead were patriotic, competent and disciplined troops, ready to fight but realistic about the dangers; men and women, blacks and whites working together in a fellowship all too rare in civilian life. Out of the public eye, and with the blunt weapon of military discipline to back it up, the armed forces had decreed an end to racial discrimination, and so there was none--in the same broad sense in which other things the military didn't recognize, such as homosexuals in the ranks, did not officially exist. In any case, black soldiers were virtually unanimous in their belief that they had a better chance to advance on merit in the military than as civilians. It was no accident, they believed, that there was a black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before there was a black chairman of a leading American corporation; and it became hard to think of the military as a dead-end career for blacks when Washington commentators started mentioning Gen. Colin Powell as a future vice president.

The first big peace march drew 25,000 people to Washington on the first Saturday after the start of the bombing; a week later six times as many descended on the Mall, a respectable crowd even by Vietnam-era standards. In an afternoon of raucous demonstrations in San Francisco, nearly 1,000 people were arrested, a one-day record for antiwar protests. But that was the high-water mark of protest. On a sunny afternoon in mid-February, 15 antiwar demonstrators across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York had attracted a crowd of exactly eight, consisting of two four-person television crews. Opposition to Bush's policies never got out of the teens in public-opinion polls. Part of the reason was that Saddam--irrational, blustering and thuggish--was such an unlovable enemy. Americans had been primed to despise him with horrifying atrocity reports from the first days of the invasion. Even if some of these--like the babies supposedly yanked from their incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital--turned out to be apocryphal, the repulsive delight the Iraqis seemed to take in blowing up apartment houses in Tel Aviv won them few friends in America.

Another reason, clearly, was that the planeloads of corpses many were predicting never materialized. The air war was virtually bloodless for America; casualties after four weeks of fighting were only 14 dead and 12 wounded. For the entire Desert Storm operation, Americans killed in action apparently did not exceed 150. And, not to put too fine a point on it, America was winning. One component of the dreaded post-Vietnam syndrome was fear of embarrassment. Cheap victories in Grenada and Panama notwithstanding, Americans had come to believe they couldn't do much of anything right in the world, that their national supremacy was an illusion sustained by Potemkin battleships and Sylvester Stallone. Especially, there were doubts about American military hardware. Billions--trillions--had been spent on elaborate missiles, planes, guns and ships filled with electronic gear but never tested in combat. Political and journalistic careers had been built on denouncing the Pentagon's infatuation with airborne computers and tanks that can do better than 40 miles an hour. Even if such weapons worked, it was argued, they were so expensive the armed forces could never afford enough of them to be of decisive value in a full-scale war.

After just two days of war, it was clear that this critique would have to be rethought. To be sure, the Pentagon released only pictures of the smart bombs that worked; there were no press conferences to show videos of duds. And critics were quick to note that what seemed like revolutionary high technology to civilians had in fact been in the Air Force arsenal for years. Much was made of the fact that the stupendously expensive B-1 bomber was a no-show in the gulf, the entire fleet having been grounded a few months earlier due to engine problems. But even if they had been around for a while by 1991, weapons like the Stealth fighter and the Tomahawk missile were at the threshold of technology when they were first conceived. Their early failures were widely reported, but not the years of work in which the bugs had been gradually ironed out. To destroy an enemy stronghold with a single well-placed bomb, rather than sending hundreds of airplanes to flatten the entire neighborhood, was one of those rare achievements that make both military and moral sense. America's luck in avoiding civilian casualties ran out in the fifth week of the war, when it bombed an air-raid shelter in the belief that it concealed a military command post. But even then, the munitions performed flawlessly, flattening the shelter with two direct hits while leaving the surrounding area intact.

After just a few days of war, therefore, everything seemed to be going America's way. Key targets had been struck, including nuclear-and chemical-weapons plants; the Iraqi Air Force had been routed; allied casualties were minimal.

And then the clouds rolled in and the bombing had to slow. When it resumed, the battlefield held a different picture.

Bombs Over Baghdad | News