The Forgotten Battle of the First Gulf War

By John Gennace.

 

David J. Morris. 2004. Storm on the Horizon: Khafji – The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War. New York: Presidio Press.

In Storm on the Horizon: Khafji –The Battle That Changed the Course of the First Gulf War,[1] David J. Morris tells an intimately detailed story from the perspective of the small cadre of Reconnaissance Marines who engaged a vastly superior Iraqi armored force in the first major ground battle of the Gulf War. Morris, who holds an MFA from UC Irvine and the recipient of the 2009 Staige D. Blackford Award for nonfiction writing from the Virginia Quarterly Review, is also a former Marine rifle platoon commander (1992-1996).[2]

When the four-day battle began in the small town of Khafji along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border on January 29, 1991, coalition aircraft had already been striking targets for nearly two weeks throughout Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm. In an effort to draw coalition forces into ground combat, Saddam Hussein ordered three divisions of mechanized and armored troops into Saudi Arabia into what he hoped would be a costly and bloody engagement that would crack the resolve of the U.S.-led coalition arrayed against him. The Iraqi thrust into Saudi Arabia came as a complete surprise to coalition forces. As the Recon Marines observing the border began to hear the distinctive sounds of heavy tracked vehicles getting closer to their positions, it was not immediately clear to them that they were about to come face to face with a major Iraqi armored assault. The lightly armed Marines who were manning geographically dispersed observation posts (OP’s) all along the Saudi border with Kuwait were simply no match for the heavy armored formations that were infiltrating their sectors. What ensued can only be described as chaos as the Marines were forced to abandon their positions as they literally ran for their lives to find cover and to call down airstrikes on the advancing Iraqis.

One of the central themes that is ever present throughout Storm on the Horizonis the ‘fog and friction’ that has been ubiquitous throughout the history of warfare. For many the first Gulf War marked the advent of “easy” high-tech warfare where precision guided munitions made their public debut on CNN. Storm on the Horizon tells a very different story, however. From the moment the Marines began to observe Iraqi forces on the move until the very end of the four-day battle, fog and friction overshadowed the engagement.[3] In fact, the Marines’ situation was quite precarious throughout. Virtually everything that could go wrong, did for the Marines: Intelligence failed to anticipate what was a major Iraqi offensive, weather was unfavorable, communications gear and newly acquired high-tech weapons failed at the most crucial times, and, most tragically, these failures led to fratricide when an Air Force A-10 Warthog accidentally obliterated a Marine Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) and its occupants with a deadly Maverick Missile.[4]  While high-tech weaponry had been a key factor to U.S. dominance in the war, it was insufficient for eliminating the age-old scourge of fog and fiction.

What made Khafji so significant to the overall course of the Gulf War was that it demonstrated quite clearly, most especially to senior Marine commanders, that the Iraqis suffered from severe tactical deficiencies. The Marines learned that the Iraqis could not conduct organized multi-divisional operations and therefore could be defeated. They also learned that if they “Get the first shot at [the Iraqis], the rest will run.”[5] While the Recon Marines were vastly outnumbered and overmatched, sufficient air and ground resources were eventually brought to bear which resulted in a resounding defeat for the Iraqi offensive. As a result of these lessons, the commander of all Marine forces during the war, Lt. General Walter Boomer, adopted a more aggressive plan for his invasion into Kuwait and even devoted an entire thousand-man battalion to managing the anticipated flow of Iraqi prisoners.[6] Therefore, not only were the Iraqis soundly defeated at Khafji, but they would be unable to regain the initiative at any point for the remainder of the war.

To his credit, Morris devotes some helpful commentary to his use of sources.[7] Prior to writing the book he is struck by the dearth of documentation on the Gulf War in general and, the battle of Khafji, in particular. It is only on the chance encounter with a September 1991 Marine Corps Gazette article about the battle written by Major General John Admire that he was inspired to write Storm on the Horizon. Although Morris does succeed in finding a variety of sources in the form of books, documents, articles, as well as unpublished sources, it is the extensive interviews he conducts with the dozens of Marines (who he lists by name among his sources) who fought at Khafji that forms the backbone of Storm on the Horizon. Thus, Morris organizes the book along a detailed timeline which chronicles the events leading up to and including the battle of Khafji from beginning to end. Instead of named chapters, the chapters are designated by times and dates; 6:00 PM January 19, 1991, Observation Post 4 – 7:00 AM January 31, 1991, Khafji and so on. Because Morris is conveying a firsthand account of events as told by the Marines who were there, it gives the reader the sense of being embedded in the action. He uses extensive end-notes which serve to add a great deal of context and clarification to the battle. This, along with a glossary of acronyms and definitions to key Marine Corps words and phrases, helps to make the book more accessible to readers, particularly those with non-military backgrounds. Morris, therefore, has designed a structure that serves the purposes for his book extremely well – telling the story of the battle of Khafji as it was experienced by the men who were there.

As a Marine veteran of the first Gulf War and someone who witnessed the aftermath of Khafji, it is evident that Storm on the Horizon is perhaps the strongest and most accurate writing on the battle available today. Not only is it strong because it hits the mark factually due to Morris’ excellent sources, but also because Morris never loses sight of the human dimension of war that remains dominant throughout the book. Readers come to know these Marines by name and witness the range of emotion and personality embodied in each one. Furthermore, the reader realizes early on how profoundly fog and friction can dominate even a modern battlefield. Clausewitz clearly resonates when he writes, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”[8] If Storm on the Horizon suffers any weakness it is its heavy reliance upon military jargon and acronyms. Of course, this is likely only to be perceived as weakness by readers not familiar with such language, but it is difficult to see how Morris could have avoided this while preserving crucial detail. Nevertheless, Storm on the Horizon is highly recommended as one of the best books available on the first Persian Gulf War.

[1] Chicago Manual of Style

[2] More information on David Morris can be found at his website which promotes his latest book, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

[3] Carl Von Clausewitz. 1984. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press.(119)

[4] David J. Morris. 2004. Storm on the Horizon: Khafji – The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War. New York: Presidio Press.(119, 123)

[5] David J. Morris. 2004. Storm on the Horizon: Khafji – The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War. New York: Presidio Press.(325, 326)

[6] David J. Morris. 2004. Storm on the Horizon: Khafji – The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War. New York: Presidio Press.(326)

[7] David J. Morris. 2004. Storm on the Horizon: Khafji – The Battle That Changed the Course of the Gulf War. New York: Presidio Press.(339)

[8] Von Clausewitz, Carl. 1984. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (119)

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