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Springer Journal: Going Downtown Baghdad

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PINEHURST, N.C. — I suspect that very few folks reading this column will remember where they were or what they were doing 15 years ago on the night of 16 January, 1991. I am one of those who do retain very vivid memories of the early evening, late night and early morning of 17 January. I was in the WRAL-TV5 newsroom.

Many readers will recall that a few months earlier, specifically August of 1990, Saddam Hussein sent his military forces into Kuwait to plunder its cities; lay claim to its natural resources (read: oil); and he declared Kuwait as the 19th Province of Iraq. The international community was outraged and the United States took the lead role in assembling a coalition to remove the Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

There was a five month long buildup of U.S. and coalition forces in an operation dubbed "Desert Shield." Over a half million U.S. forces were dispatched to the area along with other coalition forces and all of their attendant logistical support. Saddam was repeatedly advised/told to remove his army from Kuwait. He refused to do so.

Let us return to 16 January 1991. As I mentioned above, I was in the WRAL-TV5 newsroom during the early evening news. The news team at WRAL recognized that if the stalemate in Kuwait occasioned by Saddam's resistance continued there would most likely be a military conflict. The news director had asked me to come to the station and meet with the anchors, directors, producers, reporters and staff and present "Military 101." As always the WRAL-TV5 news team wanted to be prepared, and to be as knowledgeable as possible.

We planned the session to occur immediately following the 6:00 PM local news segment. Little did we know that our session would be dramatically interrupted before it would begin. Early on in the 6:30 PM network news program, Dan Rather alerted Americans that we had initiated an aerial attack on Baghdad as well as other Iraqi targets. This initial salvo (17 January Baghdad time) was soon to be dubbed "Going Downtown Baghdad."

So much for "Military 101." It never happened in a conference setting as planned. It happened on the fly on the air as the evening unfolded. All scheduled network programming was ditched and the airtime was devoted to the beginning strikes of what we were soon to know as "Desert Storm." This was my first experience as a consultant with WRAL. Although I knew little about the station's people or the operation of a newsroom, I was greatly impressed with how they responded.

Network programming provided several opportunities for local stations to cut in and provide a local perspective. The news team at WRAL-TV5 was exceptional. 15 years later I can recall some of the excellent questions which then senior anchor Charlie Gaddy threw at me. And, incidentally, they were all extemporaneous questions. Neither he nor the other anchors briefed me in advance as to what they would ask.

Charlie asked me if I were the commander sending the airstrikes over Iraq that night, what would be foremost in my mind. As I recall, my thoughts were along the line of trusting that the training of the aircrews and support personnel was the best it could have been. I also noted that I hoped that I had insured proper logistical support, i.e. properly maintained aircraft and weapons systems. And I opined that I trusted the aircrews had received a professional briefing on their targets and the enemy's capabilities. A commander's responsibilities are along the lines of training his or her people to a high professional level ... providing the resources necessary to do their jobs ... and then let them do what they are tasked to do.

Charlie Gaddy also asked me what I would expect in the way of combat losses that night. I suspected there would be three to four percent of the aircrews which could become losses due to enemy action or other factors. I was wrong. There were zero combat losses on that first night, in spite of the highly touted pre-conflict assessments of the surface-to-air missiles and air defense forces surrounding Baghdad. Unfortunately, there would be follow-on casualties of this brief war.

It has now been fifteen years since the first strikes against Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi forces. There have been other conflicts in the intervening years. We have seen major conflict in Bosnia, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq. We have seen horrific attacks on our own country on 9/11. We have also witnessed attacks on American facilities and citizens around the world, e.g. the embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the USS Cole in Yemen. All of these, and other, terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of Americans.

It is no longer Desert Storm. That was successfully concluded nearly fifteen years ago. It is now a Global War on Terror ... and we must successfully conclude this war one day as well.

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