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Remembering Desert Storm: Did it end too soon?

Posted January 15, 2011 2:52 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2011 12:28 p.m. EST

— Did "Desert Storm" end too quickly, enabling much of Saddam Hussein's army to escape from Kuwait and ensuring the Iraqi dictator would remain a threat for years to come?

"I continue to be asked if we stopped too soon," says retired Marine Lt. Gen. Walter Boomer, who commanded all U.S. Marines in the first Persian Gulf war that began 20 years ago on Jan. 16-17.

"The answer in retrospect is 'Yes.'"

Boomer, now retired and living with his wife Sandra in South Carolina, says three more days of combat would have ensured that his Marines and the massive U.S.-led United Nations force destroyed the remnants of the Iraqi army as it fled from Kuwait.

"The mother of all battles" that Saddam had called his army to fight had turned into the "mother of all routs."

In the fog of history and forgotten memories since Desert Storm, not many recall that Boomer's Marines were poised near Kuwait City, ready to destroy the Iraqis just as were the Army forces advancing further north and to the west.

Map of the Marines' drive to Kuwait City

Yet with the allies at the point of crushing victory, President George H.W. Bush ordered Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the joint force commander, to stand down. The president's decision came after consultation with his advisors, including Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the time and in interviews and memoirs written after the war, the leaders have said that the U.N. mandate for liberating Kuwait had been achieved.

After 42 days of an air war and a 100-hour ground campaign stretching across hundreds of miles of desert, the Iraqis were running.

Even as Saddam's vaunted Republican Guard tried to hold open routes of retreat against the overwhelming force of the U.S. VII Army Corps and Fort Bragg-based XVIII Airborne Corps, Boomer's I Marine Expeditionary Force stood ready to charge north from Kuwait City to completely surround the Iraqis. A British armored division – The Desert Rats – with VII Corps and Arab units combined with the U.S. divisions would have annihilated the Iraqis.

It would have been a modern day Cannae, where the Carthaginians and their allies under the legendary Hannibal wiped out the legions of Rome, slaughtering 40,000 soldiers or more.

Boomer will visit with Bush and many of the President's Gulf War advisors at a symposium Thursday in College Station, Texas. The Marine respects Bush deeply, he says, and considers him a friend. On the wall of his office in his last duty position as assistant commandant of the Marines, Boomer kept a large photograph of him with Bush taken in the Saudi Desert.

Bush has returned that friendship. He personally invited Boomer to attend the event at his presidential library. In a speech shortly after Desert Storm began, Bush hailed Boomer as "one of our great officers out there."

But as the U.S. war in the Middle East drags on now as the Global War on Terror after the toppling of Saddam in 2003 in a campaign ordered by Bush's son, George W., Boomer said he knows the "end too soon" question will come up on Tuesday.

"Actually, I'm excited about going," Boomer said. "It will be interesting to talk about what we learned then and perhaps was any of it applicable to today?

"Plus, I think the group that's coming back will be able to provide a lot of insight and talk about things today that they couldn't talk about then."

72 hours – What Boomer needed to finish the Iraqis

Boomer remains convinced a more complete victory was at hand.

"Another three days, we could have killed or captured most of the remaining Iraqi soldiers as they fled Kuwait and were between the MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] and Basra," Boomer explained in an interview with WRAl.com.

"I believe the Army could have destroyed the remainder of forces that opposed them in the same time frame."

Iraq's army retreated northward to the Iraqi city of Basra over a handful of roads while being pressed in a vice between the Marines in the south and the Army's two corps to the west.

Boomer had at his command both the Second Marine Division from Camp Lejeune and the First Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, Calif. under his command along with a U.S. Army armored brigade.

It was not a force geared for an amphibious landing, as Marines train for, but a ground war behemoth loaded with hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and backed by a Marine air wing offering close air support through attack helicopters, Harrier jet fighters, F/A-18 Hornets and A-6 Intruder bombers.

As strong as the Marines were, the VII and XVIII Corps along with the British were charging eastward with a phalanx of tanks created to confront the Soviet Unit had the Cold War ever gone hot in Europe.

Boomer, his forces waiting outside Kuwait City which he had been ordered to allow the Arab forces to liberate, positioned his divisions for a leap forward to the Iraqi border and beyond if need be.

Even though the ground war combat had not been as fierce as expected, Boomer said he knew the Iraqis were fleeing with most of their forces intact.

"We had taken 22,000 Iraqi prisoners," he said.

Left unsaid was that Iraq had an army of some half a million in theater. The vast majority were still alive, although much of their armor, artillery and other equipment had been destroyed.

Given the order to pursue, the allies "would have left Hussein without an effective army," Boomer said, "and the future of his regime would have been very bleak – in my opinion."

Boomer doesn't question Bush's judgment

However, Boomer stressed that he talked about Bush's command with reluctance.

"I truly believe that Monday morning quarterbacking is easy," Boomer stressed. "I did not question the President's judgment then, nor do I now.

"We should presume that he made an informed and thoughtful decision.

"That's the way I feel about it."

In his memoirs, Schwarzkopf  stated "I don't have any problem with it" when informed by Powell that Bush was prepared to stop the war. "Our objective was the destruction of the enemy forces, and for all intents and purposes we've accomplished that objective."

Boomer expressed similar thoughts.

"Sure, I felt another three days would have been a pretty dramatic thing," he said, "but there was so much going into the decision (to stop}.

"If you will recall, our only mandate was to liberate Kuwait. Nor did we ever intend to invade Iraq in terms of toppling the regime.

"We stopped when we had accomplished what we had been asked to do by the U.N., which was to liberate Kuwait."

'The war is over: Stop'

At what came to be called the "mother of all press briefings" by Schwarzkopf, the commanding general proclaimed that the "gate was closed" for Iraqi's retreat.

At his mobile command post, however, Boomer knew otherwise.

"I certainly knew that," he said when asked about the gate really not being closed and much of the Iraqi forces – including the Republican Guard – were escaping to fight another day.

"I don't know how many (Iraqis) fled, but we were watching them on our systems flee," Boomer explained. "It was a big number that fled Kuwait itself, and we knew where they were."

U.S. aircraft loaded with then state-of-the-art sensors displayed screens full of icons indicating Iraqi personnel and vehicles who were on the run.

Boomer believed then and now that the Marines could have marched to Basra without serious challenge.

"They were in no mood to fight," he said of the Iraqi army.

"I don’t think we would have suffered many casualties. I do not believe so. All of that was part of what was going on in President's mind — we had been able to achieve so much and to do with relatively few casualties."

Boomer and Schwarzkopf talked about what to do as the Marines repositioned themselves before the stand-down order came.

"We had a brief conversation," Boomer recalled. "I told him where I was and gave him a situation report.

"I told him at the time that if he wanted us to move to Basra, we could do so.

"He said he would get back to me."

Instead, Boomer heard from one of Schwarzkopf's aides.

"The next communication was not from him but from the headquarters," Boomer said.

He boiled down the order succinctly:

"The war is over. Stop."

Did 'Highway of Death' photos sway thinking?

Boomer also speculates that photographs of the destruction inflicted on the fleeing Iraqis by allied aircraft helped sway Bush's decision.

"One of the things that perhaps generated to much influence at the time – I don't know this; maybe I can learn more at College Station – is the so-called 'Highway of Death,'" Boomer said.

"Well, I was standing on that highway the Iraqis used. The engines in the trucks were still running. They weren't out of gas. They were horrified and ran.

"There were a few horrific incidents where they were caught and killed by aircraft.

"That made for a very dramatic picture. It was a horrific picture, but most of the people in that HUGE convoy that extended from the Iraqi border to Kuwait City – once they got bombed, they just got the hell out of there.

"They weren't stupid. They were sitting ducks."

The "sitting ducks" who escaped helped Saddam put down rebellions in southern and northern Iraq shortly after Desert Storm ended. Saddam would remain in power another 12 years.

Then came Desert Storm Two – or as it is called officially "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

By that time, Walt Boomer was out of the Marines, serving as the top executive at the international business firm Rogers Corporation.