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The War Nerd December 2, 2005
The 90s: We Watched the Wrong Wars
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO - There were three kinds of wars in the 1990s:

1. Gulf War One, a glorious, magnificent war;

2. A lot of small, crummy wars that hogged all the media attention;

3. Four big, serious wars that nobody noticed.

It's an odd pattern, as if 90s audiences didn't like real wars, preferring sideshows. I guess that's not surprising considering their taste in TV. Jerks who thought Wings was a riot and LA Law was inspiring aren't fit to judge wars.

For whatever reason, America was the most ungrateful nation that ever gave a victorious leader the brushoff. Even now, I seem to be the only American who appreciates the Prussian-quality planning and execution of the 1991 Iraqi campaign. The rest of you booted Bush Sr. out the year after our victory and elected a draft-dodger who always reminded me of my student body president.

As if that wasn't bad enough, America's voters turned around and reelected Bush's idiot son last year, after the beady-eyed fool drove our Chevy right off the levee into Euphrates mud up to the side mirror. So what are you trying to tell us, guys? That you'll forgive military debacles, but not victories?

Part of the reason America was so ungrateful is that Powell, Schwartzkopf and the troops made it look too easy. After the war people said they knew all along it'd be easy. Well, I happen to remember 1991, and that's a lie. Check for yourself: read the op-ed pages for any U.S. paper from August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. All the think tanks were predicting a long, bloody struggle to reduce the Iraqi fortifications. Every day you heard that their army was "battle-hardened from the Iran-Iraq War, that the Iraqi Army was "the fourth-largest in the world," and that Iraqi military engineers were brilliant at defensive warfare, with eight years of practice building sand berms, tank traps and moats of crude that they could set on fire as soon as our tanks got close. The smart money said we'd win, but only after months of trench warfare that would give us all a bad taste of Verdun and the Somme.

It's easy to see now that Saddam had pretty much ensured we'd win easily, by deploying his troops exactly where an enemy whose strength is air power could pulverize them: a flat uninhabited desert. Saddam was the worst civilian commander since Churchill. He was a genius at running Iraq-we may as well admit it now, he did what we haven't been able to do, even with way more men, money and power. But when it came to conventional warfare, he was Schwartzkopf's dream date, the team you want to face in the playoffs.

America fought this war perfectly. Bush Sr. stayed cool and left strategy to Powell and Schwartzkopf. Powell managed the generals (and they were a might ornery lot, too-Stormin' Norman was supposedly one of the most obnoxious bosses this side of Trump). Norman made sure we had an overwhelming momentum building for the ground war and meantime let the USAF go huntin'. And they did some glorious huntin'. At first the Strike Eagles and F-16s were having trouble spotting the tanks the Iraqis had buried in the sand, but then an Aardvark (F-111) pilot realized his infrared scope could spot the glow from the engines hours after they'd been shut off. From then on, it was F-111s as pointers and the Strike Eagles, Falcons and Warthogs following up to blast Saddam's armor while it was hiding in the sand.

By the time our ground forces attacked (Feb. 24, 1991), the Iraqis-the ones still alive-were hysterical, crying and crawling on their knees toward anybody who looked American. They surrendered to CNN crews, oil-fire specialists, anybody who had a decent pair of shoes. We called a ceasefire on Feb. 27, letting the survivors crawl home.

It's weird, isn't it-the way Bush & co. have managed to turn those same Iraqi men from miserable cowards into cunning, daring guerrillas. Hard to believe it's the same tribe. But then we had that same feeling in Nam: couldn't believe that the sleazy, cowardly ARVN troops were from the same ethnic group as the tough, disciplined NVA/NLF. It's all a matter of morale.

Some of you may already be typing me furious emails, asking me, "Hey, what about the Bosnia War? That was a big important war and we all watched it!"

Well, until just last week, you might have had a case. See, until last week, the standard figure on KIA in the Bosnia War was 250,000, a respectable total.

That's what we thought. We also thought that at least 90% of the dead were Bosnian civilians slaughtered by Serbs.

Wrong, on both counts. I suspected the 250,000 KIA figure for Bosnia was inflated, based on the farce in Kosovo in 1998. Remember Kosovo? The USAF blasted every TV and radio tower in Serbia because Albanian refugees were claiming the Serbs had killed 200,000 of their kin in Kosovo. Pretty soon that figure, which was already ridiculous, doubled. Yup, grown-ups who wrote for serious western papers were claiming that 400,000 Albanian Kosovars were dead.

It was insane, but Clinton either believed it or needed to because there was no other way to justify what was really a Monica-diversion.

It wasn't much of a war. We bombed Serbia, the Serbs retreated from Kosovo-and when UN went in to count the dead in these mass graves we'd been hearing about, they discovered something embarrassing: there weren't any mass graves, at least not the kind we'd been primed for. We'd been had. The UN's final estimate was just over three thousand civilians died in Kosovo, lots of them Serbs, and a good chunk those Albanians who bought it when they ducked under the wrong shed during one of our air raids.

So I already suspected that the KIA total for Bosnia was just as inflated, puffed up like an Argentine's 421k fund. And just this week, I was proven right. On Nov. 23, 2005, Mirsad Tokaca, a Bosnian Muslim official in charge of counting the dead in Bosnia, says he can only come up with 93,000. He "expects" that number is going to rise to a nice even 100,000. And of those, 25% were Serbs-meaning for every three Bosniak killed, one Serb died. Not exactly Holocaust kill ratios, which should be about a million to none.

But to be fair, Bosnia was Stalingrad-God, it was the Eastern Front in WW II and the Western Front in WW I rolled into one, compared to the teeny, puny wars that distracted news crews in the 90s. For instance, you'll recall that the First Intifada (1987-1993) was on your TV every single night in the early 90s. Every time a Palestinian kid threw a rock, CBS had it from three different angles. If you believed the TV, you'd think it was the biggest war going. Actually, it was less lethal than a three-day weekend. In six years of Intifada-ing, only about 1,300 people died (1,200 Palestinians, 160 Israelis). That's not a war, that's just a slow riot.

The Ulster "war" distracted the UK audience just as badly, and was just as insignificant. The Brits chased the IRA for about 25 years, allowing time off for truces...and in 25 years of this war, there were only 3,200 KIA-about 130 deaths per year. There are intersections in Fresno that can claim more scalps over that length of time.

And while we were all distracted by these little wars, there were huge, lethal, Godzilla wars going on unnoticed. Afghanistan fell to the Taleban in September 1996; that was a very significant strategic shift, but nobody in the U.S. noticed until 9/11. From the Soviet invasion of 1979 to the victory of the Northern Alliance in 2001, a whole lot of Afghans died. Maybe two million. But they only got coverage when it was Soviets killing them. Once it was raghead vs. raghead, it was too complicated and depressing. It wasn't, to use Butros-2 Ghali's expression, "a rich man's war."

Besides, what's the difference? (Quick answer: Osama B. Laden, esq.) It's very easy to explain why two of the other three big wars of the 90s didn't get any press: they were in Africa.

Only one African war got the networks' attention: the big chop in Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda had everything going for it. It was fast (600,000 dead in three months) and ended clean. The country was instantly safe for reporters, and actually it pretty much had been even when Hutu were running around hacking Tutsis. See, Rwandans, like a lot of genocidal tribes, are real organized, obedient types.

When they got the word that it wasn't actually a civic duty to kill Tutsis, they were shocked, and stopped instantly. It was like somebody telling your Century 21 Real Estate team that volunteering to pick up litter by the freeway on the weekend is a no-no. That's what the Hutu thought they were doing: cleaning up Rwanda, taking out the trash.

Another thing Rwanda had going for it, from a media perspective, was the simplicity of the sides: two tribes, Hutu vs. Tutsi. They don't like messy wars.

And the two huge wars in Africa during the 90s were as messy as the vomit marks at an Australian wedding. They're the kind of war that has no battles, no front, no beginning and no end. Besides, they were both in seriously nasty places, where you can die from an infected shaving cut, a tick bite or a landmine left over from a few wars back.

The biggest 90s war was in the Sudd of Southern Sudan, a gigantic malaria marsh that may be the most unwholesome place on the planet. That-plus the hard fact that most people don't care about black Africans-explains why you never heard much about it.

Sudan didn't start making the news again until a new front opened up there, in the Western province of Darfur. I've written about that war, with some background on Sudan ("Darfur: A Whole New Hell," eXile 191), so I won't repeat myself. The point here is that while we were watching the little fusses in Europe, two million Sudanese died totally ignored.

What hurts is that almost all of them were civilians from Manute Bol's tribe, the Dinka. I love Bol, always been a fan of his since his Warriors days and hope to be reincarnated to look just like him. The guy's a hero, gave all his NBA money to his tribe. Besides, he killed a lion when he was 15. Beats baseball jocks any day. So it gets to me, thinking of all these tall, thin, poor, cheerful Dinka being starved out or shot down or chased into the marshes to wait for the mosquitoes to finish them off.

The Congo War, the other big African war of the 90s, is tricky for this column because it only started in 1998 and didn't hit its peak until the 2000s. Even now most people don't realize how massive and lethal this "war without battles" (to quote myself) really is. With an estimated death toll of three million, Congo is the biggest war since 1945 and will probably run longer than that Agatha Christie play in London.

I've written about the Congo War in two columns ("Congo: War without Battles, eXile #161; "Please Don't Eat the Pygmies," eXile #168), so again, I'll cut to the point: we ignored this war, proving that the size and lethality of a war didn't mean much to audiences in the 90s. They followed the TV cameras, and the cameras went to war zones that had a Hilton.

There was a Hilton in Sarajevo, for example. But there's no Hilton, not even a Motel Six, in Eastern Congo. So no cameras, no coverage, and millions of Africans dying quietly, forced into the bush by hit-and-run village attacks to die from any of about a zillion horrible diseases. These people are camping in the giant Petri dish that spawned AIDS and Ebola; it doesn't take them long to die. It's a very cheap, effective way to kill your enemies.

Kind of depressing, I guess. So I'm going to end with the story of another African war of the 90s. This is a wonderful war, one that proves war can be a damn good thing for both sides. I'm talking about the Ethiopia-Eritrea War, my favorite war.

I wrote a detailed account of the way the war was fought ("It's D-Day in Zalambessa," eXile #151), so again I'll just cut to the moral of the story: the Eritrea-Ethiopia War shows that when peaceniks say war is always bad, they're dead wrong. War can be a great thing, a necessary part of becoming a strong nation.

That's what it did for both the E-countries. Both sides fought bravely, and met each other in head-to-head combat. The Eritreans, hugely outnumbered, fought a brilliant defensive campaign, bringing back trench warfare, building networks of multi-line fortifications that would have impressed Foche or Pershing. The Ethiopians, with a population 15 times bigger than the Eritreans', attacked bravely, time after time, and finally pushed the Eritreans out of their "Skyline" defenses. Both armies allowed women in combat, and on both sides the women fought well. Both sides had the total support of their civilian population. In fact, Eritrea came out of the war as the strongest country in Africa-and this in spite of the fact that there isn't even such a thing as an ethnic Eritrean!

The leader of Eritrea, Issaias, is a wise man. He said he hopes the war flares up again (which it looks like it may), because the younger generation, what he called "the Coca-Cola generation," needs the tempering, the discipline, the solidarity, that the long fight against a much bigger enemy gave his generation.

That's why I love the Horn of Africa. It, and maybe Afghanistan, are the last parts of the world where humans live proud, like killer chimps, like we were meant to. The Somalis-sure, they ambushed us in Mog in '93 when we were just trying to help them, but you have to love the courage they showed, women and kids running through direct fire to bring ammo to their men-and the men, with nothing but AKs and RPGs, standing up to our attack choppers.

I'm not saying Eritreans are just like Somalis. No way. Eritreans are way more civilized than those crazy Skinnies. A lot of Eritreans are real smart, educated people, in fact. But they showed by the way they fought that they still have the same fighting spirit, all the Horn peoples. It's in their blood. And I hope they stay dangerous and unpredictable and hard to deal with for as long as they can.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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