Friday marks the birthday of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (1932-2012), leader of the U.S. Central Command and planner of Operation Desert Storm -- the 1991 ground offensive that began as the liberation of Kuwait and defense of Saudi Arabia from Iraqi forces, and grew to include the ruin of Iraq's army.
The U.S.-led international coalition, which numbered about 750,000 hastily assembled troops and military supplies from 34 countries, traveled only a few miles into Iraqi territory before a cease-fire was declared on Feb. 23, 1991. Criticism was directed, then and later, at the decision by the George H. W. Bush administration and by command leaders not to continue the conflict by attempting to overtake Baghdad and drive Saddam from power.
The decision was explained in 1992 by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who told a Seattle audience:
"The question in my mind is: how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq."
The invasion of Baghdad waited until 2003.
The relative ease of the 1991 ground invasion was preceded by several weeks of extensive airstrikes against military and civilian infrastructure. Flash forward to 2014: continuing U.S. air raids since Aug. 8 on Islamic State militants in Iraq has helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces retake the strategic dam at Mosul, served to help rescue religious minorities stranded in Iraq's Sinjar Mountains, and has revitalized the morale of the Iraqi army and the country's fractious government.
Airstrikes alone will not turn Iraq away from its position as a long-term issue in U.S. foreign policy. IS forces continue recruiting efforts around the world, the global condemnation of the capture and beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley has led to international outrage but little action, and incoming Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must overcome the suspicion of entrenched ethnic and religious groups to unify his country.
Syria's battles, on its own territory, with IS forces puts the United States in the position of siding, however tenuously, with Syrian President Bashar Assad, a man whose resignation has been demanded by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The eminently quotable "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, who retired from a 36-year military career after Operation Desert Storm and died in 2012 from complications of pneumonia, famously said, "A professional soldier understands that war means killing people, war means maiming people, war means families left without fathers and mothers."
Editor's note: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Saddam Hussein's regime had been toppled in 1991 by the international force that liberated Kuwait.