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What is Desert Storm?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Desert Storm is the American military codeword used to refer to the First Gulf War, an American-led military conflict which lasted between 2 August 1990 and 28 February 1991. Many people use the term “Desert Storm” to refer collectively to this war, despite the fact that it involved a coalition of 35 countries, each of which used its own codewords to refer to the war. This conflict is also known simply as the Persian Gulf War or Gulf War, with the “First” being added in 2003 to differentiate between this conflict and the American-led Iraq War which began in 2003.

The direct cause of Desert Storm was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The United Nations responded to this by establishing economic sanctions, while President George H.W. Bush of the United States deployed troops to Saudi Arabia in an operation known as Desert Shield. The goal of Desert Shield was to provide a military force which could create stability in the area, possibly by invading Iraq or repulsing troops from Kuwait. The United States also attempted to muster a coalition force, and eventually obtained United Nations support for a military conflict with the express goal of expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The United States Congress also authorized the use of force in the Persian Gulf.

On 17 January 1991, the air phase of Desert Storm began. Numerous strategic bombs were dropped to pave the way for the ground invasion, which began on 24 February, 1991. By 28 February, an end had been declared to the hostilities. Coalition forces credited the rapid victory to the coordination of troops from all over the world, and suggested that the rapid response to the Iraqi incursion into Kuwait also played a role in the success of the operation.

There were 358 coalition casualties in the course of Operation Desert Storm, with estimates about the number of Iraqi deaths being a bit more difficult to obtain. Claims range from 30,000 to 100,000 Iraqi civilians and troops. In the wake of the war, the decision was made to leave dictator Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, rather than to attempt to take over the country and establish a democratic government. The United States faced some criticism for this decision, although given the difficulties it had when it invaded the country and overthrew Hussein 12 years later, the reluctance to take over in Iraq in 1991 is perhaps understandable.

Several controversies are associated with Operation Desert Storm. The use of depleted uranium rounds by some coalition forces has been criticized as a source of environmental pollution in Iraq, with some people claiming that these rounds later contributed to the development of birth defects and significant health problems among the Iraqi people. Some members of the coalition forces also developed a constellation of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome which have been variously attributed to chemical weapons exposure, exposure to depleted uranium, biological attacks, or “unknown causes.”

People who lived through the Gulf War may also remember the extensive live televised coverage, including coverage of Iraqi forces setting fire to oil fields and causing widespread pollution. Desert Storm was also associated with several large oil spills in the Persian Gulf which contributed to significant environmental degradation in the region.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon268399 — On May 14, 2012

It was a good war for the u.s. It got people involved together.

By anon202280 — On Aug 02, 2011

anon180859: Of course it was a war, and you saying "assisted" is far from the truth.

By anon180859 — On May 27, 2011

It was not a war. The United States has not declared war on any country since Pearl Harbor. We have just occupied and assisted other countries like Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea

By write79 — On Feb 10, 2011

Wow, I had no idea that there were negative effects as a result of the use of uranium and other chemical weapons, during the Desert Storm war. It's sad to think that there are people suffering from the use of weapons that were used to protect and help them.

I've always been a bit nervous about the existence of chemical weapons -- I've seen enough movies to give me a notion that they can do more harm than good. Sometimes I wish we could go back to the old days, when wars were fought on horseback or foot, with simple weapons like swords, bows and arrows, and non-automatic guns.

By claire24 — On Feb 07, 2011

The Desert Storm war was the first war that America had a part in, during my lifetime. It seemed like such a distant, far off thing -- like a story told on TV. But reading about the number of casualties that resulted from it, makes it seem a bit more real, now that I'm an adult.

I guess that, because I was so young, I never really took the time to learn much about it. I didn't know anyone who was directly affected by it, and it remained nothing more than a current event.

I do wonder how many of the Iraqi casualties were those of citizens. While I realize death is a part of war, it is always sad to think of the innocent people who lost their lives, even if it was for the good of many.

By DentalFloss — On Feb 01, 2011

I find it sad that despite the desert storm "conflict"- it was rarely called a war and still often is not, even though it was- many of the American people were not tentative enough about entering the current war. Even now, many people tend to ignore it, and we are sadly able to in our daily lives, for the most part.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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