30th Anniversary of Operation Desert Storm:
American Jewish Service Members in the Gulf War
LTC Jeffrey Greenhut, CA, USAR (Ret.)
In the fall of 1990, I was a senior staff officer in the 352nd Civil Affairs Command when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Colonel Randall Elliott, also of this unit, was an upper middle management official in the US State Department, knew the Ambassador-designate to Kuwait, Edward (Skip) Gnehm personally, and was able to alert the higher ups that a Civil Affairs (CA) presence would be needed in Kuwait. The Army was, as usual, suspicious of Reserve competence, and, in addition, really didn’t want the mission. This led to the formation of the Kuwait Task Force (KTF), staffed primarily by personnel from the 352nd, and commanded by Colonel Elliott, to accomplish the Civil Affairs mission under a confused chain of command.
The KTF was initially formed as part of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, but since its mission required coordination with the highest levels of the Kuwaiti government, it was placed under the direct control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But when deployment neared, it was assigned a secondary mission to support the US Embassy in Kuwait. This KTF was thus not subject to military authority in Kuwait, and too small a unit for the JCS to pay much attention to. This left Colonel Elliott free to set his own course.
As a lowly LTC, I had no idea what was going on at high levels. But, as my military career was proceeding to its end (I had not been selected for Colonel and my Mandatory Removal Date was approaching within eighteen months), I wanted one more chance to serve in a combat theater which I had not done since Vietnam, some twenty-four years earlier. I was happy to accept the assignment.
At the time, CA commands were overloaded with senior officers, mostly Colonels, and I believed I would serve in a subordinate role, one of the many LTC and Majors who do the hands on work, and I was not disappointed. Colonel Elliot, who was not yet the firm friend we became during and after Desert Storm, was the Commander of the Kuwait Task Force, a group of around sixty officers and enlisted personnel who would eventually be charged with assisting Kuwaiti authorities in mitigating the damages war would inflict on their country.
Colonel Elliot initially assigned me to be a liaison officer with Third Army Headquarters. I strongly protested. This would be my last rodeo, and I wanted to be in the field, not carry coffee cups for Colonels. I had spent most of my Vietnam tour working out of an air conditioned building writing, as ordered, overly optimistic intelligence reports designed to support a failing strategy that eventually cost the lives of nearly 60,000 American soldiers and untold Vietnamese. No more assignments at higher headquarters for me. This time I wanted to soldier. And, as a shortly to be retired Lt. Colonel with no hope of further promotion, I felt free to object to this proposed assignment with perhaps less than the deference normally expected of a subordinate officer. Colonel Elliot wasn’t happy with me, but I got my way.
I was assigned to the Public Services Team, a group of about ten officers, each of whom had a specific task, such as the Kuwaiti telephone system, or the post office. Since I was the only officer in the 352nd with a Ph.D. In the humanities (history), and was a government historian with duties that included being the curator of a small museum, I was assigned as the Arts, Monuments, and Archives Officer, charged with preserving the heritage of the country from the ravages of war. In addition, as the senior LTC in the team, the OIC, let’s call him Colonel Wheels, made me his deputy. Wheels, although a decent man, was a shallow thinker, and uncomfortable with the nuances of dealing with a foreign culture, so once we began to coordinate with the Kuwaiti liaison people in downtown DC, he pretty much left me alone to run the team.
For most of the men in the team, this was not difficult. They were dedicated professional reservists, and, if not necessarily skilled in the jobs they were assigned (one officer was assigned to oversee the Kuwait telephone company simply because he worked for AT&T), were imbued with the “can do” spirit that is often derided, but is, nonetheless, essential if the job is to get done. I did, however, have three problem subordinates. One was simply lazy, one was a cowboy, and one a borderline personality who never should have been commissioned. When I complained, I discovered that Colonel Elliott’s deputy, Colonel Sadak, had deliberately assigned them to me because “Greenhut can handle them.” I have always harbored the suspicion that I got them because of my less than differential attitude when protesting my initial assignment.
Supervising these difficult people was made worse since, while I was senior to them, I didn’t outrank them. They were all fellow 0-5s and managing peers is the most difficult leadership task. It took me a few weeks before my frustration with them boiled over, and I ignored the “same rank” problem and began treating them like the difficult subordinates they were. This worked to some extent with LTC Lazy, very well with LTC Cowboy, but LTC Borderline was incorrigible, as individuals with this personality disorder simply cannot subordinate themselves to anything but their own desires. He had been directly commissioned and never underwent the training that usually washes out such individuals. He was so difficult and lacking in judgement that I recommended, in writing, to Colonel Wheels that he not deploy, but Wheels was, in his civilian job, a Federal employee, and like many of the breed, believed that the best approach to a problem was to ignore it in the hope it would go away. It didn’t.
Besides my supervisory responsibilities, I had my duties as the Arts, Monuments, and Archives officer, a “Monuments Man,” to quote the title of similar officers in World War II. Fortunately, Kuwait was not a particularly difficult problem. Kuwait City is not Rome or Paris where every street corner houses something of artistic or historical value.
Until the oil boom subsequent to World War II, Kuwait City was small without significant cultural activities. By 1990 however, it had grown to a large city of millions, but had no well developed cultural scene. It had only two museums, one public and one private, and the only significant monuments were the Kuwait Towers and the emir’s palace, all of which could be easily identified and marked for protection from military action. As to the archives, they were in government buildings and already off limits to military action. What shape all of them would be in after the city was cleared of Iraqi troops and what support they would need when the fighting stopped would have to wait until we had “boots on the ground” and could see for ourselves.
Working with the representatives of the Kuwaiti government, based in downtown Washington, was not difficult. The heads of their organizations, usually appointed because of connections with the royal family, were living in luxury in Saudi Arabia. Their nominal subordinates, sometimes not Kuwaitis, the people who actually did the work, were in DC with access to the wealth of oil-rich Kuwait to contract, with us helping, the supplies and technicians they would need to jump start their country once liberated.
We had been fully briefed on the cultural differences between westerners and Arabs, and were somewhat anxious about working with them. Fortunately, the Kuwaitis were easy to work with. They all spoke excellent English, were usually trained in the United States or Great Britain, and had spent sufficient time in the west to become comfortable with our ways. When we got to Kuwait, and had to deal with non-westernized Arabs, it would be different.
We did have a challenge convincing them that they had to plan for the worst. Kuwait produces little but oil, and most of its production is in the hands of foreigners. What Kuwaitis are expert at is managing the immense wealth the oil creates. That engenders a merchant mind set. Kuwaitis are experts in buying what they want at the lowest price, but are suspicious that everyone they deal with is out to inflate the price. This indeed may be true, but we had an entire, if small, country to protect and overpaying for something we might need ought not to prevent us from buying it.
In their defense, we did buy things we didn’t need. For example, Kuwait got its fresh water from its desalinization plant, and the membranes that separate the salt from the water were fragile, made by a single French company, and would take months to replace. We had to assume that the Iraqis would destroy them, and thus we encouraged the Kuwaitis to purchase a huge amount of bottled water which, since the Iraqis did not destroy the membranes or the plant, turned out to be excess to requirements.
On the other hand, the Kuwaitis were exceedingly reluctant to place the major oil well fire fighting companies on retainer since the companies demanded to be paid what they would have earned if they hadn’t been standing around in case they were needed. Further, oil underlay the wealth and influence of the state, and had an almost mystical value. They simply couldn’t believe Saddam Hussein, whose wealth and power was also underwritten by oil, would ignite the oil wells. We argued and cajoled them to hire the companies, and when Hussein actually blew up the wells and started them on fire, the fire fighting teams were deployed as quickly as possible and the fires controlled in record time.
On January 31, we deployed to Saudi Arabia. We flew from Dover AFB in Delaware by C-5 aircraft. When they escorted me and other senior officers to the upper deck and individual seats, I realized it was a lot nicer to go to war as a LTC then when I deployed by ship to Vietnam as a 2LT.
After a short stay in Khobar Towers outside of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, we wound up living in a very classy hotel where the Kuwaitis we had worked with in Washington also lived. Despite Army policy that prohibited military personnel living in hotels, we were able to do this because the chain of command that controlled us was murky. Did we work for the Army, the Ambassador, who? And Colonel Elliot was a master of manipulating the fuzzy lines of command to get what he wanted.
Every officer had his own room, we ate in the hotel restaurant, and the Kuwaiti government got us one civilian SUV for every officer. I felt like a 19th century British officer. All we were missing were polo ponies, the regimental silver and a personal batman. It was nice while it lasted.
Our staying in the hotel did not make the Army happy. Not only were we living in luxury that even general officers didn’t get, but they had to provide separate security for the hotel. I suspect some of the senior generals also remembered how the Viet Cong blew up hotels in Saigon used as American BOQs and were worried about our security. But there was little they could do about it.
The only major incident I recall during this time took place on the top floor of the hotel. We had our work area there, and the place was awash in classified documents. One evening, an Iraqi Scud missile hit close enough to us to rattle the building. Suddenly, a bunch of newsmen, ignoring the signs “Authorized Personnel Only” crashed through the doors with cameras wanting to use our balcony to film whatever they could see. I pulled my pistol and ordered them out, and seeing my pistol, they obeyed with alacrity.
Watching all this from home was BG Mooney, the Commanding General of the 352nd, who would eventually deploy to the theater to command all CA activity. Unfortunately, the General proved more of a problem than a help. Mooney was one of those officers whose ambition outweighed his competence. He so desperately wanted to be a general officer, he had applied for positions that would have made him one many times, and had been denied many times. When he finally got a slot, CG of the 352nd, he was like the dog that caught the car.
Commanding a unit like the 352nd, with its myriad of Colonels, all of whom thought they should be the commander instead of the one they had, was a very difficult leadership challenge. I know of only one commander who managed to take the unit in hand. He was a West Pointer, and one of the most competent and brilliant men I ever observed. Mooney, on the other hand, was clearly in over his head, and, in the end, his constant demands for unnecessary information, which often ignored the time difference between CONUS and the Middle East, was just another burden that Colonel Elliott had to bear, which was not helped by Elliott’s refusal to stand up even a rudimentary staff that might have helped him deal with the general and all the other administrative matters that took far too much of his time.
Sometime after deployment, the OIC of the Public Services Team, my boss, Colonel Wheels, found himself a job he liked better than Civil Affairs. Wheels was a Transportation Corps officer and engineer, and was never really happy as a CA officer. There was nothing to count, nothing to compute, and no metrics to measure. So he moved over to a Transportation unit, leaving me in charge of the Public Services Team. This decision made us both happy men. He had a job he liked, and I was now formally the team leader. However, as the only LTC OIC of a team, I fully expected to be replaced by one of the many superfluous Colonels in the KTF, but, glory be, Colonel Elliott left me in charge. He’s never actually told me why, but I was and am grateful he did, for, in my last significant military assignment, I actually got to make a difference.
The air war had started prior to our arrival, and the ground war kicked off on February 24. The CA troops followed closely behind the Marine spearheads, so much so that one unit participated in the four hour battle to clear the airport. We came up a day or so later. Our billets were no longer in a luxury hotel, and while far better than the tents and foxholes of the combat troops, were spartan, the basement of an abandoned Kuwaiti office building, no heat, no shower facilities, and MREs to eat. We went a couple of weeks without showers and clean laundry, but again, it was a lot better that what the front line soldiers and Marines had.
Kuwait was awash in abandoned Iraqi weaponry. The were closets of AK-47 assault rifles everywhere that Iraqi troops had been billeted. I even found several Russian-made light surface-to-air missiles which I had the engineers pick up before they got into the hands of terrorists.
Kuwait City looked terrible, but most of the damage was superficial. Anything that could be thrown on the back of a truck had been looted, even wheelchairs, but the Iraqi “scorched earth” policy was, except for the burning oil wells, ineffective, as the Iraqi army proved as incompetent in destruction as they did at fighting. This was a huge relief. We had planned for major damage that would take months to repair, but it now looked like we could help the Kuwaitis get the city up and running within weeks.
My first responsibility, besides supervising the team, was the Kuwait National Museum. Finding it was my first problem. The Kuwaitis had torn down the street signs to make life more difficult for the occupying Iraqis and I had no idea how to locate it. Then, into the Headquarters walked two twenty-something Kuwaiti women, fluent in English, who offered to act as translators. Before anyone else could react, I grabbed them for my team. The two were invaluable assets for us as we went about the city.
With the help of our translators, we located both the National Museum and the small, but wonderful private museum on my list. The owner of the private museum had hidden the displays behind false walls, and the occupying force never found it. However, the National Museum had been looted, vandalized, and burned. I was outraged. I am, after all, a historian, and such treatment of cultural artifacts is, to me, akin to murdering babies.
The damage to the museum interested the press, and I was interviewed about it, and found my name in a few regional newspapers, but the interaction with the press left a bad taste in my mouth. A crew from one of the three major networks came on site and the news anchor was not happy. I suspect he would have been far happier finding an American atrocity than an enemy one. When I expressed my outrage and said, “the guy who ordered this should be shot,” he shot back, “Then you’d be a war criminal.” And you wonder why the military hates the press? As an aside, when CNN broadcasted that Bob Simon, the TV talking head, had deliberately eluded his military escort, gotten lost, inadvertently crossed the border, and been captured by the Iraqis, our headquarters personnel let loose a spontaneous cheer.
Now that the Kuwait Task Force had found lots of problems to fix, we had to get to it. You must remember that it wasn’t our job to actually fix them, but to assist the Kuwaitis in doing so. So our first effort was to find the Kuwaits in charge. This was very difficult in the first days. Kuwait City was a ghost town, and anybody who was anybody had fled to Saudi Arabia after the invasion. Even the planning group of Kuwaitis we had been working with for months was still in Saudi Arabia. But this wasn’t the only problem we discovered.
Kuwait was ruled by a traditional Arab monarch, and its social, political, and economic structure was organized around the tribes of Kuwait, with the ruling tribe, the al-Sabah, at the top. One got a high paying position in the system not by merit, but by whom you were related to. Once in the position, you hired somebody who actually knew what he was doing, paid him a pittance, and, if he succeeded, you took credit, and if he failed, he took the blame.
Many of these second level positions were held by Palestinians. Kuwait had been one of the greatest supporters of the Palestinian cause, and most of the foreigners working in managerial and technical positions in Kuwait were Palestinians. But Kuwaiti nationals always held the positions of real authority and the Palestinians were always aware, and constantly reminded, they were the hired help. Even a Palestinian child born in Kuwait had to leave the country upon turning eighteen unless married to or employed by a Kuwaiti. So, when Saddam Hussein invaded the country, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, came out in support of him, most Palestinians had no problem switching their allegiance to their new employer.
This enraged the Kuwaitis. They expected loyalty. They got what they considered betrayal. The idea that a discriminated against group might not love those that discriminated against them never crossed their minds. So they fired the lot, and would have done worse if the KTF had not intervened. Indeed, several KTF officers remained in the Palestinian areas to protect them.
For us, where the rubber meets the road, this was a problem. Level one folks were still in Saudi Arabia, and the level two guys, the Palestinians were, at best, fired, and at worst, on the run. It’s really hard to help people if they can’t be found. Until the Kuwaiti officials living in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere began to trickle back into the country, we could do little. I was reduced to leaving a note at the museum in the hope that somebody in charge would visit the place and contact me.
As the Kuwaiti upper class trickled back in, we began to find people to work with, and since many of these were traditional Arabs, it became much more necessary to understand that they simply didn’t do things the way we did. Getting a decision on anything took far longer that it would in the US. Getting the data to make it on was like pulling teeth. But if one understood how they reacted to one another and with us, it could be done.
The two young women who were our translators were an exception to the rule, but it was important to realize that no matter how western they looked and acted, they were Arabs and there were lines we dared not cross. I was careful that no male member of my team was ever alone with one of them, and that when I went out with them, my driver was one of my enlisted women. Still, Kuwait was the most liberal of the Arab states, and their upper class women moved easily between the west, where many of them spent their summers, and their homes in Kuwait.
I had been careful to keep my religion quiet but I let it slip out once. When my translators invited me to their home for dinner (I took my female driver with me), they were proud to serve me pizza, since when one of them had asked me what I missed most, I had replied “pizza and beer.” Their father jokingly apologized that there was no beer, and the pizza had no pepperoni since pork was prohibited for them. I replied that if it had, I couldn’t have been able to eat it myself, since I was Jewish. There was a moment of stunned silence around the table, and then conversation picked up as though nothing had happened.
Getting back to our mission, how did we actually assist the Kuwaits in getting their country up and running. Let me give two examples. The first is how we helped to get the pre-cellphone, hard wired telephone system up and running.
I am a great believer in “management by walking around” and spent a lot of my time observing meetings between my subordinates and their Arab counterparts. Only in this way could I discover if my people were effective. Not all were. I had one Jewish officer who couldn’t seem to adjust to the slower pace of Arabia. I was never sure if this was due to his cultural myopia, or if, as a Jew, he saw Arabs of whatever stripe as his enemy. I had to give him duties that minimized contact with the Arabs.
But I also had officers who were brilliant at working with Arabs. As I have mentioned before, the officer charged with assisting the Kuwaiti telephone authority had little technical expertise, and had been given the assignment merely because he worked for AT&T. When I showed up at another interminable meeting regarding the telephone system, I was made welcome with the usual coffee and conversation the took so much time it frustrated most Americans. But I was aware that’s the way Arabs do things, and went with the flow.
When the conversation turned to the actual issue, it became obvious what needed to be done, but none of the officials present would make the decision. This was not surprising. Not a one of them had been given their position on merit alone. They had, to a man, gotten their jobs due to their connections, and, as I have mentioned before, were used to leaving technical and managerial decisions, except in the personnel area, to their Palestinian subordinates who were no longer available since they had just fired them for disloyalty. Faced with having to decide and take responsibility for the first time in their lives, they continually dithered.
My officer, who was one of my best, understood completely what was going on, finally interjected and suggested the obvious solution. All Arab eyes swiveled to him, and the senior Arab official present asked, “Is that the American recommendation?” My officer, trained and expected to take responsibility, answered “Yes.” Sighs of relief followed. “That’s what we’ll do then.” Someone else had taken the responsibility and could be blamed if it went wrong.
The second example I want to mention was how I found all the artifacts stolen from the National Museum and got them returned. The nominal head of the museum was not particularly helpful. He spoke no English, and obviously knew very little about duties of a museum curator. However, through his translator, I was able to glean two essential pieces of information. I had been desperately worried that a bunch of Iraqi soldiers had just shoved the artifacts into a box, in which case they’d probably been damaged and/or sold on the black market and we’d never see them again. Fortunately, the artifacts had been stolen by curators of the Iraq National Museum acting under orders from the Iraqi government, and had been professionally inventoried, packed and shipped to Baghdad. This was wonderful. We now knew they were probably in good shape and where they were.
The second piece of information I was able to discover was that a Norwegian firm had performed an inventory of all the artifacts quite recently. Although the Iraqis had taken the inventory with them, a copy was undoubtedly on file with the company.
Now I had two jobs to do. First, I had to get the inventory to UNESCO. One of UNESCO’s responsibilities was to prevent a repetition of the Nazi theft of world art treasures during World War II. If I could get them the inventory, they could notify all reputable art dealers in the world of the stolen items to prevent their sale on the open market. But how to get them the word?
Asking around, someone, I can’t remember who, told me where the UN people were. I was able to find them, and discover that not only were they anxious to help, they had the only satellite communications in country that allowed them, once in receipt of my information, to put things in motion.
The second task was to get the stuff back. I had no idea how to do this but then a memorandum crossed my desk asking if anyone had anything they would recommend go into the armistice agreement. Boy, did I. So into the armistice agreement went a provision that the Iraqis would return the stolen artifacts. And they did.
With the war over, the Kuwaitis back, and the limited damage done by the Iraqis under control, there was little more for us to do. We had done our jobs and it was time to go home. In April, we flew back. By that time, I had little more than a year left in service and stayed on duty for a couple of months helping to complete some of the administrative work that had been ignored while we went to war. I came off active duty upon its completion and returned to my job as historian for the Naval Security Group, and retired as required from the Army Reserve in May of the following year.
What about Lazy, Cowboy, and Borderline? I tolerated Lazy. There was little else I could do, but I did write him a career ending OER. Cowboy asked to be attached to another unit and I agreed. He wound up disobeying regulations in searching for action and was wounded by friendly fire. He attempted to blame me, but since he was no longer under my direction, the effort did not succeed. Borderline got sick, and I was delighted to recommend his shipment home. I wrote him a scathing OER which I hoped would end his military career, but after retirement, he used his political connections to get promoted to Colonel on the Retired List. If you want Justicia in Mundo, you better find another mundo.
People sometimes ask me what it was like being a Jewish soldier. I have to say my Jewishness made little difference. I ran into a couple of anti-Semites during my nearly three decades of service, but such people were exceedingly rare. During the run up to our deployment, some doofus at the Pentagon sent our a directive that since the Saudis didn’t allow Jews in their country, all Jewish soldiers had to change their dog tags, but that was quickly quashed. On the other hand, the Army sent all Jewish soldiers to the R&R cruise ship for Passover. I think it fair to say that I loved being a soldier and I loved being Jewish, and the two never clashed. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.