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  • The Road to Safwan: The 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the 1991 Persian Gulf War
  • Keith Bickel
The Road to Safwan: The 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. By Stephen A. Bourque and John W. Burdan III. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-57441-232-1. Figures. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 312. $27.95.

Unit histories occupy a unique genre of military history. Often more expository than answer-seeking in approach, they make any fan of von Ranke proud—just the facts, please. The Road to Safwan does not disappoint in this regard. Ostensibly there is a thesis, an argument being addressed, in this work. As stated, it is to refute the idea that the Gulf War “was simply a matter of technological superiority.” Additionally, the authors seek to “recapture the fear, concern, and competence of the soldiers of one small US combat unit.” The latter they accomplish; the former not at all, and this is hardly surprising. One would have thought that the straw-man argument of technology winning the Gulf War would have been expunged from military writing by the time Safwan was printed nearly two decades later. There is no need to re-fight old internecine battles with the Air Force.

Not, fortunately, that the authors spend much time doing so. Having blithely offered a thesis, they do not waste their time defending it, except for the occasional reminder that technology has its problems. Instead, in detail drier than the desert sands they fought in, the authors describe their squadron’s preparation for, deployment, in-theater preparation, operations, recovery and redeployment from the first Gulf War. In this short, 250-page book, the first 100 pages are spent on pre-battle logistical preparation, the next 80 on operations, and the remainder on a post-battle anecdote (the Safwan in the title) and recovery back to the United States. There is a chapter on port operations going over, and, well, most of another one coming back. One could be forgiven for thinking that this cavalry history was written by logisticians, not combat operations soldiers.

In the all-too brief portion of the book that deals with combat operations against the Iraqis, one cannot help notice an irony related to the stated thesis. Technological superiority emerges as a dominant cause for American victory in battle. This clearly need not have been the case, as the authors just barely point out. Iraqi tactical incompetence surely played a significant role, but the reader hardly gets a feel for that in the all-too brief discussion of combat here. Instead, the combat chapters read like a semi-lost unit (the maps were downright criminally bad) charging from phase line to phase line pointing and shooting anything that came up on the thermal sights. Sound more like a video game? All that is missing—and they are strikingly absent from this work—were the B-52s prepping the Iraqi lines for weeks beforehand.

Also, largely lost in this dry discussion is the emotion that surrounded the surprise at how over-matched the Americans were to the Iraqis. Ground combat veterans will tell you about their grave fears facing Soviet-trained veterans, their initial shock that they could hit from far enough away to avoid Soviet “kill-zone” tactics, and then the vehemence with which they drove home their advantage in terms violent enough to make a General Grant proud. Here, we get more of a [End Page 1392] McClellan-esque discussion largely centered on taking ground and becoming lost—right up to a farcical confrontation at a Safwan airfield with leather-clad, beret-wearing Iraqi officer poseurs.

To be fair, readers interested in the activity that precedes and follows combat operations will be treated to a well-organized and relatively detailed discussion of the preparation, security, and post-war operations phases that occupied an officer corps going to war for the first time since Vietnam. Of the four phases of war (the fourth being combat), these three phases clearly occupied the attention and concerns of the authors. The myriad frictions they describe occurring, taken thoughtfully, could provide some useful insights...