Operation Desert Storm: 20 years on today. 20 lessons learnt

Politicians, soldiers, reporters and civilians reflect on the legacy of the first Gulf War
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Sir John Major

Former Prime Minister, now retired from politics

"I knew that Desert Storm would begin on my son's 16th birthday and, when I addressed the troops – and saw how very young so many of them were – my son's face superimposed itself upon every one of theirs. It made my concern for their safety very real and very personal. As Prime Minister, I was aware that political leaders are responsible for each and every life risked, and each sacrifice made, in defence of freedom... Sending men and women to fight a war should always be the last possible option."

Peter Arnett

Former CNN reporter in Baghdad, now professor of journalism at Shantou University, China

"The first Gulf War set the stage for twenty years (and counting) of mishandled American policies that have created the unnecessary bloody aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of nailing Saddam in his palace in 1991 when he was most vulnerable, as General Norman Schwarzkopf had suggested, (hanging him 15 years later was a vengeful afterthought) and then packing up and going home, the US left its soldiers in residence in Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden told me in a TV interview in his Afghan mountain cave in 1997, the presence of these "infidel" troops was a "violation" of the most sacred Islamic places and sufficient justification for his jihad."

George Bush senior

Former US President, now retired

In an address to veterans this week, Bush describes the liberation of Kuwait as "one of history's noblest and most hopeful" chapters: "Your service in uniform during the course of Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm did more than eject the invaders and uphold international law. Your courage, honour and selflessness also helped unite and inspire our Nation and heal the wounds of Vietnam. It was, without a doubt, a great honour to serve as your Commander-in-Chief."

General Sir Peter de la Billiere

Commander of British forces, now retired

"The question of whether one should continue to Baghdad was really changing the aim... there was the one unanswerable question for which we weren't prepared - 'what happens when we get to Baghdad?' Well, I think we now know. And it was decided between the Americans and the British that this wasn't part of our remit, so we didn't go on and in my view that was absolutely right...One error was that when we had the ceasefire talks they weren't followed by peacetalks with Saddam Hussein at the table. He should have been made to come to the table at the ceasefire talks at Safwan."

Paul Wolfowitz

Was US Undersecretary of State for Defense in 1991, now visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

"The U.S. failure to support the uprisings that President Bush himself had called for remains a source of suspicion and resentment to this day, particularly among Iraq's Shias who were massacred by the thousands by Saddam while the US stood by. The question was not whether the US would advance to Baghdad but whether it would at least provide air cover for the rebels, as the Saudis suggested. I believe if we had supported the uprisings, Saddam's own supporters might have turned on him and the history of the last twenty years would have been different and better."

His Excellency Khaled Abdulaziz Al-Duwaisan

Kuwait's Ambassador to the Netherlands in 1991, now London ambassador

"To witness Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait City was unbelievable. The first questions were 'How can an Arab and a Muslim country invade another? And how can Iraq invade a smaller country that has helped it through the most difficult of times?'. It was an audacious attempt to defy world order and a criminal act of no comparison. Bluntly and frankly the role of the United Kingdom was very important for us and we will be grateful forever to the people of the United Kingdom for their role in those dark days of our history."

Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb

Senior officer heading up British Special Forces, now retired

"I am reminded of the courage of our soldiers, what it felt like to right a wrong and how good it felt to be British. Twenty years on and much operational water under the bridge, in my humble opinion, this war was badly named. It is likely to be the last of the great set piece battles to be fought by the manoeuvre of mass armies, navies and air forces. Future battles manipulated by just a few, hidden amongst the people, will be fought using mass violence, mass emotion and mass communication; much less about hardware and much more about software - be afraid."

Sir Gerald Kaufman

Shadow foreign secretary at the time, still an MP

"I fully supported the action. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, causing huge devastation and loss. It was an act of aggression so we were very clear that they should withdraw. Lots of countries were united in the decision about what it set out to do and it was absolutely right...What followed in the region is different, but Desert Storm was efficient, effective and justified. At the time I spoke of my conviction and I'm as confident now, as I was then."

John Nichol

RAF flight navigator shot down and captured, now a writer

"I was one of the lucky ones, yes I was shot down and captured and everything else but I'm here, I'm healthy, I'm happy. There are people still suffering, whether it is post traumatic stress disorder or gulf war syndrome, there are still huge issues surrounding that first Gulf war unresolved so I count myself as being one of those lucky ones....The military won the battle and the politicians and the diplomats lost the subsequent war. Planning for what was going to happen in Iraq after its eviction from Kuwait in 1991 was woeful"

Andy McNab

Former SAS soldier captured in Iraq, now an author and security consultant

"It doesn't seem like 20 years at all, bizarrely, we all still think we're 18 so time flies by. Getting captured is the overriding memory, the moment of getting eye to eye with this small kid of seven or eight who actually discovered us. For all of the bombing campaign and the technology for us north west of Baghdad it all boiled down to a seven year old. So it was bizarre, for all of the technology the soldiering still boiled down to human beings and still does."

Sir Patrick Hine

Air Chief Marshal in 1991, now retired

"There has been much debate since 1991 over whether or not the coalition should have continued their advance to Baghdad to overthrow the Saddam regime. This option was discussed bilaterally between the Americans and ourselves, and for a number of good political and practical reasons was rejected. I was closely involved in this debate, and still firmly believe this was right."

Reginald Bartholomew

Former US Undersecretary of State, now chairman of Merrill Lynch, Italy

"Limited objectives brilliantly achieved. In other words kick them out of Kuwait, resisting the temptation to go to Baghdad which we could have done... which choice was right? I guess I would tilt towards the President's decision not to go to Baghdad. I recall that while it was clear we could have gone to Baghdad I don't recall any serious in-depth consideration of doing that. What I do recall is a sort of attitude 'so we take Baghdad, then what?'"

General Stanley McChrystal

Then a major working in special operations, later commanded US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan almost 20 years later

"During the first Gulf War, as a Major working in a Special Operations Task Force I met and worked with an extraordinary British Special Forces officer whose professionalism, teamwork, and humour impressed me. There are issues of policy, strategy, and even tactics that can and will be long debated about the war. My strongest memory is how the experience forged this and other relationships that later became critical."

Shaun Rusling

A British army medic during the conflict, now trustee of National Gulf Veterans and Families Association

"There was a lot of stress around the lack of appropriate equipment. Everything was out of date and out of scale. I was also naive and thought if I got injured I'd be looked after and get a pension - it makes me sad looking back. I medically retired at 35. The doctors diagnosed Gulf War syndrome but I had to take the MOD to court to get a pension. Obviously no one promised they'd look after us, it was kind of assumed. Just like the soldiers going out to Afghanistan now probably assume they'll be cared for."

Stuart Lockwood

Child hostage in Iraq, whose family were among some 1,200 'human shields', now a PE teacher in Worcestershire

"My parents sheltered me from the trauma of the time but my clearest memory is of meeting Saddam himself. I knew he was important and that something wasn't right. I was really scared of the soldiers and the guns around us. Just last week, one of my pupils stopped me. He had found my picture with Saddam and wanted to know all about it. They are really interested to hear the story, but the younger ones get confused. One asked me if I'd been kidnapped by Osama Bin Laden!"

Baroness Emma Nicholson

Former chair of the All Party Parliamentary Committee for Kuwait, now chairman of Amar, a charity helping Middle Eastern countries

"I voted for the Gulf war and fully supported the fight. I would do exactly the same today - Kuwait belongs to the Kuwaiti. The first Gulf war was on the back of an eight year Iraq-Iran war, so effectively the region had been in conflict since 1982. What I saw of the Kurdish victims will stay in my mind forever. Iraq was continually in conflict for a significant period of time, which had a huge impact on its people."

Bernard Shaw

CNN reporter in Baghdad at the outset of war. Now retired

"In the frenzied and frantic opening moments, hours, and days of Operation Desert Storm, the fog, stench, and fury of war clogged my nostrils - "perspective" seemed distant to the immediacy of exploding buildings, shrapnel, dying and wounded soldiers and civilians, as well as concern for one's own safety...The simple measuring fact -two decades later, growing democracy in the desert has yet to take lasting root - foreshadows generations to come for this experiment to play out."

Lord Morris

Labour MP in 1991. He remains a Royal British Legion honorary parliamentary advisor

"What happened to Gulf war veterans was in many ways unspeakable, they suffered enormously in many cases... I'm not absolutely certain that in the event of some future conflict we would have learned all the lessons of the first Gulf war. One of my main concerns is to make absolutely certain that all possible help should be given urgently to those who are prepared to lay down their lives in our service, and the widows of those that did so. Twenty years on the problems of many severely disabled veterans are still unresolved."

George Galloway

Former Labour MP now a human rights campaigner and media personality

"I had at that stage never been to Iraq and probably would have been arrested if I had, because I was a known opponent of the Saddam regime and had also supported Iran against them. I still believe that the attack on Iran was Saddam Hussein's biggest mistake and biggest crime. For me and others, we had tremendously mixed feelings against this regime but we were against them being bombed back to the stone age which is what James Baker promised and then later delivered. Every Iraqi believes Kuwait was stolen from Iraq by British imperialism which is correct."

Bakhtyar Ahmed Salih

A student in 1991, now project coordinator for a civil development organisation

"I was in high school in Sulaymaniyah, north Iraq. As a youth and one of the people that suffered from the Iraqi regime, when the war began I was very happy. People in Kurdistan really hated Saddam's regime, they saw it as revenge and wanted one thing – to get rid of that regime.

I remember afterwards people were angry with the US military for not supporting the uprising, very angry. In 2003, people asked why we lived for 12 years under an embargo until the second Gulf War, but the Americans could have removed Saddam Hussein in 1991 – and should have."