“The liberation of Kuwait has begun. In conjunction with the forces of our coalition partners, the United States has moved under the code name Operation Desert Storm to enforce the mandates of the United Nations Security Council.”—President George H. W. Bush

Almost thirty years ago, I stood in front of my HMMWV—High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle—and posed for a quick snapshot as we made our way northeast along Main Supply Route Texas toward what had been described as another “Rendezvous with Destiny.” It was February 1991 and the road was barely more than a pathway scraped into the desert floor. Although I wasn’t much interested in having my picture taken, doing so seemed appropriate to capture the moment. Today, that polaroid rests in a small wooden box along with other mementos of that day: the division coin I carried in my pocket, a brass nameplate from an Iraqi colonel who surrendered his headquarters, and a small tabasco sauce bottle filled with the sand (actually dirt) that covers so much of that region. For a newly minted first lieutenant, it was a singular moment frozen in time.

Brief Victory Was Just the Beginning

Or so I thought. The hours that followed produced a decisive, if transitory victory. We’d successfully liberated Kuwait and achieved the limited objectives established earlier during Operation Desert Shield, the buildup for the eventual invasion. We’d validated the precepts of AirLand Battle, the operational concept that underpinned our warfighting doctrine. We’d emerged victorious from the post-Vietnam malaise that plagued the armed forces in the aftermath of that war.

But success is sometimes a matter of definition. Ours was truly a limited war, fought at minimum cost. We’d met our definition of success, but the despotic leader who led us to that moment in time lived on, as did much of his army. He was contained—or so we thought—but not truly defeated. As we returned home to the family and loved ones we’d left behind, the parades, and the adulation, Saddam Hussein’s surviving forces unleashed brutal retaliation against uprisings in the north by the Kurds and in the south by the Shi’ites, coalition-friendly populations that anticipated support. Support that didn’t materialize until it was too late.

In response, we launched Operation Provide Comfort in April 1991 to defend and provide humanitarian aid to the Kurdish north, and Operation Southern Watch in August 1992 to monitor and control the airspace over Iraqi no-fly zones south of Baghdad. In January 1997, Operation Northern Watch succeeded Provide Comfort to maintain the northern no-fly zone over Kurdish territory.

In the decade that followed the Gulf War, hostilities never truly concluded. Iraq tested the no-fly zones with some regularity and ground forces routinely fired on coalition aircraft. In both the north and the south, the coalition destroyed air defense systems and radars; in 1998, the coalition launched Operation Desert Fox, a four-day air campaign that attacked targets across Iraq for failing to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. Punitive strikes against Iraq continued unabated between the cessation of hostilities at the conclusion of Desert Storm through the arrival of a new coalition in early 2003.

Not long after the second invasion of Iraq that spurred Operation Iraqi Freedom, I passed through a road intersection along Highway 28 west of As-Samawah that brought an eerie sense of déjà vu. I’d been there before, after the conclusion of the 100 hours of ground combat that marked the crescendo of Operation Desert Storm. En route to Al-Najaf, where we would soon engage in battle with Iraqi Army forces, I joked to my driver that I half-expected to see Rod Serling waving us on as if we had just entered The Twilight Zone. Twelve years later—almost to the day—here I was again.

The Desert Keeps Calling

That same feeling returned to me every time I found myself in Iraq, almost as if the desert was calling me back for some unknown—and unfinished—business. Just when I thought I was done with Mesopotamia, I’d be back on a plane headed in that direction once again. When my own son deployed there in 2008, I half-joked to him, “Well, I guess it’s your turn now.” But, just a few years later, I was back. Iraq wasn’t finished with me, yet. When I left for the final time in December 2012—making a steep ascent out of Baghdad International Airport of an Air Force C-130—I gave a last, long look out of the small window near my canvas seat in the cargo compartment. I commented to the man next to me—much to his chagrin—that I would not have been remotely surprised to see a gremlin on the wing tearing away at the engine cowling.

Just as Operation Desert Storm had passed the torch to Operations Provide Comfort (both I and II), Northern Watch, and Southern Watch, so too had Operation Iraqi Freedom passed that torch to Operation New Dawn. Peace of any sort had always been short-lived, and the rise of ISIS soon gave birth to Operation Inherent Resolve. In the thirty years since I first arrived in Saudi Arabia in the late summer of 1990, little has changed. The sand and dirt still taste the same. The violence still ebbs and flows through the region as consistently as the seasonal dust storms. The names are the same—the grandchildren of those who fought there, on both sides of the great berm that spanned the border along Tapline Road. There was a time when I called it “my generation’s war,” but it now belongs to a younger generation, and maybe another after that.

the Twilight Zone

I remember declaring victory in 1991. And again in 2003, this time with a “Mission Accomplished” banner that I only hope is locked away with the Ark of the Covenant in Area 51. We did so again in 2011, although the definition of “success” was a date on a calendar. We’ve declared victory enough times over ISIS that it’s now a punchline for late night comedians.  And yet, we’re still there, fighting our own Thirty Years’ War. Chasing shadows in the desert.

It’s the quieter moments that give me pause to consider the legacy of our service there. And in those moments, I can still hear Rod Serling calling, narrating our time in the desert like a long-forgotten episode of The Twilight Zone:

Enigma buried in the sand, a question mark with broken wings that lies in silent grace as a marker in a desert shrine. Odd how the real consorts with the shadows, how the present fuses with the past. How does it happen? The question is on file in the silent desert. And the answer? The answer is waiting for us in the Twilight Zone.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.