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Greg Grandin: How the Iraq War Began in Panama

So many years and wars later, it’s easy to forget what a total television hit the first Gulf War of 1991 was.  Just in case you no longer remember — and why should you? — that was the war that was to bury America’s defeat in Vietnam forever and signal the arrival of the greatest Great Power the planet had ever known, the soon-to-be-Soviet-Union-less United States.  That first partial invasion of Iraq, with its million or more uniformed extras, its vast sets, and its six-month preproduction schedule filled with logistical miracles, was something to behold.  All through the winter of 1990, the production had its built-in “coming attractions,” the many variations on “showdown in the Gulf” with Saddam Hussein, the glowering guy with the black mustache who had, until more or less the previous night, been Washington’s man in Baghdad.

Those previews of the war-to-come teased American viewers with a possible January opening in domestic multiplexes nationwide.  And when it arrived, the production didn’t disappoint.  It had its dazzling Star Wars-style graphics, its own theme music and logos, and its stunningly prime-timed first moments (Disneyesque fireworks over Baghdad).  As a show, it was calibrated for controlled thrills, anxiety, and relief from its opening laser-guided, son et lumière spectacular to its final triumphant helicopter descent on the U.S. embassy in Kuwait (which was meant to replay in reverse indelible final images of helicopters fleeing Saigon).

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