A Reflection on a Room, Part I: A 1991 Diary Entry from Desert Storm

This is the first part of a series. The second part, “A Reflection On A Room, Part II: A Night During The Ground Offensive,” can be found here.

The Room

The room was about 30 feet wide and only 15 feet in depth. There was a single door into the room, centered, at what was to become the back of the room. There was no sentry guarding the room. We were vulnerable. Our principle safeguard was being four stories underground.

As you entered the room, you saw, immediately before you on the wall, a map of the battlefield. The map covered the entire wall and it was, in turn, covered by sheets of thick plastic. The main cities visible on the map were Baghdad and Riyadh. The border areas of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were distinctly evident.

On to the immediate left and right of the door were folding tables paralleling the rear wall. As you approached the left and right walls each had a table paralleling the side walls, perpendicular to the rear tables.

Toward the front of the room, immediately before the map, were three tables. It was there that the leadership sat and commanded.

I sat at the right rear second table. I worked there nightly, from 7:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M., usually longer, from January to March 1991.

My entire life changed in that room. A large part of my life is still governed by that room, its intensity, the noise, the shouts, the laughter, the briefings, the questions, the fear of failing, and knowing that the lives of many were to be decided within that room. Adrenalin heightens awareness; and adrenaline flowed freely within the room; it wears you down and kills you, imperceptibly.

Truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity were expectations for everyone.


The first lesson learned is that the room was governed by truth. And there were consequences and accountability for not speaking the truth, more so for not knowing the truth. You also learned that there was one judge and he alone discerned truth. You not only had to know the truth, you had to anticipate it, and be willing to speak it.


The second lesson learned was to remain true to and execute the decisions made. There was no second guessing, no allowance for unilateral change in the commander’s decisions. If there was change, you had better tell the truth and be willing to live with the consequences, be they good or bad to one individually.


The third lesson was that you had to be willing to stand the test of fire, be willing to have your information and preparedness excoriated if you were not prepared. It was never about the person, it was about content and preparation. Moreover one needed the strength of will to return again to the fire, even if it meant the cycle was to repeat itself. The latter was important: you had to have the strength of will to return again, to demonstrate your willingness to grow.

The commander once said, in the rare calmness of one evening, “You know how you make good officers? The same way you make good steel. You beat the hell out of it.”

There were three choices before each person: grow and learn; be willing to be openly fired: or, if you chose to do so, you could “opt out” of the line of fire — you could fire yourself. Many opted for the latter, transferring their responsibilities to the remaining few.

Many went before the commander seeking glory and recognition, only to withdraw. They could not withstand the fire and perceived obliteration of their being — their unpreparedness was their failure. Fear and their egos were their greatest enemy.

I never witnessed a single ad hominem assault on any individual. It was never about the person. It was about competence, because competence would save lives.

The commander once said, in the rare calmness of one evening, “You know how you make good officers? The same way you make good steel. You beat the hell out of it.” The commander believed it. He did not want agendas, bravado, and vain glory. It was never about his power and position — or anyone else’s. It was all about discipline, competence, and commitment to truth.

He wanted men and women to speak the truth, who would willingly be held accountable for their decisions, and who not wither under fire.

War, however it is fought with the latest technology, is all about people.


War, however it is fought with the latest technology, is all about people. It is not about heroism; situations will produce its own heroes. It is about people staying alive. Our commander believed in his people staying alive.

Before the first bomb was dropped, before the ground offensive was launched, every night at about midnight, the J-1, the Director of Personnel, or his deputy would give a briefing to the commander; the presentation was on who had died that day. Each death had a name and event surrounding it. The commander listened intently as though he knew each individual. He would ask questions, sometimes challenging the events of the death. The briefing officer, the J-1, had to know the truth and convey it to the commander. I suspect each death tore at the heart of the commander, slowly and quietly killing a part of him.

War is all about people. And the commander loved each person for whom he was responsible. And he held those between him and the deceased responsible for each person. No excuses.

When the J-1 briefed that soldiers were killed traveling from Point A to B, and they were killed because they decided to drive across the desert with night vision googles as opposed to remaining on established routes, the commander asked “How? How did they die?”

“Well, sir, in driving across the desert they failed to see a wadi (a dry river bed, which in that region can cut deep into the ground), and plunged headlong into it. Both driver and passenger were killed instantly.”

The commander was quiet for a moment, then asked “Did they receive orders and a safety briefing to remain on the roads?”

“Yes sir, they did.”

“Well, then their commander is to be fired. His troops did not respect him and obey his orders. I want the commander out of the country by tonight.”

“Yes sir” came the reply.

When the J-1 briefed, on another night, that a doctor and medic had bled to death, having stepped on landmines, the commander asked “How?”

“Well sir, they were traveling from Point A to B and they pulled off the road. Why we don’t know. But, as the doctor stepped out of the Humvee he stepped on a landmine. As best as we can ascertain, the medic, who had been driving, got out of the Humvee and ran around to assist the doctor, then he, too, stepped on a landmine. Both bled to death before help could get to them.”

The commander asked the anticipated question, “Weren’t they told to remain on the road?”

“Yes sir.” The result was the same, someone was out of country by the next night.

And the stories continued each night until the ground offensive was launched.

War is all about people. And the commander loved each person for whom he was responsible. And he held those between him and the deceased responsible for each person. No excuses.


Fidelity was a two-fold responsibility: to the mission and the commander, who embodies the mission.

Either the commander’s subordinates were in sync with the foregoing or they were exiled or sent home. Either result meant their career was over.

There was a television in the war room, it captured a CNN feed. Watching one night, the White House spokesman referred to a situation, that to most in the room was insignificant. Insignificant, until the commander immediately turned to the J-5, the Political Officer, and asked, “How did he learn that? I thought we were not going to talk about that!” The entire time the commander’s voice was rising to a rage. Betrayal, no doubt, was on his mind.

While most of us kept our heads down, even the Deputy Commander, the J-5 rose from his position and said, “Sir, I will find out.”

The commander did not need to say more.

It was about an hour later that the J-5 came back into the room and the commander, on seeing the J-5, turned toward him; a full-frontal view with tightly pursed lips confronted the J-5.

The J-5 did not bother to sit. Without prompting he began immediately, “Sir, it seems that the White House spokesman has a colleague, a colonel in Public Affairs in Dhahran, and it from his colleague that he obtained the information.”

The commander asked, “Do you have the colonel’s contact information?” “Yes sir” and the J-5 handed the commander a slip of paper. The J-5 astutely anticipated the question.

The commander immediately picked up his phone and dialed the phone number. When the phone was answered, the commander said, “I want to speak to Colonel ____.” A momentary pause slipped by.

Then the commander said, in a raised tone, “I don’t care if he is asleep, wake him up! I want to speak with him!” Again a pause.

This was followed by one of the most comical scenes that could be staged, “What do you mean ‘who is calling?’ . . . I’m General Schwarzkopf! Sergeant, go wake the colonel up now! . . . You’re damn right I am going to hold.”

We held our breath.

Then the commander covered the mouthpiece and turned to his deputy and said, “Can you believe the sergeant did not know who I am!” The commander’s face was animated, his eyes big. And General Cal Waller broke out laughing . . . as did the commander. We all laughed. The commander had command of the room and knew when to let the air out, relieving the tension.

A few minutes later, the colonel came to the phone; tension was again present.

“Colonel, I understand that the White House spokesman is your friend?” The colonel apparently agreed.

“I also understand Colonel that you recently spoke to him?” Again the colonel must have agreed.

“Colonel, do you know what you’ve just done in sharing information with the White House and it appearing on the nightly news?” A pause; we could only speculate the reply.

“Colonel, I don’t care if it is the White House! You had no authority to release that information.” A momentary breath passed.

“Colonel, I don’t care if he is your friend.”

The colonel, we surmised, was trying to mitigate the anger being thrust at him; it was too late. The dialogue was over.

Finally, the commander said, “Colonel, I want you, with your duffel bag, ‘standing at attention’ in front of my desk at 0500 hours tomorrow morning.” The pauses were getting shorter.

“Colonel, I know its midnight.” Why was the colonel questioning the commander?

“Colonel, I don’t care how you get here. I am giving you an order. You will be in front of my desk at 0500 hours tomorrow morning with all of your gear.” With that the commander hung up the phone.

There was a brief silence interrupted by General Waller, his head still down looking at paperwork, “You sending him home?”

“Hell no! I just have to find a place for him — in theater.” The commander had higher priorities than having a colonel whining to his White House colleague.

The room was again quiet.

The commander was intently studying the map before him. Then he finally said, “Who has our far left flank?”

The answer came back, “The Syrians.”

“Do the Syrians have a Public Affairs officer?”

General Waller said, “Sir, I don’t know.”

To this the commander’s response came, “Well they do now.” We cautiously smiled to ourselves.

Again silence — a much longer silence. The commander, his lips tight, was thinking.

Then the commander asked, “Do the Syrian’s speak English?”

General Waller replied, “Sir, I doubt it.”

The commander stated, “Well, now, they do.”


Then commander unexpectedly said, “I can’t believe that sergeant did not know me.” Again pressure was released from the room as we laughed.

Truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity were expectations for everyone.

The War

The war began early in the morning of January 17, 1991 (Riyadh time). This was the air offensive — the preparation of the battlefield.

The ground offensive began 39 days later on February 24, 1991.

Together they were the greatest release of offensive firepower known in human history. Nothing has exceeded the might and intensity of that time to this day. Choreography was everything. And it’s orchestration was near perfect.

The ceasefire began on February 28, 1991.

Truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity were maintained by the commander and his deputy. But someone in Washington was willing to sacrifice people.

Day 43 of the War

I deployed 190 days earlier. But it was the last 43 days that obviated every day before. The following are my notes of the 43rd day.

The commander was in the War Room later than normal. He had good reason to be. Phone calls were coming in from Washington, D.C. At some point the commander received a congratulatory phone call from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who in turn gave the phone to the Secretary of Defense. Adulation abounded.

“Yes sir” and “Thank you sir” were all the commander could say.

We, in the room, breathed a sigh of relief; but the tension was still palpable. There was still work to be done.

Between Washington and the commander there was a discussion of the terms of suspension of offensive actions. Everything had to be agreed upon. The unilateral cessation of combat was exactly that — unilateral. There was no way, excepting the media, for the information to be conveyed to the enemy. It was agreed that the time to cease offensive actions would be 0500 hours local time.

The commander turned to the General Waller and said, “Notify all units that the time of cessation of offensive actions is to be 0500 hours. All forces in Iraq are to remain at their current locations at that time and are allowed to continue to take those actions necessary to defend themselves. And they are encouraged to destroy dangerous military equipment in their vicinity. Meanwhile, suspend all offensive operations. We will continue to fly reconnaissance and defensive air caps, provide electronic and any other surveillance of the battlefield and enemy to ensure we are in no way in danger.” The commander was still placing his people first.

Again, he re-stated, “Remember, this is a unilateral suspension of offensive operations on our part.”

The commander added, “All units are to remain in place ready to resume offensive operations at the slightest provocation . . . even the slightest provocation of offensive air operations, shoot it down; we’ll sort it out later.”

Here again: truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity were expectations for everyone.

General Waller picked up the phone and one-by-one called each major combat unit relaying the above, “ . . . cessation of offensive actions is to be 0500 hours . . . .”

After doing this, there was a greater sense of relief present in the room. There were congratulations all around, yet tenseness remained. Vigilance in peace had a greater gravity.

Then the phone rang again. It was Washington. The commander answered and listened. Then came “Yes sir.”

The commander turned to his deputy and said, “Combat operations are to cease at 0800 hours.”


“Combat operations are to continue until 0800 hours; we are to fight for three more hours.”

The deputy, “But I just called everyone and told them we’re to stop at 0500 hours!”

“Well, call them again and tell them they’re to continue combat operations until 0800 hours.”

The deputy was furious and he unleashed the full force of his fury into the room. At that point we learned that the room had an echo effect. “What the hell is going on?! Why are we to fight for three more hours?”

The commander calmly stated, “Well, someone in the White House added up the hours of the ground offensive and discovered that if we fight three more hours, it will have been a 100 hour war.”

Now the deputy held nothing back. “What?! Who gives a [expletive]! Do they know what can happen in three hours?! Don’t they know that people can die in those three hours?! Who is going to write the letters to the parents and spouses of those who might be killed in these three hours?! All because ‘someone’ in the White House decided they want to fight a [expletive] 100 hour war for the media?!” The argument was all about people.

To say we were quiet is an understatement. The deputy was red with fury. And all of his invective had spilled into the room. Nothing was spared.

The commander, now turned and faced his deputy saying nothing. The deputy stared back. Their silence was conversation. The quietude was filled with words.

After what was about a minute that seemed like an eternity as the two warriors confronted each other, the commander then said, “J-6!” (The J-6 was the communications officer, a colonel).

“Yes, sir?” — it was a meek and quiet ‘yes, sir’ from the colonel.

Without hesitation and with spunk, the commander said, “Get the White House on the phone and tell them that General Waller wants to speak with them.” We wanted to laugh.

Again a pause. The J-6 did not know what to do.

Then the deputy said, “Ah [expletive] this.” And he picked up the phone and proceeded to re-make all of his phone calls to the field commanders and tell them to continue combat operations another three hours, until 0800 hours; again the same orders as stated above were reiterated, “ . . . this is a unilateral suspension of offensive operations on our part . . . .”

After all of the calls were completed, the commander calmly turned to the deputy and said, “Thanks Cal.” “Yes sir” came the response. The conversation between them was greater than the number of words voiced.

Truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity were maintained by the commander and his deputy. But someone in Washington was willing to sacrifice people. Both the commander and his deputy knew this to be the case — as did every competent person in the room. And they could do nothing. A violation of the natural law had occurred.

The Room

There are many more stories to be conveyed. There was much learned in the room. I have focused on a few stories and the convictions of truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity.

It would be untrue to say that egos were not present within the room; there were many egos. But, to remain in the room meant egos were, by conscious decision, subordinated to mission, to the single-minded focus of the mission.

The room, for me, was authentic life. It had to exist and be operated without illusions. Had illusions been present, there would have been no reconciliation with reality and the lives of people would have been at risk.

What became evident over time, the time within the room, is that for the authentic to exist, each individual had to confront the illusion of self and submit (not surrender, but submit) to reality — the authentic life.

Confronting the illusion of self requires a transformation of self, more specifically a willingness to undergo a journey. Those who failed, when in the room, were those who were unwilling to submit to the journey and confront their own illusions of self.

My transformation occurred in the dark night, literally and metaphorically the darkest of nights, when I came to recognize the evident truths confronting me: my responsibility to my fellow man — to keep them alive.

The recognition of one’s complicity with their own illusions can be more than startling; it is a recognition of a profane heart. The profane heart always refuses to recognize the responsibility before it. For this reason many failed. Relativism, the idea that moral rules do not exist but are unique to each situation, was not permitted. Also positivism, the concept that moral rules are defined by authority, was an anathema. Truth, in the room, was and had to be authentic.

The room compelled solitude and introspection despite the noise, tensions, and community. The room, with its leadership and focus, was a glimpse into the reality and evidence of natural law, a law of truth, decisions, fire, people, and fidelity — interrupted by the “3-hour decision.”

Survival in the room meant an acceptance of prophetic responsibility akin to the Old Testament prophets who called for the unmasking of man’s illusions and the voicing of the lucid and transparent truths, despite the agendas of many. The acceptance of a prophetic responsibility is the difference between one having a calling or a job. Those who lived in the room, who survived the room, had a calling.

The prophetic witness is someone who is a living witness to truth and, at times, is a contradiction to the motives of an institutionalized world. It is worth mentioning that some of the greatest battles were fought before the war, between the commander and the institutionalized military world, between authenticity and illusions.

The room was a place of spiritual urgency — as our lives should be — often times demanding a radical response to the illusions of man.

I miss the room (not the war) and its way of life. I would rather die the imperceptibly slow death; one committed to truth than to the profane heart — the morass of ideas of man and his failed institutions.


“Peace is going to be a hell of a lot harder than war.”
 — General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. 0320 hours; Thursday; February 28, 1991

The author of this diary entry is the Reverend Eben H. Treviño, Jr., LtCol, USAF (Ret.), J.D. The Reverend is a graduate of U.S. Air War College, 1996, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL; was a National Defense Fellow, 1995–96, at the Mershon Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH; and a graduate of the U.S. Armed Forces Staff College, National Defense University, 1989, Norfolk, VA.

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