The Price of Freedom: Americans at War Home Collection Search

New American Roles


With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war in 1989, the United States stood alone as a military superpower. Americans struggled to define the roles they should play in the community of nations and fought to defend their interests against threats at home as well as abroad.

Facts / Statistics

Dates: 1989-present
Troops: Over 3,000,000
Deaths: Over 750 (as of December 31, 2003)

Gulf War, 1991

In 1991, the United States became the world’s only superpower and began redefining its global role.

When Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, President George H. W. Bush, with support from the United Nations, assembled a coalition of international allies. More than thirty countries, including Great Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, provided troops, in-kind support, and help to pay the $61 billion cost of the war.

America’s military leaders were determined that Iraq would not be another Vietnam. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Colin Powell ensured that the coalition used what he called “overwhelming force.” He also granted the coalition’s commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, wide latitude to direct operations from the field. In 1991, the American-led forces went to war to liberate oil-rich Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Military leaders amassed troops and material, constructed bases, and targeted Iraqi military command centers and critical infrastructures. After massive air assaults, ground troops joined the attack. By January 17, 1991, in little more than 100 hours, the combined air-ground campaign freed Kuwait, expelling Saddam Hussein’s armies. An American decision to let Hussein stay in power in Iraq quickly became controversial.

A half-million American men and women were deployed in the Gulf War; 148 died in combat. The speedy victory boosted public opinion of U.S. military prowess and public appreciation for the nation's all-volunteer armed forces. Troops returned home to flag-waving crowds and an outpouring of goodwill.


Exhibition Graphics

Antiaircraft fire directed at coalition bombers in the skies over Baghdad

Antiaircraft fire directed at coalition bombers in the skies over Baghdad

An F-117 refueling at night

An F-117 refueling at night

Generals Colin Powell (left) and Norman Schwarzkopf

Generals Colin Powell (left) and Norman Schwarzkopf

The UN Security Council resolved to liberate Kuwait using “all necessary means,” 1990

The UN Security Council resolved to liberate Kuwait using “all necessary means,” 1990

Bystanders at victory parade in Washington, D.C., 1991

Bystanders at victory parade in Washington, D.C., 1991


Related Artifacts

Colin Powell’s Battle Dress Uniform
Melissa Rathbun-Nealy’s “Chocolate Chip” Pattern Battle Dress Uniform

September 11, 2001

Stunning attacks in the United States by al Qaeda, an international Islamist terrorist group, killed nearly 3,000 people and launched an American-led war on terrorism.

At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked and crashed a passenger jet into the north tower of New York City’s World Trade Center. Fire and rescue crews rushed to the scene. As live television coverage began, Americans watched in horror as a second plane slammed into the south tower at 9:03 a.m. Thirty-five minutes later, a third airliner dove into the Pentagon right outside the capital. A fourth jet, bound for Washington, D.C., crashed in Pennsylvania, its hijackers thwarted by passengers. The nation reeled, but resolved to fight back. For more information visit http://americanhistory.si.edu/september11.


Exhibition Graphics

South tower of the World Trade Center in flames after being hit by hijacked United Airlines Flight 175

South tower of the World Trade Center in flames after being hit by hijacked United Airlines Flight 175

Crash site of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania

Crash site of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania

Aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon by hijacked American Airlines Flight 77

Aftermath of the attack on the Pentagon by hijacked American Airlines Flight 77


Related Artifacts

Air Phone from Flight 93
Pentagon Identification Badge

War in Afghanistan, 2001

The United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the ruling Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic militia, that was harboring al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The United States launched its war against terrorism in Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom,” using diplomacy, intelligence gathering and analysis, law enforcement, monetary curbs, and military force. Several hundred Central Intelligence Agency and Special Forces operatives, armed with bundles of cash, recruited anti-Taliban forces and joined them in ground fighting. In October 2001, allied forces unleashed a torrent of precision-guided bombs and sea-launched cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan, directing air support with lasers and Global Positioning System devices.

Remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were widely used in Afghanistan. They carried cameras and sensors that provided real-time intelligence to field commanders around the globe. Armed with Hellfire-C laser-guided missiles, the drones attacked mobile targets. The United States military forces experimented for the first time with various remote-controlled robots for ground reconnaissance. “PackBots” carried cameras that enabled ground troops to explore compounds and caves from a safe distance

Relying on this precision weaponry and several hundred ground troops, the United States toppled the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. While Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds were quickly destroyed, Osama bin Laden and other highly sought leaders escaped.

As the United States launched its attacks in Afghanistan, it began a massive humanitarian relief operation. Millions of rations and explanatory fliers were air-dropped. Tons of supplies, from building materials to radios, were distributed on the ground. Troops were deployed to help Afghans build and rebuild schools and housing.


Exhibition Graphics

Air Force Combat Controller in Afghanistan

Air Force Combat Controller in Afghanistan

General Atomics RQ-1A Predator UAV in flight

General Atomics RQ-1A Predator UAV in flight

Wanted poster issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2001

Wanted poster issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2001

U.S. Army soldiers sending a robot ahead to sweep for land mines

U.S. Army soldiers sending a robot ahead to sweep for land mines

British Royal Marines distributing food packages to Afghan children, 2003

British Royal Marines distributing food packages to Afghan children, 2003


Related Artifacts

Packbot
Predator Wheel and Engine Cylinder
Humanitarian Daily Rations for Afghanistan
Psychological Operations Flyers

War in Iraq, 2003

In 2003, America’s role as sole superpower was once again tested—in Iraq, the heart of the Middle East. Called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” an invasion was launched in March 2003. The United States, Great Britain, and other coalition forces attacked and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in Iraq.

In the war against the Iraqi regime, U.S. and coalition forces simultaneously employed air strikes of unprecedented precision and ground attacks that were fewer, faster, and more flexible than those of the 1991 Gulf War. Troops deployed through Kuwait raced 300 miles to Baghdad, while Special Forces operatives were inserted deep into northern and western Iraq. When Turkey refused to allow a major coalition offensive to cross its border, small numbers of U.S. Special Operations Forces were inserted into northern Iraq, where they mobilized peshmerga, local Kurdish militia units. A long-oppressed ethnic minority, Kurds were willing allies in the fight against Hussein.

The Defense Department controlled media coverage of the war. In response to criticism that journalists had been excluded from on-the-scene coverage of the Gulf War, U.S. military officials embedded selected journalists with fighting units. These embedded journalists broadcast live reports to a global audience.

Major combat operations took less than two months, but coalition units remained entangled in a controversial effort to establish an Iraqi democracy. U.S. forces suffered 139 combat-related deaths before “major combat operations” in Iraq ended on 1 May 2003. As American and Iraqi authorities struggled to establish an interim government, U.S. and coalition forces faced civil unrest and an anti-occupation insurgency. Hundreds more U.S. troops were killed and wounded.


Exhibition Graphics

Iraqis in Baghdad, assisted by U.S. Marines, topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, 2003

Iraqis in Baghdad, assisted by U.S. Marines, topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, 2003

Peshmerga fighters

Peshmerga fighters

Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. Army Ranger captain Russell Rippetoe (left), killed on April 3, 2003, was the first casualty of the Iraqi war buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. Army Ranger captain Russell Rippetoe (left), killed on April 3, 2003, was the first casualty of the Iraqi war buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


Related Artifacts

Peshmerga Uniform
Piece of Glass Door from Palace in Tikrit
Baath Party Certificate
'Iraqi Most Wanted' Deck of Playing Cards
G-4 Apple laptop computer


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