By **Nora Eisenberg**
Ask most Americans over the age of 20 what’s the shortest and most successful war in our history, and chances are they’ll say the 1991 Gulf War. Short and to the point, it was over in 43 days with only 148 U.S. fatalities in battle, a third from friendly fire. But ask Paul Sullivan, Executive Director of Veterans for Common Sense and a Gulf War veteran, and he’ll quickly inform you that the Gulf War actually never ended and continues to take its toll every day. Sullivan, who suffers himself from Gulf War Illness—a multi-symptom disease caused by wartime toxins and affecting most every bodily system—doesn’t mean only that the war lingers in the bodies of stricken veterans who battle the disease every day. He means literally the war never ended. A January 1991 legislative resolution authorized the war, and then an April 1991 resolution post facto established its dates. By design or neglect, this later legislation’s definition of the war (38 USC (101) (33) left the door open for continuing U.S. aggression in the region. The Persian Gulf War, the law stipulated, would be considered to have started on August 2nd (when Iraq invaded Kuwait). But the law stipulated no particular date for the war’s ending, which would be “the date prescribed by Presidential proclamation or by law.” Neither of which has ever happened.
Additional legislation like the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act and the 2002 Iraq War Resolution supplemented, but never replaced the 1991 Persian Gulf resolutions. Clinton’s 8-year aggression against Iraq, a clear violations of international law, claimed its legality, in part, on the 1991 U.S. and U.N. Resolutions. To the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs, too, for many matters (particular medals, pay, and benefits, etc.), the Persian Gulf War is defined as beginning on August 2nd, 1990 and continuing through the present.
Legalities aside, Iraqis, residents of neighboring regions, sick U.S. veterans and their families, and others know the 1991 Gulf War for the catastrophe that has tormented for two decades. But most Americans still remember it as our quick and easy war, a quick rout and sudden restoration of national shame of losing in Vietnam, or as Bush 41 put it, beating “Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
The Persian Gulf War in its initial phase (August 1990- February 1991) accomplished many goals for the New World Order envisioned by Reagan and established by Bush 41. It piloted not only the weapons of warfare the new empire would use for years to come—including establishing the very pernicious depleted uranium as the munition of choice replacing lead and tungsten—but the ideological and bureaucratic tactics with which it would prosecute unending war in the region. Provoke, manipulate, lie to Congress, the UN, the public, bribe and bamboozle the international community, and, by all means, censor as you go.
Last month, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the start of Allied military operations against Iraq, nostalgia blared. At a gathering at Bush 41 Library, George HW Bush repeated what he said at the end of Desert Storm, “we got this one right,” (then he meant Vietnam, now the current war) declaring it the “greatest” honor of his life and the defining moment in his presidency. The Kuwaiti envoy declared the world “a safer place” because of the successful war to free his country.
Journalists like John MacArthur and Seymour Hersh have revealed astonishing facts about Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and their aftermath, as the first phases of the American campaigns in the 20 year war were called. But systematic disinformation and censorship have guaranteed a public unscathed by visions of a most brutal military adventure. On the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire, for the world’s future as well as our own, let’s review basics about the Persian Gulf War, which continues still, ravaging over there, and here at home.
1. The Persian Gulf War Had Been in the Planning for Years Before the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Provided a Convenient Justification.
As scholars like Frances Boyle have asserted, soon after the 1988 termination of the 8 year Iraq-Iran War, the Pentagon began planning the destruction of Iraq. In October 1990, Colin Powell referred to a new military plan for Iraq developed the year before.
In early 1990, General Schwarzkopf told the Senate Armed Services Committee of this new military strategy in the Gulf and to protect U.S. access to and control over Gulf oil in the event of regional conflicts, and after the war, he referred to eighteen months of planning for the campaign as Commander of the U.S. Central Command. During January of 1990, massive quantities of United States weapons, equipment, and supplies were sent to Saudi Arabia in order to prepare for the war against Iraq.
2. The United States Manipulated Saddam into Invading Kuwait, Then Used the Invasion as a Justification for the War They’d Been Waiting For.
Much debate surrounds the true content of the meeting between Saddam Hussein and Ambassador April Glaspie on July 25, 1990. But Glaspie’s own cable, released by WikiLeaks on New Year’s Day, and long available at the Bush Library and on the website of none other than Margaret Thatcher, paints a picture of a government with a two-faced foreign policy. Saddam complains that “certain circles” in the U.S. government were antagonistic to Iraq and Glaspie agrees, though with confidence and apparent sincerity she assures him of the “friendship” and “non-confrontational” agenda of the President and Secretary of State. In another follow-up cable four days later, Glaspie reports on her July 28th meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, in which he complains of the U.S.’s increasingly provocative actions and Glaspie herself seems increasingly frustrated. She writes that it is important not to hit Iraq with “bolts out of the blue” such as cessation of U.S. exports, which has come as a surprise even to her. In both cables, it’s now clear, Glaspie was presenting the official friendly position of the George W H Bush administration, just as behind the scenes, government hawks were preparing a war.
the law stipulated no particular date for the war’s ending, which would be “the date prescribed by Presidential proclamation or by law.” Neither of which has ever happened.
The CIA under William Webster’s direction advised Kuwait in actions that debilitated Iraq’s economy and undermined its security. With CIA consultation, Kuwait engaged in economic warfare against Iraq—extracting Iraqi oil through slant drilling; demanding immediate repayment of loans; and thwarting negotiations over these disputes. Meanwhile at the Pentagon, Dick Cheney, still giddy from invading Panama, was craving a shot at another country, in the name of defending small countries from bullies.
In her July 29th cable, Glaspie offers the State Department advice on handling the matter, including keeping a low profile and reminding colleagues as she had Saddam in the earlier meeting that “we have never taken substantive positions on inter-OPEC or Arab border disputes”— which was the matter at hand. In her earlier cable, Glaspie wrote that Saddam made clear that “if Iraq is publicly humiliated by the United States it will have no choice but to ‘respond,’ however illogical or self-destructive that would prove.” She advises the State Department not to make him lose face.
Glaspie was not the only official to express this laissez-faire position. On July 26th, at a Washington press conference, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutweiler was asked by a journalist if the U.S. had sent any diplomatic protest to Iraq for putting 30,000 troops on the border with Kuwait. “I’m entirely unaware of any such protest,” Tutweiler replied. On July 31st, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs John Kelly testified to Congress that the “United States has no commitment to defend Kuwait, and the U.S. has no intention of defending Kuwait if it is attacked by Iraq.”
Two days later, on August 2nd, when Saddam’s troops entered Kuwait, he had no reason to believe that the U.S. would come to Kuwait’s defense with a half-million troops. Or that when he tried to negotiate a dignified retreat though Arab leaders, the U.S. would refuse to talk as James Ridgeway carefully chronicles in his January 1991 Village Voice articles.
What’s not clear to this day is the nature of Bush and Baker’s behavior at the time. The U.S. policy toward Iraq had never been consistent, and in the July 25 meeting, Glaspie reports, Saddam reminds her of U.S. double-dealing, mentioning in particular Irangate, the Reagan administration’s sale of weapons to Iran at the same time as it was selling arms and allowing sale of toxic chemicals to Iraq. Did Bush and Baker mean to maintain the friendlier policy toward Iraq and just mismanage, bungling us into war, as Murray Waas argued at the time? Or did they engage in the most Machiavellian of manipulations, using a seasoned and apparently sincere diplomat to say one thing as they were planning another?
Margaret Thatcher’s account in her memoir is that as late as August 2nd, when the two met at a conference in Aspen, Bush was waffling about responding to the Iraqi invasion until she famously said, “This is no time to go wobbly on me, George,” which may or not be so. What’s certain is that by Sunday, August 5th, Bush was in, announcing after a weekend at Camp David, “This will not stand.” On August 6th, Cheney received approval from the Saudis for a large U.S. deployment. A wider and more “certain” circle was determined to humiliate Saddam, leaving him, given his psychology, which he had clearly delineated for Glaspie, no choice but to self-destruct.
3. The U.S. Disinformed Congress and the Public to Drum up War Support for an Unpopular War and Bribed and Bamboozled Other Countries
If the CIA, the Pentagon, and by summer’s end the President and Secretary of State were fixed on a war with Iraq, during the fall of 1990, the American public and Congress were not. To change that, the week after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government, disguising itself as “Citizens for a Free Kuwait,” hired the global PR firm of Hill & Knowlton to win Americans’ hearts and minds.
In charge of the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton was Craig Fuller, a close friend of George H.W. Bush and his chief of staff when he was vice president. For $11.8 million, Fuller and more than 100 H&K executives across the country oversaw the selling of the war.
They organized public rallies, provided pro-war speakers, lobbied politicians, developed and distributed information kits and news releases, including scores of video news releases shown by stations and networks as if they were bona fide journalism and not paid-for propaganda.
Did Bush and Baker mean to maintain the friendlier policy toward Iraq and just mismanage, bungling us into war, as Murray Waas argued at the time? Or did they engage in the most Machiavellian of manipulations, using a seasoned and apparently sincere diplomat to say one thing as they were planning another?
H&K’s research arm, the Wirthlin Group, conducted daily polls to identify the messages and language that would resonate most with Americans. In the 1992 Emmy award-winning Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary To Sell a War, a Wirthlin executive explained that their research had determined the most emotionally moving message to be “Saddam Hussein was a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.”
To fit the bill, H&K concocted stories, including one told by a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah, to another H&K concoction, the House Human Rights Caucus looking to pass as a congressional committee. According to the caucus, Nayirah’s full name would remain secret in order to deter the Iraqis from punishing her family in occupied Kuwait. The girl wept as she testified before the caucus, apparently still shaken by the atrocity she witnessed as a volunteer in a Kuwait City hospital.
According to her written testimony, she had seen “the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns and go into the room where babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”
During the three months between Nayirah’s testimony and the start of the war, the story of babies tossed from their incubators stunned Americans. Bush told the story, and television anchors and talk-show hosts recycled it for days. It was read into the congressional record as fact and discussed at the U.N. General Assembly.
By the time it emerged that Nayirah was a Kuwaiti royal and the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington and that she had never volunteered in any hospital and that the incident and her testimony had been provided by H&K, it was too late. The war had already begun.
Another concoction was top-secret satellite images that the Pentagon claimed to have of 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks on the Kuwait-Saudi border, visible proof that Saddam would be advancing soon on Saudi Arabia. Yet the St. Petersburg Times acquired two commercial Russian satellite images of the same area, taken at the same time, that showed no Iraqi troops near the Saudi border, and the scientific experts whom the Times hired could identify nothing but sand at the supposed location of the advancing army.
But the St. Petersburg Times story evaporated, and the Pentagon’s story stuck. When Bush addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 11, 1990, he reported that developments in the Gulf were “as significant as they were tragic”: Iraqi troops and tanks had moved to the south “to threaten Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi reluctance to host foreign troops and bases that would desecrate their sacred sites, the holiest in all of Islam, gave way in the face of an imminent invasion, and the war had its staging area. American discomfort with a war to defend a country most had never heard of began to transform into dread that the Saudi oil they relied on would be swallowed up by a monster.
Under U.S. pressure, United Nations Security Council adopted unprecedented resolutions allowing nations to use “all means necessary” for their enforcement. The U.S. won Security Council votes by forgiving huge loans, recognizing dictatorships diplomatically, agreeing to sell arms, and more. Boyle identifies specific violations and subversions of the U.N. Charter in these activities, most importantly the mandate to negotiate peaceful resolutions to international disputes. And, according to Boyle, in its decision to go to war and in its conduct of the war itself, the U.S. perpetrated a Nuremberg Crime against Peace. As James Baker has often admitted, winning allies for the first Gulf War in 1991 involved “cajoling, extracting, threatening and occasionally buying votes.”
4. The Gulf War’s Stated Goal of Ejecting Iraqi Troops from Kuwait Quickly Revealed Itself to be Destroying Iraq
The war’s stated intention was to remove Iraq’s presence from Kuwait. But quickly, that intention changed to destroying Iraq. The air and missile attack of Iraq continued for 42 days, dropping more bombs in that brief period than bombs in all wars in history combined. Iraqi aircraft and anti-aircraft or anti-missile ground fire offered no resistance. The aerial and missile bombardment in a matter of hours destroyed most military communications and over the course of the next few weeks attacked Iraqi soldiers who were unable to secure food, water, and equipment due to this breakdown. Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died, according to General Schwarzkopf, most of whom were incapable of fighting.
Mostly, the Allies aimed at civilian facilities—shelters, mosques, homes, schools, hospitals markets, commercial and business districts, schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, shelters, factories, office buildings, vehicles on highways, bridges, and roads. Though estimates of civilian deaths during the war range from 25,000 to over 100,000, all count children at above 50% of the immediate casualties.
Iraq’s infrastructure—which people lived in, worked in, drove on, received medical treatment in, studied in, prayed in, and shopped at—was bombed, leaving the most sophisticated of Arab states in a primitive and catastrophic state.
American discomfort with a war to defend a country most had never heard of began to transform into dread that the Saudi oil they relied on would be swallowed up by a monster.
By most accounts, at least one hundred thousand people died soon after the war from dehydration, dysentery, malnutrition, starvation, and illnesses, from contaminated water, starvation, and exposure to impure water, hunger, cold, and shock. In the period between the end of Desert Storm and the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the degraded environment and sanctions led to the death of an estimated million more, half of them children. Medicines, food, baby formula—these were among the essentials kept from the Iraqi people in the initial and ensuing stages of the war against Iraq. These were among the essentials that sanctions under both Bush Presidents and Clinton kept from the Iraqi people, constituting Nuremberg Crimes Against Humanity and the Crime of Genocide under international and U.S. law, according to legal scholars.
5. A System of Censorship Was Established to Hide the True War from the Public, Including Killing of Our Own and the War’s Launching of al Qaeda
In the lead-up to war, U.S. media organizations, with rare exceptions, had begun to back away from investigative reporting and journalistic scrutiny. Once the war began, government censorship combined with this self-censorship produced a media blackout. The restrictions on the press were tighter than during any earlier American war. Journalists could not travel except in pools with military escorts, and even then most sites were off-limits. Department of Defense guidelines stated that stories would not be judged for “potential to express criticism or cause embarrassment,” but journalists weren’t taking any chances. When news anchors weren’t hosting retired generals and pundits, or screening eerie green images of the coordinates of the day’s targets, they were praising the military on a job well done.
Pentagon censors had to clear all war dispatches, photos and footage before they could be released. Two months after the war ended, the editors of 15 news outlets protested to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney about the Pentagon’s control. But the damage had been done. The real war was never reported to the American public.
As for our own, we saw no images of returning coffins filled with U.S. service members, nor, in the days and months after the war, coverage of the war’s aftermath: The almost 300,000 troops who returned profoundly ill from Gulf War illness, a profound physical illness caused by toxins that we released in Iraq, sickening and killing the Iraqi people and our own troops. It took 18 years for a Congressionally-mandated scientific panel to report that the conditions affecting the skin, stomach, minds, hearts, lungs and every other organ of hundreds of thousands of American veterans was not psychological, as the government had insisted for almost 20 years. ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, disabling neuropathies, heart attacks, difficulty breathing, walking standing—all these, we now know, were caused by neurotoxins including experimental anti nerve gas pills soldiers had to take or risk court martial, insecticides and pesticides that the military administered recklessly, sarin and other gases released into the air when we bombed an Iraq military storage facility, with a growing body of evidence regarding the role of depleted uranium. To date, in all the iterations of war in the region, almost a million troops have become patients in the VA system, many with systemic illnesses like those inflicted on millions of Iraqis and our own soldiers in the first Operation of the war against Iraq.
We heard little about the 20,000 troops occupying Saudi Arabia after the war, the growing regional resentment for the destruction and death, injuries and insults of invasion and occupation. For years, we heard little about the Saudi Muslim radical Osama bin Laden, his outraged protests, for which he was banished, wandering the region, recruiting young followers to avenge the desecration of Islam’s sacred sites.
There was and still is no mainstream media coverage of the roots, just of the proclamations of them versus us, hatemongers versus freedom lovers, barbaric cowards versus civilized heroes. We could read, in time, about bin Laden’s jihad, but little appeared of the fatwa he and his counterparts throughout the Middle-East issued, except the often-quoted statement that it was the duty of every Muslim “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military,” leaving out the second part of the sentence — “in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”
The 21st Year of War Begins
The war that supposedly ended on February 28th 1991 legally never ended. And functionally, it merely began the next stage of the war against Iraq. Interestingly, Iraq never signed the ceasefire that ended the immediate fighting. And the U.S. quickly resumed firing on Iraq. Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker article “Overwhelming Force” exposed a third Highway of Death, just off Highway 8 west of Basra, near the Rumaila oil field. Two days after the ceasefire and the day before peace talks were to begin. Two-star General Barry McCaffrey overrode his division commander and ordered his 24th Division to engage in an all-out attack on a retreating Republican Guard tank division on their way back to Baghdad. As Hersh describes it: “Apache attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, and artillery units from the 24th Division pummelled the five-mile-long Iraqi column for hours, destroying some seven hundred Iraqi tanks, armored cars, and trucks, and killing not only Iraqi soldiers but civilians and children as well.” There were no U.S. casualties in this massacre, which came to be called the Battle of the Causeway, the Battle of Rumaila, and the Battle of the Junkyard—for all the exploded tanks and vehicles piled on the road. Lieutenant General Ronald Griffith, commander of 1st Armored Division of VII Corps, told Hersh that the Iraqi tanks were facing backwards, atop a trailer truck taking them to Baghdad. “It was just a bunch of tanks in a train, and he made it a battle,” Hersh reports Griffith saying, but McCaffrey “made it a battle when it was never one. That’s the thing that bothered me the most.”
Made it a battle when it was never one. That statement could summarize U.S. policy toward Iraq for the past 20 years. McCaffrey retired a hero, becoming Clinton’s Drug Czar. And Clinton, whose presidency has been romanticized in recent years, maintained his own brutal policies, including a continuous war on Iraqi civilians and structures. A policy of brutal sanctions killed at least a million people, and sickened more. No-fly zones, established in 1991 as a condition for peace, were enforced with forceful bombing campaigns. Indeed, as Raw Story editors have argued, the no fly zones protected no one but functioned largely to provoke Iraq, providing the U.S. a fresh excuse for renewed attack. In 1993, to retaliate for the attempted assassination of George H.W. Bush, Clinton bombed Iraqi intelligence offices. In 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, whose goals were much the same as those announced by Bush Jr., namely regime change and the establishment of democracy. At the end of 1998, his Operation Desert Fox, unleashed a four-day aerial bombardment of Baghdad and other major cities. And thereafter, U.S. and U.K. Planes, at human and material cost, bombed Iraq repeatedly, using more firepower, as Raw Story has calculated, than the military under George W. Bush in his lead up to his own war—or his phase of the longest war.
Provoke, manipulate, lie to Congress, the UN, the public, bribe and bamboozle the international community, and, by all means, censor as you go—for two decades the strategy has not stopped. On the 20th anniversary of the end of the unending war the world faces a new phase of U.S. aggression in the region with no end in sight, but with new enemies everywhere we look.
Copyright 2011 Nora Eisenberg
This piece originally appeared at AlterNet.org.
Nora Eisenberg’s work has appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Guardian UK. Her most recent novel, When You Come Home (Curbstone, 2009), explores the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War.