February 27, 2009 – With rare exceptions, American politicians seem incapable of opposing an American war without befriending another in a different place or time.
Barack Obama, an early and ardent enemy of the Iraq War, quickly declared his affinity for a war in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan. And like so many Democratic leaders, he has commended Bush 41’s Gulf War over Bush 43’s, for its justifiable cause, clear goals, quick execution and admirable leadership.
It’s difficult to determine the proportion of expedience to ignorance that allows politicians and pundits to advance the theory of the good and trouble-free Gulf War. What’s clear, though, is that for close to 20 years, the 42-day war, in which we dropped more bombs than were dropped in all wars combined in the history of the world, maintains a special place in American hearts.
But as John R. MacArthur amply demonstrates in The Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, the real 1991 war was kept from the American public. This week, as we commemorate the 18th anniversary of the Gulf War’s end, and opportunities for new hostilities beckon, Americans, and our leaders, would do well to take a hard look at the war that we continue to love only because we never got to see it.
Despite our inability to detect it at the time, U.S. prosecution of the 1991 war with Iraq relied on all the now-familiar and discredited strategies used to promote the present war — with equally disastrous and far-reaching results.
When Saddam Hussein summoned April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to his office on July 25, 1990, it was to determine what the U.S. response would be should he invade Kuwait with the 30,000 troops he had amassed on its border. According to the Iraqi transcript published in the New York Times two months later, he told the seasoned diplomat that Iraq had defended the region against the Iranian fundamentalist regime, and that the Kuwaitis were paying them back by encroaching on their border, siphoning their oil, increasing oil production and driving down prices. His people were suffering, and his “patience was running out.”
Glaspie commiserated: “I admire your extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country. I know you need funds. We understand that, and our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. … I was in the American Embassy in Kuwait during the late ’60s. The instruction we had during this period was that … the issue is not associated with America. James Baker has directed our official spokesmen to emphasize this instruction.”
Glaspie later claimed that Iraq transcripts contained “distortions,” which may be so. But her own recently declassified cable to Washington closely resembles the Iraqi transcripts: She wrote that she asked Saddam, “in the spirit of friendship, not confrontation” about his intentions with Kuwait. She reports telling him that “she had served in Kuwait 20 years before; then as now we took no position on these Arab affairs.” She wrote that “Saddam’s emphasis that he wants peaceful settlement is surely sincere … but the terms might be difficult to achieve.”
Glaspie was not the only official to deliver this laissez-faire message. The next day, 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.
Five days later, on July 31, 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, when Saddam 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 retreat though Arab leaders, the U.S. would refuse to talk. In 1990 as in 2002, a Bush president had his mind set on war.
If the White House and Pentagon were fixed on a war with Iraq, during the summer and early 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.
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 1982 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.
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.
Pentagon censors had to clear all war dispatches, photos and footage before they could be released. 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.
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.
What We Missed and Need to Remember
Americans never saw images of even one of the 100,000 civilians killed in the aerial war, just coordinates of precision-guided strikes, the majority of which missed their marks.
We never learned that the government’s goals had changed from expelling Saddam’s forces from Kuwait to destroying Iraq’s infrastructure. Or what a country with a destroyed infrastructure looks like — with most of its electricity, telecommunications, sewage system, dams, railroads and bridges blown away.
There were no photos or stories of the start of the ground war on Feb. 24, 1991, after Iraq had agreed to a Russian-brokered withdrawal. We never saw the “bulldozer assault” of Feb. 24-26, when U.S. soldiers with plows mounted on tanks and bulldozers moved along 10 miles of trenches, burying alive some 1,000 Iraqi soldiers. Or the night of Feb. 26, when allied forces cordoned off a stretch of highway between Kuwait and Basra, Iraq, incinerating tens of thousands of retreating soldiers and civilians, in an incident come to be called the “Highway of Death.”
We saw no coverage of dead Kurds and Shiites who, at Bush’s instigation and expecting his support, rose up against Saddam. Nor in the months and years after, the news of the Iraqi epidemic of birth defects, cancers and systemic disease.
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. We never heard of 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.
As for our own, there were 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 200,000 troops who returned profoundly ill from Gulf War illness; the trauma, addiction and/or brain damage that caused veterans to kill their wives, family, fellow citizens, and/or themselves; and, of course, on Sept. 11, 2001, the tragic event used by the George W. Bush administration to launch a second war against Iraq.
There was 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 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.”
Barack Obama’s early opposition to George 43’s Gulf War was a sign of the integrity, knowledge, and depth for which Americans would elect him, trusting these virtues would guide us in hard times. Patriotic etiquette discourages politicians, especially presidents, from bearing complexities in public forums.
But war-weary, broke and scared Americans will welcome the president breaking rules and speaking awkward truths.
Invasion and violence, like chickens, do come home to roost. We’re ready for a leader who grasps history’s complications and heeds its lessons and who won’t release us from one war only to tie us to another, and another.
Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as the Partisan Review, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Tikkun, and the Guardian UK. Her third novel, When You Come Home, which explores the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness, was published last month by Curbstone Press.