issue 236 - October 1992
The Gulf in flames
Politicians and the media sold us an image of the Gulf War
as the cleanest, most sanitized war ever. And we bought it.
Or did we? David Ransom tests the shoddy goods.
"As one of the last things to see before you are blinded, it was something else," says Paul Jefferson. At least if I end up in hell I'll know what it looks like.'
It was June 1991. Paul was among the first bomb-disposal engineers into Kuwait after the end of the Gulf War. He was working freelance, clearing paths for the fire-fighters to the burning oil well-heads.
'Under the thickest part of the smoke clouds it was pitch black. You'd be driving with vehicle headlights on and it was like midnight, the stench of oil all around you, the oppressive heat and roaring from the well-heads, having to raise your voice to talk, just shouting at each other, the constant hiss, as you were driving, of tyres on tarmac soaked with oil. You could sometimes see beneath the smoke, all around you, maybe 20 burning wells and lakes of oil. It was surreal, like something out of Dante's Inferno.'
Then it happened.
'We were in an area it was reasonable to assume wasn't mined, and it was. I hit an anti-personnel mine. Two others next to it were detonated sympathetically and that was it. I got blown up. It was very loud and hurt like fuck - we had no morphine. There was about an hour and a half of consciousness, my leg pretty well gone below the knee, big holes in me, I'd been blinded. We drove back across the desert and I kind of slipped under. The next thing I knew I was having spectacular dreams in intensive care in Charing Cross Hospital.'
Paul is reflective by nature, and not just because he's been injured. Gung-ho he is not. He's a professional soldier, one of the very few people on the anti-Saddam Coalition side of the Gulf War who has had a personal price to pay for it. Yet he's convinced that the War was right.
'Nothing is worth my sight, let me assure you. But we don't live in a perfect world. The best we can do is look after our own interests. I would feel very disappointed and suspicious of the leadership of whatever country I lived in if it went to war for any other reason.
'That is what we were doing in the Gulf. For us, like it or not, the oil-producing areas of the Middle East are a vital economic interest. The Iraqis just walked into Kuwait armed to the teeth. Saddam could have pulled out, but he didn't. It's a simple issue: he'd walked on someone else's turf and that's not on.
'I would say that it was better that it happened than that it didn't.'
I disagree with him. I think, on the contrary, that the Gulf War was a misconceived adventure that resolved nothing.
At the time huge media networks spoke with great conviction and one voice, promoting what appeared to be a just cause. Saddam was demonized, the Kuwaitis sanctified. The Gulf War was a buzz, a free video game for real, The Big Story written in human blood, crowned with triumph. It had to be right - and so few body bags came back West that there was no need for a post-mortem. Everyone hurried to get on side.
Two impeccable moral reasons were mixed with oil to justify the Gulf War. The first was Saddam Hussein, the 'Modern Hitler', the 'Butcher of Baghdad', the tyrant who ate human rights for breakfast. Something had to be done about him. The second was Kuwait. One small state, a member of the UN, had been invaded by its much larger neighbour. The principles of non-aggression' and 'territorial integrity' had to be upheld or the world would fall to anarchy and chaos.
Well, Saddam Hussein became if anything more deeply entrenched and thoroughly objectionable as a result of the War than he had been before it began. Above all, when the War ended, he was still there.
The reason why
As for Kuwait, sure enough, after a brief excursion to the casinos of Monte Carlo, the nasty little regime that had been ousted by Saddam Hussein was reinstated. But the principle of non-aggression was certainly not engraved more deeply into the hearts of world leaders. The US itself would be horrified by the suggestion that it should renounce its history of invasions across Central America, most recently in Grenada and Panama.
So neither of the two moral principles on which the War was fought survive closer examination. Paul Jefferson is right. The real reason we went to war was to protect Western oil interests and affluence. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi now have more than half the world's remaining oil reserves, a larger proportion than 20 years ago. Without it Western industrial society, which in its turn consumes well over half the world's oil, would be unable to function.
The West has gone to great lengths to retain complete control over Arab oil. In the Arab world it has favoured tyranny and client states to democracy. That is why there is Arab hostility to the West and why, when Saddam turned on his sponsors and challenged the status quo, he had to be put in his place. Practical self-interest perhaps, but hardly a glorious cause for war.
This same lack of principle characterized the conduct of the War itself. You would have to return to the days of European colonial conquest before you came across another example of a 'war where there were so many more casualties on one side than on the other, which is what happened during Desert Storm - the air and ground assaults that began on 16 January 1991.
Very little evidence has ever emerged that Saddam's much-vaunted, battled-hardened army of a million men really existed. If it did not, then the Coalition's brilliant military victory was a brutal massacre, mere idle entertainment for a bored bully.
The closer you look, the more you discover an act of 'total war' against a cultured and basically defenceless civil society. It took two forms. Aerial bombardment 'took out' the electricity supply, water, sewage, irrigation and food-production systems, the basic means of life of the Iraqi people, returning them to a pre-industrial age.
In addition the Iraqi people have been subjected to the most savage economic sanctions ever imposed by the United Nations. Let's be clear about this. Goaded by the US, the UK and France, the UN Security Council ordered that food and medical supplies to Iraq be intercepted - in complete contravention of international law, including the Geneva Convention and the UN Charter itself. The Iraqi people are critically dependent for their very existence upon imported food and medical supplies.
The effect on them has been devastating - and regularly dismissed in the West as Iraqi propaganda. According to Dr Margaret Fakhoury, paediatrician at the Elizabeth Hospital in Essen, Germany, as many as 100,000 Iraqi children have already died and a further 90,000 may die by May 1993 for want of the medicines and food embargoed by the UN Security Council.
There are no drugs and no vaccines in Iraq. Blood transfusions are made without tests for Hepatitis B or cross-matching. Leukaemia, cancer and dialysis patients remain untreated. Antibiotics, anti-coagulants, drugs for cardiac patients, syringes (the syringe factory was bombed), sterile dressings, saline drips - all are missing.
Listen to Luay's story. He lives in Basra, southern Iraq. He became a volunteer in a neighbourhood rescue scheme formed by parents and children during the Coalition bombing.
His worst recurring memory is of a head. The rescuers came across it in a ruined building. They were trying to identify human remains. So the head was carefully passed around in the hope that someone might know who it was.
Luay did. It was a school friend. Night after night he now dreams that he has the head in his pocket and is pulling it out to hand round for identification. He is just 13 years old. No wonder that in Basra, according to a detailed survey, most children feel they will not live to become adults.' 1
Many people at the time - including the NI - supported sanctions as an alternative to war. It has become clear since, however, that in practice sanctions were enforced not as an alternative to war but as an adjunct to it.
Most observers now agree that from a very early stage, and certainly once large US troop commitments had been made by November 1990, the Coalition was committed to war - Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait was 'talked up' as the 'nightmare scenario'. From that point on the priority was to reduce the likely number of Coalition casualties. Using sanctions to enfeeble the Iraqi population as a whole, and to sap the will and the ability of ordinary soldiers to fight, was seen as one way of achieving this.
The argument for sanctions was that they might in some way induce the people of Iraq to get Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait, if not the presidential bunker in Baghdad. But how? The Coalition partners had built Saddam up as a counter weight in the war with 'fundamentalist' Iran and had helped to fashion Iraq into a very efficient tyranny. Quite how they imagined that the Iraqi people might now rise up and over-throw Saddam Hussein is far from clear.
The answer is that they were not really supposed to overthrow him at all. Not until the Coalition, which had miscalculated so badly, was ready to take control of the aftermath. When the uprisings duly came after the War had finished, from the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south, the Coalition sat on its hands. The uprisings were duly cut to pieces by the Republican Guards who had mysteriously surfaced intact from Desert Storm and on whom Saddam relied for his power. The most terrible suffering followed.
So we can see, in retrospect, that there was no justification for sanctions to be used in this way. This kind of 'total war' visited on the Iraqi people for strictly military purposes is not unprecedented, but history may - and in my view certainly should - judge it to have been a crime against humanity.
Why should the Iraqi people now support the Coalition? Bomb Baghdad again, or police a 'no fly' zone over the Marsh Arabs in the south, and Saddam's defiance of the West enhances his prestige. Stage incidents, get rid of him, replace him with a more pliable tyrant, dismember Iraq into new client states, and 'fundamentalist' Arab sentiment - the backdrop of Arab hostility to the West against which the Gulf War was set - gains in appeal. The long-term security of Western oil supplies remains as illusory as ever. Violence begets violence.
In the face of so much human suffering the material and financial extravagance of the Gulf War pales into insignificance. It is said to have cost the US something in the region of $70 billion, the complete and continuing exercise perhaps $100 billion. Add in the cost of reconstruction in Kuwait and Iraq, the cost of bribing Arab states into joining the 'Cash Register Coalition', the cost to the migrant labourers who were evicted or forced to flee from the Gulf, and you can easily double that figure.
True to form, however, even the financial cost has not been paid for by the military partners in the Coalition. They recouped their losses from their client Gulf states and from the non-participant economic giants Germany and Japan. The US may even have made a 'small' (perhaps five billion dollar) profit.2
The real cost
And so the sorry saga continues. The West is now more dependent than ever on oil from the Gulf. The development of alternative sources of energy has been postponed and the globe keeps warming up with carbon dioxide from oil-powered cars, factories and power stations. Desert Storm did nothing but harm to the environment.
It introduced us instead to what you might call 'hi-tech diplomacy', the intimidatory effect and devastating results of remote-controlled weapons technology - an updated version of the 'gunboat diplomacy' of old. The North-South divide, which fuels most of the potential conflicts in the world, grows deeper.
The Arab-Israel conflict remains unresolved. Unwisely perhaps, the Palestinians opposed Desert Storm. That weakened their position and Israel became more intransigent. Agreement became a more distant prospect. The new Labour Government in Israel may be more amenable, but that is the result not of the War but of elections - a salutary lesson.
We are also left with a shambolic United Nations, its credibility seriously compromised. There is a price for this to be paid in places like the Balkans where UN authority is a matter of life and death.
Never again must sanctions be used as they have been against the Iraqi people. Never again can any member state be given UN authority to use 'all necessary means' to settle a score. Nor can the Security Council postpone change to a structure - the five Permanent Members with veto rights - which has survived since 1948, when colonial empires were still the order of the day.
But to get a true picture of the real cost of the Gulf War you have, I think, to return to that day, 2 August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The world was just emerging, blinking and incredulous, from the bunkers of the Cold War. There was a deep longing for peace.
Almost no-one supported Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. It's very important to remember this - that opposition to Desert Storm does not imply support for the invasion. Equally, almost no-one suggested that a massive US-led offensive would be an appropriate response.
Saddam's powerful sponsors in the West - their miscalculations, their interference in the affairs of the Arab world, their evidently well-founded mistrust of their own client regimes in the region - had seen to it that the task of tackling him would not be easy.
But who knows? If Arab opinion had been heeded (it is, after all, their region); if some thought had been given to what the Iraqi people wanted; if basic principles of democracy, human rights, international law and environmental conservation had been upheld; who then knows that Saddam Hussein would have got away with it?
All we do know for certain is that he survived. The only principle that survives with him is that you're not serious about anything unless you blow it up.
From his experiences as a professional soldier Paul Jefferson knows about this, the 'warrior culture' that drove the West and Saddam Hussein into battle.
'Yes, I know about the pain, the suffering, the pointlessness of war - and the glory,' he told me. 'You idealists on the Left can't see that. Look, I've sat in a helicopter breathing in the fumes of aviation fuel, my weapon hanging over the side, setting out to do the most serious business there is, to take the life of another man, and I've felt as if I were Achilles, as if I were a fucking god. Well I wasn't. I was mortal. I'm more humble now. But I have to tell you, those moments were like stars twinkling in a black morass.
We got drunk, and I was glad we'd met - glad, I have to say, that with a Kalashnikov assault rifle propped against the fireplace he is now no more of a god than I am. Glad, too, that there are other, less spiteful stars for us both to travel by. Those same stars warn me, at any rate, not to follow a course dictated by the Committee to Re-elect President Bush. At least this war, for these reasons and in this way should never, ever have been fought.
1 Information supplied by Felicity Arbuthnot, who visited Iraq earlier this year, and based on the evidence collected in Iraq by the UNICEF mission and the Harvard team of physicians.
2 'The Other Face of War' by Eric Hoogland (Middle East Report no 171, July/August 1991).
Chronicle of war in the Gulf
This special report appeared in the the gulf in flames - the real cost of desert storm issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.