The United States-led war against Iraq commenced on January 16, 1991. On this the tenth anniversary of the Gulf War, the myths that justified the war continue to be widely circulated. It is important, particularly in the light of the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iraq and the devastating humanitarian impact of U.S.-led sanctions, to challenge these myths. To fail to do so will make it difficult to change U.S. policy and could even increase the possibility of another cataclysmic war in the future.
At the outset, it should be emphasized that Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein’s refusal to back down in the face of a strong international consensus against such aggression, was the root cause of the conflict. The question is not whether the United States should have taken a strong stand against the policies of the Iraqi government, but rather what the most effective means was of doing so consistent with the political, economic, environmental, and moral concerns of the United States and the international community.
Myth One: Upholding Principles
The first myth is that the war was about principles: about freedom, about the right of self-determination, about international law, about enforcing United Nations resolutions. It should be clear to anybody that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was irresponsible, illegal, and immoral. Iraq’s claim to Kuwait is completely ahistorical. Although the exact location of the border between the countries may have been arbitrary and unfair to Iraq, Kuwait has manifested its own unique tribal and cultural identity for at least two and a half centuries. The repression accompanying the Iraqi invasion was only slightly exaggerated by Western media—it really was quite brutal; the inhumanity shown by the Iraqi occupation forces was extreme. Yet it is important to point out that Iraq was not the only country in the world at that time that was illegally occupying neighboring countries and brutally repressing their populations in violation of United Nations resolutions.
For example, just fifteen years earlier, Morocco invaded Western Sahara—as in the Gulf crisis, a powerful, autocratic Arab country invading a small, resource-rich Arab neighbor. The Moroccans forced most Western Saharans out of their country, into exile in the desert, with horrific human consequences. In Southeast Asia that same year, Indonesia invaded the tiny island nation of East Timor. More than one-third of the population—over 200,000 people—perished in the repression that followed. The United Nations took immediate action, condemning these invasions and calling for an immediate withdrawal of foreign forces, just as they did in the case of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. No decisive action was taken by the international community, however, due to U.S. objections. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then-United States ambassador to the United Nations, reveals in his autobiography that: “The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” Morocco and Indonesia were major allies of the United States; the U.S. did not deem it appropriate to interfere with their policies.
Similarly, Turkey has continued its illegal occupation of the northern third of Cyprus. More than 2,000 civilians have been killed (including some American citizens), the entire ethnic Greek majority was forcibly expelled in 1974, and the island remains divided. And Israel continues to occupy much of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, all in violation of United Nations resolutions. During most of the Gulf War, Palestinians in the occupied territories were placed under 24-hour curfew, and were allowed only an hour or so every few days to purchase food and other scarce provisions. Thousands of Palestinians, including moderate intellectuals, were imprisoned without charge. In the three years before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Israeli occupation forces killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, including scores of children, hundreds of homes were demolished, orchards and other croplands were uprooted, and scores of activists were forced into exile. All of these actions were illegal under international law.
All four aggressors—Morocco, Indonesia, Turkey, and Israel—at that time were collectively receiving billions of dollars annually in unrestricted military and economic aid from the United States government. The U.S. was arming and subsidizing—and in some cases continues to arm—occupation forces. As a result, most Arabs—even those who opposed Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait—saw the Gulf War not as an act of principle but as an act of imperialism. Washington’s continued economic, military, and diplomatic support of Israel’s ongoing occupation and repression against the Palestinians has only added to the resentment felt in the Arab world toward the United States.
In addition to the double-standard concerning resolutions against illegal occupations, it should be noted that the Security Council is not the only branch of the United Nations. There is also a judicial wing of the UN, the International Court of Justice or the “World Court.” This court ruled in 1986 that the United States had to cease and desist its attacks on Nicaragua—including the mining of harbors and the support of the Contras, and pay compensation for this damage. The United States refused to even recognize the World Court’s ruling, joining Iran and South Africa as the only nations in recent years to be in such open contempt of the International Court of Justice.
The debate immediately prior to the Gulf War, still heard today in other contexts, considered whether the United States should be the world’s policeman. A policeman, however, is supposed to work under a legally constituted authority, obey the law, and enforce the law consistently. One who is a self-proclaimed and selective enforcer of the law, and who often flaunts the law for personal gain, is not a policeman but rather a vigilante.
The view by most in the Middle East is that the United States did not really care about the Kuwaitis but only about what was underneath Kuwait. The perception also persists that the United States does not really care about freedom, since the U.S. insisted on the restoration of the corrupt and despotic Sabah dynasty in Kuwait and did nothing to stop the human rights violations that took place after U.S. forces threw out the Iraqis. Indeed, many Arabs are bemused by the irony that the United States—which was founded in a war for freedom against monarchy—so eagerly went to war in defense of monarchy and continues to support other corrupt and autocratic monarchies in the region.
Myth Two: Hussein as Hitler
The second myth is the frequent accusation that Saddam Hussein was another Hitler, ready to take over the Middle East and the world. Although the nefarious nature of Saddam Hussein cannot be denied, it is wrong to exaggerate his potential for evil or to ignore the history of U.S. support for Saddam Hussein.
For much of the decade prior to Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait, the United States was giving Saddam Hussein both direct economic aid and indirect military aid and encouraging trade, including that of sensitive, military-related technologies. Prominent American political figures courted Saddam Hussein up until months prior to the invasion of Kuwait. The Reagan administration even sent in the United States Navy to protect Iraqi shipping during the Iran-Iraq war. (It was referred to as “Kuwaiti” shipping, but in fact much of the shipping was bound for Iraq in support of its war effort.) Even though the Iraqis had attacked twice as many tankers in the Persian Gulf as had the Iranians—they even attacked a U.S. frigate in 1987, causing the deaths of 38 American sailors—the U.S. was clearly supporting the Iraqi war effort when President Ronald Reagan sent in the American fleet.
There were widespread calls for international sanctions against Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran in 1980. Yet the United States was actually supportive of his effort, because the Ayatollah Khomeini was seen as the major U.S. enemy at the time. Similarly, when Iraq violated international prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons, killing thousands of Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians, widespread calls for immediate international sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime fell on deaf ears in Washington. This raises a serious question: If Saddam Hussein was really that much of a threat, why didn’t the U.S. respond earlier?
Like Manuel Noriega, whose government in Panama received massive economic and military aid from the United States and who was personally on the CIA payroll despite Washington’s knowledge of his human rights abuses and his involvement in the drug trade, the U.S. overlooked Saddam’s record as long as he was politically useful. Like Noriega, when his usefulness lapsed, Washington portrayed Hussein as some kind of monster, and the American public was told that the only way to stop him was to use military force.
Following its seizure of Kuwait, Washington was never able to produce any evidence to support its contention that Iraq was preparing an imminent invasion of Saudi Arabia. Though such an action by the Iraqis cannot be ruled out, it appears extremely unlikely: Iraq has never harbored territorial claims against Saudi Arabia, Iraqi troops dug in to fortified defensive positions immediately upon entering Kuwait, and Iraq’s troops did not move into Saudi Arabia, despite the lack of sufficient Western forces to produce a credible deterrent. The St. Petersburg Times got hold of satellite footage of the area from that critical period soon after the Iraqis seized Kuwait, and, contrary to U.S. government statements, there was no evidence of Iraqi troops massing on the border with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Iraq dramatically increased its number of troops in Kuwait only after allied forces arrived. When the Pentagon was asked by the newspaper to present evidence that would support its contention that Iraq was preparing to invade Saudi Arabia, officials refused.
The Hitler “bogeyman” has been used repeatedly to justify attacks by Western nations against the third world. The British and French insisted that the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser was “another Hitler.” The United States insisted that without a major war in Vietnam, the communists—like the Nazis—would then try to take over the world. As vice president, George Bush referred to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua as being like the Nazis, contending that government forces were going to invade the rest of Central America if they were not stopped.
Such rhetoric was used again against Iraq to frighten the American people into supporting an unnecessary war. Exemplifying this manipulation just prior to the war, the cover of the New Republic—considered the flagship magazine of the liberal establishment— sported a photograph of Saddam Hussein airbrushed in such a way that his long moustache was significantly shortened to make him look more like Adolf Hitler.
Yet Iraq has never had the industrial capacity, the self-sustaining economy, the domestic arms industry, the population base, the coherent ideology or political mobilization, the powerful allies, or any of the necessary components for large-scale military conquest that the German, Italian, and Japanese fascists of the 1930s and 1940s had. Though better off than most of the non-Western world, Iraq was still a third world country and was quite incapable of seizing or holding large amounts of territory. Hitler’s army could not have been completely destroyed in less than 100 days, as was Saddam Hussein’s.
Historically, armed forces have exaggerated their own strengths and minimized their opponents’ strengths in order to convince their enemies not to engage in acts of aggression. This has been one of the foundations of the theory of deterrence. However, recent decades have witnessed the reversal of this practice. Washington has consistently exaggerated the military forces of its opponents—be they Soviet, Nicaraguan, or Iraqi—and underestimated the ability of the United States and its allies to resist or overcome these “enemies.” From the perspective of deterrence, this is totally foolish: to exaggerate your enemy’s strength, while underestimating your own ability to resist, is to invite attack. But the Pentagon feels it is necessary to promote this perspective in order to convince the American people of the need to divert the nation’s resources to military production or to engage in a war. When, after deliberately exaggerating the strength of an enemy, U.S. forces defeat it soundly, the feat appears as an incredible victory, and the popularity of the U.S. military rises. So it appears that such posturing is for domestic consumption only.
Finally, the demonization of Saddam Hussein has been orchestrated in large part to deflect attention from the enormous destruction of the Iraqi civilian population and infrastructure caused by the war and postwar sanctions. The suffering of 22 million Iraqis is given far less attention by U.S. policymakers or media managers than the actions of one man who has been made into an easy target for popular anger. Since the Gulf War U.S. policies allegedly targeting him are in fact punishing an entire nation.
Myth Three: Iraq as a Nuclear Threat
A third myth is that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of producing nuclear weapons. In the middle of 1990, experts in the United States and in Israel, which had good reason to be concerned about Iraq’s nuclear potential, were saying that Iraq had the potential of producing one Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon in approximately five to seven years. Then, all of a sudden, the American public was told that the Iraqis would have an offensive nuclear capability within just months. It is noteworthy that this rhetoric surfaced in November of that year, when public opinion polls first indicated that this was the one reason that most Americans felt could justify a military attack against Iraq.
One thing Americans did not hear about, however, was that Saddam Hussein had for some time been calling for a nuclear-free zone in all of the Middle East. This plea was rejected by the United States. Located near both Israel, which had and still maintains a stockpile of at least 200 nuclear weapons, and Pakistan, which was extremely close to full nuclear capability (and has since tested several atomic bombs), the Iraqis saw their nuclear program as largely defensive, a program they offered to end, should they no longer face a potential nuclear threat from hostile neighbors. Unlike Israel and Pakistan, Iraq had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and had opened its nuclear sites to international inspection teams. Like most other governments, Baghdad found it hypocritical that Washington—which had blocked strengthening international nuclear nonproliferation regimes, had almost single-handedly quashed a worldwide nuclear test ban the previous year, and was continuing to develop its own nuclear arsenal—should find the Iraqi nuclear program so objectionable.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and other United Nations inspectors have since overseen the total dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear apparatus. There are indications that Iraq’s nuclear potential in 1990 was more advanced than earlier conservative estimates, but not nearly as imminent as the United States had insisted. In any case, the procurement of a few small nuclear devices does not mean that these weapons would ever have been used. Indeed, the United States and its allies survived for decades in the face of thousands of Soviet and Chinese nuclear warheads. Any use of such weapons would have been suicidal. To assert that Iraq would suddenly start threatening its neighbors with nuclear weapons was simply a scare tactic. To believe otherwise would be an admission that deterrence—the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for decades—is a lie. Even when pummeled by the heaviest attacks any country has faced in world history, Iraq never used its chemical weapons. That Baghdad would unilaterally launch a nuclear attack defies logic.
Even though Baghdad agreed to eliminate Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal as part of the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the region, Washington still refused to back the plan. The United States was, in effect, saying, “it’s okay for us to have nuclear and chemical weapons, it’s okay for our allies in the region to have chemical and nuclear weapons, but you cannot have chemical and nuclear weapons.” As horrifying as Iraq’s potential use of chemical and nuclear weapons may have been, Washington’s double-standards played better at home than in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Not only did such hypocrisy hurt U.S. credibility, it also raised questions about whether the U.S. had really exhausted all of the nonmilitary means of challenging Saddam Hussein’s military appetite.
Myth Four: Ending Saddam Hussein’s Power
The fourth myth is that the war was fought to get rid of a dictator—Saddam Hussein. More than 100,000 Iraqis died during the war, and hundreds of thousands more have perished from the effects of postwar sanctions, yet Saddam is still in power. President Bush urged the people of Iraq to rise up against their dictator, yet the U.S. did nothing to support the postwar rebellion and stood by while thousands of Iraqi Kurds, Shiites, and others were slaughtered. In the cease-fire agreement at the end of the war, the U.S. made a conscious decision to exclude helicopter gunships from the ban on Iraqi military air traffic, even though these were the very weapons that proved so decisive in crushing the rebellions. Only fifteen years earlier, after goading the Kurds into an armed uprising with the promise of military support, the U.S., as part of an agreement with the Baghdad government for a territorial compromise favorable to Iran, abandoned the Kurds precipitously; thousands were slaughtered. Washington has never opposed Saddam when his repression is exclusively internal or his aggression is directed toward U.S. adversaries.
Saddam Hussein’s regime, then as now, is brutal and totalitarian. Reports by Amnesty International and other reputable organizations documenting Iraq’s widespread human rights violations are well-known. Yet such behavior was not what bothered the United States. Washington has given massive military support to regimes that have been responsible for far more civilian deaths than even Saddam, such as Indonesia under Suharto.
Despite the nature of his rule, however, and despite the fact that he diverted much of Iraq’s resources to military purposes, Saddam Hussein, in his prewar period, did more than most rulers in that part of the world to meet the basic material needs of his people in terms of housing, health care, and education. In fact, Iraq’s impressive infrastructure and strongly nationalistic ideology led many Arabs to conclude that the overkill exhibited by American forces and the postwar sanctions was a deliberate effort to emphasize that any development strategy in that part of the world must be pursued solely on terms favorable to Western interests.
Saddam Hussein was also able to articulate the frustrations of the Arab masses concerning the Palestinian question, sovereignty regarding natural resources, and resistance to foreign domination. He was certainly opportunistic and manipulative in doing so, but it worked. Most Arabs were strongly opposed to Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait. They were keenly aware of the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and of its brutality. Yet Kuwait was not the main issue to them; it became much more than that. With the launch of the allied attacks, the primary showdown pitted one of the most articulate spokesmen for Arab nationalism against the West. Since the Crusades, the West has repeatedly invaded and exploited Arab peoples, prompting an enormous amount of resentment. Thus, there was real concern, both in the Middle East and beyond, that the United States was using Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as an excuse to exert a long-desired military, political, and economic hegemony in the region.
Indeed, the U.S.-led military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait turned Saddam Hussein from aggressor to defender and from bully to hero in the eyes of much of the Arab world. This perspective, regretfully, seems to have spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. There are many people, like the majority of Jordanians and Palestinians, who have never liked Saddam Hussein yet have come to his side. This response is not out of naiveté about Saddam’s character, in most cases, nor is it a defense of his aggression against Kuwait. Rather it is a very deep-seated feeling of a people who have repeatedly been subjected to foreign domination and have found a symbol of resistance in Saddam Hussein. Though tarnished by the decisiveness of Saddam’s defeat, this cult of resistance does not bode well for the development of more responsible leadership in the Middle East.
The fact that so many Arabs supported Saddam is not due to the racist notion that there is something inherent in Islamic culture that predisposes Arabs to support autocrats. In one respect, the United States won the battle but lost the war. The U.S. defeated Saddam Hussein’s army, but America is now faced with tens of millions of Arabs more hostile to the United States than they had been previously, and with whom the United States will have to deal for many years to come.
Myth Five: The Only Option
The fifth myth is the belief that military force was the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein’s invasion. In the days immediately following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Arab leaders were very close to convincing Iraq to withdraw. No other member of the Arab League supported the invasion. But the sudden onrush of American forces into the region caused Saddam Hussein to harden his attitude. In return for the Arab-sponsored withdrawal, there may have been some compromises—perhaps regarding the exact location of the border separating Iraq and Kuwait or concerning the restoration of the Sabah family to the throne—but there is little question that Iraq would have been out of all of inhabited Kuwait within weeks of the invasion had the U.S. allowed this dispute to remain an Arab affair.
There were several possibilities for a negotiated settlement between the U.S. and Iraq. One meeting at the foreign ministry level a week before hostilities broke out does not constitute exhausting the possibilities. Unilateral demands are not negotiations. American specialists on the negotiation process felt that the United States wanted a war, given that Washington gave the Iraqis no opportunity to save face. One needs to declare some kind of victory, if only a 2% victory. There were a number of ways the United States could have negotiated an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and met other legitimate security concerns short of declaring war. Minor boundary adjustments or an internationally supervised referendum on the future of the Kuwaiti monarchy could have been proposed and pursued, but were not.
In the middle of the war, in late February, the Iraqis agreed to withdraw from Kuwait prior to the launching of the ground war, accepting the Soviet peace proposal in full. The possibility of a peaceful solution was so feared in Washington that possible Iraqi acceptance of the Soviet plan was referred to as the “nightmare scenario.” The U.S. continued its attack, even as Iraqi forces were withdrawing. Thousands of retreating soldiers and civilian refugees were slaughtered as they fled northward hundreds of miles into Iraq. There was no escape; they were herded and steered, usually not even given a chance to surrender. American pilots referred to it as a “turkey shoot.” The one-sided victory in the ground war was not exclusively the result of U.S. military prowess. Instead, it appears that the Iraqis were evacuating—or had already evacuated—their positions when U.S. ground forces arrived. For example, the Washington Post confirmed that tens of thousands of Iraqi troops had withdrawn a full 36 hours before the first allied forces reached Kuwait City. These troops, too, were pursued by the American attackers.
Another alternative to military force was the UN sanctions, which were working. The CIA estimated that UN sanctions blocked 90% of Iraqi imports and 97% of Iraqi exports; no country can survive very long under those conditions. Such a rate of compliance vastly exceeds that of the postwar sanctions regime. In Iraq prior to the outbreak of the war, there were long gas lines, though the country is normally a major exporter of oil. There were also chronic shortages of basic foodstuffs, such as rice, bread, and sugar, which are staples in the Iraqi diet. Breakdowns, from lavatories to automobiles, were common due to a lack of spare parts. There was hyperinflation, though Iraq had a largely planned economy and had never experienced such havoc. The CIA predicted that Iraq would be forced out of Kuwait by sanctions alone within six months. The sanctions were working materially, but they were not quite working politically.
The reasons were two-fold: first, the U.S. insisted that sanctions would continue even if Iraq withdrew from Kuwait, leaving Baghdad little incentive to comply. Second, the Iraqis were faced with a simultaneous military threat. When a country is faced with an external threat to its security, people tolerate a lot more economic hardship than they would otherwise.
Had sanctions started early, at the time Saddam Hussein invaded Iran or first used chemical weapons, he would not likely have invaded Kuwait. Or had sanctions been applied following his invasion of Kuwait (with removal conditioned upon his military withdrawal and without brandishing a simultaneous military threat), he would likely have withdrawn prior to the outbreak of hostilities. War was not the only option.
Myth Six: Protects U.S. Interests
A sixth myth is that the war was vital to United States interests. For example, concerns over access to oil came up quite a bit in the months leading up to the war. Yet only a small percentage of oil consumed by Americans comes from the Middle East. The Europeans and Japanese are far more dependent on Persian Gulf exports, but they were far less eager to go to war over Kuwait.
Actually, Americans need not be dependent on Middle Eastern oil at all. There are safe, renewable energy alternatives, such as solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and biomass options; the technology is available. These options may not be as profitable for certain energy conglomerates, but they are readily accessible. The U.S. could choose to go in that direction. What’s lacking is not more research but more political will. Government subsidies may be required to make these alternative sources more cost-effective, but no more than the subsidies Washington currently grants the nuclear energy industry and the oil-based economy. Perhaps it is no accident that the first president to get the U.S. into a major Middle Eastern war was also a former oil company executive. Indeed, had the Reagan administration not eliminated automobile fuel efficiency standards, which should have gone into effect in 1989, new American automobiles would have been averaging a full six to seven miles per gallon more than they did at the time the war broke out: the equivalent of all of the oil then imported from Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia combined.
Meanwhile, government support for public transportation was (and remains) the lowest in the industrialized world, and there has been virtually no support for conservation. Contrast that with Japan, which for years has stressed public transportation, conservation, and decentralized solar technology. Japan’s investment in a high-speed rail system has paid for itself many times over, as have conservation methods in industry. Rather than dumping billions of dollars into dubious synfuels projects, subsidizing oil-based transportation by building more superhighways, or leaving energy matters to profit-motivated market forces, the Japanese have ended up saving these expenses. Japan now uses far less energy per unit of GNP than does the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. taxpayers are spending millions of dollars every day to maintain American troops in order to protect oil supplies that would not be needed if alternative energy sources were utilized. Indeed, in the past thirty years, more than $500 billion has been spent on military forces designed largely to protect Middle Eastern oil fields. If these costs were factored in to what Americans pay for gasoline at the pump, this “real” price might encourage conservation.
Another issue involving vital U.S. interests is the broader question of security. Despite the Gulf War, the postwar sanctions, the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Middle East, and the support of Israel and autocratic Arab regimes, individual Americans and U.S. interests as a whole are more threatened in the Middle East than ever before. This raises the ironic dilemma: in the quest for greater American security in the Middle East, has the United States not made itself more insecure? In America’s eagerness to show its military prowess and to support repressive regimes in the region, the U.S. has made many Arab enemies. All the sophisticated military hardware, brave soldiers, brilliant military strategists, and allied regimes in the world cannot make up for this hostility. It is an enmity that the U.S. has paid for and will continue to pay for in the form of terrorism, missed opportunities for investment by American business, aborted diplomatic initiatives, and lost chances for invaluable cultural and personal exchanges between the United States and the Arab world.
Myth Seven: The Multinational Force
The seventh myth is that the U.S. was part of a multinational force. There was certainly impressive unity in the world community in terms of opposition to Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. The prewar sanctions were almost universally respected. The world reaction to the war, however, was mixed. Outside of the highly unpopular gulf monarchs, the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, and the economically strapped and enormously dependent Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, no Arab leader supported the military response to Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. Washington, never supportive of Arab unity, is probably quite pleased with the divisions it has induced.
The United States received lukewarm support from the UN Security Council essentially through bribery. To keep China from vetoing the UN resolution authorizing the use of force, the U.S. dropped trade sanctions and approved new loans. In return for Soviet support, the U.S. ensured that the repression in the Baltic republics was not discussed at the Paris Peace Conference. Colombia and Zaire, nonpermanent members, were promised increased aid and extensions of loans. When Yemen refused to toe the line, the U.S. yanked $70 million in aid. So it is questionable how deeply and sincerely the international community supported the war effort. Indeed, very few countries outside of Western Europe supported the Gulf War.
The U.S. did have some tangible support from Western allies, particularly in the air war and in some naval activities. However, the ground forces were overwhelmingly American, and Americans represented the vast majority of allied casualties. Perhaps the allies realized something about this crisis Americans did not: although they supported its liberation, Kuwait was not worth spilling their own blood over, particularly when nonmilitary options were possible.
Myth Eight: Ethical Considerations Not Essential
The final myth is that ethical considerations should not play a part in evaluating the war. Americans were told repeatedly, “we did this to Saddam, we did that to Saddam.” Yet Saddam and his henchmen were safe in their bunkers, and Saddam is still in power. It is the people of Iraq who died in great numbers, with most estimates in the range of 100,000 to 175,000. Though the proportion of civilians killed was much less than in other air wars, the bombing was the heaviest in world history—tens of thousands of sorties. Thus, the absolute number of civilian casualties was quite high—between five and ten thousand. It should be noted that even the so-called “smart bombs” had at most a 60% accuracy rate. Americans did not see any footage of the 40% that missed their targets, sometimes by miles. It should also be noted that these laser-guided weapons were a minority of the bombs dropped. Significantly, the vast majority of civilians killed were hundreds of miles from Kuwait and the occupying Iraqi army.
Americans were told that U.S. pilots made a good faith effort to avoid women and children. But does that mean that adult men are expendable? Most of Saddam Hussein’s forces were conscripts; many were even his opponents. In fact, Saddam deliberately placed on the front lines a disproportionate number of Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Shiites, and other groups traditionally opposed to his leadership, hoping that they would bear the brunt of the casualties. The United States military obliged, killing tens of thousands of them, even as they retreated. The result is that more opponents of the Iraqi government were slaughtered in six weeks of U.S. attacks than during the previous twenty years of Saddam Hussein’s repression. There are many documented stories of how desperately Iraqi soldiers tried to surrender; the vast majority were never given the chance.
With so much emphasis on the relatively small number of American casualties, neither the large number of Iraqi fatalities, the immense environmental damage, nor the enormous political and economic consequences of the war have been adequately considered. It is as if Americans believe that since the U.S. was successful, the war was therefore moral and unavoidable. Until Americans are willing to seriously address the ethical issues, they cannot understand the real implications of the Gulf War.
Whatever the crimes of Saddam Hussein’s regime—and there certainly are many—it is still people who die in wars. This is the nature of warfare. And this is why even those religious denominations that have historically backed “just wars” now question whether the criterion of proportionality can ever be met, given the destructive firepower available to armed forces in this modern era. In a world of increasing economic interdependence, with nonmilitary options more available, it is also questionable whether the criterion of war as a last result can be met either.
The United Nations mandate to use force only referred to the liberation of Kuwait. Yet the United States bombed virtually all of Iraq, including targets unrelated to the occupation. The U.S. did not just attack military facilities but zapped the country’s entire infrastructure: roads, bridges, factories, power stations, and government offices. For decades, long before Saddam Hussein came to power, the Iraqis had painstakingly progressed from their backwater Ottoman legacy to become one of the most impressive and developed states in the third world. Decades of construction efforts, much of it supported by international development agencies, was systematically destroyed.
Once again, it is the people who are suffering: millions of Iraqis, for the first time in decades, find themselves without clean water, electricity, or any reliable means for transporting food and medicines. A United Nations report notes that the bombing sent Iraq back to “a pre-industrial age.” Throughout the third world, the United States is now seen as a country willing to slash its financial support for development programs, but willing to spend billions of dollars to destroy one of the few third world societies that had brought itself up from abject poverty. Though the U.S. has insisted that Iraq pay Kuwait—one of the wealthiest countries in the world—for war damage, the U.S. has refused to pay for any of the far greater damage that its armed forces inflicted on nonmilitary targets in Iraq. The widespread physical destruction, difficult to repair without basic imports banned by the sanctions, has triggered a public health crisis resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians—mostly children—in the years since the war. The ethical consequences of the war continue to this day.
Myths Guide Current Iraq Policy
In many respects, the Gulf War seemed to be at least as much about asserting U.S. military power in the waning months of the cold war as about liberating a captive nation. Indeed, the above myths do not just continue to impact upon Washington’s misguided policies toward Iraq but have warped the overall thrust of U.S. foreign and military policy for the past decade. It will be difficult to challenge dysfunctional U.S. foreign policies—excessive military spending, unilateralism, punishing civilians for the crimes of their unelected governments, rejection of diplomacy, and more—until the myths themselves are successfully challenged. History can teach us a lesson only if it reflects what really happened, not simply on what those in power want people to believe happened.