The Gulf War Brought Out the Worst in Us

By Robert Jensen

Published in Los Angeles Times · May, 2000

Did a U.S. general in the Gulf War violate rules of engagement and, in effect, murder Iraqis after the cease-fire?

That’s the claim of journalist Seymour Hersh in the May 22 New Yorker magazine. The former general and current federal drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, has counter-punched, arguing that he is the victim of a journalistic vendetta.

Which one is right? It doesn’t really matter.

The incidents Hersh writes about are, in the context of the massacre we call the Gulf War, relatively trivial, and therein lies the problem with the controversy. By focusing on the actions of a commander in a limited arena, we risk forgetting what U.S. military forces did in Iraq in 1991–across the board, on a daily basis, in full view of all the world, with impunity. What we did has a name in the rest of the world, though it can’t be spoken in polite circles here: War crimes.

We have yet to come to terms with the enormity of the crimes our government and military carried out in 1991. If Hersh’s allegations are true, McCaffrey’s conduct was reprehensible and criminal, but those actions pale in comparison to the brutality the U.S. military unleashed on the people of Iraq throughout the war.

What brutality? What crimes? Start with the most basic facts about the U.S. attack on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Iraq.

The Geneva Conventions are clear on these matters: “Civilians shall not be the object of attack.” The charge to military forces in the U.N. Security Council resolution was to expel the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait. To do that, we dropped 88,000 tons of bombs over Iraq, one of the most concentrated attacks on an entire society in modern warfare. Those bombs killed civilians–both directly and over time through the destruction of the country’s power grid, food, water treatment and sewage systems. Some of that bombing of civilians was targeted, some indiscriminate; both are war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.

Recall the “Highway of Death,” the deadly stretch of road in Kuwait that was littered with burned-out vehicles and charred bodies. U.S. military forces, in violation of international law, fired on retreating and largely defenseless Iraqi soldiers just before the cease-fire. U.S. pilots described it in news accounts as a “turkey shoot” and “like shooting fish in a barrel.” The carnage was not only unnecessary but grotesque.

Remember the brutality of U.S. weapons. We used napalm to incinerate entrenched Iraqi soldiers. We dropped fuel-air explosives, ghastly weapons often called “near-nukes” because of their destructive capacity through fire, asphyxiation and concussion. We dropped cluster bombs that use razor-sharp fragments to shred people. To penetrate tanks, we used depleted-uranium shells, the long-term health effects of which are unknown. Widely accepted notions of proportionality and protection of civilians go out the window with such weapons.

Though the shooting war has stopped, the most onerous economic embargo ever imposed on a nation continues today. Supposedly designed to rein in the regime of Saddam Hussein, the harsh economic sanctions have only killed innocents–as many as 1 million in the past decade, according to U.N. studies.

In short: It is misleading to call the Gulf War a war; it was a massacre. In the words of British journalist Geoff Simons, who has studied the war in detail, it was a massive slaughter of a largely helpless enemy, with much of the killing occurring after the time when constructive diplomacy would have brought an end to the conflict and a secure “liberation of Kuwait.”

That is an assessment many people–likely the vast majority–around the world would agree with, but one rarely voiced in this country.

My goal is not to defend McCaffrey. But no matter how guilty he might be, I fear that demonizing him will divert us from assessing the responsibility of those politicians and top officers who planned and executed the slaughter. And it will keep us from asking why we–citizens with so much political freedom–have done so little to hold those politicians and officers accountable for the crimes committed in our name.