Five myths of the gulf war

Robert Stinson

January 16, 1992|By Robert Stinson

THIS WEEK marked the first anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, but my own special day of remembrance has already come and gone: the day I taught the war. I offer a college course on the United States since 1945, and I knew at the start of last semester that somewhere near its end I must explain the war as history. What should I say? What did I say?

All historical events come into history teachers' lecture notes trailing long "histories" already. Events -- even recent ones -- have already been explained publicly in various forums and are already framed in words and concepts that have not only modified our impression of the events but have also become part of the events.

So my task was fairly straightforward, if not especially easy: I had to begin by confronting the myths that stood in the way of our even seeing the war in the first place.

Here are five myths about the Persian Gulf War which, I told my students, are so familiar we may be surprised they need questioning.

* The war was caused by one demonic man, Saddam Hussein. Certainly Saddam was the official focus -- the "Butcher of Baghdad" -- but the roots of the conflict go back to border disputes among the various artificial states set up in the 1920s by the departing colonial powers, Britain and France, who often simply drew lines in the sand that in no way corresponded with the aspirations of people who lived in the Middle East.

The U.S. interest in the region centered on its oil, not humanitarian purposes. Saddam was actually an American ally in the 1980s and his butchery was well known.

* The war was a United Nations action. It was not. The United States supplied most of the armed force, general staff and strategy. Our principal allies, Britain and France, had historic colonial interests in the Persian Gulf. It is as hard to imagine the U.N. taking action in the Mideast without American leadership as it is, retrospectively, trying to imagine a U.N. "police action" in Korea without the United States.

* The war involved very few military casualties. This is undeniable if one looks only at American deaths, which numbered 148, including 35 from "friendly fire." The Iraqi military death toll, of course, was much higher. Conservative estimates put the figure at about 70,000 but I have seen figures more than twice that. Saddam Hussein is still alive.

* The war caused relatively few civilian deaths. The precision of the air war, we were told, meant there was no Vietnam-style killing of innocent civilians. The "smart bombs" destroyed buildings and bridges without harming people in adjacent neighborhoods.

But the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure meant that in the months afterward many civilians died of starvation, lack of medical care and diseases carried by polluted water supplies. The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated as many as 70,000 civilians may have died as a result of the delayed effects of the bombing campaign.

* We saw the war on TV. Television coverage of the war did involve nearly instantaneous satellite pictures and commentary from the Mideast. But reporters were sharply restricted as to where they could go and what they could report. This was a self-conscious policy designed to prevent reporting that the Bush administration feared might cause Americans at home to lose confidence in the war effort.

The lesson in all this is that instead of celebrating the war, we should try first to simply remember what happened.

Robert Stinson is a history professor at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.

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