Americans have yet to engage in a serious or sustained public discussion of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, which was an unprecedented event in world history, a “deceptive war,” as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard put it, in which “the enemy only appeared as a computerized target,” never face to face.
Depicted by the U.S. military and media as a swift, clean, nearly bloodless war won by “surgical air strikes” of buildings and munitions, in fact it was a brutally lopsided affair. One hundred forty six Americans died, while allied troops killed upward of 100,000 Iraqis, many during the ground war inside Kuwait, but including about 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and 2,500 civilians who died directly from less-than-precise bombing operations. After the $61 billion bloodbath, tens of thousands of Iraqi children died as well, from poor public health conditions, food shortages, and Kurdish revolts that the war left in its wake.
All for what?
One might have thought that the American people, in the years that followed the war, would have debated that question. Saddam Hussein, whom President George Bush dubbed, “Hitler revisited,” remained in power.
Much of the moral rationale for liberating Kuwait from the Iraqis also proved bogus. A high-profile story and a set of photographs about Iraqi soldiers destroying incubators in Kuwait hospitals and leaving babies to die, for instance, turned out to have been planted by the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States.
Later determined to have been greatly exaggerated, if not completely false, that and other horror stories were key factors in gaining public support for the war. They were fed to the media by an American public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton (headed by Bush’s former chief of staff), which the Kuwaitis paid $ 11.5 million.
To this day there has been little national discussion of the possibility that the American people were duped by publicists who recognized that we “would be more likely to fight because of atrocity stories than because one feudal fiefdom was invaded by another,” as Arthur Rowse, a former editor of U.S. News & World Report, put it.
Among other brutalities following the war, hundreds of Palestinians in Kuwait disappeared and many were tortured in retaliation for Yasir Arafat’s support of Iraq. Kuwaiti authorities eventually drove 400,000 Palestinians out of the country.