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George Herbert Walker Bush and the Myth of the 'Good' Gulf War

This draws on articles about the 1991 Gulf War the author wrote which drew on the writer's extensive research for her 2008 novel, "When You Come Home" (Curbstone)-- which chronicles the lives of young veterans returning home from Desert Storm.

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original cartoon by Gary Huck / http://huckkonopackicartoons .com,

President George Herbert Walker Bush considered the 1991 Gulf War his highest achievement, a signature moment in world history, and for nearly three decades mainstream media have agreed.  On the occasion of his death, they are sticking to the story. The New York Times obituary praised him for the “global coalition” he assembled to “eject Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, sending hundreds of thousands of troops in a triumphant military campaign.”  A Washington Post article on Bush 41’s legacy in the Middle East explains that the World War II fighter pilot “came to view Saddam as similar to Adolf Hitler, a madman who seized neighboring Kuwait and could plunge the world into conflict if he continued into Saudi Arabia.” And thus “Bush rallied together a coalition of nations” to curb the dictator’s power.  Yes, Desert Storm lasted only 43 days with only 148 U.S. fatalities in battle, a third from friendly fire.  But that’s about the only truth in the official history of the late President’s Gulf War. The evidence that has mounted over the years tells a very different story. The Gulf War of Bush the Father was as sinister and destructive as that of his son.

1. The Persian Gulf War had been in the planning for years before the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

As legal scholar Francis Boyle has documented, soon after the 1988 termination of the 8 year Iraq-Iran War, the Pentagon began planning the destruction of Iraq. In October 1990, Colin Powell referred to a new military plan for Iraq developed the year before.

In early 1990, General Schwarzkopf told the Senate Armed Services Committee of this new military strategy in the Gulf and to protect U.S. access to and control over Gulf oil in the event of regional conflicts, and after the war, he referred to eighteen months of planning for the campaign as Commander of the U.S. Central Command. During January of 1990, massive quantities of United States weapons, equipment, and supplies were sent to Saudi Arabia in order to prepare for the war against Iraq.

2. The Bush 41 administration gave Saddam a green light to Invade Kuwait, then used it as an excuse for invading Iraq

Much debate surrounds the true content of the meeting between Saddam Hussein and Ambassador April Glaspie on July 25, 1990. But Glaspie’s own cable, released by WikiLeaks almost a decade ago and long available at the Bush Library and on the website of none other than Margaret Thatcher, paints a picture of a government with a two-faced foreign policy. Saddam complains that “certain circles” in the U.S. government were antagonistic to Iraq and Glaspie agrees, though with confidence and apparent sincerity she assures him of the “friendship” and “non-confrontational” agenda of the President and Secretary of State. In another follow-up cable four days later, Glaspie reports on her July 28 meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, in which he complains of the U.S.’s increasingly provocative actions and Glaspie herself seems increasingly frustrated. She writes that it is important not to hit Iraq with “bolts out of the blue” such as cessation of U.S. exports, which has come as a surprise even to her. In both cables, it’s now clear, Glaspie was presenting the official friendly position of the George W H Bush administration, just as behind the scenes, government hawks were preparing a war.

In her July 29 cable, Glaspie offers the State Department advice on handling the matter, including keeping a low profile and reminding colleagues as she had Saddam in the earlier meeting that “we have never taken substantive positions on inter-OPEC or Arab border disputes”— which was the matter at hand. In her earlier cable, Glaspie wrote that Saddam made clear that “if Iraq is publicly humiliated by the United States it will have no choice but to ‘respond,’ however illogical or self-destructive that would prove.” She advises the State Department not to make him lose face.

Glaspie was not the only official to express this laissez-faire position. On July 26, at a Washington press conference, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutweiler was asked by a journalist if the U.S. had sent any diplomatic protest to Iraq for putting 30,000 troops on the border with Kuwait. “I’m entirely unaware of any such protest,” Tutweiler replied. On July 31, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs John Kelly testified to Congress that the “United States has no commitment to defend Kuwait, and the U.S. has no intention of defending Kuwait if it is attacked by Iraq.”

Two days later, on August 2, when Saddam’s troops entered Kuwait, he had no reason to believe that the U.S. would come to Kuwait’s defense with a half-million troops. Or that when he tried to negotiate a dignified retreat though Arab leaders, the U.S. would refuse to talk, as James Ridgeway chronicles in his January 1991 Village Voice articles.

By Sunday, August 5, Bush was in, announcing after a weekend at Camp David, “This will not stand.” On August 6, Cheney received approval from the Saudis for a large U.S. deployment.  Giddy from his invasion of Panama, he was raring to go.

3. The Bush 41 Administration dis-informed congress and the public to drum up support for an unpopular war and bribed and bamboozled other countries

If the CIA, the Pentagon, and by summer’s end the President and Secretary of State were fixed on a war with Iraq, during the fall of 1990, the American public and Congress were not. To change that, the week after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government, disguising itself as “Citizens for a Free Kuwait,” hired the global PR firm of Hill & Knowlton to win Americans’ hearts and minds.

It is important to note that Craig Fuller, a close friend of George H.W. Bush and his chief of staff when he was vice president, was in charge of Hill & Knowlton’s Washington office.  For $11.8 million, Fuller and more than 100 H&K executives across the country oversaw the selling of the war.

They organized public rallies, provided pro-war speakers, lobbied politicians, developed and distributed information kits and news releases, including scores of video news releases shown by stations and networks as if they were bona fide journalism and not paid-for propaganda.

H&K’s research arm, the Wirthlin Group, conducted daily polls to identify the messages and language that would resonate most with Americans. In the 1992 Emmy award-winning Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary "To Sell a War," a Wirthlin executive explained that their research had determined the most emotionally moving message to be “Saddam Hussein was a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped.”

To fit the bill, H&K concocted stories, including one told by a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah, to another H&K concoction, the House Human Rights Caucus looking to pass as a congressional committee. According to the caucus, Nayirah’s full name would remain secret in order to deter the Iraqis from punishing her family in occupied Kuwait. The girl wept as she testified before the caucus, apparently still shaken by the atrocity she witnessed as a volunteer in a Kuwait City hospital, where Iraqi soldiers charged into the hospital room with babies in incubators and tossed the “babies on the cold floor to die.”

During the three months between Nayirah’s testimony and the start of the war, the story of babies tossed from their incubators stunned Americans. Bush told the story, and television anchors and talk-show hosts recycled it for days. It was read into the congressional record as fact and discussed at the U.N. General Assembly.

The fact that Nayirah was a Kuwaiti royal and the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington and that she had never volunteered in any hospital, it was too late. The war had already begun.

Another likely concoction was top-secret satellite images that the Pentagon claimed to have of 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks on the Kuwait-Saudi border, visible proof that Saddam would be advancing soon on Saudi Arabia. Yet the St. Petersburg Times acquired two commercial Russian satellite images of the same area, taken at the same time, that showed no Iraqi troops near the Saudi border, and the scientific experts whom the Times hired could identify nothing but sand at the supposed location of the advancing army.

But the St. Petersburg Times story evaporated, and the Pentagon’s story stuck. When Bush addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 11, 1990, he reported that developments in the Gulf were “as significant as they were tragic”: Iraqi troops and tanks had moved to the south “to threaten Saudi Arabia.”

Under U.S. pressure, United Nations Security Council adopted unprecedented resolutions allowing nations to use “all means necessary” for their enforcement. The U.S. won Security Council votes by forgiving huge loans, recognizing dictatorships diplomatically, agreeing to sell arms, and more. Boyle identifies specific violations and subversions of the U.N. Charter in these activities, most importantly the mandate to negotiate peaceful resolutions to international disputes. And, according to Boyle, in its decision to go to war and in its conduct of the war itself, the U.S. perpetrated a Nuremberg Crime against Peace. As James Baker has often admitted, winning allies for the first Gulf War in 1991 involved “cajoling, extracting, threatening and occasionally buying votes.”

4. The 1991 Gulf War’s stated goal of ejecting Iraqi troops from Kuwait quickly revealed itself as an all-out effort to destroy Iraq

The war’s stated intention was to remove Iraq’s presence from Kuwait. But quickly, that intention changed to destroying Iraq. The air and missile attack of Iraq continued for 42 days, dropping more bombs in that brief period than bombs in all wars in history combined. Iraqi aircraft and anti-aircraft or anti-missile ground fire offered no resistance. The aerial and missile bombardment in a matter of hours destroyed most military communications and over the course of the next few weeks attacked Iraqi soldiers who were unable to secure food, water, and equipment due to this breakdown. Some 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died, according to General Schwarzkopf, most of whom were incapable of fighting.

Mosques, homes, schools, hospitals markets, commercial and business districts, factories, office buildings, vehicles on highways, bridges, and roads were common targets. Though estimates of civilian deaths during the war range from 25,000 to over 100,000, all count children at above 50% of the immediate casualties. And after 6 weeks, the most sophisticated of Arab states was in ruins.

By most accounts, at least one hundred thousand people died soon after the war from dehydration, dysentery, malnutrition, starvation, and illnesses, from contaminated water, starvation, and exposure to impure water, hunger, cold, and shock. In the period between the end of Desert Storm and the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the degraded environment and sanctions led to the death of an estimated million more, half of them children. Medicines, food, baby formula—these were among the essentials kept from the Iraqi people in the initial and ensuing stages of the war against Iraq. And they were among the essentials that sanctions under both Bush Presidents and Clinton kept from the Iraqi people, constituting Nuremberg Crimes Against Humanity and the Crime of Genocide under international and U.S. law, according to legal scholars.

5. Under Bush 41, a system of censorship hid the true nature of the war and its aftermath from the public

In the lead-up to war, U.S. media organizations, with rare exceptions, had begun to back away from investigative reporting and journalistic scrutiny. Once the war began, government censorship combined with this self-censorship produced a media blackout. The restrictions on the press were tighter than during any earlier American war. Journalists could not travel except in pools with military escorts, and even then most sites were off-limits. Department of Defense guidelines stated that stories would not be judged for “potential to express criticism or cause embarrassment,” but journalists weren’t taking any chances. When news anchors weren’t hosting retired generals and pundits, or screening eerie green images of the coordinates of the day’s targets, they were praising the military on a job well done.

Pentagon censors had to clear all war dispatches, photos and footage before they could be released. Two months after the war ended, the editors of 15 news outlets protested to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney about the Pentagon’s control. But the damage had been done.

6. Bush 41’s Gulf War accelerated Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s jihad

Al Qaeda was founded in 1988, but the 1991 Gulf War fueled sprung it into action. Bin laden, whose billionaire construction family was closely tied to the royal family, was furious that the the royal family welcomed U.S. troops into the country, sullying the holiest Muslim sites with their presence. Once the war started, his outrage grew that the royal family was allowing the US to stage its brutal attacks on Iraqi soldiers and civilians.  His public criticism of the royal family led to his expulsion in 1991.  In his exile in Sudan, with the hundreds of millions of dollars he brought with him, he built his organization, and planned jihad.

Al Qaeda’s first bomb attack occurred in December 1992 at the Gold Mihor hotel in Aden, where two people were killed. Two months later they made their first attack on the World Trade Center, detonating a 500kg bomb that killed six and injured thousands.

Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa, often quoted in the media, declares that “killing Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”  Less quoted is the part of the sentence that references the 1991 Iraq War--” in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”

7.Bush 41’s Gulf War violated international military law

Seymour Hersh’s 2000 New Yorker article “Overwhelming Force” exposed the Highway of Death, the corral and massacre of retreating Iraqi soldiers Two days after the UN and Soviet brokered ceasefire and the day before peace talks were to begin, Hersh tells us, two-star General Barry McCaffrey overrode his division commander and ordered his 24th Division to engage in an all-out attack on a retreating Republican Guard tank division on their way back to Baghdad. As Hersh describes it: “Apache attack helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, and artillery units from the 24th Division pummeled the five-mile-long Iraqi column for hours, destroying some seven hundred Iraqi tanks, armored cars, and trucks, and killing not only Iraqi soldiers but civilians and children as well.” There were no U.S. casualties on what came to be called the Highway of Death. Lieutenant General Ronald Griffith, commander of 1st Armored Division of VII Corps, told Hersh that the Iraqi tanks were facing backwards, atop a trailer truck taking them to Baghdad. “It was just a bunch of tanks in a train, and he made it a battle,” Hersh reports Griffith saying, but McCaffrey “made it a battle when it was never one. That’s the thing that bothered me the most.”

8. Bush 41’s Gulf War sickened approximately a third of US veterans

In 2008, a congressionally mandated Research Advisory Committee (RAC) made up of prestigious scientists confirmed what veterans and their families have long asserted: That "without a doubt," Gulf War illness, as it's come to be called, is a profound, multi-system physical illness "caused" by brain-damaging chemicals to which troops were exposed by the Department of Defense. The RAC report identified three specific neurotoxins as certain culprits: anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take (or risk court martial), insecticides and repellents that drenched troops' tents, clothing, and gear, and nerve gases including sarin (the killer chemical in the Tokyo subway attack) emitted into the air when U.S. forces dismantled and demolished a vast munitions storage facility in Khamisiyah. The skin, stomach, minds, hearts, lungs and every other organ of hundreds of thousands of American veterans of Desert Storm (and Desert Shield, the operation preparing for war) were not psychological, as the government had insisted for almost 20 years. ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, disabling neuropathies, heart attacks, difficulty breathing, walking standing—all these, we now know, were caused by neurotoxins including experimental anti nerve gas pills soldiers had to take or risk court martial, insecticides and pesticides that the military administered recklessly, sarin and other gases released into the air when we bombed an Iraq military storage  facility at Khamysia, with a growing body of evidence regarding the role of depleted uranium.

 In 2012 the VA shredded the blue-ribbon RAC team and continues to drag its feet on research and treatments.

9. Several notorious massacres since Bush 41’s Gulf War have been committed by Gulf War Veterans, some whose brains have been severely damaged from exposure to toxic chemicals and/or trauma

Consider the case of John Allen Muhammad, (formerly John Allen Williams) --who came to be known as the Beltway Sniper, who murdered   In her 2009 memoir, Scared Silent, Mildred Muhammad, the later of his two ex-wives, writes that her husband went to the 1991 Gulf War a "happy," "focused, and "intelligent" man, who returned home "depressed," "totally confused," and "violent," making her fear for her life. In their briefs, Muhammad's appeals lawyers stressed that his "severe mental illness" never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (Till the end, he maintained his innocence, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.) In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad's lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Virginia Governor Tim Kaine were impressed. According to Governor Kaine, "crimes that are this horrible, you just can't understand…."

But mental disorders from depression to mood swings, thought disorders, violent outbursts, and delusions are not uncommon among Gulf War veterans in addition to physical symptoms such as rashes, vertigo, respiratory and gastrointestinal problem, and neurological diseases like Parkinson's, ALS, and brain tumors. According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, "a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal" seemingly "out of nowhere." Indeed, as early as 1994, University of Texas epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, the preeminent researcher of Gulf War disease, had demonstrated that the brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness were distinctly abnormal.

Muhammad's lawyers pointed to childhood beatings as a cause of his psychiatric disease and brain malformation, claiming that Gulf War syndrome exacerbated these conditions. But they didn't mention that Mohammad had no history of mental illness before the war--and that during the war he was stationed in Khamisiyah.

It probably wouldn't have helped. In 2002, another Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr. was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of a young female soldier, Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride. Like Sergeant Muhammad, Sergeant Jones was an exemplary soldier decorated in the war; but also like Muhammad, he returned from Desert Storm depressed, disoriented, and increasingly anti-social and bizarre. Like Muhammad, his defense was inadequate--but his appeals lawyer displayed MRIs and other scans of his abnormal brain, arguing that it was evidence of the brain damage from toxins he and other veterans with Gulf War disease were exposed to in-country. Supporting the petition for clemency was the written testimony of Dr. Haley that "there is now a compelling involuntary link between Mr. Jones' neurotoxic war injury and his inexplicable crime." Like Muhammad, Jones was stationed in Khamisiyah during the demolition, which poisoned thousands of troops and then thousands more as sarin plumes traveled far and wide, a fact the government hid for close to a decade.

And then there's the case of Timothy McVeigh. We have no scans of his brain, but we have ample reports of his mental state before and after Desert Storm, and evidence that the war changed him profoundly. In their biography, American Terrorist, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck paint a vivid picture of McVeigh's days in the ground war. The enthusiastic young marksman, at first, happily followed orders and shot an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun over a mile away. When a bloody mist replaced the soldier's head in his viewfinder, McVeigh was disturbed and discharged the rest of his round into empty desert sand. Later, after Saddam had agreed to a UN and Soviet brokered ceasefire, McVeigh was further shocked and shaken by orders to kill defeated Iraqi soldiers traveling home on the highway from Kuwait to Iraq (come to be known as the "Highway of Death" for the thousands that U.S. Forces corralled and massacred on the night of Feb 26, 1991). He watched the road in horror as dogs chewed on human limbs, and as human bodies without arms or legs tried to crawl away.

In his famous 60 Minutes interview ten years later, McVeigh would tell Ed Bradley that the killing changed him. He found himself thinking, "I'm in this person`s country. What right did I have to come over to his country and kill him? …How did he ever transgress against me?" He went over thinking, "Not only is Saddam evil, all Iraqis are evil." But quickly it was "an entirely different ballgame… face to face…you realize they`re just people like you." He told Bradley that the government modeled brutal violence. In a 1998 prison essay he objected to the United States’ continuing campaign against Iraq: It was the U.S. that had "set the standard" for "stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction.”

McVeigh's experience in the Gulf War surely altered his thinking. But did it also alter his brain? What toxins might have entered his body on the highway where U.S. forces had just dropped cluster bombs and 500-ton bombs of napalm and depleted uranium, incinerating thousands vehicles and the people inside. He told Ed Bradley that when he came back "something didn`t feel right in me, but. I couldn`t say what it was." Psychological trauma alone, neuroscientists now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuroimaging shows the brains of those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be abnormal in areas regulating memory retrieval and inhibition (hippocampus), fearfulness and focus (pre-frontal cortex), and emotionality and lability (amygdala). The hippocampus of Alzheimer's sufferers is also shrunken and the amygdala of bipolar sufferers have enhanced activation similar to those with PTSD.

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The current trend in international war crimes and crimes against humanity is to consign crimes committed by individuals to national courts, and to apply international justice to those at the highest levels of government who make the decisions implemented on the ground. George HW Bush is now beyond the reach of international law to be tried for the crimes of Desert Storm and its sequels. But the evidence is ample and mounting for history to judge.

[Nora Eisenberg's work has appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Guardian UK. Her most recent novel, "When You Come Home" (Curbstone, 2009), explores the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War.]

Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.