Operation Desert Storm: Our Last "Clean" War

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Focal Points Blog (Foreign Policy in Focus)

Operation Desert Storm: Our Last "Clean" War

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Hannah Gurman

I was in seventh grade when the U.S. invaded Kuwait. I can remember the excitement of thinking that for the first time in my life, the U.S. was in a real war. (I guess my young self was unaware of the numerous covert wars—in Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere—the U.S. had been funding and arming throughout the 1980s.) Our tree-hugging, earring-wearing English teacher had us write letters to the soldiers in the Gulf to show our support for the troops. I remember how excited I—the daughter of unapologetic Mondale-loving liberals—was to get a letter back from the front. The old saying, “war is hell” didn't seem fitting for the colorful fireworks-like explosions that filled my television screen.  Nobody had to tell me. The message was clear enough. It was a "good war." Gulf_War_Commemoration.jpg

This feeling was no accident, but instead the product of a deliberate public relations strategy on the part of the Bush administration. There was, as historian Marilyn Young has argued, a “visual purity” to the images we saw in which machines dominated and dead bodies were relatively absent. This image of a clean war was helped by the institutionalization of the embedded press corps. In actuality, of course, there were plenty of bodies and destruction. The U.S. military reports 293 American casualties, though the number suffering from diseases associated with the war's lethal chemicals is much higher. No one knows exactly how many Iraqis died. One report commissioned by the Air Force listed approximately 20,000 combat deaths, not to mention thousands of civilians that died in air raids.

This past Thursday, January 21, marked the twentieth anniversary of the Persian Gulf War. If the First Gulf War was a “good war” in 1991, then it has become an even better war twenty years later. At Texas A & M, where George HW Bush and his advisors got together to mark the anniversary, Secretary of State James Baker remarked, “I think this is a textbook example of the way to go to war.” 

The unspoken, but obvious point of contrast was, of course, “Dubya's” 2003 invasion. The United States has a long tradition of using the memory of “good wars” to ease the guilt of more recent or ongoing “bad wars.” The Second World War is of course the ultimate “good war” in the collective memory against which the memory of “bad wars”—first Vietnam and now Iraq—has continuously been opposed. For a while, a majority of Americans were willing to pit the “good war” of Afghanistan against the “bad war” of Iraq. But as Afghanistan continues with no end in sight, that contrast has become a harder sell. Against the backdrop of long counterinsurgency conflicts, the Persian Gulf War has become an even more important point of contrast, an emblem of the quick, clean, and victorious war that we seem to have forgotten how to fight.

At the Texas A & M event, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell were in full agreement with Baker and with each other. The “chumminess” of the scene, as Elisabeth Bumiller described it in the New York Times, reflected the broader desire (especially on Powell's part) to separate the “bad” Iraq War from the “good” one.

The problem with this position is not just that the First Gulf War wasn't really as “good” as Bush and his advisors would like to remember. It is also that the “good” first war cannot be entirely separated from the “bad” war that followed it two decades later. We know too well that link existed in the mind of George W. Bush, who saw himself finishing up his father's job. It also existed in the mind of some of Bush senior's advisors, including Dick Cheney, whose role in both wars speaks for itself, and James Baker, who now argues that the U.S. should not have allowed Saddam to clamp down on protesters. The links between the two Iraq Wars exist as well in the form of a series of broken promises, first to the Shiites and Kurds who rose up against Saddam in 1991 and then to the Sunnis in 2007 who agreed to put their arms in exchange for a political voice. In both the First and Second Gulf Wars, U.S. officials have displayed a remarkable ability to overlook the human suffering and deprivation that has taken place in the wake of their interventions.

There was one person at the Texas A & M who did attempt to underscore the link between the good and bad Iraq wars—a protester who spontaneously walked down the aisle singing “Down by the Riverside” as Cheney was speaking. As the security guard escorted him out the building, Powell remarked in scorn, “If you don't want to study war no more, you better be ready to fight a war.” 

This protester is like the lone voice at the end of Twain's short story, “The War Prayer.” In the story, it is the man who speaks against the war (in the Philippines) who is regarded as the insane and illogical one. He is taken away because he is a danger to the community. In the strange logic of Powell and of the national security boy's club in general, the ignorant protester is similarly a danger to the community. And in the most ironic of twist, he is responsible for our nation's future wars. If America's past wars are any forecast, however, it is the studied men on the stage, and those directing our current wars, who are the ones we should really be worrying about.

Hannah Gurman

Hannah Gurman, an assistant professor at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.

Hannah Gurman is an Assistant Professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.  Her dissertation, The Dissent Papers: The Voice of Diplomats in the Cold War and Beyond, received Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize and is forthcoming as a book. She has published articles and reviews about U.S. foreign policy in numerous venues including Salon, Small Wars Journal, and Foreign Policy In Focus as well as The Journal of Contemporary History and Diplomatic History.

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