the US poised to attack Iraq, it's helpful to recall what pushed
us over the brink last time ... the invisible steps and the unspoken
In the fall of 1990, when the US Congress was debating going to
International (AI) released an explosive report detailing
how Iraqi soldiers had taken Kuwaiti babies out of incubators
and left them to die on hospital floors. Many US Senators later
claimed it was the Amnesty "dead baby" report that finally
convinced them to use vicious force against the Iraqis.
Minor glitch. It was soon revealed that the Amnesty report was
a complete sham - Kuwaiti propaganda put together by the PR firm
Hill & Knowlton. The Summer 2002 edition of Covert Action
Quarterly describes how political infighting at AI had pitted
a board member (who said the report was too "sloppy"
and "inaccurate" to release) against a high-level official
at Amnesty UK, now suspected of having been an undercover British
intelligence agent, who released the sham report anyway.
Regardless, the attack on Iraq had already begun and television
viewers worldwide were absorbing endless footage of laser-guided
bombs, pinpoint missiles and other" precision warfare"
that miraculously seemed to destroy machinery without harming
civilians. Back home, flag-waving hysteria followed Operation
Desert Storm to its climax, and returning conquerors, including
then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, were
feted as national heroes.
Minor glitch. A few months later it was revealed that actually
200,000 Iraqis, many of them unarmed civilians, had died during
the six-week attack, including tens of thousands mowed down
in aerial assaults as they were trying to flee along what became
Highway of Death."
Equating civilians and combatants is integral to "The Powell
Doctrine" which recommends using overwhelming force on the
enemy, regardless of civilian casualties. In his autobiography,
Colin Powell discusses the Vietnam War and explains the benefits
of destroying the food and homes of villagers who might sympathize
with the Viet Cong: "We burned the thatched huts, starting
the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters ... Why were we torching
houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said people were
like the sea in which his guerillas swam. We tried to solve the
problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic
of war, what difference does it make if you shot your enemy or
starved him to death?"
Unmentioned is the moral implication of targeting civilians, or
why doing so would make them want to sympathize with the US.
A few years later, Colin
Powell was an up-and-coming staff officer, assigned to the
Americal headquarters at Chu Lai, Vietnam. He was put in charge
of handling a young soldier, Tom Glen, who had written a letter
accusing the Americal division of routine brutality against Vietnamese
civilians; the letter was detailed, its allegations horrifying,
and its contents echoed complaints received from other soldiers.
Rather than speaking to Glen about the letter, however, Powell's
response was to conduct a cursory investigation followed by a
report faulting Glen, and concluding, "In direct refutation
of this (Glen's) portrayal, is the fact that relations between
Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Minor glitch. Soon after, news surfaced about the Americal division's
brutality at My Lai, in which 347 unarmed civilians were massacred;
Powell's memoirs fail to mention the Glen incident.
Fast forward to April 2002, and having risen to Secretary of State,
Colin Powell reported to a US congressional panel about his visit
to the Jenin
refugee camp, site of a recent
Israeli attack. Powell testified, "I've seen no evidence
of mass graves ... no evidence that would suggest a massacre took
place ... Clearly people died in Jenin - people who were terrorists
died in Jenin - and in the prosecution of that battle innocent
lives may well have been lost." In the same vein, Amnesty
International issued a short release stating that while it appeared
"serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian
law were committed ... only an independent international commission
of inquiry can establish the full facts and the scale of these
violations." For its part, the White House also claimed more
facts were needed, and then Bush called Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon a "man of peace."
So in essence, the whole Jenin attack would
need to be swept under the carpet because (since Israel had
not allowed a UN investigation and NGOs had come up with very
little) there was not enough solid information to support accusations.
Minor glitch. Unmentioned is the fact that the US military, under
the auspices of learning about urban warfare, had accompanied
the Israeli military on its attack on Jenin (Marine Corps Times,
5-3-2002). Or the fact that dozens of foreign journalists witnessed
30 Palestinian corpses being buried in a mass grave right near
the hospital. Or the fact that local hospital personnel describe
seeing the Israeli military loading other corpses "into a
refrigerated semi-trailer, and taking them out of Jenin"
(which would answer the question posed in Amnesty's release, "What
was striking is what was absent. There were very few bodies in
the hospital. There were also none who were seriously injured,
only the 'walking wounded'. Thus we have to ask: where are the
bodies and where are the seriously injured?'').
Moral of the story? Truth is often the first casualty of war.
Before we hang our hopes on heroes or unquestioningly believe
what we hear from even the most reliable sources, we need to dig
deeper to find the real story. Second, while the US was appropriate
to be outraged at the targeting of its civilians in the September
11 attacks, we should extend that outrage to scenarios in which
our government targets, or is complicit in targeting, civilians
Wokusch is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org