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In October 1990, when the George H.W. Bush administration was cranking up public support for the Gulf War, the House Human Rights Caucus took much-publicized testimony from a 15-year-old girl who told of having been a volunteer worker in the al-Addan hospital in Kuwait City. She said she had seen 15 premature babies dumped out of respirators by Iraqi soldiers. The babies, she said, were left “on the cold floor to die” and the incubators were then shipped to Baghdad.
Only the girl’s first name was given: Nayirah. She had family in Kuwait, it was said, and she feared for their lives and her own if her identity were made public. She was taking a mighty risk in bringing this dastardly truth to the American people.
Nayirah’s testimony was a major factor in shifting American public opinion in support of Bush’s proposed Gulf war. It was one thing for George H.W.
Bush to say that Iraq was the evil enemy but quite something else to have the specificity of a young eyewitness who saw helpless babies left to die by vile men stealing hospital hardware. George H.W. Bush quoted and summarized her testimony in at least five speeches. Seven pro-war senators quoted it on the Senate floor. Amnesty International cited it in their list of governmental atrocities.
As it turned out, she did have a last name. And she had seen nothing.
The young woman’s name was Nayirah al-Sabah. She was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Her story had been manufactured for her by the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, a fact known by the Bush administration and by the congressmen who took her testimony. They also knew her identity.
Amnesty International later apologized for having helped circulate her story. The two congressmen who sponsored her testimony_Tom Lantos (D., California) and John Porter (R., Illinois)_did not. Lantos is still in Congress; Porter decided not to run for reelection in 2002. Hill & Knowlton is said to have received more than ten million dollars for its efforts on Kuwait’s behalf during that brief period when America was deciding what sort of action it would take in the Persian Gulf. The war resolution passed the Senate by a margin of five votes.
George H.W. Bush is no longer president of the United States but his son is. Bush II hasn’t offered us his Nayirah al-Sabah.
This Bush never feels the need to offer evidence. Like his sanctified Attorney General, he smiles and asserts, confident that his firm belief will suffice for all of us. For him, belief is evidence. It’s government by tent meeting He simply says Saddam is evil and must be destroyed, and with minor variations he repeats it like a modern Cato the Elder demanding in every speech the total destruction of Carthage: Carthago delenda est! would become Saddam delenda est! if Bush II knew Latin or knew or cared who Cato the Elder was, which he probably doesn’t, given the way he brags about never reading anything longer than a single page.
Perhaps he has far less interest in even the appearance of operating on the basis of evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, than his father. Saddam delenda est! Perhaps he really believes that revisiting father’s Persian Gulf adventure will dissolve the hydra-headed threat of international terrorism which every other world leader of substance insists remains outside the reach of conventional weapons of war and can only be solved by dealing with root causes: politics, not bombs and guns. Saddam delendus est!
More likely, he really does believe that 9/11 is the testimony that justifies all action against all perceived enemies, foreign or domestic, the fact that trumps all argument and discussion, the event that supercedes all written documents, guarantees, rights. Saddam delenda est!
Even George W. Bush, who does not read books, probably knows that in the spring of 146 BCE the consul P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus led the Roman force that destroyed Carthage. That’s one of the things you learn in prep schools and at Yale, or used to.
The Carthaginian survivors were sold into slavery, the city pillaged and then set on fire and kept ablaze for ten days. The Romans did not, as legend has it, cover the land with salt so nothing would grow, but they might as well have: Carthage was gone forever. So ended the Third Punic War. Cato had died in 149, the war’s first year, so we can only speculate at his reaction to Scipio’s triumph. Scipio’s behavior was documented by his former tutor, the Roman historian Polybius:
At the sight of the city utterly perishing amidst the flames Scipio burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men. This, he thought, had befallen Ilium, once a powerful city, and the once mighty empires of the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and that of Macedonia lately so splendid. And unintentionally or purposely he quoted–the words perhaps escaping him unconsciously–”The day shall be when holy Troy shall fall And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam’s folk.”
And on my asking him boldly (for I had been his tutor) what he meant by these words, he did not name Rome distinctly, but was evidently fearing for her, from this sight of the mutability of human affairs. . . . Another still more remarkable saying of his I may record. . . [When he had given the order for firing the town] he immediately turned round and grasped me by the hand and said: “O Polybius, it is a grand thing, but, I know not how, I feel a terror and dread, lest some one should one day give the same order about my own native city.” . . . Any observation more practical or sensible it is not easy to make. For in the midst of supreme success for one’s self and of disaster for the enemy, to take thought of one’s own position and of the possible reverse which may come, and in a word to keep well in mind in the midst of prosperity the mutability of Fortune, is the characteristic of a great man, a man free from weaknesses and worthy to be remembered.
That was the consul Scipio, who knew his Homer. That was then, and this is now.
BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University of Buffalo. He edits Buffalo Report.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.