The World May Break Your Heart

Watching the first Gulf War on TV

I remember waking up in the morning during the first Gulf War in 1991, trembling, sensing something funereal at work in the world. It seemed utterly incredible to sit in front of the television and watch the eerie flickering tracers dance through the sky as the USA bombed Iraq. I wrote poems to get me through the night about the incongruity of little children with their lunch buckets emblazoned with Mickey Mouse icons carrying their gas masks to school. Many of us were numb as went about our daily lives, in my case, teaching seminars in graduate adult education about critical approaches to human learning.

We were numb even if we did not know that Iraq was a client of the USA when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. Two decades ago, the “vicious monster” was an ally. Right through the worst atrocities, the USA and the UK provided Iraq with lavish aid and the means to develop weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and nuclear weapons. He—the “Butcher of Baghdad”—was more dangerous then than he was throughout his later despicable regime. In the second Iraq war his statues were toppled (with the CNN cameras rolling) and he died a miserable death in some god-forsaken hole.

Shortly after the first Gulf War ended, with the oil fields spewing thick, dark smoke into the desert, the mass media in North American stopped reporting on Iraq and Kuwait. We knew that the Iraqi army had been devastated; images of bombed out, mangled tanks littering desert highways occasionally filtered into our living rooms. The media turned to other matters in the 1990s. We got on with our ordinary lives, but life was far from ordinary for the Iraqi people. The bombing continued throughout the 1990s. The United Nations applied sanctions against the Iraqis. Dr. Peter Pellet—a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, New Hampshire—served on four United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization missions to Iraq. He reports that the Gulf War actually destroyed much of the infrastructure for electricity and water sanitation in south-central Iraq.

This effected the ability of the government to provide safe drinking water to people in the region. In January 1999, a larger power station in Baghdad was blown up, affecting the ability of the Iraqi government to rehabilitate the water sanitation system. The oil-for-food program failed to meet the needs of Iraqis in the south. Sanctions induced nation-wide poverty. Iraqis were malnourished; thousands (perhaps as
weltonjustmany as 500,000) children died as a consequence. On September 3, 2002, Pellet found that the people lacked adequate amounts of meat, milk and vegetables. A significant proportion of the population required special care (particularly the young and women). Propagandists for the US intervention in Iraq blamed Hussein for the death of thousands of children, but this smear tactic cannot be sustained. Even a liberal journal like Harper’s exposed US anti-humanitarian strategies.

Joy Gordon (“Cool war,” Harper’s, November, 2002) argued that the US “consistently thwarted Iraq from satisfying basic humanitarian needs, using sanctions [UN Security Council 661 is responsible for administering the sanctions] as nothing less than a deadly weapon, and, despite recent reforms, continuing to do so. Almost every aspect of Iraq’s exports and imports are controlled.” She shows that the “United States fought aggressively throughout the last decade to purposefully minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the country. And it has done so in the face of enormous human suffering, including massive increases in child mortality and widespread epidemics” (pp. 43-44).

Watching a plane smash into the World Trade Center

Almost as soon as the hijacked plane sliced into the World Trade Center on September 9, 2001, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared that the “world will not be the same from this time on” and that there had to be a “globally concerted effort” to fight terrorism (which he perceived as an “attack on the whole of civilization”). This statement sent a chill up my spine: the “war on terror” had begun; and as our television screens repeated apocalyptic images endlessly, some of us wondered what the hell was going on and how Israel figured into all of this. I scrambled through libraries, gathering Edward Said’s works and the writings of the likes of Israeli historians Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe. In fact, I read too much and almost drove myself and my wife crazy. I couldn’t get it out of my mind that when the US or Israel (or anyone else) says that we must go to “war” against “terrorism”, the horror of children crushed by falling buildings, parts of the human body splattering everywhere, sacred places and monuments smashed to bits never enters the consciousness. Even if these images break through into the supper hour, those of living in consumer paradises soon forget what we saw three days ago.

My wife and I were wandering through the streets of our suburban neighbourhood in Bedford, Nova Scotia in the aftermath of 9/11. We stopped and imagined the Apache helicopters whirling over the horizon, smoke billowing from freshly bombed homes, people screaming in the streets, chaos, blood and terror everywhere. We thought too of driving down the street towards the university and being stopped at checkpoints, interrogated by boy soldiers, humiliated by their contempt. War rips the fabric of life, woven by many imbricated threads, to shreds. Through the bombsights of a smart missile or on a general’s map, Iraq and Afghanistan are little different from war-game scenarios in the popular culture.

Once the word “terrorism” is tossed like a wet blanket over peoples and cultures, history and politics disappears. One cannot speak about “Palestinian suffering or Arab frustration because Israel’s presence in the US prevents it” (Edward Said, “Israel, Iraq and the United States,” Al-Ahram Online Weekly, 10-16, October, 2002, p. 7)). Even Paul Wolfowitz was booed at a pro-Israel rally in the USA when he mentioned Palestinian suffering in passing. In Canada, Concordia University—a public university mandated to teach critical thinking—banned meetings on the Middle East because of conflicts between Arabs and Jewish Zionists over Israel’s actions in the world. This act of censorship came to the Canadian public’s attention when Binyamin Netanyahu—a man who totally refuses the idea of a Palestinian state—was invited to speak to the university. Disruptions followed.

The “war on terrorism” (an ignominious phrase if there ever was one) has allowed Israel and its supporters to commit war crimes against the entire Palestinian peoples of the West Bank and Gaza with impunity. Memory struggles against forgetting, so it is good to remember that during the first two weeks of October 2002, “Israel killed 75 Palestinians, many of them children, it has demolished houses, deported people, razed valuable agricultural land, kept everyone indoors under 80-hour curfews at a stretch, not permitted civilians through roadblocks or allowed ambulances and medical aid through, and as usual cut off water and electricity. Schools and universities simply cannot function.” Only occasionally is any of this mentioned in the US media. “Suspected of terrorism,” such a tiny phrase, is “both the justification and epitaph for whomever Sharon chooses to have killed” (Said, 2002, p. 8) Remember Sharon?

The USA reacts only in the softest of terms to Israel’s endless cruelty and massacres of Palestinians. Israel is chided a little when Palestinian children are murdered; former president Bush even declared Sharon a “man of peace”: the tanks grind on; the suicide bombers explode on the beaches and in the buses. It is all ghastly, but the rock bottom reality is that Palestine is occupied territory, and one must resist pronouncing a facile pox on both houses. History twists and turns: the victims of the Holocaust have become victimizers and oppressors. Since 1948, the Israeli objective has been to destroy Palestinian society. Is this too harsh and unsubtle and unscholarly? Does it not seem to you that the Israeli state through its armed forces wants to drive the Palestinians back into a pre-modern existence? Israeli attacks on Palestine in the early 21-st century destroyed computers and files and hard drives were carried off from the central Bureau of Statistics; the Ministry of Education, of Finance, of Health, cultural centres, libraries and offices vandalized (Said, 2002, p. 2).

In the melancholic days and weeks after 9/11, the US government faked evidence and went after Iraq in March, 2003. They claimed that they would bring “democracy” to Iraq (and, perhaps, in due time, everywhere else). Aside from the wicked thought that “democracy” has either not arrived yet to America or has taken a long vacation, why would the Bush administration even dream of attempting to bring democracy to Iraq? If democracy means, minimally, that sovereign people choose their own form of governance, then this is not what the US wants. The Empire requires submission and disabled countries; it does not want any country to hold its head high and speak its own truths.

The Taliban weren’t rooted out and ISIS thrives this very moment; one decade later, the words of Phyliss Bennis (“Going global: building a movement against empire,” Znet Online, April, 2003) are still appropriate. US policymakers look out upon an Iraq “not only devastated and dishonoured,” but a “humiliated and enraged Arab world; a shattered system of alliances; and a constellation of an international opposition” (p. 2).

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.