Richard Lance Keeble
There was no Gulf War of 1991. In the way in which the term is generally used and understood, what was launched by the US-led forces 20 years ago this month, was not a war at all. It was nothing less than a series of massacres.
There was no credible enemy. The Iraqi army was constantly represented in the UK and US mainstream media in the run-up to the conflict as 1 million-strong, the fourth largest in the world, battle-hardened after their eight-year war with Iran – and led by “monster madman”, “new Hitler” Saddam Hussein.
When in January and February 1991, Iraqi soldiers were deserting in droves and succumbing to one slaughter after another, Fleet Street still predicted the largest ground battle since the Second World War.
Images of enormous Iraqi defensive structures with massive berms and a highly sophisticated system of underground trenches filled the media. In the end it was a walkover, a rout: a barbaric slaughter buried beneath the fiction of heroic, clean, precise, “humane” warfare.
In his account of Operation Desert Storm, General Colin Powell, head of the US armed forces, estimated that up to 250,000 Iraqi soldiers had been eliminated. In addition, in September 1992, an international team of researchers from Harvard estimated that 49,000 children under five had died in Iraq between January and August 1991 as an indirect result of the bombings, civilian uprisings and the UN economic embargo.
In contrast, figures provided by Lt Gen John Yosock, commander of US troops, suggested that of the 353 “allied” deaths only 46 were killed in active service. And of those 24 (52 per cent) were killed by “allied” fire (known in the euphemistic massacrespeak as “friendly fire”).
The Gulf war has a particular place in my own biography. I was teaching journalism at City University, London, at the time – and after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 I was regularly interviewed by students about the crisis. Time after time I said there would be no war. Surely the vast military arsenal headed by the US could never attack a defenceless country such as Iraq.
I was predicting what essentially I wanted to happen – and terribly afraid of the human consequences once the forces of the US-led coalition were unleashed. If the West were really committed to diplomacy, the war, I kept on stressing, could be averted. Yet in the end, the US-led forces bombed relentlessly for 42 days.
I was appalled and profoundly shocked by the conflict and angered at the unnecessary horrors inflicted on the Iraqi people. And so I devoted my year-long sabbatical in 1991-1992 to trying to understand the reasons for the slaughter. As I sat in Cambridge University library reading the Fleet Street accounts, I wept as I saw how British journalists had so often meekly and uncritically reproduced the heartless language of the military in their reporting.
For instance, on 1 February 1991, the Independent and Star both quoted Col. Dick White as saying there were almost too many Iraqi “targets” to choose from. “It’s almost like you flipped on the light in the kitchen and the cockroaches start scurrying and we’re killing them.” The Mail on Sunday quoted a “delighted marine”: “They are all over the place like headless chickens.”
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1989, the enormously resourced global military/industrial/media complexes desperately needed a new conflict – to give them legitimacy and to test their state-of-the-art weaponry. And so the Kuwaiti intervention by the troops of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (backed by the West in the 1980-1988 war with Iran) produced the sudden, ideal new “enemy” for the Western elite.
With the constant stress on Hussein as a “global threat”, America had its “big war” to win. Significantly, the first words uttered by President Bush following the halting of the massacres were: “At last we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome.”
My research into the coverage of the conflict by the US and UK mainstream media formed the basis for my PhD in 1996, which was published by John Libbey the following year as Secret State, Silent Press: New Militarism, the Gulf and the Modern Image of Warfare. I was hoping at the time that my role as an academic analysing war coverage was ended. But since 1997, the US and UK have been constantly at war – and so my research and writings in the field have, alas, had to continue
At the University of Lincoln where I have taught since 2003, we have created the first peace journalism MA programme in the country (titled Journalism, War and International Human Rights) to encourage the analysis of war coverage and to highlight the role of the media in conflict resolution. It is but a small part of the constant struggle – to promote the values of dialogue, peace and human dignity.
* Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism and Acting head of the Lincoln School of Journalism