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[Chalice] Looking back [Chalice]
at the (First) Gulf War

Presented November 10, 2002, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

You would think with our country threatening to go to war with Iraq again that there would be much discussion of the Persian Gulf War of 1990. But this does not seem to be happening. Why not?

This is a war our country does not think about a great deal or much at all, perhaps because we do not want our accepted view of it troubled or problematized. It was a very popular war. It is widely regarded in our country as a war which was absolutely necessary, we were absolutely right in fighting it, it was very black and white, our united good vs. evil, as President Bush said at the time. This war was not Vietnam and in very real ways anti-Vietnam. It was quick, it was a decisive victory, we were not divided but united as a country in this war, and we knew we were the good guys and were in the right.

But we should be looking back and coming to a more complicated and problematized view of this popular war. If we do so several issues/problems stand out:

  1. The role of the media and the quality of information we got.
  2. The US interactions with Iraq before the war started in January 1990.
  3. The reasons why Iraq invaded Kuwait and the extent to which we recognized these reasons.
  4. The questions of our willingness to encourage and participate in negotiations so that the war could have been avoided.
  5. The issue of the number of casualties we inflicted during and asa result of the war.
  6. The role intellectuals played or didn't play in helping us think about the war in a more informed way.

We all remember the pool system where the journalists covering the war were kept in a group and only permitted to see and go what and where the military wanted them to go. Of the over 1400 jounalists in Saudia Arabia, only 192 were placed in these pools to begin with, and these carefully stage managed so that the information about the war was carefully managed and edited by the military. This strategy drew very little resistance at the time from the media, though it was criticized by the media after the war. The control of the media was very successful.

The media watchdog group FAIR reported that of 878 on-air sources used by the network news organizations to cover the conflict, only one was a representative of a national peace organization. Of the 2885 minutes of network coverage of the crisis from August 8, 1990 to January 3 1991 only 29 minutes or 1% dealt with grassroots dissent, even though opinion polls showed half the country opposed to the war.

Once the war began, however, opinion polls showed overwhelming support for media censorship by the military, one poll showed 80% in favor, and one poll indicated that as many as 25% of Americans favored an outright ban on anti-war demonstrations.

Two examples of the quality of information we get or don't get:

  1. The satellite pictures taken by the Soviets showing no build up in September of Iraqi troops in Kuwait while the Bush administration was saying there were 350,000. Iraqi troops there. ABC bought the pictures but never reported on it and the story and satellite photos were reported in only one paper and not picked up by the wire serves
  2. The Amnesty International Report stated that Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait completely consistent with atrocities within Iraq that it had reported several times before without anyone paying attention. This part of the report was not covered by the media, but what did get a lot of coverage was the report that Iraqi soldiers were removing babies from incubators in Kuwait. This was widely reported but after the war this turned out to be a fabrication put out public relations firm working for the Kuwaiti government in exile.

1982 CIA director Bill Casey secret mission to Baghdad agreed to allow countries to give military hardware to Iraq and then be resupplied by us and we encouraged the French and other allies to sell advanced weapons systems to Iraq. Once Iraq turned the tide in the war with Iran-largely by murdering tens of thousands of Iranians with chemical weapons-we became more directly involved in the war. US intelligence officers plotted the coordinates of Iranian troops and recommended targets. In May of 1987 the Iraqis were being given signals from the USS Stark in the Gulf and they mistakenly sent a missle back to the USS Stark rather than to the Iranian targets the Stark was directing them to, and this mistaken Iraqi missile killed 37 sailors on the Stark. The Iraqi apology was quickly accepted and this led us to increase our aid to them in fighting the Iranians.

The US also played a key role in Iraq developing its program of weapons of mass destruction. Between 85 and 1990, 771 export licenses to Iraq for "dual-use technology" worth 1.5 billion dollars were approved. 18 were for toxins or bacteria, others were for chemicals involved in the making of mustard gas. Some of the US companies benefiting from these sales to Iraq expressed concern to the Commerce Department but were told not to worry. The fact that Sadam Hussein had already used chemical weapons both against the Iranians and the Kurds did not prevent us from approving sales of chemicals and bacterial agents to Sadam Husein until 1990.


The 8 years of the Iran-Iraq war left Iraq's economy in ruins despite billions of dollars of American aid. In 1988, right after the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq, Kuwait violated all OPEC agreements and increased its oil production. 6 months later Kuwait announced that it was going to double its production and that OPEC agreements did not apply to them. World oil prices plunged to a new low, with disastrous consequences for Iraq's economy. In July of 1990 Hussein publicly presented a list of grievances against Kuwait to the Arab League. When Hussein invaded Kuwait, he was frequently presented as a dictator, compared to Hitler, and there was very little coverage of why he and other Arab countries had a problem with Kuwait in the first place.


THE extent of Iraqi willingness to negotiate once they invaded Kuwait is one of the most under reported and least understood aspects of the war. In early August theIraqi deputy foreign minister presented a plan to withdraw from Kuwait to the Bush White House but the administration never responded. On August President Hussein of Jordan. Gorbachev's envoy Yevgeny Primakov tried to negotiate but according to him both Margaret Thatcher and Bush were intent on a war to limit the military power of Iraq and were not interested in negotiations. The Algerian President proposed and Iraqi-Saudi summit after a promise by Sadam Hussein to withdraw but the US requested the Saudis to not allow him to even enter the country for such a discussion. Thus, the US gave no support for an inter-Arab settlement and insisted that Sadam Hussein had to unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait, and unconditionally meant withdraw without any agreement that the grievances he had against Kuwait would even be discussed. And yet Sadam was the one presented as the intransigent lunatic stubbornly staying in Kuwait inviting his own destruction.

And once the air war started Primakov obtained from Sadam his agreement to unconditionally withdraw from Kuwait. But the US rejected the offer. As one of General Schwarzkopf's officers said: "The Soviets were talking about getting us exactly what we asked for, and we summarily turned them down."


The Pentagon has never publicly said how many Iraqis it believes died as a result of these 3 phases of the war. We all remember how much effort the administration put into making the world believe this was a very clean and precise and bloodless war. The only images it allowed to be seen was those video game-like demonstrations of smart bombs which it provided the media.

What they did not say at the time was that such precise bombing clearly restricted to one limited target accounted for only 7% of the total bombing we did during the war. I recently heard NPR say 10%, but they never bothered to explain the significance of this, that 90% of the bombing was blanket bombing like in Viet Nam that was so intense that Royal Navy frogmen could feel the Gulf sea bed shudder.

The 7% smart bombs may have actually done the most damage because they strategically destroyed all that a society needs to function: electric plants, bridges, oil refineries, factories, etc. A report by the UN after the war described the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure as "near apocalyptic." Of course this report did not get much news coverage in the US.

The Pentagon has never publicly reported the number of casualties taken during the war. The military used bulldozers to bury thousands of Iraqi dead in mass graves, in addition to burying alive Iraqi soldiers during the ground war.

The Geneva Convention requires a casualty report, and coalition forces did provide an accounting of Iraqi casualties to the International Committee of the Red Cross at the end of march, 1991 but the figure was not publicly released and the American people have certainly not demanded to know.

Some agencies have given their own estimates of the casualties. Greenpeace estimates that a total of between 177,500 to 243,000 Iraqis were killed during the air war, the ground war, and the aftermath of the war. The only official statistic released by the US military tentatively estimated 100,000 iraqi military deaths but said the figure was subject to a margin of error of 50%. An analyst for the US Census Bureau calculated 13,000 civilian deaths and over 150,000 civilian and military deaths in total from the war and as a direct result of the war. She was fired for making the number public. The 100 hour ground war was incredibly destructive and costly in terms of casualties.

Retreating Iraqi soldiers and civilians were sitting ducks on the roads out of Kuwait jammed with thousands of vehicles and tanks and people. Tanks with open hatches and white flags were visible to navy pilots. The US commanders judged that this was a battlefield retreat rather than the demanded withdrawal from Kuwait and ordered an air assault that consisted of 660 combat missions in which B-52 with cluster bombs were constantly dropped on the long, slow moving lines of people below. U.S. military officers felt that the Iraqi actions in Kuwait justified whatever destruction the military was capable of wreaking on the Iraqis. Chief of the US air staff Brigadier General Glosson declared: "If I could have killed every Iraqi in Kuwait City, I would have. I went after that convoy primarily because of the barbaric and ruthless way they had treated people in Kuwait. There were no worse people on the face of the earth." The marine general in change of the operation said "it was really kind of an execution" and was "our crowning glory."

By the way, estimates of Kuwaitis killed by Iraqi soldiers during the occupation run from several hundreds given by Amnesty International to seven thousand, given by the Kuwaiti resistance. This range roughly corresponds with the number of civilian deaths that resulted from our invasion of Panama in December of 1989.


European and American intellectuals were remarkably silent on the war while it was being conducted and since. Almost no one has made this war the subject of a major book or essay. The most important public statement made by an American intellectual was by the political theorist Michael Walzer, who argued before, during, and after the war that the War in the Gulf could be defended on the basis of Just War Theory and was a Just War.

Only one major European intellectual wrote a book-length treatment of the war: Jean Baudrillard's The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. This is a very intelligent piece of writing where he argues that in a war you have to have both sides capable of if not winning at least inflicting damage on the other. Baudrillard argued that before the bombing started that a war would not happen, when the bombing was going on he argued that a war was not happening, and when the war was over he argued that the gulf war did not happen. What happened, he said, was an exercise in US military domination which we were led to and chose to think of as a war. This text had no impact in this country, led to no American intellectuals following this line of critique. When the book was discussed at all, it was discounted as just another silly postmodern book denying that there is any reality, that it made the claim that nothing really exists, etc.

©2002 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2002. Looking back at the (First) Gulf War, (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.