Nine times the Space that measures Day
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rolling in the fiery Gulf
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath...
--John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I
As a million impoverished Afghans flee toward the borders of Iran and Pakistan, as the reconfiguring of civil and human rights is debated in Congress, as the CIA considers reinstating the kinds of training camps in which Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein learned so much before they Fell From Grace, as rumor and disinformation swirl through our media and the Internet, and as the world readies itself for war against murkily located and confusingly defined enemies, I find no words for this great sadness. I offer instead cautionary notes from my clippings of the Gulf War ten years ago, during the presidency of George Bush the Elder.
January 8, 1991: The New York Times reports that the Defense Department, "in obtaining permission to give experimental drugs to American troops in the Persian Gulf, is about to violate the Nuremberg Code, one of the primary moral documents to emerge from World War II.... Since Nuremberg, no government has officially attempted to justify research on competent adults without their informed consent--that is, not until our government said exceptions would be permitted so that specific unapproved drugs and vaccines could be administered to the troops without their consent.... Under the new regulation, whatever experimental drug or vaccine military commanders and the FDA think is in the soldiers' best interest becomes obligatory 'treatment.'"
January 17, 1991: The airstrikes have numbered more than 1,000 in fourteen hours. No word about Iraqi casualties. On TV there are reports of massive anti-American demonstrations throughout the Middle East. A Washington expert on the Near East says that provided we look like the winner, he doesn't think the "Arab street" will matter. He says that these countries aren't democracies, so their leaders don't have to listen to popular opinion, though if it becomes drawn out, then the "Arab street" will be "more of a factor." This is followed by an interview with the publisher of something called Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, who explains the war from "an oil policy point of view."
On another channel, a newscaster describes the bombing of Baghdad as a "star-spangled reign of terror." A foreign policy expert hails Desert Storm as ushering in a new period in which "there will be no more wars," and in which it will be clear that "America's sword is the mightiest."
January 18, 1991: At least 2,000 sorties every day. In today's New York Times [p. A9], there is an interview with Colin Powell: "Q.: 'Do we have any estimate how many Iraqi soldiers might have been killed in the bombings?' Powell: 'No, I'm not able to answer that at this time. It is a comprehensive campaign with, as I've said many times, air, land and sea components. And we have thought it out. It will unfold over a period of time. But I can't answer your question directly...'" On TV, President Bush says war is "never cheap or easy." In response to concern about the protests in "the Arab world," Bush says that there is no single Arab world, and that most of the Arab world is behind the United States.
January 20, 1991: The Gulf War costs between $150 million and $1.6 billion a day, depending on the intensity of fighting. Dick Cheney is going to ask Congress for $20 billion more for next year's budget, in addition to the $295 billion already in next year's defense budget.
January 21, 1991: A press conference at the Defense Department. I guess the questions don't matter when the answers are: "You're into a delicate area." "I'd like to be more forthcoming." "I can't tell you." "I will absolutely not talk about submarines." "We can't say with certainty." "The answer to that is militarily insignificant." "I can't quantify that for you." "I would like to answer that for you, I truly would, but it would be inappropriate." "I can't confirm that." "All I can do is give you the official position." "It would lead one to believe..."
February 3, 1991: The New York Times reports that "after more than two weeks of war in the Persian Gulf involving the heaviest sustained bombing in history, the Pentagon is avoiding any estimate of Iraqi deaths so far.... The overall death toll could be as low as a few thousand or more than 10,000.... [According to Loren Thompson, deputy director of the national security program at Georgetown University] 'General Schwarzkopf's main concern is that when you get into the body-count business, you end up perverting the bomb damage assess.... You have a talisman, a single measure of success that really isn't related to whether you are winning the war.' At the same time, he said, when damage is listed in terms of tanks destroyed or airfields cratered, as the Pentagon has done, 'you avoid talking about lives lost, and that serves both an esthetic and a practical purpose.'"
March 15, 1991: The Washington Post reports 70 percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait missed their target.
March 22, 1991: The Pentagon lists 148 American deaths (thirty-five of those from "friendly fire"), but omits any mention of Iraqi deaths. The Wall Street Journal reports that General Schwarzkopf has "privately given" President Bush estimates that "at least" 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in six weeks of fighting.
In the hushed wake of all the luminous, precious lives snuffed out in the World Trade Center, I believe a so-called body count neither adds to nor subtracts from the greatness of our grief--nor will it always even be the only moral measure if our end is justice. On the other hand, ignoring altogether great human cost in deference to the "aesthetic" of efficient war--that is a great wrong, not easily forgiven, and one whose price could keep us spiraling in infinite bouts of vengeance and revenge with those who wonder, like Milton's Stygian Counsel: "Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire,/Belike through impotence, or unaware,/ To give his Enemies their wish, and end/ Them in his anger, whom his anger saves/ To punish endless...."
If Islamabad heeds Washington's war demands, it risks internal revolt.
While the US looks upon Pakistan for help in its new 'war on terror,' lessons from the past teach us that the alliance can have sinister repercussions.
The attacks on the Twin Towers show us an ugly truth too long believed in: that of the safe, antiseptic war.
The United States cannot dodge its responsibility by withdrawing from the World Conference Against Racism.
Unfounded attacks on school textbooks have had disastrous consequences.
Ariel Sharon's government is failing to use nonviolent approaches in its confrontation with the Palestinians.
Nothing in modern times has symbolized the scourge of racism--and the potential for overcoming it--more than South Africa's recent history.
Last night I had the
All of America's wealthy,
conservative and safely belligerent pundits had been delivered by a
just and beneficent Almighty Power to a Palestinian refugee camp,
following the bulldozing of their homes--including vacation
homes--and the expropriation of all their possessions. Instead of
pontificating between beach walks and vodka tonics in Vineyard Haven,
these armchair bombardiers were treated to rivers of open sewage and
hopeless lives of beggary. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured
and selectively assassinated. Meanwhile, editorial pages across
America cheered the "restraint" of their tormentors.
extremely lengthy articles, the New York Times and The New
York Review of Books recently demonstrated beyond any doubt that
the Israelis (and the Americans) shared in the blame for the
breakdown of peace negotiations and ensuing cycle of violence that
now tragically appears to be engulfing the region. To the
punditocracy, however, these dispassionately argued, extensively
reported stories amounted to an existential insult of near biblical
proportions. Marty Peretz's New Republic published a vicious
attack on the articles by Robert Satloff, executive director of a
pro-Israel think tank. William Safire got so excited, he denounced
his own newspaper in a hysterical fit of ad hominemism: "Do not
swallow this speculative rewriting of recent events," he warned
readers. "The overriding reason for the war against Israel today is
that Yasir Arafat decided that war was the way to carry out the
often-avowed Palestinian plan. Its first stage is to create a West
Bank state from the Jordan River to the sea with Jerusalem as its
capital. Then, by flooding Israel with 'returning' Palestinians, the
plan in its promised final phase would drive the hated Jews from the
Mortimer Zuckerman, in his capacity as
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American
Organizations, insisted, "This is just revisionist history.... There
is one truth, period: The Palestinians caused the breakdown at Camp
David and then rejected Clinton's plan in January." The baldest
comment came from the Zionist Organization of America's president,
Morton Klein: "Whether their account is accurate or not is
irrelevant.... I reject any discussion of what
In the wake of the suicide bombings, three
different Washington Post pundits demanded war three days in a
row. Michael Kelly, recently seen complaining about too many fatsoes
at the beach, advised the Israelis to unleash "an overwhelming
force...to destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian
forces." The more moderate George Will called only for a "short war."
(Charles Krauthammer did not specify a length.) To read these
would-be warriors, you would think the Palestinians were summering in
Edgartown. A reader would never guess that a regional superpower is
carrying out a brutal military occupation, coupled with a settlement
policy that directly contravenes Article 49 of the Geneva Convention.
No one with any sense would argue that Arafat and his
corrupt cronies do not bear considerable responsibility for the
collapse of any hope of peace in the Middle East in the near future.
And suicide bombers against civilian targets in Israel are as
counterproductive as they are immoral (though those who settle in
occupied territory are knowingly putting themselves in harm's way and
hence share some responsibility when their families are forced to pay
for this fanaticism with their lives). Nevertheless, a conflict where
"our team" engages in terrorism, assassination and the apparently
routine torture of teenagers to defend a cruel and illegal occupation
is one in which neither side holds a monopoly on virtue.
Since a majority of Israelis supports a freeze in the
provocative practice of settlement-building, the mindless hysteria of
the American punditocracy must have other sources than mere logic.
It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions without any special knowledge
about the psyches of those involved, but much of the materially
comfortable American Jewish community has had an unhappy history of
defending the principle of Jewish sovereignty over captured
Palestinian lands right down to the death of the last Israeli.
Because of the sacrifices they demand of others, many American Jews
feel they must be holier than the Pope when defending Israeli human
rights abuses. The New Republic's Peretz is a particularly
interesting specimen. He reflexively defends everything Israel does
and routinely slanders its critics. Peretz, who owes his prominence
to money, in this case his (non-Jewish) wife's fortune--which allowed
him to purchase his magazine--has never published a single book or
written a significant piece of scholarship, reportage or criticism.
It's not hard to imagine that his self-appointed role as Israel's
American Torquemada--seen in his obsession with smearing the
world-renowned Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said--is
inspired as much by guilt and envy as by more rational motivations.
(I say this as a supporter of the peace process who has respectfully
disagreed with almost all Said has said about the conflict in recent
Whatever the reason, the net result is the same.
For a brief moment in recent history, when Israel had a government
that was dedicated to finding a way to make peace, the warrior
pundits were placed on the defensive and the Palestinians received a
reasonably fair shake from the nation's elite media. More recently, a
review of leading editorial pages by the ADL found that "the major
newspapers across the country are viewing the situation in the Middle
East in a realistic and objective manner." The authors of the study
helpfully defined their terms. To the ADL "realistic and objective"
means "critical of and hostile to Arafat...directly blaming him for
the continuing violence and creating a climate of hatred" along with
the dismissal of all Palestinian peace overtures as "calculated tools
for his goal of gaining further concessions from
In a rational world, the ADL report would at least
complicate efforts by Safire, TNR and others to charge the
media with "pro-Arab" and "anti-Israel" bias. Alas, I'm betting