The United States started bombing Iraq on January 16, 1991, and, except for a few brief intervals, hasn’t stopped since. Twenty-six years this Monday, more than a quarter of a century, and four US presidents, all of whom have bombed Iraq. Last year, the rate of bombing increased over 20,105. The lion’s share of the 26,171 bombs dropped by the United States on the world was split evenly between Iraq and Syria, though we did reserve a dollop for Yemen. And the United States dropped more on Libya, about 500, in 2016, than in 2015. Trump, and Trumpism, is a symptom of the sickness, not the source.
The 1991 bombing began at 2:10 am Baghdad time (January 17 there)—over 100,000 sorties, tens of thousands of bombs dropped by thousands of planes. “Smart bombs” lit up the sky as the TV cameras rolled. Featured were new night-vision equipment, real-time satellite communications, and cable TV—as well as former US military commanders ready to narrate the war in the style of football announcers, right down to instant replays. “In sports-page language,” said CBS News anchor Dan Rather on the first night of the attack, “this… it’s not a sport. It’s war. But so far, it’s a blowout.”
The next day, January 18, in the CBS studio, Walter Cronkite and Rather engaged in an extended conversation that made them seem less like sports announcers describing live action than veteran color commentators comparing today’s game to how it used to be played. The two men concluded that the old big-bellied B-52s that had been used extensively in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and now were being deployed to bomb Baghdad were more effective at sowing terror and generating panic than the lean “high-tech” missiles the media was fascinated with:
Walter Cronkite: You have seen the B-52s in operation in Vietnam, I have, and they are almost a terror weapon, they are so powerful. They are dropping all of those bombs. My heavens, 14 tons of bomb out of a single airplane—they could very well panic the Iraq army…. One thing that’s interesting about this, Dan, these bombs come in at a very low rate of speed, comparatively—compared to rocketry and other such things, and as a result, the bomb blast is widespread. It can do an awful lot of surface damage without really rather serious damage to a single target, except right where it lands—blow out a lot of windows, blow out a lot of walls, things of that kind as opposed to the high speed missiles that are inclined to bury themselves and blow up….
Dan Rather: Want to pick up on what you were talking about with the B-52s. It’s certainly true, anybody who’s seen or been through a B-52 raid, it’s an absolutely unforgettable, mind-searing experience.
Cronkite: When you’re not underneath it directly.
Rather: Exactly. And that’s when you’re able to just sort of observe it. It is a devastatingly effective, physical bombing weapon, but also psychologically. That one of the reasons of going right at the heart of Saddam Hussein’s best troops is [to cause] panic and to—to break the back of—of morale.
It’s unnerving, this hesitant and uneasy comparison to Vietnam. It has the effect of normalizing the rationale that had long been given for the bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos that took place two decades earlier: a “savage blow” delivered by slow-flying “terror weapons” to “break the back” of opponents. It’s also jarring when one realizes that this is what the people of Cambodia and Laos experienced for years—as more bomb tonnage was dropped on them than was dropped in all of World War II—with not one word in the US press on what it must have been like to live under such conditions. Such color commentary, along with the real-time reporting of cable news, the night-vision equipment and camera-carrying smart bombs, allowed for public consumption of a techno-display of apparent omnipotence that, at least for a short time, helped consolidate mass approval and was meant as both a lesson for and a warning to the rest of the world.
And with instant replay came instant gratification, confirmation that the president had the public’s backing. On midnight, January 18, a day into the assault, CBS TV announced that a new poll “indicates extremely strong support for Mr. Bush’s Gulf offensive.” “By God,” Bush said in triumph, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”
Today equally unnerving is the lack of commentary, the silence. Twenty-six thousand one hundred and seventy-one bombs last year, an increase from the year before. And nary a word from media that gave Donald Trump billions of dollars of free publicity. Maybe if Trump tweets out his bombing schedule, someone will notice.
Has there ever been a country like the United States, a country that bombs at will, and might alternate justifying that bombing by either invoking universal values or putting in a referral for therapy? Self-affirmation bombing. In any case, the “kicking the Vietnam syndrome” wasn’t a one-time thing but rather the start of a long course of maintenance, whereby the United States became habituated to bombing, especially the bombing of Iraq, but also other countries.
Take a look at the “debates” around Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on, and more than a few will recommend a good course of bombs for what it will do for domestic spirit, for how it will stiffen our spines to fight other wars when needed. Bill Clinton lobbed cruise missiles into Iraq at regular intervals, for various reasons: to punish a supposed Baghdad-backed assassination attempt on George H.W. Bush (23 missiles launched, including one that struck a residential area and killed nine children); to protect the Kurds (46 missiles); to force Iraq to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors. This last assault took place in 1998, on the eve of the House impeachment vote related to the Monica Lewinsky affair, and was described by The New York Times as “a strong sustained series of air strikes.” “More than 200 missiles rained down upon Iraq,” the Times reported, “without any diplomacy or warning.” Then of course came the Second Gulf War in 2003, followed by the civil war, and now the war against ISIS.
The Pentagon has a database of every bomb it has dropped since WWI, including up through today’s wars. Older portions of the data base can be used by the public. But 1991 forward is classified, naturally. Imagine if we could select just for February 25–27, 1991—the “Highway of Death,” as the United States slaughtered retreating Iraqis. Or learn just how many US bombs were dropped on February 13, on a Baghdadi civilian air-raid shelter, killing at least 300 civilians. In any case, the database, even prior to 1991, is difficult to use. Here’s what it said when I tried to do a search related to Vietnam: “Please note that the entire database contains millions…of records and may take a considerable time to download.”
This year, the anniversary marking the start of the 1991 air war on Iraq falls the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and a few days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. “Our bombs now pummel the land…,” King once said, breaking with the Democratic establishment to condemn war and militarism. “Now they languish under our bombs.” King knew that the origins of what we now call “post-truth” could be found in America’s endless wars, wars fought in the name of the highest ideals with the most brutal tactics, wars that turn victims into aggressors and aggressors into victims. Ho Chi Minh, King said in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, “hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores.” Asked in 1977 if the United States has a moral obligation to help rebuild Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter answered: “Well, the destruction was mutual. You know, we went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people.”
In 1971, the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger identified a “semantic collapse” brought about by relentless militarism, a moral, intellectual, and financial corruption that severs words from their meanings and unmoors ethics from their foundation. Starting with the “Indochina War,” Americans “found themselves systematically staving off reality by allowing a horrid military-bureaucratic patois to protect our sensibilities from the ghastly things we were doing,” sterilizing “the frightful reality of napalm and My Lai.” In turn, Watergate, which itself was prompted by Vietnam, led to the “utter debasement of language,” a further corrosion of meanings and institutions central for democratic governance.
Today, in all the many forensic think pieces dissecting the presidential election and Trump’s victory—the vast majority of which focus on debates over class and race, or the formation and unraveling of domestic coalitions—only a few observers pay much attention to our endless wars. I think, though, that the “semantic collapse” Schlesinger identified continues. Many good people have tried, but there has been no reconstruction of meaning, no stemming the corrosion that relentless, grinding warfare has on morals. Iran-Contra, as I’ve tried to show repeatedly, was another major step in the semantic collapse, an operation that included using foreign donations and taxpayer dollars to run a psychological operation on American public opinion.
Then, of course, there was all the lies, all the deceit, all the wag-the-dog style manipulations basically to hunt down a man whose most dangerous activity at the time, we now know, was writing a novel. It has all brought us to this moment, with Andrew Bacevich, here situating the rise of Trump in a larger structural crisis, and Gary Wills being among the few to look beyond their provincial debates. Wills, in an essay titled “Disciples of Distrust,” sees Trump as a symptom of the “shuddering distrust of every kind of authority—a contempt for the whole political system, its ‘establishment,’ the Congress, its institutions (like the Fed), its ‘mainstream’ media, the international arrangements it has made (not only the trade deals but the treaty obligations under NATO and other defense agreements). This is a staggering injection of bile into the public discourse. It does not answer, or even address, the question: what kind of order can be maintained in a society that does not recognize the legitimacy of any offices?”
“What has caused this bitter disillusion?” Here’s Wills’s answer:
It is the burrowing and undermining infection of the Iraq war—the longest in our history, one that keeps upsetting order abroad and at home. The war’s many costs—not just in lives and money but in psychic and political damage—remain only half-visible in America, as hidden as the returning coffins that could not be photographed for years. One way to gauge the damage is to look at it in a smaller mirror. What the war did to Great Britain is more visible because it has been better exposed in government investigations—the Hutton Report (2004), the Butler Review (2004), the Chilcot Inquiry (2016). These have made the once-popular Tony Blair an object of intense loathing. To get his country into the Iraq war, Blair jiggered the intelligence, lied to his own party, ignored sound advice, and put his manhood into a blind trust with George W. Bush….
If that was true of a minor player in the war like Britain, what should we think of the Bush team that invented the war, sold it as a “cakewalk,” and hid the ugliness of it—the spying on American citizens, the secret torture sites spread around the world? Torture occurs in all wars; but Bush is the first president (he may not be the last) who adopted an official rationale and defense for torture. This alone, apart from all his other war measures, would make him our worst president ever. To gauge our descent into distrust, we should measure it against the giddy assent we gave to the war at its start. Congress voted for it, the press supported it (Judith Miller treating The New York Times as a branch of the Pentagon), symbols celebrated it—the toppled Saddam statue, the dramatic landing on the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier, the purple fingers of free election. The current distrust grew out of a realization that all these things were phony. Why should we trust the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the press, the president, the experts, the elites? They were all in on the huge scam that was going to spread democracy through the Middle East, and just ignited wilder fires of terrorism there and elsewhere.
Barack Obama promised to lift the country out of this muck. He said that Iraq was the wrong war. We should have stayed with the Afghan war, which was the right war. But then he re-entered Afghanistan, making the right war the new wrong war—and we have been floundering in both wars for all his years as president. Both wars are still there for him to hand on to his successor. Obama hid for years the extent of his assassinations by drone. No wonder he did not want anyone accountable for the vast torture programs of the Bush-Cheney years.
To his followers, Trump seems to “tell it like it is” because he voices their dissatisfactions. His insults show he does not follow the polite evasions of “political correctness.” He will not be bound by any of the practices that seem to have brought about the loss of status of people not rewarded by the economy. He will not have to submit any spending to a gridlocked Congress. He will end Obamacare and do something else—anything will be better. Abroad, he will just “bomb the shit” out of enemies, not acting under the restraint of alliances. He will go it alone. As he said at the convention, “I alone can fix it.” His followers think that they are acting alone through him. That makes them regain what they imagine were their powers under some earlier era. He will wage wars without allies. He will end terrorism by means far more drastic than waterboarding. He will kill the terrorists’ children. He will make America vilely great again.
Me, I’m waiting to see what things will look like on the 50th anniversary of the continuous bombing of Iraq. That one too will be followed by a presidential inauguration.