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….”