by Robert Jensen
WASHINGTON -- Did a US general in the Persian Gulf War violate
rules of engagement and, in effect, murder Iraqis after the
That's the claim of journalist Seymour Hersh in the May 22
New Yorker magazine. The former general and current federal
drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, has counterpunched, arguing that
he is the victim of a journalistic vendetta. Which one is
right? It doesn't really matter.
The incidents Hersh writes about are, in the context of the
massacre we call the Persian Gulf War, relatively trivial,
and therein lies the problem with the controversy. By
focusing on the actions of a commander in a limited arena,
we risk forgetting what US military forces did in Iraq in
1991 -- across the board, on a daily basis, in full view of
all the world, with impunity.
What we did has a name in the rest of the world, though it
can't be spoken in polite circles here: War crimes. We have
yet to come to terms with the enormity of the crimes our
government and military carried out in 1991. If Hersh's
allegations are true, McCaffrey's conduct was reprehensible
and criminal, but those actions pale in comparison to the
brutality the US military unleashed on the people of Iraq
throughout the war. What brutality? What crimes? Start with
the most basic facts about the US attack on civilians and
civilian infrastructure in Iraq.
The Geneva Conventions are clear on these matters:
``Civilians shall not be the object of attack.'' The charge
to military forces in the UN Security Council resolution was
to expel the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait. To do
that, we dropped 88,000 tons of bombs over Iraq, one of the
most concentrated attacks on an entire society in modern
Those bombs killed civilians _ both directly and over time
through the destruction of the country's power grid, food,
water treatment and sewage systems. Some of that bombing of
civilians was targeted, some indiscriminate; both are war
crimes under the Geneva Conventions.
Recall the ``Highway of Death,'' the deadly stretch of road
in Kuwait that was littered with burned-out vehicles and
charred bodies. US military forces, in violation of
international law, fired on retreating and largely
defenseless Iraqi soldiers just before the cease-fire. US
pilots described it in news accounts as a ``turkey shoot''
and ``like shooting fish in a barrel.''
The carnage was not only unnecessary but grotesque. Remember
the brutality of US weapons. We used napalm to incinerate
entrenched Iraqi soldiers. We dropped fuel-air explosives,
ghastly weapons often called ``near-nukes'' because of their
destructive capacity through fire, asphyxiation and
We dropped cluster bombs that use razor-sharp fragments to
shred people. To penetrate tanks, we used depleted-uranium
shells, the long-term health effects of which are unknown.
Widely accepted notions of proportionality and protection of
civilians go out the window with such weapons.
Though the shooting war has stopped, the most onerous
economic embargo ever imposed on a nation continues today.
Supposedly designed to rein in the regime of Saddam Hussein,
the harsh economic sanctions have only killed innocents _ as
many as 1 million in the past decade, according to UN
In short: It is misleading to call the Persian Gulf War a
war; it was a massacre. In the words of British journalist
Geoff Simons, who has studied the war in detail, it was a
massive slaughter of a largely helpless enemy, with much of
the killing occurring after the time when constructive
diplomacy would have brought an end to the conflict and a
secure ``liberation of Kuwait.''
That is an assessment many people -- likely the vast
majority -- around the world would agree with, but one
rarely voiced in the United States. My goal is not to defend
McCaffrey. But no matter how guilty he might be, I fear that
demonizing him will divert us from assessing the
responsibility of those politicians and top officers who
planned and executed the slaughter.
And it will keep us from asking why we -- citizens with so
much political freedom -- have done so little to hold those
politicians and officers accountable for the crimes
committed in our name.
[Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at
Copyright © 2000 Robert Jensen - All Rights