Ten years since the Gulf War
The Franco-German public TV channel Arte recently ran a long documentary with the eloquent title: "Les dessous de la guerre du Golfe" (which translates something like "The truth behind the Gulf War). At the same time as the documentary, a number of articles appeared in various weeklies full of "revelations" about the preparation and execution of the war. The title of the French weekly Marianne (22/28 January 2001) was even more explicit: "The lies about the Gulf War". Why are these "revelations" coming out now, ten years after the event? Why, after the tons of lies during the war, that accompanied the tons of bombs, are some fractions of the bourgeoisie bringing into the open the criminal manoeuvring by the elder Bush's administration in the preparation, setting up, and conduct of the war, from the outset in the summer of 1990 until February 1991 and even to this very day?
The official version
"The Gulf War was a military operation carried out during January and February 1991 by the United States and their Allies, acting under the authority of the United Nations, against Iraq, with the aim of ending the occupation of Kuwait by the troops of Saddam Hussein's army, which had invaded the country on 2nd August 1990. The United Nations Security Council demanded the withdrawal of Iraqi troops immediately, on 2nd August, then declared an economic, financial, and military embargo ("Operation Desert Shield"), which then became a blockade. On 29th November, a further resolution by the Security Council authorised member states to use force, if Iraqi troops had not withdrawn from Kuwait by 15th January 1991. On 17th January, the anti-Iraqi coalition, based in Saudi Arabia under American command and made up of troops from the USA, Britain, France, and some twenty other allied countries, began Operation Desert Storm, bombing Iraqi and Kuwaiti military targets. From the 24th to 28th February a victorious ground offensive towards Kuwait City put an end to the war on the front. Iraq lost several tens of thousands of troops and civilians killed, against less than 200 casualties for the coalition. Two thirds of Iraqi military capacity were destroyed. The war ended officially on 11th April, 1991, with Saddam Hussein's acceptance of the conditions laid down by the Security Council, in particular the destruction of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons, and its long and medium range missiles"1.
This is the kind of account that we can see flourishing in the school text books. Everything is there to make us think that so-called historical "objectivity" is being respected. This is more or less what we were told ten years ago (except for the casualty figures).
The war was justified by the defence of sacrosanct international law, trampled underfoot by the "evil" Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This happened at the very moment when the collapse of the Eastern bloc was supposed to have opened up for humanity a radiant future of "peace and prosperity". At any rate, this is what we were promised, and this is what the US president of the day expressed in the phrase "a new world order". The warmonger and his refusal to respect international law had to be stopped by whatever means necessary. The UN, international forum of "peace", became the scene on which, from embargo to blockade, a sinister diplomatic farce was staged to condition the world's population (in other words the proletariat) to accept the coming war. Finally, the war itself, supposed to be a "clean" surgical war, where the only people killed were the "bad guys". Officially, the war came to an end in April 1991, but in reality its epilogue has not yet been written, since for ten years the American bourgeoisie has played the Lone Ranger (sometimes accompanied by its British acolyte), regularly using Saddam (or rather the Iraqi population) as a punching ball to flex its muscles, in a world which since the war has plunged ever deeper into barbarism2.
"The truth revealed"
Today, some parts of the bourgeois press recognise the truth of what the ICC was saying ten years ago. We are not "proud" of the fact - this is not what interests us. But what does interest us, is more than ever to put forward the need for revolutionaries to ground their analyses in the marxist method, to remain vigilant in the face of events, to subject our analyses to the test of reality, to be critical, and not to change our orientations like weather-cocks, with every shift in the wind. This is a precondition for the advance of the class struggle, and one of the main functions of the revolutionary organisation. We are also interested in understanding why the bourgeoisie has decided today to reveal what was previously hidden: to understand the workings of what one might call the "democratic Goebbels"3.
This is what the Arte documentary, and the review Marianne, say: "Washington's trap: Washington barely reacted when Saddam spoke of invading his one-time province", the US insisted on the fact that it "had no defence agreement with the Kuwaitis". "It was a manoeuvre to trick him", and "'We can say that after the invasion, the US did not want a diplomatic solution', concludes Dr Halliday of the UN".
And this is what we said in early September 1990, one month after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam's troops and well before the outbreak of war: "But this is not the end of their hypocrisy and cynicism. It appears that the US, discreetly but deliberately, allowed Iraq to embark on this military adventure. True or false - and it is doubtless true - this enlightens us as to the habits and practices of the bourgeoisie, its lies and manipulation, the use it makes of events". "Iraq had no choice. The country was driven to carry out this policy. And the USA let it do so, encouraging and exploiting Saddam Hussein's military adventure, conscious of the growing chaos in the world situation, conscious of the need to make an example". In the summer of 1990, the bourgeois press itself had very discreetly revealed this information. And here we can see very well how the propaganda machine works under the democratic dictatorship: even after some papers had given a veiled account of the trap that the US had laid for Saddam Hussein, they then echoed the anti-Iraqi coalition's military propaganda almost to a man. These hypocrites recognise this today: "This time, the US Army ensured that the journalists would remain 'loyal'. 'The government succeeded in keeping the press at arm's length. In fact, you never knew what was going on', says Paul Sullivan, president of the help centre for Gulf War veterans (?) For four months, they played at frightening themselves with the idea that the Iraqi army, 'the world's fourth largest', remained a dangerous adversary?" (Marianne). "This gross blindness [sic] did not keep Western journalists from writing reams about [Saddam's] diabolical talents for manoeuvre? The Western press went on endlessly about the occupying army's real or supposed outrages. For example, it published the story of a 'young woman of the people', witness to unmentionable horrors. This 'survivor' was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington?". And so, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2nd August, everything was done to "condition" public opinion and make it accept what was to follow. And the journalists, whether with their agreement or more or less unbeknownst to them, played their part to the full.
But what the journalists, with their claims to be "honest" today, don't say, is that the US trap was laid above all for their "allies" of the day, in other words for the other great powers.
In an article in our International Review4 dated November 1990, we took position at greater length on the situation created by the Gulf crisis, before it turned to war. Our analysis was based on positions we had adopted previously, where we put forward the fact that the collapse of the Eastern bloc had brought about the disappearance of the Western bloc, and the development within it of centrifugal tendencies, a tendency of each of the major powers to "look after number one". The so-called "new international order" was thus nothing but a sinister farce. In laying its trap for Iraq, US policy was principally aimed not at Iraq, nor at the Middle East region, nor even at oil, but at the other major powers, above all at France - which was forced to confront its long-time Iraqi ally - while Germany and Japan were forced to cough up financial support for the war effort. The USSR was already in a state of disintegration, and a few diplomatic crumbs were enough to give it its orders. But at the end of 1990, "The US succeeded in creating a facade of unity among the 'international community' in August 1990 by provoking the 'Gulf Crisis' against the 'madman Saddam'. But barely two months later, every member of the 'international community' is openly out to defend their own interests" (International Review n°64). By the end of October, Saddam may have begun to understand the trap that the US government had drawn him into; at all events, perhaps "because he was aware of the rifts between the different countries" (International Review no.64), he played on the obvious disagreements within the Western coalition: at the end of October 1990, he freed all the French hostages, and around the same time received the visit of Germany's ex-chancellor Willy Brandt (also followed by the release of the German hostages).
In fact, the US used Iraq, at a moment when its status as the world's only super-power was bound to be called into question to "demonstrate its power and determination to the other developed countries" (ibid) by inflicting a brutal and bloody punishment on Iraq. In the same article, under the heading "The opposition between the US, seconded by Britain, and the others", we wrote: "With the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc, the planet's entire political-military and geo-strategic balance of forces has been overthrown. And this situation has not only opened a period of complete chaos in the countries and regions of the old Eastern bloc, it has also accelerated everywhere the tendencies to chaos, threatening the world capitalist 'order' whose main beneficiaries are the United States. The latter have been the first to react. They (?) provoked the 'Gulf crisis' in August 1990, not only in order to gain a definitive foothold in the region, but above all (?) to make an example intended to serve as a warning to any who might be tempted to oppose their position as the dominant super-power in the world capitalist arena" (idem).
War breaks out: the media stand to attention
By January 1991, the USA had succeeded in establishing its mastery of the UN coalition. A deluge of bombs rained down on Iraq. The cynicism of the gangsters running the coalition went so far as to call this a "clean war". "According to the Pentagon, these raids were extremely precise. That is completely untrue. In the space of 41 days, 85,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Iraq, equivalent to 7½ Hiroshimas! Between 150,000 and 200,000 people were killed, mostly civilians" (Ramsey Clark, ex-US Attorney General, in Marianne and the Arte documentary). "In fact, the coalition did far more than wipe out the Iraqi war machine: it methodically destroyed its economic infrastructure".
The press collaborated, almost without hesitation, with the governments of the different countries at war. It was not enough for the press to accuse the Iraqi regime and its bloodstained dictator5: they put themselves under the command of the coalition's military. We should remember the TV documentaries, with their civilian and military experts and their erudite speeches on the "highly dangerous" Iraqi army, supposedly the world's fourth most powerful. These same journalists inundated us with details of Baghdad's terrifying weapons, capable of delivery throughout the "civilised" world. We were told how the bloodthirsty Saddam's armies were killing babies in the crèches of Kuwait. On the Western side, by contrast, our nice pilots would take care only to destroy the strategic targets of the hated power. Today the weekly review Marianne confirms the media's contemptible subjection and complicity: "For four months, they played at frightening themselves with the idea that the Iraqi army remained a dangerous adversary. They talked of converted pesticide factories, of purchases of enriched uranium, the range of the 'super-cannon'. Nobody, it seemed, dared to put forward the most obvious hypothesis: that this swaggering braggart [Saddam] was simply as stupid as he was stubborn. The real specialist military historians were not duped by all this conditioning: 'exposed in the open desert, the Iraqi army will not hold out for one hour against the coalition's firepower'. (?) Thoroughly conditioned, Western opinion swallowed the fiction of the 'smart bombs', and bombardments reduced to the strict minimum" (Marianne). Nor did the manipulation stop there. the US encouraged the Kurds in Northern Iraq, and the Shiites in the south, to rebel against Saddam. "On 3rd March, General Schwarzkopf accepted the Iraqi surrender, allowing them to keep their helicopters [in order to put down the rebellion]6. For weeks, the CIA radio had been calling for an insurrection, and yet the Allies didn't budge when Saddam attacked the rebels with the best units of the Republican Guard, miraculously spared by the bombers" (ibid).
Why are the media "revealing all" today?
In these quotes, Marianne speaks of "conditioning". This task fell to the media in general, and to the television in particular. We have been able to judge what the "democratic" bourgeoisie means by "freedom of the press", above all in vital moments like the Gulf War. All those defenders of "press freedom" unhesitatingly put themselves under military censorship for the duration. And should one of them be tempted to play at Tintin in search of the truth or a fabulous scoop, the army was always there to call him to order. As Marianne says in its own way: "Nobody, it seemed, dared to put forward the most obvious hypothesis".
We can clearly see the workings of the propaganda services in the democratic states. When events require silence, then nothing important filters out. Instead we are fed all kinds of lies, half-truths, manipulations, all tarted up with the opinions of "independent" experts, university specialists and the like, and made all the more credible by the free "tone" of the press in the democratic countries. After the events, little by little, "everything can be brought into the open", or almost. The most popular media (the TV) is inundated by an avalanche of dis-information. Ten years later, the "truth" can only be found in reviews of limited circulation, or on the low-audience TV channels. We have seen the same mechanism at work in 1995 during the genocide in Rwanda, and above all during the last war in ex-Yugoslavia (Kosovo), where the Gulf media model struck again.
Following the Gulf War, and after handing the Kurd and Shiite populations over to Saddam Hussein's hired killers, the "great democracies" had the incredible cynicism to launch their famous "humanitarian interventions", "flying to the rescue of innocent populations". We have been served up the "duty of humanitarian interference" ad nauseam. The Gulf War has been a kind of template for all the imperialist campaigns that have succeeded it around the world.
If a part of the truth is published today, it is essentially because the ruling class needs to justify its system. We are supposed to believe that such openness is only possible in "democratic" capitalism. The ability to "say everything in a democracy" is used to justify those occasions when everything must be manipulated, deformed, or hidden.
But there is another reason why certain media are publishing such facts today. All these articles and documentaries have one thing in common: the US state appears in them as the sole guilty party. Although all the great powers share the responsibility for the massacres caused by the war, it is true that it was the US that led the "crusade", that prepared the trap and sprang it, and that provided most of the coalition's armed power. Certain European powers - especially France and Germany, for whom the USA is the main rival on the world imperialist scene - have every interest today in minimising their own responsibility and exposing the savagery and cynicism of "American imperialism" (which of course are real enough).
Obviously, we also get our information from the bourgeois press. Even in 1990 some papers gave a limited coverage to the manipulation. Thereafter, the deluge of lies was such that what we said in our press made some people (including those in good faith, even including some militants of the Communist Left) think that we had gone completely off the rails, that we were obsessed with machiavellian plots.
But the news in itself is not the most important thing. What is important is the method used to analyse events, and we use the marxist method. If we were able to understand what was going on in the Middle East during 1990-91, it is because we had worked to analyse the consequences of the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and the decomposition of capitalism. Revolutionaries are not, and cannot have, "secret informers". Our strength lies in our attachment to our class, the proletariat, to its history, and to the marxist method which it has forged.
Nor should we be under any illusions. Revolutionaries today only publish under surveillance. Our only protection is not the "freedom of the press", but the strength and the struggle of our class.
During the events themselves, only revolutionaries were able to show what was at stake, and so to denounce the barbarity of the war and the ruling class' manipulation of the truth. Some fractions of the bourgeoisie denounced the barbarism visited on Iraq, but for nationalist (anti-American), or even frankly pro-Iraqi reasons (as was the case with certain leftist groups). Only the groups of the Communist Left defended the internationalist proletarian position during the war. And among these groups, only the ICC was able to highlight what was really at stake in the situation. The trap set for Iraq was pointless if all that was at stake was oil. But its purpose becomes clear when we consider that what was really at stake, was US leadership in the situation following the collapse of the bloc system7. And it is only in this context that the question of oil gains its full importance, as an element in overall imperialist policy.
In terms of its propaganda and "news" the bourgeoisie does everything it can to prevent the working class - which alone can put an end to the bourgeoisie and its system - from becoming aware of what is at stake. Its efforts are redoubled whenever the mortal economic crisis affecting the system for the last thirty years, or events like the Gulf War are involved. As far as their ideological capacities are concerned, their ability to lie, hide, and deform reality, the democratic bourgeoisie has nothing to learn from the propaganda specialists of totalitarian regimes. Revolutionaries have a duty to denounce, not only imperialist barbarism, but also the mechanisms whereby the bourgeoisie tries to anaesthetise the proletariat by stultifying it with mendacious propaganda.
1 This quote is taken from the Encyclopaedia Universalis. Its articles are written by eminent historians, and we can suppose that the chapters in the school text books used to indoctrinate the young generations will be written in the same way.
2 This account does not mention the extras who served to complete the scenario: the so-called "anti-imperialists" and pacifists. Some fractions of the European bourgeoisie (from the extreme right to the extreme left, including in France the "national-republicans" and other "defenders of national sovereignty) stirred up anti-American feeling to express their disagreement with the policy of the right or left wing governments in power in Europe at the time. In general, all these bourgeois fractions that criticised the anti-Iraqi coalition pointed to oil as the main cause of the war.
France was then under President Mitterrand's socialist government. The only member of the government to express any reticence at the anti-Iraq coalition was the left national-republican Chevènement. In Spain, Felipe Gonzales' socialist government also took part in the anti-Iraqi coalition, despite the whining of certain socialists. It is worth noting that in Germany, the Greens were out-and-out pacifists. Today, they are in government. during the last war in Yugoslavia (1999), they were unhesitatingly in favour of the bombing of Serbia. One good thing about the German Greens, is that they save us the need for lengthy analyses of the real nature of pacifism. It is enough to look at their actions.
3 Dr Goebbels was the German Nazi regime's minister for propaganda and information. If we use this expression, it is because Goebbels has since become the archetypal mastermind of the bourgeois state's propaganda indoctrination and manipulation. But, as this article aims to show, there is no shortage of similar examples in Stalinist or democratic regimes.
4 "Against the spiral of military barbarism, there is only one solution: the development of the class struggle", in International Review no.64, 1st Quarter 1991.
5 Indeed, right up until the moment of the Gulf crisis, the Western press had sung Saddam's praises, depicting him as a "modern" ruler, and above all as someone who should be supported against the ambitions of the Iranian ayatollahs during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1988, Western governments supported Saddam's suppression of the Kurds using chemical weapons, because at the time he was a key element against Iran.
6 Marianne goes on to say that it was "a bit as if the Allies, in the winter of 1945, had stopped at the Rhine, leaving Hitler enough weapons to deal with any eventual uprisings". But it is not "a bit as if"; this is exactly what the Allies did in Italy in 1944: they stopped their northward advance, in order to leave the fascist regime's hands free to crush the workers' strikes and insurrection that had broken out there.
7 Read "The proletarian political milieu confronted with the Gulf War" (01/11/90), in International Review no.64, and our "Appeal to the proletarian political milieu" in no.67 (July 1991).