(From September 2002)
Amidst the propaganda build up to another seemingly inevitable Gulf War a peace protester finds moral certainty in the facts of modern warfare.
There many good reasons not to re-invade Iraq. Given that Saddam Hussain is an intelligent self-preservationist (albeit a vicious murdering one) why would he use weapons of mass destruction against anyone unless his own survival was already threatened, as it is now being? War on Iraq simply makes the current regime more popular, destroying chances of internal regime change. A regime toppling war in Iraq would – unlike in Afganistan – leave a power vacuum with no viable opposition party ready to step in the breach. We should be suspicious of the motivations of US aggression given that an interim (US-puppet) government would have a major share in the price-fixing cartel OPEC [link]. I find these arguments, and many others, convincing. However, all are capable of being spun in different directions by skilled politicians.
What we can say with certainty is that the Iraqi people have suffered enough on behalf of their brainwashing dictator and at the behest of hawkish states inside the UN. We must dispel the myth that war has somehow become a precise, smart affair due to new weapons and new strategies.
The myth of ‘smart war’
A new war would combine the worst of strategic operations and conventional ‘total war’. Industrialisation lead to the notion of total war, in which the political order was subordinated to the military, and war would be waged through mass conscription, politics, economics, and propaganda [link]. Later, faced with the superiority of the USSR in conventional weapons, theorists proposed ‘Air-Land Operations’ – strategic strikes that would aim at stopping the supporting echelons of enemy troops ever making it to the fray, targeting supply lines and communications.
This kind of discussion led to the portrayal of the Gulf War as a smart war. [link] By giving the media exciting bombcam images, and rumours of missiles that could follow the streets and enter a building through a pre-selected window, warmongers could impress upon the general public the ideas of ‘precision bombing’ and ‘surgical strikes’ aimed at purely military targets. Even if the majority of attack missions in Iraq were of this kind we should not let this under-emotive language take away the reality of the bloody burning death inflicted on Iraqi conscripts, whatever the accuracy.
In any case the definition of military targets in the first Gulf War was dubious. Iraq was one of the wealthiest countries in the region. The country had spent $160 million on infrastructure in the 1980s and was thus a highly urbanised and mechanised society. Within two days of the beginning of the Gulf War, every electricity generation plant in Iraq had been destroyed or damaged it thus became impossible to pump or process clean water, refrigerate food, or run hospitals. A similarly thorough operation was carried out on communications and transport infrastructures, knocking out at least 50 bridges around Iraq. When people were injured in the bombing it was not possible to alert the emergency services, and they would not be able to get to the victims anyway. Human Rights Watch also note the bombings of water-treatment facilities, food-processing plants, food- and seed-storage warehouses, flour mills and a dairy-products plant, a sugar refinery, a textile factory and domestic heating-gas plant were bombed. Furthermore, due to a complete lack of intelligence on the ground in Iraq, verification of the list of at least 700 approved targets was questionable, as shown by the notorious attack on a civilian air raid shelter in Baghdad on 17th February 1991.[link]
Not so smart
In reality smart weapons were rarely used during air operations in Iraq. Less than 8% of the 88,500 tones of bombs dropped during the Gulf War were guided weapons. [link] As a result 35,000 civilians and more than 100,000 soldiers were killed. [link] The campaign against Iraq made use of both the smart Land-Air strategies and an older doctrine of total war. When it came to the front line, and even retreat of Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait, the military coalition were ruthless in destruction.
Weapons of mass destruction
More war can only bring more suffering. Let me offer some brief idea of the effects of a few of the more damaging conventional weapons with which Iraq would be attacked: cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives, daisy-cutters and depleted uranium (DU) shells.
Depleted Uranium is a component in many of the more conventionally recognisable weapons: shells from tanks and artillery, and rounds from machine guns. It is used because it is a particularly dense metal and because it is cheap: it is a by-product of the nuclear power industry and thus firing it at your enemies is considerably cheaper than disposing of it at home. It straddles the line between conventional and nuclear weaponry because of its long term effects: radiation sickness, increased incidence of cancer, and genetic mutations in new born children and livestock. While DU in fact produces less radiation than uranium commonly found in topsoil the sheer quantities left behind are staggering. After the 1990 Gulf War 290,000 kg of the substance were left behind – this is a substance whose presence is usually counted by the number of molecules. Furthermore, the costs of clean-up are prohibitively expensive: the estimate for a two square kilometre area of testing ground in the US was estimated at $4-5 billion. [link]. Of course, DU weapons not only kill enemy soldiers and civilians, have massive long-term health consequences and wreck the environment, they also damage the health of those who wield them; hence Gulf War Syndrome[link].
Daisy cutters, less memorably, the BLU-82 [link] are massive explosives, originally designed to clear helicopter landing areas in Vietnam. They even create a mushroom cloud like nukes. Fuel-air explosives (FAEs) are similar to daisy cutters but instead of carrying their own combustion medium the explosives spread over a wide area before burning all the available air. Thus, it is not overpressures (i.e. the blast itself) that destroys but the creation of a vacuum. Victims die of suffocation and those outside of the lethal range of the weapons are likely to suffer damaged internal organs including brain tissue, and injuries sustained by smaller objects being sucked into the vacuum at high velocity. These weapons were used on troops in trenches during the Gulf War. [link1, link2]
Cluster-bombs have been the work-horse anti-personnel weapon in Iraq, Kosovo and Afganistan, about 25% of bombs dropped in the Gulf War were of these type. [link] A drop of several cluster bombs can easily produce a lethal zone of one square kilometre. [link] The biggest danger from cluster bombs is after the event however. Many sub-munitions lie unexploded and unstable on the battlefield. An ‘acceptable’ level of duds has been set at 3% by the UN; however, due to poor quality control US pilots report approximately 20% as duds. During negotiations over the international Anti-Personnel Landmines Ban the US had the definition of landmine altered so that it would not include the cluster bomb [link] Escaping on a technicality, the continued use of cluster-bombs therefore represents a conscious acceptance of the fact of injury and death for unsuspecting civilians long years after the end of the war. As with DU, cleanup is dangerous and prohibitively expensive.
All of these weapons will undoubtedly be used in a new Gulf War. Perhaps the only advantage to their destructive might is that it may make reduce the possibility of the US field-testing their tactical or battlefield nukes.
When dealing with a dictatorship it is unacceptable to hold the general population responsible for the actions of their leaders; this applies both to civilians and conscripts. The tactics of the first war hit the innocent hard. They did so predictably, not merely as accidental collateral damage. Imposition of sanctions have deliberately extended the human suffering resulting from the first Persian Gulf War. A second would be merciless and immoral.