Issue 194 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1996 Copyright Socialist Review



Still the first casualty

Riding the storm
Channel 4

The Gulf War

Victims of precision bombing

The moment Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, giving Iraq control of a fifth of the world's oil supplies, the West's lie machine went into overdrive. There was, after all, a lot to hide. Chiefly, there was the embarrassing fact that the West had supported and armed Iraq's brutal dictator Saddam Hussein during and after the long conflict with Iran in the 1980s.
After the war there was still a lot to hide. There was the job of explaining how the 'liberation' of Kuwait had returned dictators to their thrones and unleashed a frenzy of killings of non-Kuwaitis. There was the problem of the Kurds and Iraq's Shi'ias who took President Bush's advice and rose up against Saddam Hussein only to find that the West stood by as they were massacred. Even at home there was the uncomfortable task of dealing with thousands of dreadfully sick Allied soldiers who were probably poisoned by chemicals injected into them by army doctors.
Before the Allied assault public opinion in America was uneasy about another foreign war. So the lies poured out, many inspired by a top PR firm hired by the US government. They were lapped up by a servile media. Top of the list was the incubator story, used by Bush to help him win a crucial vote in the Senate to go for war. They produced a tearful young Kuwaiti woman who claimed she had seen Iraqi troops removing incubators from a Kuwaiti hospital, leaving the babies to die.
During the war the bombs became smarter and smarter, knocking out military targets without so much as a drop of civilian blood being spilled. The British war effort was brilliant; America's anti-Scud missiles were supreme.
At the time much of this hogwash was exposed, Socialist Worker showed that the incubator story was a lie and Amnesty International apologised for it. Media Workers Against the War produced bulletins that demolished the 'clean war' lie and exposed the absorption of journalists into the war effort.
One of those journalists was Maggie O'Kane of The Guardian. Recently she admitted that she had been part of a mighty propaganda exercise in the Gulf (although she doesn't seem to realise she fell into the same trap in the former Yugoslavia). Her excellent Channel 4 programme well and truly nailed the incubator story. The tearful young woman had never been in a Kuwaiti hospital at all; she was the daughter of a Gulf diplomat in the US. O'Kane also exposed the unsmartness of the smart bombs, and how Allied commanders had lied about civilian targets they had destroyed and about chemical attacks they had suffered. Her heartbreaking interviews with the men who had lost their entire families in the Amirah air raid bunker, in which 300 civilians, mainly women and children, had been burned alive by 'precision' bombing, brought home exactly what the video war really meant.
Soon after her programme came the BBC's much hyped four part The Gulf War. Since the series took two years to make and had access to most of the top protagonists, it could hardly fail to come up with some interesting stuff. It was fun to discover that the British war machine was totally useless. The tanks and guns didn't work, the planes and their low flying missions were a disaster, and the derring-do of the SAS missions achieved little but self destruction and much humiliation.
It was interesting to hear the arguments between gungho Bush, the psychopathic General Schwarzkopf and the cautious Colin Powell, to see their contemptuous attitude towards President Gorbachev. It was also good to listen to the former Iraqi foreign minister and head of military intelligence explaining Iraqi tactics before the war and Saddam's increasingly bizarre orders during it. Occasionally the odd bit of new information emerged. For instance, the faultless anti-Scud missiles actually missed most of the Scuds.
But apart from such insights, the series was a rotten attempt to keep the lies alive. Back came the incubator story like a sick joke. This time another 'nurse' was on show. She is apparently being paid by the liberated Kuwaiti dictators to tour the world telling her tale.
The war itself was presented, once again, as remarkably bloodless. The Amirah bunker massacre was shown--but only to demonstrate that the Allied forces had run out of military targets. When dead bodies did appear in great numbers--on the highway of death, the slaughter of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians fleeing Kuwait along the Basra road--the bloodshed was presented as justifiable. One US army chief said in explanation, apparently without irony, that they weren't just going to let the Iraqis leave Kuwait--the supposed aim of Operation Desert Storm.
The fourth programme was by far the strongest, showing the massacre of thousands of terrified Iraqis after the war had been won (although the commentator still managed to say that only 240 casualties had been lost in the conflict!). It dramatically captured the feeling of liberation by people in the north and south when they rose up against Saddam Hussein and then their sense of betrayal when America let Iraqi helicopters and tanks shoot them down. But the 'betrayal' was presented as a wise move by the US government to avoid another Vietnam quagmire. The truth was that the solidarity of the rulers around the world prevailed; for the US government, it was far better to live with a humbled dictator than to face a liberated people.
The series also glossed over or ignored key moments in the conflict. The Arab nations just fell in behind Washington, no problem. No mention of how they were threatened with financial and political punishments if they refused to join the Allies (Yemen, which did refuse, lost 1 billion in aid), or why loyal Anglophile King Hussein of Jordan broke the habit of a lifetime by disobeying the West (he feared mass revolt if he did not).
Opposition to the war, according to the BBC, came only in the US and only before the bombs started falling. There was not a single mention of the mass protests across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, or of the anti-war movement in Britain and other 'Allied' countries.
The BBC's 'balance' monitors must have been on holiday. In about four hours of footage, not one voice opposing the West's intervention was heard. No one challenged the biggest lie of the lot--that the war was about democracy and 'liberation'. No one questioned the idea that it was right for US troops to massacre hundreds of thousands of people and destroy a country simply so that the US could continue receiving cheap oil from client Arab dictators.
Five years on the big lie is pretty easy to spot. The war that we were told was about 'liberation' and 'protecting human rights' returned the Kuwaitis to dictatorship, smashed Iraq's opposition, brought death, starvation and disease to millions of innocent people in the Middle East, and gave American imperialism a new lease of life.
Clare Fermont

Out of this world

Peter York's Eighties

This must be one of the most vacuous and superficial supposed documentaries ever put on television. The 1980s were a decade of momentous events: the miners' strike, the Falklands War, the introduction of the poll tax, the defeat inflicted on the print unions at Wapping.
Unemployment rose sharply, while social services and welfare came under attack. A relatively small section of society did very well, many more lived the illusion of doing well, but many suffered as Thatcher embarked on a programme of further enriching the rich at the expense of the poor. Yet to watch these six programmes is to witness a view of the world at the time, where no one missed out except an unlucky, outdated and unambitious few.
I must admit I had never heard of the programme's presenter, Peter York, until I watched the series. He is, apparently, a very well known journalist and editor of a 'style' magazine, and it shows. The programme is all froth and no substance.
Practically all the people he interviewed came from either the ideological right or the rich or famous. So in the first programme we had the rather strange attempt to marry right wing nutters from the furthest reaches of the Tory Party with the brain numbing New Romantics and the airheads of the London club scene.
One lot were apparently saving us from the shackles of the state and the trade unions, while the other were bringing style and glamour to our lives, ridding us of denim, dull colours and social consciousness. There you have York's 1980s. Following this came the great property boom. We all had a stake now according to York. If you owned your own property you were in, and to hell with (what you would imagine from watching) the small feckless minority who didn't. Never mind that house prices were rising at rates that put them beyond the majority of working class families. These were not homes you were buying, they were status symbols with the right postcode, like the Knightsbridge broom cupboard sold for 36,000.
There were two moments of sheer pleasure watching the series. The first was watching these greedy aspirants come a cropper as the bottom fell out of the Lawson boom. The other was the impact of the stock market crash on Black Monday.
Yes, a whole programme was devoted to the new yuppies of the stock market, and the more glamorous and colourfully dressed industrialists. (Don't worry if you can't remember them--they passed me by as well.) Apparently the bright young men on the stock market used to go to bars and play a game called Wad. Someone would shout 'Wad' at which point you would all put your wad of money on the bar, and the one with the least cash would have to buy the drinks.
But the wads ran out when the market crashed and thousands of worthless gamblers found themselves on the dole. Similarly with the new breed of industrialists; of all those mentioned only Richard Branson avoided bankruptcy.
The final programme was meant to take a look at why it all ended, and where the 1990s were taking us, so more serious voices were called for. Enter Martin Jacques, former editor of Marxism Today and deputy editor of the Independent. Martin added little weight to the fluff. Thatcher was a revolutionary, he informed us, and he bemoaned the fact that he missed out on all that dosh that was floating about because of his commitment to Marxism Today. Weep not for Martin though, because York was able to reassure us that he now wears Armani suits. So that's all right then.
As for the events mentioned at the beginning of this review: well, they just didn't happen in York's 1980s. There were, though, one or two little background snippets that passed by without comment. One American yuppie with a more serious eye on the world than York possesses did spot that the only way the rich could go on enriching itself was at the expense of the poor, and that there were great dangers in this.
There were also two little clips of Thatcher. One where she announced that wealth creation was a virtue but greed a vice, a bit rich given her personal money grubbing since she left office. The other was a speech during the 1979 election campaign when she announced that once free market policies were introduced people would be 'dancing in the street rather than rioting in it'. Ironic, but an irony missed on York who never seemed to notice how rioting eventually proved to be her nemesis. But that would have required popping into the real world, something I doubt York has ever done.
Pat Stack

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