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Asking the Wrong Questions About Iraq

Peace & Freedom, the Magazine of the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom
Published October-December 1996

When it comes to the subject of Iraq, the question people invariably ask is “What about Saddam Hussein?” the question that backs peace-lovers like WILPFers [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom] into a rhetorical corner. Would you have wanted a madman in control of two-fifths of the world’s oil? Would you have wanted a madman, who would gas his own people, developing a nuclear bomb? Implicit in our “Of course not!” is the rationale that keeping the Iraqi leader in a box is justified, if not necessary. How else could you stop a brutal dictator in his tracks and prevent such horrible things from happening? And what if our security means the sacrifice of more than half a million Iraqi children who, in the aftermath of war and continuing economic sanctions against their country, have died of preventable causes? Will we agree with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine K. Albright, who recently answered on television’s “60 Minutes” that their deaths are “worth it”?

Up against realpolitik, if in seeking the non-violent solution to problems, WILPFers seem to be from another planet, well, so be it. Let’s perch ourselves there for the better view! Most of us know the evil deeds of Iraq—invading a sovereign country, torturing Kuwaiti suspects, setting fire to all those oil wells in Kuwait. But from our vantage on another planet, we can see a side of the Persian Gulf War story that is often missed by U.S. mass media.

The mass media seem to have forgotten, for instance, its own maps of Iraq that it produced at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, ostensibly to demonstrate to the people of the U.S. that the Pentagon knew what it was doing. Time magazine offered its readers a pull-out map dotted with little skull-and-crossbones symbols to indicate the location of all of Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons facilities. The map of Iraq on the front page of The New York Times, dated January 17, 1991, also shows those sites alongside its story of President George Bush, emphasizing that “American planes [had] struck at Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons production sites.” Later in that first month of the war, in covering Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s military briefing in which he discusses the destruction of those same nuclear, chemical or biological targets in Iraq, The New York Times lists the number of sorties flown against weapons plants and storage areas at 535, with 31 locations attacked, 3 nuclear plants destroyed, 28 chemical and biological plants and storage areas attacked, 3 plants destroyed or damaged, and 11 storage areas destroyed. What were Americans supposed to think had happened?

Until this June the Pentagon denied that veterans who served in the Gulf War, some 60,000 of whom suffer debilitating symptoms now referred to as “Gulf War Syndrome,” could have been contaminated by Iraqi chemical or biological weapons. The Pentagon only recently admitted the possibility that up to 15,000 could have been exposed when U.S. troops blew up chemical agent arsenals at Khamiseyah in southern Iraq after the war had ended. It has apparently forgotten that we saw those maps and reports listing all the other sites that were bombed, the reports designed to make Americans rest easy that Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons were no longer a threat.

This year in Tooele, Utah, a town of 15,000 people just 45 southwest of populous Salt Lake City, the U.S. Army began burning its own stockpiles of chemical weapons in a specially designed $650 million incinerator. Of the 30,000 tons of chemical agents distributed in eight locations in the U.S., 44 percent of them are stored in Toole. But no sooner did Tooele’s disposal plant go into operation, it was shut down because of the discovery of a small leak. “A single drop of a nerve agent like Sarin can kill a person. A major release into the air would kill 1 in 10 people within a 40-mile radius, according to some projections,” reports Timothy Egan in The New York Times. But having to weigh a small leak during incineration against possible multiple leaks of the weapons as they deteriorate in storage, particularly when the storage facility is located, as it is, within an earthquake fault zone, the U.S. Army may opt to proceed with incinerations as “acceptable risk.” As dangerous as this situation is, how would the people of Tooele or Salt Lake City feel if the Army decided to destroy its stockpiles of Chemical weapons by detonation or bombing instead? Out here on another planet, detonating or bombing another nation’s chemical weapons seems tantamount to using them.

Babies of U.S. veterans conceived after the war have suffered from serious birth defects. Laura Flanders reports that one Veterans Administration survey of 251 parents in Mississippi “revealed that 67 percent of their children conceived since the war are afflicted with missing eyes and ears, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.”

At the end of 1995, the U.S. lifted three-year-old economic as well as military sanctions against the Serbs just for sitting down at the table to talk about peace. Yet with peace well established in Kuwait for five years, the U.S. is still pressuring the U.N. Security Council to keep the almost six-year-old sanctions against Iraq in place. People from another planet would ask why? What is it about the country that makes the U.S. want to keep hold of Iraq “by the beard”?

The answer, plain and simple, is oil. Watch oil futures rise and fall according to how close the U.N. Security Council is to letting Iraq sell oil again, for re-entry of Iraq’s oil would glut the market and drive the price of oil down. Consumers at the pump certainly would not object. Objectors are the executives and shareholders of competing oil companies whose profits are at stake. What if WILPFers had their way and the U.S. invested in developing alternative energy sources like the especially promising photovoltaic industry with its simple, silicon cells that can trap the sun’s energy? How interested in Iraq would the U.S. be if oil were irrelevant.?

So what are the right questions to ask about Iraq? If you’re from another planet, you will avoid getting stuck on the question to which there is no answer, “What about Saddam Hussein?” Instead you might ask, “What’s the truth about the Persian Gulf War?” And when you have enough information about “them,” you might ask, “What about ‘us’?” When you’re from another planet and you have before you ordinary Americans and ordinary Iraqis suffering still from the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War and continuing sanctions against Iraq, the question most on your mind will be, “What can we do to help?” 

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