Gulf War Lies & Callousness to Arabs

Gulf war – forgotten lies

by Gwydion M. Williams

World capitalism is based on an arbitrary and accidental division of wealth. Kuwaitis by their own efforts would have remained as poor as Yemenis or Sri Lankans – perhaps even poorer, since they had fewer marketable skills. But because there was oil under their own little patch of desert, they suddenly became rich. Without oil, Britain would have allowed the miniature Gulf states to go the way of the Princely states of India – most of which were much larger and more serious affairs. The miniature Gulf states have served to keep oil wealth separated from the Muslim and Arab poor. Most oil revenues come right back to the West, one way or another.

In the seven months from August 1990 to February 1991, the governments of Britain and America followed policies that inevitably led to suffering and death for huge numbers of Iraqi and Kuwaiti Arabs. At no point were they interested in reducing such sufferings. Most Iraqi government brutality to Kuwaitis was due to the reasonable belief that the West was going to use its full power against them no matter what they did.

When the Iraqis failed to do anything sufficiently nasty, extra deeds could always be invented and paraded as facts by the media. Remember the shocking matter of the Iraqis stealing incubators from babies. This never happened: it is a complete lie. The Guardian (March 2nd) carried a report by David Beresford, who investigated the matter in the place where it was supposed to have happened, and found that no one there knew anything about the matter.

“I left the guided tour and went in search of the ‘incubator story’. probably the most famous of the Kuwait atrocity tales, given credence by President Bush himself: that Iraqis had thrown newborn babies out of incubators, which they then stole, leaving them to die.

“The incident is meant to have happened at the al-Sabah maternity hospital.: the Iraqis had not dumped any babies, or stolen incubators, and the staff had no idea where the story had originated. The only baby she personally had lost to the war had been a boy who died when a bomb destroyed the local power station: the chief surgeon pointed out that he, too, had suffered from the war, his wife having been killed in an allied rocket attack on the hostel block for doctors and nurses.”

Where did the story come from, and why did Bush give it credibility? The Kuwaiti exiles certainly issued a number of stories that were almost immediately exposed as false. Iraqi deserters in helicopters. Paratroopers freeing Kuwait City, long before any real Allied troops got there. Most of these stories were ignored by the American authorities, and in the long run even the press learned not to trust them. Yet President Bush used the story of the Kuwaiti babies robbed of their incubators, promoting a total fiction as if it was an incontrovertible truth. US Presidents are uniquely well-placed to be well informed, and all of their public statements are the product of very careful preparation. It is inconceivable that Bush did not know that the story was, at the very least, unproven. In view of his other actions, it is all too probable that he was happy to use the case of fictitious dead babies to start a process in which many real babies were to die.

The non-fictitious slaughter by Iraqis of Kuwaiti suspects and opponents in the last days of the occupation was avoidable. Iraqis could have been allowed to withdraw peacefully under neutral supervision, under the Soviet peace plan that Iraq accepted and America rejected.

“The Americans skilfully transmuted a negotiable Soviet proposal into an ultimatum Iraq could not accept.”

These words come, not from a Bevin Society publication, but from that most intelligent of establishment publications, The Economist.  (March 2nd, p 21). In the same issue they also say

“Mr Hussein must have known last August that he would not get away with his invasion without some sort of international reprimand. But, brimming with oil and armed to the hilt, he had reason enough to suppose that the world would eventually swallow its disapproval and accept a f ait accompli” (page 15).


“Britain’s bill for the Gulf war now looks like being remarkably small: it could even turn into a ‘profit.: Assuming the February 28th cease-fire holds, the human cost has been mercifully limited, too” (page 30).

There are still no very certain figures for total Arab deaths. The Saudis reckoned 85,000 Iraqi soldiers dead. The Kuwaitis, who have a Jong history of lying, reckoned 33,000 of their own people dead or missing or prisoners. An unknown number of Iraqi civilians died in the bombing of Iraqi cities.

When The Economist says that “the human cost has been mercifully limited, too“, it reveals its actual feelings about Arabs. Nowhere in its whole assessment of the Gulf Campaign, a brilliant success for policies that The Economist had been supporting for the previous few months, is there anything said about the appalling human cost of the war to the Iraqi and Kuwaiti Arabs. This is entirely consistent with a whole line of Anglo-American feeling. Retrospectives on the Vietnam War almost all concentrate on the cost to America. The vastly higher price paid by the Vietnamese, both enemies who were bombed and burnt and ‘friends’ who were ruthlessly abandoned in the final collapse, is hardly ever taken into account.

In the rest of the media, a more humane line needs to be taken. Greedy, cold-blooded thinking is to be encouraged among the ‘top people’, the people The Economist tries to cater for. The rest are supposed to act rather more emotionally. The very real sufferings of some Kuwaitis were paraded to mask the much greater suffering of very large numbers of Iraqis. And no one was allowed to realise that both sets of suffering were due to Bush and Thatcher deciding to invent and enforce a new set of rules back in August 1990.

British troops were heroic in the Falklands: they fought on a civilised basis, suffered losses, killed no Argentinean civilians and bombed no cities. The Falklands War was a proper war, where enemy lives were treated as being of some value. The ‘war’ against Iraq was much more like a massacre, most of it carried out by US aircraft who attacked almost everything that moved, including in one case a British military vehicle.

Histories of the Gulf war are quite noticeably not rolling off the presses, in the way that did after the Falklands victory. And serious analysis would stir up too many forgotten lies, lies that the whole of the mainstream media were involved in propagating.


This article is from Newsnotes for May 1991.  It appeared in Issue 23 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at