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The Question Is Why?

By Frederick Zackel
September 23, 2002

Why did we fight the Gulf War?

More importantly, why did we quit the war when we did?

Our slaughter scared our generals. We made slaughter look too easy.

So our generals got embarrassed by the killing frenzy our machines unleashed. The international media was noticing how great the slaughter was. And our weaponry wasn’t even super-duper Space Age wizardry. We were emptying out old inventory we had stocked up on in warehouses around the world.

No kidding.

When President George Bush the First ended the Gulf War, he said, "We drew a line in the sand." Let's select a fiction out of the herd and let’s call it a fact. What could be more "selective," more "fictional," more ephemeral, than a line in the sand?

Let me tell you about Winston Churchill's "line in the sand."

Let’s call it the border between Kuwait and Iraq.

When the borders between modern Iraq and modern Saudi Arabia were drawn by British diplomats in the early 1930s, what began as a straight-as-an-arrow line ended with a bump that is still known as Churchill's Bump.

That Bump created Kuwait.

In fact, Winston Churchill personally created not just Iraq, Kuwait, and their mutual border, but he was also responsible for many of the current geopolitical land divisions within the Middle East.

William Manchester, in his 1983 biography of Winston Churchill, reported on the British politician's diplomatic mission to the Middle East in 1921. On March 12 of that year, the Cairo conference opened, and "Winston's real purpose in Cairo was ... the choosing of two kings, proteges of the British to rule over Iraq and Transjordan." At the conference, where "of the thirty-eight participants, thirty-six were British," Lawrence (of Arabia) suggested that "Faisal be crowned head of Iraq.… His motion, with Churchill's approval, carried without dissent." But the amir Faisal had a brother, the amir Abdullah, and as Manchester relates, "Churchill announced his intention to appoint Abdullah in Palestine, and in later years he would say: 'The Emir Abdullah is in Transjordan, where I put him one Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem.'"

That bump in an otherwise straight-as-an-arrow line became a festering issue of nationalism to Iraqis. They saw it as part of their land.

Coincidentally, Kuwait also held vast reservoirs of oil. That fact was not lost on the Iraqis, either.

Ten years ago Saddam Hussein made a fatal mistake by having his armies cross the border and invade Kuwait. He failed to perceive that Americans would recognize the Dark Side of Manifest Destiny in that action.

In truth, the West doesn't care what an Iraqi tyrant does to his own people. The West doesn't care what Iraq (or Turkey, for that matter) does to its resident Kurdish minority. But the West understands intimately what invasion for profit is. (That's how the Wild Wild West was won, right?)

History is a trail of refugees. The earliest pictorials the world has of refugees are also the earliest pictorials we have of war, as practiced by the Assyrians, who invented "war as we know it."

In fact, as far as terrorism is concerned, the Assyrians started it all. To the Assyrians, totalerkreig–total war–was their life. They were Semites, the first dominators of their environment, the first despots, and about thirteen centuries before Christ was born, they built an empire in Western Asia that lasted seven hundred years. It was the first empire in the history of the world. Ninevah was their greatest city, and the Bible rejoices when it eventually was destroyed, for (among other deeds) the Assyrians had scattered the tribes of Israel.

With their invention, the battering ram, the Assyrians conquered anything they wanted. They conquered Babylon, Jerusalem, Memphis, Thebes, and the Nile Valley, and slaughtered everything within a 1,000-mile radius. Their army was not divided into tribes, as all armies had been before, but into specialist units of infantry, cavalry, and charioteers.

They were the first imperialists.

They were remarkably cruel. Their kings dined every night before depictions of butchery. They hunted and trapped lions, so their kings could personally fight them. They skinned their enemies alive and severed their limbs and their sex organs and exhibited these living war trophies in cages as decorations. They dug up the bones of Elamite kings and carried them off, so their souls could never rest. They would transplant their captives throughout their empire, so the captives could not plot rebellion.

Some of those refugees are tribes from Canaan. Some of those poor souls are being crushed under Assyrian war chariots; others are in the long lines of prisoners in shackles being led off to the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Some may be Israelites–or neighbors of Israelites.

So, you say, so what? Everybody knows war is hell, and totalerkrieg is not unusual in the sordid history of humanity. History has always seemed to be divided into two categories. The winners write the histories, Hitler and his cronies noted.

The other trail that history travels is the trail of refugees. Albert Camus even said that the twins of the twentieth century were the Warrior and the Refugee.

Old news, you say.

Why should we in the 21st century care about ancient refugees?

Because some of the earliest sections of the Bible itself were written down for the first time and for posterity by the Rivers of Babylon by refugees and prisoners and slaves. All the great stories of Solomon, David, the Psalms date back to here.

Yet by this time we have also stopped hearing directly from Yahweh. From this time we only hear about Yahweh. The priests and the theologians speak His Words. He has receded into silence.

Biblical history is replete with totalerkrieg. Read Saul's slaughter of Nob (I Samuel 22:18) or David's slaughter in I Samuel 27:9. In Numbers 31, the Midianites are exterminated ... except its 32,000 virgins. At least half of the Book of Joshua is filled with tales of the Israelites "leaving no survivors," while much of the second half is filling with the divvying of the booty and the loot. Read Joshua 6:17 for the bloodbath, the Hebrew version of totalerkrieg. Read Revelations 19:11, if you want more.

History is a trail of refugees, no doubt, and totalerkrieg has been practiced wherever and whenever humanity has set foot upon this planet.

The Nazis, for instance, created the word "totalerkrieg" and considered "total war" to be "Mankind's Greatest Achievement." Boy, did they implement total war.

Albert Speer writes in his prison memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, of his years socializing with Adolph Hitler.

In those hundreds of teatimes questions of fashion, of raising dogs, of the theater and movies, of operettas and their stars were discussed, along with endless trivialities about the family lives of others. Hitler scarcely ever said anything about the Jews, about his domestic opponents, let alone about the necessity for setting up concentration camps. Perhaps such topics were omitted less out of deliberate intention than because they would have been out of place amidst the prevailing banality.

Yet that's not what fascinates.

Hitler, who dreamed for his entire life of a "Teutonic Empire of the German Peoples," whose fantasies of world domination caused the deaths, the sufferings, of many millions, understood the power that resides at the core of religious fanaticism.

Speer continues:

Hitler had been impressed by a scrap of history he had learned from a delegation of distinguished Arabs. When the Mohammedans attempted to penetrate beyond France into Central Europe during the eighth century, his visitors had told him, they had been driven back at the Battle of Tours. Had the Arabs won this battle, the world would be Mohammedan today. For theirs was a religion that believed in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that religion. Such a creed was perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament. Hitler said that the conquering Arabs, because of their racial inferiority, would in the long run have been unable to contend with the harsher climate and conditions of the country. They could not have kept down the more vigorous natives, so that ultimately not Arabs but Islamized Germans could have stood at the head of this Mohammedan Empire.

Speer continues:

Hitler usually concluded this historical speculation by remarking: "You see, it's been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?"

Even Speer was taken aback by that.

But totalerkrieg is not limited to religious fervor.

If Hitler had dropped an atomic bomb on London it would have been the world's worst disaster.

The United States Post Office wanted to issue a stamp for the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan.

Hiroshima was a signal to Stalin.

Would we have dropped the bomb on Christians? Of course. Would we have felt bad? More than we do for having dropped it (twice!) on some Asian peoples and their god.

But that's ancient history, isn't it?

We have forgotten we dropped the bomb twice. It's ancient history, too. If we have forgotten it, why hasn't the rest of the world? Hey, world, get a life!

We were justified in dropping the bomb (twice), right?

Pearl Harbor. How dare they!

Yet in truth the Japanese got the idea for their attack on Pearl Harbor from the British War College. In 1807 the British destroyed the Danish fleet in a surprise attack off Copenhagen. Just before Pearl Harbor, the British used the same aerial sneak attack tactics on the Italian base at Taranto.

So from a cold start, within three years we were bombing the hell out of Japan’s civilians and its cities. The firestorms over Tokyo only paled when contrasted to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only abject total surrender was enough to sate our blood lust.

Yes, I said "our blood lust." No, I am not forgetting how wonderful we have been, how wonderful we are, nor how wonderful we will be.

It is not wrong for us to recognize this "blood lust" in ourselves. What is wrong is to deny that it is in all humanity. Sigmund Freud recognized this "dark side" of our persons. He said that having these "thoughts" is okay; we just must not act on them. If we repress this occasional predilection towards totalerkrieg, then sometime when we least expect it, this "trait" will boomerang back upon us.

Let's look back at the record. Consider the civilian bombing by the Allies in World War II. Consider the 1,000 bombers in their night raids over Dresden and other German cities. In Germany alone, between 300,000 and 600,000 Germans (mostly civilians) were killed. In addition, a million civilians were injured, while 20 million civilians were made homeless.

No, I am neither forgetting nor ignoring the 55,000 Allied aircrew who died during those dangerous air raids over Germany. Yes, it is very easy to be critical after fifty years.

But let me point out that those crewmen who cracked under this awesome stress had their personnel files stamped "LMF" and were shipped out. "LMF" was Allied terminology for "Lacking Moral Fiber."

They lacked the moral fiber to continue the slaughter.

The attack on Pearl Harbor gave us a rare sense of unity and a not-so-rare sense of righteousness. "Remember Pearl Harbor" gave us all a single tuning fork to resonate with.

World War II began in Europe when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Yet when Czechoslovakia fell, when France fell, when England barely avoided falling, we could live with that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt inched us closer and closer to war, but even he couldn't break through our own isolationism.

Not until Pearl Harbor.

The record says we wouldn’t have gone against Hitler except that Hitler declared war on the United States because Japan was Germany’s ally.

Our side of the story tells us we had just cause to exterminate the Nazi vermin. (Personally I still think so.) One-third of all the Jews in the world were slaughtered by Hitler. He would have slaughtered more Jews except the rest of the West saw themselves slaughtered next and stopped Hitler cold in his tracks.

A cursory examination of the facts ought to tell us and the rest of the world that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress didn't care that European Jews were being slaughtered. They were worried about the WASPS. They looked at the Nazis and said, "Not in my backyard!"

Consider the boatloads of British children who found sanctuary from the war in America, Canada, and Australia. Consider the boatloads of Jewish children, fleeing the Holocaust, whose ships were turned away from those same Allied shores.

Ten years ago we went to war against Iraq.

The Gulf War was the Hundred Hour War. It featured the most intensive aerial bombing ever in military history.

Why did we stop when we did? As retired general Colin Powell tells it in his 1995 autobiography My American Journey, the abundance of media scrutiny over the Gulf War "was starting to make it look as if we were engaged in slaughter for slaughter's sake."

In Iraq, we bombed the birthplace of Western Civilization. That was on Highway 6 to Basra, Iraq, near the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

Where the Assyrians built their first empire.

"The Highway of Death," as it has come to be known, will haunt us. Barely 60 hours into the ground campaign of Operation Desert Storm, combined American forces (U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots and Army tank units) trapped "more than a 1000 vehicles" of the retreating Iraqi Army and blasted away for many, many hours.

As Newsweek reported it at the time:

Reporters and photographers covering the war later reached Highway 6 with Desert Storm's ground forces. They recorded the carnage that stretched along that road for miles, producing gut-wrenching images of charred bodies in the blackened hulks of bombed-out vehicles. Trucks, personnel carriers and hundreds of civilian vehicles lay strewn along the road. U.S. Army officers who later came upon the devastation were sickened by what they saw. The media dubbed it the "Highway of Death."

George Bush the First didn’t lose the 1992 presidential election because he said, "No new taxes," but because he didn't go after Saddam Hussein and string the bastard up. Because he didn't let the Armed Forces go in there and clean the buggers out. Because he didn't let an occupying army of UN Forces pin down the Iraqis once and for all and slaughter ‘em all.

George the Second will honor his father by going to war.

The question is Why?

Remember Vietnam. We did our best to bomb them nasty ol' North Vietnamese Communists back to the Stone Age. And let us not forget the cancer-causing defoliant Agent Orange that killed nearly four million acres of farmland. Its impact on U.S. servicemen is still being debated and calculated. Its impact on the Vietnamese populace cannot even be imagined.

In Vietnam we said, "We must destroy that village to save it."

Ah, we Americans don't call it totalerkrieg. Well, what should we call this "streak of mean" that breaks the surface altogether too often in American history?

Is this warfare "doing unto others as we would have them do unto us"?

Let's let Sam Spade total up the justice. In The Maltese Falcon, he tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy, "All those (are) on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won't argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we've got what?"

We stand alone at the end of the Cold War.

We have lost Communism as an enemy. We have no one to focus on. No one threatens us. Or are you worried about "Khadafy Duck?" How about "Sodom Hussein?" I use these scurrilous insults for a reason; not only are they ubiquitous around the American water cooler, but they also point out how ineffectual these "villains" actually are against the only superpower in town.

Yet we worry about our enemies the way a cat worries about a mouse.

To quote the late Richard M. Nixon in his last book, Beyond Peace:

It is an awkward but unavoidable truth that had the citizens of Sarajevo been predominantly Christian or Jewish, the civilized world would not have permitted the siege to reach the point it did when a Serbian shell landed in the crowded marketplace. In such an instance, the West would have acted quickly and would have been right in doing so.

But Nixon continues and states that the siege of Sarajevo can have "a redeeming character" if only the West learns two lessons as a result:

The first is that enlightened peoples cannot be selective about condemning aggression and genocide. When the Khmer Rouge massacred 2 million Cambodians in the late 1970s, Americans' outrage was muted compared with the anguish we justifiably suffered over the massacre of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. The situation in Cambodia, it seemed, was too fraught with contradiction, especially for those Americans who had opposed our efforts to defeat the Communists who carried out the massacre.

While many Americans may find strong reasons to disagree with the last part of his first lesson, Nixon's second lesson is even more interesting. He points out, "Because we are the last remaining superpower, no crisis is irrelevant to our interests."

Because the United States failed to take an early lead in the Bosnian crisis to blunt Serbian aggression, "our failure," as he puts it, "tarnished our reputation as an evenhanded player on the international stage and contributed to an image promoted by extreme Muslim fundamentalists that the West is callous to the fate of Muslim nations but protective of Christian and Jewish nations."

After 9-11 we ask ourselves, "Why don’t they like us?"

We are the only superpower in the world.

We will win against Saddam. No sweat.

When we are done, like Carthage, Iraq will be destroyed.

Totalerkrieg is simple: annihilate whatever is conquered.

How we "justify" and "rationalize" total warfare is important.

But what will we tell our kids when they ask us, Why did you go to war?

Frederick Zackel teaches literature, writing and the humanities at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.