Katherine Boo on the Gulf War

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My God,” exclaimed President George H. W. Bush a week after the Gulf War ended, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

It wasn’t hard to miss the subtext: this victory has restored our faith in weaponry as the wisest political tool. Yet as we retool and replenish for further world policing, it’s worth remembering that most countries facing an alien army put up more resistance than the allegedly fearsome Iraqis were able to muster. Nowhere are predictions of clean war more misleading than in what historians call “asymmetrical wars”: wars between Davids and Goliaths. To the weaker, conflict is not a cool calculus of risk, expense, and expectation, but a fight for national pride in which restraint and compromise are not options. A century after the fact, no military historian can adequately explain how, in the first battle of the Zulu-British war, 1,500 highly trained English riflemen were slain by native warriors bearing spears.

A few years later, American soldiers faced their Zulus in the Philippines, a place where, after the “splendid little war” in Cuba, few U.S. leaders expected to do any fighting at all. The object, explained Colonel Frederick Funston, was simply to “sit on and hold down the little brown brothers for a few months” until the Filipinos decided they didn’t want independence after all.

Four months into the conflict, a stunned General Arthur MacArthur warned the White House that victory would be anything but easy. How in the world, he demanded, could one combat “the united and apparently spontaneous action of several millions of people”? (MacArthur’s grim report caused President McKinley to marvel, “Why did all this ‘truthtelling’ become available only after the election?”)

Virtually the same soundtrack played in Vietnam, where boys in pajamas somehow managed to kill 60,000 exquisitely armed American troops. We won in the Philippines; in Vietnam, we lost. In both places, we earned an animosity that still haunts us. Yet as bridges and buildings smoldered in the Baghdad suburbs, as limbless corpses poked up through the sand, Bush could claim with finality a day after the Gulf War cease-fire, “This war is now behind us.”

In late January, a senior Iraqi official was asked by the BBC how it felt to be losing so badly. “We have already won,” the official responded coolly, “because it wasn’t a two-day war after all.”

That assessment, of course, doesn’t touch us. For if the history of war is written by the victor, so is the definition of winning. At about the same time, Charles Krauthammer could define the impending U.S. conquest in terms, not of the Middle East, but of ourselves—a national psychotherapeutic cure: “If the war in the Gulf ends the way it began—with a dazzling display of American technological superiority, individual grit, and, most unexpectedly for Saddam, national resolve—we will no longer speak of post-Vietnam America. A new, post-Gulf America will emerge, its self-image, sense of history, even its political discourse transformed.”

But as we revel in our psychic kill, it’s worth considering the twelfth-century Normans who, self-image enhanced by their easy conquest of England, planned a brisk overrun of the farmers and peasants of Ireland. Almost 900 years later, Irish bombs explode in Victoria Station.

If history has anything to teach us about war, it’s that we should be wary of the term “clean victory,” skeptical of mantras about “kicking ass.” Victory, as the Israelis learned in Lebanon, may be just another word for bellum interruptum. When we finally “won” it, the Gulf War had cost us perhaps $30 billion and ninety-one lives. For the Iraqis, the casualties may be more than a thousand times higher. Yet true victory—political stability, respect for human rights, democratic leadership, even stable oil prices—is no more assured in the Middle East, a region with more conventional weapons than all of NATO, than it was before we dropped ten times the tonnage of Hiroshima on the Gulf.

In late February, Palestinians gathered on the rooftops of the West Bank, cheering the Scud missiles as they arced toward Tel Aviv. A week later, Shiite fundamentalists stirred in Basra, armed by their Iranian brethren. Could it be that this new war, like the old ones, suggests another meaning for the Greeks’ winged victory—something neither fleet nor transcendent? A promise, rather, that hovers just out of our grasp.

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From “Wham, Bam, Thanks Saddam,” April 1991. Katherine Boo is now a staff writer at the New Yorker.

 
 
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