The US First Invaded Iraq 25 Years Ago - and America's Still Coming to Grips with What a Disaster It Has Been

Last week’s little noticed quarter-century anniversary of the first U.S. war against Iraq, often called the Persian Gulf War, prompted us to reflect on the impact of U.S. foreign policy and our continuing need to challenge militarism and find alternatives to war. From our television sets in Chicago 25 years ago we watched in horror as U.S. bombs lit up the sky in Baghdad. The “Desert Storm” we had tried so hard to prevent was now raining down death on the new American enemy.

Up until that moment, we believed our movement might succeed in persuading the first Bush Administration to choose negotiations and non-military means to convince the Iraqi government to withdraw from Kuwait.  After all, overt U.S. wars against foreign nations did not have a good track record of success, the Vietnam War being an example often cited by those warning against U.S. intervention.

Despite our youthful energy to parade black coffins through the Chicago streets in winter, organize countless teach-ins on college campuses, mobilize thousands at rallies, form phone trees, send bulk mailings, and hold press conferences highlighting veterans, school teachers, nurses, weapons experts, school kids, and even politicians against the war – none of our efforts stopped the Bush Administration from beginning its “new world order” effort in the Middle East.

We did our best to expose the lies and misinformation that led up to the war.  But in the pre-internet and pre-social media era, it was difficult to counter the news networks’ drumbeat for war. The false claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that would be used to destroy the U.S. and its allies actually convinced some traditional peace supporters to support the war. Ignoring the fact that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had recently been an ally of the U.S in its war against Iran, the government and press focused on his ruthless policies, comparing him to Hitler. Playing to Islamophobic fears about the Middle East and reducing the people of the region to racist caricatures perpetuated by Hollywood films for decades, the mainstream media and U.S. government dehumanized the entire Iraqi population to such an extent that they became “collateral damage” and unworthy of compassion or mercy.  Even after the ceasefire in March 1991, few Americans were moved to speak out or demand an end to the strict economic sanctions imposed on Iraq for nearly a decade that led to over a million Iraqi deaths due to malnutrition and disease.

Twenty-five years ago we tried to convince Americans that since the fall of the Berlin wall, we were at a threshold of a new era that offered hope.  Opportunities for a peace dividend where we could fund human needs, not warfare.  Resources to address economic inequities and structural racism, not war debt. Commitment to demilitarize and abolish nuclear weapons, not revitalize an arms race.  We said we had an opportunity to strengthen international law and diplomacy and avert catastrophe in the Middle East.  The New World Order we envisioned was not to be realized  by “smart” bombs, embedded journalists, military occupation, and indifference to human suffering.  

While many cite 9/11 as “changing everything” in terms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the focus on violent extremism or “terrorism,” a strong case can be made that the first U.S. war on Iraq opened a Pandora’s box with awful consequences still being felt.

President George H.W. Bush celebrated overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome,” the presumed reluctance to engage in full-scale war via invasion and bombardment, which one might have viewed as a positive development for a country nearly constantly at war in our history. We admit to having been slightly naïve, thinking the U.S. would not send troops overseas again to engage another war, but as soon as the bombs began to fall, public opinion rallied behind the President in the bid to “win the war.”

In terms of the Middle East, “Desert Storm” ushered in a disastrous two and a half decades of U.S. military and economic intervention which has cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars and dangerously destabilized the region, with consequences still metastasizing and no end in sight.

We recall some snarkiness directed at the peace movement by those who wanted to “give war a chance.” Well, the U.S. has indeed given war a chance, “big time” as George H.W. Bush used to say, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the region by our allies. Giving war a chance has begotten more war, more violence, more suffering, more instability, violent extremism and fear. The lone recent U.S. success in Middle East policy, the nuclear deal with Iran, came about from years of patient, multi-lateral diplomacy.

Here we are today, more than two decades later still working for organizations that believe there is an alternative to war.  We have new methods of trying to change the narrative and public opinion, but our message is still the same.  We still believe that U.S. militarism (bloated military budgets, drone warfare, disregard of human rights and international law standards) will plague our country, draining critical resources needed to address racism, economic injustice, and environmental crises that fuel conflict and violence. We resist the creation of new enemies and demonization of people to justify killing. The peace movement now engages not just in anti-war education and organizing, but poses positive, more effective alternatives and seeks to make common cause with the economic, racial and environmental justice movements.

At this point in our species’ history, we surely must recognize the challenge to overcome the “Evil Triplets” denounced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – racism, militarism and economic exploitation, and King’s admonition that those of us who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.  


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