Clean lies, dirty wars

As the United States continues to ponder war with Iraq, a military scientist and writer now living in Reno recalls the truths she learned during a trip to post-Desert Storm Iraq.

Civilian cars, trucks and buses—the vehicles used by those fleeing Kuwait—were bombed by U.S. military forces on the Highway of Death.

Civilian cars, trucks and buses—the vehicles used by those fleeing Kuwait—were bombed by U.S. military forces on the Highway of Death.

Courtesy Of The Desert Storm Think Tank

Twenty-two months after Desert Storm, I was finally on my way to Amman, Jordan, the gateway to Iraq. Somewhere over Europe, I caught a glimpse of the Kafkaland to come when I heard that 50 black-market merchants had been hanged there before cheering crowds of Iraqis. My introduction to the hell of Iraq was complete when I learned that their bodies had been left hanging for the birds to peck eyes from, rotting reminders of what happens to traitors who price necessities out of the affordable range.It was October 1992. The first George Bush was in his second bid for the presidency. Central to his campaign was the glorious Desert Storm victory. Desert Storm, said the president, was a model war. A hundred thousand tons of explosive power had been dropped on a nation one-third smaller than the state of Texas, from which Bush hailed. The official line was only good news. America’s new wonder weapons—depleted-uranium-tipped munitions and precision-guided missiles—had destroyed the Iraqi army but spared Iraqi civilians. The media in their enthusiasm had labeled Desert Storm a “clean war.”

The years I’ve spent as a weapons system analyst told me otherwise, as did Desert Storm veterans I’d interviewed, who spoke of civilian slaughter and brought home photographs of blackened corpses melted by depleted uranium—bodies nicknamed “crispy critters” by soldiers. And so I set out to uncover the dirty lie.

After months of negotiation with the Iraqi government, I traveled to Iraq with a plan in place to investigate Desert Storm bomb sites, interview survivors and review mortuary records.

A decade has passed since my journey. Today, as I sit listening to President George W. Bush speak of what he says is America’s need to finish off what his father started, my memories take shape and I find myself revisiting Iraq.

The Destruction

A few days after arriving in Iraq—and assuring officials that I was not an American spy—I became a Desert Storm sightseer, complete with a botched guidebook entitled The Destruction, courtesy of Takliff, the head of the Iraqi Press Center. Its ink wet from the propaganda mill, The Destruction related the tale of Desert Storm according to Saddam Hussein. One chapter enumerated thousands of civilian structures destroyed, while another touted miraculously low civilian casualties. These numbers tallied so that two and two made three. Defying basic arithmetic, The Destruction claimed “8,243 civilian martyrs and injured.”

Remembering the U.S. estimate of about 13,000 Iraqi civilians killed, this was a find that prompted a series of questions: Why not inflate rather than deflate that total? Why not use a natural propaganda tool and make the Allies look worse rather than better? How could it be that the only thing Saddam Hussein and George Bush agreed upon was that so few had died, when more than 10,000 tons of mostly U.S. explosive power had bombarded Iraq non-stop for 43 days?

Hoping to gain Takliff’s confidence, I held my silence. Assigned a car and Walid, a driver/guard, I went along for the ride to the Desert Storm War Museum, where the curator showed me The Destruction exhibited in pictures pasted next to missile shrapnel. Then, like a warhorse with blinders, I was driven through the city, allowed to see only what Walid permitted. Civilian bombing damage was strictly off limits. Barreling through Baghdad, Walid pointed to bombed but reconstructed government factories and ministries as well as restored power and water plants. Along the route I glimpsed flattened houses and apartment buildings and asked Walid if this was bomb damage. “Yes,” he answered, “but nobody dies.”

Finally, I was taken to the death-scented altar of the Ameriyya air raid shelter, where about 300 people, mostly women and children, had died. Hit head-on with a bunker-busting bomb, the ruin was preserved as a shrine and tended by a grieving, black-haired, black-dressed woman, her young face ravaged by the loss of her children. Accompanying her was her only surviving child, a shell-shocked 10-year-old—old before his time.

Descending into the shelter, I picked my way through the rubble along haphazardly lit, makeshift wooden planks until we came to a trail of burning candles that illuminated the photographed faces of the killed. The woman paused to show me her children’s pictures. At the bottom, tears streaming, she peeled a darkened film from the wall. “Skin,” she said, gently cupping it in her hand. Taking my hand, she placed the morsel in my palm. I realized she was right. Looking like skin peeled from a bad sunburn, distinguished by its swirls, it was human skin that I held.

Above ground, we smoked together, and I felt that I’d failed to convey my sympathies for her losses in her language until I slipped a ring from my finger onto hers. We bid tearful goodbyes to each other approvingly noted by Walid, who clumsily patted my shoulder with the comment that he “would tell Takliff that I had cried at Ameriyya.”

In Baghdad

Left alone that night, I slipped out of my hotel and came to know Baghdad as an armed funeral parlor where everyone was afraid, most of all Saddam Hussein. Fearing assassination, the Iraqi president would send look-a-like stand-ins of the same age, coloring and stature into crowds. They would stop bullets and knives meant for him. This is the secret of his life as a despot.

Like Big Brother, he believes his own press, securing his omnipotence by order that every home and business display his picture. No one speaks ill of him. Any dissenter risks death or imprisonment, and his or her cellmates will be family and friends. Phones are tapped, and Hussein’s spies are well treated with payment of food and money.

The next day, Takliff set me free to roam the streets of Baghdad. Joining me to translate was a young Iraqi reporter assigned to write the story of an American researcher investigating the Iraqi death toll of Desert Storm. Walid sped around Baghdad until I told him to stop at a teeming city block. Getting out, I posed questions to randomly selected passersby, many of whom had come to their capital city from other parts of the country: Where were you during the bombing of Desert Storm? Did family or friends die? How many people do you think died? Do you think more or less than 9,000 civilians perished?

It was like opening a floodgate.

“Do you think we are the Roadrunner cartoon—you bomb us and we don’t die?”

“There is no house safe from the bombs.”

“Every night and day, the planes brought death.”

This photo, courtesy of the Desert Storm Think Tank, shows a victim of depleted uranium tipped munitions, dubbed “Crispy Critters” by soldiers.

“Even in a picture, the children scream when they see an airplane.”

“Every person lost at least one from their family.”

“More houses than I can count exploded.”

All day long, in varying degrees of outrage and sadness, from neighborhood to neighborhood, these were the answers I received.

People eager to talk to an American invited me to cafés and to their homes, calling in neighbors to recall incidents of bombed bridges, marketplaces, bus stations, factories and mosques where civilians died. Even the poorest served drinks and biscuits, along with condemnation of the “American government-controlled press.”

“How can you think only 9,000 died?” was also frequently asked.

Staring at ever-present portraits of Saddam Hussein, I was loath to say that the source of my information was their government, not mine.

They told me also of starvation and deprivation, begging me, as though I had power to lift the United Nations sanctions.

“Please don’t talk against us. We are suffering too much. The babies have no milk. Mothers’ breasts dry up. There is no food for the children. No bread. People are dying every day.”

Word spread that an American researcher was investigating the death toll of Desert Storm, and a self-described “friend of the truth” contacted me. Eluding Walid for a secret meeting, I was surprised to find myself talking with a well-placed Hussein family member. In a meeting so brief as to appear accidental, he told me, lips barely moving, of a civilian casualty cover-up. He hypothesized that as many as 300,000 civilians died in the conflict.

By way of example, he pointed to the many Iraqi civilians who died at war’s end, fleeing Kuwait along what the Western press called “the highway of death.”

Going on, my friend explained how, in the first days of the bombings, Iraqi television announced a nightly civilian death toll, but when the “bodies mounted” the practice was discontinued. Already the war was “not popular” and becoming less so when Iraq aligned with its old enemy Iran to allow for the flight of Iraqi fighter jets to Iran. With the country fresh from fighting and killing Iranians, this move “disgusted Iraq’s citizens,” he said.

“We did not know our angels from our demons. We were tired of dying and did not want this war.”

High civilian casualties became politically untenable for my friend’s illustrious relative. Fearing overthrow, with the Allied army approaching Baghdad and battling a coup assisted by the dual-faced Iran, the beleaguered Hussein plotted to save face and make the dead disappear.

Devil’s deals

The U.S. military custom of burying dead enemies disposed of the problem, the man said, when “thousands of Bedouins and other families were buried side by side with warriors in mass graves around Iraq.” Fire, as well as inadequate and decentralized record keeping, assisted in making the dead vanish. Afterward, my friend explained, Iraqi officials planted the idea of the “clean war” by furnishing American census-takers with the same casualty count, 8,243, listed in The Destruction.

“It was a devil’s deal,” said the Hussein family member.

Ironically, a female census taker recounted and corrected the numbers listed in The Destruction and, after discussion with the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations, announced 13,000 Iraqi civilians killed in Desert Storm.

A decade later, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell conspire to make their own devil’s deal to finish off what the elder President Bush started. As for the civilian casualties of Desert Storm, former President Jimmy Carter has publicly stated that “maybe more than 150,000 Iraqi [civilians] were killed in [the] massive bombing.”

Powell, who directed Desert Storm as the head of America’s armed forces, finds the whole matter of civilian casualties simply inconvenient. “That’s not really a number I’m terribly interested in,” he said.

Patricia Axelrod, who now lives in Reno, is the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research and Writing Award for her work in weapons systems analysis. Her work has received a Project Censored award, and she was a founding member of the State of California Reserve Officers’ Association Committee on Persian Gulf War Illness and director of the Desert Storm Think Tank and Veterans’ Advocate.