Bush's bombers spoke more loudly than his prayers


George Bush can be an emotional man. He feels things deeply, and his feelings affect his actions.

When he launched the invasion of Panama, he said in his address to the nation that the last straw had been when forces under the command of Manuel Noriega "brutally beat . . . [an] American serviceman and then brutally interrogated his wife, threatening her with sexual abuse. This was enough."

Bush, White House sources reported, was genuinely upset by what happened to that woman, and this helped him make up his mind about the invasion.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, there was much to upset anyone. But Bush mentioned one incident a number of times: the murders of Kuwaiti babies in their incubators.

Not long after the invasion, Amnesty International issued a report saying that "300 premature babies were reported to have died after Iraqi soldiers removed them from incubators, which were then looted."

A 15-year-old Kuwaiti had also reported to the U.S. congressional Human Rights Caucus that she had been working in a hospital when Iraqi soldiers entered. "They took the babies out of the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die," she said. "It was horrifying."

It was indeed. Many innocent people die in war, but this was outright murder, a war crime, an atrocity.

And that is exactly how George Bush viewed it. On Oct. 10, when he was still deciding how to prosecute the land and air war against Iraq, Bush said:

"The brutality that is now being written on by Amnesty International, it's just unbelievable. People on a dialysis machine cut off, the machine sent to Baghdad. Babies in incubators heaved out of the incubators, and the incubators themselves sent to Baghdad. I don't know how many of these tales can be authenticated, but I do know when the emir [of Kuwait] came here, he was speaking from the heart. . . . It's sickening."

Five days later, Bush compared these tales to the atrocities of Adolf Hitler. And Bush broadly hinted war crime trials could follow the gulf war.

"Hitler revisited," Bush said. "But remember, when Hitler's war ended, there were the Nuremberg trials."

In his address to the nation on Jan. 16, 1991, two hours after he launched the air war against Iraq, Bush explained his actions in part by saying: "While the world waited, Saddam Hussein systematically raped, pillaged and plundered a tiny nation, no threat to his own. He subjected the people of Kuwait to unspeakable atrocities -- and among those maimed and murdered innocent children."

All wars produce stories of atrocities, and sometimes those stories are false, but on Feb. 1, 1991, the U.S. State Department said that in late September 1990, 72 premature babies had been murdered in Kuwait. The department quoted a doctor who said he had found the dead babies "dumped onto the ground from their incubators by Iraqi troops, who had then carried off the incubators."

Not everybody believed the story. Alexander Cockburn of The Nation said the numbers of babies involved was implausible, and he quoted Middle Eastern sources disputing the accounts.

But George Bush believed them. And it was not until after America had won its stunning victory and few still cared about the details that ABC television reported that the incubator killings had never taken place.

ABC quoted the director of Kuwait's primary health-care system, who said babies had not been taken from their incubators. "To tell the truth," he said, "there was no service, no nurses to take care of these babies, and that's why they died." He said the stories of babies being tossed from the incubators to the floor were "just for propaganda."

Hospital patients, including babies, did die in Kuwait because of the Iraqi invasion. But, the doctor said, they died because hospital workers fled in terror.

ABC also reported that the incubators, which were supposed to have been shipped to Baghdad, had been found in storage rooms in Kuwait, locked away to prevent Iraqi troops from taking them.

The point of which is not that Bush would have called off the war had he known the incubator stories were false. There were other reasons for the war. And Iraqi soldiers certainly were guilty of genuinely terrible actions.

But once the United States went on the attack, once the air war began, the damage caused to the civilians of Iraq, including babies, was not that much different from the damage caused to the civilians and babies of Kuwait.

And, it appears, we did most of it on purpose.

The Washington Post revealed in a story Sunday that the object of U.S. bombing was not merely to destroy the Iraqi military but to disable Iraqi society at large, and that the United States "deliberately did great harm to Iraq's ability to support itself as an industrial society."

Further, the worst civilian suffering resulted not from bombs that went astray, senior U.S. officers said, but from bombs that hit their targets as intended: power plants, oil refineries and transportation networks.

The Post quoted an Iraqi hospital director who described the early hours of the American air attack: "Most mothers left their hospital beds in a panic way. You know, they were afraid. They took their babies from incubators, from drips, to the basement, which is a great mistake. We couldn't stop them. It was very cold. We lost so many premature [babies.]"

Also, lacking electricity and the fuel for emergency generators, hospitals in Iraq, and their incubators, simply ceased to function.

Critics say that the United States went too far. They say we did not have to target those plants that powered hospitals, for instance. And that we did not have to strike at all of Iraqi society, which included many innocent people, in order to defeat the Iraqi military.

So what was our justification? This was presented by an unidentified "senior Air Force officer", who told the Post: "The definition of innocents gets to be a little bit unclear. They do live there, and ultimately the people have some control over what goes on in their country."

I find this a particularly cruel statement. Iraqi citizens live under a dictatorship where dissenters are shot. And even if we could hold the people of Iraq responsible for the actions of Saddam Hussein, could we hold the children of Iraq responsible also?

A Harvard public-health team reported last month that "at least 170,000 children under 5 years of age will die in the coming year from the delayed effects" of the U.S. bombing in Iraq. The Pentagon, the Post reported, does not substantively dispute the estimate.

If George Bush can be moved by the babies who died in Kuwait, surely he can be moved by the babies who died and will continue to die in Iraq.

"We have no argument with the people of Iraq," Bush said on the day the air war began. "Indeed, for the innocents caught in this conflict, I pray for their safety."

As it turned out, however, Bush's prayers were not equal to his bombers.

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