A dozen years after the Gulf War, public perceptions of it are now very helpful to the White House. That's part of a timeworn pattern: Illusions about previous wars make the next one seem acceptable. As George Orwell observed in 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."
It's not unusual to hear journalists and politicians say that the Gulf War had few casualties. Considering the magnitude of media spin, that myth is hardly surprising. "When the air war began in January 1991," recalls Patrick J. Sloyan, who covered the Gulf War as a Newsday correspondent, "the media was fed carefully selected footage by [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia and [Gen. Colin] Powell in Washington, D.C. Most of it was downright misleading."
In an essay written as a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation (APF Reporter, Vol. 20 #3), Sloyan describes "limitations imposed on reporters on the battlefield" in 1991: "Under rules developed by [Defense Secretary Dick] Cheney and Powell, journalists were not allowed to move without military escorts. All interviews had to be monitored by military public affairs escorts. Every line of copy, every still photograph, every strip of film had to be approved—censored—before being filed. And these rules were ruthlessly enforced."
Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw (12/1/02) told readers: "Based on past performance, both by the current Bush administration and by its immediate Republican predecessors, there's every reason to think that if we go to war against Iraq, Washington will exert more control over the media than ever before, using every tactic from manipulation to deception to disinformation."
For the most part, mainstream news organizations are avid participants in such deceit. Their objections are routinely feeble and belated. Even when they occur, media critiques usually steer clear of moral concern. They're much more likely to focus on false claims about technical performances: whether "smart bombs" were truly accurate, whether cruise missiles strayed off course, and so forth.
But the greatest deception of the Gulf War was far more profound. "In manipulating the first and often most lasting perception of Desert Storm," wrote Sloyan, "the Bush administration produced not a single picture or video of anyone being killed. This sanitized, bloodless presentation by military briefers left the world presuming Desert Storm was a war without death."
Now, the Pentagon is in gear for what a pull-out poster in Mad Magazine (12/02) called "Gulf Wars: Episode II." ("Production designed to distract you from the failing economy. Produced by the military-industrial complex in association with Exxon, Texaco, Mobil, et al.") A key reason many Americans are inclined to go along with the next war is that Episode I seemed like a pretty decent made-for-TV movie. Media references to "Desert Storm" rarely dwell on—or even mention—the human losses during the six-week period of the Gulf War.
But in his excellent new book Tinderbox, scholar Stephen Zunes points out: "Most estimates put the Iraqi death toll in the Gulf War in the range of 100,000. Due to the increased accuracy of aerial warfare, the proportion of Iraqi civilians killed was much less than it had been in previous air campaigns." At the same time, "the absolute numbers were quite high. Most estimates of the civilian death toll are approximately 15,000."
What are the likely human consequences of the impending war on Iraq? News media should be asking that question. But the American public remains in the dark.
"The avowed U.S. aim of regime change means any new conflict will be much more intense and destructive than the Gulf War, and will involve more deadly weapons developed in the interim," said a report issued in November 2002 by health professionals with the London-based Medact organization and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. They warned: "Furthermore, the mental and physical health of ordinary Iraqis is far worse than it was in 1991, making them much more vulnerable this time round."
The report found that "credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48,000 to over 260,000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. Additional later deaths from post-war adverse health effects could reach 200,000."
And here's another conclusion from the report that major U.S. news outlets keep ignoring: "In all scenarios, the majority of casualties will be civilians."
This piece originally appeared in Norman Solomon's "Media Beat" column. He is coauthor of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You.