Two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a talk that warned of what was coming and why
a talk by Bert Sacks
at Trinity United Methodist Church, Ballard
Seattle, Washington -- January 3, 2003
[Excerpts of the talk below]
[download audio of talk]
Let’s talk about what the intelligence agencies of the United States have been behind. And you know, a common question that’s often asked when you talk about Iraq – you’ll hear it on the radio sometimes – is, “Why didn’t we march to Baghdad in 1991? Why didn’t we finish the job?” as it was.
Well, I’ll give you three serious, good reasons, because they all have some relevance right now.
The first reason we didn’t march to Iraq is we had no authorization to do that at all. You remember, the only authorization we had was to have Iraqi troops leave Kuwait. And certainly the United Nations didn’t give any support to this notion of regime change.
Second reason is, if we had done that, it certainly would have fractured the coalition.
And the third reason is – and maybe this was the most overwhelming in terms of the calculations at the time – American troops would have died. Urban fighting inside Baghdad.
What did we do, though?
I contend, and this document I’m giving you is the first piece of evidence that came my way, that this has always been about regime change. It has never been about weapons of mass destruction.
And we wanted to wage the Gulf War in such a way that we would get regime change without having American soldiers die. How did we do that? In the targeting of the Gulf War, the United States’ Pentagon bombing strategists said, “We are going to bomb Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, up and down the country, taking out all the electrical generating plants, so that they have, in the end, 94% of the electricity gone that they had in 1990.
We did that. You realize that takes out water and sewage, especially in the South and Central regions which are very flat – you can’t pump water. We also hit some water and sewage targets.
What that was going to do, I’ll read to you in just a minute. But the second thing we wanted to do is to reimpose economic sanctions on Iraq. The sanctions, you remember, were supposed to be a less violent way to solve the conflict of Kuwait. And they ended – their excuse, their justification ended – when Iraq troops left Kuwait. So we needed some other reason to reimpose them and that other reason was, “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, we say they have to get rid of them.”
But what were the consequences of reimposing economic sanctions and having bombed the civilian infrastructure of Iraq? Three weeks after the end of the war, the United Nations told us precisely what those consequences are. It’s a document from the New York Times, March 22nd, 1991.
If you read the very last paragraph, and I’ll read it to you for those of you that don’t have it, the UN told us, “It is unmistakable that the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met. Time is short.”
That’s the UN telling us what conditions were like in Iraq three weeks after the war: Epidemic and famine.
What was our position? This is the reporter speaking of the U.S. administration’s view and position about sanctions. “The United States has argued against any premature relaxation [of the economic sanctions] in the belief that, by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people, it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.”
Have you got it? We are publicly saying that we intend to use epidemic and famine against a civilian population as tools of our foreign policy in order to get what we want – and what we want is regime change. What we want is our guy in Baghdad who’ll give us control of the oil. That’s not very nice. That’s not very pretty, and it needs to be said.
Because if we don’t know what we are doing, the rest of the world does.
I want to give you another handout. This is more evidence related to both our targeting and the economic sanctions, and one small glimpse at the kind of sophisticated public relations responses our government has made over three administrations with regard to this war that has gone on against a civilian population for 12 years.
So let me give you another sheet. Appropriately it’s a legal-sized sheet, and it’s my effort to put on one sheet on two sides the essential facts from the most credible sources about the bombing and about the sanctions and the Oil for Food Program.
Two sides to this sheet. The first side is about water and about the destruction of the infrastructure, and I’ll read you just a couple of quotes. And these are credible because of the nature of the quotes and the fact that they came from U.S. Pentagon bombing planners and are reported in the Washington Post the summer after the Gulf War.
One planner says, “‘People say you didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage,’ said the planning officer. ‘Well, what were trying to do with the UN sanctions – help out the Iraqi people? No, what we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions.’” We knew it. Bad water. Epidemics.
And the other man who’s identified, Colonel John Warden, says we took out the electrical generating plants because it “gave us long-term leverage.” We don’t have incubators, we don’t have hospitals, we don’t have a way to process the sewage, pump the water, do agriculture.
And at the very bottom, you’ll see one of the first indications of what happened, this was actually reported much earlier, but Representative Tony Hall, Democrat from Ohio, went to Iraq in 2000. “The prime killer of children under five years of age, diarrheal diseases, has reached epidemic proportions.”
Bad water is the prime killer of children in Iraq today. And I joked with Congressman McDermott that water that I gave him, the bottle of water over here, did not come from Iraq. We do not drink water when we go there. We don’t drink their water.
What did the Oil for Food Program give to the Iraqi people? This is from the Economist magazine, dated April 8th, 2000. “Originally the Security Council authorized Iraq to sell $1.32 billion worth of oil every month to cover humanitarian imports. Large as that sum sounds, it provided little more than a dollar a month to cover food and medicine for each Iraqi, not to mention repairs to the infrastructure.”
Did you know that? A dollar a month? Why couldn’t anyone who is a journalist who covers this translate the billions of dollars you always hear the program specified in, in terms of how much it is per person? That’s do-able. We could do that, if we wanted to know. If we wanted to tell people.
And that brings me to the second point I’d like you to leave with. And that is, what were the consequences, and how were we told about the consequences of this policy?
And I contend that probably the least reported, most important story I know, in the past decade, is the one I’m going to pass out to you. It comes from the New England Journal of Medicine from 10 years ago. The date’s September 24, 1992. Let me give that to you. Here’re our doctors from Johns Hopkins, Harvard School of Public Health, Oxford University, our most credible institutions and maybe our most believable medical journal, and they said, “These results (of their study they did in 1991 and published in 1992) these results provide strong evidence that the Gulf War and trade sanctions caused a threefold increase in mortality among Iraqi children under five years of age. We estimate that in excess of more than 46,900 children died between January and August, 1991.”
Fifty-thousand children, fifty-thousand – does fifty-thousand, does that number not ring any bell with you, call any image to mind, like the number of names that are on the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall in Washington, DC? Fifty-thousand-plus American names.
Now take every name there, an American name, and imagine it in Arabic with the name of a child under five years of age. That’s what this report is talking about. It’s hard for us to grasp. The Vietnam Veterans’ Wall of children’s names occurring not just once, in a war, but every year, year after year after year. Fifty-thousand kids over 10 years.
And the second key that you should know, when I did a search using Lexus/Nexus database to see how the newspapers covered this, of the top 50 papers in this country, I could find only three newspapers that gave any significant coverage to the reported deaths of 50,000 children.
One of them, to its credit, was the Seattle Times, which had an op-ed of 800 words. Another was a paper in Texas. But the best paper, sort of, was the New York Times, which did several thousands words covering this report, and, get this, and they printed it only in the Long Island Edition. They treated it like a local news story because there was a doctor from Long Island who had gone to Iraq. OK, fifty-thousand kids’ deaths was not a story that we had to know about, in the eyes, nationwide, of the New York Times.
The second point is our media, in the mainstream, is terrible. In fact, I contend, criminally complicit in the deaths of these children.
And there have been very bright exceptions, like the Seattle Post Intelligencer that sent their foreign editor Larry Johnson to travel to Iraq with us. He was there with Jim McDermott.
And they did an eight-page, great story in 1999 when we were there, so that’s a bright spot. But on the editorial side there’s been almost nothing.
On the other side, the Seattle Times did a series of six great editorials when Mindy Cameron was still the editorial page editor. And some of the best in the country, and this is because of our work with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. Jim McDermott’s a member. He’s an MD by the way, if you didn’t know. Because of our work with the papers we’ve had some success. But the news side of the Seattle Times has been terrible. They do a whole story, a 12-page section on understanding the conflict, and the only thing they say about Iraq and sanctions is “Saddam Hussein has long complained that sanctions cause suffering among his children.”
The UNICEF report of ‘99 said 500,000 children would be alive today if the declining mortality rate in that country had continued. The New York Times tells us, from the kind of stuff that passes as news in this country, that Saddam Hussein complains that sanctions cause suffering. I think Jim McDermott is very right and you cannot look to our papers. You have to look to alternative sources, like coming out to events like this and going onto websites and reading the information yourself to educate yourself to know what’s going on.
The Wall Street Journal did a front-page story with my picture – you know, engraved, I’m engraved on the Wall Street Journal – because I went to talk to the Wall Street Journal reporter in Baghdad because my work is to try and get this story out.
And I gave him exactly this sheet of paper which said 500,000 children have died, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund – they reported that August 12th, 1999. August 13th, the entire coverage of the Wall Street Journal is two sentences. It does not appear in the news index. It’s not a news story, even, it doesn’t even appear in their index. The first sentence omits the statistic. And the second sentence says, basically, “It’s all Saddam’s fault.”
And if you think that’s just because that’s a business paper, then how about the New York Times. They gave 800 words to this, and said the same thing basically. Omitted the statistic, “It’s all Saddam’s fault.”
That’s part of what we have to deal with very much. And that’s coming out -- that’s a meta-issue -- which is to learn not to believe the media. And that’s good.
I go to kids in high school and I say to them, have you seen the Truman Show? I’m just curious, how many people have seen the Truman Show? Ninety percent of them had seen the Truman Show. I say, you are living in the Truman Show. You get it. It’s an artificial world, created by the media, for its purposes. It’s not real. And I say to the kids, I say to you, it’s our choice. We now know that the world -- that if you go home and turn on our television and try and listen to the nightly news you won’t know about that world. I didn’t even say this, that the nightly news on the three commercial networks never said one word about the report from UNICEF of 500,000 deaths.
If you wanted to know one fact about the state of American democracy, I would say maybe it’s that. What’s the point of voting if you don’t have information in your heads? If you don’t know the basic essential facts of what’s happening? I want to do a poll sometime where I think I’d find that maybe 5% of Americans have ever heard of this report. Five percent of Americans ever heard of 500,000 children.
Third point. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. And asking myself the question, what’s the most essential thing that made this possible? – this whole policy, the whole military policy, the whole media policy, the fact that we don’t know this, and the fact that maybe this is our policy.
This is the way we trade off American soldiers’ lives at the price of 3,000; 5,000 children every month in the countries that we’re attacking.
I contend that, in 1990, in preparation for the war, we unleashed, not there but here, what’s maybe the most deadly virus. Only it’s not an external material virus, it’s a virus that works inside.
And the name of that virus is called demonization.
We said in order to go to war we’re going to demonize one man. We’re going to ignore anything that he did that might be positive. And we’re going to take everything he did that was bad and even exaggerate it and lie about it, like the incubator story. And we’re going to completely ignore the context and our responsibility for supporting a man who invaded a foreign country, used poison gas against Iranians, used poison gas against the Kurds in Halabja; and all of that time in ‘83 Reagan sent the same Donald Rumsfeld to shake Saddam’s hand, take him off the list of terrorist countries, begin to give him military, economic and diplomatic cover and support, while he’s waging this war using weapons of mass destruction. Jim is right – we have the receipts for these weapons.
And in 1999, the year after Halabja, Bush, Sr. signed a National Security Council finding that it is in the interest of the United States of America to maintain and create warm, good relations with Iraq. We knew about Halabja.
Amnesty International … that I’m a member of and you all should, if you want to know about human rights, and the human rights that we’re ignoring, become a member of ... Amnesty’s report that I have says, with quite [a lot of] anger, the situation in Iraq is using, we are using, selectively and manipulatively, human rights violations in that country. So, I’ve come to the conclusion and I think it, I mean this in most seriousness, that if we who want to work for peace in the world understand how we got where we are, and how our sense of vision is not clear – it’s so distorted by demonization – we cannot demonize. And here’s the hard one – it means not just that we can’t demonize the people over there, we can’t demonize our leaders. We can’t demonize anyone that does something bad we have to remember we are all human.
And so I have come to the conclusion that the root of the work we have to do is to
stop pointing the finger out there, to recognize the angers, the violence, the greed, all those states of mind that are in us, and work to clear ourselves out, to get our act together so we can be better examples of peace and we can be more peaceful, while at the same time standing up and opposing as skillfully and effectively as we can the dangerous and misguided policies of our government.