06 March 1994

A Persian Gulf War Diary

Notes from the first Gulf War
revised 1995 

Bush the Elder showed that war doesn't have to be like Vietnam. This was written before Bush the Younger showed that it still can be.

Oh shame to men! Devil with Devil damn’d
Firm concord holds,men only disagree
Of creatures rational,though under hope
Of Heavenly Grace: and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
That day and night for his destruction wait. - John Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 496-505, 1667
January 6, 1991. Ensign’s Log. We were sailing in the world’s largest oil-tanker, and it was a beautiful day. Suddenly, waves even larger than the tanker began to buffet us. The waves were in glorious hues of green and blue, topped with white foam, compellingly beautiful yet terrifying in their sheer height. I began installing standard olive-drab army-issue porthole covers so that the crew wouldn’t get so frightened that they couldn’t function. Captain Kirk ordered us to make for a region of quiet water that he saw to port. But the water was quiet because it was shallow – too shallow for the tanker. Kirk ran the boat gently aground, so as not to rupture the hull, and wait out the waves. The people on shore lived in rusting tin warehouses, and had some kind of syndrome that sapped both their pigment and their intellect – they had become white and stupid. People on the boat started getting it too, and I wondered if we would have the brains left to figure our way out of this mess. Then I woke up.

You can interpret this dream I had on the eve of war in the Persian Gulf in lots of different ways. But, on reflection, our nuclear weapons are like the porthole covers. In themselves, they do not make us strong, they merely make us dangerous, which is necessary, but not sufficient for deterrence (which is itself necessary, but not sufficient for peace). We use them to allow ourselves the illusion of security, while we ignore the thinness of the economic hull of our ship of state, and the environmental hazard of its cargo.

Nuclear weapons, along our whole military-industrial complex, have functioned like the potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest Coast Indians. Among these peoples one gained social status by hosting celebrations in which one gave away or destroyed enormous quantities of wealth.[1] We have sunk enormous investment into essentially non-productive capital equipment and activity in our tribal competition with the Soviets, who made the same or greater investment. Since capitalism proved more efficient and therefore had deeper pockets, such competition hastened the demise of communism. The future of capitalism is still unfolding.

January 16, 1991, Strategic Air Command Headquarters, Offutt AFB, Omaha, Nebraska. I was at a routine meeting between SAC and some scientific and engineering people. When the war broke out we went on with business, except during the breaks, when we watched the war on the TV down the hallway. But even during the meetings one of the attendees kept leaving the room every few minutes to watch the news. Finally I asked him what his particular interest in the war’s progress might be. "My son is flying one of those planes," he said.

January 21, 1991: I think it was St. Augustine who came up with the idea of a "just war." Of all people on earth, Christians with their idea of forgiveness of sin ought to be able to give up the habit of self-justification. There is no such thing as a just war.[2] War is what we make when we confront the evil in someone else with the evil in ourselves. We Christians need to stop trying to justify it. We also need to stop trying to self-righteously condemn it, as if merely condemning war would make us good.

For the United States in the 20th century, war is what we trap ourselves into because we fail to prepare the ground for peace. In WW II we failed to prepare the ground because we were isolationist and pacifist. We wound up fighting such a terrible war because we entered it about five years too late, and we did so because our leaders waited until the country was united in its will to wage war. By waiting instead of acting, we silently colluded with Hitler’s and Hirohito’s evil, and wound up fighting them anyway. To have avoided WW II completely, we (the US) would have needed to be active in the world ever since 1914, and even that may not have been sufficient.

In the case of Iraq, our country is divided because we went to war only a few weeks too late. Well, maybe we could have used sanctions longer. But we would have needed to keep sanctions in place until Hussein dies of natural causes in twenty years, and maybe the necessary presence of our armed forces (to maintain the military stalemate across the Saudi border) might have tipped the political balance in favor of Islamic Fundamentalists who would have undermined the Saudi government. My point is that sanctions might have failed because we lack the moral authority in the world to wield them effectively. And we lack it because we maintain a foreign policy that embraces the pragmatism more strongly than morality. So here we are at war.

You see, another definition is that war happens when we start to miss God’s Judgment so much that we seek it out. I would have liked to see us stick it out with sanctions, but that would have required that we take the Islam seriously, not just as a political force, but as a way of encountering God’s Truth, and that the Arabs seriously consider the Truth in the western world view, including Judaism and Christianity as well as the secular elements. Sanctions would have required a real commitment of our cultures to one another.[3] We might have had peace. Well, since we don’t, let’s fight it out. If war is Judgment on all parties (as suggested in Lincoln’s second inaugural address), Saddam and his people certainly need to face it, too. The Iraqis have not only failed to prepare the ground for peace, they have done little else other than prepare it for war.

That is, we are only partly, rather than totally, responsible for this war. Anti-war activists need to realize that the United States is not so all-powerful that it alone can decide for war or peace in this world. They need to give up "over owning" the world situation for the United States. By encouraging other countries to blame all their problems on us, they allow them to avoid taking ownership of the problems that they themselves can solve: thus the "over-owning" activists contribute to future wars. And considering the thousands who were killed around the globe by acts of group violence between August 1990 and January 1991, [4] I would hesitate to describe the mere absence of war as peace.
To have peace, the vast majority of nations must prepare the ground (the historical antecedents, the policies and actions) for it. Otherwise, the world will continue to rely precariously on deterrence alone. The events of recent months show us how safe that is.

February 4, 1991. "How are you doing with this war?" I asked a fellow churchgoer. He was fine, no relatives in the Armed Forces, no direct personal connection, he said. But he worked with several Arab-Americans, who were having some problems. A schoolteacher, trying to be helpful, said to one of their children in class, "You’re an Arab, and you don’t like Saddam Hussein, do you?" It doesn’t matter what the child said in reply. He had been singled out. That was all it took for a bully to make him his target.

"My God," I said. "It reminds me of the Church fingering the Jews for the Nazis!"

"I’m sure the teacher meant well," reassured my friend.

I’m sure, too. I’m still appalled.

February 24, 1991. The ground war is one day old and going well. Thousands of Iraqi troops have surrendered. US casualties are reported as 12 killed and less than 30 wounded.
Welcome to high technology warfare.

It seems that in the last twenty years certain people have been hard at work inventing gadgets to make ordinance go where we want it to, and to hit missiles with missiles. "Pac Man Wars," said my wife.
Well, not quite. Scientists and engineers, people not normally known for their aggressiveness, strength, or physical courage, have invented devices with which their clients can with relative impunity wipe out legions of men with exactly those qualities. Given that the bookish type is more often the target of bullies than most others, it has a kind of irony. Our fighting forces are now dependent on these bookish types for the tools of their trade. More than Pac Man Wars, it’s the Revenge of the Nerds.

March 3, 1991. The casualties on our side were low, and the cease-fire seems to be holding. We got off light this time. The other side did not. I suppose it’s good that the US now knows that war does not have to be like Vietnam. I just hope we never forget that it can be.

  1. See for example, Peter Farb, Man’s Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1968. David Dearborn tells me that a more apt analogy may be to so-called "piling behavior," in which tribes with resources in excess of those needed to survive heap up large quantities of stuff to impress themselves, their enemies, or their gods.
  2. So-called "just war" theory exists to help us to recognize mindless brutality and to restrain ourselves from making war more mindlessly brutal than it has to be. Justice can only happen when the fighting is over, because true justice demands reconciliation.
  3. Commitment as in the poorly arranged marriage analogy of "Obscenity and Peace," at this website. Because of the globalization of our economies, all the world’s cultures are in a way married to one another, for better or for worse, till death do us part.
  4. Or the millions of non-combat deaths caused by totalitarian governments as part of their normal business - as noted by R. J. Rummel in an editorial "War Isn’t This Century’s Biggest Killer," in the Wall Street Journal, July 7, 1986. I keep a copy of it outside my office door at the lab.