The First Gulf War of 1991 was—then—the biggest conventional aerial assault in history. It was also one of the most unbalanced uses of military force in history. As with the later Kosovo assault, the Desert Storm bombing campaign was targeted heavily against so-called "dual-use" urban infrastructure systems, a strategy that Ruth Blakeley has famously termed "Bomb Now, Die Later" (2003a). Moreover, the reconstruction of these life-sustaining infrastructures was made impossible by the sanctions regime that was imposed by the US and UN between 1991 and 2003. This combination of events, it is now clear, created one of the largest, engineered public health catastrophes of the late twentieth century.
Because Iraq's actual military targets were so easily annihilated, it is crucial to realize that what happened in Desert Storm was that a very large percentage of strategic aerial missions were targeted against industry, power generation, roads and bridges, rather than military assets (Bolkcom and Pike 1993:3). The military planners, and lawyers, behind Desert Storm, made the most of the unprecedented unevenness of the forces, and the resulting lack of opposition to Allied air and space forces, in their target planning.
Along with military and communication networks, urban infrastructures were amongst the key targets receiving the bulk of the bombing. One US air war planner, Lt. Col. David Deptula, passed a message to Iraqi civilians via the world's media as the "planes started going in: 'hey, your lights will come back on as soon as you get rid of Saddam!'" (cited in Rowat 2003). Another, Brigadier General Buster Glosson, explained that infrastructure was the main target because the US military wanted to "put every household in an autonomous mode and make them feel they were isolated.. .We wanted to play with their psyche" (cited in Rowat 2003). As Colin Rowat (2003:3) suggests, even in the immediate after-math of the war, for at least 110,000 Iraqis, this "playing" was ultimately to prove fatal. Bolkcom and Pike recall the centrality of targeting "dual-use" infrastructures in the planning of Desert Storm:
From the beginning of the campaign, Desert Storm decision makers planned to bomb heavily the Iraqi military-related industrial sites and infrastructure, while leaving the most basic economic infrastructures of the country intact. What was not apparent or what was ignored, was that the military and civilian infrastructures were inextricably interwoven.
The political rationale of "turning the lights off in Baghdad" generated much debate amongst Gulf War bombing planners (Blakeley 2003a: 25). The US Military's Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS), completed by the US Defence Department at the formal end of the war, revealed that:
there was considerable discussion of the results that could be expected from attacking electric power. Some argued that.the loss of electricity in Baghdad and other cities would have little effect on popular morale; others argued that the affluence created by petro-dollars had made the city's population psychologically dependent on the amenities associated with electric power.
(Keaney and Cohen 1993: vol. ii, part ii, ch. 6:23, footnote 53, cited in Blakeley 2003a: 25)
Thus, the systematic annihilation of infrastructures that were used by both military and civilians alike—to disable Iraq's war machine and influence civilian morale—led, indirectly, to mass civilian casualties, as Iraqi urban society was ruthlessly demodernized. "On the whole, civilian suffering is not caused by near misses [collateral damage], but by direct hits on the country's industrial infrastructure" (Bolkcom and Pike 1993:2).
A prime target of the air assault was Iraq's electricity generating system. During Desert Storm, the allies flew over 200 sorties against electrical plants. The destruction was devastatingly effective:
almost 88 percent of Iraq's installed generation capacity was sufficiently damaged or destroyed by direct attack, or else isolated from the national grid through strikes on associated transformers and switching facilities, to render it unavailable. The remaining 12% was probably unusable other than locally due to damage inflicted on transformers and switching yards.
(Keaney and Cohen 1993: vol. II, part II, ch. 6:20, cited in Blakeley 2003a: 20)
Bolkcom and Pike (1993:5) add that:
More than half of the 20 electrical generator sites were 100 percent destroyed. Only three escaped totally unscathed.The bombing of Iraq's infrastructure was so effective that, on either the sixth or the seventh day of the air war, the Iraqis shut down what remained of the national power grid. It was useless.
The surfeit of armed aircraft, combined with a paucity of real targets (and a very poor or non-existent enforcement of international law) led to a total overkill in the process of demodernizing Iraq by bombs. As Bolkcom and Pike admit, in this type of overwhelming, and totally uneven, aerial onslaught, an extremely wide range of targets were attacked, not because they needed to be, but because they could be. An ever-lengthening list of targets was sanctioned simply because of the unopposed air power and ordinance that was available, literally hanging around Iraqi airspace, looking for things to destroy. Bolkcom and Pike offer the example of al-Hartha power plant in Basra. First attacked on the first night of the bombing:
The initial attack shut down the plant completely, damaging the water treatment system and all four steam boilers. During the course of the conflict, al-Hartha was bombed 13 times, even though there would be little opportunity to repair the power station during a major war. The final attack bounced the rubble a half hour before the cease fire on February 28, 1991...Reportedly, the power plant was bombed so frequently because it was designated a backup target for pilots unable to attack their primary targets.The goal of multiple bombings late in the war was to create postwar influence over Iraq. It is very difficult to repair a power generator, for example, when the repair personnel have no power.
(Bolkcom and Pike 1993:5)
Another reason for the savagery of the demodernization was a failure to enforce even the extremely questionable guidelines for infrastructural bombing adopted in the planning of Desert Storm. These clearly stated that, in the case of electricity, "only transformer/switching yards and control buildings were to be targets and not this was that it would take much longer to repair the latter to be reconstructed whilst generator halls, boilers and turbines" (Blakeley 2003a: 20). The reasoning behind the former could be repaired relatively easily, cheaply and quickly.
In practice, such guidelines were largely ignored. The Gulf War Air Power Survey concluded that "the self-imposed restrictions against hitting generator halls or their contents was not widely observed in large part because the planners elected to go after the majority of Iraq's 25 major power stations and the generator halls offered the most obvious aim points" (Keaney and Cohen 1993, cited in Blakeley 2003a:20).
It is no surprise, then, that, at war's end, Iraq had only 4 percent of pre-war electricity supplies. After 4 months only 20-25 percent of pre-war levels had been attained, a level of supply "roughly analogous to that of the 1920s before Iraq had access to refrigeration and sewage treatment" (Bolkcom and Pike 1993:5). The devastation of the generator halls and turbines would have condemned Iraqi society to a largely non-electric future for years to come, even if Western or Russian technological and financial assistance had been possible in rebuilding.
The UN under-secretary general Martti Ahtisaari, reporting on a visit to Iraq in March 1991, was clearly shaken by what he had seen. "Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation that has now befallen the country," he wrote:
The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon an economically mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology.Virtually all previously available sources of fuel and power, and modern means of communication are now, essentially, defunct.there is much less than the minimum fuel required to provide the energy needed for movement or transportation, irrigation or generators for power to pump water or sewage.
(reported in Perez de Cueller 1991, cited in Blakeley
2003a: part 8)
Even immediately after the war's end, the UN reported that:
Iraqi rivers are heavily polluted by raw sewage, and water levels are unusually low. All sewage treatment plants have been brought to a virtual standstill by the lack of power supply and the lack of spare parts. Pools of sewage lie in the streets and villages. Health hazards will build in weeks to come.
(De Cueller 1991, cited in Blakeley 2003a:25)
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