Michael Totten

From the First Gulf War to the Second

I was 20 years old during the first Gulf War to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. I knew precious little about history, war, the Middle East, or foreign policy. My views of the world at the time were almost entirely shaped by the stuck-in-the-60s college town of Eugene, Oregon where I lived and went to school. So I opposed the war for all the usual dumb reasons: no war for oil, war never solves any problems, etc. (Needless to say, I changed my mind retroactively.)
Considering that the first Gulf War had a broader base of support than the second, there can’t be too many people like me who opposed the first and supported the second. Most of those who did switch as I did are probably roughly my age and only opposed the first out of sheer youthful ignorance.
Not everyone who opposed the war was a naïve college student, though. (That’s obviously true today, too.) There were at least half-way intelligent arguments against the 1991 Gulf War, just as there were truly depraved arguments for it — the worst being James Baker’s infamous “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Take Christopher Hitchens, for example. He opposed the first and supported the second. And the events that forged his change of mind are pretty compelling. Here he is in an interview with The Common Review:

Hitchens: I argue with people whom I suspect of being more keen on landing a blow against George W. Bush than caring about the realities of the Middle East. I know them when I see them. I know them when I hear them. I can smell them, actually. It’s the idea that Bush is the main enemy, and the rest of it is all contingent. One reason I know how to tell them is I used to feel that way about his father. I thought it was disgraceful that George Bush Sr. got away with the Iran-Contra racket. He lied his way out of this extraordinary conspiracy to enrich both the ayatollahs and the contras, and to trade American hostages, to raise money for one bunch of theocratic thugs to give money to another bunch of clerical fascist thugs in Central America, and to bypass the U.S. Constitution with a secret government. I thought everyone involved in that should have gone straight to jail, particularly George Bush the elder, who was one of the originators. So I didn’t believe a word he said about it. I did not believe a word he said. Also, I hated the way he won the 1988 elections—the Willie Horton business, Lee Atwater.
How the party of Lincoln could use this Klansman in this way is beyond me. So, you know, I really actually wanted to see the guy pummeled. And it was perfectly obvious to me that they had told Saddam Hussein he was entitled to at least a chunk of Kuwait. The whole thing had the look to me of a put-up job. I went on Air Force One with Bush to Saudi Arabia and that didn’t change my mind. There was something phony about it. The truth was not being told. When the war was all nearly over, I ended up in northern Iraq, where Saddam had made a final attempt to exterminate the Kurds. Eventually Bush and the British had sent in forces to say we’ll stop that happening. We’ll patrol the air space. We’ll draw a line beyond which the Baath Party can’t come.
TCR: The no-fly zones.
Hitchens: Yes. And I knew that this was the result of public opinion. People said, we can’t end the war against Saddam Hussein seeing him massacre these people and drive the survivors over the border. We can’t. And clearly they couldn’t. With great reluctance, this policy was imposed. I was bouncing around in a jeep with some Kurdish guerillas at that point. And on my side of the windshield, there was a big laminated picture of George H. W. Bush. And I said to them, “Look, comrades, do you have to do this? For one thing, I can’t see out of my side of the windshield. But for another, I know quite a few reporters in this area and might run into one of them at any moment. And I don’t want them seeing me in a jeep that has this guy’s image on it. So do you have to?” And they said, quite soberly and solemnly to me, “No, we think we should have this picture because we think, without him, we would all be dead, and all our families would be dead, too.” And from what I’d seen by then in that region, I thought, that’s basically morally true. I don’t have a reply to that. I don’t have a glib one and I don’t have a sound one. It’s true. So at that point my criticism of the war became this: that it had not been a regime-change war, that the slogans of liberty and justice that had been used to mobilize it had not been honored. But if they had been, I would have been in favor of it. It’s a narrow but deep crevasse to cross, and once you’ve crossed it, I’ll tell you this, you can’t go back over it again. You can’t find yourself on the other side of it. Some of you may be in transition across this crevasse yourselves or be thinking about it. I warn you: don’t cross over if you have any intention of going back, because you can’t. You’re stuck with it then. You’re a prisoner of the knowledge of genocide and fascism, and you’ll never break free of it—of that awareness. You will have made friends you can’t desert. And that, in simple terms, is what happened to me.