MIA: Truth

We forget too soon. By now the Gulf War is but a faded memory. We've forgotten those days when General Norman Schwarzkopf was as popular as Johnny Carson or Michael Jordan.

That was a time when President George Bush's approval rating was at its highest and he was busily selling us on the war against Iraq as a great crusade. We were saving liberty and justice in the great "democratic" state of Kuwait. And we all fell for it.

Few now remember the great atrocity story of the war. This was the story about the 312 babies in a hospital in Kuwait City who were taken from incubators and tossed to the cold floor to die so the incubators could be taken back to Baghdad.

This story was subsequently told to the congressional Human Rights Caucus and made national television news. It created a furor. The only trouble is that the story was always a total fabrication. In war, they say, the first victim is always truth. Such was the case in the Gulf War. But now, thanks to some skilled and dogged investigative reporting by John R. MacArthur, the fog is being lifted. In MacArthur's new book, Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, we learn some fascinating things about how we were all duped.

MacArthur points out that one of the government of Kuwait's first acts was to hire Hill and Knowlton, one of the largest public relations firms in Washington, D.C., to handle its account.

Kuwait subsequently paid Hill and Knowlton fees of $2.9 million and expenses of $3.7 million during the first 90 days of Iraqi occupation.

It was Hill and Knowlton that arranged to have the baby-incubator story told before the television cameras to the Human Rights Caucus on Capitol Hill.

Appearing before a committee chaired by Democratic Congressman Thomas Lantos of California was a 15-year-old girl known only as Nayirah. She spoke without giving her full identity to protect her family back in Kuwait.

What Congressman Lantos failed to tell his colleagues on the committee was that he personally knew the young girl was the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, Saud al Sabah.

He also didn't bother to tell them about his own personal relationship with Hill and Knowlton. Lantos, it turns out, was being given free office space, valued at $3,000 a month, in the Hill and Knowlton building for another group Lantos headed, the Congressional Human Rights Foundation.

It would appear obvious why Lantos expressed no doubts about the baby-atrocity tale when it was presented to him. Interestingly enough, Lantos' group subsequently received a $50,000 donation from Citizens for a Free Kuwait.

This atrocity tale became a big part of President Bush's call to arms. He kept telling the story everyplace he went.

"I met with the emir of Kuwait," Bush said many times, "and I heard horrible tales of newborn babies thrown out of incubators, then shipped off to Baghdad."

Bush even told a version of the story when he visited the troops near Dahran.

"It turns your stomach when you listen to the tales of those that escaped the brutality of Saddam the invader. Mass hangings. Babies pulled from incubators and scattered like firewood across the floor."

This story was freely distributed at the United Nations and finally picked up by Amnesty International, which reported:

"Amnesty International details how Iraqi forces have left more than 300 premature babies to die after looting incubators from at least three of Kuwait City's main hospitals."

When Amnesty made this report, Bush saw to it that it was sent to college newspapers all over the country.

This shocking story was told with great sincerity by Cindy McCain, wife of Arizona Senator John McCain, to a congressional Human Rights Caucus.

As MacArthur reports, no one challenged the story until Alexander Cockburn did so on January 17, 1991.

But by then it was too late. As MacArthur notes, the bombing of Baghdad began the night before.

The atrocity story had a life of its own after a while. When Congressman Stephen Solarz sponsored the congressional war resolution, he said:

"Over 300 babies were reported to have died after Iraqi soldiers removed them from incubators."

MacArthur points out that the resolution authorizing war passed by six votes in the Senate. Six pro-war senators specifically cited the baby-incubator story in their speeches.

It wasn't until after the war that the incubator story was cleared up. John Martin of ABC News interviewed a Dr. Mohammed Matar, director of Kuwait's primary healthcare system, and his wife, Dr. Fayeza Youssef, chief of obstetrics at the Kuwait City maternity hospital.

"There were no nurses to take care of the babies," Dr. Youssef said. "That's why they died."

Then Martin asked the doctors about the incubator-atrocity story.

"I think this is something just for propaganda," Dr. Matar said.

I have touched on only one facet of MacArthur's fascinating study. There is much more. You will be fascinated to learn how the government succeeded in muzzling the press during the war. And you will be even more shocked when you hear the cowardly reactions to this assault on a free press by the people who run our biggest newspapers and television operations.

If you are interested in skilled, hard-hitting, fearless journalism, MacArthur's book is a must.

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Tom Fitzpatrick