Coverage of Persian Gulf War Has Human Side That Can’t Be Ignored

Leslie Cockburn</i> , <i> author of "Out of Control" (1987)</i> ,<i> has won four major journalism awards this year, including the George Polk Award and the National Press Club Award, for war coverage in Cambodia. She has covered foreign affairs for 15 years for NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS</i>

In reviewing our PBS documentary “The War We Left Behind” (Calendar, Oct. 29), Robert Koehler remarked on the naivete of “American TV reporters (the slightest attention to the soundtrack would have revealed that one of us is clearly not American) . . . utterly innocent of the ways of modern warfare” who discover that war is hell. Assuming the posture of the knowledgeable veteran, Koehler responds, “What else is new?”

We are well aware of the ways of modern warfare and for the past two decades we have reported our direct experiences of war--in print and on TV--from Cambodia to Central America to the Scud attacks on Israel earlier this year. We are also aware that this war had uniquely hellish effects, which we described.

During and since the war, President Bush and other senior U.S. officials repeatedly protested that we were not seeking to punish the Iraqi people and that “collateral damage,” the favored Pentagon euphemism for hitting civilians, was as limited as possible. Coupled with images of precision bombs striking with unvarying accuracy, this depiction of a good clean war went down well with armchair warriors poised in front of their TV sets including, we suspect, Koehler.

In fact, the policy from the outset was to destroy the basic infrastructure of Iraq--particularly the electricity system--a strategy that, as has been officially admitted, the Pentagon knew would cause “unavoidable hardships” for the civilian population. Col. John Warden, whose concepts governed the bombing strategy, explained in our documentary that these effects were in large part rendered possible by “revolutionary” bombing techniques.


The consequent hardships, as we illustrated, included the crippling of the country’s water treatment system. We showed one sewage plant on the edge of Baghdad shut down by the bombing that is now discharging 15 million gallons of raw sewage an hour into the river. Two thirds of all the households in the country are now forced to rely on heavily polluted water with the inevitable consequence of a typhoid epidemic that is now out of control.

The hardships also included the crippling of the country’s agricultural system, since the loss of electricity shut down the irrigation and drainage systems. This year’s harvest amounted to 25% of the pre-war total, next year will be down another 80%.

We further pointed out that the economic sanctions that continue to this day have made it impossible to repair Iraq’s infrastructure and have brought 18 million Iraqis to the brink of famine.

Senior U.S. government officials told us on background that this situation is not likely to produce a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein, which does indeed raise the question of why the U.S. insists on maintaining the blockade. Koehler appears to object to our raising this point, though it is not clear why.


Our documentary reported the uprising of the Kurds against Saddam Hussein immediately after the war, an uprising specifically encouraged and then betrayed by President Bush. Koehler, apparently out of regard for Turkish sensibilities, is unique in his endorsement of this betrayal.

The Gulf War made a great TV show. Most Americans experienced a “clean” war with no dying babies, no starving people, no typhoid epidemics and no betrayed allies. Since, as we have good reason to believe, Koehler’s experience of modern warfare has been accumulated in the sanctuary of his living room, we can understand why he objects to our showing a different aspect of the matter.

Eight months after the end of the fighting, Americans want to see the realities behind the “Nintendo war” that so gripped them at the beginning of the year. It is unfortunate that Koehler sought to discourage readers from doing so.