The Gulf War Reader

Article excerpt

Edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf. Random House, 1991. 526 pp. List: $15; AET: $11.95 for one, $15 for two.

It is one of the ironies of the 20th century that information translates not into knowledge but confusion.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a drama played out in front of a national press corps and recorded on film, remains one of the great "whodunits" of our time. One could add a long list of similar events, so clear at the outset, so confusing in the aftermath.

The Gulf war was no exception. Conspiracies abounded (and still do) about the motives of every major actor in the sorry tragedy. Did the United States give Saddam a green light, in order to cut him down to size? Did Saddam and King Hussein hatch a plot to divide the spoils of the Gulf? Never mind the causes, what about the results? Just how reliable were the much-touted high-tech weapons? And how many Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in what turned out to be one of the most lopsided wars in history?

More than six months after the war's end, such questions remain the subject of intense discussion, which only underscores the need for skepticism when reading or watching "comprehensive," on-the-spot analysis of the network-CNN-Time variety.

How, then, to approach The Gulf War Reader, edited by Micah L. Sifry and Christopher Cerf? Consisting mainly of documents, journalism and opinion released or written as events in the Gulf unfolded, the book as an historical resource has limited value. Public pronouncements by US President George Bush, Iraqi President Saddam Hussain and other public figures are interesting to read in full (again), but they reveal little new information.

The possible exception in this collection is a full transcript of the meeting between April Glaspie, America's ambassador to Iraq, and Saddam Hussain. It is clear to this reader, at least, that Ambassador Glaspie left that meeting convinced no invasion was imminent. Also of some historical note are the essays at the beginning of the book (Walid Khalidi's and Phillip Knightly's in particular) that review the bitter and complex legacies World War I imposed on the region.

The book's primary value is as criticism, not history. Many of the "facts" of the war will remain open to interpretation and doubt. Some will always see the United States and Israel as the puppet masters behind an essentially anti-Arab, imperialistic onslaught; others will maintain that Saddam Hussain alone is responsible for a war that wrecked the region and inflicted suffering on millions of Arabs.

Nor is it obvious that there was a clear course that would have averted tragedy. Those who supported the use of sanctions point to the massive destruction unleashed by the war and Saddam Hussain's survival to buttress their case. Those who supported a quick war wonder how long Saddam could have withstood sanctions and remained in Kuwait given his ability to survive one of the most devastating military defeats in history.

The Gulf War Reader is not likely to break new ground for those troubled by these "what if" questions. However, a number of the essays included do raise questions that are deeper and more permanent. Can the existing system of nation states survive peacefully? Will arms sales ever be controlled? Will human rights ever replace greed as a shaping force in human relationships? And is a civilized dialogue between Middle Eastern and Western cultures possible? …