The Persian Gulf was recently the scene for a replay of the Spanish-American War. This time our “Manifest Destiny” was the “New World Order.” Our Teddy “Rough Rider” Roosevelt was “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf Our “Butcher” Weyler was “Hitler” Hussein. Our Frederic Remington was Peter Arnett. Our “Cuban sugar” was Kuwaiti oil. Both wars were crusades for the liberation of a small and defenseless country from an oppressive, “inhuman,” but weak and financially drained power, and both wars were immensely popular, shockingly short, and studded with decisive victories and few battlefield losses.
The analogy of choice, however, remains World War II. The national press continues to compare the ending of the Persian Gulf War with the euphoric defeat of Germany and Japan. As David Brinkley put it, “World War II is no longer America’s ‘last great war.'” Never mind that our involvement in that war lasted four years, that we entered it because American personnel and materiel had actually been attacked, and never mind that the American Army didn’t have to issue “Why We Are Here” cards to our soldiers in the Pacific.
Never mind all of this, because it merely gets in the way of our new national pastime, gloating. Everyone’s doing it—the President, the press. Congress, the Army, and apparently every barber and shoe salesman from Topeka to Charlotte. The lie is that we paid one of the lowest prices in history for our right to gloat. President Bush puts the cost at slightly more than one hundred dead Americans. Others put the cost at more than one hundred thousand dead Iraqis.
The biggest gloater of all has been General Schwarzkopf. At his postwar press conference, he congratulated the American press for its “cooperation” in disseminating Allied propaganda concerning troop strength and preparedness in the early stages of the war. “We couldn’t have done it without you,” he said. Few of the reporters seemed even to get the joke.
But the Allies'”yellow press” really needed little goading. The British and American Jimmy Olsens of the desert were actually more than happy to report that Allied forces “took out,” eliminated, and neutralized, while Iraqis killed, slaughtered, and destroyed; that the Allies held “press briefings” and issued “reporting guidelines,” while Iraq conducted censorship and issued propaganda; that Allied forces “dug in,” while Iraqis “cowered in their foxholes”; that Tomahawk missiles scored direct hits, while Scud missiles were “intercepted” and scored merely “with debris”; that Allied forces launched “first strikes” and did so “preemptively,” while Iraq conducted “sneak missile attacks” and did so “without provocation”; that Allied planes bombed with precision accuracy, while Iraqis shot “wildly at anything in sight”; that Allied planes only suffered “attrition,” while Iraqi planes were “shot out of the sky”; that Iraqi bombings killed civilians, while Allied bombings caused merely “collateral damage”; that the Allies constituted a “formidable force,” whereas Iraq had amassed “a war machine”; that Allied forces were comprised of brave and loyal professional men and women, whereas Iraq had “overgrown schoolchildren” who were “blindly obedient”; that George Bush was “resolute,” but Saddam Hussein, “defiant.” With press coverage like this, who needs the First Amendment?
Shakespeare’s King Henry V, in assessing the slaughter at Agincourt—ten thousand dead French and less than thirty dead English—asked, “Was ever known so great and little loss / On one part and on th’ other? Take it, God, / For it is none but thine!” The American secretary of state, however, is no humble Henry: “It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit.” That might have been James Baker or President Bush talking, but it was Secretary of State John Hay in 1898.