Monday, January 18, 2021

30 Years Ago: The "Gulf War" Begins

Since last Fall I have been peeking in from time to time to a journal I kept from September 1990 to May 1992. Not long ago, these ruminations and the events that inspired them were 25 years old (i.e. in 2015), and I reproduced some selections in this blog. In the blinking of an eye, it seems, the same journal is now 30 years old.

Now we are marking the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the "Gulf War," or the first part of the USA's war in Iraq. The 1991 war was aimed at driving Saddam Hussein's regime out of Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded the previous Summer. The rapid and enormous military mobilization and response led by the USA was over in a few months, and "victory" was proclaimed (for the first time in what was to become an unnerving habit in years to come). in fact, it was only the beginning of a perplexing and problematic struggle in that part of the world that had many unforseen and sometimes catastrophic consequences over the next three decades.

If we think about it, we can see how the West is still involved in the implications of what happened a hundred years ago when the British and French created a constellation of "nation-states" out of the ruins of the Arabic domains of the Ottoman Empire. (Then, of course, Israel was established after World War II.) The inattentiveness, the lack of vision, of the victors at Versailles in 1919-1920 not only prepared the foundations for another war 20 years later, but also bequeathed unresolved political divisions and tensions even to the present time.

But 1991 was a "heady" moment in the history of the modern Western world. With Eastern Europe suddenly free and apparently "democratic," with the Soviet Union tottering (it would fall by the end of the Summer of '91), with China once again "reforming and opening" and its people free to get rich (the recent bloody events of Tiananmen Square being conveniently forgotten) - it appeared to many Westerners that "we had won." We had reached "the end of history," which, ironically, was not a Communist utopia but the global triumph of materialist consumerism (though we articulated this in the more lofty, but ultimately vacuous, idealism of "freedom" and "liberal democracy").

In fact, many good things and many genuine freedoms and new human possibilities opened up during this time. But in the midst of real "victories" that we still do not yet understand - and that have only begun to sprout from a variety of sources, some of which remain hidden to us - we in the West were myopic to our own endemic problems and fatal weaknesses. 

The secular West is not "dead" yet, in 2021, but the sickness is obvious and impossible for anyone to ignore. In '91 it was still possible to pretend vigorous health, or even renewed vitality. Even today, the dying West is surrounded by the clamor of its "children" - some rebellious, others perplexed, and a few (perhaps) curious and wondering about the relics of what once gave youthful life to a culture that has become a monstrosity in its dying "days" (years, decades, even centuries in historical terms).

All of this is the context of 1991's grand intervention into the Persian Gulf, that began a new chapter in the struggles of the Middle East. Hardly any of the particulars of the drama in the region, or regarding the radical Islamic groups that would emerge during and after the USA's interventions, were predicted in 1991. At the time, the Gulf War was a very popular undertaking in the USA. It was notable for being the first war to be "televised live" (it being the early days of 24 hour cable news). For the media and many who watched in this country, the war seemed to have all the superficiality of a sports game.

That troubled my younger self. I saw yet another sign of the decadence of our society in the manner in which people seemed happy to sit on their couches and "root for the team," even if no one really knew why "the game" was being played. I was not referring to the servicemen and women in the military who did their duty in good faith, and exhibited courage then (and later) in difficult circumstances.

Now, in 2021, I am looking at my old journal as a historical artifact of what feels like a very different period in time. Yet these past events fit into the bigger picture of the ongoing epochal shift that is creating the first globally interactive world, for better or for worse (or perhaps for better and for worse, with respect to different aspects of life).

In any case, here is what the 28 year old graduate student wrote (by hand) in that journal during these January days 30 years ago: