I did my first public speaking during the lead-up to Operation Desert Storm, and once I began, there have been, sad to say, so many American (mis)adventures in the region that I seem hardly to have paused. There seemed then, and seem now, so many things the students have to know, so many contradictions between the stories the government told us and the information we had even then, it is difficult to step back and let students draw conclusions. The stakes seem too high, even now after more than a decade of sanctions and another horrific invasion.
Our job is to have students learn to analyze sources critically and to draw conclusions. That’s what I was demanding of my public audiences more than a decade ago. Instead of including the students’ voices today, though, I hoped I could model the way a historian can create a narrative based on diverse sources.
They arrived to Saadoun al-Bayati performing Iraqi music at UNC, videotaped this fall when he was part of my students’ workshop for K-12 teachers, Iraq beyond Conflict.
We began with a review of Saddam Hussein’s reasons for invading Iran, tying them to the issues that we had been discussing since World War I. Then I moved on to the US support for both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict. I focused on the aftermath of the war: the horrific human cost, the Anfal campaign in which Saddam Hussein’s troops destroyed Kurdish villages and lives, the devastation of the economies of both countries, and the consolidation of Iran’s new revolutionary regime. I argued that one could not understand Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait without recognizing the effects of the previous invasion of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s sense that Kuwait was disavowing their common war aims by demanding loan repayment, accusations that Kuwait was engaging in economic warfare against Iraq, insistence that Kuwait was stealing Iraq’s oil.
The George H. W. Bush administration waited hardly any time to see if sanctions had worked, and the war was quick and enormously destructive, carried out by a coalition of 34 countries. Ending the war was a murkier project. I showed them an interview with then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney explaining (presciently) why trying to topple the Iraqi regime would have resulted in a quagmire.
I showed photos of the “Highway of Death,” when American forces bombed Iraqi conscripts retreating from Kuwait. I talked about the importance of military reports, showing them one that discussed the complications of the campaign, like the bombing of the Amiriya Shelter that had killed hundreds of civilians. I ended with a description of the simultaneous Iraqi uprisings against the regime, encouraged by the US, during which American forces did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression. They left to the video of the destruction of Kerbala.
In the end, it was an old-fashioned narrative, a lecture about war and destruction. How traditional can a historian get?