Continuing Objections to the Persian Gulf War

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Linus Pauling with the Dalai Lama at a meeting of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Santa Barbara, California, April 6, 1991.

[Part 2 of 2]

By spring 1991, Linus Pauling, at the age of 90, had established himself as a leading critic of the United States’ military incursion into the Persian Gulf, an engagement that had been dubbed “Operation Desert Storm.” Having already published a series of paid advertisements in national and regional media outlets urging the U.S. to pursue a diplomatic solution to Saddam Hussein’s military occupation of Kuwait, Pauling issued his most detailed argument against the conflict in a talk titled “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War.'” This lecture was presented at a meeting of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation on April 6, 1991 and attended by the Dalai Lama, among others.

Components of Pauling’s argument against the war were discussed in our previous blog post on this subject. In today’s post, we’ll dig a little bit deeper into some of the specifics conveyed by Pauling in his April speech and touch on other noteworthy activities in which Pauling engaged as he publicly argued against armed conflict in the Middle East.


Pauling began his discussion of the Gulf “War,” as he termed it, by mentioning the New York Times advertisement that he had placed in January.  He confessed that the multiple ads that he had commissioned were not likely to make a significant impact, but that he felt a moral obligation to speak out.

He then starkly emphasized that the current war was not in fact a war, because

In a war you have opposing forces that fight and there are deaths on both sides and finally one side wins. In the old days perhaps this was a demonstration of the democratic process – the side with the biggest number of fighters won.  [Operation Desert Storm] wasn’t a war. This you could call a massacre or slaughter, perhaps even murder.

Pauling continued by querying the audience, if this is what the practice of war has become, then what shape might future wars take on? For Pauling, the US had set a dangerous precedent for the future: use force to install the government it wants and then leave.

As he dug deeper into his analysis, Pauling made connections to World War I and World War II by noting that a new generation of leaders could have ushered in World War III, but that this was averted through the development of weapons that were increasingly destructive by many orders of magnitude.

The current conflict, however, was different in how it transpired.  First, it was mostly initiated through air power – a dramatically one-sided offensive consisting of some 150,000 U.S. sorties resulting in the deaths of only about 150 American soldiers. Second, the U.S. had previously supplied Iraq with old and outdated weapons for use in its lengthy war with Iran. As a result, American military planners knew that their weaponry was far superior and would not be threatened by Iraqi stockpiles.

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Pauling speaking at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation event, Santa Barbara, California, April 6, 1991.

But the crucial question for Pauling was how many Iraqis died?  Pauling estimated the number to be around 300,000, a total which, he emphasized, included children, the elderly, and other civilians. He continued the math by pointing out that these numbers equated to a casualty ratio of 2,000 Iraqis killed for every American.

(Later analyses suggested Pauling’s numbers to be inflated. According to one, the “Gulf War Air Power Survey,” (1993) conducted by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen and commissioned by the United States Air Force, about 22,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in combat. Further, the Iraqi government estimated 2,300 civilian deaths as a result of the air campaign.)

Given casualty rates so high and so wildly out of proportion, Pauling begged the question: does a war like this make the U.S. and President Bush terrorists?  In asking this, Pauling explained

Terrorists are people who make an ultimatum, a demand of some sort in the form of an ultimatum threatening to kill hostages or other people if the demand is not met.  What did President Bush do?  He issued some ultimatums that were absolute, that by a certain date the Iraqis would have to withdraw from Kuwait, or else.  And ‘or else’ consisted in our killing 300,000 Iraqis, two thousand to one.  It seems to me that our country has become a terrorist country on a very large scale.

Instead, Pauling urged that the U.S. seek out an alternative, one that would create “a future worthy of man’s intelligence” and provide clear evidence that “we are a moral country.”


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The remainder of Pauling’s activism against the Gulf War consisted primarily of co-sponsoring or otherwise participating in a variety of petitioning efforts. One of them, “The Scientists Statement of Concern,” which was initiated by Pauling, was signed by forty-seven scientists in the US, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Another, “Scientists and Engineers for Peace in the Middle East,” emphasized the need to pursue social justice and economic development as a route to stability in the region.

A final piece authored by Pauling during this time period deserves mention, in part because of its unique comparison of two very high profile events that were current in March 1991. Simply titled “A Statement” and dictated on March 26, Pauling’s text began

On the 3rd of March 1991 and on many succeeding days there was shown on television a remarkable sequence of pictures of an event that occurred in Los Angeles, California. A young man, 24 years old, had been traveling at high speed in a car. He had been chased by traffic officers, and had finally been run down near Los Angeles. He got out of his car, and apparently had fallen onto the ground. He was surrounded by 15 police and traffic officers. Although he was not resisting, he was beaten by three of these officers, wielding clubs. They struck him 57 times, breaking a bone in his leg and causing many cuts and bruises. The other 12 officers, including the sergeant in charge of the three who were doing the beating, did not intervene.

People all over the world were incensed at this display of brutality. No cases of law violation were filed against the young man who had been beaten. Some of the officers were charged with having themselves violated the law. At the present time the Chief of Police of Los Angeles is under pressure to resign, because of his toleration of this case of police brutality as well as of other cases.

There is, however, another case of egregious brutality that has not been criticized in the same way, but that has instead been welcomed with approbation. This is the case of the overwhelmingly one-sided assault by the United States, abetted by other countries who were to some extent browbeaten into their attitude, against Iraq.

Describing Operation Desert Storm as being “even more one-sided than the attack of the 15 police officers” against Rodney King, Pauling continued his statement in a vein very similar to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation talk that he would give less than two weeks later.