The day Joe Biden was inaugurated as U.S. president, the Iraqi people were on my mind.
A few weeks earlier, Donald Trump had drawn significant condemnation for granting a pardon to four American Blackwater mercenary contractors who had infamously murdered 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. Blackwater was a notorious organization led by Erik Prince, brother of former U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos.
But the day Trump left office, the airwaves were full of triumphalist “new day dawning” interviews featuring the blood-stained architects of and cheerleaders for the past three decades of relentless Canadian, American, and NATO warfare against the Iraqi people, the same individuals who had set the stage for the Nisour Square massacre. Among those lauded on inauguration day were former president George W. Bush and retired general Colin Powell, whose vicious lies led to the escalation of that war: an illegal 2003 invasion and occupation during which Bush passed Order 17 to immunize from prosecution any private soldiers caught up in such bloodshed.
Also receiving copious applause that day was Bill Clinton, who under the guise of enforcing Iraqi “no-fly zones” oversaw the bulk of what was until then the longest U.S. bombing campaign since the war against the people of Vietnam. His administration also enforced the brutal sanctions against the Iraqi people that a United Nations humanitarian coordinator deemed genocidal, killing upwards of 1.5 million people. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright (a hero to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland), asked whether the killing of so many civilians was justified, famously responded: “we think the price is worth it.”
As I watched the coverage, I felt I was being gaslit. Yes, Trump was a neo-fascist nightmare, but how could there be such uncritical and unquestioning applause for late-in-the-day statements of discomfort about Trump’s behaviour from the likes of former war secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former vice-president and torture enthusiast Dick Cheney? On a day of relief for many given that the Twitterer-in-chief was gone, few risked stepping into the unsavoury role of party pooper to suggest that while one ranting racist had lost some of his power, systemic racism was still here. This was clearly evidenced by the celebration of those responsible for the ongoing torture and murder of the long-suffering people of Iraq, a conveniently forgotten backdrop whose losses at our hands could not in any way spoil this magnificent day of U.S. democratic triumphalism.
A grim anniversary
Biden’s inaugural fell 30 years and four days after the start of “Operation Desert Storm,” when the equivalent of four Hiroshima bombs had already been dropped on Baghdad by Canadian and other bombers.
Like their American counterparts, Canadian media and politicians did not mark this anniversary. Perhaps it would have brought up some uncomfortable connections, as the prime minister who enthusiastically embraced the 1991 war, Brian Mulroney, spent the last four years supporting the American bully’s call for increased Canadian war spending and spent time as a Mar-a-Lago guest.
Mulroney, ever the fatuous opportunist, changed some of his public colours on November 6, though, when it appeared Biden would win. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mulroney praised Trump, but noted in comments that came months before the seditious acts of January 6, 2021: “If anybody did in Canada what [Trump] has just done and has the temerity to run for public office, I want to tell you the guys with the white coats would come after you and they would have a powerful case against you.”
Mulroney’s — and by extension, the Canadian media’s — complete lack of self-awareness was on full display with that self-serving, “Canadians are different” declaration. Indeed, a “powerful case” could be made against Mulroney and his minister of external affairs Joe Clark for their contribution to serious crimes against humanity during Iraq War 1.0.
Seeds of slaughter
Few remember that hot August day in 1990 when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He seemed to have cleared the invasion with the U.S. government that had been arming his regime throughout the 1980s — Donald Rumsfeld famously shook hands with Hussein while deliveries of chemical weapons made their way to Baghdad — but failed to recognize the bait and switch that was about to take place. Almost immediately, the Pentagon, Bush administration and Mulroney government — who were secretly bemoaning the fall of the Berlin Wall because it meant that calls for a peace dividend and significant cuts to war budgets were gathering steam — declared their Iraqi ally a new Hitler and began sending troops overseas.
While Colin Powell had at that time decried the fact that the U.S. “no longer has the luxury” of having an enemy to prepare for, he and others now saw that this new development meant gold for weapons profiteers. Ratcheting up war fever was assisted by the bloodstained Hill and Knowlton PR group (which created the myth of Kuwaiti babies being ripped from incubators). Hill and Knowlton’s Canadian arm was then run by David MacNaughton (Justin Trudeau’s first ambassador to the U.S.).
While Mulroney was quick to utter self-righteous pieties about illegal occupations of sovereign territories, the Conservative government of the day did the exact same thing that summer by sending in 2,600 Canadian troops to occupy sovereign Mohawk land during the Oka crisis. Their armoured vehicles, helicopters, aerial surveillance equipment, miles of barbed wire, and countless other means of firepower served to enforce against the people of Kanesatake the same kind of sanctions the Iraqi people were about to face, cutting off power and trying to deny the entry of food, water, medicine, and clothing to the Indigenous land protectors behind the wire. The military bolstered an additional 4,000 paramilitary SQ members, numbers that dwarfed the initial commitment of 900 Canadian troops sent to take on Hussein.
In a “post-Cold War” world, Canada’s military and its war industries also welcomed a new enemy, and while Indigenous resistance has always provided a major raision d’etre for Canadian Forces and related state security agencies (witness the massive, barely reported Gustafsen Lake crisis of 1995), having an overseas target proved invaluable. Indigenous lands were the first testing ground for weapons systems used against the Iraqi people, from fighter bombers which dropped 1,000-pound “dummy” bombs over the Innu territory of Nitassinan, to cruise missiles tested on Cree Territory. The very first time that cruise missiles were used — their inertial guidance systems had been built with a hugely controversial contract at Toronto’s Litton Systems during the 1980s — was during the 1991 war against Iraq.
Meanwhile, Canadian universities helped with some of the more horrific forms of firepower. For example, fuel air explosives, known as a “poor man’s atom bomb,” invert gravity and are designed to suck people out of air raid shelters; they were researched at McGill University, which continues to be a major war research contributor. Canada’s chemical weapons testing field at Suffolk, Alberta, had been used by a Belgian company to experiment with long-range artillery shells that were sold to the Iraqis during the 1980s.
Canada eager for war
From the moment Kuwait was invaded in 1990, Canada was eager for war, taking every conceivable step to prevent a negotiated solution while lobbying UN Security Council members to authorize force. Then external affairs minister Joe Clark said Parliament need not be recalled if the perceived need to go to war was imminent. And while the narrative of sanctions as a tool to force Hussein out of Kuwait was trumpeted by the U.S.-led coalition, the Toronto Star reported that “when Canada was committed to no more than enforcing a trade embargo against Iraq, Ottawa was calmly setting aside funds for a full-blown war.” Some $500 million in federal cuts to social programs were initiated to help pay for the war, and the government resurrected legislation allowing it to control wartime production, with General Motors in London (the predecessor to General Dynamics Land Systems, currently pumping out $15 billion in weapons exports for the Saudi wars of repression at home and against the people of Yemen) announcing it could switch from civilian work to military production of armoured personnel carriers at a moment’s notice.
Clark also distinguished himself by naming as “counterproductive” any pledges that Allied forces would not use nuclear weapons against Iraq. On October 26, 1990, he declared Canada would go to war whether the UN authorized it or not. In November, the government ordered 800 body bags (with a weak-kneed NDP only questioning the high number of the bags). With the outbreak of war, General John de Chastelain cheerily declared, “We are now at war and the distinction between whether our roles are offensive or defensive is immaterial.”
Canadian bombers began their runs over Iraq on January 20, 1991, with General Gérard Thériault reminding Toronto Star readers “the destructive ability of one CF-18 [is] as great as an attack by hundreds of bombers during World War II.” After the equivalent of one and a half Hiroshima bombs was dropped on Baghdad the first night of the war, the NDP’s John Brewin stood and declared: “The first feeling is one of concern for the safety of the pilots and sympathy for them. We admire the courage they will need in a very difficult assignment.” Keeping in mind the Iraqis had little anti-aircraft capacity and half the country’s population was under the age of 15, Brewin’s remarks were hardly a voice of principled opposition. (Despite the deadly capacity of the CF-18, Canada is currently considering investing scores of billions of dollars in a “new generation” of bombers.)
Meanwhile, Clark proclaimed, “Some wars can be a point of principle; this is one of those wars.” He insisted that the Geneva Convention protocols to which Canada was a signatory (concerning “excessive loss of civilian life”) were not being violated. Clark then fumbled his way through another statement, the like of which he was quite famous for, when he declared: “If there is one priority, one lesson, which the world must learn from this war, it is that an unrestricted arms trade in the region is no longer acceptable and constitutes a threat to all members of the United Nations.” Fine words, perhaps, but not matched by the actions of a government that would very shortly change the Criminal Code at the behest of arms manufacturers Diemaco (now known as Colt Canada, located in Kitchener) and London’s General Motors to allow for the import and possession of automatic weapons (crucial to the signing of the first Saudi armoured brigade vehicles contract in 1991). Indeed, over the past three decades, Canadian weapons exports have grown to the point where, in 2020, Canada was the second-largest exporter of weapons to the region.
One of the “strongest” NDP stands during the slaughter of the Iraqi people urged people across the land to send Valentine’s messages to the troops. Meanwhile, Ontario NDP premier Bob Rae, despite closing hospital beds due to budget cuts, opened up several spaces for troop casualties, while his government discussed security measures to deal with “terrorist” threats. Needless to say, anti-Arab sentiment and violence ran high (as documented in Zuhair Kashmeri’s book, The Gulf Within: Canadian Arabs, Racism, & The Gulf War). When the Toronto Sun produced unsubstantiated scare headlines like “Iraqi Agents Here,” falsely claiming a dozen saboteurs were lurking in the city, the results were predictable: among many such incidents of violence and vandalism, an Arabic teenager at Father Henry Carr High School was beaten by 10 white students as passersby stopped to watch.
Even at the municipal level, NDP partisans like Jack Layton joined in the celebration of war, with the late federal NDP leader (then a Toronto city councillor) refusing the requests of peace groups not to appear on the reviewing stand for the returning troops’ Bay Street victory parade.
The horrific war crimes committed against the Iraqis continued directly for a good three months, followed by a 12-year-long daily grind of aerial warfare termed enforcement of no-fly zones, and the genocidal sanctions enforced by the Canadian navy, which spent over $1 billion ensuring that medicine, school supplies, and essentials to get water purification and electricity running would never make it to the people of Iraq. Then came the 2003 escalation of the war: a bloody invasion and occupation with major Canadian participation that continues in various forms to this day, with hundreds of Canadian troops still occupying the country under the rationale of providing training for military and police forces that are regularly implicated in enforced disappearances, torture, and murder of protesters, among many other crimes.
While Canadian academics, media and politicians continue to propagate the myth that prime minister Jean Chrétien bravely stood up to Bush and refused to take part in the invasion, the historical record is clear that Canada played a significant role. Indeed, as CBC reported a decade ago, the very same day Chrétien informed the House of Commons that Canada would allegedly not be involved in the invasion, Canadian officials met with their U.S. counterparts in Ottawa to promise that Canadian naval and air forces could “discreetly” be deployed to assist the U.S.-led slaughter. In a briefing note for the State Department, a U.S. official noted: “While for domestic political reasons… the [Government of Canada] has decided not to join in a U.S. coalition of the willing … they are also prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins.”
When Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 with the promise to end what had to that moment been a fairly extended Canadian bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, initiated under the Harper regime, he failed to act promptly, and hundreds of additional “sorties” were flown before that part of the military campaign was officially brought to an end. Six years ago this month, Team Trudeau worked diligently to cover up the CF-18 slaughter of some 30 Iraqi civilians, an air strike that only came to light eight months later when The Globe and Mail reported on documents released not by Ottawa but by the Pentagon. They indicated that:
“[t]he Canadian military made it clear to the United States shortly after the alleged incident that it felt no obligation under the Geneva Conventions to probe what happened, the Pentagon records show. ‘It should be noted that Canadian Joint Operations Command [legal advisers] opinion is that, under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) there are no obligations for the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct an investigation.'”
As I turned off my TV on inauguration night, sickened by the triumphalism and invocation of allegedly better times to come when America could “once again count on allies” to wage wars, I thought about the 408 women and children who were incinerated when two U.S. 2,000-pound laser-guided “smart” bombs were deliberately dropped on top of them in February, 1991, their shadows permanently etched into the concrete like images from Hiroshima. It became a war memorial where Umm Greyda, who lost eight of her children in that bombing, moved in and acted as a caretaker.
I often think about what it must be like to live and shiver with fear under the bombs. While many in Canada have experience of that terror as refugees from countries where Canadian-made weapons are frequently “delivered,” most of us are far too removed to think about, much less imagine, what it looks, feels, and smells like. That distancing, which also decreases the possibility for empathy and solidarity with a people who have been demonized before we murder them, has long been a priority for those who wage “modern warfare,” and prevents us from recognizing — and acting upon the fact — that our tax dollars are used every day in the slaughter of people in countries like Yemen.
The 1991 attack on Iraq was specifically designed to prevent such connection with and empathy for the victims of our violence. Military briefings of the time portrayed a “clean” war that looked as harmless as a high-tech Nintendo game. Generals cracked jokes while showing footage of bombs hitting targets that looked no different than animated gaming figures at a video arcade.
During such bleak times, it is critical to look to those who keep memory alive, like Umm Greyda. They remind us of our responsibility to the vulnerable and targeted, as well as the power we have to change individual lives or, at the very least, provide some hope in troubled times. They also remind us that no matter how many years separate war criminals from the crimes they have committed, we must never forget — and always seek to hold accountable — those who signed the paperwork, ordered the torture, approved the bombings, and concluded that “the price was worth it.”
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.