When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators
More than 10 years later, I can still recall my brother Sean's face. It was bright red. Furious. Not one given to fits of temper, Sean was in an uproar. He was a father, and he had just heard that Iraqi soldiers had taken scores of babies out of incubators in Kuwait City and left them to die. The Iraqis had shipped the incubators back to Baghdad. A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day. "We've got to go and get Saddam Hussein. Now," he said passionately.Skip to next paragraph
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I completely understood his feelings. Although I had no family of my own then, who could countenance such brutality? The news of the slaughter had come at a key moment in the deliberations about whether the US would invade Iraq. Those who watched the non-stop debates on TV saw that many of those who had previously wavered on the issue had been turned into warriors by this shocking incident.
Too bad it never happened. The babies in the incubator story is a classic example of how easy it is for the public and legislators to be mislead during moments of high tension. It's also a vivid example of how the media can be manipulated if we do not keep our guards up.
The invented story eventually broke apart and was exposed. (I first saw it reported in December of 1992 on CBC-TV's Fifth Estate Canada's "60 Minutes" in a program called "Selling the War." The show later won an international Emmy.) But it's been 10 years since it happened, and we again find ourselves facing dramatic decisions about war. It is instructive to look back at what happened, in order that we do not find ourselves deceived again, by either side in the issue.
Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. As the BBC reported: "The country's ruler, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, fled into exile in his armour plated Mercedes, across the desert to neighbouring Saudi Arabia."
The Kuwait government had to find a way to "sell the war" to the American public, who were interested, but not deeply involved. So under the auspices of a group called Citizen for a Free Kuwait, which was really the Kuwait government in exile (the group received almost $12 million from the Kuwaiti government, and only $17,000 from others, according to author John R. MacArthur) the American PR firm Hill & Knowlton was hired for $10.7 million to devise a campaign to win American support for the war. Craig Fuller, the firm's president and COO, had been then-President George Bush's chief of staff when the senior Bush has served as vice president under Ronald Reagan. The move made a lot of sense after all, access to power is everything in Washington and the Hill & Knowlton people had lots of that.
It's wasn't an easy sell. After all, Kuwait was hardly a "freedom-loving land." Only a few weeks before the invasion, Amnesty International accused the Kuwaiti government of jailing dozens of dissidents and torturing them without trial. In an effort to spruce up the Kuwait image, the company organized Kuwait Information Day on 20 college campuses, a national day of prayer for Kuwait, distributed thousands of "Free Kuwait" bumper stickers, and other similar traditional PR ventures. But none of it was working very well. American public support remained lukewarm the first two months.
According to MacArthur's book "Second Front," the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 edition of the London Daily Telegraph. The paper ran a claim by the exiled Kuwait housing minister that, "babies in the premature unit of one of the hospitals had been removed from their incubators, so that these, too, could be carried off." Two days later, the LA Times carried a Reuter's story that quoted an American (first name only) who said, among other things, that babies were being taken from incubators, although she herself had not seen it happen.