An American Life 
by Ronald Reagan.
Hutchinson, 748 pp., £19.99, November 1990, 0 09 174507 1
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As he neared the end of a recent diatribe against President Bush for plotting war secretly, and in defiance of the US Constitution, the American journalist Anthony Lewis felt impelled to add: ‘None of this argues that George Bush is a bad man. He is not.’

Years ago Roland Barthes wrote about the bourgeois propensity to think in essences, and nowhere is this more evident than in the way Americans think and write about their political leaders. It was not as if Lewis needed the after-thought about Bush’s non-badness, His column would have ended perfectly well without it. But the need to reassure both himself and his readers was overwhelming and thus, after solemn censure, the President was sent on his way with his essential non-badness duly guaranteed.

‘Essential Bush’ is not, in fact, alluring. There’s always been a fairly broad streak of impulsive petulance in him. In any sort of tight spot his voice tightens up into a waspy whine. He reacts badly to criticism or challenge, like a man who feels a carefully constructed self-image is under improper duress. Essentialists can search for continuity of political belief in the man, some backbone of principle stiffening his curriculum vitae, but such investigation, if conducted with any degree of realism, is not encouraging, and discloses a kind of Flashmanesque moral seediness, particularly in his CIA/Contragate incarnations and his fascination with rogues. He has countenanced some very bad things in his time.

In these days of Desert Storm Bush is on display as commander-in-chief and man of calm resolve, just as five months ago he was the master diplomatist pledging only ‘defensive’ forces to Saudi Arabia. He’s slid from the latter stance to the former, not because of strong and purposeful leadership, but because of political cowardice, since the road to a peaceful settlement – simultaneous linkage of Iraqi withdrawal to a Middle East conference and so forth – would have required courage of the sort almost invisible in American political life. After all, the fact that people are fighting, killing and dying in and around the Gulf is the consequence of cowardly political leadership stretching over years. The hateful figure of Saddam Hussein emerged as one of hope for many Arabs in part because of the failure of the United States to address in any determined way the aspirations of the Palestinians.

One can delve down and down through Bush’s intellectual and spiritual architecture without hitting anything particularly solid. I remember interviewing members of his family back in the late Seventies when he was running for the Republican Presidential nomination, and coming more than once on wonderment at the thought that Poppy was running, mixed with utter bewilderment about his belief in anything beyond doing something tentatively described as the right thing. A decade later, when he was once again running for the Presidency, I began getting letters from a veteran who had been tail-gunner in a bomber in the Pacific during the Second World War. He’s collected and compared various accounts made by Bush or his publicists about his best-known misadventure as a pilot in the South Pacific, when his plane was hit by Japanese flak and he bailed out and was eventually rescued by submarine. These accounts did indeed vary, though all agreed that after Bush bailed out his plane, carrying two crew members, crashed into the sea and they both were killed. It wasn’t long before I lit on the account of a man who’d been in the plane immediately behind on the same bombing run. He’d seen the plane list and asked his pilot to chop back to take a closer look. Then, and years later, he maintained that the engine was not on fire, and that Bush could have almost certainly crash-landed the plane in the sea. In this man’s view, Bush appears to have popped open the cockpit hood and jumped out as soon as the plane was hit.

It wasn’t the sort of story that journalists, in general agreement that Bush was essentially non-bad, were interested in discussing, and though I wrote it up in a column just before the 1990 Election no one paid any attention, though if true – and it seemed to me pretty certain that it was – the episode did provide useful insight into the man who, in the 1988 campaign, was trading on his war record, courtesy of an amateur movie of his rescue from the Pacific shot by one of the submarine’s crew members.

I’d fallen prey to the illusion that Bush was vulnerable to something journalistically classified as a ‘damaging story’. Nixon was always reeling – eventually out of the Presidency – under the impact of these ‘damaging stories’ because a powerful segment of the press hated him enough from time to time – though not during the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, to be sure – to make a great hullaballoo whenever a damaging story surfaced. Journalists, none more than Lewis, had decided that Nixon was essentially non-good. After he was gone, the illusion, held by others as well as myself, persisted for a time that ‘damaging stories’ would go on making a difference. I was writing a political column with James Ridgeway at the time, and when Jimmy Carter’s fortunes began to rise in the 1976 campaign we had a researcher work through documentary records in the Georgia State archives, amassed during his stint as Governor. Our man toiled diligently away – so diligently in fact that we concluded he was also in the employ of the Republican National Committee – and soon unearthed materials disclosing impressive amounts on non-goodness in the conduct of Governor Carter, who at that time was promising to inaugurate a new age of virtue in American public life, raising essentialism – his goodness, reflective of the goodness of all Americans except his opponent – to an altitude unprecedented in campaign rhetoric.

It was plain enough, from the testimony of the archives, that Carter was just as much a liar, double-dealer, blowhard, serf of corporate power, and coward, as your average seeker after high office, and we hastened to publish the evidence. It made no difference, given the consensus on his non-badness, and I realised then that the ‘damaging story’ was a thing of the past, part of the discarded paraphernalia of the Nixon age.

Reagan answered most satisfactorily this essentialist expectation, since as an excellent actor he had no problem in assuming or discarding roles, and could constantly refashion the ‘essential Reagan’ and live each new role with utter inner conviction.

The first time I saw him in the flesh I thought immediately that ‘flesh’ seemed too intimate a word for the tissue he was then presenting, in 1976, as the visage of a man younger than his years. The ‘age factor’ was thought to be a problem. During the press conference in the New York Hilton in which this ‘age factor’ was delicately raised he invited us to come up and look at his hair, give it a tug if necessary, make sure it wasn’t tinted dark by Grecian formula. As I gave his hair a dutiful yank he held his head forward with a detachment so docile that it was clear that here was a man of iron resolve, every resource recruited to the business of being Reagan-as-young-man-with-dark-hair.

The last time I saw him, with Nancy at the Republican Convention in New Orleans in 1988, flesh was no longer a word one could even toy with, as I gazed at his impassive lizard-like countenance. The President’s body sat there, not at all like a human frame reposing in the moments before public oratory, but as Reagan-at-rest extruding not a tincture of emotion until impelled by some unseen spasm of synapses into Reagan-amused, the briefest of smiles soon being dismissed in favour of the sombre passivity one associates with the shrouded figure in some newly-opened tomb before oxygen commences its mission of decay.

Nancy as loyal wife complemented the bogus arc of her husband’s career, now arrived at its political terminus underneath the Super-dome. By the early Forties, when he first met Nancy and when young Poppy was still at Yale, preparatory to shipping out to the Pacific and his appointment with the cameraman on the submarine, the studio publicity department was already turning Ronald Reagan into a war hero.

By day he would work in ‘Fort Wacky’ in Culver City, where they made military training films. Experts would take old stock footage of Japan and then edit it as though viewed through a gunsight. This not only helped gunners in planes about to make sorties over Japan but was also used in ‘live-action’ newsreels for American audiences craving combat footage. Things were more sophisticated back then: these days we have to be content with a CNN man holding a microphone out the window to hear the bombs drop on Baghdad, as he extols the pin-point accuracy of the US bombers while CNN displays on the screen a photograph of downtown Baghdad, thus fostering illusions once more about the effectiveness of air power. The fanzines discussed the loneliness of Reagan’s first wife Jane Wyman, her absent man off at the war (a few miles away in Fort Wacky, home in time for supper) and his hatred of the foe. ‘She’d seen Ronnie’s sick face,’ Modern Screen reported in 1942, ‘bent over a picture of the small swollen bodies of children starved to death in Poland, “This,” said the war-hating Reagan between set lips, “would make it a pleasure to kill.” ’

In his Oval Office speech launching Operation Desert Storm President Bush didn’t say it would be a pleasure to kill but gave the overall impression that it would be a joy to kick Iraqi ass, and he brandished rhetorically the latter-day equivalent of those photographs of Polish children – namely, the ‘innocent children’, as he described them in his address, suffering in Kuwait.

He was most probably referring to his favoured symbol of Iraqi vileness, the babies supposedly left to die in Kuwaiti hospitals by Iraqi troops looting their incubators for shipment back to Baghdad. It turns out that baby-from-incubator mass murder – over three hundred in the early versions – is entirely untrue, as I discovered recently from Aziz Abu Hamad, a Saudi consultant researching the matter for the New York-based human rights organisation Middle East Watch. The story had been given the imprimatur of a December report by Amnesty International which swallowed whole the account (which he soon began to emend) of a Red Crescent doctor in the employ of the Kuwaiti government-in-exile and lodged in the Sheraton Hotel in Taif’ as an employee of that government. After extensive investigation Aziz concluded there was no credible eyewitness or testimony to sustain the charges of mass baby murder. Bush apparently fortified his resolve in the pre-war hours by reading the Amnesty report with set lips, before attending divine service conducted by the Rev. Billy Graham who, in former non-good old days, urged Nixon to bomb the dikes in North Vietnam.

Forty years after he gazed at those photographs of Polish children Reagan would tell Yitzhak Shamir, then foreign minister of Israel, that he had helped liberate Auschwitz in Poland, and had returned to Hollywood with film of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed, and if in later years anyone around the Reagan dinner table controverted the reality of the Holocaust (apparently a conversational staple at such repasts) Reagan, so he would tell Shamir and others, would roll the footage till the doubts were stilled. Of course Reagan never left Fort Wacky and in due course his false account to Shamir became known. But the exposure of these demented fictions of his never made the slightest difference to the esteem in which he was generally held by the press.

Essentially ‘good’, and hailed as such, even as he cut school lunch programmes and Federal housing subsidies, Reagan could survive any damaging story, outsmile the exposure of any lie, and An American Life is just one more episode in this mendacious odyssey. The new act is a golly-gee account of how a small-town boy got to the White House, saved America from economic ruin and founded a new era of world peace.

It’s eerie to read this stuff now: like looking at the silent movies of Reagan’s childhood. The acting styles have already changed, the props look out of date. Gone from us only two years, Reagan already seems as remote in time as Harding or Coolidge, and the vainglory of his renewed America and his new world era seems as tinny as a silent-movie piano amid the rumbling disasters of the new decade where non-badness is having its violent rendezvous with Evil.

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Vol. 13 No. 6 · 21 March 1991

In his article ‘Right Stuff’ (LRB, 7 February), Alexander Cockburn returns to themes relating to Amnesty International’s 19 December 1990 report on Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait –themes which he has previously raised in US publications and to which our US section has already replied. He continues to claim that reports of the large-scale killing of babies removed by or on the orders of Iraqi security forces are ‘entirely untrue’ and that Amnesty International ‘swallowed whole’ an account to this effect by one Red Crescent doctor.

Here are the facts. In our 19 December report we detailed the torture and extrajudicial execution of hundreds of thousands of victims and the imprisonment of several thousand prisoners. The report was based on medical evidence and in-depth interviews with more than a hundred people from about a dozen countries, including interviews by Amnesty International investigators who travelled to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to talk to victims of abuse, doctors who treated them, other medical personnel, relatives and eye-witnesses. As with all reports where Amnesty International is unable to enter the country concerned, it has been impossible to verify all details. Nevertheless, Amnesty International remains convinced that its report paints an accurate picture of horrifying violations inflicted on victims of many nationalities in Kuwait. Subsequent information has served only to confirm the wide range and intensity of violations we reported.

With regard to the deaths of the babies, Amnesty International believes there is compelling evidence of large-scale killing of incubator babies. Testimony to support this has come from a range of sources of different nationalities, including members of the Red Crescent, medical personnel working in hospitals where the incidents occurred; other medical personnel and people who handled bodies of the victims after their deaths and were involved in documenting these deaths; people who were involved in the burial of the bodies of scores of infants; and a few individuals who reported on specific incidents. All testimonies we received referred to large-scale killings of babies who had been removed from incubators. After our report appeared, conflicting reports emerged about the number of killings. We returned to the sources that were still available and went to others as well. Nothing in our subsequent inquiries gave grounds for revising our overall view about the large scale of the killings, although it is impossible to verify specific figures.

In keeping with Amnesty International’s working policies, we shall continue to collect information on these and other human rights violations by Iraqi forces in Kuwait. But it must be emphasised that this is only part of our human rights work, not only in this region but throughout the world.

David Bull

Alexander Cockburn writes: In the 46 lines it gave to the charges of mass murder of over 350 premature babies, starting on page 57 of its 19 December report, Amnesty International relied on four testimonies, of which only one purported to be an eye-witness account of incubator theft leading to the death of 15 premature babies thus evicted. The most sensational account, that of a Red Crescent doctor on the payroll of Kuwait’s government-inexile, concerned 312 babies, supposedly murdered in the maternity hospital, but the doctor soon reduced the figure to 72, claiming to have buried this number in a graveyard. He did not claim to have been an eye-witness. The second-hand evidence of another volunteer gravedigger accounted for another 36 babies from another hospital ‘buried in one day alone in August’. A final allegation of incubator theft leading to the death of a set of quadruplets was similarly second-hand.

The imprimatur given by Amnesty International to the incubator stories was astonishingly laconic. Its report contained no evaluation or commentary. Mr Bull’s ‘range of sources’ mustered in his third paragraph remains hazy and appears to be different ways of describing the same small number of people. It was not necessary for Mr Bull to defend the full report, as he does in his second paragraph, since I never questioned anything in it beyond the incubator charges. He padlocks himself to his guns on these charges but soon may be calling for a key. Reports from Kuwait in the aftermath of the war are not supportive of Amnesty’s position. In its 1 March edition the Washington Post ran a dispatch from its correspondent William Claiborne, containing the following: ‘At the Kuwaiti Maternity Hospital, part of the al-Sabah medical complex, obstetrician Mohammed Mahfouz said the Iraqis periodically looted equipment that was in short supply in Iraq. But he said the hospital was able to function throughout the occupation. Mahfouz said the Iraqis did not steal any infant incubators as they were alleged to have done early in the war, but added they did take some advanced equipment for sonar scanning and for in vitro fertilisation.’ Similar démentis of the incubator story have appeared in the New York Times and, in the testimony of a Filipino nurse, on the BBC. Rather than stubbornly clinging to a position imprudently adopted, Mr Bull should perhaps be asking why it was that Amnesty International so blithely gave its support to allegations markedly similar to the atrocities laid on Germans by British propagandists during the First World War. I hope to help answer that question for him in these pages in the near future.

Vol. 13 No. 11 · 13 June 1991

In his response to my letter Alexander Cockburn (Letters, 21 March) suggests that Amnesty International has been guilty of ‘stubbornly clinging to a position imprudently adopted’ concerning incubator babies in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation. This is not the case. Such was the scale of Amnesty International’s concerns in Kuwait – and these included the babies story – that it sent a mission to Kuwait at the very earliest opportunity. The mission’s prime concern was the wave of arbitrary arrests, torture and killings that had swept Kuwait since the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. However, given that this was the first opportunity to visit the country since 2 August 1990, it was obvious that the whole pattern of human rights violations during the Iraqi occupation would be further investigated. These investigations found that the pattern and scale of atrocities committed by Iraqi forces had been accurately reflected in our December report. With regard to the incubator babies, however, the mission was faced with conflicting information and concluded, on balance, that the evidence available was such that a correction should be issued.

The mission was shown alleged mass graves of babies (although it was not established how they had died), and it spoke to medical sources in Kuwait, including a Red Crescent doctor, who were still claiming that babies had died as a result of being removed from incubators. Officials at Al-Rigga cemetery maintain that mass graves contain the bodies of about a hundred and twenty babies buried during August and September 1990. They insist that the deaths resulted from removal from incubators, but cite as evidence only vague reports, allegedly from bereaved families.

In the light of this, Amnesty International examined the conflicting evidence and concluded that the story did not stand up. The organisation remains unable to determine how many babies died, or how they died. Credible medical opinion in hospitals discounted the allegations of deaths by removal from incubators and this led Amnesty International to issue an update (19 April 1991) with corrections to the December 1990 report. When the December report was issued, the babies story, although shocking, was consistent with the known violations committed by Iraqi forces over the previous decade in Iraq. Amnesty International included the allegations in its December 1990 report after receiving testimony from a range of medical and other sources in various locations.

The organisation takes great care to check and update the information it publishes, and is always ready to issue corrections if previously published data are shown not to stand up. Mr Cockburn’s comments about groups like Amnesty International releasing reports to generate necessary funding is offensive. Amnesty International would never allow financial interests to influence our impartial advocacy of human rights.

David Bull
Director, British Section, Amnesty International

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