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Greg Grandin: How the Iraq War Began in Panama
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So many years and wars later, it’s easy to forget what a total television hit the first Gulf War of 1991 was. Just in case you no longer remember — and why should you? — that was the war that was to bury America’s defeat in Vietnam forever and signal the arrival of the greatest Great Power the planet had ever known, the soon-to-be-Soviet-Union-less United States. That first partial invasion of Iraq, with its million or more uniformed extras, its vast sets, and its six-month preproduction schedule filled with logistical miracles, was something to behold. All through the winter of 1990, the production had its built-in “coming attractions,” the many variations on “showdown in the Gulf” with Saddam Hussein, the glowering guy with the black mustache who had, until more or less the previous night, been Washington’s man in Baghdad.

Those previews of the war-to-come teased American viewers with a possible January opening in domestic multiplexes nationwide. And when it arrived, the production didn’t disappoint. It had its dazzling Star Wars-style graphics, its own theme music and logos, and its stunningly prime-timed first moments (Disneyesque fireworks over Baghdad). As a show, it was calibrated for controlled thrills, anxiety, and relief from its opening laser-guided, son et lumière spectacular to its final triumphant helicopter descent on the U.S. embassy in Kuwait (which was meant to replay in reverse indelible final images of helicopters fleeing Saigon).

And what a show that war was, a kind of program-length commercial similar to those pioneered by toy companies in the previous decade that had turned TV cartoons into animated toy catalogs. It was as if the whole post-Vietnam era had been building toward nothing but that 43-day-long ad, intent on selling domestic and foreign markets on the renewal of American power as well as on the specific weapons systems that were renewing that power. In this way, the Gulf War of 1991 hawked the leading-edge aspects of the country’s two foremost exports: arms and entertainment.

Almost a quarter of a century later, amid the rubble of a chaotic Greater Middle East, America’s third Iraq war drags on, as Washington officials insist that it has years still to go. Meanwhile, Iraq itself, having experienced two American invasions, a prolonged occupation, and an era of “reconstruction” (which proved to be largely an era of deconstruction), as well as the birth of a jihadist oil-mini-state in its midst, now threatens to split into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish cantonments. Given what’s happened in the 24 years since, who now remembers any of the triumphalist glories of that first conflict in the Gulf? And here’s a guarantee: no matter how few still remember the highlight reels from that moment, even fewer remember the American war that, in a sense, began it all, the one that TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin, author of The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, recalls today: the invasion of Panama.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq War, Panama 
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  1. Ivy says:

    There is another Art-Imitates-Life aspect linking Panama and Iraq.

    See John LeCarre’s book The Tailor of Panama, and relate that story of duplicity, incompetence and fraud for an unnecessary invasion to the subsequent WMD fiasco in Iraq that was driven by another sketchy character nicknamed Curveball.

    Slightly OT: If you want to go full conspiracy theory, then also see Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor and imagine that some Truthers, or Al Qaeda, or fill in the blank baddie reading that and observing how a fully fueled jet could make a nasty weapon.

  2. D. K. says:

    I remember the night! I was in Alaska, waiting to get out, after working on the Exxon Valdez litigation for two and a half months. I had been scheduled to fly out on the 16th, the day after my last day of work; but, Mount Redoubt just had erupted, a few days before, and it took until the 20th for me to get a flight out to Seattle. On the evening of the 19th, my roommate was able to leave, and I was left behind to catch up on my laundry. I and another associate were watching CNN, as the Panama invasion began. As I recall, reporters were on the shore, awaiting the American Marines, when they arrived! Another “splendid little war,” to be sure….

    • Replies: @Chris Mallory
  3. @D. K.

    As I recall, reporters were on the shore, awaiting the American Marines, when they arrived! Another “splendid little war,” to be sure….

    You might have that confused with Somalia. There was a news crew waiting on the beach when the Marines landed for that invasion.

    Panama was more of a baby “Shock and Awe” that started at 1 am.

    • Replies: @D. K.
  4. D. K. says:
    @Chris Mallory

    That is quite possible; it has been a long time since George Bush the Elder began our permanent-war campaign, on behalf of his beloved “New World Order!”

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