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Did Saddam’s Soldiers Throw Babies From Incubators In Kuwait?

With hundreds of thousands of soldiers massing in the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1990, the US was on the brink of an undeclared war against Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. The Bush administration needed not only to provide a principled justification for action, but to demonize Saddam Hussein and those who served him. To that end, Bush focused attention on a compelling narrative-albeit one built on fabrications.
On October 10, 1990, a fifteen -year-old using the assumed name “Nayirah” appeared before the congressional Human Rights Caucus. “I just came out of Kuwait,” she said. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor. It was horrifying. I could not help but think of my nephew, who was born premature and might have died that day as well.” At the end of her testimony, Congressman John Porter said, “We’ve passed eight years in the existence of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. We’ve had scores of hearings about human rights abuses throughout the world …we have never heard, in all this time, in all circumstances,  a record of inhumanity and brutality and sadism as the ones that witnesses have given us today. I don’t know how the people of the civilized countries of this world can fail to do everything within their power to remove this scourge from the face of the earth . . . All the countries of the world . . . must join together and take whatever actions may be necessary to free the people of Kuwait.” The audience for the account included the President, who told Porter that “he had seen it on CNN and that he was shocked at some of the things that he had heard.”  
It is unclear why President Bush should have been shocked, since the day before Nayirah’s testimony, identifying the Emir of Kuwait as the source; he had alluded to babies taken from incubators. In that first telling, however, he added that the stories may not have been authenticated. Specifically, at a press conference October 9, he said “babies in incubators [were] heaved out of the incubators and the incubators themselves sent to Baghdad. Now I don’t know how many of these tales can be authenticated but I do know that when the Emir was here he was speaking form the heart.” “Speaking from the heart” uses perceived sincerity as a test of reliability. This is one unusual instance in which the elder Bush used a technique similar to one employed often by his son, using good intentions—the contents of the Emir’s heart—as a counterweight to potential criticism or factual reflection.
There was at the time another source that confirmed the incubator story. After the young woman testified, her observations were corroborated by Amnesty International, which concluded that 312 infants had died after Iraqi soldiers removed them from their incubators.
After the first reference, in which Bush qualified the story by expressing uncertainty about its authenticity, the incidents moved from an undocumented tale to statements of presumed fact.   Rallying troops en route to Iraq on October 28, Bush said that twenty – two babies had died and “the hospital employees were shot and plundered machines were shipped off to Baghdad.”
The story then became a staple of the Bush drive to mobilize public support for the impending war. In a speech in Mashpee, Massachusetts on November 1, Bush said of Saddam Hussein and his forces, “They’ve tried to silence Kuwait dissent and courage with firing squads, much as Hitler did when he involved Poland. They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism. In one hospital, they pulled twenty-two premature babies from their incubators, sent the machines back to Baghdad, and all those little ones died.” Speaking to the allied forces near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Bush said on November 22, “It turns your stomach when you listen to the tales of those that have escaped the brutality of Saddam, the invader. Mass hangings! Babies pulled from their incubators and scattered like firewood across the floor.”
The story served two purposes: legitimizing the analogy between Hitler and Hussein, and rebutting the charge that the conflict was actually about retaining U.S. access to Middle East oil. The analogy to Hitler set justification for the war not on the pragmatic claim that the United States needed access to the region’s oil but for the moral claim that Saddam’s acts were an affront to humanity. So, for example, on October 28 at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Bush said, “I read the other night about how Hitler, unchallenged—the U.S. locked in its isolation in those days, the late thirties—marched into Poland. Behind him . . . come the Death’s Head regiments of the SS. Their role was to go in and disassemble the country. Just as it happened in the past, the other day in Kuwait, two young kinds were passing out leaflets in opposition. They were taken, their families made to watch, and they were shot to death—a fifteen-and sixteen-year-old. Other people on dialysis machines taken off the machines and the machines shipped to Baghdad. Kids in incubators thrown out so that the machinery, the incubators themselves, could be shipped to Baghdad.” On October 15, Bush closed his litany of atrocities by saying “Hitler revisited.” It was only when Bush attempted to argue that Hussein was not simply the German dictator’s equal but worse than Hitler that the analogy was criticized.
The use of the story of the babies to dismiss the pragmatic claim and justify the moral one—making the war about Human rights, not oil—was clear on October 23 when Bush told a fund-raiser in Burlington, Vermont, “They had kids in incubators, and they were thrown out of the incubators  so that Kuwait could be systematically dismantled. So, it isn’t oil that we’re concerned about, it is aggression. And this aggression is not going to stand.” Speaking to the troops at Pearl Harbor on October 28, Bush said, “What we are looking at is good and evil, right and wrong. And day after day, shocking new horrors reveal the true nature of terror in Kuwait.” In his list of horrors was the story of the incubators.
On Larry king live on October 16, Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States, Sheik Saud Nasir Al-Sabah, cited the young woman’s testimony and the Amnesty International report as proof of atrocities in Kuwait. Eyewitnesses, he said, “came out and described all the brutalities of the Iraqis against my people . . . and they are also being corroborated by Amnesty International.” Unnoted during any of this was the fact uncovered by Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur long after the war was over: “Nayirah” was the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter and a member of the royal family of Kuwait. After its own investigation concluded that no babies had been removed from incubators, Amnesty International retracted its report.
On March 15, 1991, not long after the fighting had ended, ABC reporter John Martin revealed that the incubator story was a fiction when he interviewed employees at the hospital where the incident allegedly took place. In a 60 Minutes expose in January 1992, Morley Safer talked with Andrew Whitley, executive director of Middle East watch, who reported that a colleague went to the Adon Hospital after the liberation of Kuwait “and interviewed the doctors, and he was able to speak to the people who said they had been on duty at that time, and that this incident didn’t happen.” Asked by Safer to explain, a representative of Hill and Knowlton, the powerhouse Washington lobbying and public relations firm that choreographed the campaign, said, “I’m sure there will always be two sides to a story. I believe Nayirah. I have no reason not to believe her. The veracity of her story was indelibly marked on my mind when I saw her and when I talked to her.” In this telling, truth is relative and the perceived authenticity of the speaker is the test of veracity. But there either were or were not Iraqi soldiers in the hospital in Kuwait. If there were, they either did or did not remove babies from incubators and put them on the floor; they either did or did not kill hospital personnel; they either did or did not then ship the empty incubators to Baghdad; the babies either did or did not die. President Bush either did or did not have a warranted reason for outrage.
While the Gulf War may have been justified on any number of grounds, the incubator story was offered repeatedly by the war’s proponents as primary evidence of the moral righteousness of the cause. In the Senate, where a resolution supporting the use of force was passed by five votes, the incubator story was cited six times during debate on the resolution. The incident was mentioned in floor debate about the war a total of twenty-two times.
In the president’s rhetoric the synoptic statement justifying the war—“This aggression is not going to stand”—was built in part on a deception about babies and incubators. More important for our purpose here, the narrative was used to rebut the charge that the purpose of going to war was securing access to oil, as opponents of the war alleged (“No blood for oil” was the chant heard at protests of the war).  Bush used the dramatic, heartrending story to reframe the conflict as a moral one in which no compromise was possible and the United State’s actions, in the past or present, would not be subject to debate given the evil of the enemy.
The Nayirah tale is instructive for other reasons that speak to our need for public wariness and press vigilance when public discourse veers into emotional anecdote. MacArthur’s book and Safer’s expose both appeared in 1992, nearly a year after the war was over; the ABC News story was the first attempt to disprove the incubators story, but it appeared after the war ended as well. The incubator story raises a number of important questions: First, was the president deceived? What efforts were made to verify the facts used to justify consequential action? Did the president believe the account because he heard it form the Emir, saw Nayiarah’s testimony on CNN, and read Amnesty International’s seeming corroboration? Was the analogy comparing Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler—which was made from the day Iraq invaded Kuwait—given more legitimacy by the incubators story? These questions are important because 200,000 troops were already on the ground when the incubator story emerged.   
Why did it take so long for reporters to check the facts? Of course, journalists would have had trouble getting into Kuwait to talk with the medical personnel in the hospital. Nonetheless, why was there no skepticism about a story from a young woman speaking under an assumed name? Why no tests of her credibility? Didn’t any reporter in Washington know enough about the family of the ambassador to recognize his daughter? Why didn’t any reporter ask for a copy of her passport to verify that she was in Kuwait at the reported time? John MacArthur reported that Congressman Tom Lantos, the co-chair of the Human Rights Caucus, knew before the hearing that “Nayirah” was in fact the ambassador’s daughter. Although Congressman Porter denies knowing, the Kuwaiti ambassador himself claimed that both Congressmen were aware of her identity. Why did no reporters ask Lantos or Porter if they had any information that would substantiate her claim?
Why didn’t someone test the claim of Amnesty International by asking U.S. doctors who had visited Kuwait how many incubators a single hospital would be expected to have in use at a given time? Does Kuwait have an unusually large number of premature births? Why didn’t reporters spot the contradictions in Bush’s accounts? For example, in a speech in Des Moines on October 16, Bush said, “In a hospital Iraqi soldiers unplugged the oxygen to incubators supporting twenty-two premature babies. They all died. And then they shot the hospital employees.” Did the soldiers unplug the oxygen or throw the babies to the ground?  The story changed in various tellings. As C. Wright Mills observed in The Sociological Imagination, “The problem of empirical verification is ‘how to get down to the facts’ . . . The problem is first what to verify and second how to verify it.”19
The reporter who uncovered Nayirah’s identity did so while writing a book about propaganda and the Gulf war. John R. MacArthur told 60 Minutes, “I set out to find out, like any reporter does. And I started asking questions. And I finally heard a rumor that Nayirah was a daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, so I used an old reporter’s trick. I called up the embassy, and I said, ‘Nayirah did a terrific job at the Human Rights Caucus, and I think her father must be very proud of her. And doesn’t she deserve her place in history? And the ambassador secretly said to me, “you are not supposed to know that. No one’s supposed to know she’s the ambassador’s daughter.”
The conditions of war made the press both more willing to accept the incubators story and less able to determine whether it was true. But in other cases, assertions that would have been quite simple to investigate have been accepted at face value because they cohered to form a powerful, coherent narrative.
*Taken from the “Press Effect” by Kathleen Hall and Paul Waldman

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