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News ::
02 Mar 2003
RICHMOND, Va. (óMay 7, 1987 started out a pretty typical day of hard work aboard the USS Stark cruising the Persian Gulf. And then my crewmates and I were rudely introduced to two French-made Exocet missiles, courtesy of the Iraqi Air Force. We spent 18 hours dousing blazes that threatened to scuttle the boat.

"Looks like tonight's onboard movie will be 'Singin' in the Flame,'" a crewman deadpanned as he manned a fire-hose.

They told us the attack wasn't an act of war; instead, it seemed we were the victims of an Iraqi pilot's "error." He allegedly mistook the Stark, a U.S Navy fast missile frigate, for an oil tanker bound for Iran, which Iraq had been warring against for nearly eight years. As a former radar operator, I can tell you that mistaking a frigate for a tanker is like mistaking a Volkswagen Bug for a city bus.

Iraq regretted the mix-up. But were they sorry? Not bloody likely.

The Iraqi regime was sticking a curious toe in the tepid waters of American resolve in the Persian Gulf region at the expense of 37 swabbies and a collection of Grateful Dead bootlegs in my melted locker. The captain of the Stark and his officers were spared a Navy commission's recommended charges for failing to protect vessel and crew -- there weren't any repercussions for the Iraqis, either. Three years later, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait and was knocking on the door to Saudi Arabia when the U.S. finally stepped in.

Perhaps the Iraqis figured that if America bought this "mistake" business with the Stark -- its loss of property and crewmen dismissed with a shrug and a smirk -- then maybe we wouldn't mind them trampling a few small Arab states lacking close ties to America. If so, we proved them wrong.

Fifteen years after the Stark incident, Iraq's president-for-life, Saddam Hussein, has jumped into the sea of world resolve. He knows the United Nations and the United States have grown tolerant and softhearted to the possibility of body bags piling up on a sand-swept battlefield.

Think I'm wrong about that? Check your history.

Operation Desert Storm came to a thundering halt in late February 1991 after five weeks of battle when news images of the "Highway of Death" (so-named by U.S. pilots) were broadcast. This was the convoy of Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait after being routed by coalition forces, which was pounded in retreat by allied aircraft in pictures flashed around the planet. For President George H.W. Bush, it was a public relations disaster following the liberation of Kuwait, and he still defends his subsequent decision to stop the war machine.

Other veterans of his administration acknowledge that media images of the bomb-scarred Iraqi retreat drove the decision to let Saddam's army escape, regardless of the truth of the incident. "We had all become increasingly concerned over impressions being created in the press about the 'highway of death' from Kuwait City to Basra [in southern Iraq]," wrote former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in a book co-authored with his old boss, the 41st president.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell urged President Bush's father to cease Operation Desert Storm in 1991 after photos of the 'Highway of Death' sparked Arab outrage.
G&L-James Gordon Meek

But it should have been called the "Highway of People Running to Surrender." Most of the casualties on that road were made of metal -- thousands of Iraqi troops fled at the beginning of the assault and were captured later. Yet the public and political outcries of "massacre" and "atrocity" drowned out the facts. As a result, the president's closest advisers all agreed to end combat operations without disagreement, according to Scowcroft.

For his part, Saddam Hussein lived to oppress another day, eventually kicking UN weapons inspectors out of Iraq. And the critics so outraged by America bombing a retreating army in 1991? They were silent in 1988 when news pictures showed Kurdish civilians -- including parents cradling infants -- murdered by nerve gas in a southern Iraq village razed by Saddam. Neither was there much outrage when he crushed Shi'ite uprisings in northern Iraq following Operation Desert Storm.

Today, the worldwide War on Terrorism is at hand. The 43rd president, George W. Bush, has crushed the Taliban in Afghanistan and now aims to walk in his father's footsteps by airlifting the fight against terrorists to the next logical destination: Baghdad. But many critics of the Bush war plan warn that Saddam Hussein will hit Israel if the U.S. attacks Iraq, just as the despot did with SCUD missiles on January 17, 1991, the night Bush-41 commenced Desert Storm.

Make no mistake, we were forced to wage a war on terrorism because of our support for Israel, whose neighbors want to see her sink like the Titanic into the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the Palestinian Authority, the Republic of Iraq is at the tip of the iceberg -- Saddam rewards $25,000 to Palestinian families to sacrifice their children for suicide-bombing missions.

Given the high cost of America backing the Jewish state, why not rescind our support for Israel? We could save money (they're the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid) by letting them fend for themselves. And who really likes kasha anyway?

But hold up. Picture a world that had allowed Iraq to take Kuwait and then Saudi Arabia a decade ago: Saddam would today possess billions more in Saudi riches and oil reserves. He would be bent on oppression, the acquisition of land, and would have been afforded more opportunities to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) with a penchant for using them.

Many experts suspect his oil profits today go straight to the development of WMDs instead of into the bellies of his subjects. Ever see the popular photo of Saddam with that shotgun he likes to wave around? His people are so starved, I wouldn't be surprised if he starts using them for skeet.

That same danger still exists today, and the world has paused while Saddam makes yet another empty promise to play by UN rules. The last time the world appeased a tyrant this ruthless it was Adolf Hitler: "The Atrocity-from-Austria." When unopposed, those hungry for power gorge. Without meaningful repercussions for Iraq's malfeasance, the UN might as well hold up a big sign that reads, "Bon appetite, Saddam!"

On "Highway 61," Bob Dylan sang, "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.' Abe said, 'Man you must be puttin' me on.'"

Skeet Night in Baghdad? Saddam plays with his favorite weapon.
Iraqi News Agency

Well, He wasn't putting Abraham on -- except the "son" represents the Israelites and the joke's on them. God told Abraham the Israelites were to inherit the land that is roughly where the state of Israel exists now. The "non-chosen" ones -- Syrians, Egyptians, etc. -- were none-too-pleased with that. They viewed the Israelis as a trailer-park enclave in their nice little neighborhood.

This is the root of a centuries-old conflict, and while Israel hasn't been saintly in dealing with it, it is still justified in its defensiveness and occasional aggression when you consider the close proximity of its many enemies.

The U.S. supports Israel because it is a democratic nation. And though imperfect, it is a model government in a region where dictatorships and "family-owned" regimes dominate. If we allow Israel to be destroyed, what credibility will we have in promoting democracy elsewhere? Will any "trailer-park" democracy be safe?

I have witnessed this fanatic's destruction firsthand and it is ugly. I have zipped into body bags men who paid the ultimate price for a nation that stands in opposition to Iraqi oppression.

In 1987, after one particularly long stretch of searching the inner hull of the Stark for the remains of my mates, I walked onto the flight deck and noticed someone put a large poster on the hanger door. There was Uncle Sam with a scowl on his face, shirt sleeves rolled up and fingers balled into fists. The caption read, "Uncle Sam wants to kick some ass!" He wasn't the only one.

But this isn't about revenge for the Stark; this is about justice for all who have suffered because of Saddam Hussein. An Iraq in the control of Saddam is a cancer on the world body. He is a terrorist to his own people and his neighbors. President Bush has vowed to fight all forms of terrorism and is thoroughly justified in calling for the ousting of this man from his perch of power.

A peaceful solution would be a far better course of action. Unfortunately, we're dealing with lying cowards in Iraq who speak out of both sides of their mouths and kill innocents without discretion, yet consider us "infidels" because we believe in "one man, one vote," and love a good mini-skirt. We must, at any cost, protect freedom and not be bullied by a regime that uses civilians as targets to brutally make a point about control.

If there is a price to be paid let's pony-up now before it increases exponentially. The preservation of freethinking and tolerant societies is well worth it.


Dale Curran was a Naval aviator aboard the USS Stark when it was attacked in the Persian Gulf by the Iraqi Air Force 15 years ago, and was later decorated for helping to save the ship by fighting fires and recovering lost mates in the dark hours that followed. To comment on this column, write to
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