Gulf War: An African-American Perspective

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Elombe Brath

I’D LIKE TO thank Against the Current for this opportunity to share some perspectives of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, as well as a view within the radical section of the African-American community.

Listening to Salah Jaber, I was thinking how closely the sentiment he describes among Arab people was also reflected in the African community, but hasn’t been allowed to be broadly distributed. The concept of class struggle may be abandoned (elsewhere in the world—ed.), but it has sharpened in the African-American community.

At a time when the Bush administration is bragging that it has two personalities of color with the highest position Black people have been able to achieve in the United States—General Colin Powell as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and John Sununu as White House Chief of Staff—the people from whom these two individuals come, the African and Arab peoples, have suffered the greatest in this war, not only in the United States but around the world.

Bitter Symbols

On the date of November 29, when the United Nations took its infamous vote on Security Resolution 678, we were outside protesting its activity. Particularly those of us who remember thirty years ago and the death of Lumumba, when the same tactics were used, were particularly incensed. The fact that November 29 was also the annual Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People and also the birth date of Adam Clayton Powell, we said that was an offense.

Most people focused on the fact that January 15, the deadline day, was Martin Luther King’s birthday, which was an obvious contradiction, but it was also the birthday of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The war started on January 17, the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by the United States with United Nations complicity in lxi. All this is too heavy for us!

Nelson Mandela raised the question that large concentrations of African troops in the U.S. military are being used against people of color, particularly in the Arab world. This particularly needs to be picked up by the antiwar movement.

Most people in the radical element of the African community—and here again I’m struck by what Salah Jaber pointed out—support just wars and oppose unjust ones. We would have a contradiction where we would be calling ourselves “antiwar” and nonetheless supporting Umkhonto we Sizwe (the South African ANC’s armed wing), or SWAPO in Angola, or FAPLA (the Angolan army), or any other force fighting for national liberation. So “antiwar” never had the same connotation as in the white community.

And I must say in all honesty that in the African community the anti-war movement is looked upon as a middle-class white movement whose concern is with nuclear holocaust. In the so-called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) scenario the petty-bourgeois strata have a lot to lose—they didn’t want to be annihilated. But conventional wars since 1945, mostly throughout the world have been in the developing countries, where Black, Brown, Red and Yellow people have been killed every day, and there is never the same kind of concern to stop conventional war. This is particularly disturbing and is part of the reason why the African community always asserts the right to speak in its own voice how it feels about these issues, since we are the victims.

Impact At Home and Abroad

When we look at the composition of the U.S. military we have to be concerned–and also by the social situation where in the last ten years there have been retrenchments, the so-called Reagan counterrevolution. Whenever you have unemployment, the military becomes the institution of employment of last resort among the most deprived. When stipends and educational monies are taken away, many people again look to the military as the provider of educational opportunity.

There’s the fact that most Black recruits go into the army and the marines—those sectors where there is most likely to be ground conflict. The military machine isn’t divorced from U. S. policies.

And there’s the fact that this is the first war in which the United States introduced women onto the battlefield, when (although only 11% of the military is women) 48% of the women stationed in the Gulf are Black, and 60% of those are mothers.

It has been reported that a high number of students are interested in going into the CIA. This whole yellow-ribbon jingoism has put people in a state of mind to see something good about the military.
With the rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union, you see shifts (in U.S. global strategies). Once Israel and Egypt had the peace treaty after Camp David, the Egyptian army was redeployed to intervene in Africa below the Sahara. In 1978-79 this happened when a popular uprising took place in Zaire against Mobutu, where Moroccan and Egyptian troops were moved along with Belgian and French forces to suppress the population.

The slogan “Bring the Troops Home” didn’t take these factors into account. The troops may come home, but not because of what we wanted to happen: Lost in this whole scenario is that over 100,000 Iraqis were killed.

We were suckered in when the Pentagon leaked documents about how many body bags were going over and how many U.S. troops would die. So our whole concern becomes that 10,000 Americans will be killed. When that doesn’t happen, people say, that’s cool; so the next time when we raise concerns, no one worries because as long as there are no casualties on the U.S. side, people tend to be disinterested.

The reason the French withdrew from Vietnam, after Dienbienphu, and from Algeria, was that French mothers were seeing their sons killed. The reason the Portuguese had to withdraw from Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau was for the Portuguese population. The reason South Africa had to go to the negotiating table was that after the battle of Cuito Cuanavale with the Cubans and Angola army they saw too many body bags coming home.

Whatever we say about Saddam Hussein, the same sentiment that Salah Jaber described existed in the African-American community. During the Iran-Iraq war people felt that Iran was confronting the United States. Many people were against Saddam. During the Gulf War, many people looked favorably at Saddam, not because they like him but they see that if the United States can successfully carry this out it can be done elsewhere, against national liberation struggles.

The Iraqi people shouldn’t have to suffer twice because the dictator has put them in a position to get killed. And that includes the soldiers in the Iraqi military, because one of the biggest disgraces was what occurred on the highway north from Kuwait City (the slaughter of the fleeing convoy—ed.).

The vested interests of people in the Bush administration have to be dealt with. Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor who planned this thing is on the board of the Kuwait Petroleum Company and a director of Santa Fe International, which was hired by the emir of Kuwait to carry out the slant drilling in the Rumailah oil field (straddling the Iraq-Kuwait border) that touched off the whole thing.

Finally, on Cohn Powell. What people, particularly in the Black community, must remember is that Powell was also National Security Advisor in the Reagan administration. He was brought along by Frank Carlucci, who was instrumental in running the U.S. mission in the Congo when Patrice Lumumba was murdered. Powell himself described Carlucci as “the godfather of all godfathers.”

A Role Model?

I went to school with Colin Powell, played on the same basketball team, and I can tell you that he’s always been that way, trying to get over, no race pride, in fact very anti-race conscious. He’s not an individual that we would like to see used as a role model for our people.

The reason that he was chosen to head the Joint Chiefs, even though there were fourteen generals ahead of him, I believe is because of his doctrine of mass destruction through the use of the most massive possible force—and because with his origins he could galvanize support from the Black and Caribbean communities in North America.

It’s very interesting what’s happened in many cases where they tried to honor him. City University (of New York) had to cancel giving him an honorary degree because of what happened in Panama. And he was supposed to speak at the Martin Luther King celebration in Atlanta, but had to withdraw.

During the war, the Saudi and Kuwaiti rulers didn’t think they had to thank the United States, because they were hiring the U.S. troops in effect as mercenaries. But just to show you how they’ve learned, the Kuwaitis took out a full-page ad (in the Amsterdam News) thanking Cohn Powell and African-Americans for the troops who served at the front It said that even though Kuwaitis don’t designate their people by race, Africans made a big contribution to the population of Kuwait.

I think this refers to the royal family that has been ruling that piece of territory since around 1756—twenty years before the people of this country rose up against the British monarchy that was ruling here. That’s a bitter lesson for all of us—Black. Latino or white, all working-class people—to remember.

July-August 1991, ATC 33