Reply to Eric Herring’s defence of John Pilger on Iraq, 2001

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2001, Iraq, the left
Tags: ,

Martin Shaw

Fallout from an earlier war

A belated reply to Eric Herring’s defence of John Pilger on Iraq

As the West opens its third war of the global era in Afghanistan, the unfinished business of the first war, in the Gulf in 1991, continues. In Iraq, millions suffer the effects of the stalemate between the Saddam Hussein regime and its Western enemies, which resulted from the failure of the West to support the Shi’ite and Kurdish revolts at the end of that war and so topple the regime. Instead, the UN, under US and UK leadership, continues sanctions which contain Saddam at the expense of the immiseration of the Iraqi people.

A major attack on the sanctions policy was made in John Pilger’s documentary ‘Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq’, shown on ITV, the main British commercial channel, in March 2000. I was invited to discuss the film with Pilger on BBC radio, and viewed it with this in mind. I subsequently published a short review on the web. A year later, however, my thousand words provoked a five-thousand word reply by Dr Eric Herring of Bristol University, consultant on the film. This was published on John Pilger’s site. I promised at the time to respond, but other commitments held me back. A reader has taken me to task for the non-appearance of my promised reply: so here it is. Although the issues have moved on somewhat in the 18 months since the film, the substance of the disagreements remains important, and some are germane to the new crisis.

The question of the Iraqi regime

Herring objected first to this criticism: ‘The problem of the film … was that it made a very simple connection between sanctions and suffering. …. What is wrong with making a simple connection? The film almost completely left out the responsibility of the Iraqi regime in this situation, i.e. left out those factors contributing to the suffering that didn’t fit the case Pilger wanted to argue.’

There is no dispute that, as Herring states, Pilger made ‘the policies of Western governments the primary focus’. This was made clear, says Herring: ‘Pilger was challenging the claim of Western governments that what is happening to Iraq is a price worth paying, and he was assessing their claim to hold the moral high ground. Furthermore, if one is concerned about human rights, it makes sense to direct your efforts where there is most chance of success, and then means in Pilger’s case the British government because he has most opportunity to expose its actions to public, democratic scrutiny. In other words, there were principled reasons for the focus.’

To hold power to account is a key task of journalism – as of academic study. I accept that it is appropriate for Western journalists to be particularly critical of their own governments, and also important to make criticism effective. However criticism, if it is to be effective as well as honest and fair, must be based on an adequate understanding of the matter under discussion. Certainly, popular journalism doesn’t give the same relaxed opportunities for rounded analysis as academic work. But this was no 30-second news item: Pilger had a generous 90 minutes to convey his case. It was not too much to expect, as I suggested in my review, ‘ that in a long documentary like this some of the complexity of the politics would be explored.’

Herring claims that ‘The crimes of the regime against its own population are examined extensively in the film.’ Right at the outset of the film, he points out, Pilger referred to ‘the people of Iraq, the silent victims not only of Saddam Hussein, their dictator, but of an endless war against civilians waged by Western governments.’ Pilger also said that ‘The stated aim of the sanctions is to eradicate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction’, thus making, Herring argues, the connection between the two things. But such passing mentions – quickly to move on to the Western crimes that are Pilger’s real point – do not amount to an ‘extensive examination’. Yet these are the kinds of critical comment towards the Saddam dictatorship that are offered by the film’s editorial commentary.

The more substantial references in the film to the crimes of the regime that Herring produces all came, not from the film’s author, but from official spokesmen. Peter Van Walsum, then Chair of the UN Sanctions Committee, referred to ‘letting the regime off the hook with regard to the excessive documented interest of the government of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction.’ Robert Gates ‘gets to talk about personal violence by the ”thug” Saddam Hussein.’  James Rubin ‘gets to say that there was a ”hard choice between the effect of sanctions and the idea of letting Saddam Hussein run rampant”’. All these quotes show is that Pilger allowed official spokesmen some words to indicate why the UN, and the Western governments behind it, had enforced their sanctions policies. And these spokesmen’s comments are discredited by the film, being framed by shots of dying children.

None of these quotes indicate Pilger’s own view on this subject. Indeed Herring states ‘at no point in the film does Pilger take a position on the current or potential future conventional military threat from Iraq.’ This is precisely my point. Pilger doesn’t address what is an absolutely key issue. The prime reason for Western policies against Iraq – although by no means the only reason for legitimate concern about the Saddam Hussein regime – is precisely the putative military danger. It matters to the cases for and against sanctions whether the danger is real. Granted, even if Saddam is a military danger, that would still not justify sanctions if they are in effect a genocidal policy. But it would mean that we needed alternative policies to counter the threat. And that is something that Pilger does not address.

Herring adds to this point that Pilger, in not taking a position, ‘certainly does not dismiss’ Iraq’s military threat. He produces the fact that, in response to Scott Ritter’s comments on the qualitative elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability, Pilger asks ‘What is your solution to those who say that, all right, he may not be a threat now but he could be a threat again?’ ‘Hence’, Herring argues, ‘he directly puts a challenging question on this subject.’ But here Herring is disingenuous: he neglects to mention that he puts this question so that Ritter can dismiss the danger for him.

Responsibility for the suffering of the Iraqi people

We should not lose sight of the film’s main point, the suffering of the Iraqi people. Let me remind the reader of the credit that I gave Pilger’s film in my review. I described it as ‘an important film because it gave some idea of the shocking conditions of many people in Iraq; it also reminded us of the bombing of Iraq in our name, the ”hidden war” as Pilger correctly called it. Most importantly it showed us that sanctions aren’t working, in any conclusive way, to end Saddam Hussein’s power and that there is widespread disquiet among UN officials themselves about their contribution to the poverty and suffering of the Iraqi people.’

I have no desire to take any of that back. However the question is how far the suffering in Iraq is the responsibility of the West, and how far of the regime. I alleged that the film ‘left out the fact that the Iraqi regime uses income that could be spent on food, medicines and people’s welfare for arms, soldiers and the lifestyle of the privileged elite.’ This is ‘demonstrably wrong’, says Herring: Pilger stated that ‘In Baghdad, what foreigners don’t see are well stocked clinics where Saddam Hussein and his rich cronies get first class treatment.’ I am pleased to see this reference (now that I have had a chance to read the script that Dr Herring has sent me) which I missed in my initial viewing – but it is only made in order to add, ‘An indication that sanctions have not hurt them in the slightest.’ And this passing mention – which still leaves out the costs of the military which are a more important factor than elite lifestyles – is no substitute for the proper examination of Saddam Hussein’s responsibility for his citizens’ misery.

As the Iraqi dissident Kanan Mikaya pointed out, ‘Ba’thi Iraq should not be dismissed as a run-of- the-mill dictatorship with equally nasty counterparts all over the Third World. In the course of the 1970s it developed into a totalitarian state, one that bore a greater resemblance to the Soviet Unicn under Stalin in the 1930s and Hitler’s Germany than it did to Jordan or Saudi Arabia.’ (Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World, London: Cape 1993, p. 19) This was a regime that, as Mikaya describes, had sent 100,000 of its civilians to their deaths in the terrible Anfal campaign of 1988. In the midst of this orgy of violence, following the brutal war with Iran in which a similar number of Iraqi soldiers also lost their lives, Iraq was hardly a welfare state.

It is simplistic in the extreme to limit the decline of the Iraqi economy and living standards to the 1990s and to the effects of Western policies. As Sarah Graham-Brown, on whom Herring is happy to rely at several points, has recently put it: ‘By the late 1980s after eight years of war with Iran, the centralised economic structure of Iraq was already in difficulties.’ Professor Abbas Al-Nasrawi, in a keynote address to the National Conference On Iraq, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Oct. 15-17 1999) gives the following bald summary:

  • In 1980 Iraq’s GDP was $54 bn; in 1989 it has plummeted to $27 bn. and by 1998 it has collapsed to $9.5 bn.
  • In 1980 Iraq’s per capita GDP was $4000; in 1989 it declined to $1500 and in 1998 it collapsed to$400.
  • In 1980 Iraq’ per capita GDP was several times that of LDC; now is a fraction of that income.

Commenting on the effects of the Iraq-Iran war, he writes: ‘It has been said that historical analysis of nations at war throughout the centuries suggests that the true economic consequences of a war appear only after the last shot is fired and the country would start the postwar period impoverished. Iraq’s conditions on August 20, 1988 when the cease fire came into effect is a sad case in point.’ Al-Nasrawi highlights ‘some of the landmark effects of that war on the Iraqi economy’:

  1. Iraq’s major oil exporting capacity was destroyed, blocked or closed
  2. Iraq’s heavy industries were destroyed or in need of major repair
  3. The infrastructure was extensively damaged
  4. A major segment of the labor force (one fifth) was in the armed forces
  5. Agriculture and industrial growth were either stagnant or negative
  6. Rural workers had either been drafted into the army or drifted to the city
  7. The large number of foreign workers imported during the war had become a burden on the economy
  8. Dependence on food imports had increased
  9. Hyperinflation had become a structural problem
  10. Privatization was not succeeding according to expectation
  11. Foreign reserves (more than $35 bn.) which had accumulated in the 1970s were exhausted in the 1980s
  12. Arab and foreign capital could not be enticed to flow into the economy
  13. The value of the Iraqi dinar suffered from chronic depreciation
  14. Iraq had become a major debtor country and the service of the debt absorbed a major portion of its oil revenue (everybody lent Iraq)
  15. Levels of imports had declined
  16. Development planning had virtually ceased
  17. The higher living standards which were promised during the war could not be delivered in the postwar period
  18. Human losses.
  19. It is to be noted that Iraq’s military spending during that war amounted to $158 bn. or 40% of the GDP ($382 bn.) or MORE THAN 200% of the OR ($72 bn.).’ [OR = oil revenues]

‘In short,’ Al-Nasrawi concludes, the government’s military, economic, and political policies led the economy to a dead end with no prospect for recovery. Given Iraq’s economic crisis and the regime’s failure to keep its promises that living standards would improve after the war, Kuwait must have looked like an easy target and an expedient solution to the regime’s predicament.’ The Gulf War, with the US-led coalition, was also chosen by Saddam – the alternative of pulling out of Kuwait, once the scale of his initial miscalculation was clear, was there. And that war made a bad situation worse: I agree with Herring that an important factor was ‘the comprehensive destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure in the coalition bombing campaign.’ (‘This is something Shaw does not mention,’ he argues, ‘just as the film does not … .’ But if this was not touched on in my brief review, it is something that I have acknowledged elsewhere: see, for example, my Civil Society and Media in Global Crises, London: Pinter, 1996, p. 21.)

Thus outside the zones of genocidal violence, living standards of other ordinary Iraqis had seriously declined but were not yet disastrously affected at the beginning of the 1990s. There has certainly been a big deterioration in last decade. The question is, how do we explain this. As far as sanctions themselves are concerned, the problem of the Pilger-Herring view is that it sees them as an unmediated policy, when in fact the sanctions regime has been a focus of political conflict between the regime and the West, and of political manipulation by the Iraqi state. As Graham-Brown again points out: ‘[Iraq’s] problems were greatly exacerbated by imposition of economic sanctions in 1990, but the Iraqi government has continued to manage – or mismanage – economic and fiscal policy, deploying increasingly scarce resources to its own advantage and that of favoured groups. The government took some steps to provide a safety net in the form of basic rations, often meagre and of low protein content, but nonetheless preventing mass starvation. It has evidently used this system politically as a means to increase the dependence of the population and as a form of control.’

The Pilger-Herring account takes the two major Western policies that have harmed the Iraqi people (the destruction of the infrastructure and sanctions) out of the larger picture. Not only does it ignore the very serious consequences of the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi government’s manipulation of the sanctions regime. It separates the poverty of Iraqis from their political misery: the terrible effects of the 1988 genocide, the effects of the brutal suppression of the Kurds and Shi’ia in 1991, and the subsequent genocidal campaign against the Marsh Arabs. (As we shall see below, Pilger’s attitude to the Kurds is not inspiring.)

The atrocious character of the Iraqi regime, and its large measure of responsibility for the people’s dire situation, does not make the continuation of sanctions any more desirable. But it does lead to the conclusion that, in moving away from the kinds of sanctions that have applied for the last decade, the concern to contain, if not to remove, the Saddam regime is a highly legitimate one. The critique of sanctions is more convincing, if it recognises the legitimacy of international concerns over the actuality and the potential of the regime for both military aggression and violence against the Iraqi people – and if it raises the need for alternative methods of opposing these dangers.

The politics of Iraq

I have no interest in extending this reply indefinitely and this means that some of Herring’s points have to be left on one side. But one of my big concerns about the film is the very partial way in which it refers to the politics of Iraq, the conflicts between Kurdish and Shi’ite movements and the regime, and the effects of different Western policies on these. I think we can link these questions to deep concerns about the policies of the Western left at that time, including Pilger’s own contribution.

A particularly interesting aspect of both the film and Herring’s defence concerns the rebellions of 1991. I wrote that ‘Pilger gave the impression that the US actually supported Saddam in crushing the Shi’ite rebellion in 1991. However, although it was indeed criminal of the US and the West not to support the rebels, non-intervention was not the same as actually supporting Saddam in crushing those crises.’ I don’t think there is actually much disagreement between us on the detail of what happened, which is certainly to the grave discredit of then President Bush, commander Norman Schwartzkopf and the US-led coalition in general. Herring gives this quote from Graham-Brown which seems to support my assertion: ‘General Schwartzkopf, leading the coalition delegation [which met Iraqi commanders on 3 March], appeared to have little interest in the civil unrest engulfing southern Iraq. In face he explicitly agreed, to the surprise of the Iraqi commanders, that Iraq could fly military helicopters – but not fighters or bombers – in areas where there were no coalition forces. This effectively allowed Iraq to use helicopter gunships, along with artillery and ground forces, to crush the rebellions.’ The US had settled, fatally as it proved for the Iraqi people, for the containment of Saddam, rather than supporting the revolts.

Let me engage in a little juxtaposition of my own. I threw into my review the comment that Pilger didn’t ‘mention that sanctions were actually advocated by the Left as the alternative to war in 1991’. This, Herring says, ‘is true but irrelevant. The Left never envisaged sanctions either as effectively including vital humanitarian supplies or as acting as a multiplier on the devastation by bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure.’ His comment is correct as far as it goes. But it does highlight something rather important. The British and international left’s attitude at that same moment was not far from John Major’s, who when asked about the Kurds replied, ‘I do not recall asking them to mount this particular insurrection.’ (Quoted in my Civil Society and Media, p. 89.)

The left – mainstream social democrats, pacifists and radicals alike – had put all its eggs in the ‘sanctions not war’ basket. It had identified the continuation of the war, through the widening of war aims to include the overthrow of Saddam, as the main danger. It continued to press for an end to the war, even at precisely the point when the insurrections demanded not just the neutrality of the coalition forces but their active support. If Schwartzkopf had not only denied Saddam his helicopters, but had protected the rebels, Saddam’s regime might have fallen apart and the appalling history of the last decade, sanctions and all, could have been avoided. But no section of anti-war opinion in the West raised the demand to support or protect the Iraqi rebellions. No significant voices were raised for the Shi’ites and few for the Kurds, until TV showed them as helpless victims on the mountainsides of Iraq.

John Pilger was a determined member of the anti-war party at the time. With a weekly column in the New Statesman, he poured scorn on the ‘liberal shareholders of Just War plc’., and contributed strongly to the general left opposition to the continuation and broadening of the war (see Civil Society and Media, p. 49). Although the Shi’ite and Kurdish revolts peaked in early and mid-March 1991, and America’s collusion with their suppression was clear as Herring shows at the beginning of March, Pilger did not once refer to the Shi’ite revolt in his columns while it was ongoing. He did not manage to get round to the Kurds, either, until April 5, when they were being crushed by Saddam’s troops. Then he made some purely propaganda points. In a piece headed, ‘Normality is resumed. The massacre of the Kurds is part of the imperial order’, he noted that ‘Although fighting like lions, the Kurds must be under no illusions now’ about US support.

The following week (12 April 1991) he turned the plight of the Kurdish refugees into a point about how the allies had massacred Kurdish and Shia conscripts in the Iraqi army: ‘History provides no evidence that imperial wars have anything to do with “morality”. Rather they are about power and naked self-interest, and are fought accordingly with the utmost ruthlessness. If further evidence is required to demonstrate this, the massacre of the Iraqi minorities during as well as since the Gulf war is a testament. I am not referring here to the actions of Saddam Hussein, whose barbarism towards the Kurds has been graphically and often brilliantly documented lately (notably by Martin Woollacott in the Guardian). What has been overlooked is that the allies have almost been more successful in killing, maiming and terrorising the Kurds and other minorities than Saddam Hussein: a considerable achievement.’

Thus Pilger not only failed to use his column to speak up for the rebels at the time, and to demand Western action to protect them. He used the Kurds after the event to make his point against the West. And when the mainstream TV and press campaign (which I describe in Civil Society and Media, pp. 79-96) helped – together with the Turkish government’s interest in preventing an influx into its territory to which Herring refers – to push the US, UK and France towards the precedent-setting ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Iraqi Kurdistan, Pilger started to see the Kurds – almost as Major had seen them – as an irritating distraction. ‘The focus of the news on the “safe havens” for the Kurds’, he wrote on 21 June 1991, ‘disguised the fact that the American and British governments were, and still are, engaged in an undeclared war – not against Saddam Hussein – but against the people of Iraq … .’ By 27 July 1991, he was complaining that the suffering of the Iraqi people had been ‘for so long obscured by belated western adoption of the Kurds to the exclusion of all other victims of the war’.

As later over Kosovo – where ‘western adoption’ of the Albanians led Pilger to minimize both the death toll and the responsibility of Milosevic in Serbian atrocities – the Kurds became for him almost what he calls (in another context) ‘unworthy victims’. And following him, Herring cavalierly dismisses any continuing protection that the ‘no fly zone’ offers the Kurds in northern Iraq. It is completely true as he states that the no-fly zones do little for people in southern Iraq, and do not prevent all attacks on the autonomous Kurdish zone in the north. Certainly the US-UK aerial surveillance does not add up to a coherent policy for protection of anyone, and it is certainly true that the maintenance of the policy has led to the continuing bombing that Pilger’s film also highlighted.

However it surely cannot be denied that the northern ‘no fly zone’ injects a serious element of uncertainty into any attempt by the Iraqi regime to re-conquer Kurdistan. As long as the Western planes are there, whatever the motives for them, they offer an element of protection. Certainly their removal would clear the way for Saddam to attack. While the no-fly zones are open to many criticisms, the issue that arises is: what to replace them with? Should the West really abandon the Kurds to their fates (Pilger would be sure to make capital from that)? If not, then, how should their position be defended – and indeed improved?

To my knowledge, on only one occasion has Pilger felt moved to offer an alternative of the kind I have called for. When, after two years’ silence, he finally woke up to the plight of the Bosnians, he wrote on 7 May 1993 that ‘ the people of Bosnia have a right to be protected. Armies are not required, the 40,000 troops envisaged by Vance-Owen are unnecessary overkill. The 150 Canadians in Srebrenica and the British batallion in Vitez, by their very presence have already provided “havens” and stopped the kind of atrocities that have happened wherever the “cleansers” have been allowed to go about their murderous ways unobserved. What is needed is a careful strategy that makes more use of these troops, and their reinforcements, as both monitors and defenders.’

Pilger drew a lot of flak from his own supporters for venturing into this kind of political proposal. Certainly he has avoided it in similar situations ever since. But this kind of alternative is precisely what was missing from ‘Paying the Price’, as it has been from almost all his writing and programme-making.

Words and impressions

Herring complains: ‘Shaw objects not to the specifics of what was said in the film, but to impressions he thinks it made.’ At another point he says: ‘there is a claim about an impression as opposed to a challenge to what was actually said in the film.’ We have already seen that Herring takes a highly literal, textual approach to the film. He makes strong claims on the basis of comments that are made in passing, or on the basis that if someone was shown on camera making a particular point, then the film had covered it – even if Pilger himself did not commit himself on the issue, let alone endorse the point made, and the indeed the person making it was implicitly discredited by the context, in which his statements were juxtaposed to other statements and images.

Herring’s is a highly naive way of approaching a text, let alone a mass media product. I will not bother to trawl through the vast literatures of literary criticism, let alone media studies, that have concerned themselves with the ways that messages are framed in the construction of a work and the process of communication. Much of this literature has been produced by radicals seeking to deconstruct dominant ideologies, and I doubt that either Pilger or Herring would object to it in that context. Indeed Pilger has contributed to, and advertises for sale on his site, a volume that is representative of the critical media studies genre (Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, editors, Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, London: Pluto, 2000: a bad book, as it happens, which I have reviewed elsewhere). But this approach can be applied to any work, including critical polemics like the programme in question.

The lesson I draw is that we cannot tell what Pilger is saying to his audience simply by taking each statement in isolation, but only by looking at the programme as a whole, at the relationships between text and visuals, between statements and their contexts, between each moment of the film and the structure of the whole, between the programme and its audience.

This was my approach, even if a short review could only suggest the basis for it. Clearly, my claims about the ‘impressions’ that the film made were precisely because I was approaching it as a viewer. Like the millions of ordinary viewers for whom the film was intended, I did not have access to the text (which after all was not published). Like the audience, I did not remember all the individual statements made in passing – although I had watched the film as a critic, with pen and paper to hand, and so recalled more than the average viewer.

I think that the programme was very much designed to create certain impressions – above all that sanctions were primarily responsible for the ‘killing of the children of Iraq’. The sorts of caveats that Herring has clung to in his defence were actually part of this impression: designed to reassure the more discerning viewer that Pilger shared the general belief that Saddam’s was a bad regime, and that you could buy his account, and oppose sanctions, without condoning the regime. As I have suggested, this unacceptably simplified the real sets of relationships.

Thus I stick very strongly to my argument that, looking at this as a TV programme for a mass audience, evaluating the overall impressions that were made was a central task of criticism. I think that Herring knows what effect he and Pilger were trying to create with this programme, that they (especially Pilger) are sophisticated users of the medium of television, and that they understand very well the kinds of points I have made about how TV programmes are made and consumed. And so I find this aspect of Herring’s defence particularly unconvincing.

Conclusions: 1

I hope I have made it clear why it was right to criticize Pilger, and how it may help the people of Iraq. First, it always discredits any political case when it is made in a partial and distorted way. I am not the only one who has noted the often simplistic accounts that Pilger offers, and how they discredit even his best causes. One of the points in the film on which I didn’t comment, because I wasn’t qualified to do so, was the link between depleted uranium and cancer in southern Iraq. However when Pilger repeated this allegation in the New Statesman, it drew this response from Dr Neville W Goodman of Bristol (29 January 2001):

‘It is always disturbing when writers I usually trust – in this case, John Pilger (“Iraq: the great cover-up”, 22 January 2001) – deal with a topic about which I know something and get it wrong. The immediate worry is whether all their information is similarly flawed. A lot is known about the risks from depleted uranium. It is a highly toxic but only mildly radioactive metal, which damages the kidneys and, in the long term, makes lung and bone cancer more likely. It does not cause the sort of epidemics of all types of cancer that Pilger and other commentators are reporting. I am not convinced that the media worries about cancer in Iraq are justified, but if they are they have nothing to do with depleted uranium. If there really are excess cancers, the question to ask is whether more deadly radioactive materials were used in the Gulf. While commentators continue to be distracted by depleted uranium, that question is being ignored.’

I have italicized the key sentence here. And it is not only inaccurate information, but also false contextualization, one-sided interpretation and simple argument, that makes one question Pilger’s work.


It remains to suggest the contemporary relevance of this exchange. In criticising the new war in Afghanistan, it is essential not just to recognise the horror of the terror attacks in New York, but to argue the need for international action – by non-military means – against those directly and indirectly responsible. In criticising Western actions, it is not enough to settle for a simple negative or to make propaganda out of the vulnerable civilian population of Afghanistan. We need to focus on their real, changing situation and be prepared to put forward demands for action that will protect them.


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