Art for Operation Desert Shirt.
The Baffler
Matt Stieb,  January 18

Operation Desert Shirt

Revisiting the civilian souvenirs of the Gulf War, thirty years on

The Baffler
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Considering Americans’ national appetites for putting stuff on T-shirts and using military intervention to secure global hegemony, it’s strange that it took until January 1991 for these two manias to come together. But the meeting, long-delayed, was a triumphant one for the civilian backers of Operation Desert Storm, who had dozens of options to support the recession economy and the troops by buying tees stamped with bald eagles and F-16 Falcons soaring over poorly rendered maps of the Middle East.

The range of quality among these artifacts is wide—one of the weakest efforts features a bad drawing of the Iraqi dictator bolstered by a demand, perhaps misworded, to “Rub Out™ Hussein.” The themes, though, are pretty standard in their irreverence: kicking Saddam’s ass; sticking missiles up Saddam’s ass; sticking missiles up camels’ asses. The captions, printed below drawings of caricatured Arab men and brawny American firepower, line up directly with Edward Said’s condemnation of the Gulf War’s representation, written less than a month after its end. “The most appalling racist caricatures of Arabs and Muslims have conveyed that they are all either terrorists or sheikhs, and that the region is a large arid slum, fit only for profit or war,” he wrote, of a nation and a dictator “to be punished and destroyed” by George H. W. Bush and his “hulking Rambo[s] or . . . whizz-like Delta Force.”

Replace Sly Stallone with Bart Simpson, and that’s the gist of the Desert Storm tees. The run-up to the conflict aligned with the debut season of The Simpsons, and many of the viler acts of war were outsourced to the family’s young iconoclast. “Bart takes a shot at Saddam,” one T-shirt reads; the yellow child soldier pisses in the Baathist’s face as he emerges from an oil barrel half-buried in the desert sand. In others, Bart shoves an M-16 into the dictator’s mouth (again sheltering in an oil drum); strangles Saddam in a keffiyeh, a form of abuse that would make his father proud; and returns to biological warfare, raining urine over an entire nation of “Iraqi dudes.” In some, his rhetoric grows uglier. “Hey man, you’re a towelhead,” he says, now promoted to corporal, his finger on the trigger of an Uzi. As other visions of Bootleg Bart spoke out against apartheid and in support of Earth Day, the young Simpson defending America’s regional interests appeared to cover up war crimes committed during bombing raids: “I didn’t do it, nobody saw it, you can’t prove anything!”

These exercises in imperial folk art paint a pretty good picture of the mainstream cultural attitude during the war.

Bart wasn’t just out on his own; he made a good war buddy, too. As if the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped during the forty-two days of Operation Desert Storm weren’t enough, there he is, standing on the Resolute Desk, lobbying George H.W. Bush to “keep up the strikes.” In another, Bart executes a perfect side kick on another man in a keffiyeh, as the elder Bush doinks their victim in the head with a golf ball. (Like a piñata, the target involuntarily drops cash and jewelry with each strike.) “Let’s play cowboys and Iraqians,” Bush says on a rare solo mission, a Connecticut yankee shooting a magnum on a horse as Saddam, with his Scud missiles and gas mask, hides in the rubble under the desert sun. The mask in Saddam’s hand is likely a reference to the horrid chemical attacks he launched on his own people and in Iran the decade prior—a common justification that he was a worthy target in the months leading up the war. Next to the former CIA director, the mask is also a reminder that the United States sold Iraq material to make chemical weapons in the 1980s, and that the Central Intelligence Agency tipped the regime off about where to use them in the waning days of the war against Iran.

All of these exercises in imperial folk art paint a pretty good picture of the mainstream cultural attitude during the war—confident enough to carry a sense of humor, racist enough to degrade the enemy without apology. But this last one, of Bush exporting the United States’ subjugation of native peoples with the bluster of a strong, silent type, is most telling of the trend. With Manifest Destiny tidily wrapped up at home, here is the president, a former oilman and grandson of a rail magnate, reveling as he brings American dominance to a new petroleum-rich region with little concern for the welfare of its inhabitants.

The stated purpose of Operation Desert Shield (August 7, 1990 to January 16, 1991) and Operation Desert Storm (January 17, 1991 to February 28, 1991) was to defend the Saudi border and remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait following Saddam Hussein’s invasion on the pretext of a drilling dispute. But even at the time, it was clear that the war was about projecting confidence in a world in which Soviet power was on its way out—and absolving the United States of its gun-shy mentality with an easy win after its last major entanglement, which left 58,000 Americans and 3.1 million Vietnamese dead. “By God,” Bush said the day after the war’s end, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” In the same speech, he added that “the specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.” What better way could there be to celebrate this victory than by censoring the real images of the war and making a quick buck on some propaganda screen-printed in the USA?


The Vietnam syndrome was buried, briefly. The shirts have been dug up, along with other ephemera representing the events that have wrecked our current existence: Lehman Brothers caps, Halliburton T-shirts, Oxycontin bucket hats. Thirty years and several invasions later, they now enjoy an afterlife on the racks of vintage stores and the scrolling tiles of Depop, where Zoomers and younger millennials can buy a Scud-busters crewneck from a smoke-free household without having any memory of the war, or a time when smoking indoors was commonplace.

It makes sense visually that Desert Storm and Desert Shield shirts have become novelty items for Americans younger than the war itself, as they fit under the popular, block-colored umbrella of ’90s vintage. In terms of fashion cycles, these items are also more distant, and thus more attractive, than the macho, Punisher-loving, “terrorists-suck” aesthetic that emerged in the military after 9/11 and was quickly adopted by American law enforcement and less reputable members of the conservative coalition.

With their place secured in the dustbin of novelty, the shirts serve as a metonym for what the first Gulf War was always destined to be in America: forgotten. Even as the bombs were bursting during Operation Desert Storm, its historical oblivion was being foretold. In his sprawling winter 1991 essay series “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” Jean Baudrillard argued that, like everything else, the conflict was a simulation, a “place of collapse, a virtual and meticulous operation which leaves the same impression of a nonevent where the military confrontation fell short and where no political power proved itself.” If the television was a “universal mirror,” and military censors clouded the broadcast, could we ever really know what happened by looking at our copy of a copy on CNN? Aside from the oil fields set aflame and the Highway of Death, both part of the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait, very few images from Desert Storm broke through to the public consciousness— let alone pop culture or historical memory—compared to prior invasions of a similar scale.

There’s a neat symmetry in the fact that Desert Storm, a war meant to overwrite the memory of Vietnam, has itself been overwritten by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade later. As a political matter, it was dropped quickly too. Though he boasted a 90 percent approval rating at the end of the conflict, Bush lost the election the next year to a southern governor who would keep up the sanctions on Iraq into the new millennium—and return to the bombing.

Julian Alexander

Despite our forgetting, the effects of the war persisted in very real terms in both nations. Many Desert Storm veterans, likely exposed to chemical agents after detonating Iraqi munitions, suffer from a cruel set of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome, which include fatigue, depression, and a disproportionate level of memory loss. (“I was there, dude, and it sucked,” says Bart the combat vet.) As part of the Defense bill for fiscal year 1990/1991, Bush also signed into law the first program in which excess materiel from the armed forces was doled out to U.S. law enforcement, putting the militarization of the police on a fast-track with gear from the Gulf war. The marine division that led the ground assault during Desert Storm found themselves deployed to Los Angeles a year later, when Bush federalized U.S. troops via the Insurrection Act to quell unrest after the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted. Whether or not it was a sound idea to send combat veterans with last-minute crowd training to control Black neighborhoods at home, the level of force used was telling of what the government thinks of Black neighborhoods. The idea also stuck: Tom Cotton attempted to invoke Bush’s precedent to “send in the troops” during Black Lives Matter protests last year.

For the Iraqi people, the consequences of the invasion were more constant, and more dire. Childhood leukemia and tumors surged in the nation due to the first-ever use of depleted uranium, low-grade nuclear material that the U.S. had infused into bunker-busters to give them more penetrating power. Infrastructure and energy facilities were targeted in a punitive strategy: a United Nations report from March 1991 described the effect of the bombing campaign as “near apocalyptic,” noting that Iraq had returned to the “pre-industrial age”; later that spring, a visiting Harvard University group found that electricity production was at only 23 percent of pre-war levels. A planning officer told the Washington Post in June 1991 that “what we were doing with the attacks on the infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of sanctions.”

With their place secured in the dustbin of novelty, the shirts serve as a metonym for what the first Gulf War was always destined to be in America: forgotten.

Despite the staggering tonnage of the bombs dropped—there’s a reason so many of the shirts featured explosives, if not they destruction they wrought—the sanctions levied after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait would prove to be the war’s most destructive weapon in the long term. While the staggering estimate of over half-a-million dead children in the four years after the war was proven to be falsified by the Hussein regime, it’s undeniable that survival needs were barely being met for poor Iraqis. In 1995, close to a third of children under ten surveyed in Baghdad were stunted in growth; 12 percent were considered emaciated. By 2000, a more accurate estimate of child mortality emerged from Columbia University: 227,000 deaths under five from 1990 to 1998.

We are the worse for forgetting it all. It’s hard to imagine that lawmakers would have so fully accepted the false intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003 if they recalled that Congressional approval for the first Iraq war was secured, in part, by the false testimony of the fifteen-year-old daughter of a Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. And though we neglected to learn our lesson, other nations took note: David Kilcullen, author of The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, has said that low-intensity conflicts emerged in the twenty-first century in part because “the Gulf War showed everybody how not to fight us.”

This year, for many American liberals, will serve as an opportunity to look forward domestically—the beginning of the coronavirus vaccine, the end of Trump (for now). Though less appealing to this cohort, it’s also a chance to reckon with the chaos our foreign policy has wrought: ten years since the technical end of the second Iraq War, twenty years since the beginning of the War in Afghanistan, and thirty years since we first flattened Iraq and put it on a T-shirt. But this gruesome triple-anniversary will be observed by few. To reckon with the violent consequences of the Gulf War would also require reckoning with the gleeful, racist cruelty with which it was undertaken, an attitude that endures on $500 novelty items. Instead, we’ll return to a foreign policy framework that got us here in the first place, with a likely boost coming to the security state at home. Our reflection will be as brief as flipping through clothes on a rack.

Matt Stieb is an associate editor at New York Magazine’s Intelligencer. He tweets at @MatthewStieb.

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