Skip to content

32 years ago, the US committed a major war crime in Iraq, which led anti-war activist to take action in Grand Rapids

February 28, 2023

On February 27th, 1991, the US military committed war crimes against Iraqis in what is famously known as the Highway of Death.

The highway I am speaking of was Highway 8, which went from Kuwait to Iraq. At the very end of the US military assault on Iraq in what the US military referred to as Operation Desert Storm, Iraqi troops were retreating on Highway 8. 

Baghdad radio had just announced Iraq’s acceptance of a cease-fire proposal and, in compliance with UN Resolution 660, retreating Iraqi troops were ordered to withdraw to positions held before August 2, 1990. Then US President George H. W. Bush, was not happy about this announcement, so after consulting with military personnel, he gave the green light to what was to happen next. 

As Iraqi soldiers were beginning to retreat on Highway 8, US fighter pilots began to carpet bomb the caravan of vehicles that were on the road in retreat. In a post-Operation Desert Storm report on US War Crimes, the Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac, reported, “U.S. planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. “It was like shooting fish in a barrel,” said one U.S. pilot. 

Chediac went on to write:

Every vehicle was strafed or bombed, every windshield is shattered, every tank is burned, every truck is riddled with shell fragments. No survivors are known or likely. The cabs of trucks were bombed so much that they were pushed into the ground, and it’s impossible to see if they contain drivers or not. Windshields were melted away, and huge tanks were reduced to shrapnel.”

Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who was also involved in the US War Crimes documentation, made it clear that Iraqi soldiers were not the only ones killed in the US bombing of Highway 8 that day. Clark wrote, “Many of those massacred fleeing Kuwait were not Iraqi soldiers at all, but Palestinians, Sudanese, Egyptians, and other foreign workers.” 

The murder of civilians is always a War Crime, according to the Geneva Convention, but so are the murder of combatants, if they are not actively engaged in fighting. 

“Persons taking no active part in hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.” (Common Article 3 to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions of 1949)

The photo I included above, with the Iraqi soldier burnt alive in his vehicle, was an image that was widely shared after the Highway of Death incident. My friend and comrade in the resistance to Operation Desert Storm, Karen Henry, put that picture on foam board and took it whenever she spoke about the US War in the Gulf or US policy in the Middle East.

Another war crime that received attention later, was the revelation that the US military was putting snow plows on the front of Abrams M1 tanks and burying Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert. The independent media had reported on this earlier, but here is a link from a New York Times article later that year. It was this crime that got the attention of several anti-war activists in Grand Rapids.

In late June of 1991, the Grand Rapids Press announced that George H.W. Bush would be coming to town to celebrate the 4th of July. It was also reported that the same kind of tanks that were used to bury Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert just months earlier, would also be in a parade that Grand Rapids would be having for President Bush.

Three Grand Rapids anti-war activists decided that they would protest not only Bush’s visit, but the tanks that were used to violate international law, which would be in the parade. You can see from a GR Press photo below, that the three activists tried to lay down in front of the tanks, but were quickly stopped by Secret Service and local cops. 

The three activists decided to challenge their arrest by using International Law as a defense. The group went to trial in November 1991 and defended themselves. The day before the trial the court change the judge, who would no longer allow them to use International Law as a defense, despite the fact that they had submitted a 40-page brief. 

Judge Christensen would not allow them to use an International Law argument, so the three activists just tried to get the jury to hear their side of the story. The three activists were charged with blocking a roadway. However, the jury did not find the three activists guilty, since the cops dragged them out of the way so fast that the parade never missed a beat. 

The Grand Rapids City Attorney was so upset, since he was beaten by three young activists who defended themselves. Unfortunately, there was no other resistance to the Gulf War or its aftermath, like the ongoing US bombing of Iraq in the No Fly Zones that took place during the entire 8 years of the Clinton Administration, right through the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, until another war/invasion of Iraq took place in March of 2003.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: