1991: Brave New World? | A History of My Lifetime

In September of 1991 two German tourists hiking in the Alps on the Austrian-Italian border made a gruesome discovery. They came across a body, frozen into the ice, and at first they thought it was the remains of another mountaineer who’d met with an accident. He turned out to be anything but and had, in actual fact, been entombed there for almost four thousand years. Later analysis showed that Otzi, as he came to be known, had died a violent death. An arrowhead was found in his shoulder and there was evidence of a blow to the back of his head. He’d been murdered. Clearly, the age he lived in had been violent and brutal and after four thousand years you would think that mankind would have evolved, grown up a little. Looking back at 1991, however, that idea is one that is incredibly difficult to believe.

Recontruction of Otzi, discovered in 1991. (From National Geographic)
Reconstruction of Otzi, discovered in 1991. (From National Geographic)

At the close of the Cold War US president George Bush (sr) and Mikael Gorbachev heralded in a new era, a ‘new world order’ they called it. Both men had very different ideas about what this should be. Gorbachev’s vision was all about peace and coexistence, non-violence and nuclear disarmament. His was a vision of a better, safer, less warlike world, one where co-operation was key. George Bush’s vision was also one of co-operation but peace, non-violence and coexistence hardly came into it. As outlined in a speech to Congress on September 11th of 1990, he saw a world where US strength was vital, where the eagle of America and her allies would swoop in and solve the world’s problems, eventually leading to a world ruled by peace and not aggression. Rather than anything new, however, George Bush’s idea was little more than an affirmation of what US foreign policy had been ever since the Second World War, no more than a fancy term for the policing of the world, and a declaration of American strength.

On the twelfth of January the United States Congress signed off on the conflict that was to become known as the Gulf War. Blessed with the backing of the UN, the US would lead a charge of thirty four nations and would, by hook or by crook, remove the Iraqis from Kuwait. It was declared as the first test of the New World Order and by the end of February it was all over. Kuwait was liberated and Saddam had been given a bloody nose. Job done. Under the surface, however, things were not so simple.

The previous December Saddam had offered to withdraw his troops, certain conditions pending. Those conditions included the removal of foreign troops from the region, an agreement over the Israel-Palestine problem and a promise to dismantle Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (which at this point in time definitely existed) so long as Israel did the same thing with theirs. There was no saying that Saddam would have kept his word of course, but the US refused to listen under any circumstance. There would be no negotiating until Kuwait was set free. On the 14th January, the day before the UN imposed deadline for Saddam to withdraw, the French made a radical proposal- They called for a speedy Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and offered assistance with the many other issues in the region, especially with regards to the situation in Israel-Palestine. Whilst the plan received some backing the big guns like the US and the UK rejected it. Faced with this and little reaction from Iraq surrounding the proposal, the French retreated. Had either of these proposals been met, been talked over, the war perhaps need never have happened at all.

American troops in the Gulf (Picture via historyguy.com)
American troops in the Gulf (Picture via historyguy.com)

There was also an issue in the way the war was justified by the U.S authorities. Whilst the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was most certainly illegal and largely unjustified, the US government were still not entirely honest when it came to their own actions. Just over a year before they had invaded Panama and had been condemned by the UN for it, from the outside a very similar looking move to that made by Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. This incursion was now all but forgotten, brushed under the rug and the case for war with Iraq was hammered home to the American people. Until recently Saddam had thought himself an ally of the US. They had provided him with weapons during the Iran-Iraq war (whilst simultaneously supplying Iran) and he had asked them for help with what he saw as Kuwaiti aggression as well as demands for loan repayments from the aforementioned Iran-Iraq war. Now he was painted as an aggressive monster, a threat to the stability of the Middle East and world peace in general. Saddam was no Aunt Bessie to begin with, let’s be clear, but what the US did now was paint both him and the Iraqi soldiers in the worst light possible.

In one notorious incident, the UN received a list of atrocities supposedly committed by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait. This list included looting, plundering, and hidden in the middle, the claim that all patients were being expelled from hospitals and that they were now for exclusive use of wounded Iraqi soldiers. A month later a Kuwaiti girl named ‘Nayirah’ was testifying to congress that premature babies were being taken from their incubators and left on the floor to die. This, as the aftermath of the war was to reveal, was an outright fabrication. It was not entirely the construction of the US but they played their part in it and high ranking officials knew, at the time, that it was false. Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and the story a carefully honed piece of propaganda designed to horrify the US public into supporting military intervention. Also, Pentagon reports suggested that over 250000 Iraqi troops were massing on the Saudi Arabian border but satellite images revealed the truth. There was nothing there. All of this shows us that although there was a legitimate reason for war with Iraq the US chose not to use it, instead using propaganda and illegitimate claims that later turned out to be fabrications.

George Bush Sr (Library of Congress, public domain, via Wikimedia)
George Bush Sr (Library of Congress, public domain, via Wikimedia)

But why might this be the case? The answer lies with George Bush’s New World Order. The Gulf War was nothing more than an excuse for throwing this idea into reality, forcing it onto the world stage. Bush even said it himself. In an address the previous year he stated that ‘This invasion shall not stand for it threatens the New World Order.’ He was seizing on an opportunity given to him by Saddam’s invasion. It is my reckoning that from the beginning he became determined to use the invasion to prove this New World Order and eventually he decided to do it by means of war. It is possible that even had the UN not backed the Gulf War, as later happened with the 2003 invasion, president Bush would have ploughed ahead regardless.

But regardless of why Bush wanted the Gulf War to happen, it did still achieve its main objectives; namely the liberation of Kuwait and the removal of Iraqi troops. As far as wars go this was quite straightforward and somewhat dull. The problem was not in the war itself however, rather the way in which things were left unresolved. Once the objectives had been achieved the armed forces involved in the war, including most of the US troops, packed up and went home. Saddam was left in power. The same man who had been painted as a monster, a threat to the stability of the Middle East, was left where he was. This fact betrays the earlier lie of the justifications for the war. It was never about whether Saddam was a threat, or what he was doing in Kuwait, it was all about the New World Order and showing that the US was supreme. Had it been about Saddam as a threat they would not have left him in power. Ultimately this was a move that would backfire against the US in a big way. By leaving Saddam in place they left the door open for future conflict and future intervention, intervention that would do the very thing they claimed to be trying to prevent in the first place, namely the destabilization of the Middle East.

The TV tower in Vilnius (from travel2vilnius.com)
The TV tower in Vilnius (from travel2vilnius.com)

The US was not the only one demonstrating its superiority that year, however. The Soviet Union, in an attempt to stave off their upcoming collapse, would flex its muscles in the Baltic. On January 10th Gorbachev demanded the restoration of the constitution of the USSR in the breakaway states. Two days earlier troops, including those of the specialist Alpha group, had been dropped into Lithuania. On January 11th these troops moved in and began to seize important buildings in the capital, Vilnius. Fighting was particularly strong around the Vilnius TV tower which saw the killing of fourteen civilians. By the 14th, however, the Soviet forces went into retreat. Whilst general attacks continued for some time, the Soviet Union was eventually forced to admit defeat in the face of strong resistance and widespread international condemnation.

Around the same time there was fighting in Latvia. Known as ‘The Time of the Barricades,’ much of January again saw fighting between Soviet troops and civilians. At the behest of the government, the civilians constructed barricades to safeguard important buildings. From the 14th the OMON, a Soviet special forces division, moved in on strategic sites, including the Riga branch of Minsk Militia academy, various bridges and the Latvian interior ministry. Interestingly, it was not only Latvians who manned the barricades and assisted the anti-Soviet resistance but people from all over the Soviet Union, including Russians. This goes to show that it was mostly the high level elite attempting to keep everything together. The ordinary people, even those in Russia, were determined to see an end to the days of communism and the eastern bloc.

It was as a consequence of these assaults and the resistance to them that the final fall of the Soviet Union came about. There were protests in Moscow, some 100000 people, and the Russian Government was forced to concede the independence of the Baltic States. This, unsurprisingly, did not go down well with the party hard liners and the elite. In August of that year a coup by those unhappy with the way things were going failed to oust Gorbachev and this, it has been remarked, was one of the final nails in the coffin for the union. Several days after the failed coup Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Communist Party’s central committee and most party activities as well as resigning as chairman. Five days later all CPSU activity was suspended and communism in Eastern Europe was, effectively, dead. After the Baltic incidents more and more states began to secede from the union until, by December, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

Sad Gorbachev, an American cartoon (via Alphahistory.com)
Sad Gorbachev, an American cartoon (via Alphahistory.com)

It should be noted that it was not these attacks that directly caused the fall, though they were to become the final nail in the coffin. The fall had actually been prevaricated long before. Much of what caused it, coupled with the widespread collapse of communism in the rest of Europe, were issues surrounding Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika and Glasnost.  Whilst the intentions had not been thus, these were one of the fundamental factors that pushed the dissolution forwards. First introduced in 1985, they effectively decentralized political control and allowed the various Soviet States greater freedom to determine their own way forward as well easing restrictions on the media and free speech. Gorbachev had considered the policies would bring the Soviet Union closer together, strengthen it and modernize it. This, unfortunately for Gorbachev, took the assumption that all states were loyal to the union and would remain so. As we know this was not the case and as the non-Soviet states of Eastern Europe began to abandon communism and move towards something that was more akin to the western model of democracy and statehood, the members of the Soviet Union, the likes of Lithuania and Latvia were able to follow suit. With Perestroika the dissolution of the Soviet Union became inevitable and no attempts at force, as happened in Vilnius and Riga, could have changed that. Even had these attacks been successful, the collapse would still have happened.

The New World Order promised by Bush and Gorbachev was not being forged in peace and brotherhood but bloodshed and violence. As if the Gulf War and Soviet attacks in the Baltic were not enough evidence to go by, The Yugoslav territories were entering into what would turn out to be a much bloodier and brutal series of conflicts, one that would last for much of the decade. Like with the fall of the Soviet Union it all tied into the whole collapse of communism and the raising of the Iron curtain. Although the Yugoslav republic had resisted Soviet influence, it was still run by a socialist, communist one party system. However, unlike with the other communist states of Eastern Europe the splitting of Yugoslavia left ethnic tensions and divisions, for instance between Christians and Muslims and between Serbs and Croats. Economic problems throughout the seventies and eighties had led to low wages and caused resentment against those who benefited from government policies, in particular the Serbs and specific favoured minorities. Coupled with the rise of nationalism amongst the individual states, all of these tensions looked set to boil over.

Slobodan Milosovich (via notablebiographies.com)
Slobodan Milosovich (via notablebiographies.com)

Tensions broke after Slobodan Milosevic became President of Serbia and began to make moves to recentralize power. Slovenia, followed by the remaining Yugoslav states (excepting Serbia and Macedonia) broke away. Conflict was expected and on the 26th June, the day after independence, troops moved to take control of Slovenia’s borders with Italy. The fighting that followed was brief and after ten days the Yugoslav forces retreated. Not so lucky were the Croats, where the war for independence was to go on until 1995. In Croatia the situation was complicated by the presence of a large number of Serb-Croats who wished to remain a part of a single Serbian nation. Thanks to the nation being more ethnically divided than Slovenia the fighting was more intense and more violent than it was in Slovenia. Even before independence, clashes between Serbs and Croatians were becoming commonplace, in particular those involving arms and explosives. Following independence the Yugoslav People’s army moved in on strategic sites and the fighting quickly escalated. The first major assault was on the city of Vukovar in the east of the country. It became the first European city to be completely flattened since the Second World War. October saw the beginning of the Siege of Dubrovnik which would last for seven months and see heavy bombing on the UNESCO world heritage site of the old town. There were massacres of civilians and prisoners on both sides of the war, though the majority of these atrocities were committed by Serbian paramilitary groups. Seventy people were killed at Lovas and fifty six/seven people at Dalj. Up to one hundred and twenty Serbs were killed at Gospic and sixty seven Croats at Skabrnja. When Vukovar fell in November the hospital was emptied and the patients taken away to be summarily executed. Estimates suggest the number was around two hundred and sixty. In the last few months of 1991 there were no less than thirteen of these massacres.

Make no mistake about it, the war in Croatia was violent and brutal. As the Yugoslav desperately tried to hold itself together the violence would escalate and would eventually spread from Croatia into Bosnia. The Yugoslav wars show us that in 1991 we were not living in any kind of enlightened age. We in the west generally like to assume that all the most violent wars are in the distant past but here, within living memory, was a war that was both barbaric and depraved. And what was it all for? For little more than keeping an old communist state together and for one particular ethnic group, the Serbs, to be able dominate. It was a long way from the whole New World Order idea of both George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. What was going on in Croatia, and later on in Bosnia and later still in Kosovo was actually a very old order, one that goes right back to the dawn of human civilization.

The siege of Dubrovnik (from Croatia.org)
The siege of Dubrovnik (from Croatia.org)

Did the US, with the promise of the New World Order, ride to rescue as they had done with Kuwait? Alas, no. It would not be until later on, when the war spread to Bosnia and America had a new president in the form of William J Clinton that the world police policy would swing into action. The Bush administration had no interest in what was going on in the Yugoslav and so saw no need to intervene. Again, we must go back to the Gulf as this highlights what it was really about. Surely, as he claimed was happening in the middle east, the war in the Yugoslav was also a threat to the New World Order. It was, after all, an old and barbaric form of conflict. Had it been the case that going into the Persian Gulf was about protecting the New World Order then the US would have also intervened in the Yugoslav. Their failure to do so shows us the truth. The Gulf War was about showing off American power and strength, nothing more.

As well as all the wars and fighting, the earth beneath our feet seemed to be behaving violently. The year brought with it the second largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century- Mount Pintubo. Situated in the middle of the Philippines, to the casual observer Pinatubo seemed harmless. It had shown no signs of erupting for at least five hundred years and was covered from toe to top by dense forest. Fortunately Scientists could see the truth. Thanks to signs of an imminent eruption, including earthquakes, the area was quickly evacuated and an untold number of lives were saved. That did not stop the final death toll being above eight hundred, however. Things were complicated by the arrival of Typhoon Yuna and the ash fallout was spread over much of South East Asia, stretching as far as Singapore and Malaysia. Around ten thousand people were left homeless and the fallout caused around ninety two million dollars of damage.

Later in the year, at the end of October the North East coast of America suffered a hurricane that was to be names as ‘the perfect storm.’ As far as hurricanes go this one was relatively minor but as with Pinatubo, prior warnings significantly reduced the death toll. In the end only thirteen people were killed. The largest loss of life was the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that was returning to its home port of Gloucester Harbour. The ship is believed to have sank although no trace of her has ever been found.

Did anything good come out of 1991? I suppose you could say that the final collapse of the Soviet Union and communism was, in the longer term, a good thing, but otherwise there was not much. It was a year where almost every week brought some new violence or tragedy, of which only the largest few I have outlined here. Even nature itself seemed to be against us. George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev had promised a New World Order. Indeed, the year before the world had been teetering on the dawn of something new. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the internet was coming… What we got, however, was nothing new at all. What we got was a world that was violent and nasty. The future, if this year was anything to go by, would be nothing good.

For myself, all this was a nothing. I was too young to register any of it. I remained in blissful ignorance that the world at large was going to hell in a handbasket. That would change soon enough but by then all these events would have run their course and their effects would be being felt.

Sat by Sofa


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