By Robert Block
Dante would have at been at home in Kuwait in 1991. A desert paradise had been transformed into an environmental inferno by a spiteful Iraqi leader.
Across the land more than six hundred oil wells ignited by Iraqi soldiers spewed out orange and red fireballs and roared like untamed beasts. The smoke was so thick and so black that when the winds failed it became midnight at 10:00 A.M. Grease dripped from the skies and soot fell like snowflakes from hell. Everything whose natural color should have been white was a charcoal gray: cats, sheep, and the carcasses of slender-billed seagulls who dropped from the heavens while overflying the country.
The burning oil fields on the Kuwait skyline is perhaps the most enduring image to survive the Gulf War and is also one of the greatest environmental crimes ever perpetrated.
It was Saddam Hussein’s final defiant gesture. Defeated but unbowed after the Gulf War, his troops placed explosive charges next to every well they could reach in the Ahmadi, Dharif, Umm Quadir, Wafra, Minagish, and Rawdatayn oil fields. If the entire dispute that led to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was over oil, then Saddam’s attitude appeared to be, “If I can’t have it, neither can you.”
During the war, the Pentagon issued exaggerated assessments of the oil fires and the deliberate oil spills the Iraqis unleashed, putting Saddam Hussein’s acts of ecoterrorism in the worst possible light. Nevertheless the horror of the fires and the ecological damage to the Gulf’s fragile flora and fauna from what locals called “Saddam’s memorial cloud” was very real.
At the time, John Walsh, a biologist with the World Society for the Protection of Animals, was particularly concerned about dozens of species of migratory birds from Central Asia which traveled over the Gulf. He would brave the heat and the smoke from the burning wells and collect dead birds. After picking up one dead gull, he surveyed the spectacle and wondered aloud: “Is this what the end of the world looks like?”