Operation Desert ShirtHistorians in the News
tags: Middle East, popular culture, Desert Storm, Gulf War
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!”
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.
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