Boaz Dvir

30 years later: COVID lessons from the Iraqi Scud assault

The US can learn from Israel's handling of a terrifying threat during Operation Desert Storm: Start by appointing a Corona spokesperson a la Nachman Shai
The more than 40 Scuds that Iraq fired at Israel 30 years ago destroyed thousands of buildings. Photo shows heavy damage and rubble from an Iraqi Scud missile hit in Ramat Gan.(Government Press Office)
The more than 40 Scuds that Iraq fired at Israel 30 years ago destroyed thousands of buildings. Photo shows heavy damage and rubble from an Iraqi Scud missile hit in Ramat Gan.(Government Press Office)

In January 1991, when I finished my Israel Defense Forces (IDF) basic training and received my military-service assignment, my family and friends showered me with sarcasm.

“Thank you so much for coming all the way from America to save us,” deadpanned one of my childhood buddies, an Israeli Air Force fighter pilot.

“How did we ever survive without you?” fired another, an IDF Armored Corps major.

At that point, all I could do was smile and half nod, half shrug. My buddies deemed my military journalist role so nonessential, they dubbed me a “chocolate soldier.” It made no difference that my bachelor’s degree and journalistic experience allowed me to hit the ground running as an IDF Spokesperson’s Unit professional first lieutenant. Stationed in the heart of Tel Aviv by IDF Headquarters, where I lunched in the officers’ dining hall (I recommend the chicken schnitzel and mashed potatoes), I had it ostentatiously easy.

Then everything changed.

In the predawn hours of Jan. 17, my grandfather, with whom I stayed at the time, woke me up saying the Spokesman’s Unit sent a vehicle to pick me up. The US-led coalition had just started pushing Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait. Having slept in my uniform in anticipation of such a development, I jumped out of bed, rushed out, and hopped into an IDF Peugeot, which sped away as I closed the door.

After an intense workday that ended at 11 pm, I joined one of my buddies at our favorite bar for a couple of Goldstars (Israeli beer). A usually packed hole in the wall, Zig Zag stood eerily empty. As a mixed tape I’d made for the bartender played De La Soul and Leonard Cohen through unexpectedly hi-fi wall speakers, we placed bets on Operation Desert Storm’s length and reach. I wagered the Americans would complete their mission in a month and “say no go” to invading Iraq; my friend predicted two weeks and “first they’ll take Kuwait, then they’ll take Baghdad.”

A couple of hours later, just after I arrived home and turned on the radio, I heard “nahash tzefa” (viper in Hebrew) blaring through. Knowing what it signified, I woke up my grandparents and led them into the “sealed room,” which we had prepared by covering its windows with plastic sheets and filling its closet with food, water, and supplies such as a first-aid kit. Shutting the door behind us, I taped a loose sheet over it. I helped my grandparents put on their gas masks and strapped on mine.

The whole time, my commander, Brig. Gen. Nachman Shai, guided and informed us through the radio.

The Iraqis, Shai said, fired Scuds at greater Tel Aviv and Haifa. He ordered us to stay in the “safe rooms” until the IDF could determine if any of the Russian-made missiles carried chemical or biological warheads. He spoke in a cool, clear voice. He was authoritative yet warm, informative yet honest about knowledge gaps, factual yet folksy. He urged us to remain calm and breathe steadily.

Shai unsealed the rooms, so to speak, after about an hour, saying none of the eight Scuds that struck Israel packed chemical or biological agents. He encouraged us to drink water. Although this attack caused little damage – destroying several buildings but only slightly injuring seven people – it stressed everyone out, increasing the country’s mortality rate by 58 percent, according to a 1995 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Thirty hours later, Hussein fired a couple more Scuds at Israel. This time, I was on duty, helping to provide the information my commander needed to instruct the nation. The mortality rate, according to the 1995 study, returned to pre-Desert Storm level and stayed there through the war’s final five weeks. I believe several factors contributed to that, including human beings’ natural agility and resiliency, but I have no doubt that Shai’s steady, comforting guidance helped.

By the time the first Iraq War concluded Feb. 28, 1991, Hussein had launched more than 40 Scuds at Israel. They all carried conventional warheads and directly killed two people and indirectly caused four fatal heart attacks and seven asphyxiations. They also injured more than 200 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. The Butcher of Bagdad did this to try to break up America’s 35-country coalition, which included several sworn enemies of the Jewish state. He knew that an IDF retaliation would force out Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others.

But Israel resisted the bait, heeding the US request to remain on the sideline. The IDF officially activated only two units: the one tasked with checking the Scuds for chemical or biological agents, and the spokesperson’s. I went from chocolate soldier to essential officer. In the process, I picked up a few life lessons, some of which, I believe, can help us fight Covid. I propose that America:

Appoint a “Nachman Shai” figure as national Covid spokesperson. We need someone who’s authoritative yet warm, informative yet honest about knowledge gaps, factual yet folksy to provide daily public updates. It should not be a politician or even a doctor but a respected, bipartisan, professional communicator who can synthesize relevant, complex, ever-changing info and guidelines in real time. In fact, why not hire Shai, who spent the past spring semester teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, to serve on the selection committee and consult the chosen spokesperson.

Communicate clear collective goals. For example, when and how will we know that we’ve beaten this virus?

Stop or wind down certain efforts when we accomplish these goals. The Fed, for instance, should give us a clearer roadmap to ending quantitative easing.

Operate off facts. During the first Iraq War, Israelis disagreed on many issues, such as whether to strike back, but they rarely if ever disputed the cold, hard truth. No one labeled the Scud reports “fake news.”

Boost the US military’s role. The IDF has helped Israel, which is on pace to vaccinate 2 million people by the end of this month, inoculate its population at the fastest pace on the planet. Let’s task America’s soldiers with distributing and helping to administer the vaccines, as well as supporting the maxed-out health-care system. The governors of California, Oregon and Arkansas have already activated some of their National Guard troops. Let’s greatly expand this strategy.

Continue switching up best practices based on the latest research. Thirty years ago, upon hearing the “viper” alarm, Israelis should have sprinted to bomb shelters instead of sealed rooms. In the States, we should have been wearing masks since the virus started spreading in early 2020. It’s not too late to make this and future adjustments as we learn more and more about Covid. For instance, everyone should make sure they get enough Vitamin D.

Pick up a new lesson. During Desert Storm, Israelis had to curb their instinct to fight back. They quickly came to realize that sometimes, the best survival strategy is to do nothing. This was a tough adjustment, like trying out a pretzel twist pose. What can America do differently now?

Unite against a common enemy. In the 21st century, we’ve gotten progressively polarized. Let’s use Covid as a unifying factor.

Show journalists the love. We need them now more than ever.

Formulate and implement a multidisciplinary program to deal with Covid’s long-term effects, including its indirect death toll. The virus’ elevation of our overall mortality rate may last decades, according to Duke, Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers. In the next 15 years alone, they foresee the 3 percent spike claiming the lives of 890,000 Americans. What can we do to reverse this tragic trend?

During Desert Storm, I also learned that, if given the opportunity, almost every soldier (i.e., worker) can become essential. Let’s keep this in mind as we enter the next, crucial stage of our Covid response.

About the Author
Boaz Dvir is the author of the critically acclaimed nonfiction book “Saving Israel” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), which follows World War II aviators who risked their lives and freedom in 1947-49 to prevent what they viewed as an imminent second Holocaust. Washington Times book reviewer Joshua Sinai described this nonfiction book as a “fascinating and dramatic account filled with lots of new information about a crucially formative period.” A Penn State associate professor, Dvir is the founding director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Initiative and the Hammel Family Human Rights Initiative at the university. He's an award-winning filmmaker. He tells the stories of ordinary people who, under extraordinary circumstances, transform into trailblazers who change the world around them. They include an average inner-city schoolteacher who emerges as a disruptive innovator and a national model (Class of Her Own); a World War II flight engineer who transforms into the leader of a secret operation to prevent a second Holocaust (A Wing and a Prayer); an uneducated truck driver who becomes a highly effective child-protection activist (Jessie’s Dad); and a French business consultant who sets out to kill former Nazi officer Klaus Barbie and ends up playing a pivotal role in history’s most daring hostage-rescue operation (Cojot).
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