5 Million Iraqis Killed, Maimed, Tortured, Displaced -- Think That Bothers War Boosters Like Christopher Hitchens?
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In 1970 a Lao villager who had survived five years of U.S. bombing wrote: "In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer. And as for the others, do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war? Do they?"
Do we? And if we did know about the innocent men, women and children our leaders kill, would it matter? Does it matter that those who justified the Iraqi invasion in the name of the people of Iraq have largely ignored their unimaginable suffering under U.S. occupation, as more than 5 million civilians have been murdered, maimed, made homeless, unjustly imprisoned and tortured -- and millions more impoverished? Would war supporters serve themselves and their nation if they wrote about both the humanity and suffering of, say, just 10 Iraqi victims -- and sought to convey how each represents at least 500,000 more? Is the suffering our leaders inflict on innocent civilians relevant to deciding whether to support our present war-making in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Would it matter if the N.Y. Times had run daily profiles and photos of Iraqi civilian victims since 2003, as it did of U.S. victims after 9/11?
Such questions are raised by Christopher Hitchens' recently published best-selling memoir, Hitch-22, in which he proudly claims to have helped cause the invasion of Iraq as the most prominent of a group of war hawks ("by which political Washington was eventually persuaded that Iraq should be helped into a post-Saddam era, if necessary by force”), but entirely ignores the human cost that followed. No one spoke more eloquently of the Iraqi people’s suffering before the invasion. Thus his indifference to it since has been striking.
The key issue is not what this reveals about Hitchens' soul but about America's. His memoir epitomizes one of the most chilling phenomena of our time: a growing “nonhumanity” in which our leaders and their supporters claim to wage war on behalf of a foreign people but are largely indifferent to their suffering. (Full disclosure: when Hitchens was writing his book about Henry Kissinger, he interviewed me about Kissinger's mass murder of Laotian rice-farmers.)
Citizens take on no more solemn role than when they convert a personal opinion into the political act of publicly promoting violence by their nation's leaders. Debating health care, gay marriage or Wall Street reform is one thing; promoting policies that wind up killing innocent human beings quite another. Whether they acknowledge it or not, those advocating war assume a moral responsibility for its innocent victims. Or, more plainly, they have their blood upon their hands.
This blood can be easily justified in a hypothetical case of "humanitarian intervention," e.g. imagining that Bill Clinton had successfully used military force to stop the Rwandan genocide. It is also easy to justify war when only hated political leaders or groups are discussed: “Saddam Hussein,” “Ahmadinejad,” “the Taliban” – and the civilian population, always the main victims in war, are treated as nonpeople. But an honest evaluation of war in a case like Iraq requires a far more serious moral calculus.
The Immensity of Iraqi Civilian Suffering
Taking seriously one's responsibility for promoting war in Iraq requires more than simply listing the war's human benefits, such as removing the genuinely evil Saddam, increased power for the long-suppressed Kurds and Shiites, limited movement toward free elections, a parliamentary democracy and free press. Such benefits must be weighed against the suffering of millions of innocent Iraqis, including:
-- Nearly 5 million refugees: “Counting both internal and external refugees, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ( UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million of Iraq’s population of 24 million have been uprooted during the conflict,” the N.Y. Review of Books reported on May 13, 2010. This is the equivalent of 60 million Americans by percentage of population. Five-hundred thousand are homeless squatters within Iraq, whose "settlements all lack basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity and are built in precarious places -- under bridges, alongside railroad tracks and amongst garbage dumps" according to Refugees International in March 2010. The emigration of 2-3 million Iraqis to refugee camps in Syria and other Mideast countries decimated Iraq's educated middle class, with some daughters forced to become prostitutes and sons menial laborers just to keep their families alive.