A New Generation's Vietnam

I have just returned home from a three-week trip to Iraq organized by the peace group Voices in the Wilderness. I toured the country's cities, suburbs and rural areas, meeting everyone from housewives to teachers to government officials. I feel now as I felt a generation ago during the Vietnam War: We are destroying an innocent people in the name of geopolitical "realities" that, ultimately, make no sense.

President Bush says that the danger to the United States of "weapons of mass destruction" justifies the devastation caused by a 12-year American-led campaign of bombing and sanctions. The idea would be laughable if it were not taken so seriously by so many in America. Iraq was a third-rate military power before the first Gulf War and the sanctions. The former U.S. Marine heading the previous U.N. inspection teams says 90 to 95 percent of Saddam Hussein's remaining weapons of mass destruction were found and destroyed. Almost no one thinks Iraq possesses nuclear weapons or the capability to get a missile anywhere near the United States. Aside from Great Britain and Israel, virtually no other country perceives Iraq to be a danger worth the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

I spoke to one woman who lost her daughter three years ago in what the Pentagon called "a mistake." She lives in a suburb of Basra in the south in the so-called "no-fly" zone, a band of Iraqi airspace forbidden to Iraqi military flights and patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes. The stated purpose of the U.N.-instituted zone was to protect potentially disloyal tribes from Iraqi government attack. But 12 years later, American and British planes continue to bomb the area regularly in response to anti-aircraft fire from Iraqi guns.

The guns fire because Iraq doesn't recognize the zone and perceives the planes as intruding into their air space. It's a purely symbolic gesture, out of pride I suppose, since the planes fly too high to be reached by the antiquated guns. Iraq hasn't downed a single manned plane in 12 years. But the United States bombs in response anyway, and civilians are killed with some regularity.

This woman's young son, who was with her when we talked, lost half of his left hand in one such attack. He has some 30 pieces of shrapnel in his back. Voices in the Wilderness is trying to get him to the United States for restorative surgery. I'll be bringing back X-rays and some records for doctors back home.

I've visited pediatric cancer wards in both Basra and in the northern city of Mosul where the incidence of certain cancers (especially leukemia) is three to four times higher than before the Gulf War. The exact cause of the rise has not been scientifically determined, in part because baseline demographic statistics no longer exist in Iraq, and also because no one has done the sophisticated studies. One likely cause is the radioactive depleted uranium dust from American munitions used during the Gulf War. Increased pollution (due in part to the sanction-induced lack of scrubbing equipment in oil refineries and cars), poor nutrition, waterborne contaminants and general ill health surely play a role.

In a Basra pediatric hospital, I talked to a very poor, uneducated woman in her mid-30s from a remote village. Dressed in a black abeya that covered everything but her face and hands, this woman sat cross-legged on her 6-year-old daughter's bed, watching her child die of leukemia. The pediatrician explained to me that of five chemo-therapeutic agents for treating cancer -- all of which have a finite shelf life and must be used simultaneously for proper effect -- only three will likely get through. The other two will be delayed until the others have expired.

We visited a number of water treatment plants. Some were damaged in direct bombing attacks during the Gulf War. Many others, however, are just falling apart with age because sanctions deny the requisite spare parts or the manufacture of new ones. Without purified drinking water, the mortality rate of children under five years of age is now two and a half times higher than before the war. Thirteen percent of Iraqi children now die before age 5, usually due to contaminated water.

In 1996 the Oil for Food Program (OFFP) was initiated, which allowed Iraq to sell a certain amount of its oil. About a quarter of the earnings go to pay reparations to Kuwait, and another percentage pays U.N. monitoring expenses. The rest is to be used to import food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. Washington claims that if Baghdad used the funds properly, the humanitarian crisis would be alleviated. But many U.N. studies have shown that Iraq uses most of the funds appropriately. The Iraqi food distribution program, for instance, is considered the best the United Nations has monitored.

The problem is that most of the goods that can be imported under the OFFP have to go through a U.N. Security Council committee, which deliberates in secret and where the United States (along with the other permanent members of the Security Council) has a veto. A November 2002 Harper's Magazine investigation by Joy Gordon reported that the United States routinely blocks or puts on hold billions of dollars of goods on the basis that they could be used for military purposes (dual-use).

Children's vaccinations, for example, were initially blocked on grounds that they might be used to develop biological weapons. European biological weapons experts flatly deny this is possible, and the decision was immediately reversed once the Washington Post reported it. Gordon writes that even water tankers are blocked because they might be used to carry chemical weapons. Truck tires, milk-producing equipment, you name it -- all have been blocked or put on hold because of the possibility of dual use.

It all sounds too petty to be true, yet the stories are consistent with U.N. documentation and reports in the foreign press.

Another problem is that although the OFFP allows Iraq to exchange oil for food, medicine and equipment, it doesn't allow Iraq to receive cash from the sales, so there is no money to pay people to transport goods, install and maintain equipment or even train operators. Since Iraq can't sell oil for cash, it also has no source of foreign currency, which has destablized the economy. Before the Gulf War, the Iraqi dinar was worth three dollars; the rate is now 2,000 dinar to the dollar.

The net effect of the first Gulf War and the ongoing sanctions -- a devastated economy, contaminated water, malnutrition and cancer deaths -- is well over 1 million deaths in 12 years, many times more than the deaths caused by the U.S. atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Unlike Vietnam a generation ago, we don't see the news clips of children dying, or the haunting image a young, naked girl fleeing a napalm-bombed village. But Iraq is still this generation's Vietnam: a senseless slaughter justified by irrational rationales.

I had a private conversation with a retired Iraqi surgeon in Baghdad, doctor to doctor. Growing up, he attended American schools in Baghdad. He furthered his education at American University in Beirut, and spent three years of surgical residency training in the United States. An intelligent, politically sophisticated man, he was gracious but direct. "The United States has always been a beacon. Your democracy is a model for us and the rest of the world. But your actions here are turning the whole world against you. You have destroyed our economy and robbed our children of hope. There can be no justification for this. You must tell Americans that we are human beings, too."

David Hilfiker's (davidhilfiker@hotmail.com) most recent book is "Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen" (Seven Stories Press, 2002). Engelhardt, a former editor at PNS, is author of "The End of Victory Culture" (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1998).


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