Baghdad,Hiroshima: The Human Costs Of War

“They come from above, from the air, and will kill us and destroy us. I can explain to you that we fear this every day and every night.” Sheima (5 years old) (1)

Strategist at the National Defense University, Harlan Ullman is seen on CBS TV touting “Shock and Awe,” a strategy in which 300 to 400 cruise missiles per day, more than the number used in the entire 40 day bombing campaign of the first Gulf War, will explode in Baghdad for the first two days of the U.S. war on Iraq. “We want them to quit. We want them not to fight,” says Ullman. This will have the desired “simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes.” (2)

In contrast, Clinton’s Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright had only affirmed to her interviewer, who had compared the number of Iraqi children dead to the numbers of Hiroshima dead, “We think the price is worth it.” One of us (SY) is from Hiroshima. We had thought that the human race might have moved beyond citing “Hiroshima” in a positive light. Apparently we were wrong.

The U.S. Strategic Command has drawn up plans to utilize nuclear weapons in Iraq – to penetrate deep bunkers that cannot be reached by conventional weapons and to “pre-emptively” destroy chemical or biological weapons. (3) This is a stunning departure from years of established U.S. nuclear doctrine which had espoused deterrence as the prime role of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Indeed the 1995 Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review “sought to demonstrate American leadership by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security.” (4)

The turning point of Michael Ondaatje’s novel the English Patient occurs when the Sikh sapper Kip learns about Hiroshima. He had thrown himself into the Allied effort, defusing bombs for the British. But Hiroshima forces him to recognize that little yellow people do not fall within the human fold for the Trumans and Churchills of this world. For them, the coloreds don’t bleed when they’re cut; they don’t grieve when their children die. As W.S. Merwin asks in his poem Ogres (5),

. . . and then I think
of the frauds in office
at this instant
devising their massacres
in my name
what part of me
could they have come from
were they made
of my loathing itself
and dredged from
the bitter depths
of my shame

Which brings us to the question, how many people would die in a U.S.-led war on Iraq? Should such a question even be asked? Though they draw ever nearer, these events still lie in the future. They have not occurred. They need not occur.

In light of the lurch toward war, the realist, however, must contemplate such questions. Perhaps it will spur us to stop the war. Aid organizations and the UN itself do not want planning for aid during and after the assault to be construed as facilitating the assault itself. Indeed, preparing for such aid would appear to be moral equivalent to telling a child abuser, “Make sure you take your child to the hospital after you’re done with your beating.”

We should first remind ourselves of what happened in the Gulf War, when 56,000 Iraqi soldiers died, in contrast to the 79 American deaths. This hardly qualifies as a war, of course. American soldiers who took part call it a slaughter. “They were like children fleeing before us, unorganized, scared, wishing it all would end. We continued to pour it on.” (6)

Approximately 205,500 Iraqis died as a consequence of the Gulf War and the post-war chaos. Of these 35,000 deaths were secondary to civil conflicts, and 111,000 were secondary to indirect effects of the war such as the destruction of the infrastructure. (7)

It is perhaps ingenuous to say that war has not started, for the first Gulf War never ended. U.S. forces have bombed continually in the “no fly zones,” and the comprehensive economic sanctions have proved to be a rather lethal instrument of war, though its victims have been women, children, and elderly, the poor and the sick. During the 12 year period of UN sanctions, 370,000 to 530,000 excess deaths have occurred in children under the age of 5. Some of these deaths can be attributed to the Gulf War and drought, but most have occurred because of the lack of sustenance and the lack of purchasing power among families – consequent to the economic sanctions. (8)

So again, what would be the human costs of another war? A number of organizations have tried to examine this question. All these estimates should be considered to be highly speculative. The number of casualties would depend on the nature of the military assault on Iraq. We summarize some of these findings.

MedAct, the UK affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, suggests that 49,000 to 260,000 deaths could occur. In the event of civil war or nuclear attacks, the figure could rise to 380,000 to 3.9 million (extrapolating from a study of a hypothetical nuclear attack on Bombay). (9)

In a confidential UN Office of the Iraq Programme/UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq document dated December 10, 2002, it is estimated that as many as 500,000 people could need treatment for direct or indirect injuries, that 3 million people (2 million malnourished children and 1 million pregnant and lactating women) could require therapeutic feeding. (10)

In another confidential document dated January 7, 2003, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warns, “In the event of a crisis, 30 percent of children under 5 would be at risk of death from malnutrition.” This works out to well over a million children. (11)

The UN planners, as well as public health expert Richard Garfield (12), the International Study Team (1), and the Center for Economic and Social Rights (13) note that the Iraqi people are more vulnerable than they were prior to the 1991 Gulf War. See also first-hand reports by physicians David Hilfiker (14) and Charlie Clements (15), who contributed to the IST report. Over 60% of the population is dependent on the Oil for Food Program, run by the Government of Iraq. These supplies will be cut during military conflict.

The UK Ministry of Defence has affirmed that the electrical grid could be a military target. (16) Water pumping stations, sewage plants, and health facilities dependent on the power grid will not be able to continue functioning. Ullman states in his January 2003 interview on U.S. strategy in Iraq “You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power, water.” (2) As in the Gulf War of 1991, such attacks would be in direct contravention of Article 54-2 of the Geneva Conventions which stipulate that: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as… drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works…” (17)

The media reaction? As Chomsky notes, when those with money and power talk to each other, they tell it like it is. The organs dedicated to ideological mystification perform their function as well. Thus, the Economist report emphasizes that things could go badly. (18) The New York Times, meanwhile, reports on the administration position that the war plans are dedicated to reducing civilian casualties. (19) These ostensible “leaks” of Pentagon plans are a carefully controlled drip-feed of propaganda.

Although he is a fictional character, Kip feels the pain of the victims of Hiroshima in a very real sense. It makes him ill. It makes him realize that he cannot pursue his love with Hana.

Is it possible to say, “I am in pain,” and feel the pain in another’s body? (20, 21) From a pragmatic point of view, how could we not? If humans could not feel pain in another’s body, the suffering of fellow humans would not affect us – with logical implications for the survival of the species. Furthermore, “I am in pain,” is a demand that something be done to relieve the pain.

Around the world, people feel the pain of the people of Iraq and see the enormous suffering that war will bring. This has forced remarkable and historical numbers of people around the world into the streets to call for peace. In asking, “what part of me could they have come from?” Merwin reminds us that even those who wage war are also human, leaving open the possibility that they might also feel pain.

Aesar (10 years old) wished to send a message to American President George W. Bush, saying: “A lot of Iraqi children will die. You will see it on TV and then you will regret.” (1)

——————————————————————————– (1) International Study Team. Our common responsibility: the impact of a new war on Iraqi children. Toronto, Canada: IST, 2003.

(2) CBS News. Iraq faces massive missile barrage. 24 Jan 2003.

(3) Arkin WM. The nuclear option in Iraq. Los Angeles Times. 26 Jan 2003.

(4) U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review 1995

(5) Not in Our Name. Poems not fit for the White House.

(6) Hersh SM. Overwhelming Force. The New Yorker, 22 May 2000;49-82.

(7) Daponte BO. A Case Study in Estimating Casualties from War and Its Aftermath: The 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that 100,000 Iraqi combatants, give or take 50,000, were killed. (8) Garfield and Yamada, unpublished manuscript.

(9) Salvage J. Collateral damage. 12 Nov 2002.

(10) Likely humanitarian scenarios.

(11) Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq. Internal UN documents on the humanitarian impact of war on Iraq.

(12) Garfield R. Potential humanitarian impact of war with Iraq. 22 Feb 2003.

(13) Center for Economic and Social Rights.

(14) Hilfiker D. Biological warfare. 23 Dec 2002.

(15) Clements C. Report from Iraq. 13 Feb 2003.

(16) Dillon J. Iraqi water and sanitation systems could be military target, says Ministry of Defense. Independent.

(17) Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol 1)

(18) Economist. If things go badly… 6 Feb 2003, p. 26.

(19) Dao J. U.S. plan: spare Iraq’s civilians. 23 Feb 2003.

(20) Wittgenstein L. The blue and brown books. London: Basil Blackwell, 1958.

(21) Das V. Language and body: transactions in the construction of pain. In Kleinman A, Das V, Lock M. Social Suffering. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997, pp. 69-70.

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