Children Terrified

As the US occupation of Iraq continues, cynical attempts at spinning American troops’ presence in and rule over a foreign land have become commonplace. I have seen no item more exemplary of this unfortunate posturing than a recent New York Times piece by correspondent Steven Lee Myers (“Anxious and Weary of War, G.I.’s Face New Iraq Mission,” NYT, June 14, 2003).

“.even the children terrified Sergeant Betancourt, who appears barely older than a child himself,” writes Myers in an attempt to garner sympathy for US troops. In this story about the toll taken on the morale and psyches of one brigade’s soldiers as a result of patrolling Baghdad streets and enforcing military rule, Myers makes every effort to portray American forces as the saddest victims in the current situation. While he notes in passing several disturbing facts about the plight of Iraqis, it is somehow the trials and tribulations faced by American troops on which he focuses. As if Iraqis are devoid of the ability to feel fear or pain, the scale of suffering is disturbingly weighted throughout.

Early in the piece, Myers opines, “Some [US troops] are haunted by the deaths they caused – and suffered – and have sought counseling.” Why are only “some” soldiers haunted by what Myers elsewhere describes as fierce combat in which civilian casualties were regular? Why are we nowhere prompted to wonder how much worse the psychological trauma of war and occupation has been for everyday Iraqis? Neither are we led to question how readily available counseling has been made for those who underwent nightly bombing raids, the ground invasion of their city, and now life in a homeland occupied by foreign powers.

The story contains numerous off-hand mentions of American brutality, suggesting that such activity has been so high, it cannot be hidden even in a story with an extremely subjective bias intended to lead readers to feel sorry for “our boys” in Baghdad. The brigade Myers is covering in his story reports its troops have killed more than 100 Iraqis who “appeared to pose a threat to American forces.” Given that our hero Sgt. Betancourt is “terrified” of children – even though no attacks by children on US troops have been reported – one can’t help wondering just what “appeared” means when assessing the threat posed by people in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere.

While civilian suffering is ignored, we’re treated to detailed accounts of US casualties at the hands of clever Iraqi militants. Presumably it would have taken too long to relate stories about the scores of Iraqis shot to death by their occupiers for the simple crime of “appearing” to be threats and “terrifying” the occupiers. The only mention of a specific Iraqi death in the entire article is at the end of a paragraph recounting a June 1st firefight in Baghdad where two US servicemen were injured; the last sentence reads simply: “An Iraqi civilian died.” In fact, according to the Associated Press and other news sources, two Iraqi civilians died in that incident, both killed by US gunfire.

Under the section heading “Charity,” Myers quite blatantly attempts to paint the occupying forces as benevolent providers. He takes this as far as pointing out Army engineers had collected “tons of debris” (wherever that came from) along with “thousands of weapons and untold rounds of ammunition, stockpiling them for what will someday be the new Iraqi Army.” According to human rights groups, American charity not mentioned in Myers’ article includes tons of unexploded ordinance – cluster bombs and sundry and other munitions dropped on Iraqi cities during weeks of bombing. The vast majority of this volatile garbage has yet to be cleaned up, or even clearly marked off by occupation forces. The carnage caused by such ubiquitous gifts evidently doesn’t qualify for the Times’ list of terror-inducing characteristics of Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, the tons of carcinogenic depleted uranium donated by the US Navy and Air Force, now littering the Iraqi landscape, are not listed either.

Speaking of benevolent Army engineers, we’re told at length about a Captain James Lockridge. This generous officer looks around a hospital corridor containing, by Myers’ observation, “men with gunshot wounds, children with broken limbs, women with newborns,” and manages to conclude: “There could be a suicide bomber” among them. In a hallway packed to the brim with Iraqi agony, we’re asked to identify with the paranoid ravings of a shell-shocked American soldier. Although we’re evidently supposed to share Captain Lockridge’s mortal terror at the sight of so many helpless Iraqis, it’s hard not to pity him instead for his lack of humanity.

Absent from the section on “Charity” is any mention of what typically falls under the definition of that word. There’s no talk of food, water or medicine being provided by the occupation forces, let alone any critique of the Army’s failure to adequately provide such necessities, not a secret outside the US media. Where problems such as raw sewage flowing in the streets are mentioned, it is presented as modestly alarming, but not connected to the massive bombing campaign that rocked Baghdad two months ago.

Troops quoted in the article readily admit that they are warriors, not peacekeepers or aid workers; if only the Pentagon would be so candid about its institutionalized inability to fill those roles.

Myers’ report could be explained as attempting to draw from the cynical traditions of war correspondence popularized during the Vietnam War, where clever journalists highlighted ironies and absurdities through the eyes and words of American soldiers caught in a quagmire of insanity. Granted, the situation on the ground in Iraq seems hardly less insane than the setting of the US invasion of Indochina. But Myers stops well short of noting any systemic nature to the inadequacies and contradictions in post-war Baghdad. Rather, he whitewashes US atrocities and engages in bend-over-backwards apologetics on behalf of American troops. Additionally, he fails to elaborate on the numerous concerns and criticisms soldiers in his story raise about American leaders and their policy toward Iraq, while nevertheless managing to use such comments to rouse the audiences’ sympathies.

The whole picture of Baghdad life is quite different from that portrayed in Myers’ attempt at inducing even more sympathy than that already afforded US personnel operating in Iraq. As it turns out, a conservative assessment of casualties resulting from the April invasion of Baghdad alone puts the number of civilian deaths at nearly two thousand, absolutely dwarfing those sustained by invaders (www.iraqbodycount.org). Today, US storm troopers continue to raid “pockets of resistance,” always dutifully noted as “loyal to Saddam Hussein” rather than the untidy but perhaps more accurate “opposed to Western occupation.” And regular patrols of Iraqi streets consistently result in “accidental” shootings of Iraqis going about legitimate business or peacefully protesting.

But if you believe the Times, children and others in Iraq aren’t terrified – at most they’re “frustrated” or “disgruntled.” Instead, by their mere existence, children and other civilians are the ones doing the terrifying.

Brian Dominick is a freelance journalist based in Syracuse, NY, USA. He has covered US foreign policy and social movements for 10 years, currently specializing in Middle East media/policy analysis and frequently contributing to ZNet (www.zmag.org).

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