Mass Destruction by Any Other Name


UN Oil-For-Food program—the humanitarian aid program established
in 1995 in response to international outrage at the suffering and
death in Iraq resulting from economic sanctions—has been dragged
into the Congressional coliseum before a packed house, as an investigation
proceeds into charges of systemic corruption. 

is the moral outrage expressed in Congress, as well as the concerted
action being taken. “We’re trying to sort out this hornet’s
nest of corruption, of evil,” said Senator Norm Coleman (R-
MN), who heads one of six Con- gressional investigations. Along
with a chorus of others, Coleman called for Kofi Annan’s resignation
for presiding over the “greatest fraud and theft” in UN
history. At a recent news conference, Rep- resentative Scott Garrett
(R-NJ) took it one step further, saying the question isn’t
whether Annan should keep his job, but “whether he should be
in jail.” Senator John Ensign (R-NV) prepared a resolution
urging the UN to strip Annan of his pension. 

a step back from the spectacle, one might wonder: where was Congressional
outrage 14 years ago in March 1991 when a mission led by UN Undersecretary
General Martti Ahtisaari reported its findings from immediate post-war
investigations in Iraq, concluding “…nothing that we had
seen or read had quite prepared us for the particular form of devastation
which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought
near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what
had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized
society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed
or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated
to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of post-industrial
dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology” (

were the ripe and ready Congressional investigations when an 87-member
interdisciplinary team of specialists (, which carried
out a fact-finding mission in Iraq’s 30 largest cities as well
as in rural areas across the country, reported in October 1991 that
child mortality in Iraq had increased 380 percent since the onset
of sanctions, rising from 27.8 to 104 deaths/1,000 live births (a
figure that would reach 131 deaths by the end of the decade)? 

cannot claim ignorance. On February 26, 1991, Susan Epstein, a specialist
working for the Congressional Research Service, briefed Congress,
reporting, “U.S. Government sources currently are estimating
that by March 1991 the daily Iraqi caloric intake could be less
than half of what it was prior to the embargo” (
That fact alone should have stopped hearts and yet it was another
five years before the Oil-For-Food Program finally got up to speed
in Iraq. In her briefing, Epstein explained certain pertinent facts
quite clearly: “Prior to the embargo, about 75 percent of the
total calories consumed in Iraq were imported.” This included
“90 percent of its corn, about 82 percent of its wheat, 82
percent of its rice, 68 percent of its beef…” 

further explained, “Current food stocks are thought to be at
record lows…. Additionally, allied bombing of refineries, fuel
reserves, roads, and bridges (and, loss of electricity that supported
flour mills and perishable food storage facilities) will seriously
hamper food availability and distribution…. The May-June wheat
and barley harvest in Iraq will be difficult with both a shortage
of manpower [sic] due to the draft and a lack of fuel to power the
farm machinery. Even if a plentiful crop is harvested, getting the
food into a useable form and getting it to the population (traditionally
by truck) will be seriously impaired.”

as the embargo dragged on for months into years, alarms should have
gone off in Congressional minds. After all, Iraq was the 12th largest
foreign market for U.S. agricultural exports in 1989, a fact that
couldn’t have completely escaped Congress’s awareness
since virtually all of these sales were under U.S. government programs.
How was Iraq to make up even the U.S. portion of its imports (amounting
to 32 percent and 26 percent respectively in 1988 and 1989) while
the embargo persisted? 

was the outrage, where was the concerted response when UNICEF concluded
in a 1999 report, “If the substantial reduction in the under-five
mortality rate during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s,
there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under
five in the country as a whole during the eight-year period 1991
to 1998.” Even if the response in Congress had been disbelief,
given the seriousness of the claims it might at least have investigated
the matter. What if the correct number were “only” 200,000?
What would that have meant? Apparently, this was too difficult or
too painful a question to ask. Time wore on, the sanctions weighed
down mightily, and Congress remained largely mute on the question
of Iraqi suffering. 

the most recent siege of Fallujah, one of the first actions by the
U.S. military was to occupy the city’s main hospital. It justified
this by claiming that it needed to control the accuracy of reports
about civilian casualties. The hospital, it noted, had been a center
for these reports in the first siege of Fallujah in April. The U.S.,
however, has made no effort to report civilian casualties in the
aftermath of the siege, any more than it reported Iraqi casualties
in the first Gulf War. Clearly, whether it is children dying from
preventable diseases as a result of a cruel economic embargo or
people killed in the siege of a city, civilian casualties do not
count; for all practical purposes—the purposes of war and economic
aggression—they don’t even exist.


David Smith-Ferri
is a member of Voices in the Wilderness (, a campaign
to nonviolently resist U.S. militarism at home and abroad.