Letter from David Hilfiker

[ The following letter from Iraq first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute. Dr. David Hilfiker is part of a delegation from the peace group Voices in the Wilderness. He is the author of two books — Healing the Wounds and Not All of Us Are Saints — and of the primer, Urban Injustice, How Ghettos Happen.]

“Dear Friends,


In a few days I’ll leave Baghdad. I wish I could say I were coming home with great insights that would instantly clarify everything for everyone. Instead, I am more confused than ever about US actions against Iraq. If twelve years of sanctions, some 1 1/2 million dead, and threat of more devastation to come were really about weapons of mass destruction, or really about oil or really about power or even really about Israel, I could make some sense of it, argue a moral case against it, and feel I knew where we all stood. And, of course, the moral argument is a powerful. But I must confess I can’t even make sense of it.


Part of my bewilderment, I’m sure, is that I’ve been reading the American press only sporadically over the last three weeks, so I’m not subjected to the rationales, which by their very repetition begin to seem to make sense. Certainly the view from the rest of the world is very different. But I’m sure what causes most of my bewilderment is that I’ve been in the midst of the human cost of this past twelve years, and I struggle to think what it is that might conceivably justify this level of human suffering.


I’ve talked to one woman who lost her daughter three years ago, in what the Pentagon called a “mistake.” She lives in Basrah in the south of Iraq in the “no-fly” zone. American planes regularly bomb the area in response to antiaircraft fire from Iraqi guns. The guns fire because Iraq doesn’t recognize the “no-fly” zone and perceives American planes as intruding upon their air space. It’s a purely symbolic gesture, out of pride I suppose, since our planes fly far too high to be reached by the antiquated guns; Iraq, in fact, hasn’t downed a plane in twelve years. But we bomb 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 the same attack. He has some thirty pieces of shrapnel in his back, and Voices in the Wilderness is trying to get him to the US for restorative surgery. I’ll be bringing back x-rays and some records with me for doctors in the States.


I’ve visited pediatric cancer wards in both south and north, where an incidence of certain cancers (especially leukemia) some three to four times higher than before the war is certainly due to some combination of depleted uranium, vastly increased pollution in the country (for a variety of sanction-related causes), poor nutrition, waterborne contaminants, general ill-health, and lack of effective treatment options … all due to the war and the sanctions. I talked with a very poor, uneducated woman whose six-year-old daughter was dying; she simply could not understand why it was all happening. I don’t either.


We’ve visited a number of water treatment plants that are falling apart across the country because of the effects of the war and the sanctions. Without purified drinking water, the children are dying, an under-five mortality rate 2 1/2 times higher than before the war. How can we possibly explain to ourselves not allowing parts for water treatment, money to pay for installation of new plants, and so on, when the water and sanitation disaster is the primary cause of the increased child mortality that now takes some 13% of all young children?


When asked that kind of question, apologists for US action usually respond that the problem is not the sanctions but Saddam Hussein’s misuse of humanitarian materials that would alleviate the problem if he only allowed their proper use. In 1996, the “Oil-for-Food” Program (OFFP) was initiated, which allowed Iraq to sell certain amounts of its oil. A certain percentage (about a quarter) would be kept to pay reparations to Kuwait and another percentage would pay the UN for its monitoring expenses; the rest could be used to import humanitarian goods: food, medical supplies, medications, water treatment equipment, etc. This was supposed to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and official US policy is that it would alleviate it if Baghdad used the funds properly. Many United Nations studies have shown, however, that Iraq is in fact using the treatment appropriately. In fact, the food distribution program is considered the best that the UN has run.


The problems it seems are several. Most of the goods that can be imported under the OFFP have to go through a UN Security Council committee, which deliberates in secret and where the US (along with the other permanent members of the Security Council) has a veto. Recent research by Joy Gordon (“Cool War” in November 2002 Harper’s Magazine) cracks some of the secrecy to show that the US routinely blocks or puts on hold billions of dollars of goods that no one else (except sometimes Great Britain) objects to, on the basis either that the goods could also be used for military purposes (“dual-use goods”) or that more documentation is needed (and then procrastinating on the evaluation of the documentation). Children’s vaccinations (might be used to extract biological weapons even though European biological weapons experts flatly said it was impossible), water tankers (might be used to carry chemical weapons), truck tires, milk-producing equipment, and so on have all been blocked or put on hold. Doctors here have told me that of five chemotherapeutic agents for treating cancer (that have a finite shelf life and need to be used simultaneously to have the proper effect) three will get through and two will be delayed until the others have expired. People at water-treatment plants told us that they got new equipment to replace their plants … but then found they were missing a crucial part. And so on. If it all sounds too childish to be true, I have trouble believing it, too. Yet the stories have been consistent with UN documentation and journalistic reports in the foreign press.


Another major problem is that, though the OFFP allows for food, medicine, equipment and so on, it doesn’t allow Iraq to use (its own) money to pay people to transport goods, organize them, install equipment, maintain equipment, or even train operators. This utter lack of foreign currency has destabilized the economy. The dinar was just devalued by 20% over the last few days. (One funny, if ultimately macabre, story: Several months ago the US government fined Voices in the Wilderness $20,000 for coming to Iraq. Two weeks ago, we paid the fine … in Iraqi dinar at the pre-1990 exchange rate, which are now worth three dollars.)


The net effect of this is well over a million excess deaths in twelve years. (Precise statistics here are unreliable in part because the Iraqi government doesn’t have the funds to do the technical work and in part because the US has apparently pressured UN agencies like WHO not to do the relevant work.) Now I personally can’t imagine justifying causing suffering of such magnitude (this is over five times more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined) under any circumstances. And I don’t understand how anyone else could contemplate it unless even greater destruction were virtually certain. And I can’t even imagine someone else carrying it through unless the benefits to that person or group were reasonably clear. So it utterly boggles my mind that people could carry it out for no reason that I can discern.


I have a certain friend living in England who chides me for such statements. Surely, he says, reasonable people can disagree. Well, yes. But I no longer even understand. I pride myself on being able to put myself in others’ shoes, but I’ve literally come to the point where I really don’t see any rational reason for our course.


What about these weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that Saddam has? (I realize this is getting a little long, but please stay with me.) Let’s look at that.


1) The United States has incredibly sophisticated monitoring equipment. We have access to thousands of defectors and certainly intelligence agents inside Iraq. For the past eight months we have had every motivation in the world to find those weapons, but we apparently haven’t even been able to give the UN inspectors reasonable clues to where those weapons might be.


2) But let’s suppose Iraq does have some small number of WMD. (Scott Ritter, the former US Marine and former head of the UN inspection team, estimates the team got rid of 95% of what Saddam had and we did not feel strongly enough pre-1990 to be worried about them then.) No one suggests that Iraq is even close to developing a delivery vehicle capable of launching an attack on the US. Furthermore, Saddam knows he would be a dead man if he tried. Can it possibly be worth over a million deaths to prevent that infinitesimal chance of harm to the US?


3) But couldn’t Saddam give them to al Qaeda? First of all, Iraq and al Qaeda are enemies. (Iraq is run by infidels according to al Qaeda.) Second, Saddam knows that US intelligence would find out, and he’d be a dead man again. Even if he could, there are many other states that could do the same thing, and we don’t seem to be invading them


4) And I think that’s the strongest argument. If Iraq has WMD, it is only one of many nations (and probably some smaller groups) that have them. Russia, China, France, Great Britain, smaller ex-Soviet states, Israel, Pakistan, India, Iran, North Korea and certainly others. Unfortunately, the toothpaste is out of the tube. From now on, WMD will be available to almost anyone who wants them. And that being the case, it seems to me obvious that waging war is no longer an option for the control of such weapons. (And if Iran and Israel are going to be allowed to keep theirs, why should Saddam not try to keep his?)


Even if you believe these arguments aren’t as bulletproof as I do, how could anyone honestly believe they are weak enough to warrant more than a million deaths?


Given the length, I guess I’ll have to make the arguments against oil and power at more length elsewhere. Suffice it to say, I don’t think it’s about oil, because the strength of our economic system gives would give us control of the oil, anyway. Perhaps it’s about power, but only a school-yard bully’s kind of power; if that’s really it, we’re in more trouble than I thought. Perhaps it’s about Israel … well perhaps it’s about Israel. I don’t know that situation well enough to make a cogent argument.


I suppose I could have made most of those arguments before I came here, but being here has kept me out of the US media propaganda. (I’m sorry for the derogatory, simplistic term, but I have come to believe that the media’s insistence on repeating the administration’s arguments as if they were cogent amounts, in fact, to propaganda.) More importantly, the human face of Iraq’s suffering will no longer give me peace. I pray that these faces will continue to haunt my dreams until our country stops what it is doing.


My friends, this is the Vietnam of this generation. What we are doing here is an unspeakable evil. I’m sure God will forgive us, but-if we don’t do all that we know how to do to stop this war and end these sanctions, will we be able to forgive ourselves?”

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