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In the Other's Shoes

Can You Imagine the Long War for Iraqis?

by BERT SACKS

"Can you imagine …"

With these words, Israeli author Amos Oz offers the beginning of an answer to his query, "How to Cure a Fanatic" (the title of his newest book).

"I can’t help thinking," he writes, "that with a slight twist of my genes, or of my parents’ circumstances, I could be him or her, I could be a Jewish West Bank settler, I could be an ultra-orthodox extremist, I could be an oriental Jew from a Third World country; I could be anyone. I could be one of my enemies."

"Imagining the other is a moral imperative."

Maybe it’s the hardest work we can do.

With the recent power outages around Seattle, we’ve been given a chance to do just that. In a very small way we might begin to imagine being an Iraqi over the past 16 years.

During my nine trips to Iraq, there were always electrical outages. On my first trip in 1996 we slept in a hotel with no electricity and
kerosene lamps.

L. Paul Bremer said Iraq’s electricity problems were caused by 30 years of neglect. This might make us feel good, but it is not the truth. In 1990 Iraq had a modern electrical grid.

The Washington Post told us about Iraq after the Gulf War:

"The worst civilian suffering, senior [American] officers say, has resulted not from bombs that went astray but from precision-guided weapons that hit exactly where they were aimed — at electrical plants …. Now nearly four months after the war’s end, Iraq’s electrical generation has reached only 20 to 25 percent of its prewar capacity of 9,000 to 9,500 megawatts. Pentagon analysts calculate that the country has roughly the generating capacity it had in 1920 — before reliance on refrigeration and sewage treatment became widespread."

Can you imagine you are an Iraqi? One family told me they had no electricity for six months in 1991. Years later they still suffered
power brownouts for hours every day.

I experienced this one summer in Basra in 2000, where the temperature was around 120 degrees. We sat around the living room floor in a poor family’s home. At six o’clock it was their turn to get electricity, and the ceiling fan began to turn. One of the Iraqis looked up and said, sarcastically, "Thank you, George Bush!"

Of course their refrigerator was of no use under those conditions.

Why did we attack Iraq’s electricity? The architect of the air war, USAF Colonel John Warden, said it gave us "long-term leverage"! He also said, "we hold direct attacks on civilians to be morally reprehensible." So, he said, we should attack civilians indirectly.

USAF Colonel Kenneth Rizer explained the indirect attacks: "destruction of these [electrical] facilities shut down water purification and sewage treatment plants. As a result, epidemics of gastroenteritis, cholera, and typhoid broke out, leading to perhaps as many as 100,000 civilian deaths." He concluded this was a smart and legal strategy because it "targeted civilian morale" ­ but did so "indirectly."

According to reports in New England Journal of Medicine and UNICEF, Colonel Rizer’s estimate of civilian deaths is ten times too low. But his reasons for the deaths are correct: no electricity means no way to process water or sewage; no way to refrigerate medicine and food; no way to power hospitals or incubators; no way even to communicate needs.

Colonel Warden wrote, "We are struck by the fact that the physical side of the enemy is, in theory, perfectly knowable and predictable. Conversely, the morale side — the human side — is beyond the realm of the predictable in a particular situation because humans are so different from each other."

But are we really?! How would anyone in any country feel to be denied electricity for years as a tool of coercion? If we can’t imagine
ourselves as Iraqis, what will happen?

Almost 40 years ago in his Riverside Church address, Dr. King said, "Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat."

Although we still do not realize it, we laid the groundwork for our defeat in Iraq by bombing Iraq’s electrical plants and re-imposing sanctions in 1991. It was a failure to practice Amos Oz’ advice: to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the other, of the Iraqis.

BERT SACKS, who lives in Seattle, has been fined $10,000 by the U.S. government after going to Iraq to distribute medicine; Sacks has refused to pay any fines. More of his writings are at: http://bertoniraq.blogspot.com.