As preparations for the invasion of Iraq continue, the talk is all about morality, strategy, evidence, and costs. We are told that we are going to have a just war, to liberate the people of Iraq, to bring democracy and freedom to the repressed people of that nation. We watch military ‘experts’ on TV share their immense knowledge of weapons and warfare, and we marvel at the advanced technology of the armed forces.
What is curiously absent from all the discussion is any visceral sense of what the attack will be like in real terms, from the point of view of the people who will actually be there. Instead, the language is soothing, referring to surgical strikes and collateral damage. Take for example, this January 26th report (by Andrew West of the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia):
“The US intends to shatter Iraq “physically, emotionally and psychologically” by raining down on its people as many as 800 cruise missiles in two days.
The Pentagon battle plan aims not only to crush Iraqi troops, but also wipe out power and water supplies in the capital, Baghdad.
It is based on a strategy known as “Shock and Awe”, conceived at the National Defense University in Washington, in which between 300 and 400 cruise missiles would fall on Iraq each day for two consecutive days. It would be more than twice the number of missiles launched during the entire 40 days of the 1991 Gulf War. “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad,” a Pentagon official told America’s CBS News after a briefing on the plan. “The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.” ”
Later reports suggest that the number of missiles could be as much as 3,000. This is part of the attempt to win support for the war by assuring us that that the war will be ‘quick’ and ‘surgical’, with minimal American casualties. Most of us are fortunate to have never lived in the midst of a war or to have been at the receiving end of bombing attacks so we have no real sense of what such an attack will actually look like.
But let us reflect for a moment. Baghdad is a densely populated city of four million people, more than half of whom are children under the age of 14. What would such an attack look like through their eyes? We can get some idea because there are journalists who have witnessed similar events and have shared their first-hand accounts.
John Pilger is an Australian war correspondent who has witnessed violent battles from as far back as Vietnam. Here is his description (in the British newspaper The Daily Mirror on January 29th, 2003)of what he has seen and what we can expect.
“Waves of B52 bombers will be used in the attack on Iraq. In Vietnam, where more than a million people were killed in the American invasion of the 1960s, I once watched three ladders of bombs curve in the sky, falling from B52s flying in formation, unseen above the clouds.
They dropped about 70 tons of explosives that day in what was known as the “long box” pattern, the military term for carpet bombing. Everything inside a “box” was presumed destroyed.
When I reached a village within the “box”, the street had been replaced by a crater.
I slipped on the severed shank of a buffalo and fell hard into a ditch filled with pieces of limbs and the intact bodies of children thrown into the air by the blast.
The children’s skin had folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead. A small leg had been so contorted by the blast that the foot seemed to be growing from a shoulder.”
This was too much for even such a hardened reporter, because he adds: “I vomited.”
Is this what we envision and condone for the children of Baghdad because of operation “Shock and Awe” or its variants currently being planned?
Or take the account of British journalist Robert Fisk who reports for the London newspaper The Independent. Fisk, who has also seen the horror of war in many places, describes what he saw during the first Gulf war in 1991.
“On the road to Basra, ITV was filming wild dogs as they tore at the corpses of the Iraqi dead. Every few seconds a ravenous beast would rip off a decaying arm and make off with it over the desert in front of us, dead fingers trailing through the sand, the remains of the burned military sleeve flapping in the wind.”
But we are not shown this, we are not told this. Because if people saw for themselves the kinds of things that reporters on the scene see (in Fisk’s words “the filth and obscenity of corpses”) no one would ever again agree to support a war unless a far, far higher humanitarian standard was met than the vague justifications currently in circulation.
Despite all the antiseptic language about surgical strikes and collateral damage, this is what war looks like up close. This is what will be done in our names. However quick the actual fighting might be, the ghastly effects of the devastation will remain for at least a lifetime. I don’t know how to end this better than to quote Fisk again: “No one says sorry after war. No one acknowledges the truth of it. No one shows you what we see. Which is how our leaders and our betters persuade us–still–to go to war.”
MANO SINGHAM is a physicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org