Compassion, Courage and Consequences

By any measure of meteorological activity, the last two years have been a season of foul weather for US soldiers and their families. One storm after another, and long-term forecasts for more of the same. Sent into Afghanistan and Iraq in the emotional wake of 9/11, commissioned to liberate people from tyranny and to protect Americans from terrorist attacks, they find themselves instead fighting a never-ending guerilla war, the moral handholds of which are as difficult to locate and as unreliable as a trail in a sandstorm. Innocent civilians, including children, are inevitably dying at their hands. The majority of Iraqis, the people they came to liberate, want them to leave. A majority of Americans believe the invasion was a mistake, and yet here they are fighting in its aftermath, forced into extended deployments, and risking their lives and their sanity. They fight for a Commander-in-Chief who fails to attend their funerals, and for an Administration that bans the photographing of their body bags. They are haunted by a ghastly prisoner abuse scandal, the ghosts of which continue to howl, and by the complete collapse of the Administration’s house-of-cards rationale for war. They work for an organization where a high-ranking official can talk about the joy of killing without being censored or reprimanded. In increasing numbers, they return home physically injured and/or psychologically traumatized. And all around them in Iraq, they are faced with irrefutable evidence of the futility of their mission: the unflagging resistance/insurgency and the unbreakable chains of Iraqi enslavement to poverty, unemployment, ill health, and insecurity, an enslavement which utterly discredits any claims of “liberation.” Who can blame them if their time in Iraq becomes little more than an intense game of survival?

Against this backdrop, enter US Army Lt. Isaac Shields, Army Reserve Captain Dr. Alex Garza, and retired Army Colonel Dr. David Gifford, soldiers extraordinaire. Shields and Garza have seen, first-hand, how outdated Iraq’s medical libraries are. Independent of each other, they hatched the obvious idea of soliciting donations of medical journals to help update Iraqi resources. Enlisting the help of doctors, university professors, and medical students, they sparked an effort that has gathered over 100,000 items from donors around the globe. Thamer Al Hilfi, an Iraqi doctor and professor at the University of Tikrit College of Medicine, which has received some of these donations, was recently quoted in the Washington Times. This is a really big change. Everyone here–doctors and students–feel like they are born again..

Shields and Garza deserve accolades for their compassion, courage, and resourcefulness, as do others in the US who have been instrumental in securing and shipping donations. Hour for hour and dollar for dollar, their efforts have done more to nurture justice, self-sufficiency, and freedom in Iraq than the billions that have been (and continue to be) spent on a degrading war. Their actions cut through to the heart of Iraqi need. But as much as their actions bring them credit, they bring shame to this Administration, which has always been far more interested in geopolitical gain than in actually meeting the obvious and ongoing needs of people in Iraq.

The media might like to make this a simple story of American goodwill and generosity, but it is nonetheless wrapped in irony, thick and layered. I wonder if Isaac Shields or Alex Garza knows why the Iraqi medical libraries are so antiquated. In a visit to Iraq in 2002, I met a doctor at a Basra hospital who talked about his facility’s most current medical journals. They dated from the late-1980’s, nearly fifteen years out of date. The reason is simple: the international economic embargo, established on August 6, 1990, prohibited the importation into Iraq of scientific journals and textbooks. In the intervening years, in every academic discipline, libraries across Iraq fell miserably behind the times. How many of the people working diligently to secure donations of medical textbooks for shipment to Iraq know that Iraq had the best system of a health care in the Middle East prior to sanctions? Many Iraqi doctors had trained in the West. At that time, Iraqi health care boasted a system of primary and tertiary care units not unlike what we find today in the US.

The health crisis in Iraq brought on by economic sanctions isn’t primarily a matter affecting libraries and classrooms. The absence of current scientific information is only one aspect of a crisis which extends all the way to the most basic medicines and supplies. At least tens of thousands–by some calculations, hundreds of thousands–of Iraqi children under five died during the 1990’s from preventable, curable diseases: primarily water-borne bacteriological infections and acute respiratory infections. The Iraq of the 1980’s had the medicine to treat these sicknesses. The Iraq of today does not.

I recall walking through a hospital pediatrics ward in Baghdad in 1999 with a fact-finding group from Voices in the Wilderness ( On every bed lay a tiny child wasting from diarrhea brought on by an intestinal bacterium, an illness that could have been cured by a course of the proper antibiotic. But this hospital, in the largest city in the country, couldn’t obtain these life-saving medicines in sufficient supply. As other countries prepared to move into a new millennium, Iraq stood stalled in the 19th century. As we moved through the ward, the doctor introduced us to each child’s mother and translated as we spoke to her. He diagnosed the child’s illness. Mary Hanrahan, a member of our group, began asking for a prognosis. At every bed, like a metronome, the doctor said: This child will dieThat child will dieMary asked him: What do you say to the parents? When they look to you for hope, what do you say? He responded wearily: There is no hope. They’re going to die. And then very slowly, They’re all going to die.

Two days later, in a hospital pediatrics ward in Amara, a city south of Baghdad on the road to Basra, I held a ten-month old child in my arms. His mother spoke to me in Arabic, and we had to wait for the doctor to finish a conversation and come from across the room to translate. The eyes of all the mothers nearby were on us. I didn’t understand why until the doctor translated: She said, ‘If you can save her baby, please take him with you.’ Part of me refused to understand the obvious meaning of her words. I could think of nothing to say. I stood there with a small child, dying slowly in my arms, a child who only needed a course of antibiotics. How many times had my own young daughter been to the doctor and benefited from antibiotics? For that matter, our pet cat receives antibiotics when he needs them. Eventually, I handed the child back to his mother, who smiled at me graciously. And the eyes of the other mothers released their grip.

The irony deepens. Not only are Shields and Garza responding to a need created by US foreign policy, but their employer, the US government, has taken legal action against Voices in the Wilderness (VitW), seeking to collect over $20,000 in fines from the organization for doing exactly what Shields and Garza have done. What crime is VitW accused of? The “exportation of donated goods, including medical supplies and toys, to Iraq absent specific prior authorization by OFAC” (from the Pre-Penalty Notice written by R. Richard Newcomb, Director Office of Foreign Assets Control, 12/3/98). At the time, the total value of the “donated goods” was estimated at $75,000.

Since 1996, small groups of US citizens have traveled to Iraq on fact-finding delegations organized by VitW. Delegates have been encouraged to pack light, and transport whatever humanitarian aid they could carry. This typically included items such as medical textbooks and journals, children’s painkillers, coloring books, crayons, and children’s clothing. On some delegations, VitW purchased medicine in Jordan–antibiotics, cancer medicine, surgical supplies–and trucked it into Baghdad.

If the courts didn’t support it, and if their support weren’t a subtle defense of US foreign policy toward Iraq, an attempt to prosecute US citizens for bringing “medical supplies and toys” to children who are sick and dying would be laughable. But Judge Bates will soon rule in the case brought against VitW. Both sides fully expect him to rule in favor of the US Government.

In its legal arguments in this case and in its diligent pursuit over the last two years of VitW, the Department of the Treasury emerges as a bureaucratic machine mindlessly enforcing laws. For whatever reason, people want to flout embargoes. The bottom line from our perspective is, for us, we enforce the law–and we will continue to do so aggressively (Tony Fratto, Director of public affairs, US Treasury Department). But for any thinking person, VitW’s opposition to the sanctions regime cannot be dismissed so out-of-hand. Its identification with the most vulnerable people in Iraq has been a clear call to conscience. To attack it while claiming to “liberate” people in Iraq is pathetic and self-serving.

The re-building of Iraq, from the bottom up, continues to be its most pressing need, but it cannot happen under US occupation. The soldiers and civilians who are shipping donated medical journals to Iraq deserve praise and support. They in turn need to analyze the causes of Iraqi suffering, and transform their concern for Iraqi people into articulate and willful opposition to the US war and occupation.

DAVID SMITH-FERRI is a member of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end U.S. economic and military warfare abroad and at home. He lives in Ukiah, CA. He can be reached at:

David Smith-Ferri is a member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence ( and the author, most recently, of  Where Days Are Stones, Afghanistan and Gaza Poems, 2012-2013. He recently returned from a VCNV delegation to Helsinki, where he visited with Iraqi friends who fled their country and are seeking asylum in Finland. He can be reached at