Arms and the Babies: Unbridled Compassion for All the Casualties of War


We must not conceal from ourselves that no improvement in the present depressing situation is possible without a severe struggle; for the handful of those who are really determined to do something is minute in comparison with the mass of the lukewarm and the misguided. And those who have an interest in keeping the machinery of war going are a very powerful body; they will stop at nothing to make public opinion subservient to their murderous ends.

—Albert Einstein, 1934

Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, is justifiably outraged by the slaughter of innocents in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun where rebel forces are lodged. At least eighty-six people, including women and children, died from exposure to chemical weapons. Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization, after examining the bodies of victims, believe their deaths were caused by a possible nerve agent such as sarin. Western states, in particular, the U.S., France, and Britain, blame the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack, which left hundreds in need of emergency care.

During an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Ambassador Haley threatened unilateral action to punish the Syrian government for its army’s alleged use of poison gas. Sporting a sapphire blue dress while displaying photographs of dead Syrian children, Haley warned that if the UN fails to respond to this latest atrocity, the United States will take matters into its own hands. “There are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said, echoing former president George W. Bush. At the start of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Bush asserted that America doesn’t need a permission slip to wage war. It will do whatever is necessary to preserve and defend its national security. UN Charter and international law be damned! As befits a monolithic empire, the law is what we say it is. And Congress, the theoretical arbiter in matters of war and peace, will naturally be sidelined. Who needs Congressional approval to start a war of aggression when all that really matters is our unqualified right to stand tall, act tough, and murder whomever we please.

In response to the deaths from poison gas, Haley’s boss in the White House, during a press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, lamented the killing of babies, “innocent babies — babies! — little babies ….” Now, only a few days after the attack, Trump has demonstrated his fighting spirit by launching scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government military base. I wager lots of folks in the media and the upper echelons of government bureaucracy are swooning with delight over the Big Guy’s swagger, his willingness to throw caution to the wind and risk all-out war with Syria’s most powerful ally — Russia. And to do so while no one knows for sure who gave the order to deploy chemical weapons, what weapons were actually used, and whether the Syrian government or any one of the numerous opposition groups was behind the attack, hoping the use of an illegal weapon would draw the United States into direct confrontation with Syria’s armed forces.

I was struck by Trump’s repeated reference to “babies,” innocent little babies choking to death in clouds of poison. Perhaps Trump was genuinely moved by the horrific manner of their dying and decided he had to do something to show the world that America, beacon of freedom, democracy, and human rights, does not stand idly by while the most innocent, most vulnerable little beings among us are deliberately and savagely targeted. And yet, whomever the perpetrator(s) may turn out to be, a few things are abundantly clear to anyone who has been following events in the Middle East. For starters, we need look no further than our own government as a major threat to that region of the world’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations. In 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility published the results of their investigation into the death toll from the “war on terror,” begun by the Bush Administration after the tragic events of 9/11:

This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e., a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs. And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.

Furthermore, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 8 to 10 million Iraqis are in need of humanitarian assistance out of a total population of roughly 36 million people. About 4.7 million, or half of those in need of assistance, are children under the age of 18. The rapid spread of extremely dangerous jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State or ISIS, has generated a worsening security situation and new waves of internally displaced persons (IDPs) across central Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As of January 2016, according to UNICEF, over 3.3 million people were displaced across Iraq with 1.5 million IDP children in need of immediate protection and assistance.

It bears repeating that much of the bloodshed, the rise of ISIS, the displacement of millions of families, the seemingly intractable refugee crisis, and the growing number of terrorist attacks in Europe are partially due to U.S. interference in the Middle East, its preference for conflict over diplomacy, and its hegemonic drive to control the region’s trade routes and energy resources. While Ambassador Haley and President Trump are wringing their hands over the truly tragic slaughter of innocents in Syria, one wonders how they responded to news that in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul just a few short weeks ago, on March 17, hundreds of innocent civilians perished when their homes were bombed by U.S.-led air strikes against Isis strongholds in the city. While the exact number of deaths has yet to be determined, the U.S. military confirmed “that a coalition airstrike had hit an Islamic State-held area of Iraq’s Mosul where as many as 240 civilians may have been killed as a result of the air raid.”

A statement issued by U.S. Central Command noted that Iraqi security forces requested the airstrike and that the targeted area was the same location where civilian casualties were reported. The International Business Times, an online news source, has published a series of photos documenting the aftermath of the airstrike. I may be mistaken but I don’t recall seeing Ambassador Haley holding up any of these or comparable images of grief-stricken Iraqi parents weeping over the bodies of their children killed in the strike. Could their apparent indifference to the fate of these children be due to the cause of death? Instead of being the victims of the Syrian government’s alleged use of poison gas, they died from American bombs, blessed by God and the Almighty’s second-in-command, the U.S. Joints Chief of Staff. I guess that crucial difference — the type of weapons used and the side that used them — determines who is and who isn’t worthy of our most righteous indignation and loudest saber rattling.

One of the victims of the U.S. bombing of Mosul in March is four-year-old Hawra. Before the airstrike, her father, Alaa Hasan, left to buy food at a nearby store. A short time later, two explosions reduced their home to a pile of rubble.

“I saw Hawra under some concrete, yelling,” her father said. “Her face was black, smashed.” He carried her to safety then searched for his wife, Mayada, whom he soon found. “‘I saw there was a body without a head, only a leg and this,’ he said, pointing to his torso. He knew it was his wife.”

The good news for the residents of Mosul still trapped inside their homes and facing the prospect of starvation is that the U.S. military takes care to avoid excessive collateral damage. According to U.S. Brig. General Rick Uribe, “We’re here to defeat them [the Islamic militants] and we’re going to do it the moral way.” And what could be more moral than dropping bombs on crowded urban dwellings where militants may be using civilians as human shields and where targeting miscalculations are almost certain to produce casualties, or “collateral damage” in the language of military obfuscation.

As of this writing, no tears have yet been shed by our glorious heads of state for the besieged people of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and its own set of coalition predators, including Qatar and United Arab Emirates, are raining down death and destruction in “Operation Decisive Storm,” a brutal bombing campaign against Houthi rebels. In January 2015, the rebels succeeded in ousting Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi mainly because of their opposition to Hadi’s proposal to divide Yemen into six federal provinces. If enacted, the proposal would have weakened Houthi influence over Saada province in the north, the movement’s traditional base.

The Houthis assumed control of the central government shortly after the coup, which the UN Security Council officially denounced on February 16. One month later, on March 26, a Saudi-led, 10-member coalition began bombing Houthi positions in the city of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Saudi Arabia argues that the Houthi movement receives substantial support from Iran, the country’s foremost enemy and the dominant Shia power in the Middle East. Before beginning their bombing campaign, the Saudis went to Washington to request the approval of the Obama Administration, which they received, along with diplomatic cover and direct material aid in the form of U.S.-manufactured bombs, like cluster bombs (CBU-105 munitions), formerly made by Textron in Wilmington, Massachusetts, and the provision of refueling services to coalition planes that are carrying out the bombing. As if that largesse weren’t enough, since 2010, “the Obama administration authorized a record $60bn in US military sales to Saudi Arabia. Since then, the administration concluded deals for nearly $48bn in weapons sales — triple the $16bn in sales under the [previous] administration.”

Though Obama blocked a portion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the final months of his administration owing to pressure from human rights groups and opposition from the House of Representatives, President Trump’s State Department rescinded Obama’s decision in early March. Since then, Trump has signed off on an expanded new arms package for Saudi Arabia despite that country’s two-year assault on the people of Yemen, its continuing violation of human rights, and its likely commission of war crimes, including the blockading of Yemen’s major ports, thus preventing vital food, medicines, and fuel supplies from reaching the people.

Thanks in no small measure to U.S. complicity in what is turning into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, at least 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since the conflict. However, the economic blockade, according to reporter and historian Gareth Porter, is causing even greater suffering than the actual bombing:

But what’s really been happening for well over a year, I think it’s fair to say a year to a year and a half, is that more people are dying of starvation-related or malnutrition-related diseases and starvation, than from the bombs themselves. And this is a fact which I’m sorry to say simply has not gotten into the press coverage of the war, thus far.

The children of Yemen are bearing the brunt of the suffering. Approximately 1.7 million, or 31% of Yemeni children under the age of five suffer from severe malnutrition as a result of the U.S.-condoned, Saudi-led blockade. Many of these “innocent little babies,” to borrow Donald Trump’s words, are quite literally starving to death in a country where our money, munitions, and diplomatic support are enabling Saudi Arabia and its partners to slaughter the innocents with the weapon of starvation. According to David Sim of the International Business Times, “Of Yemen’s 28 million people some 21 million need some form of humanitarian aid. Intensive care wards in Yemen’s hospitals are filled with emaciated children hooked up to monitors and drips.”

We won’t be seeing Nikki Haley, our UN Ambassador, waving photos of these children and calling for an immediate halt to the bombing of Yemen and a lifting of the blockade. Nor can we expect Trump to shed anything but crocodile tears for the victims of our various strategic alliances with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and their war in Yemen. Firing cruise missiles into Syria won’t do anything for the people of Syria beyond exacerbating an already horrendous situation. And continuing to support Saudi Arabia in its fight against Houthi rebels will only contribute to the growing misery and suffering of the Yemeni people, especially the children. Perhaps there is hope in the wise counsel of Albert Einstein whose words introduced this essay: “We must not conceal from ourselves that no improvement in the present depressing situation is possible without a severe struggle.

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George Capaccio is a writer and activist living in Arlington, MA. During the years of US- and UK-enforced sanctions against Iraq, he traveled there numerous times, bringing in banned items, befriending families in Baghdad, and deepening his understanding of how the sanctions were impacting civilians. His email is Georgecapaccio@verizon.net. He welcomes comments and invites readers to visit his website: www.georgecapaccio.com

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