Playing: Saving Private Lynch
dramatic rescue of an American female POW puts a feel-good
face on a brutal invasion
could have easily gotten the impression last week that the
war in Iraq is being fought to liberate pretty young American
girls from Iraqi hospitals.
After a week of news of Iraqis strenuously resisting U.S.
efforts to liberate them, the American campaign badly needed
something to make war feel good again in the homeland.
The rescue of Jessica Lynch proved just the thing. The cute
19-year-old private, who had enlisted in the Army so she could
get a college education and become a kindergarten teacher
when she grows up, instantly became the human face of the
U.S. war effort.
With the Jessica story front and center, the most lethal war
machine ever assembled in history could be presented as fresh-faced,
innocent and eager to please. Suddenly the war campaign no
longer seemed to be about dropping bombs (8,700 in 12 days)
relentlessly on a city of 5 million people, or killing unarmed
women and children in Baghdad markets or at Army checkpoints;
it was about saving sweet, young coeds from the Iraqi hordes
(or, at least, from inferior Iraqi medical treatment.)
It’s great that Jessica is safe. Of course, her war experience
is hardly typical.
She’ll emerge not only with her body intact, but also with
international celebrity and, if she wants, talk-show spots
and modeling contracts. (One can imagine Playboy is
already thinking centerfold for a special issue: POW Girls
of Iraq). Needless to say, thousands of other people—mostly
on the Iraqi side—will simply end up dead.
But Jessica’s story, milked endlessly by the media, is a reminder
of the intense effort going on to ensure that America is seen
to occupy the moral high ground in this war.
By focusing on the angel-faced, kindergarten-teacher-in-training,
we easily forget Jessica is just a tiny cog in the massive
U.S. war machine currently invading Iraq, with the stated
goal of installing a former American general as military governor.
(Not even the White House bothers any longer to pretend this
war is about “disarming” Iraq—the goal that Washington put
forward for months in trying to line up U.N. support.) Could
imperial ambition be any plainer?
But commentators have kept the focus on the brutality of Saddam
Hussein (which no one contests) and have tried to muddy the
waters about who started this war and therefore who’s to blame
for what’s unfolding.
So when U.S. Marines gunned down seven unarmed Iraqi women
and children in the back of a van last week at a checkpoint
in southern Iraq, who was to blame? The van manufacturer?
The French? Saddam?
Apparently not the Marines—or the U.S. war effort that put
them there. TV commentators quickly put the blame on Saddam
for inspiring a group of suicide bombers— “terrorists”—who
drove up to a military checkpoint a few days earlier, faking
But wait a minute. The U.S. is invading Iraq, with unquestioned
military superiority. Iraqis are fighting back, with whatever
means they can find. CNN reported last week that U.S. soldiers
discovered one Iraqi, who apparently was surrendering, had
a long shard of glass hidden in his mouth. I doubt Saddam
put it there.
And I’d bet the shard of glass wasn’t that guy’s weapon of
choice, that he would have preferred a laser-guided missile
targeted precisely at the White House. But, when desperate,
one uses what’s available. Americans would surely do the same
if a foreign army were approaching Washington.
Central to the case for American moral superiority is the
notion that the U.S. is scrupulously trying to avoid civilian
care about civilians. The other guy doesn’t,” a retired U.S.
colonel explained last week on CBC Radio’s As It Happens.
I’m sure the United States is trying to avoid civilian casualties.
Why wouldn’t it? Washington clearly doesn’t want to alienate
the civilian population by killing more Iraqis than is absolutely
necessary for it to take control of the country.
It’s the taking control of the country that’s the problem.
Starting an aggressive war is the crime—the crime out of which
all others inevitably flow. As the Nuremberg International
Military Tribunal noted years ago: “War is essentially an
evil thing. . . . To initiate a war of aggression, therefore,
is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international
crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains
within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Of course, the U.S. has opted out of the jurisdiction of the
International Criminal Court, so it won’t have to account
for its actions in front of people familiar with these sorts
Mostly, it just has to explain itself to the CNN anchors,
who seem considerably less rigorous. So far, “We’re just trying
to save Jessica” seems to be working out just fine as a defense.
McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator.
Her column appears every Sunday in the Toronto
Star, where this piece first appeared.
in the mainstream media are the horrifying stories of the
Iraq war’s widespread civilian casualties
televised face of this war is a lie. It’s a flickering screen
with a Fox-TV newsman’s macho boast that U.S. troops are in
the heart of Baghdad and are “here to stay.” It’s a Pentagon
press conference assuring us that another city has been “taken,”
but not yet “secured.”
Occasionally, however, we catch glimpses of the reality: descriptions
of incidents that reflect the real impact on both sides.
A U.S. Marine in a medevac unit outside Al Kut, unable to
save a dying American soldier, buries his resuscitation equipment
in despair. I’m reading this in my morning paper. I close
my eyes and try to imagine where this Marine came from, what
he did before he was shipped over to Iraq. Maybe he worked
in an inner-city hospital where gunshot wounds are the norm,
but the hospital’s emergency room has the equipment and personnel
to save lives and patch together even the worst cases. But
the stripped-down, gritty, sweltering reality of a battlefield
after three days of nonstop fighting with bullets still whizzing
overhead and not enough clamps to stop the bleeding and not
enough hands to patch all the wounds fast enough has finally
broken his will. What will be left of this man when he returns
I read a quote from soldiers who’ve shot up a van full of
women and children. The soldiers’ initial, agonized question,
“Why did they do it? Why did they try to run the checkpoint?”
will eventually, with the passage of time, become “Why did
I do it? Why did I shoot them all?” The soldiers will remember
that brief scene over and over again in their nightmares for
the next 20, 30, 40 years.
These soldiers weren’t the only ones who prepared for the
worst, only to realize that war brings on the worst in spite
of their best-laid plans.
Ibrahim al-Yussuf’s parents thought they could save their
12-year-old son by sending him to live with relatives in Zambrania,
a small, rural village outside of Baghdad. The city was too
dangerous, they thought, as loud explosions and fireballs
lit up the skyline at night. After all, a U.S. HARM missile
demolished a busy market, killing 67 people and wounding dozens
more. If Ibrahim left the city, he’d be out of the way of
But soon after the war started, U.S. military planners set
up “kill boxes” in the region south of Baghdad, a largely
rural area, where Zambrania and several other villages lie.
Kill boxes were used in Afghanistan; they’re gridlike areas
on the military planners’ maps that are designated as free-fire
zones. U.S. fighter pilots are allowed to shoot anything that
moves within these zones. But, just as in Afghanistan, there
is no way that civilians on the ground can know when they’ve
entered a kill box until a bomb falls on them.
Ibrahim and his 17-year-old cousin, Jalal, left home to have
lunch with Abdullah, a friend who owned the neighboring farm.
They were torn apart by a U.S. bomb because they were outside,
walking, and a kill box had been superimposed over their home.
Zambrania and the neighboring village of Talkana have lost
19 people because of U.S. fighter planes. In Manaria, a village
30 miles south of Baghdad, 22 people have died and 53 have
been injured in air raids. Most of the dead and wounded are
children and women. Many of the wounds look suspiciously like
those caused by cluster bombs, anti- personnel weapons that
release a spray of deadly shrapnel that can cut through flesh,
bone and even the soft, mud-brick walls of Iraqi houses. The
United Nations has condemned the use of cluster bombs, a key
component of the U.S. arsenal, because so many more civilians
are killed by cluster bombs than any other kind of ordnance
except land mines. And like a land mine, a cluster bomblet
can lie unexploded, waiting for a victim to brush by it or
a curious child to pick it up.
The use of cluster bombs in these rural areas is, surely,
a war crime. As the daughter of a farmer, I feel physically
ill at the thought of a rural landscape littered with these
little packages of death. And then I read about the Hilla
The Red Cross reported 61 civilians killed and 450 people
injured over two days—March 31 and April 1—by cluster bombs
dropped in the Hilla region south of Baghdad. Described as
“a horror,” two nights of U.S. bombing produced babies cut
in half, dozens of severed bodies, and scattered limbs. The
victims were farmers and their families. There were no Iraqi
artillery, Republican guard troops or military installations
Patrick Baz, a veteran photographer for Agence France Presse
who covered the war in Beirut in the 1980s, was shocked when
he stumbled upon a farm torn up by U.S. missiles in al-Janably.
Inside the farmhouse were the remains of a family of 20 people,
11 of them children.
Children make up the largest number of civilian victims in
Iraq; they are, after all, an estimated 60 percent of the
Dimitrius Mognie, a Greek doctor and humanitarian aid worker,
recently visited a hospital in Baghdad, where he described
the shortage of antibiotics, bandages and even anesthetics.
He was struck by the enormous number of children in the hospital
beds and the heartbreaking lack of resources available for
them. He witnessed doctors amputating a child’s limb using
only local anesthetics; the doctors had to give the child
a new shot every five minutes.
Meanwhile, on the urban battlefield, families with young children
have been caught in the crossfire in Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf
and Baghdad. Eyewitness reports of civilians killed in those
cities evoke memories of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and
the No Gun Ryi slaughter in Korea. George Bush and Donald
Rumsfeld have told us that few civilians will be killed. But
the real face of this war is inescapable: hundreds, if not
thousands, of civilians dead, and most of them children.
Tomchick is co-editor and contributing writer for Eat
the State!, a biweekly newspaper based in Seattle, Wash.