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WAR REPORT

Now Playing: Saving Private Lynch

The dramatic rescue of an American female POW puts a feel-good face on a brutal invasion

One 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 surrender.

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 casualties.

“We 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 of notions.

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.

—Linda McQuaig

Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator. Her column appears every Sunday in the Toronto Star, where this piece first appeared.

The Death Zone

Underreported in the mainstream media are the horrifying stories of the Iraq war’s widespread civilian casualties

The 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 home?

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 stray missiles.

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 massacre.

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 within miles.

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 population.

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.

—Maria Tomchick

Maria Tomchick is co-editor and contributing writer for Eat the State!, a biweekly newspaper based in Seattle, Wash.


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