Twenty-five years ago the New England Journal of Medicine published a health survey on Iraq. Had it been widely reported, as it deserved, it might have helped prevent a political and military catastrophe.
The September 1992 survey presented mortality results of Iraqi children over the first eight months of the Gulf War in 1991.
The article’s conclusion: The Gulf War and trade sanctions caused a threefold increase in mortality among kids younger than 5. Nearly 47,000 children died in the first eight months of 1991.
In a later editorial, the cause and nature of these deaths is bluntly described: “The destruction of the country’s power plants had brought its entire system of water purification and distribution to a halt, leading to epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, and gastroenteritis, particularly among children. … The team observed suffering of tragic proportions ... [with children] dying of preventable diseases and starvation. Although the allied bombing had caused few civilian casualties, the destruction of the infrastructure resulted in devastating long-term effects on health.”
A story in The New York Times in March of 1991 reported that a UN team visited Iraq the previous week. It said, “the [U.S.] bombing has relegated Iraq ‘to a pre-industrial age’ and warned that the nation could face ‘epidemic and famine if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met.’” The United States was “against any premature relaxation [of economic sanctions] in the belief that by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.”
The United States was willing to use epidemics and famine against a civilian population — especially children — as long as we characterized it as making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people. The goal was clear: to remove Saddam Hussein from power without sending U.S. troops.
When I first learned of all this, it changed my life. In 1996 I went with a small humanitarian delegation to Iraq — the first of nine trips — to see for myself. We had no government “minder.” We simply got in a taxi and went to a hospital of our choosing and spoke to doctors there. I remember that the pharmacy consisted of a small drawer with a few vials of medicine. That was it!
Madeleine Albright asserted that the United States never embargoed medicine. That was untrue. Today the United States government continues to embargo medicine against Iran contrary to every humanitarian consideration, creating hatred against the United States for all the suffering and deaths that denying medicine to civilians will cause.
After the Gulf War, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told reporters, “every Iraqi target was ‘perfectly legitimate,’” adding that he would do it all over again. At the start of the Gulf War, Vice President Cheney stated, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Did he not realize what his authorization to destroy Iraq’s electricity 12 years earlier had done?
We should have known what it had done to the Iraqi people. (Imagine the New England Journal of Medicine health survey had reported it was Saddam Hussein’sactions – not ours – that had caused 46,900 Iraqi children’s deaths; do you doubt we would all know of it from our media?) Here’s what Cheney’s dark-side policies did to American soldiers in Iraq. Journalist Souad Mekhennet wrote the following exchange in her book “I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad:”
“Ma’am, I’m sorry we weren’t polite to you in the beginning,” one of the soldiers said afterward. “We’re under so much pressure. It’s not what we expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“We thought people would love us here. We thought they’d offer us tea and be happy to see us. Instead, they attack us. We see our friends getting killed. People are angry with us.”
We spend around a trillion dollars on our military-intelligence complex every year. If Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us anything, it is that force is not everything. Seeking genuinely to understand everyone and to demonize no one is the nonviolent alternative.
Bert Sacks is a practitioner of nonviolence who lives in Seattle. For more information, visit Campaign Nonviolence.
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