The heartbreak of war

For one reader, a single photograph brought home the inconceivable horror that is Iraq.

By J. Scott Smith
Published November 18, 2004 8:12PM (EST)

Perhaps, being a new father, I am overly sensitive to such things, but today the image I saw on my computer screen brought me to tears. The photograph, appearing on the BBC's Web site, was from some street or another in Fallujah, Iraq. The caption, although gruesome enough, was a comparatively bland statement that "Bodies have been left uncollected for days." Yet what the picture depicted was testimony to the unmitigated and unavoidable tragedy of war. In the picture we see the "uncollected" body of a man lying in the street, his arms still clutching yet another uncollected body, that of a child. The child's body was clasping the man's shoulders, holding on for what was dear life to the now headless corpse of, who knows, his (or her, you cannot tell) father, uncle, brother, someone he trusted to protect and shelter him. The picture can be seen here.

One can only imagine the sheer terror and unfathomable sadness of their last moments, gunfire and explosions ringing in their ears, trying to find safety in a war they did not ask for, a war they did not start. Perhaps the man was trying to carry the child to safety, or maybe the child saw him die and rushed to him only to be killed as well. All we know is that there they now lie, a man and his child, eternally locked in each other's arms, as soldiers from a foreign land amble past.

I cannot help but think of the argument many made, and I myself considered: that this war would ultimately be for the betterment of the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator after all. Yet these two lives were certainly not improved. To them the spreading of democracy brought only terror and death.

Many were led to believe that with the magic precision of modern weapons, civilian casualties -- "collateral damage" -- would be light or nonexistent. Of course, that is not true. It never has been.

The appointed prime minister of Iraq just yesterday tried to tell the world that there were no civilian casualties in Fallujah, when our very eyes tell us a different story. Our government tried to tell us that there were "hardly any" civilian casualties.

Yet ask yourself this: If the weapons are so accurate, then why were artillery operations ceased when U.S. personnel began operating in most of the city? The reason is simple. Artillery remains what it has been since the days of Napoleon: an "area weapon." That means it is used to rain destruction over an entire area, not just a particular house or bunker. For example, the Washington Post ran a story about the Marines responsible for operating the unmanned surveillance aircraft. The story described a small duel between the Marines' 155 mm howitzers and a single insurgent mortar tube, with the surveillance guys acting as spotters. It described the "bracketing rounds," one 100 yards left of the target, the next a few yards short, then the rounds fired "for effect." Of those, most landed right in and around the target, but two or three were off by as much as 100 yards. (Despite all that, they still missed the tube.)

What pray tell was under those rounds that missed? Who knows? But we do know there were as many as 50,000 civilians who were unable to leave the city, and of the thousands of shells that were poured into the city (almost Russian in its scope was the barrage) it stands to reason that more than "hardly any" innocents' lives were lost, their last hours spent enduring the thunder of exploding shells all around them and only to then have a house come crashing down upon them.

Then there are the phosphorous rounds. They explode 100 or so feet above the ground and rain burning phosphorous globules over as much as an entire city block. Just about everything underneath them, from metal-encased bunkers to the innocent family cowering in a wooden house, burns.

No, to quote that famous but still unknown soldier in Patton's Third Army, after leaving a French village they just captured, "We sure liberated the hell out of that place."

It is not just Fallujah; it is the entire war. According to one peer-reviewed analysis conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the number of civilian deaths that can be attributed to the war and its aftermath exceeds 100,000. Not ten thousand; one hundred thousand. That is far more than the number of deaths the mass murderer Saddam (and he clearly was) was blamed for over the entire past decade. Other more conservative estimates (based on what limited hospital records are available) place the toll in the tens of thousands. I do not blame our soldiers and Marines. They are not "baby killers." They were given a difficult job, and they are doing it in the only real way possible. I do not even fault the decision to attack Fallujah this time around. The decision to attack last April, against the advice of the commanders on the ground, left us with no viable alternative.

No, it is our dear leaders who must be held to account. They chose to fight a war of conquest -- a much more violent proposition than other types of war -- without good reason. They sold the war on false evidence and false assumptions about the effect on the civilian population. We will bring the shining light of democracy to the Iraqi people, they said. Americans were led to believe that only those who chose to fight would suffer. Never, ever should anyone try to sell a war by sugarcoating its realities, by implying that it will be an antiseptic video game of surgically precise weapons, that there will only be the most "minimal" loss of innocent life. That is the stuff of Tom Clancy novels, not real war. I find it inconceivable that a man who professes to be "pro-life" could so blithely commit so many others to die. Tonight, George Bush will go to sleep happy, comfortable in his electoral victory and looking forward to spending that political capital he says he "earned." Meanwhile a man and his innocent child lie rotting on a dusty Fallujah street.

J. Scott Smith

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