What War Looks Like
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine,
In all the solemn statements by self-important
politicians and newspaper columnists ~ about a coming war against
Iraq, and even in the troubled comments by some who are opposed
to the war, there is something missing. The talk is about strategy
and tactics, geopolitics and personalities. It is about air war
and ground war, weapons of mass destruction, arms inspections,
alliances, oil, and "regime change."
What is missing is what an American war
on Iraq will do to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands
of ordinary human beings who are not concerned with geopolitics
and military strategy, and who just want their children to live,
to grow up. They are not concerned with "national security"
but with personal security, with food and shelter and medical
care and peace.
I am speaking of those Iraqis and those
Americans who will, with absolute certainty, die in such a war,
or lose arms or legs, or be blinded. Or they will be stricken
with some strange and agonizing sickness that could lead to their
bringing deformed children into the world (as happened to families
in Vietnam, Iraq, and also the United States).
True, there has been some discussion of
American casualties resulting from a land invasion of Iraq. But,
as always when the strategists discuss this, the question is not
about the wounded and dead as human beings, but about what number
of American casualties would result in public withdrawal of support
for the war, and what effect this would have on the upcoming elections
for Congress and the Presidency.
That was uppermost in the mind of Lyndon
Johnson, as we have learned from the tapes of his White House
conversations. He worried about Americans dying if he escalated
the war in Vietnam, but what most concerned him was his political
future. If we pull out of Vietnam, he told his friend Senator
Richard Russell, "they'll impeach me, won't they?"
In any case, American soldiers killed
in war are always a matter of statistics. Individual human beings
are missing in the numbers. It is left to the poets and novelists
to take us by the shoulders and shake us and ask us to look and
listen. In World War I, ten million men died on the battlefield,
but we needed John Dos Passos to confront us with what that meant:
In his novel 1919, he writes of the death of John Doe: "In
the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of chloride
of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all
that was left of" him. A few pages later, Dos Passos describes
him: "The blood ran into the ground, the brains oozed out
of the cracked skull and were licked up by the trench rats, the
belly swelled and raised a generation of bluebottle flies, and
the incorruptible skeleton, and the scraps of dried viscera and
skin bundled in khaki."
Vietnam was a war that filled our heads
with statistics, of which one stood out, embedded in the stark
monument in Washington: 58,000 dead. But one would have to read
the letters from soldiers just before they died to turn those
statistics into human beings. And for all those not dead but mutilated
in some way, the amputees and paraplegics, one would have to read
Ron Kovic's account, in his memoir, Born on the Fourth of July,
of how his spine was shattered and his life transformed.
As for the dead among "the enemy"-that
is, those young men, conscripted or cajoled or persuaded to pit
their bodies against those of our young men-that has not been
a concern of our political leaders, our generals, our newspapers
and magazines, our television networks. To this day, most Americans
have no idea, or only the vaguest, of how many Vietnamese-soldiers
and civilians (actually, a million of each)-died under American
bombs and shells.
And for those who know the figures, the
men, women, children behind the statistics remained unknown until
a picture appeared of a Vietnamese girl running down a road, her
skin shredding from napalm, until Americans saw photos of women
and children huddled in a trench as GIs poured automatic rifle
fire into their bodies.
Ten years ago, in that first war against
Iraq, our leaders were proud of the fact that there were only
a few hundred American casualties (one wonders if the families
of those soldiers would endorse the word "only"). When
a reporter asked General Colin Powell if he knew how many Iraqis
died in that war, he replied: "That is really not a matter
I am terribly interested in." A high Pentagon official told
The Boston Globe, "To tell you the truth, we're not really
focusing on this question."
Americans knew that this nation's casualties
were few in the Gulf War and a combination of government control
of the press and the media's meek acceptance of that control ensured
that the American people would not be confronted, as they had
been in Vietnam, with Iraqi dead and dying.
There were occasional glimpses of the
horrors inflicted on the people of Iraq, flashes of truth in the
newspapers that quickly disappeared. In mid-February 1991, U.S.
planes dropped bombs on an air raid shelter in Baghdad at four
in the morning, killing 400 to 500 people-mostly women and children-who
were huddled there to escape the incessant bombing. An Associated
Press reporter, one of the few allowed to go to the site, said:
"Most of the recovered bodies were charred and mutilated
In the final stage of the Gulf War, American
troops engaged in a ground assault on Iraqi positions in Kuwait.
As in the air war, they encountered virtually
no resistance. With victory certain and the Iraqi army in full
flight, U.S. planes kept bombing the retreating soldiers who clogged
the highway out of Kuwait City. A reporter called the scene "a
blazing hell, a gruesome testament. To the east and west across
the sand lay the bodies of those fleeing."
That grisly scene appeared for a moment
in the press and then vanished in the exultation of a victorious
war, in which politicians of both parties and the press joined.
President Bush crowed: "The specter of Vietnam has been buried
forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula." The
two major news magazines, Time and Newsweek, printed special editions
hailing the victory. Each devoted about a hundred pages to the
celebration, mentioning proudly the small number of American casualties.
They said not a word about the tens of thousands of Iraqis-soldiers
and civilians-themselves victims first of Saddam Hussein's tyranny,
and then of George Bush's war.
There was scarcely a photograph of a single
dead Iraqi child, or a name of a particular Iraqi, or an image
of suffering and grief to convey to the American people what our
overwhelming military machine was doing to other human beings.
The bombing of Afghanistan has been treated
as if human beings are of little consequence. It has been portrayed
as a "war on terrorism," not a war on men, women, children.
The few press reports of "accidents" were quickly followed
with denials, excuses, justifications. There has been some bandying
about of numbers of Afghan civilian deaths-but always numbers.
Only rarely has the human story, with
names and images, come through as more than a flash of truth,
as one day when I read of a ten-year-old boy, named Noor Mohammed,
Iying on a hospital bed on the Pakistani border, his eyes gone,
his hands blown off, a victim of American bombs.
Surely, we must discuss the political
issues. We note that an attack on Iraq would be a flagrant violation
of international law. We note that the mere possession of dangerous
weapons is not grounds for war-else we would have to make war
on dozens of countries. We point out that the country that possesses
by far the most "weapons of mass destruction" is our
country, which has used them more often and with more deadly results
than any nation on Earth. We can point to our national history
of expansion and aggression. We have powerful evidence of deception
and hypocrisy at the highest levels of our government.
But, as we contemplate an American attack
on Iraq, should we not go beyond the agendas of the politicians
and the experts? (John le Carre has one of his characters say:
"I despise experts more than anyone on Earth.")
Should we not ask everyone to stop the
high-blown talk for a moment and imagine what war will do to human
beings whose faces will not be known to us, whose names will not
appear except on some future war memorial?
For this we will need the help of people
in the arts, those who through time-from Euripides to Bob Dylan-have
written and sung about specific, recognizable victims of war.
In 1935, Jean Giraudoux, the French playwright, with the memory
of the First World War still in his head, wrote The Trojan War
Will Not Take Place. Demokos, a Trojan soldier, asks the aged
Hecuba to tell him "what war looks like." She responds:
"Like the backside of a baboon. When
the baboon is up in a tree, with its hind end facing us, there
is the face of war exactly: scarlet, scaly, glazed, framed in
a clotted, filthy wig."
If enough Americans could see that, perhaps
the war on Iraq would not take place.
Howard Zinn is the author of "A Peoples
History of the United States."
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