That’s the other country the United States is currently bombing for humanitarian reasons. For a few days, the Pentagon had been understandably distracted by its humanitarian war against Yugoslavia. But on Easter Saturday, buried in the world round-up departments of the larger newspapers, was this reassuring April 2 bulletin from the Associated Press:
Allied aircraft bombed southern Iraq today, hitting a communications station for the oil industry and destroying two houses, military and officials said. The bombings were the first American-led air strikes reported here in more than two weeks.…
Early this year, strikes on military targets occurred nearly daily. The bombing today was the first since March 16, when American planes bombed air-defense sites in northern Iraq. Since then, American attention has focused on Yugoslavia.
American attention is indeed easily distracted. But as William Randolph Hearst demonstrated a century ago, nothing seizes the public attention like a good little war. In Yugoslavia, we have been provided with thousands of photogenic refugees, a readily demonizable villain – and most recently, even more photogenic boy soldier-hostages, grim evidence that our enemies are so scurrilous that when attacked, they have the temerity to fight back.
But for such a war to remain good, it must remain little. As James Galbraith points out (page 19), the ostensible reason for the NATO bombings was to prevent Serbian assaults upon Kosovo Albanians. When international monitors were removed and the bombings began, they produced precisely the effect we had been told they would prevent. We are now informed (as was always obvious) that to seize territory and protect civilians, only ground troops can do the job, and predictable grumblings are issuing from the Pentagon and the press, that the public will not stand for more U.S. casualties. “Commanders say their pilots are willing to take greater risks,” reports The New York Times, “but politicians fear that an American public conditioned to low-casualty conflicts like the gulf war will not accept a steep death toll in the Balkans.”
So we are back to Iraq – and an unfortunate disease of American morale that will no doubt soon be referred to as “Gulf War Syndrome.” There has been much recent muttering about Bill Clinton’s supposedly reactive foreign policy, but in fact his bellicose posture remains consistent with that of his predecessors at least since Kennedy. It has two central principles: (1) in the words of George Bush, “What we say goes,” and (2) those who oppose U.S. interests and power in any substantive way, do so only at enormous risk of life and liberty. That has been true in Southeast Asia, in Cuba and Central America, in the Middle East, and now in Yugoslavia. The only relatively feeble domestic check on that imperial ruthlessness has been the reluctance of the public at large to accept sustained American casualties in defense of U.S. military power. In Yugoslavia, we may soon be engaged in a test to determine whether the American public considers the right of the U.S. government to dictate borders and political arrangements in Eastern Europe is a right worth dying for.
Many readers will continue to believe that this time, the U.S. has humanitarian concerns at heart. If the bombings at hand are insufficiently persuasive, they might wish to consult with Kathy Kelly, organizer of Voices in the Wilderness. Kelly recently visited Austin following her return from her ninth trip to Iraq, where she has engaged in people-to-people diplomacy with extraordinary dedication since 1991. Voices has been delivering medical supplies and toys to the civilian population of Iraq since 1996, in direct defiance of the humanitarian U.S. government, which has threatened her and her small group of pacifist colleagues with large fines and imprisonment. “Keep this up,” the Treasury Department told her, “and you risk a $1 million fine and twelve years in prison.”
Kelly, a petite woman with sparkling blue Irish eyes and the steely determination common to those in the Catholic Worker movement, is unlikely to be intimidated by government threats. She directly defied the bombs during the Gulf War, and a decade ago, she spent ten months in maximum security for the crime of planting corn on a site reserved for nuclear missile silos. She smiles at the memory: “I had taught in Catholic girls’ high schools for a couple of years, so I was kind of ready for it. No talking in the hallways, ‘Where’s your pass, where’s your uniform, don’t say no.'”
Kelly is no sentimentalist, and her tales of the suffering of Iraqi civilians, many of them children, have a directness that only increases their emotional effect. She has watched numerous children die for the lack of the cheapest of medicines, the simplest pieces of equipment. Asked about recent developments, she said, “I can only say it worsens. Psychologically, people are now saying that they can’t see any hope of change. Within the hospitals, doctors are growing more hopeless, angry, frustrated. [A doctor in Basra] told me, ‘If you want our oil, take it, but stop killing our children.’ Every day he’s seen three babies born with congenital deformities. When he was a student, he never encountered such cases except in textbooks.”
Kelly is determined to continue her work, but has no delusions about any short-term changes in the U.S./U.N. sanctions. She is encouraged by signs of a nascent peace movement here and elsewhere, but she goes on because she must. “I have some hope that a generation of youngsters coming up in the United States is going to have a revolutionary, different set of values, and will believe that they don’t want to continue a pattern of life that is basically maintaining radically unfair relations with other people on the planet. Maybe the reality of the Internet, and the ability of people to communicate far and wide might take away some of the sense of borders, or [the sense that] ‘Because I’m on this soil, I have a right to more.’ Maybe the desire to live more sensibly in relation to the environment.
“So I have those hopes. I do hope that whatever ability we have to try to put a face on Iraqi people, will eventually speak further and wider. And that maybe some elected official will decide to take a big risk, and say, ‘I’m going to use this as an opportunity to distinguish myself as somebody with conscience.’ We need someone in the media to break camp, people within elected offices, to just decide to make a departure.
“Basically, I tell myself, that there’s no Iraqi child that I’ve met who can afford any pessimism or cynicism on my part.” –M.K.