Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 2, Number 32 September 15 - 21, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
War Looks Like
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
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 heir 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.
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).
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
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?"
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 John Doe, the scraps of dried
viscera and skin bundled in khaki."
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
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)ódied under American bombs and shells.
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
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
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.
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 beyond recognition."
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.
was no photograph of a single dead Iraqi child, no names of particular Iraqis,
no images of suffering and grief to convey to the American people what our
overwhelming military machine was doing to other human beings.
bombing of Afghanistan has been treated as if human beings are of little
consequence. It was 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.
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, lying on a hospital bed on the Pakistani border, his eyes gone, his
hands blown off, a victim of American bombs.
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.
as we contemplate an American attack on Iraq, should we not go beyond the
agendas of the politicians and the experts? (John le Carr_Ehas one of his
characters say: "I despise experts more than anyone on earth.")
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?
this we will need the help of people in the arts, those who through time--from
Euripedes 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 bottom 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."
enough Americans could see that, perhaps the war on Iraq would not take place.
Zinn, a columnist for The Progressive, is the author of "A People's History
of the United States.")