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“The Forever War” at its Worst: Iraq

(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)

In a heartbreaking scene from The Forever War, Dexter Filkins, with the at-the-time head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer, visits a hospital in Diwaniya, “a mostly Shiite city in southern Iraq”. Once there Filkins:

“...broke away from Bremer’s entourage and walked downstairs, where I fell into a conversation with some young Iraqi doctors. There had been no electricity in more than a week; it was only running, the doctors said, because Bremer was here. This had not been the case before the war, the doctors said. During the invasion, Mubarqa Maternity hospital had stayed open continuously. The lack of electricity was killing the babies, the doctors said. Without electricity the incubators were going cold and, after a time, the babies were going cold, too. The vaccines in the refrigerators were spoiling. So were the bacterial cultures. So was the blood...

“A few days later I went back to Mubarqa by myself. Roaming its halls, I stepped into a bare room where I found Hassan Naji, the hospital record keeper...

“Yes, yes, babies are dying,” he said, looking up...”Under Saddam, this did not happen. not like this.”

“...So do you miss Saddam?” I asked, “Naji. you sound like you miss him.”  

“Never, “ Naji said, shaking his head. “never. The Americans did a great thing when they got rid of that tyrant. Things could get even worse here and I would still feel that way.”

My first thought (or futile complaint) is that the American public didn’t take these babies into account before the Iraq war began. How many children were lost to the chaos of the war zone? How many civilians died? How many Americans know (or care) about this today?

For those who follow the Iraq War, either pro or against, there is an obsession with trying to quantify it; specifically, trying to quantify the death toll. Numerous studies and surveys have tried to fill that gap, with each new release garnering a small headline in the back of a paper, buried in the foreign affairs section. Some surveys--like the Iraq Body Count--tried to calculate an exact number, based on reported deaths in newspapers during attacks. Not surprisingly, those who support(ed) the Iraq War usually cite this low number.

But these studies don’t take these babies into account. And yes, there were studies--this Lancet survey in particular--that tried to take the tertiary effects into consideration, but to say those studies were controversial is an understatement.

The second point, and the most amazing thing about this passage, is that some Iraqi people--mainly Shiites--still supported the war, even with babies dying all around them. It absolutely shocks me.

Then again, like body counts, nothing in war is ever simple.

(For an interesting op-ed on a topic, check out this LA times article from this week on the death toll in Haiti.)

three comments

A few quick things:

1. I actually do like the Iraqi Body Count project, but I hate how people understand and disseminate it. As I pretty clearly illustrated above, it doesn’t take all the deaths of the war into account.

2. We probably need to write more about this issue.

METT-TC-B (babies on the battlefield.)

I don’t think the Body Count project is personal enough. It’s not enough to simply hear about the destruction and the death. We’re a visual culture. We need to see it. There just isn’t enough widespread visual coverage of the loss of life. The American media fought so hard to win the privilege of photographing coffins coming home from war and we haven’t heard anything since the victory.