The televised face of this war is a lie. It's a flickering screen with a Fox-TV newsman's macho boast that US troops are in the heart of Baghdad and are "here to stay." It's a Pentagon press conference assuring us that another city has been "taken," but not yet "secured."
Occasionally, however, we catch glimpses of the reality: descriptions of incidents that reflect the real impact on both sides.
A U.S. Marine in a medevac unit outside Al Kut, unable to save a dying American soldier, buries his resucitation equipment in despair. I'm reading this in my morning paper. I close my eyes and try to imagine where this Marine came from, what he did before he was shipped over to Iraq. Maybe he worked in an inner-city hospital where gunshot wounds are the norm, but the hospital's emergency room has the equipment and personnel to save lives and patch together even the worst cases. But the stripped-down, gritty, sweltering reality of a battlefield after three days of non-stop fighting with bullets still whizzing overhead and not enough clamps to stop the bleeding and not enough hands to patch all the wounds fast enough has finally broken his will. What will be left of this man when he returns home?
I read a quote from soldiers who've shot up a van full of women and children. The soldiers' initial, agonized question, "Why did they do it? Why did they try to run the checkpoint?" will eventually, with the passage of time, become "Why did I do it? Why did I shoot them all?" The soldiers will remember that brief scene over and over again in their nightmares for the next 20, 30, 40 years.
These soldiers weren't the only ones who prepared for the worst, only to realize that war brings on the worst in spite of their best-laid plans.
Ibrahim al-Yussuf's parents thought they could save their 12-year-old son by sending him to live with relatives in Zambrania, a small, rural village outside of Baghdad. The city was too dangerous, they thought, as loud explosions and fireballs lit up the skyline at night. After all, a U.S. HARM missile demolished a busy market, killing 67 people and wounding dozens more. If Ibrahim left the city he'd be out of the way of stray missiles.
But soon after the war started, U.S. military planners set up "kill boxes" in the region south of Baghdad, a largely rural area, where Zambrania and several other villages lie. Kill boxes were used in Afghanistan; they're grid-like areas on the military planners' maps that are designated as free-fire zones. U.S. fighter pilots are allowed to shoot anything that moves within these zones. But, just as in Afghanistan, there is no way that civilians on the ground can know when they've entered a kill box until a bomb falls on them.
Ibrahim and his 17-year-old cousin, Jalal, left home to have lunch with Abdullah, a friend who owned the neighboring farm. They were torn apart by a U.S. bomb because they were outside, walking, and a kill box had been superimposed over their home.
Zambrania and the neighboring village of Talkana have lost 19 people because of U.S. fighter planes. In Manaria, a village 30 miles south of Baghdad, 22 people have died and 53 have been injured in air raids. Most of the dead and wounded are children and women. Many of the wounds look suspiciously like those caused by cluster bombs, anti-personnel weapons that release a spray of deadly shrapnel that can cut through flesh, bone and even the soft, mud-brick walls of Iraqi houses. The U.N. has condemned the use of cluster bombs, a key component of the U.S. arsenal, because so many more civilians are killed by cluster bombs than any other kind of ordnance except land mines. And like a land mine, a cluster bomblet can lie unexploded, waiting for a victim to brush by it or a curious child to pick it up.
The use of cluster bombs in these rural areas is, surely, a war crime. As the daughter of a farmer, I feel physically ill at the thought of a rural landscape littered with these little packages of death. And then I read about the Hilla massacre.
The Red Cross reported 61 civilians killed and 450 people injured over two days -- March 31 and April 1 -- by cluster bombs dropped in the Hilla region south of Baghdad. Described as "a horror," two nights of U.S. bombing produced babies cut in half, dozens of severed bodies, and scattered limbs. The victims were farmers and their families. There were no Iraqi artillery, Republican guard troops or military installations within miles.
And the horrors continue to unfold. Patrick Baz, a veteran photographer for Agence France Presse who covered the war in Beirut in the 1980s, was shocked when he stumbled upon a farm torn up by U.S. missiles in al-Janably. Inside the farmhouse were the remains of a family of 20 people, 11 of them children.
Children make up the largest number of civilian victims in Iraq; they are, after all, an estimated 60 percent of the population. There really is a good reason why Al Jazeera TV broadcasts so many pictures of suffering Iraqi children.
Dimitrius Mognie, a Greek doctor and humanitarian aid worker, recently visited a hospital in Baghdad, where he described the shortage of antibiotics, bandages and even anesthetics. He was struck by the enormous number of children in the hospital beds and the heartbreaking lack of resources available for them. He witnessed doctors amputating a child's limb using only local anesthetics; the doctors had to give the child a new shot every five minutes. Nearby lay a 9-year-old boy suffering from a horrible abdominal wound that he sustained when he "had picked up something that exploded"--clearly, an injury from a cluster bomb.
Meanwhile, on the urban battlefield, families with young children have been caught in the crossfire in Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf,and Baghdad. Eyewitness reports of civilians killed in those cities evoke memories of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the No Gun Ryi slaughter in Korea. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have told us that few civilians will be killed. But the real face of this war is inescapable: hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian dead, and most of them children.
Maria Tomchick is co-editor and contributing writer for Eat the State!, a biweekly newspaper based in Seattle, Washington.
Some of the sources for this article:
"Thousands Flee Baghdad as U.S. Troops Edge Nearer," Matthew Green, Reuters, 4/5/03
"Cluster bombs liberate Iraqi Children," Pepe Escobar, Asia Times online
"'Kill box' policy reflects intensified onslaught," Owen Bowcott and agencies, The Guardian, 3/27/03
"I saw the heads of my two little girls come off," Sydney Morning Herald, 4/2/03
"Samar's story," Kim Sengupta, The Independent, 4/4/02
"So this is what war looks like?" Tim Wise, Znet, 4/2/03
"Barrage of Fire, Trail of Death in the Capital," Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, 4/6/03