Christopher J. Doucot
Joy Gordon’s recent book Invisible War is accurately subtitled The United States and the Iraq Sanctions however, an equally appropriate subtitle could be How the United States perfected the Neutron Bomb. If you don’t remember the neutron bomb was supposed to maximize human death while doing minimal property damage. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) imagined just such an outcome when the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the people of Iraq. A January 18, 1991 DIA memo forecast epidemics of typhoid, Cholera, and Hepatitis by June of 1991 because of sanctions induced “degradation of the water treatment system” in Iraq. Of course we don’t know if sanctions alone would have driven Iraq back to a pre-industrial society since two days prior to the penning of this memo American warplanes began a bombardment which damaged or destroyed every major water treatment, sewage treatment and electrical power plant in Iraq. What we do know is that the sanctions prevented Iraqi civil engineers from making any significant repairs to the nation’s infrastructure for more than a decade thereby ensuring widespread civilian death and disease. By the late ‘90’s UNICEF was reporting that the combined effects of the bombings and sanctions were killing upwards of 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 every month.
In Invisible War Gordon explains how the “nonviolent” weapon of sanctions ultimately killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. For example, the near elimination of electricity prevented Iraq from “maintaining a cold chain”; that is, without uninterrupted electricity, and lacking a fleet of refrigerated trucks, Iraq was unable to import, produce or distribute perishable foods, child or livestock vaccines, or medicines like insulin. In response to growing international and domestic criticisms that the sanctions were taking too severe a toll on civilians the US consented to the creation of the Oil for Food program which was intended to provide the people of Iraq with immediate relief by allowing Iraq to recommence importing food, medicines, and the equipment necessary to deliver these goods. In chapter 4, “The Problem of Holds”, Gordon meticulously documents the ways in which the United States undermined the Oil for Food program by preventing Iraq from importing everything from eggs to the components required to restore electricity to the nation. The consistent American justification for placing “holds” on antibiotics, fire trucks, irrigation equipment, yogurt makers…, was that the items in question were “dual use”. Following the American reasoning vaccines along with a restored cold chain could enable Iraq to manufacture biological weapons; sick children, spoiled medicine and rotted food were an unfortunate but unavoidable, and purportedly unintended, side effect of keeping America safe.
In January of 1999 I apologized to a grieving Iraqi father whose son had been killed by an American missile a week earlier to wit he asked: “why does America bomb us? We are not criminals.” In chapter 10, Inside the US Policy, Gordon explores the question of why the civilian impact of the sanctions and bombings did not spur the United States to alter Iraqi policy even while nearly all international support withered. She concludes that “civilian suffering literally counted for zero” because “[a]mong US policymakers, “Saddam Hussein” and the people of Iraq were entirely conflated; denial of goods to the civilian population was seen as “denying Saddam Hussein”. With three administrations framing our policy as containment of Hussein, and with most media coverage hewing closely to this official narrative, the true impact of twenty years of war on the people of Iraq is largely unknown in America. Instead we have accepted that since Saddam Hussein was evil incarnate any other considerations, eg the 22 million other Iraqis not named Saddam Hussein, were distractions and impediments to security.
In July of 2000 I again found myself apologizing to an Iraqi mother. She was at the bedside of her 6 year old son in a Najaf hospital. His right arm had been blown off by an American cluster bomb. After my feeble act of contrition the mother said to me: “You don’t need to apologize, I don’t hold you responsible for the actions of your government.” Her generosity was both ironic and undeserved. I am responsible for my government; ours is a free society with free elections, our tax dollars purchased the weapon that maimed her child. As a child living under a dictator he was in no way responsible for the invasion of Kuwait or any of Saddam’s policies, and yet he was he and a half million other children whom we held accountable.
In her concluding chapter, “The Moral and Political Questions”, Gordon explores the questions everyday Iraqis posed to me dozens of times: intentionality and responsibility. What are the moral implications if the intention of the sanctions was to remove Saddam Hussein and the consequent civilian harm was unintended- but not unknown? And, with a diffuse decision making bureaucracy executing the policy who is responsible for the deaths of at least a half a million civilians? If we embrace the notion that ours is a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, are “we the people” complicit in the deaths of innocent Iraqi children?
In the Spring of 1999 the deputy director of the UN’s humanitarian program in Iraq, Farid Zareef, told me: “In five years a new generation will take over that is less educated, more hostile to perceived enemies, less stable psychologically, less confident in the future and less competent…” This new generation has no memories of a modern society with clean water, electricity, and quality health care. On p242 Gordon writes: “For both Saddam Hussein and the US government, one critical feature of the decision-making calculus was the same: it was that humanitarian needs… were consistently subordinated to the state’s overriding political agenda…” The boy I met in Najaf is now 16. Without an arm his opportunities in a still devastated society are limited. While I hope that he has embraced the generous spirit of forgiveness displayed by his mother it is just as likely that he embodies the fears outlined by Mr. Zarif making him a prime candidate for a suicide bombing. The former outcome is the product of a calculus based on the Golden Rule, while the latter is the product of RealPolitik calculus. If peace and security is what we seek it seems to me that we need to change our calculus.
Invisible War by Joy Gordon fills what had been a gap in the historical record. The writing is clear and follows a logical progression. The veracity of her information is well documented with 23 pages of bibliography and more than a thousand endnotes. With the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran unfolding in ways that parallel our earlier relationship with Iraq we need to know this history so too not repeat it.
Christopher J. Doucot is a founder of the Hartford Catholic Worker. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Yale Divinity School.