A Real Cost Of The Iraq War
The AP’s recent report entitled “Costs of US Wars Linger for Over 100 Years” trivializes “costs” while ironically hitting the nail on the head. Marking the 10th anniversary of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the author defines “costs” as how much the government pays out in benefits to veterans and their dependents. The report details how there are still some people receiving Civil War benefits. This may sound startling, but it is true for fairly obvious reasons. A number of veterans got married very late in life to women who were very young. Their dwindling progeny are the children of Civil War veterans and qualify for benefits. This is an interesting factoid, but these ancient urchins didn’t even warrant the attention of Paul Ryan’s giant scissors. The AP’s definition of the “costs” of the Iraq war is insipid.
Any serious definition of the costs of the Iraq war should begin by acknowledging that at least 110,000 people have died violently as a direct result of the war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers have suffered life-altering physical and psychological injuries. At least 1.1 million Iraqis are displaced and many of them continue to languish in abject poverty. America’s use of white phosphorous and depleted uranium munitions is causing an extraordinary boom in cancer and birth defects. In Fallujah, the rate of children born with horrific deformities has surpassed that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bombings. But the real reason that the AP is right, that the Iraq war will continue to exact a real human toll for decades, if not a century or more, is because Iraq is the world’s most crowded landfill of explosives. There are 20 million landmines and 50 million cluster bomblets in Iraq. For every man, woman and child living in Iraq, there are 2 bombs lurking somewhere nearby.
To be clear, the landmines were not planted by the US, and many of the unexploded bombs are from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. There has been no major attempt to quantify how much unexploded ordnance has been left behind since the invasion. It is also worth noting that American soldiers cleared quite a lot of unexploded ordnance in areas where they were operating. Whether this offsets the amount being left behind is unknowable. But because of the invasion and the conditions it wrought, an enormous amount of unsecured explosives have fallen into the hands of people who continue to use it. The invasion severely complicated international efforts to clear and secure explosives and delayed attempts to map out minefields for many years.
There are at least 1.6 million people who live within an area known to be heavily contaminated by unexploded ordnance. These areas include fertile farmland as well as rugged areas populated by impoverished internal refugees. As a result, although Iraq has probably the highest civilian casualty rate from unexploded ordnance in the world, the exact human toll is unknown. A report showed that in 2005, at least 358 people were killed in Iraq by unexploded ordnance. But this number is incomplete and is likely much smaller than the actual, unknown toll. But what this reveals is that, on average, on any given day, somewhere in Iraq, someone is about to step on a landmine, drive a plow over a mortar round, or pick up a cluster bomblet thinking it’s a toy.
The AP is unwittingly propagating the illusion that the violence that wars unleash ends when we decide the war is over. Given the paucity of information about Iraq, a comparison is in order. In February, 2009, I was headed to an ancient temple, bumping along a dirt road in the back of a tuk-tuk, scorching in a tropical sauna, snapping shots of the huts on stilts in the Cambodian countryside. It was a few days after I had visited the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison, which had hit me like a sucker punch to the soul. But what I saw next forever altered my perception of conflict and American foreign policy.
Under Nixon’s and Kissinger’s direction, the US conducted a secret bombing campaign along Cambodia’s eastern frontier during the Vietnam War. The US dropped more tonnage of explosives on Cambodia than the Allies dropped on the Axis powers during World War II, including the atomic bombings of Japan. This campaign to pulverize Vietcong weapons smugglers had the side effect of killing upwards of half a million Cambodians, with whom we were not at war. It caused the Cambodian economy to collapse, arguably paving the way for the Khmer Rouge to take power and kill as many as 1 million of their own people. Many of the bombs dropped on Cambodia are still there today, unexploded.
As I jumped out of the tuk-tuk and met the temple’s tour guide, he offered his left hand, thumb down, for me to shake in greeting. The fact that he was missing an arm, a leg and an eye was not what struck me. What fundamentally shifted my view of war was the fact that he was a boy. All during the tour, as he described the intricate etchings and regaled me with tales of the ancient emperors who had built the architectural marvels of Cambodia’s past, I was only half-listening. I was working out when he had been born. He had been born fully a decade and a half after the Vietnam War ended. He had come into the world around the time that ticker-tape parades greeted American soldiers returning from the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
After the tour, I asked him what had happened to him. His story was one that plays out, on average, twice a day in Cambodia. He was helping his father in the farm. He was digging a ditch to plant new crops. And then he was in the air. He could no longer work on the farm, so his father sent him to beg at the temples, and he eventually got a tour-guiding gig. I didn’t ask how.
That boy with half a body has haunted me ever since. What he taught me, and what I can never forget, is that Richard Nixon is still bombing Cambodia today. The Vietnam War is still raging. Children whose parents had not even met when the last helicopter fled the American embassy in Saigon have been killed in that conflict. Probably, two died today. Iraq and Cambodia are two of the world’s most bomb-ridden countries. The ongoing slaughter of innocent people in Cambodia in the decades since the Vietnam War is an indication of what will happen in Iraq for decades and decades to come. There are children who have not been born yet who will be killed by Bush’s decision to invade and drop bombs on Iraq in 2003. That is a certainty. And the AP editorial board would do well to remember it when they discuss the “costs” of that war.
Marc Belisle | Staff Writer | The Everlasting GOP Stoppers |
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