Dying for War

The Bush warmongers miss the bloody truth

God forbid anybody should think about what war really means as Bush and his fleet of hawks rush into battle. Last week, at the United Nations, a large blue curtain was draped over a reproduction of Picasso's monumental Guernica that flanks the entrance to the Security Council. How disconcerting, how off-message, it would be after all, if Secretary of State Colin Powell or UN ambassador John Negroponte had to beat the war drums in front of Picasso's wrenching images of women and children writhing in cubistic dismemberment under a bombing campaign.

War can't be hell in the cartoon-like heroic narrative that tells of the good guys whisking away a tyrant and then striding away unscratched and in triumph, spreading democracy in their wake, as if it could be sprinkled over the battlefield like confetti. (Gushing after last week's State of the Union address, Reagan and Bush père speechwriter Peggy Noonan actually likened the president to "Clark Kent moving, at the moment of maximum danger, to shed his suit, tear open his shirt, and reveal the big 'S' on this chest.") In the hazardous hallucinations of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz, war seems no worse than high-tech heck. So it seems necessary, in these bellicose times, when debate has narrowed to the question of what weapons Saddam Hussein really does or does not have, to remember the obvious: War kills. That's its point. People die and are maimed. Cities burn. Poisons ooze into air, earth, and water. Families are torn asunder. Homes are abandoned. And resentment, left smoldering in defeat, is stoked for vengeance some other day.

William Bryan Turner, who served in Vietnam in the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972, knows the truth of it. "I am a combat veteran," he writes on the "sound-off board" of the Veterans Against the Iraq War ( www.vaiw.org). "I was in the field and I know what the color of war is. It is red. I have seen and smelled too much of red."

Medic treating wounded POW. Delta Company Medic Pete Tovar treating wounded POW under the watchful  eye of an M60 machine gun.
Photo courtesy of Rigo Ordaz
Medic treating wounded POW. Delta Company Medic Pete Tovar treating wounded POW under the watchful eye of an M60 machine gun.

Saddam Hussein is a despot, a dictator, a torturer, and a fiend. That's not the question. To be sure, the Iraqi people would be better off in a democracy. And perhaps Saddam really is hiding weapons he should not have (though convincing evidence has yet to be presented). The issue, rather, is whether risking the lives and health of American troops, provoking likely terrorist attacks on New York and other U.S. targets, and most certainly wiping out many thousands of Iraqis—the UN predicts upwards of half a million Iraqis requiring medical treatment as a result of "direct or indirect injuries" related to the war—is the best way to disarm Saddam and improve the lives of the people suffering under his rule. Not to mention the related consequences of gutting civil liberties and eviscerating social spending here, and taking the chance of regional conflagration in the Middle East.

The latest battle strategy would, as its title insists, "Shock and Awe" Iraq by dropping as many as 800 "smart" cruise missiles on that country in two days—more than twice the number of missiles launched during the entire 40 days of the 1991 Gulf War. Late last month, the architect of Shock and Awe, military strategist Harlan Ullman, gloated to the press about the effect being "rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima." Such an attack would "take the city down," he said, wiping out the water and power supplies in Baghdad. "In two, three, four, five days, they are physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausted."

In other words, a lot of human beings—children, women, old people, students, and yes, soldiers—are dead, and the infrastructure that supports those left breathing—sanitation, water, food delivery, and all the rest—lies in a shambles. As for the American troops wreaking the devastation, they go untouched in this antiseptic scenario: The blitz is meant to leave the Iraqis so stunned and dispirited that they abandon support for Saddam Hussein instead of shooting back or following orders to unleash biological or chemical weapons.

In what one defense official has called a "dangerous role reversal," it is the Pentagon that has been urging a civilian administration, none of whose vociferous warmongers have ever gone to battle themselves, to slow down. Though top Pentagon officials have been careful not to openly oppose the war—in this administration, after all, disagreement is tantamount to treason—some of the contingency plans they've come up with suggest grave doubts about the president's storyboard. According to a Denver Post report on January 24, the Pentagon has been considering an option to bulldoze the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed by chemical or biological weapons into mass graves and then burn them to save the lives of surviving troops. In November, the General Accounting Office expressed "continuing concerns" about the Defense Department's ability to defend against such weapons even as Pentagon officials revealed that soldiers' protective suits and gas masks were inadequate and often defective. Even Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War, expressed skepticism in a Washington Post interview that an invasion of Iraq would be quick and easy.

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