Dying for War


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 ( “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.”

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.

Troops themselves are taking precautions in a gesture at once valorizing the ideal of the epic body of the hetero-macho soldier and its need for reproduction, and poignantly expressing their fears of illness or even death: Before shipping out, they are leaving deposits in sperm banks. (One California sperm bank is offering discounts on storage for servicemen.)

And it’s not just the possible contaminants in Saddam’s arsenal those soldiers are worried about. A study commissioned by the Defense Department and released by Duke University in January found that rats exposed to just three of the chemicals to which soldiers in the first Gulf War were exposed suffered significant damage to their brains, livers, and testes. Sperm production plunged. The guilty toxins came from a prophylactic treatment against nerve gas and two powerful insecticides provided to troops by the military itself.

With Bush pushing for a permanent war on terrorism, that sperm may eventually produce new troops to take up where their dads leave off. In the meantime, a little-noticed provision of the No Child Left Behind Act—the education bill signed into law last year—requires that high schools provide military recruiters with the names and contact information of their pupils. Students must affirmatively opt out if they do not want recruiters ringing them up at home while they’re doing their homework or watching TV. Under the current budget shortfalls, CUNY and other public universities are facing tuition increases and kids paying attention are connecting the dots. Two students from the Bushwick Outreach Center told a crowd at “Poetry Is News,” an anti-war meeting of writers held on Saturday, that the military is being held out to them as their only means of getting into college. “If I go fighting this war,” said Jesus Gonzales, 17, a kaffiyeh wrapped tight around his head, “there’s still gonna be a family of five living in a van down the block.”

Seeing the manipulation of poor and working-class kids in the twin developments of tuition increases and recruitment requirements might smack of a cynicism that most Americans don’t want to soak up. Of course it’s preferable to believe that our leaders act out of good motives and genuine concern, even if one might disagree with their programs or tactics. That’s why many prefer to dismiss the “no war for oil” slogan, and why it’s disturbing to think that the war is one means of advancing a social agenda of diminishing freedoms, shrinking social services, and enriching corporations. (Tax breaks for SUV owners!)

But without any immediate threat to the U.S. by Saddam Hussein there really is only one compelling explanation for the war Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz are insisting upon—one that provides even more reason for resistance. As policy analyst Phyllis Bennis puts it in “Understanding the U.S.-Iraq Crisis: A Primer” (available at the threats of war “are driven by oil and empire—expanding U.S. military and economic power.” As is well-known to readers of the Voice and other progressive publications, many top officials of the Bush administration have strong ties to the oil industries (and to the arms industries that also thrive with war and that supplied Saddam with much of his arsenal during the 1970s and ’80s).

As Bennis points out, the anxiety about controlling access to Iraqi oil reserves comes largely from the instability of Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. has a lock on oil. Many in the Bush administration believe, Bennis writes, that a post-war, U.S.-dependent Iraq “would supplant Saudi control of oil prices and marginalize the influence of the Saudi-led OPEC oil cartel. Iraq could replace Saudi Arabia, at least partially, at the center of U.S. oil and military strategy in the region, and the U.S. would remain able to act as guarantor of oil for Japan, Germany, and other allies in Europe and around the world.” What’s more, the superhawks of Bush’s administration, she argues, want to see U.S. power expanded more generally in the region. Much of the plan was set forth before 9-11, in a blueprint written in September 2000 for Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others, by the neoconservative think tank Project for a New American Century. The plan includes attacking Iraq to force a regime change and insists on “maintaining global U.S. preeminence” and “shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.” It has conveniently found a rationale in the “war against terrorism.”

In invading Iraq to force a regime change, the U.S. would be violating one of the most time-honored doctrines of international cooperation. More frightening, it would be inflaming anti-American sentiment in the region and, as the CIA itself has concluded, providing Saddam with the only scenario in which he’d be likely to share weapons of mass destruction with Al Qaeda. Even as the billions, possibly trillions, that the war might cost would drive the American economy deeper into a hole, the attack would further endanger everyone living in the United States and all Americans abroad, achieving exactly the opposite of what Bush claims to want.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, Colin Powell tipped his hand for Wednesday’s UN speech, asserting that though there was still no “smoking gun,” the world must face up to the fact that Iraq has flouted the will of the international community.

It’s a peculiar charge to brandish in light of America’s newly emphatic unilateralism.

Indeed, American hypocrisy is easy to find in the bluster of the Bush administration. Appealing to Americans’ genuine concern for human rights, for instance, Bush has reviled Saddam’s abuses of his people. But official state torture of detainees in the Philippines hasn’t stopped the U.S. from sending troops to help train that government’s soldiers. It’s easy, in fact, to get smug on such matters. The point, though, is that the U.S. has shaky credibility when it comes to the moral argument, especially since it supported the Iraqi regime during the period of its most egregious human rights violations. In any case, when it comes to mass murder—which war inevitably is—moral argument in the end is all that counts.

United States Marine Corps veteran Travis Lee Clark understands that well. As he says in his post to the sound-off board of Veterans Against the Iraq War, “For every person in the world who has not and will not harm me and my family, I likewise vow not to harm them and theirs.”

Related Story:

“Blood, Stats, and Tears: How the Coming War Stacks Up” by Ward Harkavy

Information about the February 15 antiwar March can be found at

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 4, 2003

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