The new face of techno-war.
Recently I spent four days in Baghdad with a small group of longtime peace activists who'd gone there to document civilian damage caused by the U.S. bombing. We were pretty sure what we'd see. We expected to find enormous unreported destruction. We wanted to flesh out, house by house and family by family, the words of the United Nations mission, which flew out at us from The New York Times on March 23, the day we set off. "Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age."
Instead we found a city whose homes and offices were almost entirely intact, where the electricity was coming back on and the water was running. Not a normal place-scarcity, grief, hardship and apprehension marked it-but postindustrial enough for us to be caught in a lot of traffic jams.
A generation ago, the language of American death-dealing was, "We'll bomb them back to the Stone Age." Now, in Baghdad, that language no longer describes the truth. Baghdad isn't the whole country (though it holds almost a quarter of its population), nor is it representative of the rest of Iraq or the damage done there. But what we saw, and what we didn't see, has more frightening implications than if we'd stood in endless rubble.
When a capital city's communications centers can be destroyed with little damage to the surrounding buildings or people; when a nation's infrastructure can be crippled so that the deadliest effects appear long after the world's eye has moved elsewhere; when high-tech, low-gore war can be combined with heavy censorship-then any nation willing to forfeit its social and economic development to weapons can exert power at will, deny moral responsibility and avoid popular revulsion.
The bombing of the Amiriya shelter, where Americans incinerated still-uncounted hundreds of Iraqi women and children, and the slaughter on the Kuwaiti highways, where Americans picked off retreating soldiers as if it were sport, evoked public horror, as such atrocities always have. But from what we saw in Baghdad, that kind of war now coexists with something else-call it techno-war-that is not just a figment of Pentagon propaganda and can't be countered as if it were.
Our group-Don Mosley from Fellowship of Reconciliation, Ed Griffin-Nolan from Witness for Peace, Rick Reinhard from Impact Visuals, and myself, accompanied by Abdul Kadir al-Kaysi, an Iraqi-American who interpreted for Ramsey Clark during Clark's February visit [see Clark, A War Crime," March 11 1-went to Baghdad specifically to document civilian casualties and harm to the infrastructure. The Iraqis knew this, and knew that FOR had shipped fourteen tons of medicine to Iraq during the war. They had no conceivable interest in preventing us from seeing every particle of damage. And though many people have suggested that "Arab pride" (perhaps a patronizing concept?) might have made them play down or hide casualties, everyone we spoke to-pro- or anti-Baath Party, behind a desk or on the street--was emphatic about the disaster that had befallen the city and eager to impress on us how bad things were. Iraqi officials may have been preoccupied with insurrection; bureaucrats and police-state paranoia limited our mobility; but I think the reason we didn't see more destruction was that it wasn't there.
Our Baghdad home was the first surprise. A rather posh Red Crescent hospital, scheduled to open in September 1990, had been turned into a free way-station for peace and aid workers. The electricity functioned except for a few hours at night, the rooms had hot and/or cold water, the lobby TV was on and the kitchen had a gas stove, purified water and adequate food (lamb, rice, vegetables, tea). If such relative comfort and lack of medical urgency-didn't they need this hospital?-was typical, every preconception I'd come with was wrong; if exceptional, the allocation of resources was very peculiar.
We traveled around the city in a Red Crescent bus that had brought us from Jordan. Although we hadn't planned it this way, the entire visit was under the auspices and sharp eyes of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (on three evenings I and some of the others grabbed a cab and went out, twice to the AlRashid Hotel and once to a fish restaurant on the river). Using a 1983 map of Baghdad, I have roughly retraced our itinerary. We drove many times on the expressways that crisscross the city and, off them, went through all ages and classes of neighborhoods. We questioned everyone we met about casualties; bomb damage; communications; the food, water and fuel supplies; and health.
To start with the casualties: We heard estimates ranging from 500 to 1,600 killed in the Amiriya shelter. Dr. Boghos Paul Boghossian, director of Yarmuk Hospital, where the first bodies were received, said that Amiriya had been reserved for "V.I.P.s" until two weeks before the bombing, when the local population was admitted.
Boghossian estimated that 1,000 civilians (in addition to those from Amiriya) were treated at Yarmuk during the war and that 150-200 of them died (he later told us 100-150). He wouldn't extrapolate from this to a total for the city, but he did say that Yarmuk was Baghdad's primary surgical center, one of its largest hospitals and the closest to many of the communications centers targeted for multiple attacks.
We were taken to only one scene of neighborhood destruction, Kadhimiya, where nine homes were bombed and forty people were killed, according to residents. From the bus we also saw a similar but smaller area and a few separate destroyed homes. The Iraqi government estimated, for the UN. mission, that 2,500 homes in Baghdad were damaged beyond repair, but from what I saw this is not credible.
The most glaring physical damage was to telecommunications centers. We saw six of these buildings, stripped to their girders, and didn't doubt that all fifteen were demolished. They're strange monuments to a general's notion of what's precise and clean, these huge lumps of crumpled tinfoil. Next to one, a shopping center was wrecked; around the others some adjacent buildings were affected. People living near these sites told us that two or three night workers were killed at each one, and we heard of one woman killed when a missile hit her house.
If each of Baghdad's major hospitals saw as many war deaths as Yarmuk; if there were a couple of areas like Kadhimiya; if thirty-five workers died at the communications buildings and 100 others were in the wrong place at the wrong time; if we take the high estimate of the Amiriya deaths-then America's "clean" bombing of Baghdad was the direct cause of 3,000 civilian deaths. "Surgical strikes" are dirty. But this would be the lowest number of civilian deaths from the bombing of a major city in the history of modern war: Consider the London Blitz, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki.
Of course, there have been and will continue to be indirect deaths caused by the devastation of Iraq's civilian infrastructure. As reflected in what we saw of daily life in Baghdad, the effects of this damage are in part already being repaired and in part just now becoming evident.
Private communications were a mess, affecting hospitals as well as families. Not once did we hear a phone ring (though I saw a construction worker talking into a portable phone). Messages had to be delivered by hand. Government communication, on the other hand, worked-newspapers came out every day, television was omnipresent.
Residents said that all sections of the city had electricity at least part of the day. Hospitals and many government offices had generators, and we saw that the main streets were lit at night. Gasoline is severely rationed and very expensive on the black market, but traffic was heavy, with most cars carrying only one passenger. The main bus station was always very crowded. Night traffic was light, except for patrol cars carrying men with Kalashnikov rifles.
All the people we talked to said water was available in their neighborhood. The International Committee of the Red Cross began chlorination of the city's water right after the suspension of the bombing. Reinhard and Griffin-Nolan visited one of the city's three sewage-treatment plants (which discharge into the same river). Several people had told them it had been bombed, but it was intact, though working only part time for lack of electricity.
I saw butcher after butcher with half a dozen large carcasses hanging in his shop; street vendors everywhere hawked vegetables, fruit, bread and sweets. Prices, however, are said to be ten to fifteen times what they were before last August. The vegetable harvest will end in a month, baby formula is out of most mothers' reach and the ration of staples is insufficient to maintain health, according to both doctors and housewives. There was a perpetual queue at a government bakery we often passed, but we saw no lines at the regular shops. The streets were fairly clean, with no rotting heaps of garbage, except in the alleys of old Baghdad.
Everyone told us the real human cost of all these factors would show up slowly, and especially in the children. The hospitals we visited, Yarmuk and Saddam Central Children's Hospital, held no bombing casualties and were eerily empty and calm because, the doctors said, they lacked so many basic services-the electricity was erratic, the water pressure inadequate-that patients stayed home. We saw indirect victims--children with hideous burns from kerosene heaters, a few with serious diarrhea, premature babies sharing incubators, sick children sharing an oxygen cylinder-and heard heartbreaking stories of mothers in panic during the raids, tearing children off I.Vs to take them to shelters. But the cholera and typhoid epidemics that may come with the hot weather haven't shown up yet. Our group had arrived at a moment when the worst of the immediate past was no longer visible and the anticipated catastrophe hadn't yet occurred.
Careful, objective documentation was difficult under the circumstances. Permission had to be asked for every photograph, however banal--ordinary street scenes were prohibited, as was one bombed bridge. We were never given a map, though we begged for one. Even the spoken word was not as easily informative as it should have been in a city where so many people know English. We were always accompanied by someone from a government organization; when I interviewed the head of the women's federation, who spoke fair English, not only was our "driver" there but so was a new interpreter and another woman, who sat next to me writing down each question and each answer. Under such circumstances, even the most plausible information they gave us needed confirmation.
We asked over and over to visit other cities near Baghdad or factories on the outskirts that were reported to have been bombed, but we were turned down. We were not allowed to go to Basra, where by that time the allied bomb damage, by all reports heavy--and not from the "smart" bombs reserved for Baghdad--would have been hard to sort out from damage caused by the Iran-Iraq war or by the civil war. On the other hand, we were encouraged to go to Karbala, where the blood was barely dry but where it had been shed at the hands of Iraqis. That the government wanted us to see exactly how they'd won showed a pretty basic misunderstanding of the peacenik mentality.
Addressing antiwar Americans can indeed be difficult. Very few people I've spoken to since I came back want to hear the good news that Baghdad wasn't razed. Not from callousness, of course. And not out of stupidity: It's easy enough to understand that someone who dies of hunger or disease, however many months after a cease-fire, is just as war-dead as someone hit by a bomb. What they seem to fear is that a bombing whose toll is long-term and still invisible isn't useful for mobilizing antiwar sentiment. They may be right. When I look at Rick Reinhard's contact sheets, the shots that "work" are a child standing in rubble, a veiled mother holding her kerosene-burned baby, a building blown down to its skeleton. Using these images, however, always implies that beyond the frame of that particular picture is a vast landscape of rubble and injury. This isn't true for what we saw; any right-winger with a fisheye lens could refute such an interpretation. But a photograph of untreated sewage pouring into a river from which people draw drinking water is just a picture of water flowing into water. A damaged electrical substation isn't emotionally useful, however profound its implications.
Perhaps to demonstrate how the new toys work, perhaps to cut Saddam Hussein down to size without taking away all his power, Baghdad was simultaneously saved and destroyed. The documentation and agitprop of antiwar protest must be reshaped in light of such new realities, and our activism must be less visually rooted, less sentimental and more analytical.
Press-managed aerial blitzkriegs like this one quickly disappear from public consciousness, leaving no dent of remorse. (Only now, with the heart-stopping images of Kurdish pain filling the airwaves, are the public's doubts surfacing.) Friendly fascism has already engendered the even worse prospect of friendly militarism. To counter it, we must address the idea that bullying control and the cruel misuse of resources are as dangerous an enemy as overt violence, and our consciences must be aroused not only by the images of wrongful death but of wrongful power as well.
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|Title Annotation:||Witness in Baghdad|
|Date:||May 6, 1991|
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