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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Murderous 'Containment'

March 30, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

The killing of Iraqis did not begin with this invasion, or with George W. Bush.

Let's remember: It's been underway for years. Quietly. Persistently. With U.N. backing; with bipartisan political support at home.

If you believe UNICEF, sanctions as the result of Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait resulted in the needless deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 between 1991 and 1999. That's 55,555 a year, 4,629 a month, 1,068 a week, 152 a day.

That's about as many dead youngsters each year as there were American servicemen killed in all the Vietnam War. That's nearly one baby of every five born in Iraq during this era. Who knows the toll of older youth and adults?

Been down the road of this argument before? Let's go again. During these years, teachers and professionals and civil servants in that once-modernizing nation were reduced to primitive squalor. As foreign arms merchants jockeyed for advantage in the palaces of power, rivers ran raw with sewage for lack of spare parts for water treatment facilities. Jobs, family savings, dignity, hope, all became scarce. And resentment of the U.S. and the Western world continued to inflame Arab and Middle Eastern societies.

The miseries of sanctions have been raised by critics of the Bush administration to explain just one of the root causes of Islamic anger toward the U.S. My point is different. With tanks aiming at Baghdad, I'm reflecting instead on the tunnel-vision outburst of morality that grips people in the television age.

"We're bombing women and children! And that's not right." An antiwar protester in San Francisco fought back tears to express her rage. My e-mails now virtually howl with accusations of U.S. crimes against humanity. The European and Arab press runs even hotter with compassion for innocents.

And why not? Who is more deserving of compassion?

But in the heat of battle, can we spare a sober moment for self-doubt? Many of those who have taken to the streets in angry demonstrations argue that the U.S. was immoral in choosing invasion over "containment" and weapons inspections. Implicit in this contention is that things were working, so why choose to kill? Forgotten in the argument is that the world was killing Iraqis all along, just without the bang of cordite.

I just read a dispatch from Europe, in which the writer expressed fury at seeing the "angelic" face of a child wounded in the bombing. But what about those children who died through the 1990s? Did they not have angelic faces?

"A legitimized act of mass slaughter," says Joy Gordon, who spent three years studying the U.N. sanctions. She is a professor of philosophy at Fairfield University in Connecticut and is at work on a book about the ethics of economic trade as a weapon of social destruction.

In an article in Harper's magazine last autumn, she detailed how the U.S. resisted any loosening of U.N. trade restrictions even as conditions worsened in Iraq, even after the adoption of an "oil for food" program in 1997.

"There has never been anything like this," she told me. "The whole world in a completely new kind of policy imposed on a single nation."

Some hard-nosed skeptics have done a good job of calling into question the UNICEF estimates of 500,000 child deaths. I suspect they are right in their doubts, but so what? What if only one in 10 or one in 20 infants succumbed for lack of clean water, medicine or adequate nutrition? What if the toll was only 100,000? Or 50,000?

There is little question that the 1990s struggle between Iraq's dictatorial leadership and the U.S. has rendered 60% of the residents of an oil-rich nation dependent on humanitarian food and worsened the daily lives of millions without dislodging Saddam Hussein.

We don't need experts or research studies to tell us what is happening now: When death reaches TV, it lances the human heart. The more TV, the bigger the wound.

That's life, we might say. Yes, when it comes to death, that is life. But that doesn't make it a sound way to behold our world.

There will be time to look back and try to piece together how sanctions shaped the attitudes and memories of everyday Iraqis. For now, our pulses racing, we might stand aside for a moment. We cannot fix the mistakes that got us here -- most important, the mistake of pulling up short in the Gulf War. But we can acknowledge that the subsequent killing didn't just start, and we were party to it all along.

Those protesters who argue that containment was a moral alternative to war are not setting the example of enlightened policy that they say they want. Either they don't know better or they're playing to the TV cameras.

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