Disabling a Population

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those […]

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Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan observed that the nature of war has drastically changed over the past century. One hundred years ago, 90 percent of the casualties of war were combatants. Today, over 75 percent of the casualties are civilians. Tragically, he underestimates the victims of the current war on Iraq.

This war has had a devastating effect on people with disabilities, a corrosive and debilitating impact that will expand in the future by simultaneously creating hundreds of thousands more people with disabilities while contributing to a reduction in required services.

The Price of War

Let’s start with domestic resources. The cost of the military operation of the current war is estimated somewhere between $70 and $80 billion. This is added on to a military that was spending $11,000 per second before the war began.

If the United States makes good on its commitment to help rebuild the nation of Iraq, the costs will be enormous. As an occupying power, the United States now has a legal and moral responsibility for the care and education of the Iraqi people, a task the White House and Congress have not excelled at recently in our country. Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger testified in Congress that the price tag to rebuild Iraq would be somewhere between $50-$150 billion. There is a good chance that the United States will not foot much of this bill if the White House treats Iraq like Kosovo and Afghanistan, where they carried out the bombing and then left much of the cleanup to the UN and other international agencies.

While “Shock and Awe” has subsided, the war in Iraq is not over and will easily add up to several hundred billion dollars in direct costs. These expenditures will contribute to a bloated federal deficit that will continue to swell because of a floundering economy coupled with an extravagant tax cut for the wealthy. As the deficit grows, the congressional budget hawks will sharpen their talons on social programs. These programs will also be battered by cuts from the state Legislature as well as county boards. This three-pronged attack will crack the foundation of the quality of life that has been the pride of Minnesota for decades.

Human Costs

As President Bush pointed out, the war on Iraq is but one battle. The Pentagon’s Preemptive Policy—a policy of world domination, which basically allows our country to go to war with any power that we perceive as a threat—will heat up a permanent war economy that President Eisenhower warned against over 40 years ago.

Secondly, the disabilities caused by war will add intense competition for services that will have already been cut. In Gulf War I, a war that exposed many fewer soldiers to far less fighting, 221,000 American GIs were disabled. We don’t know to what substances our men and women have been exposed. We do know that reacclimatization of combat veterans requires special care for many. There is no way yet to estimate the number of military personnel disabled by this conflict but our country must be able to provide the support they will require.

Domestic casualties also began to increase when the first cruise missiles headed for Baghdad. War can intensify the mental illness of people living here. A friend of mine who works at the Minneapolis VA reported that when the war began, symptoms returned for many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—even those who had been living relatively normal lives up until then.

Recently, I spoke on a panel with retired U.S. Army Major Doug Rokke, a veteran of Vietnam and Gulf War I who is also a Ph.D. physicist. He spoke about depleted uranium (DU), a nuclear waste product used to coat artillery shells. It is widely used by the U.S. military because such shells can penetrate armor. They also leave radioactive particulates blowing around the desert for the next 40,000 years. In Gulf War I, 320 tons of DU was used. The U.S. military peppered the Iraqi landscape with such ordinance this spring. While scientists debate the carcinogenic effects of DU, Dr. Rokke points out that 130 veterans of Gulf War I are dying of cancer each month. Most of his unit that worked directly with DU is dead. He also has cancer.

As I listened to Dr. Rokke, I thought back to my trip to Iraq in 1999, where a small group of American citizens brought medical supplies into a country that has suffered for 13 years under the most severe economic sanctions in world history. We visited the children’s cancer ward of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where doctors reported a sharp increase in birth defects and cancer, up to 2 million children since 1991. Because of lack of adequate medicines and equipment, the survival rate for the children I visited was almost nil.

Our Responsibility

I do not deny the brutal greed of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yet as Americans, we also have to take responsibility for a sanctions regime—promoted by our country—that has killed and disabled thousands of Iraqi citizens, most of them children who had nothing to do with Saddam’s actions.

After bombing water and sewage treatment plants in 1991, our government intervened to prevent such items as chlorine—crucial for water purification—and spare parts from being allowed into Iraq because of their potential for military use. A report issued by the UN in 2000, “The Impact of War on Children,” estimates that 500,000 children died during the current sanctions regime. At least 800,000 more children are chronically malnourished. Coupled with the lack of adequate schooling, Saddam’s regime and the sanctions have stunted the growth and intellectual development of an entire generation of Iraqi children.

Today, we are hearing regular reports of children being disabled by unexploded ordinance. Unexploded bombs, weapon caches and hundreds of thousands of land mines are strewn around the country. Christian Aid reports that children are dying and becoming disabled not because they are playing with unexploded ordinance but because they are trying to remove the brass shell casings to sell for cash so their families can survive.

We have to look deeply into our hearts and those of our neighbors in Minnesota, in Iraq, in Korea and so many other places and ask: Is this the kind of world we want to create? It is horrifying for me to recall the faces, the touches, the smells behind the statistics I cite above. Yet, I also know that amid the violence, a significant spirit stirs in civil society. For the first time, common people have engaged in a global dialogue about the very legitimacy of war. On February 15, millions of people cascaded into the streets around the world to protest the impending attack on Iraq. The New York Times has opined that two superpowers remain in the world: the United States and World Public Opinion.

If we can imagine a different future, we can create it.

No one knows this better than people with disabilities, who over the past 30 years—through persistent demonstrating, letter writing, organizing and lobbying—have reshaped our society into a more accessible, compassionate place. We need to call upon that experience and courage once again to help lead us away from policies that rob us of many of the advances of the last few decades while at the same time disabling more and more people here and abroad.

Mel Duncan is the Executive Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce. For more info, visit: www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org.

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