Requiem for the Lives Lost in Iraq

David Gespass

Posted Nov 28, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Requiem for the Lives Lost in Iraq

David Gespass


I have been given the daunting task of eulogizing the victims of the occupation of Iraq and discussing how to put a stop to it in the space of 25 minutes, give or take.  It is daunting because, on the one hand, it is impossible to honor every individual victim, even the dead from Alabama, about whom I will not talk very much, in so short a time.  On the other hand, it is rather too long to talk about them collectively.  Similarly, there is a simple, short answer to the problem of ending the suffering, but hardly the time for a detailed discussion of how to do so.

So, with the caveat that this will be incomplete and that you will have to fill in a lot of blanks, I’ll give it my best shot.

A couple of weeks ago, the Birmingham News published an article about a local police officer who just returned safely from his third tour of duty in Iraq. And we have heard countless pieces on NPR and elsewhere about American men and women who have died there. Those stories have far more impact than raw statistics because they put a human face on the loss and the numbers are too staggering to wrap our minds around. But each of those stories tells of the dashed hopes, dreams and plans of a young man or woman whose life was snuffed out. We get to meet their families, hear the anguish in their voices about the loss; hear how their children will never know their parent.  We learn of their interests, the people they loved and who loved them.

Some were going to go back to school after their service was over.  Others were going to make the military their career.  They planned to start families or raise them.  Some planned to marry their high school sweethearts.  Others were married already.  Some loved sports.  Most are described as fun-loving, always joking and with radiant smiles.  Every individual story has an emotional impact far greater than any statistics.  And there are, as of yesterday, 3,839 such stories.

But I don’t want to focus on those stories.  Rather, I want to talk about the ones we don’t hear, that the media in this country never reports.  For every American GI killed during the occupation of Iraq, there have been 285 dead Iraqis.  As of yesterday, the Iraqi death toll was estimated to be 1,096,367 and every one of those individuals had a story that didn’t air on NPR.  Every one had a family.  Every one had friends who loved them.  Every one had hopes, dreams and plans, though probably far more modest than those of Americans, after ten years of sanctions and years more of occupation.

Yet there are no stories about them. The Birmingham News has not told of Loay’s brother, a doctor, a healer, a man with a family, a man who sought to help all those he met.

It is difficult to measure the human cost of the occupation of Iraq and more difficult still to comprehend it.  My suggestion is this.  The next time you hear one of those stories, listen to it and think about how it makes you feel!  Does it tug at your heart?  Does it make you feel, even slightly, as if you have suffered a personal loss?  That, of course, is why those stories are told, so you have a personal connection to the victim, so you at least empathize with the pain of those he or she left behind.

But don’t stop by thinking about how it made you feel.  Consider how you would feel if you heard a similar story, every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the next three months.  How would you feel if on the hour, while you were asleep, you were awakened to hear a story; if when the clock struck the hour while you were at work, you had to listen to another; if before every meal, you heard another; if before you could watch a television show, you had to listen to another; if you heard two stories during the course of a concert you attended, or a movie you went to?

After three months, you would have heard the stories of the Iraqis so far killed as a result of the occupation.  But you wouldn’t be able to stop listening then, because over those three months, more will die, not just young men and women in uniform, but children whose lives are just beginning.

And after hearing those stories for three months, every hour of every day, you still would not have heard the stories of the half million who were killed before the invasion, half of whom were children, when all that was imposed on Iraq were so-called “sanctions” that kept food and medicine from the most vulnerable of the country’s population.  Those stories would keep you awake for another month and a half.

And after hearing of all the deaths, you still would not have heard the stories of the maimed, the disabled, those who have lost limbs, lost their eyesight, suffered burns over their bodies, whose bodies were ravaged and who will never know another day without pain, who will never be able to earn a living, enjoy the pleasures of love, have children or do the myriad other things that make life worth living.  Those stories would probably take another year to tell, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  And at the end of that year, who knows how many more such stories there will be so long as the occupation continues?

But the number of dead and wounded is not the only cost of the occupation.  We are diminished in so many other ways.  We have all heard stories of GI’s returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to adjust to normal life, unable to return to work or to get along with their families.  We are still feeling the effects of those who returned from Vietnam who have spent their lives on the edges, often homeless, never adjusted. We face the same thing with the Gl’s who served in Iraq.

I will return to the reasons for this in a bit, but again, I want to focus on the Iraqi victims.  If GI’s, who return to a country where there is care available, albeit not what it should be or what they deserve – where they no longer face daily trauma, where they can live in relative safety – suffer psychiatric disabilities, how much greater then is the suffering of the Iraqis who, on a daily basis experience what was experienced by the students at Virginia Tech University when 33 people were “massacred.”  That event generated headlines for weeks, brought media from across the country to Blacksburg and teams of mental health workers to help the students deal with the experience.  In Iraq, something like that warrants a single paragraph on the inside of the front section of the paper.  And the mental health workers, if there are any, are subject to the same trauma.  Nowhere does the admonition, “physician, heal thyself,” have more immediate impact and less chance of success.  So, to your 24/7 exercise in empathy with the Iraqi people, add a daily story of a rampage similar to what happened at Virginia Tech, complete with interviews, witness accounts, discussions with mental health professionals about the impact and with authorities about what they will do to prevent a recurrence.  But add also, the helplessness of those authorities because they have no control over their environment – unlike the administration at Virginia Tech, which could institute changes in policy, including things like warning systems, classes to teach students how to protect themselves and greater security.  But what can local – or even national – authorities in Iraq do? The situation is well beyond their control and has been for more than 25 years, since the first Gulf War and the sanctions that followed.  And, since the invasion in 2003, what control they may have had over their own environment is now completely gone.

Let me turn now to the United States.  By focusing on the impact the occupation has had on Iraqis, I did not want to minimize or trivialize the suffering and sacrifices members of the US military experienced.  I only wanted to put it into perspective, a perspective never reported on by American media.

And that experience is oddly limited. It is not experienced by the president, vice president and high level cabinet officers and members of Congress who are responsible for the invasion and, with only a couple of exceptions, have no family or friends at risk in Iraq or Afghanistan.  It is not experienced by the pundits who have been cheerleaders for U.S. aggression.  Indeed, it is not experienced by most people in this country who do not have a close friend or relative in Iraq.

But we have all been diminished in other ways. We have been numbed to the horrors perpetrated in our name.  Too much of the criticism of the war has to do with the claim it was “bungled” by the Bush administration, that its planning wasn’t adequate.

So even now, after thousands of American dead, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, tens of thousands of American casualties and uncounted Iraqi casualties, the talk is of mistake, not horror, mishandling, not dishonor and of ending the war without withdrawing troops.

Now, I have been asked not to make this talk political and those of you who know me know that is difficult for me generally.  It is doubly difficult because it is so hard to know, in Iraq, where politics ends and law and humanity begin.  But I am a lawyer and I will focus here on the law, not on politics.  Again, it is hard to discuss the details of the legal questions I am raising in a few minutes, but I promise there are statutes and treaties — and the United States Constitution — that underlie everything I say.

I remember once hearing a friend of mine who assists lawyers in selecting juries talk about preparing for capital cases with mock juries and how she watched ordinary people, during deliberations, become killers, talking about whether or not to take a human life in cold and clinical terms.  The problem with capital punishment, from that perspective, is not that it is ineffective as a deterrent, not that there should be some religious or moral scruple against it, not that it costs too much.  Rather, the problem is what it does to the rest of us in the name of revenge.

Similarly, for Americans, in many ways the most destructive thing about the occupation of Iraq is not the horrors visited on the Iraqi people or upon our soldiers and sailors.  It is what it does to us as a people. We now hear people talking about torture in the most clinical terms.  How is it defined?  Is waterboarding torture?  What is the difference between torture and vigorous interrogation?

Torture is illegal.  We have signed a convention explicitly making it so, as well as the Geneva conventions banning it.  But it is not just torture that is illegal, but any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  Whether waterboarding is torture or “merely” cruel, inhuman or degrading is never part of the discussion.  And, despite the fact that similar techniques have been viewed as torture since the Spanish Inquisition, our about-to-be-confirmed attorney general cannot say whether it is or is not torture.

Today, we have serious intellectual discussions and fora debating whether torture can ever be employed and serious intellectuals like Alan Dershowitz suggesting it can.  Not many years ago, such discussions would have been unthinkable, but this is the consequence of a crusade.  Human experience, from chattel slavery to Nazi Germany to Iraq, has always taught that the degree to which we can dehumanize the enemy is the degree to which we can justify whatever we do, however inhuman.  And human experience also teaches us that, sooner or later, one way or another, there is blowback when we behave thusly.

We are also diminished when we willingly sacrifice our liberties for some supposed protections.  It is, indeed, a betrayal of those who fought and died for our freedoms, to give them up on the say-so of elected officials.  Can and should the legacy of our dead and wounded in Iraq be that we abandon, rather than expand, the Bill of Rights?  For the U.S. and its citizens, the lasting consequences of the invasion of Iraq threatens to be an imperial presidency, not limited to the current administration, in which national security and the unitary executive trumps the rule of law and individual rights.

What, then, must the U.S. do to end this destruction?  The invasion and occupation of Iraq was illegal. That is not a political statement; it is a statement of fact.  It was not approved by the Security Council and the U.S. was not under attack from Iraq or under imminent threat of attack. Those are the only times, under the UN Charter, that military force is permitted.  And, by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, a violation of the UN Charter is a violation of a treaty which is the Supreme Law of the Land.  That is, the invasion was not just illegal under international standards, but violated US law as well.

And what are the obligations of criminals engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise or conspiracy?  Other than suffering punishment for what they have done in the past, they have two principal obligations.  The first is to remove themselves from the enterprise.  The second is to make restitution to their victims.

That, then, is how to end the nightmare of Iraq.  First, the United States must withdraw its troops and dismantle its bases.  Second, it must provide reparations for the devastation it has caused. That doesn’t mean just giving money, though it needs to do that.  It means making sure that the money is used to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure so that the country has electricity, so that hospitals can operate, so that children can go to school.  It will not be easy to figure out how that will be done, but it must be done.  Those two steps, withdrawal of US troops and an investment in making reparations will not guarantee an end to all the violence in Iraq, but they are the two essential preconditions to ending the violence, death and destruction.  Until those things happen, we will continue to mourn, continue to grieve, too many for American losses only but for most of the world, the grief at the Iraqi losses will continue to predominate and the US will continue to be diminished.