Weighing the human costs of war from a safe distance

By Damon Krane
April 10, 2003
The Athens News


Tim Ashe is puzzled that Iraqi casualties would cause Americans like me to oppose the U.S. war on Iraq (The NEWS, April 7). “In the grand scheme of things,” he writes in an April 7 letter, “the civilian casualties incurred in this war will be but a footnote in the terrible bloody history of the preceding decades in Iraq.”

Ashe does not argue the war on Iraq is a necessary act of self-defense for the U.S. Instead, he argues Saddam Hussein has killed far more Iraqis during his time in power than the U.S. is “incurring” now. Therefore, unless war opponents can put forward a plan for peace, justice and democracy in Iraq, we have no right to protest the “Operation” our government wages in the name of “Iraqi Freedom.”

But unless we believe it is better to actively do harm than to do nothing at all, this argument is absurd. Despite Ashe’s superior grasp on reality (to which he personally attests), he fails to recognize the crucial difference between Iraqis murdered by Saddam and those murdered by the U.S. government. It is not, as Ashe suggests, that “so long as the deaths of Iraqis aren’t caused by American means, they really don’t matter [to war opponents]” — but that we, as American citizens, are first and foremost responsible for changing the objectionable actions of our own government.

However many people Saddam has murdered, his regime is not the invading force this time. Ours is. This does not excuse his crimes against Iraqis. But neither do those crimes justify the war the U.S. wages on those same people today.

Ashe might disagree, arguing that Saddam’s track record shows the cost to Iraqi life and liberty would, in the long run, be greater without this war. But since the worst of that record was aided and abetted by the U.S. government, we should be skeptical. What’s more, if the World Health Organization and UNICEF are correct about the impact of the sanctions against Iraq, or if the U.S. is responsible for at least a sizable portion of the 200,000 Iraqis killed during Desert Storm, then the premise that Saddam has killed more Iraqis than the U.S. government is false.

But whether the scales of death and destruction tilt toward Saddam or the U.S., I have the same question for Ashe if he seeks to defend this war on the basis of a cost/benefit analysis concerning relative progress toward the freedom of Iraqis. As Howard Zinn put it in his classic “A People’s History of the United States”:

“If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves? We can all decide to give something of ours, but do we have the right to throw into the pyre the children of others, or even our own children, for a progress which is not nearly as clear or present as sickness or health, life or death?”

Zinn was commenting on the conquest of the Americas and the extermination of Native Americans. Yet the belief that the government or citizens of one nation have the right to impose such high costs on others, while not having to endure those same costs themselves, is as much the essence of imperialism today as it was 500 years ago.

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1 Response to Weighing the human costs of war from a safe distance

  1. Pingback: 10 Years Later: Anti-War Writings, Old & New | Damon Krane

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