by David James Duncan
A time comes when silence is betrayal. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here is a water story. A very grim one, I must warn. But this is the story that's made it impossible for me to feel the anger and hatred so many Americans are now exultantly feeling: a story that leaves me sure I've no honest choice, in response to September 11, but to seek the kind of justice described not by our nation's elected or appointed leaders, but by people like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
In 1991, in the wake of Desert Storm, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency researched what the effect would be of strategically bombing the water storage systems and sewage treatment systems of Iraq until they were destroyed. An American journalist and professor, Thomas J. Nagy, has since investigated the relevant DIA documents. They were declassified in 1995. Nagy has written several articles about what he discovered. No major media or magazines have shown interest in Nagy's reports. I can see why: they're almost too shameful to be believed - like the first whispers we once heard of the massacre at Mi Lai. The article I'll be citing was in the September, 2001 issue of The Progressive. It's titled "The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply." The documents Nagy cites are all available online. Nagy's conclusions are his own, but he is not pushy: his article tells how to access the documents, so you can read them and draw your own conclusions.
These 1991 Intelligence documents, to my amazement as a water lover, go into great technical detail about the sources and quality of Iraq's water; they note that Iraqi rivers contain biological material and pollutants which, unless treated with chlorine, cause epidemic diseases like cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. The documents note that chlorine was embargoed by the sanctions, as were food, all other forms of drinkable liquid, and medicine. The documents predict that if Iraq's water systems are destroyed it is poor Iraqis, particularly children, who will be affected - not the likes of Saddam Hussein. Knowing this, our political and military leaders under the elder George Bush - in an act that flies in the face of the Geneva Convention rules of war, systematically destroyed the water and sewage systems of Iraq anyway. And the sanctions on chlorine and medicine remained in place.
The Defense Intelligence documents continue: they mention epidemic outbreaks of acute diarrhea, dysentery, respiratory ailments, measles, diphtheria, pertussis, meningitis, and other diseases, again and again causing problems - most notably death - for children. One DIA document describes a refugee camp in which 80% of the population has diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis B, measles, gastroenteritis... It reports that 80% of the resulting deaths are children.
When, in the mid-90s, a team of Harvard doctors witnessed the epidemics and urged that sanctions barring medicine be lifted, the Defense Intelligence Agency responded by saying that the Iraqi regime was exaggerating the incidence of disease for political purposes. The sanctions and fouled water remained in place. They remain in place to this day. The United Nations - not some Iraqi propagandist, the United Nations - now reports that five hundred thousand Iraqi children aged five and under have died as a result, and that 5000 more infants and children will continue to die each month until medicine and safe water are restored.
Remember your own children at age two or three? How political were they? How pro or anti Clinton, Bush or Saddam? How Islamic or Christian? Weren't they just children? What is a terrorist? What is terror? Is there a greater terror than watching your child die before your eyes? Even with the best medicine available, tending my feverish children through the night I've sometimes wept in helpless terror when the thermometer hit 105. And when they've entered convulsions, how well I remember the desperate cure: cold clean water.
I try to imagine tending my child, with no medicine, as her body trys desperately to assimilate water deliberately defiled by America's leaders. I try to imagine having nothing with which to cool her but cloths dampened with more ruined water. I try to imagine singing to her inert body, then putting away, permanently, her abandoned clothes, toys, tiny shoes, as I try to forgive her killers. My mind balks.
What is a "terrorist" but an inflictor of pain and terror? Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, in the interests of our "defense," agree to this day that the sanctions are "working" and that the cost is "worth it." 1.25 billion Muslims know this. Some are insane with fury as a result. Now 5000 Americans have been denied their lives. Many Americans are furious in turn. So bombs are falling, civil liberties are vanishing, anthrax could be in anyone's mail. Pakistan is boiling, India is heating up. Pakistan and India have huge problems and mind-bending tensions. Pakistan and India have nukes. And 5000 more infants and children will die this month for the crime of being born to mothers who've done nothing but suffer under the rule of an Iraqi leader whom the U.S. empowered in the first place.
"This is a war against evil," says George W. Bush - who in May gave $43 million to the Taliban knowing they bury women alive, then in September posed beside newspaper headlines reading, BUSH GOES AFTER THE TERRORISTS' MONEY. If Bush is right, if this is truly "a war against evil," then God help us. I'm not a conservative, a liberal, a Republican, a Democrat. But on the basis of simple love for my own and all children, and my own and all living waters, I say the sanctions are child-killing insanity. Only a servant of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" could justify such a killing cost.
"Problems cannot be solved," said Albert Einstein, "at the same level of consciousness that created them." I pray that half a million dead infants and children and 5000 dead New Yorkers lift our consciousness to a new level. "We are called upon," to cite Dr. King again, "to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls enemy." The only power I have to win a war against evil and terrorism, and so defend those I love, is to refuse to inflict evil or terror myself. How many photos of dead firemen must we contemplate before we begin to truly honor them - by carrying water the way firemen, clouds, and rivers do, to anyone and everyone who'll die without it?
Other Voices Back
David James Duncan When Compassion Becomes Dissent
Scott Ritter on the coming war in Iraq: Speech (20MB), Q&A(11MB)