Iraq’s Lost Generation: America’s Lost Soul
by Richard McDowell
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable
nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” – Secretary of State
IRAQ – In July, sailing by moonlight along Basrah’s Shatt Al-Arab, the
confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, I saw the eerie hulks of rusting
ships bombed by the US and its allies in 1991. Looking at the floating graveyard,
I recalled Ms. Albright’s description of America’s vision.
Today, the “indispensable nation” stands like a towering bully over 22 million
people who have been battered and crippled by a state of siege. After several
days of visits to hospitals and internal refugee camps, I was overwhelmed by the
waste of an entire generation of Iraqi children and the destruction of hundreds of
thousands of human lives.
Earlier this year, as the US prepared to unleash another bombardment on Iraqi
people, members of a Voices in the Wilderness delegation stood before a mother
and her dying child in a pediatric unit of Baghdad’s Al Monsour Hospital. We
watched helplessly as Ferial breathed her last breath. Suddenly, other mothers,
cradling their children, joined in an anguished choir of despair.
Days earlier, at the Maternity and Pediatrics Hospital in Basrah, I saw a young
man writhe in pain while waiting with his father for non-existent cancer
medicine and unavailable pain-killers. I turned away only to encounter another
man collapsed on the floor, crying for his daughter who was dying for lack of
medicine. You cannot escape the suffering and death that defines Iraq today.
Iraq is hemorrhaging under the strain of the most comprehensive sanctions ever
imposed in modern history. Denis Halliday, UN assistant secretary general and
humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, says that sanctions are “undermining the
moral credibility of the UN’’ and their continuation is “in contradiction to the
human rights provisions in the UN’s own Charter.”
Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has asked:
“How can you expect me to condemn human rights abuses in Algeria and China
and elsewhere when the United Nations themselves are responsible for the worst
situation – in Iraq.”
Wheat flour now costs 11,667 times more than it did in July, 1990, salaries
average between $2 and $7 per month and the UN estimates that four million
Iraqis – about 20 percent of the population – now live in extreme poverty.
According to UNICEF, eight years of economic warfare have resulted in the
deaths of more than half a million children. Some 4,500 children under the age of
five are dying each month from hunger and disease and, in Central/Southern
Iraq, 960,000 children are at risk of acute malnutrition.
The FAO reports that even with full compliance of UN Security Council
Resolution 986 – the provision that allows Iraq to export oil to purchase food –
the country’s nutritional needs “will progressively deteriorate with grave
consequences to the health and life of the Iraqi people.”
An estimated 25 percent of Iraqi babies are born with low birthweights. The
World Health Organization (WHO) warns that many of these children will not
catch up in their physical or mental development, leading to long-term health
problems and a lost generation.
UN Humanitarian Mission inspections of Iraq’s 52,000 food-distribution
centers found that rations typically last only 20 days, forcing Iraqis to survive by
selling their personal possessions, household goods and clothes in order to buy
food. Those with nothing left to sell may be forced to beg or enter into
Widespread shortages of antibiotics, analgesics, anesthetics and laboratory
materials have lead to the reemergence of many diseases, primarily those linked
to the damaged water and sanitation systems, such as cholera, dysentery, malaria
and typhoid fever.
Although dissent was not tolerated, oil-rich Iraqis once enjoyed a good
standard of living, including free access to the region’s best health care,
education, social security and social welfare programs. Today, teachers
moonlight as taxi drivers to supplement their $3-a-month salaries as they attempt
to cope with a severe lack of books and pencils, overcrowded classrooms,
deteriorating buildings and malnourished students who find it difficult to
concentrate and learn.
Iraq’s Irradiated South
The most enduring legacy of the Gulf War may be the more than 315 tons of
depleted uranium,(DU) released by US tanks and aircraft. A dense, radioactive
byproduct of uranium fuel enrichment, DU (with a half-life of 4.5 billion
years),was made into armor-piercing shells that exploded and burned, releasing
clouds of radioactive dust that were inhaled, ingested and absorbed through open
wounds. Although the Pentagon was aware of the health risks of using DU
weapons, it failed to alert US and Allied forces or Kuwaiti and Iraqi officials.
A July 1990 report prepared for the US Army warned: “Short-term effects of
high doses can result in deaths, while long-term effects of low doses have been
implicated in cancers, kidney problems and birth defects.”
A leaked UN document has reported a 55 percent increase in cancer in Iraq
between 1989 and 1994. A growing number of international scientists are
convinced that these increases are the result of DU residues in the soil, air and
After seeing the babies of fellow soldiers born with congenital deformities,
some former soldiers have refused to marry. In January, FAO officials reported
that sheep in southern Iraq have been genetically altered. Millions of Iraqis
continue to live, work and play in the contaminated areas.
The Death of Hope
The heart and soul of the people – the social fabric of the nation – is being
destroyed. Earlier this year, a UN official, when asked what gave him hope,
replied: “Today I have no hope.” He stated that conditions in Iraq are worse than
they were when he worked in Somalia. He fears that two generations of Iraqis
have been lost.
What happens to Iraq’s children may seem of little consequence to many
Americans, but if we care about the lives of our own children, we must be
concerned with the world we are creating – a world where the US remains, in the
words of Martin Luther King, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world
While many countries – including France, China, Russia and several of Iraq’s
neighbors – have urged the lifting of sanctions, the US has publicly stated that
sanctions will stay in place as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power.
Congress has approved millions of dollars to destabilize the government of
Iraq, while US administration and congressional leaders have called for covert
and overt measures to overthrow President Hussein – all in clear violation of
international laws and treaties.
US objectives in the Middle East were clearly expressed 50 years ago by
George Kennan in his State Department Policy Planning Study 23. The US,
Kennan wrote, had “50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its
population.... Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of
relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity.... To do so,
we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming, and our
attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national
objectives.... We should cease to talk about vague and... unreal objectives such as
human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not
far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we
are hampered by idealistic slogans the better.”
The myth persists that sanctions are merely a “kinder and gentler” way to
insure another government’s capitulation. But the message Iraqis have asked us
to carry back to our country is a simple one: “Have mercy on us.”
Richard McDowell co-coordinates Voices in the Wilderness [1460 W. Carmen
Ave., Chicago, IL 60640, (773) 784-8065, fax: (773) 784-8837,
www.nonviolence.org/vitw/]. He has
led seven delegations to Iraq. His most recent trip was in July, 1998.