The Washington Times

Miscalculating the costs of war

by Howard Fienberg
December 1, 2002
(p. B05)

The antiwar movement has had difficulty rallying emotional support against going to war with Iraq, forcing them to turn more often to "objective" science and research to sway public opinion.

Most recently, Medact, a "health professionals" advocacy group, released "Collateral Damage." The report tries to catalogue the effects of the first Gulf war and the subsequent sanctions, and then estimate the expected costs of a second war with Iraq.

Australian Gen. Pete Gration, who opposes war with Iraq, endorsed the Medact report as "no exaggerated tract by a bunch of zealots. It is a coldly factual report by health professionals." James Snyder, a spokesman for the antiwar activist group Physicians for Social Responsibility, insisted "the estimates and ranges are based on sound science and previous experience." Most of Medact's data are unreliable and focus only on possible costs of war while ignoring any possible benefits. However, the real problem lies not in the presented data, but in what is missing from them. Sanctions and war, hardship and heartache are all catalogued as if they were acts of nature or the effects of freakish chance. And yet all of Medact's detailed situations, casualty figures, grisly war scenarios, and environmental and health-impact estimates result from one cause, which does not get mentioned more than once or twice in the whole report.

A flow chart, adapted from a 2002 UNICEF report, outlines a "causal analysis of the fulfillment of children's rights to life and survival in Iraq." It starts with "basic causes" [like systems failures, crises, and sanctions], which lead to "underlying causes" [like poverty and the decline in infrastructure], which then lead to "immediate causes" [disease and malnutrition], and result in the "outcome" of high rates of infant mortality and under-age-5 mortality, as well as underweight, stunted and emaciated growth. While the chart looks impressive and businesslike, it studiously ignores the impetus behind this chain of events.

Medact recounts the psychological impact of the first Gulf war, from combat exposure, bereavement, loss and chronic stress due to "further threats" and fears that "the experience of another war is likely to magnify psychological disturbances already present in adults and children." War is never pretty, this is true.

But while the further threats Medact seems to be referring to are from the West, the Iraqi people are perhaps more disturbed by living in a totalitarian state where imprisonment, torture and murder are run-of-the-mill occurrences. Might not liberation from this regime bring an improvement in psychological well-being? Medact fails to speculate.

Iraq's ignition of Kuwaiti oil wells during its retreat in the Gulf war was an environmental nightmare. Medact fears the same thing could happen if Iraq were invaded. The use of weapons of mass destruction is similarly feared.

However, Medact doesn't seem to understand that oil wells do not normally spontaneously combust - they must be set on fire. Similarly, biological, chemical and nuclear weapons do not create themselves, insert themselves into missiles, and fire themselves into oblivion - someone must build them and launch them.

Medact avoids apportioning blame for a reason. If Iraqis' ill health, poverty and environment are merely the results of "war" and "sanctions," then these forces must bear the unstated blame. That transfers fault to the United States for imposing these twin bogeymen on Iraq.

But what if the boogeymen were just resulting from the actions of one person [whose last name does not end in Bush]? Well, that would be too simple, wouldn't it? But it was Saddam Hussein who invaded Kuwait and prompted the Gulf war. He set the oil wells of Kuwait ablaze. He invited sanctions by continuing to build weapons of mass destruction and foiling the efforts of weapons inspectors. He frittered away money on himself and his military which could have been spent to rebuild and improve his country and his people. He offered cash rewards to the families of suicide bombers who killed innocent Israelis.

Medact offers dozens of "mutually reinforcing and synergistic" actions to better the situation in Iraq and improve international security. But none of them target the real problem. There hopefully will come a time for some of Medact's proposed actions, but only after the fall of the Butcher of Baghdad. No dazzling array of so-called "sound science" and data can alter that unescapable fact.

Mr. Fienberg is a columnist for TechCentralStation.

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