National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

After the symbols fall, then what?

The cameras lingered long on the statue. A rope was slung around its neck, and Saddam came tumbling down amid a cheering crowd.

It is an exhilarating sight when the symbols of tyranny fall, and in Baghdad, as the television crews soon made clear, the symbols exist in abundance. In this capital city it is impossible to walk for more than a block without coming upon some representation of the brutal Saddam Hussein.

Now he’s gone, and regime change seems underway as of this writing. A change to what is not known. And if the punditry of even the most hawkish in the Bush administration is to be believed, the most difficult part is to come. Indeed, the bickering among contenders for the new seat of power in Baghdad had begun before all the statues had fallen.

In a phone call from Iraq just before the most intense bombing began, Kathy Kelly, a long-time opponent of the U.S. sanctions policy and war against Iraq, said that at one level the United States seemed to be saying to the Iraqi people, “We had to starve you in order to stop bombing you; now we have to bomb you in order to stop starving you -- all of this to get at a regime over which the civilian population has no control.”

The shot of the crowd dancing on the statue in Firdos Square was the picture of the upside of pre-emptive war. But the longer the cameras stayed on that scene of the small crowd in the square, the less we knew about other compelling issues. We were learning little about the hospitals that the International Committee for the Red Cross says are overwhelmed with civilian casualties.

The day after the celebration in central Baghdad, The New York Times ran a story headlined: “Number of Iraqis Killed May Never Be Determined.” For all of the embedded reporting, there has been precious little quantifying of the human destruction necessary to gain control of Iraq. Hints, however, began to come through in some of the reporting when observers, at the end of a battle description, began using words like “awful” and “horrible” to describe the results. We were left to imagine the reality behind the words.

The Times was a bit more explicit in explaining that the U.S. military had become so technologically sophisticated and so overwhelmingly powerful that it can be said we have entered a genuinely new era of war making.

The story concludes that the number of Iraqi dead will probably be unknowable, as will any meaningful distinction between combatant and civilian deaths. The initial assessment, however, is that the body count, were it taken, would be high. “In the bombing of the different divisions, the destruction there was terrifying,” said one military official speaking on condition of anonymity. “Whole divisions were destroyed. Many went home, but many were killed. It won’t be until after the war that we get a better accounting, if then.”

One of the most alarming estimates came after Americans made an initial sweep through a section of Baghdad that officials said resulted in 2,000 to 3,000 dead Iraqis.

Whatever the final tally, on the basis of initial estimates the question of proportionality certainly comes into play. In this war, cities were not devastated, but one of the tactics, “to squeeze Iraqi military units into ever-smaller ‘killboxes’ almost certainly left thousands of soldiers dead, perhaps tens of thousands,” according to the Times.

Poking through the speculation is the nagging understanding that military success does not necessarily equate with moral action. The point is put bluntly by Fr. Frank Winters in an interview with our Washington correspondent, Joe Feuerherd: “The whole thing is evil, whether it produces good is completely irrelevant. There is no excuse for invading a country that is not waging war with you.”

If this is a turning point in world affairs, no one can say with certainty in which direction things are moving. The most hopeful projection is that democracy in Iraq will spawn democracy around the region. The formulation for regime change in Iraq, however, seems so uncertain at this time that anything resembling representative democracy seems a desert mirage at the moment.

If, as writer David Halberstam put it, we have “punched our hand into the largest hornet’s nest in the world,” then we don’t yet know where the angry swarm will settle first or what kind of damage it will do.

We also don’t know if, having effected regime change, the Bush administration will be satisfied with a once-and-done military adventure or whether the pre-emptive strike and unipolarist doctrines espoused by the extreme ideologues gathered around this administration will become our working foreign policy. After all, Iraq did not have a monopoly on brutal dictators in the region.

Saddam’s been toppled. One did not have to be a military expert to make that call.

Now we’re off into the unknown.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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