For The Lives Lost In Iraq
given by David Gespass at Birmingham Alabama. He was invited to address
the opening if an exhibit, " Eyes Wide Open". The exhibit
commemorated the lives lost in Iraq war. It had pairs of boots for every
Alabamian GI killed in Iraq and a representative cluster of shoes for
the Iraqi dead.
I have been given the daunting
task of eulogizing the victims of the occupation of Iraq and discussing
how to put a stop to it in the space of 25 minutes, give or take. It
is daunting because, on the one hand, it is impossible to honor every
individual victim, even the dead from Alabama, about whom I will not
talk very much, in so short a time. On the other hand, it is rather
too long to talk about them collectively. Similarly, there is a simple,
short answer to the problem of ending the suffering, but hardly the
time for a detailed discussion of how to do so.
the caveat that this will be incomplete and that you will have to fill
in a lot of blanks, I'll give it my best shot.
of weeks ago, the Birmingham News published an article about a local
police officer who just returned safely from his third tour of duty
in Iraq. And we have heard countless pieces on NPR and elsewhere about
American men and women who have died there. Those stories have far more
impact than raw statistics because they put a human face on the loss
and the numbers are too staggering to wrap our minds around. But each
of those stories tells of the dashed hopes, dreams and plans of a young
man or woman whose life was snuffed out. We get to meet their families,
hear the anguish in their voices about the loss; hear how their children
will never know their parent. We learn of their interests, the people
they loved and who loved them.
going to go back to school after their service was over. Others were
going to make the military their career. They planned to start families
or raise them. Some planned to marry their high school sweethearts.
Others were married already. Some loved sports. Most are described as
fun-loving, always joking and with radiant smiles. Every individual
story has an emotional impact far greater than any statistics. And there
are, as of yesterday, 3,839 such stories.
But I don't
want to focus on those stories. Rather, I want to talk about the ones
we don't hear, that the media in this country never reports. For every
American GI killed during the occupation of Iraq, there have been 285
dead Iraqis. As of yesterday, the Iraqi death toll was estimated to
be 1,096,367 and every one of those individuals had a story that didn't
air on NPR. Every one had a family. Every one had friends who loved
them. Every one had hopes, dreams and plans, though probably far more
modest than those of Americans, after ten years of sanctions and years
more of occupation.
are no stories about them. The Birmingham News has not told of Loay's
brother, a doctor, a healer, a man with a family, a man who sought to
help all those he met.
It is difficult
to measure the human cost of the occupation of Iraq and more difficult
still to comprehend it. My suggestion is this. The next time you hear
one of those stories, listen to it and think about how it makes you
feel! Does it tug at your heart? Does it make you feel, even slightly,
as if you have suffered a personal loss? That, of course, is why those
stories are told, so you have a personal connection to the victim, so
you at least empathize with the pain of those he or she left behind.
stop by thinking about how it made you feel. Consider how you would
feel if you heard a similar story, every hour, 24 hours a day, seven
days a week for the next three months. How would you feel if on the
hour, while you were asleep, you were awakened to hear a story; if when
the clock struck the hour while you were at work, you had to listen
to another; if before every meal, you heard another; if before you could
watch a television show, you had to listen to another; if you heard
two stories during the course of a concert you attended, or a movie
you went to?
months, you would have heard the stories of the Iraqis so far killed
as a result of the occupation. But you wouldn't be able to stop listening
then, because over those three months, more will die, not just young
men and women in uniform, but children whose lives are just beginning.
hearing those stories for three months, every hour of every day, you
still would not have heard the stories of the half million who were
killed before the invasion, half of whom were children, when all that
was imposed on Iraq were so-called "sanctions" that kept food
and medicine from the most vulnerable of the country's population. Those
stories would keep you awake for another month and a half.
hearing of all the deaths, you still would not have heard the stories
of the maimed, the disabled, those who have lost limbs, lost their eyesight,
suffered burns over their bodies, whose bodies were ravaged and who
will never know another day without pain, who will never be able to
earn a living, enjoy the pleasures of love, have children or do the
myriad other things that make life worth living. Those stories would
probably take another year to tell, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And at the end of that year, who knows how many more such stories there
will be so long as the occupation continues?
number of dead and wounded is not the only cost of the occupation. We
are diminished in so many other ways. We have all heard stories of GI's
returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to adjust to normal
life, unable to return to work or to get along with their families.
We are still feeling the effects of those who returned from Vietnam
who have spent their lives on the edges, often homeless, never adjusted.
We face the same thing with the Gl's who served in Iraq.
I will return
to the reasons for this in a bit, but again, I want to focus on the
Iraqi victims. If GI's, who return to a country where there is care
available, albeit not what it should be or what they deserve –
where they no longer face daily trauma, where they can live in relative
safety – suffer psychiatric disabilities, how much greater then
is the suffering of the Iraqis who, on a daily basis experience what
was experienced by the students at Virginia Tech University when 33
people were "massacred." That event generated headlines for
weeks, brought media from across the country to Blacksburg and teams
of mental health workers to help the students deal with the experience.
In Iraq, something like that warrants a single paragraph on the inside
of the front section of the paper. And the mental health workers, if
there are any, are subject to the same trauma. Nowhere does the admonition,
"physician, heal thyself," have more immediate impact and
less chance of success. So, to your 24/7 exercise in empathy with the
Iraqi people, add a daily story of a rampage similar to what happened
at Virginia Tech, complete with interviews, witness accounts, discussions
with mental health professionals about the impact and with authorities
about what they will do to prevent a recurrence. But add also, the helplessness
of those authorities because they have no control over their environment
– unlike the administration at Virginia Tech, which could institute
changes in policy, including things like warning systems, classes to
teach students how to protect themselves and greater security. But what
can local – or even national – authorities in Iraq do? The
situation is well beyond their control and has been for more than 25
years, since the first Gulf War and the sanctions that followed. And,
since the invasion in 2003, what control they may have had over their
own environment is now completely gone.
Let me turn
now to the United States. By focusing on the impact the occupation has
had on Iraqis, I did not want to minimize or trivialize the suffering
and sacrifices members of the US military experienced. I only wanted
to put it into perspective, a perspective never reported on by American
experience is oddly limited. It is not experienced by the president,
vice president and high level cabinet officers and members of Congress
who are responsible for the invasion and, with only a couple of exceptions,
have no family or friends at risk in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not
experienced by the pundits who have been cheerleaders for U.S. aggression.
Indeed, it is not experienced by most people in this country who do
not have a close friend or relative in Iraq.
But we have
all been diminished in other ways. We have been numbed to the horrors
perpetrated in our name. Too much of the criticism of the war has to
do with the claim it was "bungled" by the Bush administration,
that its planning wasn't adequate.
So even now,
after thousands of American dead, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead,
tens of thousands of American casualties and uncounted Iraqi casualties,
the talk is of mistake, not horror, mishandling, not dishonor and of
ending the war without withdrawing troops.
Now, I have
been asked not to make this talk political and those of you who know
me know that is difficult for me generally. It is doubly difficult because
it is so hard to know, in Iraq, where politics ends and law and humanity
begin. But I am a lawyer and I will focus here on the law, not on politics.
Again, it is hard to discuss the details of the legal questions I am
raising in a few minutes, but I promise there are statutes and treaties
— and the United States Constitution — that underlie everything
once hearing a friend of mine who assists lawyers in selecting juries
talk about preparing for capital cases with mock juries and how she
watched ordinary people, during deliberations, become killers, talking
about whether or not to take a human life in cold and clinical terms.
The problem with capital punishment, from that perspective, is not that
it is ineffective as a deterrent, not that there should be some religious
or moral scruple against it, not that it costs too much. Rather, the
problem is what it does to the rest of us in the name of revenge.
for Americans, in many ways the most destructive thing about the occupation
of Iraq is not the horrors visited on the Iraqi people or upon our soldiers
and sailors. It is what it does to us as a people. We now hear people
talking about torture in the most clinical terms. How is it defined?
Is waterboarding torture? What is the difference between torture and
is illegal. We have signed a convention explicitly making it so, as
well as the Geneva conventions banning it. But it is not just torture
that is illegal, but any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Whether
waterboarding is torture or "merely" cruel, inhuman or degrading
is never part of the discussion. And, despite the fact that similar
techniques have been viewed as torture since the Spanish Inquisition,
our about-to-be-confirmed attorney general cannot say whether it is
or is not torture.
have serious intellectual discussions and fora debating whether torture
can ever be employed and serious intellectuals like Alan Dershowitz
suggesting it can. Not many years ago, such discussions would have been
unthinkable, but this is the consequence of a crusade. Human experience,
from chattel slavery to Nazi Germany to Iraq, has always taught that
the degree to which we can dehumanize the enemy is the degree to which
we can justify whatever we do, however inhuman. And human experience
also teaches us that, sooner or later, one way or another, there is
blowback when we behave thusly.
We are also
diminished when we willingly sacrifice our liberties for some supposed
protections. It is, indeed, a betrayal of those who fought and died
for our freedoms, to give them up on the say-so of elected officials.
Can and should the legacy of our dead and wounded in Iraq be that we
abandon, rather than expand, the Bill of Rights? For the U.S. and its
citizens, the lasting consequences of the invasion of Iraq threatens
to be an imperial presidency, not limited to the current administration,
in which national security and the unitary executive trumps the rule
of law and individual rights.
What, then, must the U.S. do to end this destruction? The invasion and
occupation of Iraq was illegal. That is not a political statement; it
is a statement of fact. It was not approved by the Security Council
and the U.S. was not under attack from Iraq or under imminent threat
of attack. Those are the only times, under the UN Charter, that military
force is permitted. And, by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution,
a violation of the UN Charter is a violation of a treaty which is the
Supreme Law of the Land. That is, the invasion was not just illegal
under international standards, but violated US law as well.
are the obligations of criminals engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise
or conspiracy? Other than suffering punishment for what they have done
in the past, they have two principal obligations. The first is to remove
themselves from the enterprise. The second is to make restitution to
is how to end the nightmare of Iraq. First, the United States must withdraw
its troops and dismantle its bases. Second, it must provide reparations
for the devastation it has caused. That doesn't mean just giving money,
though it needs to do that. It means making sure that the money is used
to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure so that the country has electricity,
so that hospitals can operate, so that children can go to school. It
will not be easy to figure out how that will be done, but it must be
done. Those two steps, withdrawal of US troops and an investment in
making reparations will not guarantee an end to all the violence in
Iraq, but they are the two essential preconditions to ending the violence,
death and destruction. Until those things happen, we will continue to
mourn, continue to grieve, too many for American losses only but for
most of the world, the grief at the Iraqi losses will continue to predominate
and the US will continue to be diminished.
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