The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The human cost of the Iraq war

Mar 5, 2007

The following is excerpted from a presentation made at a Spark Public Meeting in Detroit, which also included the showing of a documentary film, The Ground Truth, featuring veterans and active duty U.S. troops from Iraq. A similar program is to be presented in Baltimore.

We are going to talk about the cost of this war, in human terms.

As of July last year, 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, according to researchers with John Hopkins University Medical School. They died directly – from gunshots, and bombs, and torture – and indirectly, from lack of food and water, medical care and sanitation.

On top of that, between the war and what is now becoming ethnic cleansing, more than ten% of the population of Iraq have been forced to leave their homes – creating the biggest refugee crisis since the end of WWII – bigger than the Palestinian refugee crisis in the late 1940s.

Today, in Baghdad, a city of six million people, two thirds of the kids receive no education, and electricity is available for no more than two to four hours a day. Unemployment rates in some areas run as high as 60%. People in urban areas are forced to live with open sewage on the streets, untreated drinking water when there is water, and with little access to adequate food and less to medical care. Up until the Iran-Iraq war that began in 1979, Iraq had the second highest standard of living in the Middle East.

In Iraq today, women cannot go out of the house without their heads and bodies being fully draped, without the risk of rape or kidnapping or murder. Religious law dominates the political scene. This is in a country that not too long ago had been largely secular and in which women had more rights than in almost any other country in the region.

Today, the country is in the midst of a brutal, growing civil war. Certainly the Hussein dictatorship had long played on ethnic differences between the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations. And his regime attacked those who rebelled, Shiites, Kurds or Sunnis.

But the bloodbath today is the direct product of what U.S. imperialism has done in Iraq. The U.S. sent Shiite militias against Sunni neighborhoods; Sunni former army units into Shiite areas, and Kurdish militias against Sunni areas. The U.S. has directly fanned the flames of ethnic hatred and brought Iraq to a civil war.

And yet there are well-meaning people who say the U.S. should stay in order to stop the civil war.

It’s a boldfaced lie, pushed by the Bush administration. For the past 17 years, the U.S. is the one force that is directly responsible for the death and destruction in Iraq. The Iraqi people understand this. In October, an Iraqi polling firm found that 80% of Iraqis wanted an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Other polls in the past have shown that over 90% of Iraqis want an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

The price paid by U.S. troops

Let’s talk about the U.S. troops now. To date, almost 3,200 have been killed. When we look at the number of U.S. military dead compared to the Iraqi population, it doesn’t seem like much. But to the U.S. troops and their families, the price they paid and are paying, is the same.

More than 48,000 U.S. troops have been wounded.

Of those who are wounded, their injuries are so severe, that some 20% suffered brain trauma, spinal injuries or amputations; and another 20% have major injuries such as blindness, partial blindness or deafness and serious burns.

Even though the military recorded only some 48,000 troops as wounded, already over 100,000 are currently drawing disability payments as a result of this war, and another 50,000 are waiting approval of their application.

There will be still greater prices to be paid – as we saw in previous wars. Like PTSD. Officially, one in six Viet Nam veterans was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But these were only the official statistics. We know, in fact, that the problem was much greater, so that even now, 32 years later, we still see the effects of that war – whether its in the number of Viet Nam veterans who are homeless, on disability or are still confined to V.A. facilities. The first Gulf War lasted for only four weeks, but 43% of U.S. troops who served in that war remain on disability today, 16 years later.

We also know that more Viet Nam veterans committed suicide, over 60,000, than the number who died in the war itself (58,000). We can expect to see similar tragedies in the ranks of veterans from this war.

So far, a total of 1.4 million U.S. soldiers have served in Iraq or are there now.

The sons and daughters of the working class and poor

So where do these troops come from? Unlike Viet Nam, they come, out of all proportion to theirpercentage in the population, from rural areas and from very small towns in rural areas. We see that many more of them are white and from areas which have historically been more patriotic than the population of the big cities, where black people have traditionally been more politically aware. At the beginning, some of those new troops may have gone in for patriotic reasons, but many simply went in because it was almost the only means to have access to a job or an education. If you live in a small town, and the main employer, the main factory or mine or mill shuts down, there are no other job options. Unlike big cities, like Detroit, where young people more easily can go to community colleges, there aren’t community colleges in many rural areas or small towns.

For the most part, ordinary soldiers in the U.S. military today went in for economic reasons and for schooling. But they have ended up dying or wounded, or changed forever by the horrors of this war and occupation. This fact has changed the way those areas of the country see this war.

Those who oppose the war

As we saw in this film tonight, some of the soldiers who come back and some who are still there are making it known what they think about this war.

Today there is much less opposition among the students – who aren’t subject to a draft – but much more from that part of the population whose young people are subject to this economic draft.

We have seen tiny little demonstrations in little towns; active duty soldiers petitioning Congress to get out of Iraq now; military families demonstrating on bases; the encampment with Cindy Sheehan and other military families in Crawford Texas; and the election last November, which was a repudiation of the war.

There is widespread opposition to this war. And it is out of this opposition that a movement can and is growing up. A movement not only against the war, but one which begins to oppose the very capitalist society that produces war.

People often ask, what can you do? You do what you can with the people around you. It’s what some people in the smaller towns are doing. It’s what military families are doing. They’ve done what they can do with the people they know.

As for us, for those of us with Spark, we do what we’ve been able to, at our level, in opposing this war. We provided information in every issue of our newspaper since the war started and over and over again in our newsletters that reach tens of thousands of workers, reaching workplaces in cities in this country where we are active – Detroit, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles.

And in the process, from the beginning we found that people reacted favorably. For example, a number of workers in the workplaces where we are active are Viet Nam vets, or the family members of Viet Nam veterans. They say that this war is their children’s and grandchildren’s Viet Nam. Many say that the bosses they have to struggle against in their own workplaces are members of the very same ruling class that has as its interest the domination of the countries and the peoples in the rest of the world.

These wars are rich men’s wars, which the laboring men and women fight.

When people in their workplaces want to change something, they do something. People who want an end to this war will do something. That’s how movements grow up – because people who want to change something do something.