CNN showed his face. A twelve-year-old boy lying on a hospital bed. A white bandage on his head. Wide eyes. A grimace. One of the civilian casualties of the United States’ successful (so far) war in Iraq. But this close-up told only part of the story. Arabnews.com posted a Reuters photograph of this boy, whose name is Ali Ismail Abbas. It was not a close-up. A viewer could see that both his arms are gone, two bandaged stumps protruding from his shoulders. And most of his burnt torso was covered with white ointment. He is liberated from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime–as are millions of others. But he will never feel with his fingers again, never hold a ball, a pen, a book with his own hands. He is one price of victory.
Does the United States owe him anything? Should it directly help him and the other civilians maimed during the war, as well as Iraqis who lost civilian family members, homes or businesses? The Bush administration, which appears to have succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein (more according to plan than not), says it is committed to Iraq’s reconstruction, which will require the expenditure of billions of dollars. But that is different from ensuring that Ali Abbas will receive the medical care and artificial limbs he will need. The triumphant United States–which repeatedly claimed it was doing all it could to minimize noncombatant casualties–ought to provide compensation to Iraqi civilians seriously harmed as a result of its effective invasion.
Thousands of Iraqis have been wounded. Probably over a thousand civilians–and possibly more–have been killed, many if not most by US bullets and bombs not specifically meant for them. The Iraq Body Count project, which tracks civilian deaths reported in the media, estimates the total, as of this writing, at between 1140 and 1376 lives. (Click here to see its latest count. And note that this is a tally only of reported civilian deaths.) In recent days, the International Committee of the Red Cross has reported that Baghdad hospitals–which are fighting water, power shortages, and looters–have been overwhelmed with war wounded. Some obviously are soldiers; US Central Command estimates that 2000 to 3000 Iraqi fighters were killed when American forces pushed into Baghdad. But there were civilians, as well. What might be a reasonable estimate for civilian deaths? One can hope no more than several thousand.
As the war approached and then began, George W. Bush and other US officials described it increasingly as a war of liberation, one waged for the good of the Iraqi people. Washington stated repeatedly that the enemy was not the Iraqi people, but the regime. Of course, the main official motivation for the war was what the Bush administration considered US security interests: stopping a dictator who, the mantra went, possessed weapons of mass destruction and would be willing to share them with terrorists who would use them against the United States. Liberation, a noble goal, was a secondary concern–perhaps a sincere one for some war-makers, but not the driving force. The United States was not responding to a call from the Iraqi people to enter their country and blow things up in order to destroy the reign of a murderous tyrant who indeed deserved to be changed. The dead and wounded bear the the cost of a US action mainly mounted for the sake of the United States, not Iraq.