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.
By Bush’s account,then, the Bush administration has killed and wounded thousands of Iraqi civilians–unintentionally–as part of an endeavor to enhance America’s security. So the United States should pony up, pay for its mistakes.
It remains to be seen if the Bush administration will make good on its obligation to Iraq as a whole. The Afghan experience is not a reassuring precedent. After his first war, Bush hailed “America’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan’s future.” Then he refused to address interim President Hamid Karzai’s pleas for a larger peacekeeping force that could provide security beyond Kabul. He also shortchanged Afghanistan on aid for assistance and reconstruction. Earlier this year, Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, criticized the Bush administration for not including enough funding for reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan in its 2003 budget. “It’s not even close to being adequate,” he complained. Larry Goodson, a professor at the US Army and War College, wrote that the United States and the rest of the world appeared to be “losing interest” in aiding Afghanistan’s transition.
And the Bush administration resisted calls for compensating Afghanistan civilians who had been struck by errant bombs. The Pentagon even consistently refused to acknowledge bombing errors. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did concede–in the abstract–that civilian casualties were occurring, and he expressed his (abstract) regrets. But when there were credible reports of bombing raids that killed civilians, the Pentagon would not admit any fault. Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, maintained, “I can assure you that we try our darned best to avoid hitting innocent targets–that’s not what we’re about. But mistakes do happen. When charges are made, we investigate. And then we do the right thing to respond to the needs of those who have suffered.” But he was wrong. The United States did not offer compensation to civilian victims of US attacks. Just yesterday, an American warplane mistakenly dropped a 1000-pound laser-guided bomb on a house in eastern Afghanistan and killed 11 civilians. This time, the Pentagon did at least say its forces had screwed up.)
Will the administration and Pentagon behave differently in Iraq? Accepting responsibility by offering civilian compensation is not only the decent thing to do. It would be tactically wise. To most of the Arab world, the dominant images of the Second Persian Gulf War have been shots of dead, bloody and dismembered Iraqis. Certainly, compensation payments to victims and survivors will not erase these indelible images. But they might demonstrate to some Iraqis–if not some Arabs in other nations–that the United States does indeed care about individual Iraqis. It would be a small (in terms of dollars) but highly symbolic gesture that could show the administration is serious about its overall commitment to rebuilding and developing Iraq. If it is.
The logistics of a compensation system would not be overwhelming. Claims would be submitted and investigated. Standards and a compensation schedule would have to be established. So much for a loss of a breadwinner, so much for the loss of a child, so much for the loss of a limb. Such calculations are crass, but they are routinely made during jury trials and legislation-writing. In some cases, it might be hard for US investigators to confirm a claim. But many–such as that of Ali Abbas–should not be difficult to authenticate. And this would not break the bank. Ten thousand claims averaging $10,000 would total $100 million. That happens to be about half the amount of money Bush spent during his presidential campaign. Ten thousand dollars, in some instances, will be too little. But, to be blunt, it will be better than what the victims and survivors would otherwise receive. Increasing the average payment tenfold would end up costing $1 billion–about 1.3 percent of the war’s official (but likely understated) price tag for the war of $75 billion. (Managing the program will obviously have its costs.) Is 10,000 claims a good guess? It’s too early to tell. But the amount of the payments could be tied to the number of claimants.
The administration and Pentagon are unlikely to embrace such a program. When I and others argued for payments for Afghanistan civilians, I was told by officials at relief organizations that the Defense Department and the White House feared establishing a precedent. (The CIA did make payments, though, to the families of up to two dozen Afghan troops loyal to Karzai’s government killed by US forces in a botched raid…which Rumsfeld refused to characterize as a mistake.) But what would be wrong with such a precedent? Collateral damage, as the Pentagon calls it, is a cost of war. Why shouldn’t the United States assume that expense when it engages in preemptive, elective war? Instead, Washington passes the cost to the people it maintains it is rescuing.
Setting a precedent of civilian compensation could end up being particularly troubling for the Bush administration, if it is indeed considering confronting and preempting other Arab nations (or North Korea), as several of this war’s cheerleaders have urged. But as the first American occupation of an Arab nation begins, the future crusades of the United States are probably not on the minds of Ali Abbas, his family, and other Iraqis (even if Arabs elsewhere are indeed wondering about what lies ahead, beyond Iraq). They are probably waiting to see how the United States will handle its current responsibility–running and rebuilding a country. Washington can send a positive signal by declaring it will directly assist those Iraqis who, like the dead and wounded US and British troops, have paid the highest price for a war that was supposed to help them.