Every now and then, a set of figures buried in some newspaper piece just jumps out and grabs you by the throat. When we talk about the situation in Iraq, it’s usually about the powerlessness of the Iraqi government, or the number of insurgent attacks, or exactly what staggering number of civilians have died in the country since March 2003, or some other suitably large subject. We’re not ordinarily thinking about or measuring anything by garbage. As early as July, however, we learned — thanks to the head of Baghdad’s municipal garbage services — that one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq may not be policeman or soldier, but garbage collector. 350 trash men had been killed in the capital in a year.
This Friday a vividly well-reported page 8 story by Michael Luo in the New York Times elaborated on this. “Most of the 500 municipal workers who have been killed here [in Baghdad] since 2005 have been trash collectors,” he cites the capital’s deputy mayor as saying. Many have died from hidden roadside bombs or IEDs meant for passing U.S. or Iraqi Army or police patrols. Some of them — trash men being, Luo informs us, largely Shiite — have been murdered simply because they are easy targets in the internecine warfare now underway in the capital. In the process, Baghdad has evidently become little short of a city of stinking, fetid, disease-spreading trash, piles and piles and piles of it. This, it seems, has been one of George Bush’s main liberating gifts to the Iraqi people.
But here was the passage (and set of figures) in Luo’s piece that caught my eye. “[T]he city,” he informs us, “is woefully ill equipped to deal with the waste of six million people. It has just 380 working trash-compacting trucks now, compared with 1,200 before the fall of the regime, said Kaabi, the deputy mayor. Most of the vehicles were destroyed or lost in the looting that seized the capital after the American invasion. He estimated the city needs 1,500 garbage trucks.”
1,200 trucks before the invasion; 380 now. That catches about as vividly as anything I’ve seen what the American “reconstruction” program has really meant in that country. Well, as Donald Rumsfeld put the matter so memorably when the looting was at its height way back in the Spring of 2003, “Stuff happens.”