April 8, 2003
Ali, 12, is a sixth-grader whose favorite subject
is geography. He likes sports, especially volleyball and soccer. Asked what
he wants to be when he grows up, he says, An officer.
Right now, though, Ali is in a
hospital bed, naked, most of his body charred, a catheter and tube attached
to his penis. Both his forearms have had to be amputated; they are now
bandaged stumps. His doctor, Osama Saleh, thinks he will die within three
weeks. Yet he is conscious and talking a little in his soft childs
His aunt, who is present, tousles
his wavy brown hair gently. He doesnt know yet that his father, his
mother, and his six brothers and sisters all died in the rocket attack. Jon
Lee Anderson, writing in the April 14 New Yorker, describes
pictures of them, starting with Alis mother:
Her face had been cut in
half, as if by a giant cleaver, and her mouth was yawning open. In other
pictures, which Dr. Saleh said were of Alis father and a younger
sister, all I could see was a macabre collection of charred body parts and
some red flesh. The body of his brother was all there, it seemed, but from
the nose up his head was gone, simply sheared off, like the head of a
rubber doll. His mouth, like that of his mother, was open, as if he were
Dr. Saleh cant give all his
time to caring for Ali. There are 300 other new patients in his hospital
and he is working long hours these days. Anderson describes a few of
these other patients too.
This must be what is meant by
minimizing civilian casualties not avoiding them,
which could be done by refraining from warfare, but keeping them down to
what the war planners feel is a reasonable number. Nobody
targeted Ali and his family, of course, and whoever fired the rocket
probably has no idea what happened.
But it can
hardly be called a freak accident. This is, after all, a war of
choice. And when you choose war, you choose things like this.
Some people find it an easy
choice to make. I suppose most of those Americans who wanted this war
are too human to want to see what it is actually doing and would prefer
not to visit Alis hospital room, or other rooms where men are
missing arms and legs and a baby sleeps with shrapnel in her skull.
For months we have been told of
the marvelous precision of the high-tech U.S. arsenal, far improved even
over the one that fought the 1991 Gulf War. This war would be confined to
strictly military targets, minimizing civilian casualties.
Combat would be refined, as far as possible, to a duel between Good and
Evil. And Good, with its huge moral and material superiority, would
prevail. Innocent victims would be negligible.
In that calculus, Ali and his
family were considered negligible. Their fate is a by-product of Operation
Iraqi Freedom, of liberation, of bringing democracy to the Middle East.
Nobody is personally responsible for it. Nobody actually intended it. It just
happened. This is the way we live now. Mourning is optional.
Everyone knew things like this
were going to happen. That is what the debate over the war was about. One
side thought it would be worth it. The other side thought nothing
nothing could be worth it. Between two sides with such opposing
views, maybe there was nothing to debate. Its like abortion. Either
it horrifies you or it doesnt. Argue, shout, march all you want. You
arent going to change many minds.
You certainly arent going
to change the ones that count. They had decided on this war before the
events of 9/11. Maybe Alis fate was sealed then. It was just a
matter of where the high-tech rockets would land when the time came.
Well, it has come. One
familys number just happened to come up. Nothing personal;
nothing is personal anymore. We are all, as Mr. Lime puts it in the famous
movie, those little dots moving around down there. The
question for states, as he adds, is figuring how many of those dots
you can afford to spare.
When you think of it that way,
minimizing civilian casualties is as cold-blooded a policy
as any other.