Hundreds of thousands of protesters around the US have demonstrated against the coming war against Iraq, decrying the inevitable civilian casualties and expressing fear for the safety of "our boys" in the armed forces. Proponents of the war have expressed similar concerns, though from a different angle. This is as it should be, but there is one major element missing from the discussion--the young Iraqi soldiers who will die in this war.
The Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that in the last Gulf War 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and another 300,000 were wounded, compared to less than 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed or wounded. The Iraqi government puts its military losses at 75,000 to 100,000 and its civilian losses at 35,000 to 45,000.
The carnage was particularly gruesome on the road from Mutlaa, Kuwait, to Basra, Iraq, dubbed the "Highway of Death," upon which tens of thousands of young Iraqi soldiers were killed as they tried to leave Kuwait. Some of the charred and dismembered bodies littering the highway were those of child soldiers, whom Iraq used in both the war against Iran and the Gulf War.
Today the young Iraqi male is the damned of the earth. Drafted by force at 18 or younger into the service of a regime he may despise to fight an enemy with whom he has no quarrel, this generation of young Iraqi men can see nothing but pain and death both in front of it and behind it.
In 1994 Saddam Hussein decreed desertion punishable by the amputation of hands, ears or feet, and the tattooing of deserters’ foreheads. According to Reuters, thousands of these mutilations have taken place since then, often performed without anesthesia and without treatment for post-amputation bleeding and infection. Such punishments were reportedly later abolished, in part because Iraqi veterans who had lost arms or feet in battle did not want to be confused with deserters. Generally the punishment for desertion has been the firing squad.
In addition, Iraqi boys who refuse to fight often bring government repression down upon their families, who sometimes plead with their sons to do their duty in the army for the sake of their brothers and sisters. Even without these punishments, usually few young men are willing to face the social stigma that most societies attach to males who do not want to fight. Such refusals can render them social pariahs, whom few women would want to marry and few parents would want to claim as sons.
By decrying the death of "innocent" civilians, those on both sides of the war debate backhandedly ascribe guilt to these young draftees. Yet if they are not innocent victims of this war, who is?
Placed in an impossible situation, most young Iraqis will pray to their God, hope that it will be someone else who takes the bullet, and do the best they can to stay alive. In Dr. Zhivago, Russian novelist Boris Pasternak described the cruel fate of the young World War I Russian draftee, writing that the soldiers often went to war knowing that "those who made it home at the price of an arm or a leg" would be the lucky ones. In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway depicted the way desperate young Italian soldiers threw their rifles off bridges in the vain hope that if they didn’t have their weapons their officers couldn’t make them fight. While the Iraqi boys’ faces and tragedies will be invisible to us, can there be any doubt that thousands of similar dramas will be played out in this coming war?
Proponents of the war argue that despite the suffering it will bring, in the end this generation of young Iraqis will benefit because it will topple the dictatorship and pave the way for a brighter future for them and their children. They may be correct. But in the debate over the war let us not forget the one group of inevitable casualties in whom neither the war’s opponents nor proponents have taken sufficient interest--Iraq’s young men. We should care about their lives, too.
- Pasadena Star-News & Affiliated PapersFeb. 27, 2003