Parable of the Bad Samaritan: Reflections on War and Collateral Damage Control

Published on ZNet,, 4/16/03

It appears as if contributions are pouring in from around the world, especially the U.S. and Great Britain, to help pay for the many surgeries needed by the Iraqi boy being called (in the Western media at least), “little Ali.” Putting aside the patronizing namesake given him by his current benefactors, there is a far more disturbing side to this story, reported widely today by the American morning shows.

The boy in question after all, currently being treated in a Kuwaiti hospital, was the victim of a “coalition” led missile attack that killed his parents and fourteen other members of his family. Ali himself was burned severely from the chest down, and had to have both of his arms amputated due to his injuries. According to the media spin, Ali has “touched the hearts” of the world, and so now, presumably, the world will attempt to rebuild his, broken as it must be by the devastating loss of everyone he loved and on whom he depended. Ali, who says he cherished swimming and fishing most of all, will now be able to do neither, thanks to weapons paid for by my tax dollars and yours.

Almost as an afterthought, the news coverage this morning mentioned that Ali is angry, and not in some generic sense, as if consumed by a pure nihilistic rage. Oh no, Ali is quite clear about the source of his discontent, and tells anyone who will listen that he is consumed with anger for the United States. You know, the folks who “liberated” his country. Whatever horrors Saddam Hussein visited upon Iraq never bore as high a price as this for him, and he knows it, even if we would rather not.

Of course, in retelling Ali’s plight it was necessary to turn the tale into a pallid human interest story, replete with “gee isn’t this tragic” overtones, instead of discussing it as the consequence of an attack by the world’s strongest nation on one of the weakest. The decontextualized narrative that accompanied visuals from Ali’s bedside brought home just how deep into the pit of military boosterism the media in the “free world” has descended.

Ali, we are to believe is simply the victim of the “horrors of war,” a nice, tidy and passive formulation that makes no mention and takes no notice of which side unleashed said horrors. The phrase fairly reeks of the kind of emotional and for that matter intellectual detachment so common among the powerful; those who are practiced at never second-guessing their actions or their own self-righteousness. But Ali’s family was not ripped to shreds by something called the “horrors of war.” Rather, they were undone by cluster bombs, the use of which against civilians is plainly in violation of international law and common decency: two concepts that never mean much for the victors, who can avoid war crimes trials even while they parade others as monsters for the cameras and willing public.

And yes, I know, because Donald Rumsfeld says so, and because it sounds so reassuring, that “in wartime, it is inevitable that some innocent civilians will die.” Perhaps that is what we will say to Ali, instead of paying him (and others like him) reparations. His parents were unlucky; his cousins, unlucky; his brothers and sisters, unlucky; his arms, unlucky. Their deaths and his injuries simply couldn’t be avoided. But only a people who have never had a stronger foe hand us our asses on a platter could hear such bile and not vomit all over our shoes. Only those who believe the objects of this destruction are an inferior species of humanity could repeat such crap and not gag on the mendacity.

For indeed, no wartime deaths are inevitable because war is a choice we make. Weather is inevitable, but beyond that everything else is pretty much the result of human agency. Our nation’s leaders chose this war, and most of the citizenry accepted it. The leaders lobbied for it, paid for it, and launched it. Even if one believes these decisions were made for good reasons, let us not insult our own (and the world’s) intelligence by saying the results of such decisions are coincidental. Simply put, if we do not bomb Iraq, Ali’s family is alive and he goes fishing. And one suspects it is that — and not some mealy-mouthed platitude from Ari Fleischer — which actually matters to him right now. And if he were your child, it is all you would care about too. What’s more, it is only our inability to think of him as our child, or to think that our children might someday be subjected to such a thing that allows us to remain so sanguine, so clinical about the effects of our actions. This is, after all, a Goddamned child. No different than my child, except for skin color, nationality and religion. But of course those are the crucial differences now aren’t they?

And speaking of religion, what degree of contempt must it take for America’s so-called Christian leadership to bomb Muslims this way? After all, the frat-boy in chief is on record as saying that Jesus is the only way to heaven, which means he must believe that every Muslim is going to hell because of their failure to accept the one true faith. So by killing these folks we have not only ended their lives but — in the eyes of those who pulled the triggers — sent their souls to an eternal damnation; the ultimate punishment, and the ultimate evidence of our own depraved God complex.

Some may wonder why the media would be willing to show the costs of this war on civilians at all; why they would allow us to look into the eyes of “little Ali” and to experience the smoldering glare of a young man made wise beyond his years by not-so-smart bombs? Yet upon a moment’s reflection the reasons for this tiny sliver of honesty become clear. By riveting the world’s attention on Ali — this one, solitary “innocent” victim of war — it becomes possible to divert the attention of millions from the fact that Ali is far from solitary in his anguish. This single boy becomes the representative of Iraqi pain, as well as the repository for Western guilt, and thus allows us to ignore the others: like the 1500 or so civilians who have already died from the war according to independent and multiply-verified press reports; like the truckload of dismembered civilians brought to an Iraqi hospital during a week of the fighting when doctors said the casualties filling their facilities were “staggering.”

By focusing on Ali, and then raising money to “fix” him, we can content ourselves with the nobility of our impulses, the humanitarianism of our actions, and the decency of our people. We are a nation beset by the equivalent of Munchausen’s Syndrome-by-Proxy, which causes some parents to make children sick so they can rush them to the hospital and “save them,” and be praised for being such good caretakers. It is this same disorder that allows us without any sense of irony to impose murderous sanctions on Iraq for a decade, contribute to the deaths of, say, half-a-million children in the process, then launch a war and claim, as Rumsfeld did a few weeks ago, that one of our objectives is to lift those sanctions once the war is over.

So today, we can pat ourselves on the back for sending small checks to Ali’s reconstructive surgery fund, less than one day after we filed our federal income taxes, which represent the many millions of dollars we spend collectively to ensure that we can create thousands more just like him. This may feed our national narcissism, but will only do so in direct proportion to the extent to which it feeds a growing global hostility towards the West.

For while Anglo-American ears and eyes may be fooled by this latter-day humanitarianism, such is not likely to be the case for the so-called Arab street. This is, after all, a street teeming with those who are now sure that theirs is a life-or-death struggle with the forces of Judeo-Christendom, and who know that while they may yet die under the weight of America’s imperial ambitions, they are nonetheless capable of taking a few of the infidels with them.

Even in Iraq the unrest grows by the minute. Not that one would know any of that from watching CNN or Fox News, where one can continue to be treated to warm-and-fuzzy photos and video of grateful Iraqis waving American flags, or bringing water to parched Marines, but where one cannot see coverage of the anti-American demonstrations going on in Mosul, or Nasariyah, even as U.S. representatives and assorted exiles and local anti-Ba’athist officials meet to discuss the future of the nation.

These demonstrations, by the way, are far larger than the pro-U.S. rallies in Baghdad last week, which — and if one has not had a chance to see the aerial view of Central Baghdad as the Saddam statue came down, one really should seek it out — involved not tens of thousands, not even thousands, but several hundred Iraqi males at best, in a city the size of Chicago. The numbers of looters allowed to ransack everything but the Ministry of Oil must have outnumbered those kissing our soldiers by several hundreds either way, but again, we get to see none of that.

As such, we will be unprepared for the rage that is soon to be headed our way, be it in the streets of Iraq, or New York. Having been fed a steady diet of shiny, happy people who name their first-borns “George” in homage to the King, Americans have slipped into our national cocoon, content with the belief that, to paraphrase Sally Field, “they like us, they really like us.”

No, not really sweetheart; not at all; not since Marines opened fire on demonstrators in Mosul who had the ingratitude to protest our occupation of their country, where hospitals go without medicine or water and entire communities go without food because the war has disrupted supply lines and made it too dangerous for the Red Cross and others to continue their operations.

How long will those who view us as liberators remain patient as their countrymen and women die? As children continue to undergo surgery without anesthetic? As filthy water goes untreated, and diarrhea — a mere nuisance in the West but which kills the great unwashed — spreads through the country like warm butter on a dinner roll? “Pride Goeth Before the Fall,” or so it says in the same Bible that George the Second would have us believe he reads so faithfully, and payback to quote a latter-day prophet, is a bitch. Take your choice, but either way there should be unease in the countryside tonight.

Unease at our ability to look at Ali in the hospital and not go absolutely out of our minds with rage and contempt for the gray-flannel suits whose decisions killed his family in our names.

Unease at the knowledge that others won’t likely have the same problem picking up the anger that we find so hard to wield: namely, those who don’t have a psychological stake in numbing themselves as we do, and every stake instead, in vengeance.

Unease at the recognition that victims have long memories, while the powerful have the luxury, or at least think they do, of forgetting.

Unease as we contemplate the very real likelihood that it only became possible for Ali to lose his arms because America had first lost its soul. And as with the former, the latter is difficult, if not impossible to reattach.

But in both instances, we’d best try.

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