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Invading Iraq would amount to mass murder of Iraqi civilians

By Carmen Lawrence - posted Wednesday, 5 February 2003

So much of the talk by those pressing for an attack on Iraq is stripped bare of the bloody reality of war. It is clinical, anaesthetised and intentionally devoid of emotion. I don't think I have once heard Howard talk of the Iraqi lives that would be obliterated, the inevitable legacy of disability, homelessness and the stream of refugees which would result from attacking Iraq.

We are meant to forget that war is about killing and maiming other people, about destroying their homes and communities. We are meant to ignore the fact that they are human at all, with the same hopes and fears as we have. We are invited to deny our shared humanity with the people of Iraq.

Failing this, we are asked to consider that they are lesser human beings who somehow deserve their fate or that their death is a reasonable price for us to ask them to pay for our objectives. The Government knows we've had some practice at this since we've been well schooled in looking the other way when confronted with the suffering of those cruelly detained in camps around our country and our region.


At a recent dinner party I sat next to a former naval officer who was generally unsympathetic to the Australian government joining in the attack on Iraq. But I was floored when he observed, after I suggested that the attacks in Afghanistan had resulted in the deaths of several thousand people, that it was probably no worse than they could have expected in any case and shouldn't colour our perceptions of the "war on terror".

When Madeline Albright, then U.S. Ambassador to the UN, was asked on U.S. television what she felt about the fact that over 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of sanctions her, now notorious, reply was that "it was a hard choice" but that, all things considered, "we think the price is worth it". Arundhati Roy describes this as the "the sophistry and fastidious calculation of Infinite Justice". Using this calculus, how many dead Iraqis will it take to make the world a better place? How many dead children to satisfy the Bush administration and its allies that Saddam Hussein has paid a fair price for refusing to fully co-operate with the U.N. weapons inspectors? How much blood for oil?

If clinical detachment doesn't allow us to feel comfortable with this algebra, then perhaps a phoney patriotism arising from our fear of being left alone without the umbrella of United States power will overwhelm our squeamishness. Australia has fought so many wars, sacrificed so many of its own citizens and those of other nations for fabricated causes. Surely after the horrors of Vietnam we can't be gulled again into fighting and killing on the paper thin pretexts being offered by Bush and Blair? As Roy puts it: "They first use flags to shrink-wrap people's minds and smother real thought, and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury their willing dead."

The last Gulf War - and to a large extent the war in Afghanistan - was fought without the grim, brutal reality of war ever being shown to us. It was made to look like a little boy's video game. The military control of the images, the refusal to allow the media anywhere near the action, allowed us to retain the comfortable fantasy of a war without pain. Eliot Cohen in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs argued that "the most dangerous legacy of the Persian Gulf War [is] the fantasy of the near-bloodless use of force".

We can no longer maintain this denial. We know what did happen in Iraq and what is likely if the U.S., Britain and Australia attack again. Even the language of "surgical strikes", "precision bombing", "collateral damage" and "soft targets" cannot disguise the fatal impact of bombs on flesh and blood.

Recent reports from the U.N., Medact, the U.K. equivalent of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War here in Australia, and a group of health workers based at Cambridge University all systematically document the past and projected health and environmental costs of war.


Medact estimates that if the threatened attack on Iraq eventuates, between 48,000 and 260,000 people on all sides could be killed. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. They estimate that later deaths from adverse heath effects could add a further 200,000 to this hideous total.

The leaked U.N. report predicts substantial and wide-ranging impacts - as many as 500,000 requiring treatment as a result of injuries in the face of severe shortages of medical facilities and supplies. It also points to the likelihood that there will be food shortages and consequent starvation and malnutrition affecting some 3 million people and a flood of refugees needing assistance. This is why one political refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime made it clear on talk-back radio this week that, despite his own suffering, he did not want to see war when so much damage would be done to his people for the transparently self-serving and fallacious reasons advanced by the U.S., the U.K and Australia.

A World Health Organisation investigation of the effect of violence on health has confirmed that the level of international violence has been steadily increasing and "overall a total of 72 million people are believed to have lost their lives during the 20th century due to conflict, with an additional 52 million lives lost through genocides". More and more of these victims are civilians. As the Cambridge group observed, "conflict escalates after the use of collective force, as violence becomes a more common and legitimated form of political or social action".

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She was elected as National President of the ALP in 2003. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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