National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 16, 2004

Iraqi men walk by cluster bombs in Najaf April 28, 2003. Three weeks after Saddam Hussein's fall, unexploded cluster bombs still littered the city.
-- AFP/Karim Sahib
Squashing 'Lice'

In a news week of 'All Saddam All the Time,' the story of Iraqi victims of cluster bombs fades from sight


In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which we read in freshman theology, 23-year-old Raskolnikov, who has plunged his ax into the skulls of an old pawnbroker and her sister, tries to justify his murders to his girlfriend, Sonya, a prostitute who represents God’s intervening grace. Raskolnikov is a victim of the nihilistic utilitarian ethic according to which “extraordinary” people are above the law and “ordinary” people can be dispensed with for a higher good.

He says of the pawnbroker, “She was only a louse.”

And Sonya replies, “But that ‘louse’ was a human being.”

* * *

I was wrong about Saddam Hussein. I predicted, in my diary, that soon we would find a city neighborhood where he was reported to be hiding and level it in a bombing strike, then, having killed his neighbors, search the rubble for his bones. After all, that’s what we did -- fruitlessly -- in our “decapitation” strikes when the war began.

But we found him in a hole on a farm. Indeed, according to National Public Radio and other sources, one GI was about to lob in a grenade and blow the hole’s inhabitant to bits, when a voice came forth: “Don’t shoot. I am Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic of Iraq.”

* * *

In the TV and radio news cycle of the week of Dec. 14-21, it was All Saddam All the Time. The networks repeated the video of the medic running his fingers through Saddam’s hair -- the prisoner looking like a cross between a homeless vagrant and King Lear -- and swabbing his mouth with a tongue depressor. The New York tabloids gloated: BEARDED BUM TRAPPED LIKE RAT! A Middle Eastern NPR commentator Sunday morning strongly advised that we not publicly humiliate this man. Whatever his crimes, he was still the Iraqis’ head of state. He implied, but did not say, that Saddam was a human being.

We had consistently described our goal as to “kill or capture,” him, with the emphasis on kill, but a cool-headed commander preferred to take him alive.

On Tuesday, President Bush, to no one’s surprise, made it clear, perhaps a year before the “trial,” that he wanted Saddam to be killed.

On NPR’s “Morning Edition,” a former CIA man spelled out how the CIA would most likely handle the interrogation. The president of the Republic of Iraq would be stripped naked, hooded, disoriented by blasts of loud noises, deprived of regular food, not permitted to sleep, forced into painful postures against the wall and in the push-up position and not allowed to urinate or defecate.

This is allegedly not “torture.” But what would we call it if the president of the United States, during his Turkey Day visit, had been captured, stripped, hooded, starved and left to sit in his own excrement?

The Dec. 21 “60 Minutes” program opened with an “exclusive” story on Saddam Hussein’s first encounter with his captors. Most of the segment focused on an Iraqi, one of Saddam’s victims, who condemned the prisoner as a “coward” because he had not used the weapons in his hole to fight to the death. Of course, if he had come out shooting he would have killed some Americans. And would have been shot himself.

* * *

While the troops moved in on Saddam, a more important story made the Dec. 11 morning USA Today, ran the next day on NPR, and appeared in The New York Times, and The Washington Post, on CNN, and then faded from sight and hearing.

Cluster bombs dropped from planes during the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were timed to explode high enough above ground to scatter thousands of tiny, razor-like pellets or needles over an area the size of two football fields. Today’s arsenals of cluster weapons include a variety of bombs, each containing many bomblets, delivered by planes and artillery fire and capable of spreading death and havoc over large areas.

In an independent four-month investigation, USA Today visited Iraqi towns, interviewed civilians and U.S. troops, and concluded that, defying international criticism, U.S. forces used nearly 10,800 cluster weapons, and the British, almost 2,200. These weapons killed an estimated 372 civilians. These “unintentional” deaths have added to the hostility toward the U.S. occupation.

In a separate study, according to the 141-page report from Human Rights Watch, “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq,” thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed or injured during the three weeks of fighting between the first air strike March 20 and Baghdad’s fall April 9. The use of cluster weapons and air attacks aimed at senior Iraqi leaders were the most legally and morally questionable causes of civilian deaths.

Although Human Rights Watch does not attempt to count the exact number of casualties, it critiques the policy of bombing so-called “high-value” targets and estimates that the Army’s use of cluster bombs in Iraq, particularly in attacks on cities, has been responsible for at least several hundred civilian deaths.

In “high value” attacks based on inaccurate information, U.S. forces bombed densely populated neighborhoods 50 times in attempts to kill a single Iraqi leader. In every case, the leader was not there, but in the four strikes researched by Human Rights Watch, we killed 42 civilians and injured dozens more.

The most famous bombing was April 7, when the Pentagon got a tip, based on the interception of a satellite phone call, that Saddam Hussein might be in the al-Mansur district in Baghdad and 45 minutes later flattened three houses with four 2,000-pound bombs and killed 18 innocents.

Although all these attacks failed, U.S. military leaders defended these tactics because they “demonstrated U.S. resolve and capabilities.”

* * *

Civilian casualties in recent wars are not news while they are being killed. The Pentagon, with its contradictory logic, claims that it does not count them, that it has no idea how many there are and that they are very few.

Then, as the smoke clears, humanitarians and some journalists ask how many men, women and children died. The Web site puts the Iraq figure close to 10,000, and other studies back that up. A recent Commonweal article estimates that 60,000 Iraqis will die through both wounds and disease as a result of our invasion.

Human Rights Watch modestly recommends the following: Attacks on leadership targets should not be based solely on satellite phone intercepts and should not occur in populated areas without highly reliable intelligence; no cluster bombing should take place in populated areas and not with the old unguided weapons or those that will lie as duds to blow up later.

Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups have lobbied for years against land mines, cluster bombs and child soldiers, and failed. Why?

For many reasons. The United States refuses to sign international agreements that ban these practices. The news media decline to inform us of the consequences of these policies. They have nothing to gain by showing us 13-year-old Falah Hassan’s amputated arm. Hassan lost his right hand from submunitions spread by clusters. On Page 106, the Human Rights Watch report shows him holding up a bandaged stump and trying to muster a smile for the camera. But American viewers would rather not know the effects of our bombing -- lest that detract from the “hero” status the tabloids have bestowed on all members of our military. The president has so embedded the us/good vs. them/evil paradigm in the public mind as to preempt the space allotted to conscience. And our religious leaders are so neutered by the sexual scandals they shrink from moral confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi victims are reduced to non-person status. They are the “lice” the “extraordinary” leaders feel free to squash.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of humanities at Saint Peter’s College. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004

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