Date: February 18, 1998
Forthcoming Catholic New Times, Vol. 22, Issue 4
(February 22, 1998) - by permission of author
Press Contact: Richard McCutcheon

Ice Storms in the Desert

by Richard McCutcheon

The recent ice storms in Ontario and Quebec highlighted for Canadians the incredible importance of electricity in a modern industrialized nation. For five days major cities like Ottawa and Montreal were without electricity in the middle of winter. The hardships--vividly brought to life on our television screens--were real. Water heaters didn't heat, lights didn't light, gas pumps didn't pump, and computers didn't compute. Schools, hospitals, and stores were closed; kids didn't learn, patients didn't heal, and vendors didn't sell. People suffered.

In 1991, while in Iraq as a relief worker, I saw an entire country that had been without electricity for months. With the advent of aerial bombardment, electrical grid systems have been a primary target during war. Daniel Kuehl, a military strategist, recently published an article analyzing "Electrical Power as a Target For Strategic Air Operations." He says: "The first week's attacks cut Iraq's generating capacity by approximately 75 per cent, and follow-on attacks extended that even further so that by war's end the system had been reduced to only about 15 per cent of its prewar capability."

Engineers in Iraq, laboring under sanctions, were able to restore a significant amount of the electrical grid after a full year's work, according to Kuehl. Imagine, a full year in climatic conditions as extreme as Canadian winter. Except in Iraq the extreme is in the other direction. Consider cities in a desert climate, where freezers don't freeze for months--in hospitals, homes, trucks--everything goes bad. Water systems stopped working, so did sewage transfer systems. Everything stopped working, for months on end.

Without pure water, in a desert climate, children get sick. Without electricity, raw sewage pours into streets, children walk through it and get sick. There is no where to take them, because hospitals have no power. So parents bring them home again, through the sewage, where they die.

Canadians from other parts of the country poured in aid, and the crisis was soon over. Rather than help, the Iraqi people got sanctions for seven years--but we have not seen on our television screens the hardships this has caused. Hardships that are as real there, and have been for years, as they were here, for those few days. Like many other things about the war against Iraq, the truth of the situation has been veiled by half-truths. Over one million people in Iraq have died as a result.

The most powerful lies are those sandwiched between two truths--we call these half-truths. Here are a few more half-truths.

It's a half-truth to talk about the war against Iraq in the past tense. A closer proximity to truth says that the war against Iraq has entered its seventh year. This is my generation's Vietnam, a protracted war against a lesser opponent. But it has been much more difficult to protest it, because the half-truths have hidden the growing pile of dead bodies far more effectively.

The war has gone through at least three distinct phases. We commonly call the first of those the Persian Gulf War, which hides the fact that the war is still going on. The phrase leaves the impression that the war happened in the past, which maybe helps to explain why we have forgotten it so easily. But the mounting casualties, as a result of the second phase--the Sanctions War--remind us that the war against Iraq goes on and on. What will happen now in the third phase, what I call the Control War (marked by the struggle to determine who will control the United Nations Security Council), has yet to be determined. Together these three overlapping phases constitute the war against Iraq. Present tense.

It's a half-truth to constantly ask the loaded question, What should we do about Saddam Hussein? This question assumes that we should do something, without asking much more difficult, but relevant, questions.

There is no guarantee that a new leader would be less dictatorial and more democratic. Unless we're suggesting that we choose the new leader, something Newt Gingrich recently suggested on national television. That, of course, takes a giant leap backwards into colonialism--or is that what is being suggested by the arguments to remove Saddam Hussein?

The country of Iraq has never known a Western style democracy, and we do not know if the people of Iraq, given the choice, would choose it. And if by chance they did, who would accept the responsibility of putting an electoral system in place, which could take years and cost an enormous amount of money? The United Nations, which is broke? And what about the interval?

Iraq could be engulfed in horrific civil war in the absence of a government. It could easily draw in neighboring countries. Are we willing to accept the responsibility for the violence to which our actions might give birth?

It is more reasonable to suggest that a diplomatic resolution to the war against Iraq would open doors to an environment where justice and human rights could be enjoyed by the people of Iraq. By creating a space where food and basic necessities of life are plentiful--by ending sanctions, in other words--Iraq's future generations may see that the democratic way has within it the seeds of justice. But what do Iraq's future generations--at least those that survive--stand to inherit as a memory of the West's democracy? Remember the critique of Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, whose perspective forces us to look at our blind spots.

"That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind."

As with Saddam Hussein, it is questions not asked about biological weapons that reveal half-truths. The truth is, biological weapons are scary. Merely mentioning them causes an emotional reaction. And emotions are easily manipulated. But we need to ask, from where have Iraq's biological weapons come from, and how can biological weapons be effectively controlled internationally?

The first question has not been asked in public. To get an answer, we need only turn to the very weapons inspectors so prominent in the news. In order to conduct research and development in the area of biological weapons, seed cultures, like Bacillus anthracis (the causative agent of the disease anthrax), must be purchased. These are monitored by chemical and biological weapons conventions. Microbiologist Raymond Zilinskas, a US weapons inspector with two tours of duty in Iraq, tells us, "The Iraqis purchased seed cultures of these and other organisms in the late 1980s from cell-culture collections in France and the United States."

Zilinskas also argues that it is simply "impossible" to completely monitor and verify research on biological and chemical weapons. A great deal of legitimate research--say in pharmaceutical companies--could be used for these weapons. Yet the UN resolutions say that this impossible requirement must be met to an impossible degree. The drafters of UN Resolution 687, including Canada, created an impossible situation. There's no way out. We need to create one.

The power to stop any biological weapons research and development, either in Iraq or elsewhere, is in the hands of the Security Council members. For it is they who control the original research, as is true with nuclear weapons. And the power to create a way out of the termination trap, as Professor Kim Nossal at McMaster University calls it, is in the hands also of the Security Council. Not Saddam Hussein. Clear indication needs to be given about what Iraq must do, that is possible to do.

By the way, if US intelligence claims to know about research facilities, as they say they do, are they not beholden by the same rules to reveal their knowledge to the UN inspectors? And if they were to bomb biological weapons sites, dispersing contaminants into the air, would they not bear responsibility for the resulting deaths?

Half-truths have obscured these important questions. They have blocked meaningful national discussion, affecting not only foreign and defense policy, but also the moral fabric of our society. No matter how difficult the search for truth, I believe that it is better to engage in that search, than to accept simplistic answers to loaded questions that kill children. Yet these are the answers our politicians have accepted. We should not.

[There are groups of people in Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Kitchener, Toronto, Quebec City, Hamilton and other cities in Canada who are part of a global movement to end the war against Iraq. There are tens of thousands more in other countries. But we need more voices.

Richard McCutcheon, who traveled twice to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the Coalition bombing as Coordinator of Canadian Friends Service Committee, is finishing his Ph.D. dissertation on the war against Iraq at McMaster University. He is helping to coordinate a national movement that will be launched on February 28, 1998, to end the war. Be in touch with him if you want to be part of the global movement in your local area. He resides in Hamilton, and can be reached by email, or by writing to P.O. Box 300, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON L8S 1C0.]

©1998 Richard McCutcheon

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