The Iraq War: Young People on the Front

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent world response, has dominated the news for the past two months. What has been missing from the reports is an analysis of how the issues of race, poverty and the environment are central to—and play out in—the Persian Gulf crisis. Also missing is any examination of the war's toll on children. As part of our special issue on young people, this article attempts to fill some of these gaps. As Thomas Pynchon wrote, "If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."

War and Children

Young people bear the heaviest burden of war. Because of their small size, physical weakness, and lack of experience at the game of survival, they make the most vulnerable targets. Hunger, a major consequence of war, damages and destroys children much more swiftly than adults. Growing up in the midst of armed conflict might cost a child the loss of one or both parents, or the loss of an eye or a limb. But it also costs them something more—their childhoods.

Young men, ordered by their elders, do the lion's share of the fighting in war. And if they are not killed in combat, they wear the physical and emotional scars for the duration of their lives. The average age of an U.S. soldier in Viet Nam was 19. These vets now have perhaps the highest suicide rate of any identifiable sociological grouping in the nation.

Young people are never seriously consulted by policy-making elders on the desirability of war. Children of war learn discouraging and distorted messages about the nature of life and the basic friendliness of the world. The childhood terrors of today's young war survivors will continue to haunt them as they become tomorrow’s leaders.

Since World War II, the nations in which military conflicts have been fought have overwhelmingly been desperately poor nations in the Third World. The U.S. hasn't had a war on its own soil since the Civil War, and as quiet as it is kept, this was a war from which we have yet to recover. We cannot imagine the trauma of living in a state of perpetual war, except perhaps by picturing the plight of our sorriest ghettos and magnifying that anguish. War is bad. It is always waged on the poor—and the largest and most vulnerable section of the poor in this country and abroad are children.

The Race Question

A number of issues of race have not gotten their share of attention in the recent debate over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The present conflict in the Persian Gulf has a long and complicated history in which race plays a major role. During World War I an army of nomadic Arab tribesmen, under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia, helped the allies topple the Ottoman empire. They were promised a united Arab sovereign state as a reward for their efforts. Like so many promises made to people of color by whites in the last few hundred years, this promise was as empty as a broken jar.

The political landscape of the modem Middle East was shaped by European colonial powers shortly after World War I, with the political and economic interests of rich white rulers and corporations in mind, and contempt for the aspirations to self-determination of .the majority of people in the region. The current crisis could be regarded as, among other things, an Arab response to the arrogance and deceit of the Anglo- European and U.S. powers who still exert a strong influence in the region.

People of color are over-represented in the 200,000-member fighting force that the U.S. has sent to kill and die in the sands of the Middle East, because of the relative lack of employment opportunities available to men and women of color in this country. If there is a war, people of color and poor people generally will die in numbers out of proportion to their presence in the general population while sharing little in the rewards that could emerge from such fighting. (It is ironic that while people of color are grossly under-represented in the leadership of the military, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell, an African-American, is the man who decided that the initial deployment of U.S. troops should be a massive one, rather than the small beginnings of Viet Nam.)

People of color, who are "have-not" people almost by definition, are also the designated enemy. The soldiers working for Saddam Hussein and other Arab leaders are almost all men who are poor to begin with and who are likely to be far more impoverished if they were not soldiers. The vast majority of Middle Eastern people live in grinding poverty. Oil is the only toe-hold on survival in the global economic order that their countries have, since they have no other major exports to the world market.

Saddam Hussein has been called a "monster” who must be stopped at all cost. The invasion of any sovereign state by another must be condemned. But the Persian Gulf situation is much more complex than the question of whether or not he is a monster or if he should be stopped and how. The hypocrisy of condemning Hussein's "naked aggression” deserves to be examined in the light of the total history of the region. We should also question the "well-dressed” aggression of our own government's leadership, snuggling up to such champions of democracy as Somoza and later the Contra in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran, Marcos of the Phillipines, and Pinochet of Chile, to name a few. From a comfortable and sanitary distance, the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon have fashioned U.S. policies which have visited death and suffering upon many millions of people of color all over the globe in the last half century. But ours is a kinder, gentler form of brutality than the Arab Saddam's.

When Latino children from McFarland, California succumb to 300% more cancers than the average, probably due to exposure to pesticides, to paraphrase poet Marge Piercy , they say "I am dying," not “they are killing me." When chemical companies export lethal pesticides to unwitting farmers in the Third World because they are deemed too dangerous for use within our own borders, it’s considered just good business. When more young African-American men find themselves in jail, on parole, or on probation than in college, no "monsters" are created and condemned except among the victims of these conditions. The chronic underdevelopment of African-American, Native American, Asian, and Latino communities within our not-quite-democracy produces needless suffering and death through lack of education and employment opportunity, substandard housing and health care, police repression, bias in the legal system, unfair and unequal exposures to toxic hazards. Although the cost in the quality of human lives and outright deaths as a result of these socially-created conditions runs into the millions, seldom are the "well-dressed” aggressors who make and enforce the policies that result in these situations demonized and portrayed as "monsters."

Given the record of our own policies, how proud President Bush must be of Kuwait, that shining example of an open and just society that exploits thousands of Palestinian and Jordanian migrant workers in order to maintain a ''comfortable" way of life for its citizens. He must be equally proud of the Saudi Arabian style of democracy, where women can be stoned to death for "adultery," where they cannot drive even if they behave themselves, where petty heft can cost the thief the loss of a hand, and where the country itself is named after the ruling family, the house of Saud Why doesn't Resident Bush just tell us the real reason why our military has been deployed to the region? We are there to defend our "rights" to Arabian oil fields. If Saddam Hussein is a "bad guy" in his own right he has also been selected by the Bush administration as a post-Cold War replacement for the "evil empire" as a target for U.S. fear and loathing. Like Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein is being used to manipulate the unconscious racism and fears of the American people for veiled political and economic reasons. U.S. invasions of tiny countries like Grenada and Panama, to say nothing of covert activities around the world, makes Bush's media stance as a champion of the underdog sound like a sick joke.

There are many things about Arab and Islamic people generally that Americans might tend to find "exotic" at best, or, unfortunately for all concerned, alien or brutish. The problem here is our own. We don't understand their languages, customs, religious beliefs and politics, histories, political systems, diets, aesthetic sensibilities and other features of their cultures, and have been little motivated to learn. It is possible that, when we pass judgment on these people and their leaders, to some extent we don't know what we're talking about. This mistake has been made before. People of color here in the U.S. have been repeatedly misperceived and mistreated through filters of ignorance and arrogance. We should not perpetrate the same kind of mistake on people in the Middle East.

The Poverty Factor

Higher petroleum prices for U.S. consumers and businesses means higher prices for products or services reliant on petroleum energy. Household lighting, heating and cooling, food grown with petrochemical fertilizers and shipped by petroleum-guzzling transport, and medical care, are just a few goods and services whose costs are affected by changes in fuel prices. Poor people pay a higher percentage of their income for these things than middle-income people, so they will feel the tightest pinch of any fuel-related price increases. To make matters worse, global climate change due to fossil fuel pollution and ozone depletion from CFCs will increase the demand for energy, driving up its costs further, it will hurt crop yields thus driving up food prices; and it will increase the demand for medical care for such things as heat stroke, skin cancers and pollution-related illnesses. While these general conditions may affect everyone, those at the lower end of the ladder of economic and political power will be least prepared to adjust to these new conditions.

If oil-poor Third World nations are hit with skyrocketing petroleum prices, they will not be able to develop much-needed industry and productive capacities to feed their exploding populations. Widespread death and devastation could result Increased difficulties for these countries in paying foreign debts could deal the international banking system a severe blow, making the Savings and Loan bailout pale in comparison. People from all over the U.S. will die even if not a single shot is fired upon our 200,000 soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia. Our domestic crises such as the $500 billion dollar S&L ripoff, the blossoming budget deficit, and the attendant cuts in domestic spending for life-saving services, are all being shoved to the back burner. Inevitably, these problems will claim the lives of thousands. Meanwhile, our post-Cold War "peace dividend" which was to help us to rebuild the economic infrastructure and the morale of the nation has evaporated.

Environmental Damage

Lands on which wars have been fought become broken lands. They become lands where food won't grow and animals won't graze. They can become unfit for people as well. This is especially true where chemical or nuclear weapons are used, a frightening possibility in the current crisis.

We are facing a renewed push by corporations to develop our domestic resources by drilling off California's coast for oil, and destroying more of the traumatized Alaskan wilderness to exploit its reserves. The Reagan Administration's gutting of federal programs aimed at conservation and research into renewable energy resources is directly responsible for our continued dependence on foreign oil, a policy for which the average U.S. citizen is left holding the bag.

Energy conservation could provide a way out of our dilemma, simultaneously solving energy, security, economic, and environmental problems. In 1988, only 19% of our energy needs were supplied by foreign sources. If the U.S. government mandated fuel efficiency on all new automobiles to the tune of 40 to 50 mpg, a simple and realizable goal, that could make the U.S. an energy independent nation within a few years. Conservation measures could eliminate half of the U.S. energy consumption with absolutely no decrease in the quality of life within five years. By the year 2000 we could cut consumption in half again while increasing our productivity.

The Federal Republic of Germany and Japan both have technical advances and productivity greater than the U.S,. yet their energy expense per capita is roughly half that of U.S. levels. It should be possible in our own country to reroute most of the billions of dollars that we now waste through pollution-generating inefficiency to the rebuilding of necessary social programs, the creation of a national health care system, the realization of full-employment, the reduction of the national debt, all with—read my lips—no increased economic burden to the American people. Simultaneously, we can reduce our contributions to global warming, smog, acid rain and other environmental stresses. Conservation makes sense. Additional cuts in unnecessary defense spending and welfare for the rich could make us for the first time a universally prosperous nation.

Most people in the U.S. do not want a war in the Persian Gulf. They remember Viet Nam and, to their credit, do not want to repeat the obscene mistakes that were made in that era. War is an expensive, dirty, polluting business. Even posing a military threat is grossly expensive. In 1987, before the current crisis erupted, U.S. taxpayers spent 47 billion dollars on military escorts for tankers in the Persian Gulf to ensure our right to "cheap" oil. The average U.S. citizen has been hoodwinked into believing that we're getting a bargain on gasoline because we haven't been paying through the nose at the gas pump.

In addition to the economic and environmental costs, war has a terrible human cost, and in our age, this cost will be weighted upon the most vulnerable members of the human community: children, the poor, people of color. To maintain our humanity, and ultimately for the sake of our own survival, we need to find another road.

This other road will consist of partnership between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of the world the likes of which we have never seen. The parasitic relationship of the industrialized nations to the Third World will give way to an equitable exchange of natural and technical resources that insures the maximum benefit for all parties. Military interventions, actual or threatened, will also diminish in importance in favor of diplomatic means of resolving international conflicts. The U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world have the means to support swift and ecologically sound development in the Third World and in our own nations. These kinds of drastic measures must be taken, and soon, to avert global, human, and natural catastrophe, perhaps triggering the end of the human experiment. An equitable sharing by all of humanity in the wealth of the Earth will be the cornerstone of any long-term solution to the problem of wars, including the current conflict unfolding in the Persian Gulf. The alternative will be a persistence of such conflicts, heavy loss of life in poor nations, and eventually the loss of all that we hold dear.


Youth       ?õ¬?       Vol. 1 No. 3      ?õ¬?       October 1990