Last month, Barack Obama was the 4th consecutive US president to announce his intention to bomb Iraq. I remember watching George Bush, Sr. deliver the address in 1991, and Bill Clinton later that decade. Of course I also remember George W. Bush’s speech in 2003. But unlike the first speeches that were mixed with the noise of US bombs falling on my neighborhood in Baghdad, this time I’m a US citizen living in Washington, DC.
The official reason given by President Obama this time around was not to protect Iraq’s neighbors, find weapons of mass destruction, or spread democracy. It was saving little thirsty babies trapped on top of mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. “We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said.
"Today, America is coming to help," Obama told Yazidis stuck on the mountain.
It is much easier to oppose a war that is meant to control Iraq’s oil than a war that is supposedly saving babies from bad guys. I saw a picture of a Yazidi baby in the news, stuck on top of that mountain. I felt as though he was looking right at me.
War is ugly. I can’t really describe it in words, and I don’t think anyone could. That noise of an explosion outside. The sound of our home’s windows shattering. It’s that feeling in my stomach. It’s the silence between bombs, the darkness, the smell, the fear. War for me is that unnegotiable proximity to death and destruction.
For combatants, war must be even uglier. While most of us know that over 58,000 US troops were killed during the Vietnam War, not many people know the fact that the number of U.S. Vietnam veterans who have committed suicide since the end of the war is much higher than that. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, on average, a U.S. vet commits suicide every 65 minutes. 22 a day. Other estimates put the numbers much higher.
It is so ugly that this many people who see war and experience it end up killing themselves.
For Washington, D.C., though, war is nothing more than a policy option — our preferred option. It’s the tool we use to deal with any and all problems. Whether it is fighting Ebola, getting rid of bad guys around the world, or feeding babies, it is almost impossible for policy makers in D.C. to see a problem it doesn’t want to drop a bomb on - or at least drop some food and water from a military plane.
The problem is not just in D.C., though. Many Americans, the vast majority of whom have never experienced war, still fall for arguments justifying it. As a nation, we’re still open to discussing war as an answer to a wide latitude of problems around the world.
For us at AFSC, and many of our partners and friends, humanitarian intervention is the hardest intervention to oppose. “But, who will save the baby on top of the mountain?” one of our constituents asked me a couple of weeks ago after I gave a talk opposing the latest war.
Deep in my heart, I believe that dropping bombs will end up starving and killing more babies. But that question kept me up at night. I oppose all wars and I am pretty sure our latest involvement in Iraq and Syria will make the situation worse. I know as a fact that there is someone in Iraq who will be thinking about saving that baby and working on it. But what if….? What if by opposing war that baby is indeed killed? What if the US managed to save that little boy who was staring at me?
I can speak for hours about medium-term and long-term solutions that would stop the deterioration in Iraq and Syria and help move both countries in the right direction. I can also speak for days on why military interventions suck, and how that baby ended up on top of the mountain mostly because of the US-led intervention of 2003. I can also speak to the evils of humanitarian intervention, the so-called responsibility to protect, and the imperialist undertones of militarized humanitarian interventions. But what’s the baby’s fault? What if our bombs managed to save him?
It hurts me to think about it. I have an 18-month-old son and I will do anything in the world to protect him. Would I accept a US bomb to save us? Maybe. I hope I won’t have to answer that question. Ever.
My only answer to the question about who is going to save the baby is to say I don’t know, and maybe shed a tear. I don’t know.
A week after President Obama’s speech, the Pentagon announced that a team of special forces who landed on mount Sinjar to assess the situation didn’t find a need for US support in supplying food or evacuating civilians. By that time, the goals of the US intervention in Iraq have already shifted to fighting terrorism and liberating some water dam from an extremist group.
We have a soft-spot for humanitarian interventions, and our politicians know that. That’s why they’ll use it against us — over and over. They don’t care about the baby stuck on top on the mountain. They’ll use that baby, and our fear and tears, to justify whatever military and political agendas they have.