Not one life more

While we concoct an honorable exit strategy, the dying continues in Iraq.

I AM WATCHING A DOCUMENTARY on the 2004 pacification of Falluja, a town in Iraq, the cradle of civilization. It alleges that American Marines rained white phosphorous shells on this Sunni community, killing and wounding civilians. I am puzzled at how little the mainstream U.S. press has covered these charges. I ponder the odd cruelty of white phosphorous ordnance—virtually inextinguishable, it will burn to the bone of any man, woman, or child it falls upon—but I am stopped dead by the documentary’s lead images.

It is historical footage of the famous “napalm girl” incident, the firebombing of then 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc and her family in the Vietnamese hamlet of Trang Bang in June 1972. It was the image of this little girl running naked, burned, and in agony that brought the horror, cruelty, and pointlessness of the Vietnamese conflict home to America’s living rooms. But what I can’t stop looking at is a few seconds of film just before Kim Phuc comes into camera view. It is her grandmother, lurching down the road, gasping, her eyes searching for help, pressing a 3-year-old boy against her bloodied chest, Kim Phuc’s little cousin. His toddler’s flesh is burnt black, falling away from his legs and his shoulders. He is dying or already dead when the television cameraman captures this terrible moment.

On the news American politicians are glowering and sniping as a growing chorus of Iraq pessimists cries out for some kind of exit strategy, five more U.S. soldiers are killed along with 100 civilians in another dreadful weekend of violence, and an Iraqi family is shot to pieces at a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad. We have crossed some terrible threshold here, I think. We have crossed it before.

Between 1961 and ’65 1,864 U.S. troops were killed in action in Vietnam. In 1966 5,008 were killed; in 1967, 9,378 more. A few voices were already calling for a U.S. withdrawal, but most dismissed such defeatist talk. American prestige was on the line; defeat or retreat were unthinkable. In 1968 14,594 U.S. troops were KIA. By then many Americans believed the war’s objectives were not worth its terrible toll, but Nixon’s “peace with honor” strategy meant that the U.S. would not fully extricate its troops until 1972. An additional 23,000 American soldiers would die and as many as 2 million more Vietnamese civilians would be killed as the U.S. tried to come up with the “best” way to end the war.

And I find myself today unable to banish the image of this poor woman and this wounded boy on June 8, 1972 in a small hamlet 40 miles from a city then known as Saigon. I try to imagine a war that was worth this little boy’s life, that was worth his terrible death and the sorrow inflicted on his family, and I can’t do it. I can’t think of a single good reason why another day of war should continue, then or now—not American honor, not national security, not my oily standard of living. Nothing comes to mind to rationalize this, perhaps because I am the father of a 3-year-old boy whose precious, wonderful life is likewise worth more than all that to me.

The worst thing about our invasion of Iraq is not that it was unwarranted, not that it distracts from the real war on terror or that it builds bridges to future bloodshed and enmity, not that it diminishes our military and drains our treasury now and far into the future. The worst thing about our misadventure in Iraq is the futility of it, the sameness of it, the dreary, awful, sickeningly familiar waste.

We have done this before; it is in fact what we homo sapiens reliably do, respond to violence with more violence, retreat into fear and rely on might rather than our mercy and our minds. In fact it has been done to death in this particular part of the world by Babylonian and Persian, Ottoman and Anglo. Change the names and the technology; the awful march of war and the stench of death and waste is the same.

But we are called to proclaim something new. Calling forth that new thing is a job not limited to the sanctuaries of our churches, it is meant to be shouted out down the halls of power. Why aren’t we doing it? Where is our outrage? Where is our faith? How many more photos of dying children must be taken before we say no to war, “adventure without return”? No to its anarchy, no to its savagery, no to the sinful waste of even one more 3-year-old’s life, whether in Trang Bang or Baghdad or Chicago.

By Kevin Clarke, senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the February 2006 (Volume 71, Number 2; page 37) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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