PHILADELPHIA -- They seemed like very nice people, the men and women, some with children, who dropped by to see the Liberty Bell, which is housed in a one-story shedlike pavilion with large windows in the roof.
My mind wandering, I imagined the visitors as casualties of war. I glanced up at the sunlight streaming through the roof and could visualize an incoming warhead, a missile that perhaps had strayed off course and was heading toward us. It wasn't hard to imagine the damage. The pavilion and everyone in it would be obliterated.
This is the fate soon to be visited upon a certain number of innocent Iraqi civilians (no one knows how many) if the president goes ahead with the war he has pursued so relentlessly. We should outlaw the term collateral damage. Above all else, the damage done by the weapons of war is to the flesh, muscle, bone and psyches of real people, some of them children. If we're willing to inflict such terrible damage, we should acknowledge it and not hide behind euphemisms.
I interviewed a number of people in the vicinity of Independence Mall about their views of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. No one I spoke with was particularly well informed. But what struck me about those in favor of invading Iraq was the cavalier way in which they talked about it. Their message, essentially, was: "Saddam's a bad guy. It's time for him to go."
I got no sense that they thought of war as a horrible experience. No one mentioned the inevitable carnage. No one spoke as if they understood that war is always hideous, even if it's sometimes necessary.
The children in Iraq are already in sorrowful shape. The last thing in the world they need is another war. More than half the population of Iraq is under the age of 18, and those youngsters are living in an environment that has been poisoned by the Iran-Iraq war, the first gulf war and long years of debilitating sanctions.
One out of every eight Iraqi children dies before the age of 5. One-fourth are born underweight. One-fourth of those who should be in school are not. One-fourth do not have access to safe water.
This generational catastrophe is the fault of Saddam Hussein, no question. But those who favor war should at least realize that the terrain to be invaded by the most fearsome military machine in history is populated mostly by children who are already suffering.
The American military has significantly improved the accuracy of its weapons, and the U.S. has gone to great lengths to develop war plans designed to minimize civilian casualties. But war, as anyone who has been in the military knows, is about killing people. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already made it clear that the U.S. is planning to deliver what he calls a "shock" to the Iraqi system.
That shock reportedly will be delivered by 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours. The children of Iraq won't be the targets, but that is what their country will face if America attacks.
(On Tuesday the Air Force tested the country's largest nonnuclear bomb, the 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast, gleefully nicknamed the "Mother of All Bombs.")
After the war will come the humanitarian crisis. There will be the dead to bury and the sick and wounded to tend to. And hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Two-thirds of Iraq's 24 million people are entirely dependent on government food rations, and the remaining 8 million are dependent to some degree. U.N. officials have said plans by the United States to feed the population after the war are inadequate, and food supplies could run out in a matter of weeks.
Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, told me: "The area we're very concerned about is water and sanitation. There's very little ground water in Iraq. At least half the water has to be treated. So if the major power facilities and water treatment plants were knocked out, there would be very significant consequences, and the children would generally be the most vulnerable."
Most Americans will watch this war from the comfort of their living rooms, well out of harm's way. These are a few of the items they might consider as they make up their minds on whether an invasion is a good idea, or whether a search for a better alternative is still in order.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company