"Every evening, I write notes to the families of young Americans.... For you and for me they are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a web page, they are our country's sons and daughters."
Our no-nonsense Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, choked backed his tears on July 19 at the Marine Corps Association's annual dinner as he described the torment of our military. The Secretary was talking about Captain Douglas Zembiec -- the Lion of Fallujah -- who was killed in battle last May.
America should be proud of her sons and daughters and honor their commitment to our nation. But where are the tears for innocent Iraqis who never asked for our presence in the first place?
Half of Iraq's population of 27 million are children. UNICEF data show that nearly one-fifth of Iraqis are children under the age of five. These children are the most vulnerable members of Iraqi society. Twenty five percent of Iraqi children are malnourished and one in ten is acutely malnourished.
A USA Today report indicates that 70 percent of Iraqi children suffer from symptoms of traumatic stress syndrome manifested in psychiatric and psychological symptoms. These children daily witness death and destruction in their neighborhood. This is not surprising since a third of our own soldiers in Iraq return with symptoms of mental illness and traumatic stress disorder.
But it is difficult for citizens in the U.S. to empathize with those in Iraq. The U.S. has suffered over 3,700 deaths and 27,000 wounded. Multiply these numbers by one hundred and you can get a sense of the impact of the war inside of Iraq -- a country one-tenth the size of our population.
Secretary Gates tears were sincere and heartfelt for Captain Douglas Zembiec. He would likely tear-up if he became as familiar with the anguish of Iraqi mothers and fathers' who have lost their children -- not soldiers, not terrorists, and not insurgents. The Secretary might even cry if he saw Iraqi children scrounging in the garbage for food or going into prostitution to survive.
Caught in the middle of a multi-sided war, these children are being killed daily as collateral damage by U.S. soldiers caught up in the middle of a civil-war, the Iraqis opposing our occupation, terrorists, and thugs. According to U.S. military figures, an average of 1,000 Iraqis have died each month since March, and that number is likely to be much higher.
Sadly, there are at least two reasons why many of us, including Mr. Gates, do not cry when hearing of the deaths of innocent Iraqis. The first reason is exemplified by the fighter pilot who drops bombs from the plane knowing there is a good chance that innocent people would get killed. However, at the same time, the same pilot cannot and will not take a knife and directly kill the same innocent people with his own bare hands. The second reason is nationalism. Americans care more about our own people than others. The first reason probably will never change and it is for the good of our humanity.
But after nearly five years of war, we must break through our nationalist sentiments and start seeing the war through Iraqi eyes as well. Too much attention during this war has been paid towards fighting, leaving the task of protecting the innocent to no one. It's time for that to stop. We've seen the enormous compassion of the American people time and time again at home in places like New Orleans, and abroad after incidents such as the Asian Tsunami. The essence of compassion deeply embedded in the American people gives hope that we all can start shedding tears for Iraqis and work together to protect the children and put an end to this senseless war.
Adil E. Shamoo is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bonnie Bricker is a freelance writer. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.
© 2007 Institute for Policy Studies