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 Writer's Desk  ... introducing NCR's mission of faith and justice based journalism

November 9, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 30



Tom Roberts Rebuilding the village we destroyed

Tom Roberts NCR editor

An Associated Press story on Nov. 8 reported that 50 boxes of medical books and journals were being sent to Iraq "in a humanitarian effort" that grew out of U.S. Army Lt. Isaac Shields' concern that doctors in that war-torn country have inadequate reference material. He reportedly wrote to a former professor at the University of Tulsa, saying that doctors in Iraq "yearn to learn what the rest of the world has to offer."

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Interesting, I thought, that an occupying army could make arrangements for humanitarian gestures but that non-occupying civilians who made similar gestures in the pre-war era are now facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines and, potentially, jail time, for violating U.S. State Department rules.

For years the group Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago based organization that opposed the decade of sanctions against Iraq as well as the current occupation, delivered token amounts of humanitarian aid to Iraq.

The U.S. is prosecuting the group for taking medicines and educational items into the country.

I accompanied one of the Voices delegations in April 1999, and the last people I interviewed before leaving the country were a sister and brother. Both had been educated in England. Both parents were educators. The daughter was studying for a master's degree in English literature, and begged help to find current books. The son was a doctor and wanted to study thoracic surgery but was unwilling to do it in Iraq because the only medicine being performed there was primitive. As a result of the sanctions -- the most severe ever placed on a country -- no medicines or supplies had come into Iraq for more than eight years. He had not seen a current medical publication in years.

I have wondered often about those two young people.

Much has been made recently about corruption in the oil-for-food program, often with the suggestion that if the money had been properly spent Iraqis would not have suffered such misery.

With no intent to diminish the seriousness of the corruption, what is missing from that logic, however, is the reality that Iraq suffered six long years under the sanctions regime before that program was put in place in 1996. During that time, nothing came into the country, not machinery or vehicles, not parts for fixing the electrical system or the water and sewage systems, not computers or medicine, not books, not even pencils and crayons.

Everything fell apart.

Then we invaded. And we found out that atop the junk heap of all the broken stuff sat the rationale for our invasion. All the reasons -- WMD, connections with al Quaeda, connections with 9/11, imminent threat -- all were junk sinking beneath the sifting desert sands.

Also by Tom Roberts
May 24, 04 The fringe captures the spotlight
March 15, 04 Uneasy rites of spring
Jan. 14, 04 God-talk in politics
Jan. 12, 04 Looking before leaping
Nov. 14, 03 Sports fascinate me
Nov. 10, 03 Visible symptoms of deeper troubles
Sept. 5, 03 Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived
Sept. 4, 03 'Not what I thought it was going to be'
Sept. 3, 03 Reporters on the religion beat
The only good news, if one dares label it such, was that the previous 10 years of sanctions and nearly non-stop bombing of the north and south sections of the country had worked.

We had completely and utterly broken Iraq.

At the moment of this writing we're now taking apart Fallujah.

That old Vietnam rationale -- destroying the village to save it -- seems to be the strategy. The embedded reporters are limited in what they can say, so we only know that the fight grinds on. Some reports from residents who escaped from Fallujah the day after the fighting began report streets littered with bodies and buildings reduced to dust.

One can only hope Lt. Shields gets through with his boxes of medical books. Any humanitarian gesture will do, I suppose.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

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