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The Myth of Collateral Damage: Truth, Consequences and a Challenge to 'Say It Plain'

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Maybe mainstream media's penchant for superficial and divisive reporting, combined with the Department of Defense and State's culture of secrecy, have created a popular vocabulary that reduces wide-scale human suffering to a necessary and insignificant cost, the equivalent of a few broken eggs. Maybe there are too many reporters telling the same story from a barely-sourced news feed instead of reporting from the ground, showing and telling the stories as they unfold.

At the outset of our invasion of Iraq, our press took its unquestioning cue from policy makers like Donald Rumsfeld, promulgating a Hollywood vision of post-war, Phase IV reconstruction Iraq where throngs of Iraqi citizens would wave in a new era of goodwill on the joyful breeze of thousands of American flags, so the Iraqis could cheer their noble liberators.

We know the story unfolded differently, and predictably. The throngs quickly became looters, and the flags were shelved. Made vulnerable by policies that wishing makes it so, our troops were making sacrifices on the premise that their own suffering and that of the Iraqi people is and always was for a greater, long-term good.

It is the tragedy of this invasion that the people we sought to help are suffering on a scale that should have been predictable and remains the Allied force's responsibility, given our plan for reconstruction and our failure to realistically plan for required troops, budgets, infrastructure, reconciliation, time, materiel, expertise, security, stability, and all the other factors required for a functional Iraqi government.

Caught in the tsunami of this war-of-choice, Iraqi men and women are being forced to face the very real possibility that they may never get home. If we do not address this in our press and in our policies, other forces unfriendly to our country will feed, secure and protect many of these refugees, and new generations will grow up hating us for invading with good intentions, but nonetheless having left them destitute and displaced.

What are the statistics?

  • Nearly 5,000,000 Iraqi people are now displaced.
  • Over 2,000,000 of these men, women and children live as refugees in neighboring countries
  • These numbers represent the highest percentage of people seeking asylum in the world. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)
  • Total Iraqi population in crisis in and out of Iraq? 7,900,000
  • Of these, approximately 750,000 are trying to survive in Jordan, where it is illegal for them to find legitimate employment because of their status as displaced persons from Iraq.
  • As of January 2010, draconian cuts in UNHCR supported assistance will further reduce subsistence levels of health care, food, water and other assistance.
  • Rising food prices have cut daily caloric food content from 1300 to 1100 calories per person, including children. That is for those who receive such food.

What are some of the consequences for this group of displaced persons?

According to the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children,

"Generally it is (displaced Iraqi) women who work (illegally) outside the home, since men and boys are more likely to be deported. Working illegally as waitresses... and domestic labor, women are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse by their employers and colleagues... Some women have resorted to sex work... to provide for their families, putting themselves at incredibly high risk of sexual violence. All of this takes place in a climate of complete impunity: women rarely come forward after they have been raped, and rarer still is the successful prosecution of the rapist."

Our press should be putting a face on these statistics. They should be telling the stories that turn this massive humanitarian crisis into a compelling, personal tragedy that moves our people and policy makers to take action. Precedent exists across modern American history; from the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 to the post-Vietnam War 'orderly departure' policies, modern American history is replete with instances where journalists informed the public and policy-makers, and America did the right things for displaced persons and for our country.

It is the role of the media to challenge us to consider that we should face this humanitarian crisis, if not out of basic decency then out of overriding self-interest, since displaced and desperate people are vulnerable to the influence of the first person or group to offer help.

The Fourth Estate has a responsibility to reach, challenge and inform the public and politicians, policy makers and military, to challenge the "party line" and provide us all with an unflinching analysis of what we would otherwise be unable to know or see.

How does our Fourth Estate use its unparalleled powers in response to a humanitarian crisis we helped create and can help to correct?

The choice is ours. We will have to respond to this crisis by design or by default. It would be refreshing to respond by design, instead of having to address further crises that unfold due to our neglect.

What can we do?

While the Departments of Defense and State would take broad issue with the position that the military or the State Department are somehow responsible for or condoning of physical abuse, torture, or the use of food as a weapon, Iraqi refugees who fled what remained of their homes experienced one or more of the gruesome practices, often at the hands of neighboring clans, tribes, ethnic and religious groups or competing and often physically combative political parties.

The current administration has pointed out that it inherited this problem from its predecessor. That said, this tragedy continues to unfold. It is time for proactive policy and action; for Americans to make friends of the people we were seeking to help by doing the right things for the refugees who attribute their current suffering to our reckless invasion and policy of reconstruction-through-wishful-thinking.

Let's do the right thing for the refugees, and we will surely benefit as we have benefited before from surges of gratitude, intellectual contributions, safety, alliance and innovation that every previous group of displaced persons has brought to our country as they return to their own country or emigrate to others.

The life of an Iraqi refugee is defined by lack of basic human necessities -- food, clothing, medical care, clean water, and education. These traumatic conditions stress in the extreme all aspects of their lives -- physical, emotional, psychological, financial, and spiritual. The results are predictable as solid families unravel into poverty, violence, hopelessness, and despair, becoming the perfect candidates for radical rage against those who would have been their liberators.

President Obama stated, on February 27, 2009, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina,

"let there be no doubt: Iraq is not yet secure, and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq. Too many fundamental political questions about Iraq's future remain unresolved. Too many Iraqis are still displaced or destitute... And even as Iraq's government is on a surer footing, it is not yet a full partner - politically and economically - in the region, or with the international community. In short, today there is a renewed cause for hope in Iraq, but that hope rests upon an emerging foundation."

Get them the help they need. Do it now while we still have the troops and other resources in place to facilitate their return and rehabilitation.

Luis Carlos Montalván is a former Army captain and the Director of the Iraq Veterans' Refugee Aid Association (IVRAA).