The pictures of war damage in Lebanon are horrible, along with the rising number of civilian deaths, not just there but also in Israel and Gaza, as the latest fighting continues. But these latest Middle East battles are obscuring reports from Iraq on the increasing number of civilians killed there in the land of President Bush's Mission Accomplished. One hundred a day for the last month. One hundred. And that's just the official toll.
The tragedy of civilian deaths in Iraq is devastating. U.S. troops assigned to the kind of duty that leaves innocent civilians damaged and destroyed are also victims. The escalating number of troops returning from the was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is proof.
When I was researching Mission Rejected, my book that profiles U.S. soldiers opposed to the Iraq War, one after another soldiers told me of being devastated by orders that put them in the position of obeying bad orders that forced them to shoot noncombatants.
Consider Darrell Anderson; I met with him in Toronto. He deserted after fighting in Iraq rather than face another deployment there.
In addition to taking shrapnel from a roadside bomb - an injury that earned him a Purple Heart - Darrell told me he often found himself in firefights. But it was work at a checkpoint that made him seriously question his role. "I was guarding the backside," he tells me about a Baghdad street checkpoint where he was assigned. If a car passed a certain point without stopping, the guards were supposed to open fire. "A car comes through and it stops in front of my position. Sparks are coming from the car from bad brakes. All the soldiers are yelling. It's in my vicinity, so it's my responsibility. I didn't fire. My superior goes, 'Why didn't you fire? You were supposed to fire.' I said, 'It was a family!' At this time it had stopped. You could see the children in the back seat. I said, 'I did the right thing.' He's like, 'No you didn't. It's procedure to fire. If you don't do it next time, you're punished.'"
But Darrell rejected the rules of engagement as his deployment continued.
He described another Baghdad street battle that scarred him - and scared him about himself. He was in an armored vehicle. Other soldiers were riding on the outside, when it came under attack from an enemy armed with rocket-propelled grenades. One of the soldiers riding outside was hit, and injured severely. "He freefalls. Drops his weapon and falls into the vehicle." Darrell told me the scene still returns to him in the nightmares he suffers every night. "I look at him and he is bleeding everywhere. He's spitting up blood." Someone had to take his place on the outside, Darrell realized. "Me, I'm gung-ho. I go up there. There're explosions. They tell us if you're under attack, you open fire on anybody in the streets. They say they're no longer innocent if they're there. I take my weapon and I find someone running. I point and I pull my trigger, but my weapon is still on safe." By the time Darrell clicked it over to fire, he remembered, he realized he was about to shoot a kid who was running away from the violence, a kid he was sure was not part of the battle. But what was most traumatic for him were his own emotions. "I'm angry. My buddy is dying. I just want to kill." He told me he realized then he had become a different man, changed by the pathology of war and the suffering of the innocents. "When I first got there, I was disgusted with my fellow soldiers. But now I'm just the same. I will kill innocent people because I'm not the person I was when I got there." The attack ebbed, and Darrell survived it, as did the running boy.
This last month a record number of civilians were killed in post-Mission Accomplished Iraq. Bush Administration policies mean that when we finally get the U.S. troops back Stateside we'll be welcoming home planeloads of Darrell Andersons, and once they're mustered out of the Armed Services, they'll be one more collection of civilians damaged by this immoral war.