Pittsburgh Gazzette, Sally Kalson
Pittsburghers were captivated this week by the 7-year-old Iraqi boy who arrived here for reconstructive facial surgery at Children’s Hospital, having been badly disfigured in an American bombing raid in 2004.
On a shoestring budget, the American group No More Victims arranged for his medical care, got visas for the child and his father, paid their expenses in Jordan until the documents came through, and is still trying to raise the cash to cover the travel. A Massachusetts philanthropist kicked in $50,000 for the hospital bill. A single mom in Banksville has taken father and son into her home during their stay.
It’s a story that bores right through peoples’ defenses without regard to politics, position on the war, religious beliefs or lack thereof (the family is Muslim; the U.S. Army veteran who spent six weeks in Jordan working on their visas is an atheist; the host family is Catholic; the philanthropist is Jewish).
No one with a beating heart could look at Abdul Hakim Ismael’s scarred face and the happy, excited, nervous child behind it, and not be moved. No one could look at the many people who’ve stepped up to help and not be inspired.
But this story does not begin and end with an injured little boy, or the other wounded children that the group is helping. It begins with the Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq war, and the thousands of innocent civilians it is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of its unintelligible goals. Where it ends, no one knows.
This is not to say the Pentagon is intentionally creating such victims. It is to say that despite its best efforts to minimize the damage, a bomb dropped on a child does the same damage accidentally as it does on purpose, and that, by definition, hundreds of bombs dropped on hundreds of villages have created countless Abdul Hakims already and are going to keep creating more.
Yes, war is hell, and that’s true for American soldiers as well as the Iraqis. The question for the American public is how much more hell we are willing to inflict in the name of this particular war.
There’s only one honest way to answer this question, and that is with the human results of U.S. policy right before our eyes. Americans need to see these shattered kids and families up close. Likewise, the U.S. veterans coming home maimed, traumatized or dead. Only then can citizens make an informed decision as to whether this war is worth its weight in carnage, not to mention $200 billion-plus.
U.S. Army Capt. Chad Hetman, 34, doesn’t think it is. He is the aforementioned veteran who stayed with Abdul Hakim and his dad in Jordan and brought them to Pittsburgh.
The New Jersey native entered the Army through the ROTC program at Rutgers University in 1993. He served in the National Guard, was a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry, served in Korea and trained other soldiers in counter-guerilla warfare. Disenchanted with the military, he left active duty as a captain in 2002 and still holds that rank in the Individual Ready Reserves. Since then he’s been an activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and other organizations.
“I got out of the Army before Iraq but I still feel that as a U.S. citizen, I’m an accomplice,” he said. “Friends of mine have been hurt or killed over there. Soldiers are coming back in bad shape and not getting the treatment they need. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been hurt. I was feeling helpless, but helping this child has been the greatest medicine for that.”
Cole Miller, co-founder of No More Victims, said it’s critical for Americans to show the world they care about the human suffering caused by the war. And, he added, it’s no coincidence that so many Americans never saw a badly injured Iraqi child until one arrived in their midst, or that the administration has blacked out coverage of flag-draped coffins arriving home.
“That’s a tactical decision,” he said. “They know that if the American people see what’s really going on, they won’t support it and might even try to stop it.”
That’s the lesson the Pentagon learned from Vietnam, he said, when searing images like that of the 9-year-old girl running naked and crying after a napalm attack on her village helped turn Americans against the war.
“When Gen. Tommy Franks said we don’t count Iraqi casualties, the message is that Iraqis don’t count. I believe they do count, and so do many other Americans. The response to Abdul Hakim and the others proves it. Given the chance to step up, people will do amazing things.”There’s going to be a lot more killing and maiming of innocents in Iraq, especially now that civil war seems increasingly likely if not already under way. What the United States can do about that is an open question.
The growing dilemmas of this war are far too heavy a burden for one little boy. He’s here to be healed, and that’s an act of kindness, generosity and hope. At some point he’ll go home. To what, one fears to ask. But the fact of his presence has done more to inform the citizenry than a thousand presidential speeches. From this point on, we can’t say we didn’t know.