Why Aren’t Children Included in the Debates About the Impending U.S. War with Iraq?

by Henry A. Giroux

Dissident Voice
March 10, 2003


Amid the non-stop advertisements for the impending war with Iraq provided by most of the major media outlets in the United States, almost nothing is said about how wars effect children, or how the endless celebration of military solutions to the world’s problems results in the abductions, maiming, and slaughter of millions of young people. Yet, making up 40 per cent of the world’s population, youth are one of the most important threads connecting matters of war, repression, and empire. Moreover, they are the population who will fight and die in war.


The metaphor of war seems to have taken a distinctly different turn in the new millennium. Traditionally, war has referred to a conflict between sovereign states waged against military targets by military combatants. Wars are now waged against drugs, terrorists, crime, immigrants, labor rights, and a host of other referents that have become synonymous with public disorder. War no longer needs to be ratified by congress since it is now waged at various levels of government in diverse forms that escape the need for official legitimation. War is now a response to the impotence of public institutions to ameliorate conditions of radical insecurity and an uncertain future. War has become a permanent condition adopted by the national security state that is largely defined by its repressive functions in the face of its powerlessness in regulating corporate power, providing social investments for the populace, and guaranteeing a measure of social freedom. In contrast to the current disorder that marks the shredding of the social contract--the privatization of public goods, deregulation, downsizing, the war against labor, and the full scale attack on the welfare state--modernity once gave children and other marginalized groups some protection, a practice that has been largely invalidated. Depleted of the funds for public services and stripped of the political power to mediate between individuals and the enormous power accumulated by multinational corporations, states have given up their more democratic features and resorted to their more authoritarian elements.  Hence, the police, FBI, CIA, criminal justice system and private security systems have risen to new prominence.


Wars are almost always legitimated in order to make the world safe for “our children’s future” but the rhetoric belies how their future is often denied by the acts of aggression put into place by a range of ideological state apparatuses that operate on a war footing. This would include the horrible effects of the militarization of schools, the use of the criminal justice system to redefine social issues such as poverty and homelessness as violations of the social order and the subsequent rise of a prison-industrial complex as a way to contain disposable populations such as youth of color who are poor and marginalized. Under the rubric of war, security, and anti-terrorism, children are “disappeared” from the most basic social spheres that provide the conditions for a sense of agency and possibility, as they are rhetorically excised from any discourse about the future. In spite of concerns about the inheritance of future generations, the question of how issues of corporate globalization, war, repression, and terror affect children has been largely absent from these debates.


The silence about the effects of war on children leaves out an important set of considerations, especially with respect to Iraq.  For example, the moral quality of U.S. foreign policy is rarely invoked in reference to the enormous suffering and deaths it has imposed on the children of Iraq as a result of the U.S. bombing in 1991 and the sanctions imposed after the war. During the 1991 war, Iraq lost a substantial part of its electrical grid, which serviced equipment in its water and sewage plants. Of the 20 electric generating plants over 17 had been damaged and 11 were completely destroyed. One consequence was the breakdown of water, sewage, and hospital services and the spread of various water contaminated diseases such as dysentery. 


Anupama Roa Singh, one of the country directors for UNICEF, has claimed that over half a million Iraqi children under the age of 5 have died since the imposition of UN sanctions over a decade ago. The BBC reported in 1998 that 4000 to 5000 children in Iraq are dying every month from treatable diseases that are spreading because of bad diets, and the aforementioned breakdown of the public infrastructure.  Against this horrible reality, it becomes more difficult to mount a convincing humanitarian argument for U.S. intervention into Iraq not only because it’s clear that the deaths and suffering of the children of Iraq will be intensified as a result of the war, but also because it undercuts any moral discourse that the United States uses to defend such a war. Bush’s talk about the moral and democratic imperative to promote regime change, eliminate the axis of evil, and bring freedom to Iraq (and any other country the U.S. opposes), not to mention his emphasis on family values, strikes a cruel and hypocritical note in light of the role the U.S. has played in the death of over a half a million children in Iraq. And would it not be the same population–the people the Bush administration wants to free – who will pay the ultimate price for another war. A recent study, “The Impact of a New War on Iraqi Children,” claims that children under 18 –- 13 million in all –- are “at a grave risk of starvation, disease, death and psychological trauma,” and that they are worse off now than they were just before the outbreak of war in 1991. According to Eric Hoskins, the team leader for the report, an elongated war in which food and medical supplies are cut off could result in the death of “as many as hundreds of thousands children.” 


Astonishingly, government officials are willing to defend the slaughter of children as politically expedient. For instance, Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, appeared on the news program, “60 Minutes,” on May 12, 1996 and was asked the following question by the show’s host, Leslie Stahl: “We have heard that a half a million children have died [because of sanctions against Iraq]. I mean that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And–you know, is the price worth it?” Albright responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” How might the parents of Iraqi children feel about this type of cruel political expediency? Does regime change mean that Iraqi civilians, especially children, should be targeted as part of a military and political strategy?  How does this war on innocent children, based on an expediency in search of a justification that few countries around the world believe, resonate with the emphasis on family values that is at the heart of this administration’s alleged compassionate conservatism? The incredible hardships and suffering that the children of Iraq have endured and will endure to an even greater degree if a war takes place deserves a public hearing.


The Bush administration’s rush to war is about more than totalitarian fantasies, oil, alleged weapons of mass destruction, and restricting the freedom of its own citizens in the interest of fighting terrorism. It is also about the potential killing of innocent children. Slaughtering children is a terrible price to pay for pursuing a foreign policy that believes war is the only way to disarm Saddam Hussein, refuses to pursue nonviolent forms of containing the Iraqi dictator, and dismisses the concerns of the international community as irrelevant or irresponsible. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States must be all the more distrustful of substituting the arrogance of power for wisdom and ethical responsibility, a lesson that seems completely lost on the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Attorney General John Ashcroft–the cheerleaders for corporate power that now dominate the Bush Administration. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. A war with Iraq runs the risk of disrupting the world’s oil supply, leading to a world-wide recession.  Similarly, pushing Hussein against the wall, might prompt Hussein to launch a biological and chemical attack on U.S. soldiers and his own people. War also promises to destabilize the Persian Gulf, uniting extremists all over the world, while simultaneously undermining the rules of democratic procedure and the principles of international law.  In addition, there is a good chance that such a war will increase the possibility of terrorist attacks being launched within the United States.  But what is rarely mentioned in public debates or in the media is the horrible violence that children in Iraq and elsewhere will have to endure in the face of a war that should be discussed only as a last option. The Bush administration has yet to explain why a war should be waged now, instead of giving the international community more time to determine how to contain and disarm Saddam Hussein.


Making visible the suffering and oppression of children cannot help but challenge the core ideology of militarism. Children are one of the few referents left for invoking compassion and prompting moral unease. They offer a crucial rationale for engaging in a critical discussion about the long term consequences of current policies. Children remind us of the need to move beyond jingoistic interests in order to understand the suffering of others and make good on the promise of new international models of human association based on democratic values. Any debate about war, regime change, and military intervention is both unethical and politically irresponsible if it doesn't recognize that children are not only the most viable symbol of the future, they also provide an important political and ethical referent for reminding adults of the responsibility they have for making such a future possible, a future in which military intervention is the choice of last resort.


Henry A. Giroux is the Waterbury Chair Professor of Education at Penn State University. His most recent books include: Breaking in to the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics (Blackwell, 2002); Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9-11 (Rowman and Littlefield 2003); The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (Palgrave, 2003). Email: hag5@psu.edu



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