The True Cost Of War

By Shara Holewinski, the executive director of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict), a Washington-based organization founded by Marla Ruzicka (THE WASHNGTON POST, 15/04/06):

A year ago tomorrow, in Baghdad, a young woman from California was killed by a suicide bomb. Marla Ruzicka was working to get aid to Iraqi civilians harmed by U.S. military operations when her car and that of her colleague Faiz Ali Salim was destroyed on the now-infamous airport road.

Marla’s legacy lives on in the countless people continuing her work and in the families she tried so hard to assist. Her help to victims of war should also be enshrined in our policies if we as a country are to be, as Marla put it, “just a little bit better.”

To America’s credit, we’ve made some progress on the issue of civilian casualties. The Pentagon has a program of condolence payments — a way for the military on the ground to directly compensate a family for the death of a loved one. Congress created the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund and a similar fund for Afghanistan, with a total to date of $38 million for families and communities of those injured and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This program, coupled with our larger humanitarian aid in Iraq (the community action program) is building a post-Saddam Hussein society through small-business loans, education for orphans, new homes for displaced families and other projects. What’s more, the Iraqi people love it. They need the help, and this small amount of money to rebuild communities — by Iraqis and for Iraqis — is mitigating resentment toward Americans.

In October, in a report to Congress on U.S. efforts in Iraq, the Pentagon for the first time, and despite previous claims to the contrary, admitted to keeping information — albeit woefully incomplete — on Iraqi casualties. In December, President Bush publicly acknowledged Iraqi civilian casualties.

But even these are baby steps at best. The 30,000 casualties cited by Bush is the bare minimum estimate, based on media reports that miss a significant portion of the violence (reporters cannot be everywhere). The president’s spokesman was quick to say that this was not an official estimate. We know that’s true, because the United States does not keep adequate records of civilian casualties. And the military’s program of condolence payments — while important — suffers from weaknesses that prevent compensation to many families that need it most.

The brutality of the insurgency has also made it much harder for humanitarian workers such as Marla to help victims of war in most parts of the country. Worse, in some areas insurgents have threatened to kill Iraqis who accept help from Americans. Although experienced military officers have learned that treating civilians well is critical to their mission, the U.S. search for an exit strategy may encourage tactics that put civilians at greater risk — including more reliance on airstrikes to target insurgents. In populated areas, this makes it all the more likely that civilians will be hit.

Marla believed passionately that all human lives are sacred, whether those of our brave men and women serving in Iraq or of the Iraqi children, mothers and fathers she tried so hard to make us see. She taught us that in addition to our obligations under international law, doing everything possible to avoid harm to civilians when we go to war and recognizing those who are harmed is critical to winning hearts and minds, something our military and administration officials have maintained is necessary to succeed in Iraq. Clearly, we have a lot more work to do.

In the early days of the conflict, Bush said, “The citizens of Iraq are coming to know what kind of people we have sent to liberate them. American forces and our allies are treating innocent civilians with kindness.”

There are concrete ways the United States can live up to that statement and show the world what kind of people we are.

First, we should fully fund the community action program in Iraq. This humanitarian work on the ground is the success story we need.

Second, the Pentagon should adopt procedures to record civilian casualties caused by U.S. forces. War is not an exact science, and the Pentagon says it does not keep a record for that reason. But we should keep the best count we can. We will never be seen as credibly minimizing harm to noncombatants if we do not keep data to back up the claim that we are doing so. With increasing airstrikes, U.S. military planners must also do more to assess the risk to civilians before launching attacks, and should include in post-attack reports any available information on civilian casualties. The current lack of data makes the improvement of those procedures difficult.

Third, we should create clear guidelines for the Pentagon’s condolence payments. It would help to increase training for the military officers deployed to war zones on how these funds should be used to compensate innocent victims.

Only by doing these things will we know the true cost of war. And only by knowing the cost will we be able to mitigate it. That is the cause for which Marla Ruzicka dedicated her life — making sure the United States is there to help and not hurt, to build and not destroy, and to show respect for the worth of every person.