Foreshadowing Iraq: The War on “Life Itself”

Residents inspect a damaged church after a bomb attack in central Kirkuk, Iraq (Photo: Reuters -- Ako Rasheed)

American University of Beirut professor Omar Dewachi writes at Al Akhbar English:

Washington’s planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq next December is hailed as a turning point for the country. But the war on Iraq was much more than a military battle under the banner of regime change. It was an attack on the social body of a people that predated the 2003 invasion and will outlast a nominal troop withdrawal. As the world marks the ten years anniversary of 9/11 used as a pretext to invade Iraq, reflecting on the burdens of this war is a reminder that 20 years of violent US intervention will take decades to erase.

George Bush’s declaration of ‘war on terror’ in the wake of 9/11 took place one month after I arrived in the US to embark on my doctoral studies in anthropology. An unending war was unleashed with dramatic consequences on the lives of millions of people in the Middle East and the US. After 2003, members of my own family fell victim to the occupation and the sectarian violence, while others were completely uprooted from the city of Baghdad. The war was being felt in the US, as men and women of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent were subjected to physical, symbolic, and bureaucratic violence through torture, surveillance systems, and the new cultural economy of blame and accusation.

In 2003, I began my research on the effects of years of warfare in Iraq by mainly looking at the exodus of Iraqi doctors and the ‘un-doing’ of the Iraqi health system during the 1990s. I was already familiar with the topic. I had trained and worked as a medical doctor in Iraq during the 1990s, where I lived through the collapse of one of the region’s most developed health systems. As a doctor working under sanctions, I struggled in my everyday with the rapid deterioration of the whole country’s infrastructure, the lack of medical supplies, the migration of the medical staff, the dismantling of the service infrastructure, and the mounting of the regime’s coercive violence. We wrestled daily to stock low supplies of saline solutions, cannulas, disposable gloves, and antibiotics. Hospital structures began failing with the absence of maintenance and supplies, as many were on the UN sanctioned list of ‘dual use.’ This was not merely a war on a rogue political regime; it was a war on the social body in Iraq.

After 2003, the war on Iraq’s social body was coupled with the ‘war on terror,’ which turned Iraqi cities into geographies of horror. As Julie Peteet reminds us in her essay “Unsettling the Categories of Displacement”, the American military invasion in 2003 dismantled the Iraqi state and rewrote local and regional geographies, crafting new ethnic-sectarian and national spaces, imposing external dominance, and squashing the idea of resistance. These have all left a permanent mark on the political, economic, and social aspect of people’s lives inside and outside Iraq. The war on Iraq is the largest deliberately inflicted assault on the health of an entire population. The violence of military occupation, insurgencies, militias, kidnappings, securitization, and political violence of the state has been contributing to the mounting body count of Iraqi civilians.

More than a decade into the occupation, basic services, such as clean water and electricity, are still lacking. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced both inside and outside the country. Billions of dollars were wasted in corrupt deals with fingers pointing at the American civil administration and the subsequent failed Iraqi governments. Physical violence has become the primary cause of death for men between 19-59 years. Structural violence on the social body has become apparent in the deterioration of the status of women. The rise in illiteracy amongst women and female heads-of-household living below poverty line is disturbing. The 150 times increase in Infant Mortality Rates between 1990 and 2005 is considered the worst rate ever in any country in the world.

This is what the Costs of War Project  attempts to show, through unpacking the visible and invisible costs of America’s wars after 9/11. As one of first comprehensive analyses of this war’s burden on the US, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the study goes beyond the mainstream body count and monetary expenses linked to military spending. It estimates that the economic costs of the ‘war on terror’ have reached between 3.2-4 trillion dollars, a number that surpasses the current US administration’s estimates. The report poignantly demonstrates that the loss in life among US military — currently at 6000 deaths — is in fact around 32,000 when factoring in the number of US contractors, allied forces, and Iraqi and Afghan police who have died. The report argues that the conservative estimate of 137,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan represents the tip of the iceberg; it overshadows the social and economic costs of physical and mental disabilities, displacement of 8 million people, and the assaults on freedoms and human rights both inside and outside the US. The report predicts that by the year 2020, the added financial costs of this war will increase by US $450 billion. In the coming decades, costs of military expenditure and healthcare services for the injured and disabled veterans will increase, bringing total cost to an all time high.

Iraq is now a place where violence has become both the means and the end of powers competing over sovereignty. If “life,” as French philosopher Michel Foucault argues, is the ultimate expression of sovereignty, then the ongoing war in Iraq is a war on “life itself.” What the future holds for Iraq is still unknown; it is a political, social and economic debt that is very difficult to calculate. What is more certain is that the cost of these wars will continue to be paid with the abuse of scarce and crucial resources in Iraq and the US, and with the humiliation of a nation, and the loss of more innocent human lives.

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