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War cuts the heart out of humankind

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Israeli Merkava tank in a Gaza Street, January 2024. As Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza rages on, the writer reflects on the multi-dimensional impact of war on people and society. Besides the obvious destruction, other enduring parts of modern warfare are hard to calculate – the immense sound of war, the noise of bombardment and of cries, the noises that go deep into the consciousness of young children and mark them for their entire lives, the writer says. – Picture: Wikimedia Commons

By Vijay Prashad

In the apartment of my friends in Baghdad (Iraq), they tell me about how each of them had been impacted by the ugliness of the 2003 US-imposed illegal war on their country. Yusuf and Anisa are both members of the Federation of Journalists of Iraq and both have experience as “stringers” for Western media companies that came to Baghdad amid the war.

When I first went to their apartment for dinner in the well-positioned Waziriyah neighbourhood, I was struck by the fact that Anisa — whom I had known as a secular person — wore a veil on her face. “I wear this scarf”, Anisa said to me later in the evening, “to hide the scar on my jaw and neck, the scar made by a bullet wound from a US soldier who panicked after an IED [improvised explosive device] went off beside his patrol.”

Earlier in the day, Yusuf had taken me around New Baghdad City, where in 2007 an Apache helicopter had killed almost twenty civilians and injured two children.

Among the dead were two journalists who worked for Reuters, Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen. “This is where they were killed,” Yusuf tells me as he points to the square. “And this is where Saleh [Matasher Tomal] parked his minivan to rescue Saeed, who had not yet died. And this is where the Apache shot at the minivan, grievously injuring Saleh’s children, Sajad and Duah.”

I was interested in this place because the entire incident was captured on film by the US military and released by Wikileaks as “Collateral Murder”.

Julian Assange is in prison largely because he led the team that released this video (he has now received the right to challenge in a UK court his extradition to the United States). The video presented direct evidence of a horrific war crime.

“No one in our neighbourhood has been untouched by the violence. We are a society that has been traumatised,” Anisa said to me in the evening. “Take my neighbour for instance. She lost her mother in a bombing and her husband is blind because of another bombing.”

The stories fill my notebook. They are endless. Every society that has experienced the kind of warfare faced by the Iraqis, and now by the Palestinians, is deeply scarred. It is hard to recover from such violence.

My poisoned land

I am walking near the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam. My friends who are showing me the area point to the fields that surround it and say that this land has been so poisoned by the United States dropping Agent Orange that they do not think food can be produced here for generations.

The US dropped at least 74 million litres of chemicals, mostly Agent Orange, on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, with the focus for many years being this supply line that ran from the north to the south. The spray of these chemicals struck the bodies of at least five million Vietnamese and mutilated the land.

A Vietnamese journalist Trân Tô Nga published Ma terre empoisonnée (My poisoned land) in 2016 as a way to call attention to the atrocity that has continued to impact Vietnam over four decades after the US lost the war.

In her book, Trân Tô Nga describes how as a journalist in 1966 she was sprayed by a US Air Force Fairchild C-123 with a strange chemical. She wiped it off and went ahead through the jungle, inhaling the poisons dropped from the sky. When her daughter was born two years later, she died in infancy from the impact of Agent Orange on Trân Tô Nga.

“The people from that village over there,” my guides tell me, naming the village, “birth children with severe defects generation after generation.”

Gaza

These memories come back in the context of Gaza. The focus is often on the dead and of the destruction of the landscape. But there are other enduring parts of modern warfare that are hard to calculate. There is the immense sound of war, the noise of bombardment and of cries, the noises that go deep into the consciousness of young children and mark them for their entire lives.

There are children in Gaza, for example, who were born in 2006 and are now eighteen, who have seen wars at their birth in 2006, then in 2008-09, 2012, 2014, 2021, and now, 2023-24. The gaps between these major bombardments have been punctuated by smaller bombardments, as noisy and as deadly.

Then there is the dust. Modern construction uses a range of toxic materials. Indeed, in 1982, the World Health Organisation recognised a phenomenon called “sick building syndrome”, which is when a person falls ill due to the toxic material used to construct modern buildings.

Imagine that a 2,000-pound MK84 bomb lands on a building and imagine the toxic dust that flies about and lingers both in the air and on the ground. This is precisely what the children of Gaza are now breathing as the Israelis drop hundreds of these deadly bombs on residential neighbourhoods. There are now over 37 million tons of debris in Gaza, large sections of it filled with toxic substances.

Every war zone remains dangerous years after ceasefires. In the case of this war on Gaza, even a cessation of hostilities will not end the violence. In early November 2023, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor estimated that the Israelis had dropped 25,000 tons of explosives on Gaza, which is the equivalent of two nuclear bombs (although, as they pointed out, Hiroshima sits on 900 square metres of land, whereas Gaza’s total square metres are 360).

By the end of April 2024, Israel had dropped over 75,000 tons of bombs on Gaza, which would be the equivalent of six nuclear bombs. The United Nations estimates that it would take 14 years to clear the unexploded ordnance in Gaza. That means until 2038 people will be dying due to this Israeli bombardment.

On the mantle of the modest living room in the apartment of Anisa and Yusuf, there is a small Palestinian flag. Next to it is a small piece of shrapnel that struck and destroyed Yusuf’s left eye. There is nothing else on the mantle.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of US Power.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, and was published at Peoples Dispatch.