The Common Good
January 2007

The Innocent Victims

by Tom C. Davis | January 2007

How can we abide the deaths of so many children?

In October, a study on deaths in Iraq was published in The Lancet, the prestigious U.K.-based medical journal. Researchers determined that, as a consequence of the coalition invasion in 2003, about 655,000 Iraqis had died above the number that would be expected in a non-conflict situation. About 601,000 of these excess deaths were due to violent causes.

As an international public health professional and a pacifist, I contacted one of the authors to ask how the statistics break out for children. One of the authors confirmed that about 9 percent of those deaths were children less than 15 years of age. In the period they examined prior to the war from Jan. 1, 2002, to March 18, 2003, the study found that violent deaths of children were very rare. Since the war began, 39 percent of all deaths of children were due to violence.

Thus, as a result of this conflict, an estimated 54,000 Iraqi children have been killed by violent causes, and many of those deaths were directly attributed to coalition forces. This estimate of child deaths, by the nature of the study design, has a wide margin of error. Maybe it’s only half that—or maybe it is double. Regardless, the scale of child deaths is appalling and should shatter any images that we have of a “clean” war carried out with “smart bombs.” There is nothing clean or smart about that number.

I live in a rural, very conservative area of North Carolina where my wife is a United Methodist pastor. About a year ago I asked my Bible study class what sort of cause would be worth fighting for if the result was the unintentional killing of 30,000 children. Even though many of the participants support the war, no one could think of anything worth so high a cost in innocent life. What if it meant that we had to kill those children to make it safer for us? Still, no one could think of anything that would merit the killing of 30,000 children.

WE NOW KNOW that the cost of the Iraqi war so far is not just hundreds of billions of dollars and the heartbreaking 2,800-plus death toll of American soldiers—it’s also 54,000 Iraqi children and 551,000 adults killed. How do we start apologizing to the parents of the children who have died at the hands of our government? How do we stop this great collusion with sin in which all of us as Americans are participating?

Peter Storey, former president of the South African Council of Churches, captures perfectly our dilemma and helps us see how this could have happened. “[Americans] have to expose and confront,” said Storey, “the great disconnect between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth.”

I do not think that most Americans would allow for the sort of death toll that is occurring—especially of children, who we know are the innocent victims of this and any war—if we knew what was going on and therefore understood our real responsibility for it.

Storey set the task for us. “You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them,” he said. “This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” We must never underestimate our ability to slowly—almost imperceptibly and without our full understanding—become something monstrous to others. But we should also have full trust in God’s ability to turn us around, to become a redemptive power in the world, when we repent.

Tom Davis, whose opinions here don’t necessarily reflect his employer’s, had worked with private voluntary organizations for 20 years on child survival, HIV/AIDS, and other issues in 16 developing countries when this article appeared.

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