What We Owe the Iraqi Dead

Counting the Bodies

Published in a slightly different version in The San Francisco Chronicle August 3, 2003.

"As the peacetime ruler of Iraq, the United States has compelling reason to identify the dead, provide decent burial for any that remain unburied, and then diligently locate and respectfully notify the survivors."

In the history of human rights, the right to a decent burial has a unique importance. The very notion that there are rights that no government can take away may have its earliest expression in Sophocles' Antigone. In that play, the title character defies the king of Thebes to bury her rebel brother, Polynices. The king has decreed that the rebel must be denied honorable burial. Antigone buries Polynices anyway because, as she argues, the king cannot excuse her from a duty that the gods themselves have imposed.

As the only government that most of Iraq now has, what duty does the United States have toward the Iraqi dead? A sign outside the temporary morgue where the bodies of Uday and Qusai Hussein were displayed last week read: "Respectful Reverence Requested." After the viewing, it was announced that the bodies would be kept in the morgue, in refrigerated storage, until a family member claimed them. Whatever may be said of the decision to kill Saddam Hussein's sons rather than take them alive, one can only commend this request for "respectful reverence" and this acknowledgment that even killers may have family who care enough about them to bury them.

But if this much may be done for two of the worst villains of the Baath Party regime, what of the thousands upon thousands of other Iraqis who have been killed over the past weeks? There is no official American count of Iraqi casualties nor, so far, any plan to prepare one. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Cassella explained recently to the Associated Press: "Our efforts focus on destroying the enemy's capabilities, so we never target civilians and have no reason to try to count such unintended deaths." But now that the enemy's capabilities have been reduced to no more than fitful guerilla actions, American efforts inevitably have a new focus. As the peacetime ruler of Iraq, the United States has compelling reason to identify the dead, provide decent burial for any that remain unburied, and then diligently locate and respectfully notify the survivors.

This is a duty owed not just to the civilian dead but also to the slain soldiers of the former enemy. There may be elderly parents of whom they were the sole support. There may be wives and children who still cling to the hope that their husbands and fathers are just missing in action. Recall that Iraq has been without telephone or even postal service since the first days of the war. Recall that in Iraq, where there are acute shortages of gasoline, travel is so perilous that few dare attempt it. Recall that in Iraq there exist no mass media—no television or radio programs delivering information to every home in the nation. For thousands, surely, these past weeks have been an agony of waiting.

Conservatives claim that attention paid to the Iraqi dead can have no motive other than the desire to discredit the Bush Administration. The Weekly Standard, one of the most influential conservative journals in the nation, recently wrote: "It's almost as if some people want Iraqi civilians to die. So eager are they to score political points that you can almost see them licking their chops as they desperately seek out any reports—however sketchy—of Iraqi casualties. For their political agenda, the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi."

But anyone who has had a death in the family will recall that kindness at such a time—sheer notice at such a time—is precious and gratefully remembered years later. Critics and advocates of Gulf War II do not differ in their hope that this war, whatever it has cost Iraq, will leave behind a free, prosperous nation in which human rights are at last acknowledged and protected. But to achieve that laudable end for the living, the dead must be dealt with first—not alone by journalists or courageous organizations like http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ but also by the Coalition Provisional Authority itself.

It is estimated that the brief and sharply limited Gulf War I took the lives of about 30,000 Iraqis, more than half of them civilians. The far longer Gulf War II, which has swept through the whole of Iraq, may take as many as 60,000 lives. Weapons are now more precise, to be sure, but infrastructure damage resulting in water pollution—which killed more Iraqis than bullets did even in Gulf War I—has been far worse in Gulf War II.

Iraq has only one twelfth the population of the United States. To state the socioeconomic trauma of 60,000 Iraqi dead in American terms, one must imagine a catastrophe here that would take 720,000 lives (12 X 60,000). For all that, Gulf War II is far from the worst catastrophe ever to befall Iraq. Saddam Hussein sent between 250,000 and 500,000 of his countrymen to their deaths in the Iran-Iraq war alone. Yet for the many thousands of Iraqis who are in fresh mourning, Gulf War II is, uniquely, an American-made catastrophe. And it is this that creates a clear American obligation.

What is called for is nothing like the laying of a memorial wreath. What we owe the military and the civilian dead of Iraq is no more than a semblance of what we routinely do for plane crash victims in the United States. But at the moment that little is not being done.

At stake, as a result, are not just Iraqi allegiance and Iraqi recovery. At stake as well is American honor. Let it not be said in the years to come that in the first preemptive war in American history, Americans did not ask and did not want to know how many Iraqis they had killed and did not consider it their responsibility to so much as bury the dead or notify the survivors.