The New Face of Techno-War

By Munk, Erika | The Nation, May 6, 1991 | Go to article overview

The New Face of Techno-War


Munk, Erika, The Nation


What if war is not only that hell whose face has become so familiar but also something else, a new kind of hell, harder to resist not only for those who wage it but for those who oppose it?

Recently I spent four days in Baghdad with a small group of longtime peace activists who'd gone there to document civilian damage caused by the U.S. bombing. We were pretty sure what we'd see. We expected to find enormous unreported destruction. We wanted to flesh out, house by house and family by family, the words of the United Nations mission, which flew out at us from The New York Times on March 23, the day we set off. "Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age."

Instead we found a city whose homes and offices were almost entirely intact, where the electricity was coming back on and the water was running. Not a normal place-scarcity, grief, hardship and apprehension marked it-but postindustrial enough for us to be caught in a lot of traffic jams.

A generation ago, the language of American death-dealing was, "We'll bomb them back to the Stone Age." Now, in Baghdad, that language no longer describes the truth. Baghdad isn't the whole country (though it holds almost a quarter of its population), nor is it representative of the rest of Iraq or the damage done there. But what we saw, and what we didn't see, has more frightening implications than if we'd stood in endless rubble.

When a capital city's communications centers can be destroyed with little damage to the surrounding buildings or people; when a nation's infrastructure can be crippled so that the deadliest effects appear long after the world's eye has moved elsewhere; when high-tech, low-gore war can be combined with heavy censorship-then any nation willing to forfeit its social and economic development to weapons can exert power at will, deny moral responsibility and avoid popular revulsion.

The bombing of the Amiriya shelter, where Americans incinerated still-uncounted hundreds of Iraqi women and children, and the slaughter on the Kuwaiti highways, where Americans picked off retreating soldiers as if it were sport, evoked public horror, as such atrocities always have. But from what we saw in Baghdad, that kind of war now coexists with something else-call it techno-war-that is not just a figment of Pentagon propaganda and can't be countered as if it were.

Our group-Don Mosley from Fellowship of Reconciliation, Ed Griffin-Nolan from Witness for Peace, Rick Reinhard from Impact Visuals, and myself, accompanied by Abdul Kadir al-Kaysi, an Iraqi-American who interpreted for Ramsey Clark during Clark's February visit [see Clark, A War Crime," March 11 1-went to Baghdad specifically to document civilian casualties and harm to the infrastructure. The Iraqis knew this, and knew that FOR had shipped fourteen tons of medicine to Iraq during the war. They had no conceivable interest in preventing us from seeing every particle of damage. And though many people have suggested that "Arab pride" (perhaps a patronizing concept?) might have made them play down or hide casualties, everyone we spoke to-pro- or anti-Baath Party, behind a desk or on the street--was emphatic about the disaster that had befallen the city and eager to impress on us how bad things were. Iraqi officials may have been preoccupied with insurrection; bureaucrats and police-state paranoia limited our mobility; but I think the reason we didn't see more destruction was that it wasn't there.

Our Baghdad home was the first surprise. A rather posh Red Crescent hospital, scheduled to open in September 1990, had been turned into a free way-station for peace and aid workers. The electricity functioned except for a few hours at night, the rooms had hot and/or cold water, the lobby TV was on and the kitchen had a gas stove, purified water and adequate food (lamb, rice, vegetables, tea). If such relative comfort and lack of medical urgency-didn't they need this hospital? …

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