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Impact of war on civilian lives cannot be ignored

March 8, 2017

Australian troops in Iraq in 2005

The newly-declassified study, “The Australian army and the war in Iraq 2002 – 2010”, by Dr Albert Palazzo of the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis, and the recent report by Fairfax’s David Wroe of some of its major findings, have made a valuable contribution to debate (such as it is) about the disastrous decision by John Howard to take Australia into that war. One of the principal findings—that Howard’s motive, contrary to all the evolving pretexts that were on offer, was to strengthen our alliance with the US—comes as no surprise, given the paucity of other reasons for his decision that stacked up to scrutiny at the time.  The report should reinforce the grave questions that exist about the nature of our alliance with the US, whether we have learnt anything, and the possibility of a current or future PM doing precisely the same thing given the opportunity.

As Palazzo rightly notes in his preface to the 572-page report, “the memory and recognition of those who served in Iraq” warrants the report’s wide dissemination.  However there is another group to whom we owe a rigorous examination of the decision-making processes from 2001 – 2003, a group far larger than Australian service personnel and one that is routinely overlooked in official (and many unofficial) assessments of our wars: the civilians in whose countries we fight our wars, and on whose behalf our wars are often said to be fought.

While, as Palazzo records, warnings emerged in April 2003 of a “looming humanitarian crisis” in Baghdad, this very crisis had been forecast long before the invasion took place, by multiple agencies.

In November 2002, Medact, the UK affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) released a report “Collateral Damage: The health and environmental costs of war on Iraq”, which predicted disastrous health and other consequences if the planned invasion of Iraq took place.  The report received messages of support from General Peter Gration, former chief of the ADF, and others.  Other organisations also produced soundly-based predictions with the same warning. All the evidence is that they were ignored.

In 2015, IPPNW affiliates published the report “Body Count: Casualty figures after 10 years of the “War on Terror” “, which concluded that the war had killed, directly or indirectly, around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, making a total of 1.3 million people.  In his preface to the report, former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998 – 2000) Hans Von Sponeck stated that civilian casualties are deliberately omitted from official statistics.

The IPPNW findings are consistent with those of the Costs of War project at Brown University in the US, which estimates that 370,000 people (civilians, fighters, humanitarian workers and others) have died thus far due to direct violence from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that many times more than that are likely to have died indirectly due to malnutrition, damaged infrastructure and environmental degradation.

We read now that Australian forces are playing a key role in the battle for Mosul, with RAAF pilots hitting targets (including water supplies), and medical clinics being set up to treat wounded Iraqi soldiers.  But while we are fighting to liberate the up to 750,000 civilians in the area, where they will find food, clean water, shelter and medical care during and after the street-to-street fighting seems to be someone else’s problem, not ours.

The situation is all the more perilous for civilians by the relaxation by PM Turnbull, very soon after the election last year, of the restrictions for RAAF pilots on bombing that causes the death of “a person not causing hostilities”, usually called a civilian.

It is time for Australia to acknowledge the suffering of the civilians living and dying in war zones that we have helped to create, and to provide humanitarian assistance with as much determination as we provide military assistance.

The claims that the US and its allies go to great lengths to avoid hitting civilians and essential infrastructure are both predictable and beside the point.  It’s what’s happening on the ground that matters, not what is said in press briefing rooms.  If the claims are true, then let’s see the data to back them up.

Never again should Australia be led into war on noble-sounding pretexts unless the likely impacts on innocent people are examined and prepared for. After all, it’s difficult to claim humanitarian imperatives for military interventions if civilian lives are ignored in our calculations.  We tend to measure the things we value most highly.  To use a medical analogy, the omission from official reports of civilian deaths, injuries and other humanitarian markers is akin to heralding a new surgical technique while ignoring its risks and side-effects.

Dr. Wareham is an at-large member of the IPPNW board and a vice president of MAPW, the Australian affiliate. This article was originally published in the bulletin of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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