Benjamin Joffe-Walt, an anti-war activist who participated in the Human Shields protest in Iraq before the U.S.-led war began, spoke to about 40 people at Riverside Church Monday night. Rather than talk extensively about the Human Shields action, in which activists from around the world placed themselves in areas vital to civilian life in order to deter military strikes against the Iraqi people, Joffe-Walt used his experience in Iraq — and as an activist in general — to present a “teach-in” style program encompassing topics ranging from Iraq’s recent history to the media’s role in the U.S.-led war and its aftermath to where the peace movement stands now.
Joffe-Walt spent the first half of the program providing background for why many Iraqis are hostile toward the U.S. despite their liberation from Saddam Hussein.
“I think Iraqi civilians have quite legitimate reasons to be mad at us,” said Joffe-Walt, citing the first Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions against Iraq. Destruction during the 1991 war of 70 percent of water purification and sewage treatment plants, followed by years of sanctions hampering repair, left the country’s “ability to provide water treatment either destroyed or non-functional,” he said.
“The average Iraqi child suffers from 12-14 cases of severe diarrhea from the water every year,” he said. As a result, more than a half-million children died during the 1990s from dehydration — compared with six during the 1980s, according to Joffe-Walt.
While in Iraq in February, Joffe-Walt spent time in Baghdad’s pediatric teaching hospital and learned that both cancer rates and birth defects in children have gone up several hundred percent since the first Gulf War. Both figures are attributed among Iraqi civilians to the U.S. military’s use of depleted uranium in weapons, Joffe-Walt said. In addition, he said years of sanctions have turned Iraqi hospitals from the best-equipped and most modern in the Middle East to “pathetic.”
Joffe-Walt passed around Iraqi money to help illustrate the collapse of the Iraqi economy after the first Gulf War. As people in the crowd examined 250-dinar notes, Joffe-Walt asked how much people thought that note was worth prior to 1991. Guesses ranged from $1 to $250.
“Two-hundred-and-fifty dinars in 1991 was worth about $750,” Joffe-Walt said, calling the collapse of the dinar “the largest devaluation of currency” in history. Today, the note is worth about 12 cents.
“You don’t have to be an economist to realize how that might affect you and your family,” he said. Joffe-Walt said his point was not to defend Saddam Hussein or to judge whether the war was justified or not, but to provide context for the Iraqi people’s ambivalence.
During the second part of the program, Joffe-Walt talked about the role of the U.S. media in what he calls the “production of consent to violence.”
“The role the media plays is to produce fear, to define what endangers us,” he said, adding that the U.S. is “the only country in the world in which more than 10 percent of the citizens believe Iraq had anything to do with Sept. 11.” Joffe-Walt said the “biggest tragedy” of our media is that it doesn’t present or discuss the “costs of war.”
“How many people in this room have a vague idea of how many people were killed in the last Gulf War?” he asked. Two people raised their hands. “We attacked this country once before, killed more than 100,000 people, and we have no idea.” Joffe-Walt gave as a “homework assignment” the tasks of trying to find anything in the media about Iraqi deaths, and to look for examples of “privatization” in the stories about Iraq.
“I don’t think we went to war to liberate Iraq,” he said. “I think we went to war to privatize Iraq.” Joffe-Walt offered hope for the peace movement in light of the “defeat and powerlessness” many activists felt after the U.S. went to war despite enormous global opposition.
“Movements happen over time,” he said.