This essay, posted February 21, 2011, is Copyright © 2011 by Mary Meehan.
Open Letter to Sarah Palin on the Wars
Dear Gov. Palin:
Sharing your deep concern for unborn children, I have written and spoken in their defense for many years. It happens that one of my articles is called "Palin as Pro-life Feminist." I admire the way you and your family stay true to your pro-life convictions.
I want to remind you that many children, born and unborn, are threatened by an evil that is similar to abortion--the evil of war. I urge you to speak out on their behalf, too. You could make a great difference by doing so. You might save many lives and prevent many severe injuries to babies, other children, and their parents.
I realize that, in speaking of current U.S. wars in your book Going Rogue, you said that we "have a responsibility to complete our missions in these countries so that we can keep our homeland safe."(1) I'm one of many Americans who believe the wars actually make us less safe and that they are bankrupting us. More important, though, are the lives of the innocent. I don't think you have counted the cost of our wars to people in the targeted countries who have nothing to do with terrorism. Especially the children, born and unborn, and their mothers.
Women who are pregnant face the same danger from bombs and bullets that other civilians face. If you follow war casualty reports, you will find pregnant women mentioned among the dead. Sometimes the mother survives with wounds, but the child dies. Sometimes both die.
In October, 2001, early in the U.S. war against Afghanistan, U.S. bombs hit the village of Chowkar-Karez at night. Then a U.S. gunship moved in and hit people who had survived the bombing. One woman, five months into her pregnancy, was struck in her abdomen by shrapnel and soon lost her child to miscarriage. An early report said the U.S. weapons killed at least 25 civilians; a villager later said the final death toll was 45. According to the Washington Post, a man who helped bury the victims said: "Many bodies were blown apart, and all we could do was collect their limbs and put them together in the same grave." A 14-year-old girl, Shaida, saw her mother die by gunfire in a courtyard. "Shaida said she then darted out to rescue her brother, Shabbir, whose head was struck by shrapnel."
Shaida's conclusion? "Americans are not good. They killed my mother. They killed my father. I don't understand why." A Pentagon spokesman said there was a Taliban encampment in the area that was "a legitimate military target under the law of armed conflict." Villagers, though, said there was no military facility in the area and that no Taliban soldiers were there at the time. The Pentagon official acknowledged ignorance about whether civilians were hit: "Whether they were villagers or Taliban military, that's the question." He also said, "I think we hit our target pretty well."(2)
Gov. Palin, can you imagine how you would feel if a foreign nation sent planes to make a bombing run over your hometown of Wasilla? And killed 45 people, including your husband and children? And you then learned that a spokesman for that country had said, "I think we hit our target pretty well"?
There have been many reports of horrific civilian casualties since then: people bombed in their homes, bombed or shot while driving in the countryside or attending weddings, shot down in the cities by convoy troops. In February, 2010, according to the Times of London, a joint U.S.-Afghan force shot and killed two men, two pregnant women, and a teenaged girl in the village of Khataba. Afghan investigators said U.S. soldiers tried to cover-up the incident. After initial confusion and denials from allied sources, a NATO brigadier general expressed deep regrets. He said the soldiers had been looking for a Taliban insurgent and thought the two men they shot "posed a threat to their personal safety. We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families."(3)
Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, has extremely high rates of maternal and infant mortality. Early in the US war there, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization reported: "A quarter of the country's children do not live long enough to celebrate their fifth birthday. An estimated 10% suffer from acute malnutrition and about 50% from chronic malnutrition." It said this makes them "particularly vulnerable to disease" such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. It added that cholera, measles, and meningitis are constant threats.(4) War, by disrupting food supplies and medical aid, makes everything worse. Last October an international Red Cross spokesman stressed civilians' fear of traveling in the dangerous Afghan countryside and the problem of roadblock delays. As a result, he said, "children die from tetanus, measles and tuberculosis--easily prevented with vaccines--while women die in childbirth and otherwise strong men succumb to simple infections."(5)
Dr. Brett Sutton helped staff a mobile clinic in Afghanistan in 2003. He reported in the Medical Journal of Australia that he could help many patients, but not all. A woman named Nasima was late in pregnancy and worried that she would lose the child, since she had lost many others "in pregnancy or in the first year of life." He gave her some basic assistance and referred her to another clinic for more. But he realized that riding four hours by donkey to the other clinic was "a difficult prospect for a woman eight months pregnant."
Decades of war and internal strife had left landmines in much of the Afghan countryside, and they were a constant threat to both children and adults. Sutton reported: "Abdul Rafour, a man in his forties, is being led into our dusty consultation room. He removes his dark glasses, and we realize he has no eyes. His face is a patchwork of scars." Rafour had been "a victim, some years earlier, of one of Afghanistan's ten million landmines. He complains to me of deafness and inability to sleep, and it is soon clear that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and bilateral chronically perforated ear drums. What can I do for him? Nothing at all. I call the next patient in." Sutton described Afghanistan as "a country with a burden of disease that is mostly preventable" and "a country poisoned by landmines." (6)
It did not help matters when, at the beginning of the U.S. war against Afghanistan, U.S. forces mistakenly bombed a building that housed a landmine-removal group and killed four guards there. "Only one leg was left of the poor people inside," mine-removal official Karim Fazal told reporters. "Everything else disappeared."(7)
Nor did it help that the U.S. was dropping cluster bombs in the early stages of the war. A cluster bomb contains many "bomblets"; the ones used in Afghanistan were roughly the size and shape of soda cans.(8) The bomblets don't always explode on impact. They are a special threat to small children, who often think they are toys or just pick them up out of curiosity--and pay for that mistake with their lives. Cluster bombs also make farming very dangerous. When a farmer loses limbs--or his life--to them, his family is likely to have a hard time surviving.
Gov. Palin, we have been bombing this poor country for over nine years. Don't you think you should reconsider your 2008 comment that we "need to ramp it up in Afghanistan"? And your attack on then-Senator Obama for his criticism of air raids on villages?(9)
Unfortunately, President Obama's concern about civilian casualties seems as limited now as yours was then. By escalating the war in Afghanistan and by continuing--and vastly increasing--the drone-bombing of suspected terrorists, he guaranteed that more children and other civilians would be killed.
It is a poor response to say, as many war supporters do, that civilian deaths are unintended mistakes or "collateral damage" and that we regret them. First, it's not clear that all attacks on civilians are simple mistakes. Extreme carelessness, inexperience, and panic all play a role. Army Major General Eldon Bargewell mentioned another key point in his long report on a case in Iraq: the November, 2005, killing of 24 civilians in Haditha by U.S. Marines. The incident occurred just after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and wounded two others. The Washington Post later reported: "A Naval Criminal Investigative Service report found that the Marines then killed five unarmed civilians whom they ordered out of a car...before storming several houses and killing women and children, some of them still in their pajamas and lying in bed." The Post added that Marines "have told investigators that they believed they were taking small-arms fire from the houses and that they were following their rules of engagement when they threw grenades and then shot everyone inside."
Bargewell found great fault at all command levels. He said that: "Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get 'the job done' no matter what it takes."(10)
Gov. Palin, when a huge industrial power such as the United States unleashes horrific weapons against another country, civilians always suffer greatly. Yet they have the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we claim for ourselves. Their lives are just as important as ours.
Not only in Haditha, but all over Iraq, women and children have suffered enormously. One of the early victims of U.S. bombing there was a boy named Ali Abbas. He was severely burned, and both of his arms had to be amputated. The bombing killed both of his parents and two siblings--one of them an unborn child. Ali's condition was so terrible that he received tremendous publicity, especially in the British press, and many donations for medical care. He received treatment in Kuwait, and then England, where he settled with an uncle. According to the last reports I found, from 2009-10, he was a teenager and was attending a private English school. While he used artificial arms some of the time, he had learned to do a great deal with his feet, including writing and painting. He was grateful for all the help he had received in Kuwait and England. Yet he told the Times of London: "Some days I feel so angry. My family were innocent farmers trying to live in peace. The land we worked was green and we had sheep, cows and chickens." He said Iraq's then-leader, Saddam Hussein, "was not a good man, but we just kept our heads down and tried to get on with our lives. What was the point in attacking my family's home? Why did they bomb us? Why?"(11)
Back when Ali was still in an Iraqi hospital, suffering terribly from his burns, there was another boy in the same hospital, an 11-year-old described this way by a reporter: "He has lost his left arm, half his face is hidden by bandages and he may lose one of his eyes." He had been injured by a bombing raid near Baghdad. The Independent, a British paper, reported that the boy's father asked: "Why didn't the British and American people stop their leaders from doing this? What is the justification in bombing ordinary people?"(12)
In 2007 a Washington Post reporter wrote that Iraq once had excellent healthcare; but trade sanctions in the 1990s, followed by the war and much street violence, had put that care in a steep decline. Many women were not getting prenatal care. The streets were so dangerous at night that some who were about to give birth could not get to the hospital in time. A young woman named Noor Ibrahim, who lived near Baghdad and was about to deliver her second child, was late to a public hospital and found no doctors there when she arrived. The child was large, and nurses used forceps in their delivery attempt. They inadvertently wounded his head, yet still were unable to deliver him. Ibrahim's husband then drove her to a private hospital, where a doctor did a C-section but could not save the baby. Although Ibrahim herself survived, it seemed that she "might never be able to have another child."(13)
In 2006 ABC News reported that a brother of Nabiha Nisaif Jassim rushed her toward a hospital in Samarra, Iraq, because she was about to deliver a child. A woman cousin accompanied them. The U.S. military said their car failed to stop at an observation post despite warnings and that shots "were fired to disable the vehicle." They killed both women, and doctors could not save Jassim's baby. Jassim's brother reported: "I was driving my car at full speed because I did not see any sign or warning from the Americans. It was not until they shot the two bullets that killed my sister and cousin that I stopped." He added, "God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here. They have no regard for our lives."(14)
Gov. Palin, in Going Rogue, you expressed your belief "in a few timeless and unchanging truths," the chief one being "that man is fallen." You said this world "is not perfect, and politicians will never make it so." Yet in a foreign-policy statement that you posted on Facebook last June, you glorified our country exceedingly, overlooking both many historical facts and your conviction that man is fallen. You suggested, for example, that America is "the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known." That is a breathtaking claim. Many people in Iraq and Afghanistan would dispute it. So would countless people in other nations we have invaded and bombed in recent decades.
You said that U.S. military might has "liberated countless millions from tyranny, slavery, and oppression" since 1776.(15) But for nearly 90 years of that time, slavery of African Americans existed throughout our South and in border states. It was also common in the North in the earliest years. Federal power upheld slavery through a fugitive-slave clause in the Constitution (article IV, section 2) and also through statutory law. The Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment finally ended slavery, but African Americans were segregated and oppressed for roughly a hundred years after that war. And in the 1800s, the U.S. army fought ferocious battles against Native Americans and forced many of them onto subsistence reservations in the West.
It is true that the U.S. military liberated many people during World War II. Yet it also killed huge numbers of civilians through the terror bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many Americans still defend those bombing attacks. Under international law, though, they were war crimes.
You said that "our military has advanced the cause of freedom and kept authoritarian powers in check."(16) Sometimes it has done that. Yet there is also a long record of U.S. support for oppressive dictators such as Hosni Mubarak, who was recently deposed by the long-suffering Egyptians.
In our system, of course, political leaders--not the military--have the final call. We should not follow politicians who want to lead us into war and support of tyranny.
In a fine phrase, English poet Matthew Arnold praised someone who "saw life steadily, and saw it whole."(17) This is what we all should do. True patriots should see our country as it really is, acknowledge its mistakes, and try to make it live up to its highest ideals. Antiwar conservatives, including the formidable Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), are doing just this. Some of them, including Paul, are military veterans; some are CIA veterans. All of them believe that our country, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, has lost its way on foreign policy. They believe our perpetual warfare is doing great injustice to people in other lands--and to our own troops--and that it is wrecking our economy.
Your foreign-policy advice comes mainly from people who are pro-war. I urge you to sit down with Rep. Paul and other antiwar conservatives--such as Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Prof. Andrew Bacevich, and writer Bill Kauffman--and seek their views. Please read a few of their books. Then go back to your advisers and see if they can defend their positions under tough questioning. Press them on the issue of civilian casualties. What would they say to parents who have lost their children to U.S. bombing raids? And to children who have seen their parents, sisters, and brothers die?
In seeking diverse views, you would follow the good example of George Washington. Early in the Washington presidency, Vice President John Adams wrote of him: "He seeks information from all quarters, and judges more independently than any man I ever knew."(18)
Washington's good judgment, by the way, led to policies very different from those of your advisers. He believed in defense, but he strongly opposed meddling in the political affairs and wars of other countries. In letters before his presidency, especially ones to French friends who had helped him in our Revolution, he emphasized his desire for peace and his non-interventionist policy. In a 1785 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, he wrote that, since peace "is dawning upon your land, I will banish the sound of war from my letter: I wish to see the sons and daughters of the world in peace and busily employed in the more agreeable amusement of fulfilling the first and great commandment, Increase and Multiply." To encourage that, he added, "we have opened the fertile plains of the Ohio to the poor, the needy and the oppressed of the earth..." In the same year, writing the Comte de Rochambeau as one old general to another, Washington declared, "Although it is against the profession of arms, I wish to see all the world in peace." Writing the Chevalier de la Luzerne in 1788, he said of America: "Separated as we are by a world of water from other nations, if we are wise we shall surely avoid being drawn into the labyrinth of their politics and involved in their destructive wars."
As president, Washington resisted pressures for another war with England, sacrificing some of his awesome popularity with the public to do so. In his Farewell Address, he asked Americans to observe "good faith and justice" towards all other nations. "Cultivate peace and harmony with all," he advised. He urged trading with others, but staying out of their politics and their wars. With his usual practical wisdom, he asked, "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?" In 1799, less than two months before he died, he wrote an American diplomat about the latest war among European nations: "A more destructive sword never was drawn (at least in modern times) than this war has produced. It is time to sheathe it, and give peace to mankind."(19)
I urge you to ponder Washington's words and listen to those who follow his wisdom today.
Mary Meehan, a Maryland writer, has written for many years in defense of human life against all threats. Her website is MeehanReports.com.
1. Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 393.
2. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Villagers Describe Deadly Airstrike," Washington Post, 2 Nov., 2001, A-21; and Susan B. Glasser, "Afghans Live and Die with U.S. Mistakes," ibid., 20 Feb. 2002, A-1 ff.
3. Jerome Starkey, "US Special Forces 'Tried to Cover-up' Botched Khataba Raid in Afghanistan," The Times, 5 April 2010, www.timesonline.co.uk.
4. John Maurice, "WHO Heads Efforts to Restore Afghanistan's Shattered Health," Bulletin of the World Health Organization 79, no. 12 (2001), 1174.
5. Reto Stocker, quoted in International Committee of the Red Cross news release, 12 Oct. 2010, www.icrc.org
6. Brett A. Sutton, "An Afghanistan Experience," Medical Journal of Australia 179, nos. 11/12, 1-15 Dec. 2003, 591-93, 593.
7. Edward Cody and Molly Moore, "Bomb Kills Four Afghan Civilians," Washington Post, 20 Oct. 2001, A-14.
8. Deborah Zabarenko, "U.S. Offers Lesson on How to Tell Cluster Bombs from Food Packs," ibid., 30 Oct. 2001, A-14; and Steven Mufson, "Pentagon Changing Color of Airdropped Meals," ibid., 2 Nov. 2001, A-21.
9. "In CBS Interview, Palin Calls for Surge in Afghanistan," 25 Sept.2008, www.cbsnews.com; and "Transcript of Palin, Biden Debate" of 2 Oct. 2008, www.edition.cnn.com.
10. Josh White, "Report on Haditha Condemns Marines," Washington Post, 21 April 2007, www.washingtonpost.com.
11. Patrick McDowell (AP), "Iraqi Boy Burned in U.S. Bombing Gets Surgery, Washington Post, 17 April 2003, A-26; Daniel Schorn, "How Ali Beat the Odds" and Bob Simon, "Ali the Storyteller" (video), 60 Minutes, 13 May 2007, www.cbsnews.com; and "A Life in the Day: Ali Abbas," Sunday Times, 27 Dec. 2009, www.timesonline.co.uk.
12. Kim Sengupta, "Frenzy Over Ali, But There are Thousands of Children Like Him," Independent, 12 April 2003, www.independent.co.uk.
13. Nancy Trejos, "Iraq's Woes Are Adding Major Risks to Childbirth," Washington Post, 4 Jan. 2007, A-1 & A-14.
14. Kim Gamel (AP), "U.S. Troops Kill Pregnant Woman in Iraq," ABC News, 31 May 2006, www.abcnews.go.com.
15. Palin (n. 1), 385; and Sarah Palin, "Peace Through Strength and American Pride vs. 'Enemy-Centric' Policy," posted on www.facebook.com, 30 June, 2010.
17. Matthew Arnold, "To a Friend," in C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry, ed., The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 2.
18. John Adams to Silvanus Bourn, 30 Aug. 1789, The Works of John Adams...with a Life of the Author, Notes, and Illus. by His Grandson, Charles Francis Adams (n.p., 1850-56, 10 vols.; reprint, Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), vol. 9, 561.
19. George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, 25 July 1785, in John C.
Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1931-44), vol. 28, 205-10, 206;
Washington to Comte de Rochambeau, 7 Sept. 1785, ibid., 255-56,
256; Washington to Chevalier de la Luzerne, 7 Feb. 1788, ibid., vol.
29, 404-07, 406; Washington, "Farewell Address," 19 Sept. 1796,
ibid., vol. 35, 214-38, 231 & 234; and Washington to William Vans
Murray, 26 Oct. 1799, ibid., vol. 37, 399-400, 400.