A just peace?

April 17, 1991

Imagine, if you can, Baltimore with no electricity, no running water, no sewage disposal, no telephones or gasoline; the picture resembles an especially awful circle of hell. If you can imagine the thouands of ways residents of modern cities depend on basic infrastructures, perhaps you have some idea of the crisis confronting the cities of Iraq. Televised pictures of Kurdish refugees have justifiably stirred outrage and sympathy. But, so far at least, the West has not seen graphic evidence of the desperation of 14 million other Iraqis -- the other victims caught between Saddam Hussein's aggression and the allied coalition's determination to turn it back.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is warning of a "public health catastrophe of immense proportions." Already, people -- especially babies, young children and the elderly -- are dying from diarrhea, the result of drinking water drawn from rivers and streams polluted by backed-up sewage pipes. A number of infectious diseases may already be spreading, but it's hard to tell since the country has no way to run the necessary tests or otherwise monitor public health.

These deaths must also be counted in the toll of the gulf war, along with those still dying by way of Saddam's troops. In very real ways, the situation in Baghdad today is not unlike that envisioned from the neutron bomb, the device that would preserve buildings while killing human beings -- except that in this scenario, the inhabitants are condemned to a slow-motion death.

During the buildup to the gulf war, ethicists were busy re-examining theories of a just war. For most Americans, the coalition's swift success seemed answer enough to moral questions. Now, however, that assurance may be dissipating, as the world prepares to witness the real-life effects of bombing a country, in the words of the late General Curtis LeMay, "back to the Stone Age."

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