Sensibilities of war

April 20, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Ali is getting help now.

Let's begin there, both because it is good news and because several readers asked me to keep them apprised of his progress after I wrote about him a few days ago.

I called him "the ruined boy" -- Ali Ismaeel Abbas, a 12-year-old Iraqi who lost much of his family and both of his arms and also sustained horrific burns during the U.S. bombardment of Baghdad. He was flown to Kuwait on a U.S. military plane a few days ago. Surgeons operated on Wednesday and his prognosis is said to be good.

With that established, let me share with you some of the other reader responses to Ali's story --two letters, to be exact. The first arrived via e-mail from a woman in Seattle. It said in part:

"I don't seem to recall on which day your column outlining the horror that Saddam had wreaked on innocent civilians and detailing the number of lives destroyed under his regime was published. But you do seem quick to jump right in on the obvious.

"Freedom is never without cost, Mr. Pitts -- and we are all sorry that innocent civilians such as Ali have been hurt in restoring a country to freedom -- but think of the thousands who will not perish under Saddam. Exactly which way would you have it?"

The second letter via e-mail came from a Korean War vet:

"When I was a young infantryman I came down with hepatitis, shortly before Christmas in 1950. They put me in an ambulance and sent me to an evacuation hospital. A mile or two from the aid station the ambulance stopped and the back door was opened. A G.I. lifted a little boy into the vehicle, and shut the door.

"The boy was maybe 6 years old. He sat down on the bunk adjacent to the one I was lying on. As we bumped along the snow-covered dirt road he slowly chewed the gum some G.I. had given him, and cradled his mangled right hand in his left one. Blood seeped from his wound, and dripped on the ambulance floor.

"He never whimpered or uttered a sound. He just stared at me. For the hour it took us to get to the hospital he stared at me.

"His face is still etched in my mind, as are the snotty faces of the little North Korean children. If we were dug in near a village they would often climb the hill, and stand in the snow and watch us eat. Some of them were barefoot. We would share our C Rations with them, even as we prepared to kill their fathers. Or be killed by them.

"I think ruined children have an effect on the men who are responsible for ruining them. War comes with a steep price. And when I read your column I made another payment on my war."

Two letters. One reply.

I am not a pacifist. I supported the first gulf war and the war in Afghanistan. I support -- albeit with distress over its curtailment of civil liberties -- the war on terror. But those wars seemed one thing that this latest one never did: imperative.

Indeed, this war has thus far proved only what no one ever doubted: that the United States is a mighty nation. But might, I once read, does not make right.

My first correspondent is correct. I've never dwelt on the suffering of the Iraqi people. But then, the relief of their suffering was not why we went to war. That was only a last minute, tacked-on rationale for an invasion that already had been decided upon. We fought, according to George W., because Saddam Hussein represented an imminent danger to our nation. Some of us didn't buy that. Some still don't.

But that's beside the point. It is not the moral of Ali's story.

The distinction may be lost on those who regard him as a speed bump in their victory parade. But I suspect that a man who knew Ali back when he was a 6-year-old Korean boy bleeding in the back of an ambulance would agree with me that his story is not about this war.

It is about all wars.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald .com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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