An eyewitness speaks on the costs of war

Jim Jennings, president of Conscience International, has seen the costs of war up close. Jennings, currently preparing for his fourth trip to Afghanistan, said, “The public is being shielded from the extent of civilian casualties; if people saw the war close up, they would not be so enthusiastic about it.”

Conscience International is a U.S.-based humanitarian aid organization that serves as a link between need and resources in underserved areas of the world.

In his trips, Jennings has witnessed so-called collateral damage. He saw “children screaming in hospitals, with their legs blown off,” after playing with a U.S.-dropped cluster bomb, he said in a phone interview with the World Jan. 9.

There are many groups, including Human Rights Watch, that have called for a global moratorium on use of cluster bombs. In Afghanistan cluster bombs and food aid packages both have a similar yellow color.

While Jennings cannot confirm the number of civilian casualties found in a recent report by University of New Hampshire International Relations Prof. Marc Herold, he does support Herold’s conclusion that the number of Afghan civilian casualties is greater than the number of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Would the majority of Americans have a different attitude about the war if they knew about these casualties? “Yes and no,” Jennings answered. “Many would be stunned if they knew the truth,” but in wartime an us-versus-them mentality develops, he said.

Jennings wants people to know the realities of war. “Reality does not come in a 21-inch screen,” he said.

“There has been a failure of the mass media to do an in-depth study of the war because they are following the government spin and their own spin,” Jennings said. “The media is a leading instrument of war. ... The war is fought on the airwaves more than the trenches,” Jennings said.

Jennings spoke about the recent reports that many Afghans, especially in remote villages, are starving to death. Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, has said food shipments are increasing with the opening of transportation links.

However, Jennings said, “It is too early to declare victory that disaster has been diverted.” The increase of food shipment is making up for what they couldn’t get in during the bombings, he pointed out.

“Agencies have done a terrific job, but it’s a mess. I also saw a great many babies suffering from acute malnutrition and starvation in the hospital and a few on the street in Kabul. It’s hard to put numbers to this, but U.N. agencies estimate that malnutrition for the population generally is 70 percent. America must now undertake a major reconstruction job in Afghanistan.”

In a Dec. 18, 2001 letter to the Bush administration, 23 leading humanitarian organizations called on Bush to ask Congress for more money to finance Afghan reconstruction, rather than draining existing development accounts to rebuild the war-torn nation. Jennings said generally Congress is “too stingy to clean up” the mess that U.S. foreign policy creates.

“There is not enough money in the world to clean up what the war did in Iraq,” he said. Even though Franks claims the U.S. army is part of reconstruction of Afghanistan, that is not the case, according to Jennings.

Sarah Staggs, chair of the Communist Party USA’s peace and solidarity commission, said while the Bush administration is giving billions to corporations and establishing a permanent military presence in Central Asia, the ones who will pay in the end are the people of the world, including the American people.

“With rising unemployment in our country we have to say there is a direct connection between cutting social programs at home and conducting a war abroad,” she said.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org.