The Agony of War

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

April 25, 2005

Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good." Simone Weil

"There's no doubt in my mind that the good Lord has his hands full right now." The Rev. Ted Oswald at the funeral Mass for Marla Ruzicka

In a horrifying incident that occurred in the spring of 2003, an Iraqi woman threw two of her children, an infant and a toddler, out the window of a car that had been hit accidentally in an American rocket attack. The woman and the rest of her family perished in the black smoke and flames of the wreckage. The toddler, whose name was Zahraa, was severely burned. She died two weeks later.

The infant, named Harah, was not badly hurt. She was photographed recently on the lap of Marla Ruzicka, a young humanitarian-aid worker from California who was herself killed a little over a week ago in the flaming wreckage of a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad.

The vast amount of suffering and death endured by civilians as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has, for the most part, been carefully kept out of the consciousness of the average American. I can't think of anything the Bush administration would like to talk about less. You can't put a positive spin on dead children.

As for the press, it has better things to cover than the suffering of civilians in war. The aversion to this topic is at the opposite extreme from the ecstatic journalistic embrace of the death of one pope and the election of another, and the media's manic obsession with the comings and goings of Martha, Jacko, et al.

There's been hardly any media interest in the unrelieved agony of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. It's an ugly subject, and the idea has taken hold that Americans need to be protected from stories or images of the war that might be disturbing. As a nation we can wage war, but we don't want the public to be too upset by it.

So the public doesn't even hear about the American bombs that fall mistakenly on the homes of innocent civilians, wiping out entire families. We hear very little about the frequent instances of jittery soldiers opening fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding men, women and children who were never a threat in the first place. We don't hear much about the many children who, for one reason or another, are shot, burned or blown to eternity by our forces in the name of peace and freedom.

Out of sight, out of mind.

This stunning lack of interest in the toll the war has taken on civilians is one of the reasons Ms. Ruzicka, who was just 28 when she died, felt compelled to try to personally document as much of the suffering as she could. At times she would go from door to door in the most dangerous areas, taking down information about civilians who had been killed or wounded. She believed fiercely that Americans needed to know about the terrible pain the war was inflicting, and that we had an obligation to do everything possible to mitigate it.

Her ultimate goal, which Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is pursuing, was to establish a U.S. government office, perhaps in the State Department, to document the civilian casualties of American military operations. That information would then be publicly reported. Compensation would be provided for victims and their families, and the data would be studied in an effort to minimize civilian casualties in future operations.

War is always about sorrow and the deepest suffering. Nitwits try to dress it up in the finery of half-baked rationalizations, but the reality is always wanton bloodshed, rotting flesh and the lifelong trauma of those who are physically or psychically maimed.

More than 600 people attended Ms. Ruzicka's funeral on Saturday in her hometown of Lakeport, Calif. Among them was Bobby Muller, chairman of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. A former Marine lieutenant, he knows something about the agony of war. His spinal cord was severed when he was shot in the back in Vietnam.

He told the mourners: "Marla demonstrated that an individual can make a profound difference in this world. Her life was dedicated to innocent victims of conflict, exactly what she ended up being."

E-mail:bobherb@nytimes.com