Dead in Iraq

I didn’t pay much attention to the news last weekend about the death in an insurgent attack of Marla Ruzicka in Iraq. Ruzicka came from Lakeport, one of the towns on Clear Lake, about 75 miles northeast of San Francisco. She had dedicated herself over the last couple of years to a campaign that aims to make the United States account for civilian casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She would have turned 29 this year.

What finally made me pay attention to her story was a column this morning by Bob Herbert in The New York Times. He talks about Ruzicka’s organization, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict and its aims.

“Tim Rieser, [an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy], said: ‘She came here as a very sort of naïve antiwar protestor, really, and became someone who was extraordinarily effective at putting politics aside – not trying to cast blame, but rather working with everyone from U.S. military officers to the Congress and others on how to actually help people. She was out there doing something that all of us knew was really needed, but that was too dangerous for most people to want to do, or be willing to do.’

What she was doing was stunningly simple and modest, in a way. She died trying to lift the veil that’s been drawn — that we’ve allowed to be drawn — across the reality of the war we’re fighting. The human price among our own troops is largely hidden — photographing the caskets of the slain is prohibited, and the awful injuries suffered in battle are largely invisible to us. There’s virtually no discussion of the ongoing toll among the people of Iraq. On one hand, Ruzicka was trying to get the government to acknowledge information she knew existed: statistics on civilian casualties; and on the other, she was trying to get help for victims and survivors.

On the accountability side, Ruzicka was making some headway. In an op-ed piece on the USA Today site, written just before she died, Ruzicka said:

“Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time. Other hot spots, such as the Ramadi and Mosul areas, could prove worse. The statistics showed that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5 — four times the number of Iraqi police killed in the same period. It is not clear whether the bullets that killed these civilians were fired by U.S. troops or insurgents. …

“… These statistics demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties. Troops on the ground keep these records because they recognize they have a responsibility to review each action taken and that it is in their interest to minimize mistakes, especially since winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is a key component of their strategy. The military should also want to release this information for the purposes of comparison with reports such as the Lancet study published late last year. It suggested that since the U.S.-led invasion there had been 100,000 deaths in Iraq.

“A further step should be taken. In my dealings with U.S. military officials here, they have shown regret and remorse for the deaths and injuries of civilians. Systematically recording and publicly releasing civilian casualty numbers would assist in helping the victims who survive to piece their lives back together.

A number is important not only to quantify the cost of war, but as a reminder of those whose dreams will never be realized in a free and democratic Iraq.