The Moral Equivalent of Nuremberg

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

My favorite quote was from the British government spokesperson, who assured us: “All ammunition used by UK armed forces falls within international humanitarian law and is consistent with the Geneva Convention.”

Tears come to my eyes as I think about the kindness of coalition bullets, the empathy of coalition bombs — unlike, I’m certain, the ammo used by terrorists, which is cruel, which hates our way of life and wants only to destroy it.

Forgive me the sarcasm. Another study has come out, this one linking the U.S.-British war in Iraq with a hideous, heartbreaking and “staggering” increase in birth defects in areas of the country where bombing and heavy fighting occurred.

When does amorality turn to immorality? How bad must the crime of war reveal itself to be before those who wage it cease and desist, of their own volition or in deference to global outrage? Must an organized global power arise that so terrifies the leaders of nations they surrender to peace? I doubt that that’s how change will occur.

French anthropologist and philosopher Rene Girard wrote, in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: “The very murders in which the fathers directly took part already resemble tombs to the extent that, above all in collective and founding murders but also in individual murders, men kill in order to lie to others and to themselves on the subject of violence and death. They must kill and continue to kill, strange as it may seem, in order not to know that they are killing.”

In other words, once we begin killing others on the pretext of common safety or some other sort of necessity — once we choose to believe that murder is necessary — we have to keep committing murder, from generation to generation, or we’ll suffer conscience recoil, you might say. So nations organize themselves around the idea of having enemies and the need to destroy them and have no tolerance for peace. They must keep killing “in order not to know that they are killing.” I believe this explains the persistence of war, no matter how insane it becomes.

The recent study focused on the cities of Basra and Fallujah, where serious fighting occurred during the war. Fallujah was the scene of two large, extremely destructive coalition assaults in 2004. Five years later, doctors at Fallujah General Hospital finally became so alarmed by the increase in birth defects they petitioned the United Nations to investigate, explaining in a letter: “In September 2009, (the hospital) had 170 newborn babies, 24 percent of whom were dead within the first seven days (and) a staggering 75 percent of the dead babies were classified as deformed.” In comparison, their letter stated, in August 2002, before the invasion, 530 babies were born; six of them died within the first week, with a single birth defect reported.

About eight months later, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published the results of an epidemiological study, which found that Fallujah was experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945

The study, which was published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, monitored 56 families in Fallujah. Between 2007 and 2010, more than half the babies born in those families had some kind of birth defect. That figure was under two percent prior to the year 2000. The most common abnormalities included congenital heart defects, brain defects, malformed or missing limbs and cleft palate.

In addition, between 2004 and 2006, 45 percent of the pregnancies among those families resulted in miscarriage.

In Basra, researchers examined the records of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Al Basrah Maternity Hospital and found, according to an article in the UK’s Independent, that more than 20 babies out of 1,000 were born with defects in 2003, “a number that is 17 times higher than recorded a decade previously. In the past seven years, the number of malformed babies born increased by more than 60 per cent; 37 out of every 1,000 are now born with defects.”

The research also revealed high levels of metal contamination in the children and other family members, in particular, lead, mercury and uranium. Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a lead author of the report, told The Independent that there’s a “footprint of metal in the population” and said there is “compelling evidence linking the staggering increases in Iraqi birth defects to neuro-toxic metal contamination following the repeated bombardments of Iraqi cities.”

It was in response to this study that the British government spokesperson said British ammo is within the bounds of the Geneva Convention. A U.S. Defense Department official, according to The Independent, simply said: “We are not aware of any official reports indicating an increase in birth defects in Al Basrah or Fallujah that may be related to exposure to the metals contained in munitions used by the US or coalition partners.”

War poisons the future, but the last ones to know are the ones who wage it. How do we summon the moral equivalent of Nuremberg?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.