A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Other Iraq War

marjan-lion-032013It’s the anniversary of the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq. And while we’re all being reminded of the colossal cost of our ongoing wars and occupations, there’s nowhere a mention of those who have suffered most and lost their lives the most: the animals.

The cost to the nonhuman animals is incalculable. And they don’t even get a mention. No one apparently gives a damn how many of them have been bombed, shelled, cluster-bombed, mined, oiled, gassed, evicted and poisoned. No one even keeps score.

I did find some figures for the First Gulf War – the shorter one after Iraq had invaded Kuwait – gathered by John Loretz in “The Animal Victims of the Gulf War.” A few lowlights from that one alone:

  • Crude oil released into the Persian Gulf killed tens of thousands of marine birds, along with sea turtles and marine mammals.
  • Toxic smoke from hundreds of oil fires killed migrating birds and sickened birds and smaller mammals, and then larger animals.
  • Oil pouring from extinguished Kuwaiti wells created huge petrochemical lakes that later drained into the sea.
  • Bombs, mines, and shells, including unexploded cluster bombs, killed and injured cows, horses, camels and other domestic animals.
  • Tanks, trucks, and other large military vehicles tore up the desert, destroying fragile wildlife habitats. This led to sandstorms that killed many more animals.
  • More than 400 animals at the Kuwait zoo were killed by Iraqi soldiers or died of starvation and injuries.

That was in a war that lasted a few months. Imagine the cost to the animals of this second, 10-year war.

Living near the Grand Canyon in a delicate, dry environment, I can imagine what it’s like when tanks and trucks go careening across a fragile, semi-desert landscape. Out here, in some places, you can still see the wheel tracks of the European settlers who passed by in the 19th Century. I can still see footprints from last year. And when kids go off-trail in their four-wheelers, you can see their tracks for years. Now imagine those thousands of tanks.

We don’t even bother to include them in the count of what we call “collateral damage.”

In this second Iraq War, the Baghdad Zoo suffered even worse than the Kuwait Zoo. Much of the devastation there is recounted by the late Lawrence Anthony (the famed “elephant whisperer”) in his book Babylon’s Ark.

And, speaking of zoos, there was the horror of the Kabul Zoo in Afghanistan, and then the Tripoli Zoo when Muammar Khadafy was being deposed. And the Gaza Zoo when the Israelis invaded in 2009. Zookeeper Emad Jameel Qasim gave Gulf News reporters a tour of the Gaza Zoo:

“This camel was pregnant, a missile went into her back,” he tells us. “Look, look at her face. She was in pain when she died.”

gaza-zoo-032013“The first thing the Israelis did was shoot at the lions – the animals ran out of their cage and into the office building. Actually they hid there.”

Around every corner, inside almost every cage are dead animals, who have been lying in their cages since the Israeli incursion … Most of them have been shot at point blank range.

”  … There was not a single person in this zoo. Just the animals. We all fled before they came. What purpose does it serve to walk around shooting animals and destroying the place?”

snow-leopard-pelts-032013In the American occupation of Afghanistan, rather than protecting the animals, the U.S. presence has made their lives worse than ever. Dog fighting is back (the Taliban banned it as a degenerate Western activity), and U.S. military bases have become lucrative markets for the skins of the exotic snow leopard, peddled by impoverished Afghans.

Almost half of all the forests have disappeared in the last 20 years, partly due to over-logging by the new warlords.

Back in 2003, when the war there had barely started, Carlotta Gall wrote in the New York Times:

In a report released by [United Nations representative Pekka] Haavisto’s office today, satellite imagery shows the stark reality. Forest cover that filled the pictures of the northern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan with green in 1977 was completely absent in 2002 images. The wetlands that were rich in bird and wildlife just four years ago now show up as blank space.

… War has also taken its toll on wildlife. The great Siberian cranes, which used to migrate every year to India via Afghanistan, have not been seen since 1986, when the last one seen was shot by an Afghan.

Snow leopard pelts have been selling on Chicken Street, the main tourist shopping street in Kabul … Flamingos have not bred for four years in the wetlands of southern Afghanistan.

That was 10 years ago. Today, the country is an ecological catastrophe.

(Even the animals of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are still suffering from the effects of the war there 40 years ago – like still being killed by the mines we planted.)

War is one of humankind’s most selfish of activities. To satisfy our own vendettas, our greed and our hatred and fear of each other, we kill and maim billions of creatures whose only fault was to be in the way. And when it’s all over, when we’re sated with all the violence, we don’t even bother to include them in the count of what we call “collateral damage.”

Happy Anniversary, Iraq War II.

P.S. Ten years (to the day) after the “shock and awe” launch of the U.S.’s second war on Iraq, President Obama landed in Israel to hold what will basically be a war summit over the apparently endless Mideast turmoil. (Bottom line: expect lots more war.)

And for more about animals in war, see our feature series When Animals Are Drafted.