Hungry Road: Food, Too, Can Be a Weapon of the War in Iraq

The New York Times
April 6, 2003

AL KUT, Iraq–A few days ago I drove with a Marine convoy into the desert north of Nasiriya, heading toward Baghdad. The landscape was as unforgiving as it comes–parched and barren, like the moon with an atmosphere of dusty oxygen. As we moved forward, mostly through sand but occasionally on an unfinished road that was half-gravel, Iraqis appeared at the convoy’s flanks, doing what comes naturally to destitute civilians when well-provisioned men and machines of war rumble by: they were begging.

Every half-mile or so, a few Iraqis appeared like ghosts in the wasteland. Some put their thumbs and forefingers together and brought them to their mouths, the third-world sign language for please-give-me-food. Some rubbed their stomachs. Others tilted their heads back and cupped their hands, as though drinking one of the plastic bottles of Oasis mineral water that are stacked like howitzer shells in the backs of Humvees; they were thirsty, too. The smartest ones waved Iraqi dinars bearing images of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the marines would extend charity in exchange for a war souvenir.

Many Iraqis were in need of decent food and clean water long before the first cruise missile was fired at Baghdad. But there were many more of them once the war began. Cities and villages have been cut off from fresh supplies, electricity and water pumps. Civilians are suffering, and a debate has begun about who should control relief efforts. The Pentagon has said it wants to keep control over all humanitarian aid. But relief agencies, like Catholic Relief Services and Oxfam-America, have said they don’t want to be part of a military effort, because they must be independent to do their jobs.

But staying independent is a challenge. In war zones, especially, the distribution of aid is an intensely political act, no matter how neutral a group tries to be. In 1994, humanitarian agencies in eastern Zaire found themselves helping not only women and children, but many Hutu men and boys who had participated in the genocide of more than 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis. In 1993 in Somalia, the warlords were able to convince their militias that the American military operation there was not a humanitarian intervention to combat famine but a military invasion; 18 American marines and at least 12 humanitarian workers were killed.

In the early 1990’s in Bosnia, I first learned the rub-the-stomach language of want. Food is a military necessity; armies need it, and always get a slice of it, no matter the intentions of the donors. And if civilians can be fed by international aid agencies, well, that’s one task a besieged government does not have to handle, and one more reason for it not to be concerned about hungry or thirsty people.

The angels of charity are only human, too. The invasion of Iraq had little support, and outright opposition, from some relief groups. They might not wish to engage in activities that strengthen the American occupation of Iraq; if providing food to areas no longer under Mr. Hussein’s control is seen as part of that effort, or helps it by encouraging defections, the angels of mercy might be less aggressive in providing their mercy. But far more important for relief groups is the political bind they are in if they operate under, or are thought to operate under, military control: they may not be allowed to deliver aid to the people they wish to deliver it to, and they may become fair military targets for the other side. Last month, for example, a Red Cross worker in Kandahar, Afghanistan, was shot dead by a suspected group of Taliban.

Violence was a constant hazard for relief workers in Bosnia. Though officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees tried to retain their independence, traveling only with escorts from the United Nations peacekeeping force, their convoys were frequently shot at or looted, mostly by Serbs trying to starve Muslims (and occasionally Croats) into submission; drivers and other relief personnel were killed and injured.

In Iraq, Pentagon officials and Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, a retired army officer who is designated to take charge of the postwar reconstruction, do not wish, as the war still rages, to relinquish control of humanitarian operations. But the military, despite what officials in Washington might say, is not configured for or adept at distributing aid.

A few days ago, I rode in the back of a Marine Humvee as it passed through several small towns near the city of Kut, 170 miles south of Baghdad. Civilians along the road were holding out packs of cigarettes, hoping to sell them to nicotine-deprived G.I.’s. The captain in the Humvee explained that his marines were under orders not to engage in commerce with civilians, nor toss them cast-offs from their M.R.E.’s, no matter how friendly the civilians might seem. Doing so would mean civilians would get close to their vehicles, and it’s impossible to know the difference between a commerce-savvy civilian and a suicide bomber.

The battalion I have been traveling behind does distribute some humanitarian aid, largely through its civil affairs unit. Often it is given to civilians who have been inconvenienced by tanks and assault vehicles parking in their fields. On Thursday, as I waited on the outskirts of Kut during a battle there, several Iraqi men walked out of the city with yellow humanitarian packets–M.R.E.’s for civilians–under their arms.

The art of humanitarianism is to provide aid to the people who genuinely need it, and that’s usually women, children and the elderly. The Iraqis with the yellow rations were fighting-age men; it’s a good bet they were deserters who were given a thank you meal from the civil affairs contingent at the front, just up the road.

The battalion commander stopped by my S.U.V. recently, and I asked about his unit’s humanitarian work. The commander, who is a smart and focused lieutenant colonel, was dispatched to Iraq to kill the bad guys, and he doesn’t mind doing so. That’s his mission. “Yes, we’re giving out humanitarian rations,” he told me. “It’s kind of the carrot-and-stick approach. No better friend, no better enemy.” He does not want to do humanitarian work, he continued. “It’s not our job, but we do what is humane and what we can to relieve suffering,” he said. “The aid we give out is more of a gesture.”

I asked whether he had talked with Iraqis and perhaps shared a meal to find out their needs. He said his civil affairs unit handles those things. He doesn’t have time for kebabs. “I don’t like eating goat,” he said and smiled.

His version of humanitarianism is marching to Baghdad as quickly as possible to get rid of Mr. Hussein. Despite the language in Washington, that’s probably the Pentagon’s version of humanitarianism, too. And that’s why, as the march on Baghdad goes forward, I expect to see more Iraqis begging for water.

(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.