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The Human Cost of War in Post-9/11 Conflicts: Background information when reading Red Birds

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Red Birds

by Mohammed Hanif

Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif X
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif
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    May 2019, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron
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The Human Cost of War in Post-9/11 Conflicts

This article relates to Red Birds

Print Review

The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the United States' subsequent military response fundamentally changed the political landscape of the Middle East/Central-South Asia. This landscape is the setting of Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif, who declared one of the goals of this project to "take the readers by the hand to lead them out of the comfort of their living rooms and into another space," the space of the human cost of the wars in this region. In 2011, The Cost of War Project,"a team of 35 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians" came together at the Watson Institute of International & Public Affairs at Brown University in an attempt to independently quantify the human and economic costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They estimate that, during the 17 year period from 9/11 to October 2018, 480,000 lives were lost to "direct war violence" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, they estimate more than half a million deaths from the war in Syria, raging since 2011. (See The Cost of War Project's table for a full list of facts and figures.)

The war in Afghanistan began with U.S. missile strikes 26 days after the attacks on 9/11 and remains ongoing in 2019 despite recent peace talks. The total number of dead, including American, allied and oppositional forces and civilians is roughly 147,000. The Iraq conflict began in 2003, when President George W. Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, although the Iraqi government continued to fight IS into 2017 with help from American forces in a "training and defense" capacity. This effort culminated in a battle in Mosul that killed 9,000-11,000. The total death toll in Iraq is over 270,000; and a further 65,000 have died in Pakistan. IS first captured territory in Syria in 2013, declaring a "caliphate" in 2014, causing President Obama to launch airstrikes in response. The first American ground troops entered in 2015. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, this conflict has resulted in over 500,000 casualties as of 2019.

Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees
Figures from the 2018 United Nations High Commission on Refugees put the current number of internally displaced people in Iraq at 450,000 in formal camps and "more than 120,000 in informal settlements and collective centres throughout the country." This is down from peak displacements (2003-2017) of 3 million, but there is a struggle to supply the remaining camps with basic humanitarian needs such as food, medical care and education for the children, and issues of damaged or destroyed housing and security concerns are roadblocks to return. In Afghanistan, there were 72,065 IDPs counted in 2018, with 116,581 new IDPs in 2019. Just 2,275 refugees have returned to Afghanistan, mostly from camps in Iran and Turkey.

The Kurdish Project estimates that, "over sixteen million people have been displaced from Syria and Iraq," of which more than 2 million have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Parts of Mosul remain completely destroyed, and many residents returned to camps in Kurdistan after finding their homes unlivable, basic infrastructure completely destroyed and no source of income. Residents worry that with the slow pace of rebuilding—estimates are that $88 billion is needed—terrorists will find a fertile ground to start afresh.

Over 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country, and 6.2 million are internally displaced. Hospitals and health centers are favorite targets of Syrian government airstrikes, and much of the country's infrastructure is now nonexistent. Although IS has been declared defeated, violence continues, exacerbating the difficulties of delivering humanitarian aid to the population, particularly in remote areas that would be difficult to reach in the best of situations. Syrians continue to die from the fighting, as well as from malnutrition, lack of medical care and disease.

The Yazidi
A small, isolated minority in northern Iraq, the Yazidi, were persecuted by IS for their religious beliefs and subjected to systematic rape, torture and murder. The New York Times states that 6,470 Yazidis were abducted in 2014. As of July 2017, 3,410 "remain in captivity or are unaccounted for." Victims of the broader IS ideological culture of rape and sexual slavery that extends to young girls, the women who have returned suffer from extreme physical and psychological trauma. Most Yazidi men were murdered; boys were trained to be child soldiers and forced by IS to kill their own people.

Veteran Suicides and US Military Deaths and Injuries
Figures from The Cost of War Project put the number of American soldiers that have served in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 at 2.7 million. Over 6,900 service members and 7,800 contractors have died. The number of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan is 20,431; in Iraq, the total is 33,328. Through 2015, 1,645 soldiers came home as amputees as a result of post-9/11 conflict, and more than 300,000 suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Suicide is another alarming issue. Between 2008 and 2016, there have been more than 6,000 suicides by veterans each year, "a rate that is 1.5 times greater than that of the non-veteran population." Victims of PTSD that often goes untreated, many veterans suffer from alcohol and substance abuse problems and become homeless.

Government Torture and Killings
The Cost of War Project states that "in Iraq, over 100,000 prisoners passed through the American-run detention system, most with no effective way to challenge their imprisonment. In the first years of the war, many detainees were processed through the notorious Abu Ghraib prison facility, which housed over 8,000 prisoners at its peak in 2004."

Torture in Iraqi and Afghan detention centers run by local government officials apparently continues today. Human Rights Watch reported allegations of torture by the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Mosul that include nine deaths and reports of detainees being hung by their bound wrists and beaten with metal cables. According to a 2019 report by the United Nations, roughly 1/3 of detainees held in government facilities in Afghanistan provided "credible and reliable" reports of abuse, including, "beatings, suffocation and electric shock."

A joint undertaking between The Cost of War Project and the Smithsonian concluded that the United States is involved in "fighting terrorism" in 80 countries (essentially 40% of the world's total number of countries). According to an official White House report, we are "at war" with 7 countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Niger and Yemen. It is impossible to calculate the true human cost of war. The fiscal costs have human consequences as well, in the form of domestic safety nets and international aid programs that have been cut for lack of funds. "The vast reach evident here," the Smithsonian states, "may prompt Americans to ask whether the war on terror has met its goals, and whether they are worth the human and financial costs."

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Naomi Benaron

This article relates to Red Birds. It first ran in the June 19, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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