Fighting War on the Backlines

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)


We often gauge a war by who conquers whom, and look to which army stands at the gates when the fighting ends. We talk about insurgents and militias and which warlords control what parts of the globe. So often, we fail to see the distinction between winning the war and creating the peace.

When we look at the outcome of war, we talk about property damage, refugee camps, monetary cost, number wounded, and how many people died. We rarely mention life. If our goal is to overcome anti-American extremism, we have to talk about how people live. How do people survive in the midst of war? How do they rebuild their communities?

An army can win a war on the frontlines, but creating a peace takes a backline effort — work that our government cannot do as a unilateral occupying force. This is work that must be done in the non-profit sector by active people like us. Winning the peace is a matter of empowering the survivors of war in their everyday lives.

Winning the peace is a matter of ecojustice.  


Nobody who pays attention is surprised when they hear that war has a devastating environmental impact. Yesterday, Turkana wrote a particularly good diary citing a recent rise in birth defects in Fallujah since the Iraq War began. While naysayers will insist that this isn’t proof of a causal relationship between the fighting and the disease, it is clear that the town is contaminated by heavy metal poisons and other toxins left over from the battles. This affects the air, the water, the food, and the soil.

The Sierra Club posts a list that describes some of the general dangers that war poses to the environment and public health.

From the Romans in 146 BC salting fields around Carthage to impair food production to the looting of Iraqi nuclear facilities in recent months, the environmental destruction resulting from war has had an enduring legacy.[2] While the spraying of Agent Orange to defoliate jungles in Vietnam and burning of oil wells in Iraq have become icons of environmental warfare, many lesser-known but no less significant acts of ecocide have been perpetrated by warring states. Among them is the extensive toll of water contamination on environmental and health security and the impact of combat on endangered species. Although by no means comprehensive, the following examples illustrate some of the different forms of environmental degradation caused by war.

Damage to infrastructure, chemical pollution, and using DU for armor piercing weapons are all public health concerns. Public service is weakened or interrupted completely, and that results in the spread of harmful bacterial and disease. Waste management and sanitation are impacted, which can create serious public health crises. Agriculture and food distribution also suffer.

More than ideology, politics is about how people meet their basic needs — with the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat. Freedom means little when the water festers, the air is poisoned, and people of all ages are hungry. What fuels poverty, hopelessness, and extremism is largely an injustice in the distribution of resources.

Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American, strongly suggests that we can only overcome extremism if we compete at the rice sack level.


The fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban do not gain a foothold because their ideology appeals to people. They have influence because they control resources. They have the power to help people eat. They go to a widow who cannot feed her eight children and offer her a sack of rice in exchange for one of her sons. She has no choice if she wants to feed the other children. We need to understand what peace means from the widow’s perspective.

We also need to understand what peace means from an orphans’ perspective. There are over 40,000 orphans currently in Iraq. Some were created during Saddam’s regime prior to the current Iraq war, but that is no longer important. What is important is that the current Iraqi government has been slow to take care of the orphans created by the war, and the overwhelming majority of these orphans are cared for and educated by anti-American cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr. Once again, we lose the fight against extremism over peoples’ basic need.

KuangSi2While occupation can create security, occupation alone cannot create peace. But even with perfect security, lasting peace must come from the people who live inside these war torn regions — peace cannot be imposed unilaterally by the United States. Salbi rightly points out that the people who do not fight are the only ones who do not sit at the negotiating tables. When will the effort to win the peace begin?

But we have to be clear. What is our stake in the middle east and Africa? Are we trying to overcome extremism toward our national security? Are we trying to procure resources to support our economy? Are these goals consistent with one another?

But we cannot overcome extremism if we limit our effort to a unilateral fight on the frontlines. There has to be backline support. Real action from people like us is the only thing that will keep those backline discussions alive. And the backline discussion is, at its heart, one that centers on ecojustice.

Photocredits: All photos were taken from literature provided by Women for Women International.

Note: I use information from Women for Women because I like them. There are many other worthy organizations that provide support, training, and microcredit for marginalized populations and survivors of war. Some organizations that have good reputations are: International Rescue Committee, UNICEF, Save the Children, and Mercy Corps. If you’re interested in organizations that extend support and microcredit primarily to women, check out Kristof and Wudunn’s list at Half the Sky.

Be sure to consult organizations like Charity Navigator and GiveWell for information about charities you might choose to support.

But we all have to learn. And when we know, we have to speak. When enough of us speak, things will change.

1 comment

    • rb137 on November 17, 2009 at 5:09 am

    I hope you are all well. I hope to be dropping in more often during the upcoming.

    I also posted this essay at orange.

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