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Twenty years ago, as Americans were celebrating Valentine's Day, Iraqi husbands and fathers in the Amiriyah section of Baghdad were peeling the remains of their wives and children off the walls and floor of a large neighborhood bomb shelter.
The men had left the shelter the evening before, so their wives would have some measure of privacy as they sought refuge from the U.S.-led coalition bombing campaign, which was at its most intense pre-ground-war stage.
All of the more than 400 women and children were incinerated or boiled to death at 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1991, when two F-117 stealth fighter-bombers each dropped a 2,000-pound laser-guided "smart bomb" on the civilian shelter at Amiriyah.
It was one of those highly accurate "surgical strikes." The first bomb sliced through 10 feet of reinforced concrete before a time-delayed fuse exploded, destroying propane and water tanks for heating water and food.
Minutes later the second bomb flew precisely through the opening that had been cut by the first and exploded deeper in the shelter creating an inferno. Fire rose from the lower level to the area where the women and children were seeking shelter -- and so did the boiling water. Those who did not burn to death immediately or die from the bombs' impact were boiled or steamed to death in the intense heat.
The bombs hit toward the end of a month-long bombing campaign to "soften up" Iraq before the U.S.-led ground invasion to drive Iraqi troops from Kuwait deep into Iraq. The aerial bombing had begun on Jan. 17, 1991; the coalition flew over 100,000 sorties, dropping 88,500 tons of bombs. U.S. government documents show that the bombs were targeted on civilian as well as military infrastructure. They were very accurate.
This is not to suggest that the targeters knew that some 400 women and children would be killed at Amiriyah. No, it was just one of those unfortunate mistakes to which many Americans have become accustomed, even inured -- whether the unintended-but-nevertheless-dead victims be in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, wherever.
Indeed, the stealth aircraft and the ordnance were a proud paragon of precision performing their mission. How was the Air Force to know that the targeting information was based on spurious "intelligence" reports that the shelter had become a military command site?
Actually, U.S. Brigadier General Buster Glosson, who had overall responsibility for targeting, later commented that the "intelligence" pointing to military use was not "worth a sh_t."
Human Rights Watch noted later in 1991:
"It is now well established, through interviews with neighborhood residents, that the Amiriyah structure was plainly marked as a public shelter and was used throughout the air war by large numbers of civilians."
A BBC correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, was among the first TV reporters to arrive on the scene. He was given access to the site and found no evidence of military use. The Pentagon later admitted that it had known that "the Amiriyah facility had been used as a civil-defense shelter during the Iraq-Iran war" from 1980 to 1988.
So who was held responsible for this horrible "mistake"? Are you kidding? What planet did you say you were from?
A Time to Witness
In "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller puts the following words into the mouth of Willy Loman's wife, Linda -- words that I believe also apply to the "small" people huddled that night in the shelter in Amiriyah:
"I don't say he's a great man. ... But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."