Last Saturday my friend Marla Ruzicka was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad. Just 28 years old, Marla was one of just a handful of foreign human rights workers to set foot in Iraq this year. She did so in pursuit of work that promises to transform the manner in which the U.S. military considers the impact of its choices on innocent civilian populations. It is work that those of us left behind must ensure continues.
A lot has been written about Marla’s effervescence, her courage, and the way she wore her heart on her sleeve. Far less has been said about how her canny approach to advancing the military’s responsibility to civilians has the potential to change the future of warfare.
Marla dedicated her life to documenting war-related civilian injuries and deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq while successfully working with U.S. military commanders to help them better understand the human dimensions of their actions. For example, Marla made an early, detailed Iraqi civilian death count of 2,000 – mostly by going door-to-door to interview survivors.
As Marla powerfully and gracefully observed in describing her work, “a number is important not only to quantify the cost of war, but as a reminder of those whose dreams will never be realized in a free and democratic Iraq.” Marla also saw a proper accounting of civilian deaths as a vehicle for achieving her ultimate goal – encouraging reconciliation through financial compensation for victims and their families.
Marla’s work, however, transcended the mere collection of information about fallen civilians. It was part of an important transformation in modern warfare. As one of Marla’s colleagues, Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch, explained, we have come a long way in the treatment of civilians in warfare. Evoking memories of Dresden, Tokyo, and Hiroshima, he observed that “until World War II, civilians were the objects of war.”
Today, by almost all accounts, the U.S. military tries to minimize civilian casualties, both for moral reasons and to win hearts and minds. According to Garlasco, the Air Force estimates the number of civilian casualties it expects particular strikes will create, often changing or calling off strikes that will kill or injure too many civilians. “But once the war is done they never go back and check,” he added. “Marla’s work was important because the Air Force could go back and figure out if their models are correct.”
That kind of talk makes many in the U.S. peace movement nervous. It should not.
The line between advocating for human rights and influencing the way militaries wage war has never been particularly clear. The 1949 Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians, for example, states that, “Civilians are not to be subject to attack. This includes direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks against areas in which civilians are present.” Nobody would argue that the Geneva Conventions promote wars, though they certainly influence the way militaries wage them.
Marla took no position on the Iraq war once it started. This allowed her to connect with both GIs and generals – one of whom she jogged with in Baghdad – who had their fingers on the purse strings of funding to compensate victims, as well as access to information she needed.
While Americans will never speak with one voice about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, there’s no reason for progressives and conservatives alike not to get behind Marla’s proposal for the U.S. government to track and study civilian casualties.
Doing so will not be easy. Just sorting out who is a civilian versus who is a plain-clothed insurgent can be complicated. As Marla proved both in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the task is not an impossible one.
Marla often said that her dream job would be to work at a desk at the State Department dedicated to tracking civilian casualties caused by U.S. military action. What is needed now is legislation to create such a desk, be it State or the Pentagon or elsewhere.
Creating Marla’s desk is not just the right thing to do for moral reasons. Bill Arkin, a civilian casualties expert and military analyst for NBC News, reflecting on Marla’s work, noted that “[t]he United States’s practice of stiff-arming civilian victims and ignoring civilian casualties has enormous negative consequences. We’re seen as craven. We’re seen as indifferent to civilian life. It harms our ability to operate on the ground.”
Those of us who knew and cared about Marla – and everyone who didn’t know her but who is moved by her work – have an obligation to do what we can to realize her vision of closing the circle between the military and the innocent civilian population.
Michael Shellenberger met Marla during a trip to Central America in 1995. He is a writer and political strategist in El Cerrito, California.