Iraq’s Generation Hell


WASHINGTON — In a burst of springtime whimsy, the principle of a private Christian school in Seattle last week looked at the bright, warm forecast and decided to call off school for a ‘Sun Day.”

Principal Bob Sampson said he wanted to give students some time to “re-energize and enjoy the weather,” according to a brief Associated Press account on May 3. “In a world that’s got a lot hard things going, it’s fun to create a moment of joy.”

A few days earlier in Iraq, however, at the end of a brutal month where “hard” meant more than 700 people dying in one month, many of them children, a London-based international aid group pointed out in a new comprehensive report that less than half of Iraqi children ages 12 to 17 even go to school any more. Frankly, for them, a “School Day” would be the treat, not the other way around.

Thus is the bizarro world in which here in the United States, 28 American high school girls were just suspended for “Twerking” (“the rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in one’s intended audience”) in a video they made for media class with school equipment and uploaded on You Tube, inciting a supercilious debate over whether the teenage girls have a 1st Amendment right to fulfill their pole dancing alter-egos. Meanwhile, in Iraq, only 45 percent of Iraqi girls even go to high school, and according to a 2011 poll, 57 percent believe their future husbands will have the right to hit them (one in five teens ages 15 to 19 are already married). In 2008 I wrote a story in which young Iraqis during the war were being sold off by their families for prostitution, some having ended up in Euro-style strip clubs in Damascus, dancing to the tune of wealthy Arab businessmen for their next meal.

Boys at the Al-Baraum orphanage in Baghdad, Iraq, 2011. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Boys at the Al-Baraum orphanage in Baghdad, Iraq, 2011. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to UNICEF, 5.2 percent of children under the age of 17 experienced the death of one or more parent during the 2003 war and aftermath. The number of orphans in Iraq vary, with estimates at 800,000, all the way up to 3.5 million. The state-run orphanages are a scandal, with no investment and no child protection laws in place to speak of. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits struggle, but find it hard to keep up with the demand, they say. According to UNICEF back in November, one-third of Iraqi’s 16.6 million children are lacking basic fundamental rights, like access to physical and mental health care, education, safety against domestic violence, and treatment for disabilities.

While we cannot expect the American public to focus on the tragedy of every child in every wretched place of the earth, Iraq is a particularly special tragedy because America caused it, then walked away. There is no other way to describe it when War Child, in its aforementioned report, points to the fact that international aid to Iraq went from $20 billion in 2005 to $1.5 billion in 2011. We know the U.S is responsible for most of the total aid, yet when the military pulled up stakes in 2009, the reconstruction and development effort largely went with it, leaving behind unfinished, unsustainable projects, and a nation broken by the occupation and civil war. Even Ryan Crocker, loyal Washington diplomat and former ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, recently described the war/post-war ethos thusly: “let’s punch out their lights and realign their society…and then when we find out the latter is more difficult than we expect, we say ‘OK, let’s go somewhere else.’”


Well, we went somewhere else, and the Iraq in the rearview is a horror for children and teenagers who now make up the majority (57 percent) of that country’s population. But when two Iraqi boys posed for a picture with a sign declaring they “mourn with Boston” after the April 17 marathon bombings, the irony was largely lost on Americans because frankly, most people didn’t see it. Last week’s “twerking” video was gawked at by hundreds of thousands more people, as was the vacuous news coverage of the new George W. Bush library, which opened during the most violent month in Iraq in five years. Several hundred were killed in bombings and other violence in that time, including scores of unarmed civilians who were shot (among them eight boys ages 14 to 17) when Iraqi security forces raided a Sunni protest encampment on April 23, tripping off sectarian violence throughout the region. Another 1,633 Iraqis were wounded in April as well, according to the United Nations. On the same day of the Boston bombing, which left three people dead and 260 injured, 33 civilians were killed and 160 injured in a series of coordinated bombings across Iraq.

Just another day for Iraqi youth — an estimated 692 of whom were killed (1,976 hurt) in violent attacks since the beginning of December, according to War Child. “The insecurity that inhibits the daily lives of Iraqis must be seen through the prism of children and young people who make up over 56% of the Iraqi population, almost 40% of whom are under 14 years of age,” reads Mission UnAccomplished. “This makes Iraq the second youngest country in the Middle East, yet little provision or priority is given to the specific needs of these groups.”

Kevin Gosztola was one of the few writers for a major news/blogging site ( to bring attention to the two Iraqi boys and their sign:

Few Americans ever stand up and snap a photo when bombs went off in Iraq. They rarely show solidarity with citizens of other countries that are feeling deep pain from violence. They wish, after events like this, that people recognize, “We Are All [the Name for People in That City Just Attacked],” when residents of U.S. cities are hit by attacks. People stand up and say things like, “We are all Bostonians today,” and, perhaps, there is a part of these Iraqi boys that would like to see that from the world.

Certainly, in a culture where we were told to “go shopping” after 9/11 and were never quite clear where “liberation” came on the list of reasons why the U.S attacked Iraq, it’s always been difficult to empathize with Iraqis who look like the “enemy” and frankly don’t seem to like us very much anyway. Maybe if they looked like this:


instead of this:


We might not be so eager to turn the channel.

But where the natural impulse to identify with Iraqi youth might be lacking, perhaps the brutality of statistics might put things into hard perspective:

–82 percent of 3 to 5 year-olds in Iraq aren’t “on track” to learn their ABC’s and 1,2,3’s (UNICEF)

–One in four have stunted intellectual and development growth due to malnutrition (UNICEF)

–Upwards of three million children may be suffering some degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, asserts War Child. In this study, 10 percent of kids ages 1 to 15 assessed in a health care center in Mosul were found to be suffering from some sort of trauma. Back in 2008, Iraqi doctor Haider Maliki estimated that some 15 percent of Iraqi children were already displaying signs of PTSD.

UNICEF also reports that an average of 35,000 Iraqi infants die each year. According to a compilation of UN figures and the CIA World Factbook, 38.8 Iraqi babies out of every 1,000 live births don’t make it to year one. Compare that to a rate of 5.2 in the U.S and 4.5 in the United Kingdom (horrifyingly, the rate in Afghanistan, our other war, is 119.4)

Donna Mulhearn, a familiar name here at, has traveled back and forth from Iraq as both reporter and humanitarian advocate and maintains a particular focus on the rise of birth defects among babies born in areas that saw heavy bombardments in the war. As an Australian, she tells she blames her own country, too, for scaling back its aid to Iraq since the troops pulled out.


“From 2003 when I walked through hospital wards and saw children dying of shrapnel wounds from the ‘precision’ missile strikes, to 2013 walking through different hospitals 10 years later seeing babies die of mysterious birth defects, it’s clear that children have been the greatest victim of this war,” she said in a recent email, and “the young ones are dying and suffering from wounds of a war they never saw.”

“We’ve really let the children down, in dramatic ways that will have long-term implications.”

As tensions escalate between the powerful Shiite government run by Nouri al Maliki and the Sunni minority, which has complained of religious and ethnic discrimination, and Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule, things may be getting a whole lot worse. Al Qaeda in Iraq has taken advantage of the rifts by perpetuating much of the violence inside the country, but the civil war in Syria has the potential to spill over to Iraq at any time. In addition to the violence, many Iraqis who had been forced to flee Iraq (there are still 3 million displaced) will be flooding back as living in Syria becomes more and more untenable.

To say this fragile society is not fit to withstand the humanitarian need, much less another war, is an understatement.

“And as violence and instability increases in Iraq,” said Mulhearn, “the impact of stress and trauma on children is a current and daily reality and will only deepen as it builds on past traumas pointing to a precarious and uncertain future for the next generation.”

Once, in a fatuous pop anthem not atypical of the times, the late Whitney Houston sang, I believe the children are our future/ Teach them well and let them lead the way/Show them all the beauty they possess inside/Give them a sense of pride to make it easier…

As they say, “only in America.”

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.