Cynthia Oi Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

In uniform or not,
all who sacrifice
deserve gratitude

I called Baghdad the other day. I hadn't planned to. I'd been reading news accounts of the gruesome and horrifying incident in Fallujah where four American men, private warriors, had been killed, their bodies mutilated by hordes of angry Iraqis.

Several reports noted that the Pentagon does not keep tally of American civilians who die in the war. Neither does anyone seem to count how many Iraqi citizens are killed. I wondered why.

I got the phone number for the Pentagon's press office, and after a couple of calls and call-backs, I was told no one there could respond to my question. A woman named Dorothea gave me another number to call. I dialed twice, but got no answer. I rang up Dorothea again, who was surprised that no one had picked up, then read off another number.

I asked who I would be calling. "CPA," she said. "They should answer."

They didn't. Back to Dorothea.

"I'm sorry. She's out to lunch," said the man on the line. I explained my request again through several impatient interruptions.

He rattled off four new numbers. I got no answer at the first. The second one, with a 914 area code, was answered by a corporal somebody or other; he said his name so fast, I didn't catch it.

I told him who I was and what I wanted to know. The corporal said the news reports were wrong, that numbers are tracked. OK, I said, then can you tell me how many American civilians had been killed?

No, he said. He didn't have immediate access to the computer system that held the information.

Well, when he or someone else had the time, could he look it up and call me back?

"Listen, lady," he barked, "it's almost midnight here. No one's gonna call back."

Midnight? It's midmorning in Hawaii, where are you?

"Baghdad," he snapped.

I thought it odd that a 914 area code, which is designated for Mount Vernon and White Plains, N.Y., would somehow route my call to Iraq. But I should have guessed that calls to the CPA -- the Coalition Provisional Authority -- would be transmitted to Iraq.

Subsequent calls to the Pentagon yielded a spokesman who said "non-DoD personnel," civilians working for private companies, weren't part of the counts, that maybe the State Department kept track, but he "couldn't say," that it was "doubtful." In any case, the corporal in Baghdad may have been confused, he said; no number was being kept "as far as I know."

I gave up, but it still bothers me. I guess the chaotic situation in Iraq makes it impossible for a skeleton bureaucracy to keep track of how many of its citizens are killed. But surely the CPA, the Pentagon or some other agency can note how many Americans lose their lives, even if they aren't in uniform.

Calculating the monetary cost of the war doesn't mean that the billions of dollars being spent aren't worth bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq. But it's important to know how many have sacrificed their lives to achieve that goal.

It should not matter whether that person is toting a gun or a tool belt. Thousands of Americans are in the war zone, repairing water lines, building schools, distributing medicine, translating, cooking, guarding high-level officials and shielding supply ferries.

That's what Wesley J. Bata-lona, a former Army Ranger from the rural town of Paauilo on the Big Island, was doing last week. He and three other employees of a private company called Blackwater Security Consulting were escorting a delivery of either food or kitchen equipment when they were attacked, their bodies battered and violated.

Batalona was one of about 450 Blackwater employees in Iraq hired to provide security. They are the ones who guard visiting U.S. officials as well as CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer. Their roles are as crucial as those of the men and women in uniform. They are due our acknowledgment. They should count.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at:


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