The other day, over 20 people died in an airstrike in Yemen’s coastal city of Hodeidah.
The bombs, dropped by a Saudi-led coalition, hit a farmers market, where men from neighboring villages sold their goods, hoping to at least break even and bring some food home to their families. In the aftermath of the attack, families gathered to pick up the pieces of their loved ones, and hitchhiked to the local general hospital in search of the wounded.
These were only a few of the uncountable thousands of civilian casualties in Yemen’s war, which I’ve followed closely since living there for years as a journalist.
The frequent strikes on markets, school buses, and hospitals seldom make news in the United States. Is it because Yemen seems so far away, that the blood of children doesn’t seem to reach our fingertips?
Or is it because arms sellers’ profits from Yemen’s war are so substantial, we don’t dare cut ties?
Yemen’s been on a downward spiral since a failed transition period after the Arab Spring led to a civil war. Since early 2015, a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled president has rained down air raids on the country — more often than not, hitting civilian targets.
A school bus bombing in July killed 40 children. A hospital bombing in August killed over 50 civilians. An early attack on the capital Sana’a wiped out an entire family in their sleep.
All of these airstrikes were supported by the U.S., which supplied training, targeting support, in-flight refueling, and the bombs themselves. Yet American politicians mostly stay silent. Why?
Is it because the war in Yemen is so complicated? This is a cop-out — it’s our elected officials’ job to understand these intricacies, and to act when situations are unjust.
I would argue it’s the cost-benefit ratio.
Leaving the on-the-ground fighting to Yemenis paid by their Gulf counterparts, and leaving the actual air-striking to Saudi pilots, American officials are separated by enough degrees to not take direct responsibility.
Carrying even greater weight, especially by President Trump, is the financial benefit of this war. The U.S. sells billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Saudis.
Deaths for dollars. The lives of tens of thousands of Yemenis for the financial gain of a few corporations. While there are obviously more reasons for the ongoing conflict than this, it’s an undeniable component.
Yet this past month has brought more change from one man’s death than the deaths of thousands before him.
As the tragic details of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s abduction and death emerge, more lawmakers are calling for direct and tangible action against Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi’s death, first denied then whitewashed by Saudi officials, has brought together a bipartisan group calling for a cancellation of arms sales to the kingdom.
“With the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s time for the United States to halt all weapons sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), who introduced a bill to do just that. “Our democratic values are on the line here — and we need to step up as a country and do the right thing.”
On the other hand, President Trump so far refuses to stop arms sales, even though the Saudis now admit Khashoggi’s murder was premeditated. “We don’t like it, not even a little bit,” Trump said. But canceling the sales “would not be acceptable to me.”
The war in Yemen will continue until those in power decide their costs outweigh the benefits — and until the rest of us insist on a cost for civilian lives.