Marla Ruzicka is one of the heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While surely there has been heroism and courage shown by the men and women in our military who fight with great honor and courage in what many of us still consider a flawed and stupid war, the courage and heroism is not limited to those Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan who carried a rifle or drove a military vehicle. Marla Ruzicka's tools weren't rifles or Bradley fighting vehicles, but clipboards, computers, emails, and a remarkable ability to earn trust and persuade the powerful to do the right thing.
In her mid-twenties, Californian Ruzicka traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban to conduct an empirically sound count of civilian victims killed by US bombs, and then to lobby for compensation Afghan civilian victims of US bombings. After confirming 824 dead--she figured the actual number was much larger, but those were deaths she was able to confirm--she returned to the US, where she successfully lobbied U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy to sponsor a $3.75 million appropriation for the Afghan victims and their families.
Leahy, who in 1989 established the Leahy War Victims Fund, a $10 million annual appropriation used to provide medical, rehabilitation and related assistance to civilian victims of war, thinks highly of the young activist.
"Marla is an exceptionally determined, energetic and brave young woman who has traveled to the front lines to focus attention on an issue that too often gets ignored," he said. "Civilians bear the brunt of the suffering in wars today, but there is no policy to help them. Marla and her organization have helped put a human face on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by identifying the victims and their needs, and by lobbying for assistance."
Ruzicka had founded her own NGO, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). After returning for a while to Afghanistan, where she helped prod the US authorities on disbursing the funds authorized by Leahy's legislation to the victims and their families, she eventually followed the US military into Iraq. As in Afghanistan, she conducted extensive door-to-door canvasses with local volunteers, this time placing special focus on Iraqis hurt or killed after George W. Bush's announced that the mission was accomplished.
The story of an attractive, engaging and resourceful young woman from California who succeeded in bonding with Iraqis victimized by errant bombs and jittery 19 year old's with M-4 rifles was quite a story, and she began to receive acclaim for her work and attention for her story. She was interviewed on Nightline, written about in plenty of serious news articles, and was even profiled in "lighter" news sources like Elle and something called Travel Girl. Predictably, the attention brought about carping from the right, like James Taranto's "Who Is Marla Ruzicka," which reads almost like a 1950's red-baiting screed published by the John Birch Society. Ruzicka seemed bemused by the attention, and by her own transformation from protester to successful advocate, as effective on an Iraqi doorstep as in a Capitol Hill office:
"It's true - just two years ago I was dragged out of the World Affairs Council when President Bush was speaking. It was his first trip to California, and I'd bought a ticket to hear him speak. I made my sarong-type skirt into a banner, and when he started his address, I unfurled it and jumped on a table and started shouting, 'Stop the rate caps now!' The cops grabbed me and took me out.
"These days, I'd rather have a meeting with President Bush than yell at him."
This has meant cozying up to a military she had formerly excoriated. "I'm constantly hitting them up for help, and I have learned that for the most part, they are anxious to help," she said. "The Marines have nicknamed me Cluster Bomb Girl because I would hear of places where they had gone off, and I would ask them to help me clear the area."
Leahy referred to her as a foreign policy "whistle blower." The BBC declared that the "most reliable numbers so far are the work of this woman, Marla Ruzicka." She spoke before the Soros-funded Open Society Institute, her work was incorporated into reports by Human Rights Watch, and she participated in a symposium sponsored by Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy along with top military leaders and theorists, military and political scholars, and accomplished writers and journalists.
But her focus remained on the innocent victims of war, like the three daughters of an Iraqi couple who were killed when an American tank swerved to avoid an exploding grenade and crushed their car. Doing her work in Iraq meant, of course, that she herself was often in danger. She was asked if she considered doing something safer, but her personal safety wasn't as strong a feeling as the satisfaction she received from doing work that was important and rewarding. "To have a job where you can make things better for people? That's a blessing...Why would I do anything else?"
Saturday morning she emailed this photo of herself with Harah, who was 3 months old when her entire family was killed by a U.S. rocket that destroyed the auto they were in. Later that morning Ruzicka and CIVIC's Iraq director Faiz Al Salaam drove near the Bagdhad airport to visit another little girl, one who had been injured by a bomb. As they drove along the airport road, a car bomb exploded, and both Marla and Faiz were killed.
In the months after 9-11 I read dozens of the obituaries in the NYT. I didn't know any of those people during their abbreviated lives; I only read about them after their deaths. I didn't know any of the over 1,500 soldiers who have died in Iraq. I didn't personally know Marla Ruzicka, but ever since I first heard of her in early 2003 I've admired her immensely. I once heard an interview with David Puttnam, the producer of films such as Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields. He talked about how great films can inculcate in the viewer the conceit that, were they in the same circustances as the film's hero, they would act with equal courage, honor and distinction. Hearing about Marla Ruzicka inspired in me a similar conceit. She was an American, though extraordinary still enough like the rest of us that we could feel a little better knowing our country had produced such a brave, heroic and patriotic woman.
Marla Ruzicka challenged American citizens and institutions by appealing to our sense of right and wrong and our belief that innocents shouldn't be neglected victims. "Although we do advocacy," she told the Harvard International Review, "we are not about being for or against the war. Not at all. We are about the people who make the decisions--getting them to do the right thing, getting them to do what the American people want. Americans hate civilian causualties."
Especially when the civilians killed are such great Americans as Marla Ruzicka.