Notes from the Margins | ‘The Invisible Dead’: The victims of US wars Obama forgot to mention
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 21:59 - 3 Comments
By Matt Carr
President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Jan. 21, 2013. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
In his inaugural address yesterday (Jan. 21, 2013), US President Barack Obama appeared to distance his administration still further from the unilateral militarism of the George W Bush years, when he insisted that ‘enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.’ This declaration was accompanied by the customary genuflection to ‘ Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle’ and a reminder that ‘Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who would do us harm’.
Such paeans to the military have long been something of an obligation for American presidents, and the former community leader from Chicago who once opposed the Iraq war is no exception. In his speech to the last soldiers returning from Iraq, delivered at Fort Bragg on 14 December 2011, Obama described the war as an ‘extraordinary achievement’ and told his audience ‘We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq — 1.5 million. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded, and those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice.’
Apart from a brief reference to ‘the spectre of sectarian violence’ and ‘ al Qaeda’s attacks on mosques and pilgrims’ Obama made no reference to the impact of this catastrophic war on the country it was supposed to save. There was no audit of the numbers of Iraqis killed, wounded, or made orphans and widows.
Obama’s rhetorical flourishes continue a long tradition in American war-making, in which the sanctification of war is accompanied by a strikingly disproportionate casualty rate that is rarely acknowledged by the American political elite or the general public.
During the U.S. war against Filipino insurgents 1899-1902, as many as 800,000 Filipinos may have died, compared with 4, 165 U.S. troops. During the Korean War, an estimated 3 million Koreans died, compared with 30,000 American soldiers. The second Indochina War produced 58,000 American casualties, compared with three million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians. In Iraq, the death toll has been variously calculated in the hundreds of thousands to a million, but either way, these numbers have been of little concern in the country that began the war.
Americans have often been oblivious to the high civilian death toll incurred in these conflicts. Civilians have been killed as a by-product of military operations and murky ‘rules of engagement’, and they have also been targeted in bombing campaigns, ‘free-fire zones’, and massacres. These victims are invariably absent from the heroic narratives expounded by Obama and his predecessors.
In his remarkable The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, (OUP 2011), John Tirman argues that this reluctance of the American political elite and the general public to acknowledge non-American victims is a recurring theme in the conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved. A research scientist and the Executive Director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, Tirman commissioned the 2006 Johns Hopkins University epidemiological survey on the impact of the Iraq war and occupation that was published in The Lancet, which attributed 655,000 ‘excess deaths’ to the war and its aftermath.
Tirman expected these ‘astonishing’ findings to produce a stir. Instead, he was shocked to find that the American public ‘remained utterly unmoved by this scale of carnage, and indeed the pro-war advocates dismissed the findings altogether…The news media, after a one- or two-day flurry of articles, largely misinterpreted the survey techniques, making the results seem less credible.’
The Deaths of Others is a compelling and ground-breaking examination of the ‘absence of concern, the want of sympathy, which is evident in Americans’ response to the human costs of war’ and the various mechanisms and responses which underpin such indifference. Building on Richard Slotkin’s concept of ‘regenerative violence’ as a defining characteristic of American national identity rooted in the frontier experience, Tirman traces the origins of America’s ‘absence of concern’, from the seventeenth century ‘savage wars’ waged by Puritan settlers against the Indians to the new ‘frontiers’ of the Cold War and the ‘war on terror.’
In addition to a detailed analysis of the causes and the conduct of these wars, Tirman examines the response of the American public to each of the episodes he describes, and his findings do not make edifying reading. Again and again he finds a tendency to respond to these wars with callous indifference or an exclusive concern with American casualties, in which even the most blatant atrocities perpetrated by American soldiers are more likely to generate public sympathy towards the soldiers responsible than towards their victims. This pattern was most glaringly illustrated by public attitudes towards Lieutenant William Calley, the officer who carried out the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, who was widely perceived within the U.S. as a victim of the war, rather than the perpetrator of a savage massacre.
Tirman does not argue that American soldiers are especially prone to such actions, or that the U.S. Armed Forces are uniquely responsible for all the civilian deaths that have taken place during these wars. He nevertheless identifies a recurring pattern in American war-making, in which ‘officers do what they “need” to do accomplish a mission…knowing that only the most egregious instances of civilian abuse will earn opprobrium from their superiors, if that,’ while ‘The American public, far from the battlefield, essentially out of touch and uncaring, does not make a check on this too-frequent behaviour.’
Some might argue that such indifference is hardly unique to Americans. Such is the cult of the military, that few countries are prepared to recognize the consequences of the wars in which their soldiers fight – when these consequences contradict the image of soldiers as heroes and a repository of national virtue. It wasn’t until December last year that Francois Hollande acknowledged the ‘massacres’ perpetrated by France during the seven-year War of Algerian Independence, including the killing of uncounted numbers of Algerian pro-independence demonstrators in the heart of Paris by French police. In Kenya last year, veterans of the ‘Mau Mau’ emergency tortured by British armed forces and paramilitaries have finally been able sue the British government after more than half a century. Hundreds of Iraqis are now suing the Ministry of Defence for tortures and beatings at the hands of British troops in Basra.
In the most powerful military nation in history, which believes it has a right to wage war anywhere in the world, the sanctification of war has broader political as well as moral consequences. As Tirman argues, ‘one salient effect of indifference or callousness toward large-scale human suffering in U.S. wars is to permit more wars’ by creating a situation in which ‘the American public in effect gives permission to its powerful military to conduct operations in ways that result in such colossal misery.’
This de facto ‘permission’ can also act as a justification for acts of ‘blowback’ and retaliatory violence directed against American civilians themselves. Osama bin Laden frequently argued that American civilians bore responsibility for acts of violence perpetrated or supported by their government, and therefore constituted legitimate targets. Asked by an al-Jazeera interviewer in October 2001 on the legitimacy of killing ‘innocent civilians’, bin Laden declared ‘ It is very strange for Americans and other educated people to talk about the killing of innocent civilians. I mean, who said that our children and civilians are not innocents, and that the spilling of their blood is permissible?’
Bin Laden cited various acts of violence perpetrated against Muslims in which, he argued, Americans were complicit, from sanctions in Iraq to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. His arguments were certainly demagogic and propagandist, and the statistics he quoted were often wildly exaggerated, but Bin Laden’s central point about double standards is not without foundation.
Societies that grant their governments carte blanche to project war and violence across the world, and ignore the consequences of these wars, cannot be entirely surprised when reactionary would-be avengers present mass murder as an act of retribution, or claim spurious legitimacy for what bin Laden called a ‘balance of terror.’ But Obama’s rhetorical flourishes are no less spurious. You cannot talk of ending ‘perpetual war’ on one hand, while continuing to engage in proxy wars or killing ‘militant’s with drones, or arming other states to wage wars.
Americans may not want to consider the cost of the wars in which they fight beyond America’s borders, and the civilians who have died in these wars are unlikely to warrant a mention in presidential speeches. But if America is ever to break its deadly and debilitating addiction to war and militarism, then it is incumbent on Americans to recognize the millions upon millions of invisible dead, and consider why they died. Tirman’s superb book is an essential contribution to this process, and deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to receive.