When America Kills…. I

Nearly one month ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education examined the reasons why the number of Iraqis killed at the hands of their American liberators has failed to make a dent in the English-language media’s coverage of the war and occupation. And this despite the fact that the British medical journal The Lancet published a study of Iraqi mortality rates (i.e., upwards of 100,000 Iraqis killed, the researchers estimated at the time) just days before the American elections last November 2.

Lila Guterman, the author of The Chronicle piece (“Researchers Who Rushed Into Print a Study of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Now Wonder Why It Was Ignored,” Feb. 4), introduced it as follows:

When more than 200,000 people died in a tsunami caused by an Asian earthquake in December, the immediate reaction in the United States was an outpouring of grief and philanthropy, prompted by extensive coverage in the news media.

Two months earlier the reaction in the United States to news of another large-scale human tragedy was much quieter. In late October, a study was published in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, concluding that about 100,000 civilians had been killed in Iraq since it was invaded by a United States-led coalition in March 2003. On the eve of a contentious presidential election — fought in part over U.S. policy on Iraq — many American newspapers and television news programs ignored the study or buried reports about it far from the top headlines


“On its merits,” Guterman continued, “the study should have received more prominent play. Public-health professionals have uniformly praised the paper for its correct methods and notable results. Indeed, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department have cited mortality numbers compiled by Mr. [Les] Roberts on previous conflicts as fact — and have acted on those results. What went wrong this time?”

But just as one waited for the other shoe to drop—namely, an answer—it never did. The Chronicle asked a provocative question—”What went wrong this time?”—Or: Why don’t the Americans and the British pay attention to how many Iraqis they are killing?—but simply couldn’t answer it. Instead, The Chronicle danced around with some really awful explanations—Haste: “Mr. Roberts and his colleagues now believe that the speedy publication of that data created much of the public skepticism toward his study”—Timing: The October 29 posting of the survey to The Lancet‘s website before the November 2 national elections—and Hostility: As in the open hostility with which the study was immediately denounced at Slate and the Washington Post—but never once came close to answering the question.

Returning to The Chronicle‘s assessment for a moment, Guterman reported that:

Mr. Roberts has studied mortality caused by war since 1992, having done surveys in locations including Bosnia, Congo, and Rwanda. His three surveys in Congo for the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization, in which he used methods akin to those of his Iraq study, received a great deal of attention. “Tony Blair and Colin Powell have quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity,” he says.

Mr. Roberts’s first survey in Congo, in 2000, estimated that 1.7 million people had died over 22 months of armed conflict. The response was dramatic. Within a month, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that all foreign armies must leave Congo, and later that year, the United Nations called for $140-million in aid to that country, more than doubling its previous annual request. Later, citing the study, the State Department announced a pledge of an additional $10-million for Congo.

(Quick aside. Actually, with an estimated 31,000 people dying per month, and more than 3.8 million deaths over the past six or seven years, the Democratic Republic of the Congo very well may constitute the gravest and most persistent humanitarian emergency facing the world. Also, the response of the Security Council to this crisis has been far less dramatic than The Chronicle suggested.)

So why would official government figures and the news media embrace the work of Les Roberts et al. when these researchers dealt with conflicts and crises in places such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but not Iraq? Why would the product of the same highly-respected research methods have been dead-on-arrival—or shot at with open hostility—when turned towards the question of Iraqi mortality rates before and after the American war there?

Come now. Do you honestly think that this is a tough question to answer?

Although I like the comparison between the massive coverage of the death and destruction caused by the December 26 tsunami in countries around the Indian Ocean, on the one hand, and the lack of coverage of the death and destruction caused by American forces in Iraq, on the other; still, I think a far more real-worldly, and more revealing, comparison is available to us.

Rather. The relative silence and open hostility with which the study of Iraqi mortality rates has been confronted since first posted to The Lancet‘s website last October 29 ought to be compared to the ongoing fulminations, tirades, and moralistic histrionics with which every event in the western Sudan has been greeted as an instance either of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, for the past 15 months. Or longer.

During the same 24-month period (i.e., February-March, 2003, onward) in which the Americans have waged a war of aggression over Iraq, violating the most fundamental tenets of international law (i.e., the preservation of peace, non-aggression, and the resolution of conflicts through peaceful means), rolling up a body count that either rivals or is a close-second to that attributed to the fighting, starvation, disease, and hardships of a refugee population struggling in the Darfur states of the western Sudan and neighboring countries, it was not the American Government’s killing of the Iraqi population, but the Sudanese Government’s killing of the Darfur population that wound up designated “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world,” and promoted as the No. One cause celebre of the season, with calls for the prosecution of the leadership in Khartoum, either by the International Criminal Court or by an ad hoc tribunal on the model of the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda—the Americans’ preferred option, since this model alone permits them to set the stage and write the script.

Come now. Is there any wonder why The Lancet‘s important study of Iraqi mortality rates wound up on the cutting room floor, and the questions that it raises largely ignored? Just ask yourselves this: Who was responsible for the violence in Iraq, and the concomitant humanitarian crisis (now more than 14 years old)? And who was responsible for the violence and humanitarian crisis in the western Sudan? And who for that matter was responsible for the December 26 tsunami?

For the same reason, no UN-sponsored International Commission of Inquiry on Iraq has been empanelled to catalogue the violations of international law and crimes against the Iraqi population committed by the American forces. (The show trials scheduled for the former Iraqi regime are another matter, as these will focus solely on crimes prior to the March 19, 2003, American invasion of Iraq—and then only on those crimes in which the Americans aren’t directly implicated.)

Quite the contrary. So dominant is American Power in the contemporary world that, not only is it inconceivable that the United Nations could investigate American criminality—even such brazen criminality as launching the invasion and seizure of another sovereign state. But the Americans were also able to get the Security Council to place its seal of approval on the crime: UN Security Council Resolution 1546, to be precise.

The reason the English-language news media have not paid attention to The Lancet study of Iraqi deaths—much less made the scale of the slaughter a theme of their coverage—is that the killing happens to be crucial to the mission the major English-speaking countries have undertaken in Iraq. Far safer, therefore, to fret over the world’s inaction with respect to the government in Khartoum, than the world’s inaction with respect to the governments in Washington, London, and elsewhere.

Postscript. Incidentally, I take the phrase “cause celebre” from the Harvard moralist Samantha Power. “The Sudanese government,” she wrote last summer, “could hardly have predicted that an obscure, inaccessible Muslim region like Darfur would become a cause celebre in America.” (“Dying in Darfur,” New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2004.) Remember: It all comes down to who does the killing, who gets killed—and what kind of narrative the world’s most powerful states—but one state in particular—manage to impose upon the events. This is why the piles of bodies and debris left in the wake of the American tsunami (e.g., in the now-depopulated Iraqi city of Fallujah) does not become a cause celebre, in Prof. Power’s sense. And why the contemporaneous dying in an “obscure, inaccessible Muslim region like Darfur” does.

Postscript II. In response to the “Comments” on this blog, and in particular to the two which explicitly recognize the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model (one of the best confirmed hypotheses in the social sciences, as Chomsky used to call it during public lectures around the time the book Manufacturing Consent was first published): The core of it is the “worthy” and “unworthy” victims dichotomy, though in the more nuanced version of it that dates all the way back (at least) to their work in 1973′s Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda. (Later reprised in Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology (1979).)

“The response of American leaders to bloodbaths has been related closely to the nature of the victims and executioners and the political consequences seen as flowing from the massacre and terror,” they wrote in the suppressed pamphlet of 1973. “[B]loodbaths are not necessarily considered bad in the perspective of the American leadership; they may be unremarkable, benign, or positively meritorious.” Indeed. They even may be “mythical”—”nurtured by U.S. government propaganda as cornerstones of the justification of American intervention,” American denunciation, and the like. Or in our day nurtured also by the propaganda of what the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research‘s director Jan Oberg calls the “non-non-governmental” organizations—those which, “sailing under the flag of convenience of [a] prestigious independent NGO, actually play a semi-governmental, Western/US-biased role” (PressInfo #197, April 29, 2004—here criticizing the International Crisis Group in particular, though I think this kind of criticism ought to be extended much further than the ICC).

Right around the time of the release of When Will the World Pay Attention?, the International Rescue Committee’s and Burnet Institute’s jointly produced study of the devastation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the International Crisis Group’s chief peddler of the Darfur “genocide,” John Prendergast, wrote in the Los Angeles Times (“Unraveling the African Tragedy,” Dec. 9, 2004):

I worried that the usual compassion fatigue would lead people en masse to avert their eyes. Rather, the opposite is occurring. Local groups are springing up in the United States to raise awareness about the crisis and to encourage a more assertive U.S. government response. Private civic organizations and leaders have banded together to demand a greater American role. Hollywood actors and student activists are also getting involved.

So hope is by no means lost. The challenge will be to build a more lasting coalition to prevent and respond to Africa’s most graphic tragedies once Darfur’s bleeding is staunched.

Notice that the “crisis” which the ICC’s Prendergast refers to here is the crisis in Darfur. Not the estimated 31,000 unnecessary deaths per month in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, mind you, totaling somewhere in excess of 3.8 million over the past seven years. But rather the unknown number of deaths—estimated to be somewhere greater than 70,000 at the time—in the western Darfur states of the Sudan—Samantha Power’s “cause celebre” among the Humanitarian Brigades. Only once Darfur’s bleeding is staunched, the ICC’s Prendergast instructed, can we turn elsewhere.

Why is the government in Washington’s killing of 100,000 Iraqis some 6,000 miles away, inside Iraqi territory, not newsworthy (i.e., not dressed up in the rhetoric of “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity,” and “genocide”—not to mention “aggression,” the crime that launched them all) in the same sense that the government in Khartoum’s killing is, inside the Sudan itself? And why are the victims of war and atrocities and hardship, starvation, and disease in the western Darfur states of the Sudan the “cause celebre” of the Humanitarian Brigades in the English-speaking world, but not the vastly greater number of victims of the same in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Constructive bloodbaths
Benign bloodbaths
Nefarious bloodbaths
Mythical bloodbaths

Propaganda And The BBC,” Alex Doherty, ZNet, February 7, 2005

Researchers Who Rushed Into Print a Study of Iraqi Civilian Deaths Now Wonder Why It Was Ignored,” Lila Guterman, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 4, 2005 (Here linking to the copy archived at the Voices in the Wilderness website, as the Chronicle‘s website has withdrawn its copy from circulation in the hope of extracting surplus $$$$$$ in exchange for access.)
Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Les Roberts et al., The Lancet, posted online October 29, 2004. (This copy of the document is made available by the U.K.-based Count the Casualties organization.)
Iraqi Civilian Deaths Increase Dramatically After Invasion,” Press Release, Center for International Emergency, Disaster, and Refugee Studies, October 28, 2004
100,000 Iraqis Dead: Should We Believe It?” Stephen Soldz, ZNet, November 3, 2004

Iraq Coalition Casualties
Iraq Body Count Project

Violence and mortality in West Darfur, Sudan: Epidemiological Evidence from Four Surveys (2003-2004),” Evelyn Depoortere et al., The Lancet, October 1, 2004
Sudan: Mortality Projections for Darfur,” David Nabarro, World Health Organization, October 15, 2004
Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Cassese et al., International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, United Nations, January 25, 2005
U.S. Urges War Crimes Tribunal for Darfur Atrocities,” Colum Lynch, Washington Post, January 27, 2005
Court of First Resort,” Samantha Power, New York Times, February 10, 2005

Mortality in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Results from a Nationwide Survey (April-July 2004), the Burnet Institute and the International Rescue Committee, December, 2004 (And the accompanying Media Release)

Postscript (January 9, 2006): For one subject that the Great Emancipators back in the States and the U.K. don’t like to touch—and, therefore, we ought to:

How Many Iraqis Have Died Since the US Invasion in 2003?” Andrew Cockburn, CounterPunch, January 9, 2006
A Formula for Slaughter: The American Rules of Engagement from the Air,” Michael Schwartz, TomDispatch.com, January 10, 2006

Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Les Roberts et al., The Lancet, posted online October 29, 2004. (This copy of the document is made available by the U.K.-based Count the Casualties organization.)
Iraqi Civilian Deaths Increase Dramatically After Invasion,” Press Release, Center for International Emergency, Disaster, and Refugee Studies, October 28, 2004
100,000 Iraqis Dead: Should We Believe It?” Stephen Soldz, ZNet, November 3, 2004

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