Balance Sheets, Death and Silence

The impact of war is always devastating, horrific and routinely sanitised for home audiences by editors and journalists. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent is a notable exception. “It was a scene from the Crimean War”, he observed in an Iraqi hospital as the US-led ‘coalition’ was in the final few hours of ‘liberating’ the country back in April.

Fisk wrote with almost unbearable clarity: “a hospital of screaming wounded and floors running with blood. I stepped in the stuff; it stuck to my shoes, to the clothes of all the doctors in the packed emergency room, it swamped the passageways and the blankets and sheets.” (‘ The Fall Of Saddam: Final Proof That War Is About The Failure Of The Human Spirit’, Robert Fisk, The Independent, 10 April 2003)

Back in the UK, there were warnings by Bryn Lewis, a night supervisor at the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest in London, that the effects of the Iraq war were being felt keenly in his hostel: “cases of mild depression have become serious ones, residents with addiction problems have become unsettled and disorderly, former servicemen have been forced to relive horrific memories, some from as recently as Kosovo, and ethnic tensions have stretched the staff greatly.”

Lewis reported that many hostel residents believed that “the collateral damage of war is not a justifiable part of some great victory over evil regimes, it is the costly manifestation of the failure of a modem world to solve its disputes by anything other than brute force.” “The lessons of this war” warned Lewis, “are to be learnt in its wake – in the battle-front hospitals, amongst the wrecked families of innocent civilians, in the hearts and eyes of doctors… and later, much later, in the forgotten hostels of a hundred cities where the victors and the vanquished come to lick their wounds.” (‘Collateral Damage That Will Haunt Victors And Vanquished’, Bryn Lewis, letter to the editor, The Independent, 12 April, 2003)

As ever, it is left to compassionate individuals, courageous reporters and humanitarian agencies, rather than the bulk of the mainstream media, to highlight the lessons of war. Medact, a UK-based organisation of health professionals, recently estimated that the total number of casualties in Iraq between March 20 – October 20, 2003 comprises 394 ‘coalition’ combatants, around 7800-9600 Iraqi civilians, and anywhere between 13,500-45,000 Iraqi combatants.

This brings the death toll in those six months to between 21,700 and 55,000. There are no reliable figures for the number of wounded, but it is estimated to be around three times the number of deaths, giving a total number that may well exceed 150,000 individuals. (‘Continuing Collateral Damage: the Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq 2003′, Medact, http://www.medact.org/tbx/docs/Coll%20Dam%202.pdf)

But for left-hawk commentators that supported ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Iraq to bring ‘democracy’ to the long-suffering Iraqis under ‘Saddam’s sanctions’, this was supposed to have been a “moral war….fought in a moral way”. (‘If this war with Iraq is to be a moral war, it must be fought in a moral way’, Johann Hari, The Independent, March 7, 2003). However, the kind of democracy that is actually being implemented in Iraq is summed up by Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani thus: “Saddam’s old right-wing friends, Rumsfeld and co, are recruiting Saddam’s security men and are prepared to drench Iraq in new bloodbaths precisely to stop its people from achieving democracy and true liberation.”

(‘Iraqis Distrust The US And Its Promises Of Democracy’, Sami Ramadani, letter to the editor, The Independent, 20 September, 2003)

For the BBC, as with most of the mainstream media, the news script being followed is the one handed down by Washington and London: a script that speaks inanely of a global ‘war on terror’, and of the introduction of ‘democracy’ to Afghanistan and Iraq. A recent item on the flagship Today news programme on Radio 4 sums up the ‘balanced’ perspective on offer. Today presenter Sarah Montague was interviewing veteran US broadcaster Walter Cronkite. The interview compared the war in Vietnam over thirty years ago with the situation today in Iraq.

Montague said to Cronkite: “And yet when you do a comparison, just in crude numbers terms, we’re talking of, what, 58,000 who were killed in Vietnam and only [pause], we’re up to almost 400 in Iraq.” (BBC Radio 4, 14 November, 2003)

I emailed Montague later the same day, pointing out that I had grasped that the focus of her interview with Cronkite was supposed to be the impact of war on the US and on Americans, “but why was there no mention of the far greater deaths of Vietnamese people, possibly numbering over 2 million individuals?”

Her response, in full, was:


I didn’t make mention of the, what, 2 million indochinese killed, nor the, as yet, unknown number of iraqis killed because I was only seeking to compare American deaths in both wars. I can’t remember my exact phrasing but it was remiss of me if I didn’t make it clear I was only referring to American deaths. I decided to focus solely on the American side of the balance sheet because, as you note, that was the remit of the interview – the impact of the war on America and Americans.

This is just a hurried reply but please feel free to contact me for more. Sarah”

(Email from the BBC’s Sarah Montague to David Cromwell, 15 November, 2003)

Why is it that the “remit of the interview” on mainstream media reveals, in case after case, a systematic tendency to focus on the impact on the U.S. and Americans, or on the UK and the British? Why is it so rarely about the impact of war on the Vietnamese or the impact of war on the Iraqis? However, Montague had said “feel free to contact me for more”, so I did just that the following day:

“Dear Sarah,

Many thanks for replying – it’s much appreciated.

I find it noteworthy that in a lengthy six-minute piece on a comparison between Vietnam and Iraq you did not consider it relevant to include reference to the two million dead Vietnamese on the balance sheet, as you put it. This mass death (and awful after-effects on human health in Vietnam) has undoubtedly influenced the attitude of many Americans to future wars. Why was this not considered relevant to your piece?

A U.S. opinion poll in 1982 revealed that 72 per cent of the public regarded the Vietnam War as ‘more than a mistake; it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.’ Would an exclusive concern with U.S. combat deaths explain such an expression of U.S. public opinion? Likewise in Iraq today, surely one has to approach U.S. perceptions of the costs and impact of war more broadly than last Friday’s segment did?

Nor was there mention in the piece of last week’s estimate by Medact, a UK-based organization of health professionals, of up to 55,000 dead Iraqis since the US-led invasion took place. These stark figures surely play a role in the impact of war on the United States and its people. Why did the Today programme not consider the impact of Iraqi deaths on American opinion relevant? Why should Americans, or your listeners for that matter, focus on U.S. deaths to the exclusion of others, as though U.S. lives are more inherently valuable?

You also let Walter Cronkite’s remark about a communist invasion of South Vietnam pass unchallenged when, in fact, it was the United States that invaded South Vietnam. By accepting Cronkite’s distorted view of history, your listeners are presumably expected to believe the standard mythology that the United States was ‘defending’ South Vietnam in the same sense in which the Soviet Union later argued that they ‘defended’ Afghanistan.

If you have the time, I’d be interested in your further thoughts on the above, please.

best wishes, David”

(Email to the BBC’s Sarah Montague from David Cromwell, 16 November, 2003)

No further thoughts were, in fact, forthcoming. Instead, the silence I received in response was deafening.

David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free media alerts at www.medialens.org. He is also the author of ‘Private Planet’ (www.private-planet.com)

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