Body Counts In Imperial Service

S. Herman

It is really impressive
how efficiently the intellectual and propaganda resources of the imperial state
are mobilized to meet its need to demonize its enemies and put its own and its
client states’ actions in a benevolent light. This is especially important for
an imperial power that retains its democratic forms as it kills lavishly and on
a global basis, and justifies these killings, and its enormous “defense”
expenditures, on grounds of “human rights” concerns as well as “national
security.” Getting its message across requires not only a compliant media and
“journalists of attachment” who will follow the official agenda, but also an
intellectual community of experts, academics and think-tank specialists, New
Humanitarians, human rights group officials, and former leftists who have
finally seen the light, who serve as “independent” commentators and guide the
public toward the official truth. They constitute an ideological and propaganda
collective that provides a gigantic echo chamber in which the official agenda
resonates, and which helps get the public on the killing bandwagon.

The operation of
this collective, and its techniques, are well illustrated by its treatment of
“body counts” in comparable wars and atrocities throughout the world. Where
there is an official and imperial demand for a high body count and great
indignation, as in the case of Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 (earlier in Bosnia in the
years 1992-1995, Kuwait in 1990-1991, still earlier in the case of Cambodia
under Pol Pot, 1975-1978), the collective will be deeply concerned with civilian
casualties, will pursue refugees relentlessly to get details of their suffering,
and will search eagerly for dead bodies. Given that they know the truth in
advance—that “another Hitler” is committing genocide, they will not look at
evidence very critically, and will be happy to accept any story and any inflated
account of numbers of bodies, however biased the source. They will also explain
away the ex-post findings that “another Hitler’s” body count had been inflated.

On the other
hand, where the imperial power and/or its proxies are doing the killing, as in
Afghanistan from October 7, 2001 onward, or in Panama in 1989, or in Iraq from
January 1991 to the present; or where client states like Israel, Turkey, and
Indonesia in East Timor are doing the killing, the establishment collective has
little interest in civilian casualties [exception: Israeli civilians], fails to
pursue refugees to get their stories of suffering, and does not engage in any
search for dead bodies. Its members even tend to be sceptical of stories of
suffering and estimates of dead bodies made by others.

This same
contrast applies to larger body counts such as in the famous 100 million death
toll of communism in the Black Book, which includes millions who died in
Chinese and Soviet famines. But it would be unthinkable for writers in the
mainstream to count in the death toll of capitalism those who have died of
exposure, hard labor, starvation, and preventable diseases resulting from
economic structures and policies, which would run well over 100 million; or the
aggregate of “disappeared” in Latin America during the National Security State
years; or the “collateral damage” deaths from sanctions and bombing in Iraq,
Afghanistan, and many other places. AOL Time Warner is not likely to be
interested in publishing a Black Book of Capitalism.

Give Us Bodies

With Milosevic “another
Hitler” and the Serbs “willing executioners,” by NATO-power determination in the
early 1990s, the quest for bodies was early and intense. But only Bosnian Muslim
bodies were sought, not victims of the Bosnian Muslims or Croatians, although
there is extensive evidence of repeated massacres of Serbs in Bosnia in the
years 1992-1995. In 1994 and 1995, Muslim commander in Srebrenica, Naser Oric,
proudly showed journalists videotapes of his “war trophies,” including severed
heads and heaps of bodies of Serbs, but these were not the bodies the collective
was seeking.

In his book
, David Rieff says there were more than 250,000 Bosnians
killed—and Rieff uses the word Bosnians to mean Bosnian Muslims only—but he
gives no source, and he is clearly regurgitating claims of Bosnian Muslim
officials, notably Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic. The propagandists on his
side are truth-tellers. For Rieff, Susan Sontag, Hitchens, et al., this was
“genocide,” but the thousands of Serbs killed by Naser Oric and bin Laden’s
cadres was not genocide; in fact, those slaughters and mass graves (at least 53
claimed by the Bosnian Serbs) never show up on the screen of the collective or
reach the U.S. public.

According to
George Kenney, who worked on Yugoslavia in the State Department during the
Bosnian war, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates
20-30,000 dead in Bosnia, and U.S. intelligence community estimates “run to tens
of thousands.” Only a few thousand bodies have been found in Bosnia attributable
to the Bosnia-Herzegovina wars, and the ICRC says “more than 20,000” are
unaccounted for, which, again, doesn’t get us near 250,000 and “genocide.” In
Srebrenica, there have been only 473 bodies recovered, and there is absolutely
no credible evidence that 7,500 men and boys who allegedly disappeared in this
area in July 1995 were murdered. The absence of bodies, despite an intense
search and strong incentives to produce them, hasn’t interfered with the
conclusion that 7,500 were slaughtered there.

One claim of
course was that the Serbs removed the bodies. This is not credible, as removing
thousands of bodies would not only require significant human and capital
resources, not likely to be a high priority in times of intense warfare, but it
would also be a project readily observable in satellite photos. U.S. satellite
observations of this area never came up with any photos of killing, digging, or
removal. The removal theory was also popular for Kosovo, especially after the
Tribunal produced fewer than 4,000 bodies (on all sides, including dead
soldiers). Long after the war, but timed well to provide a suitable context for
bringing Milosevic to the Hague, a story was widely circulated about a Mercedes
refrigerated truck dumped into the Danube with a load of bodies, the inference
being that maybe many such trucks with bodies were dumped into the river.
Needless to say no such evidence has been forthcoming.

The search for
bodies intensified during the 78-day bombing war, and then in its aftermath, in
NATO-occupied Kosovo. This was urgently needed by NATO’s war-makers, as the
really severe refugee flight and escalated killing followed the NATO bombing;
before that, a Belgrade-NATO agreement had seen the drawing back of the Serbian
army, the return of many of the refugees, admission of a sizable OSCE observer
presence, and reduced killing, despite KLA provocations. A pre-bombing German
Foreign office assessment even denied any ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, describing
Serbian army actions there as targeted against KLA forces and strongholds.
Furthermore, it eventually entered the public domain that the United States had
actually aided the KLA before the bombing, so that the KLA’s provocations aimed
at inducing Serbian retaliation to help bring NATO into war could be said to be
U.S.-sponsored. The indignation at Serbian retaliation was therefore cynical and

propaganda machine needed to ignore this history, as well as the military
collaboration of NATO and the KLA during the war, and blame the refugee crisis
and killings entirely on the Serbs. This was helped by a claim of an “Operation
Horseshoe” plan to expel the Kosovo Albanians even without a NATO war. The
establishment collective’s cooperation in this task was exemplary, including the
suppression up to this day of the evidence that the alleged Operation Horseshoe
was a propaganda fabrication (exposed in a book by retired German Brigadier
General Heinz Loquai, The Kosovo Conflict: A War That Could Be Avoided).

A final problem
was the absence of enough bodies in Kosovo after the June 10, 1999 NATO
occupation to satisfy the frenzied propaganda claims of genocide. During the
war, NATO propagandists had made wild claims of 100,000 and even 500,000
killings and the word “genocide” was used freely to describe Serb actions. After
the war, NATO and its agents organized what must have be the largest forensic
search in history, and the media descended on the conquered province like an
invasion of locusts, interviewing refugees, looking for and examining grave
sites, insatiable for stories of abuse and bodies. They got painful stories from
the refugees, many no doubt true, but there was much disappointment that the
Trepca mine, for example, which Kosovo Albanian informants had claimed had been
the site of mass cremation, showed no signs of any bodies having been burned
there, and the Tribunal’s final count was under 4,000 dead—from unknown causes
and on all sides. According to the ICRC, there were some 3,500 Kosovo residents
still missing in May 2001, a figure that included some 900 Serbs, Roma, and
other non-Albanians. Whether these were all genuinely missing or had died is

With the body
count numbers clearly inadequate, instead of pointing out that NATO officials
had lied and admitting that they had been gulled, the media and other members of
the propaganda collective dropped the subject. Having exploited the inflated
claims and squeezed all they could out of refugee testimony, and having failed
to mention that the claim of an Operation Horseshoe had been refuted, the
collective’s abandonment of the subject meant that they left a system of
convenient lies intact. This would allow them to support the Tribunal in
anything it did, as the Tribunal worked with a closely related system of
politicized and biased “information.”

The new
humanitarian members of the collective, who had swallowed and disseminated the
inflated numbers, also never recanted based on the actual body count. None of
them have ever mentioned the evidence that the United States had secretly aided
the KLA before the bombing war and was in active contact with them during the
war. None has conceded that “Operation Horseshoe” had been demonstrated to be a
propaganda concoction; Christopher Hitchens repeats that “a plan of mass
expulsion…was in train,” and Michael Ignatieff says that “Milosevic decided to
solve an ‘internal problem’ by exporting an entire nation to his impoverished

For Ian Williams
and Ignatieff, those who point to the absence of bodies consistent with the
inflated claims of NATO propaganda are “revisionists.” Both cite Tribunal
estimates as the last word—Williams says Carla del Ponte’s estimate of 11,334
dead based on “eyewitnesses” “should have put questions concerning the death
toll to rest,” but no—“the downward revision of the numbers murdered in Kosovo
is proving very fashionable—even in the New York Times,” which to
Williams’s outrage put up a headline “Early Count Hints at Fewer Kosovo Deaths.”
The actual body count was under 4,000, but for Williams, del Ponte’s estimate of
how many she expects to be found is the only relevant number, given the
Tribunal’s known objectivity. (In dismissing the need for investigating NATO’s
war crimes in bombing Serbia, del Ponte acknowledged taking NATO press releases
as an authoritative source of information, but Williams probably wouldn’t find
this problematic either.)

Williams does the
New York Times an injustice. In addition to never finding the U.S.-KLA
connection of news interest nor the collapse of the Operation Horseshoe claim
nor the contesting evidence concerning the Racak massacre, the paper called on
Michael Ignatieff to give the authoritative word on “Counting Bodies in Kosovo”
(November 21, 1999). Like Williams, Ignatieff has the “revisionists…getting
their facts wrong.” The NATO leaders didn’t exaggerate the killings. While U.S.
Defense Secretary William Cohen claimed that 100,000 Kosovo Albanian males were
“missing,” he “also clearly stated that his reports showed that 4,600 Kosovars
had been executed, a claim that has been confirmed by the forensic trail of
evidence uncovered by war crimes investigators since June.” But Ignatieff
eventually admits that the Tribunal had up to then found only 2,108 bodies, so
that “forensic evidence” based on discovered bodies could certainly not
demonstrate that 4,600 people had been executed. Of course, Ignatieff talks
about a forensic “trail of evidence,” but this rhetorical trick cannot cover up
the fact that he is engaging in deliberate deception. He also doesn’t discuss
Cohen’s use of “missing,” in the midst of a war when such a number was a
meaningless propaganda ploy, used to suggest the likelihood that 100,000 had
already been murdered.

The Tribunal
estimated that 11,334 bodies will be found, so Ignatieff says whether they will
be found “depends on whether the Serb military and the police removed them.”
That the Tribunal’s estimate might be inflated for political reasons or be
simply mistaken is ruled out by ideological premise. The Tribunal hasn’t found
more than 4,000 bodies, but neither Ignatieff nor the Times has noticed.


Afghanistan: What Bodies?

The contrast between the
media and collective’s treatment of civilian casualties and body count in
Yugoslavia and Afghanistan after September 11 couldn’t be more dramatic. The
media’s disinterest in questioning Afghan refugees is especially noteworthy as
there were large numbers put to flight by the bombing, and this new burden of
war was imposed on a population already in a starvation crisis. Elementary
humanity would make their condition and plight of interest. But, on the other
hand, U.S. policy success depended on minimizing the effect of the bombing war
on civilians. A good propaganda system will therefore make Afghan civilian
victims “unworthy,” and their plight will be ignored. The U.S. media and
collective responded at least as well as Pravda or Izvestia responded to the
demands of the Soviet state when it was doing damage to Afghan civilians.

For the U.S.
media, it was “A Nation Challenged” and a “War On Terror.” The focus has been on
U.S. war plans, war actions, successes in attacking the enemy, coalition
organization, and reactions on the home front. Considerable attention has been
paid to civilian casualties and the pains of death, but only as regards the
victims of 9/11; in fact, the New York Times has been providing
humanizing accounts, day after day, of each and every victim of the World Trade
Center bombings. But you would have to look hard in the massive coverage of the
war to find U.S. media reports that even touched on civilian casualties from the
intensive U.S. bombing raids on Afghanistan or the war’s effects on refugee
generation and starvation. In an enlightening contrast, whereas the Guardian
(London) reports “Refugees left in the cold at ‘slaughterhouse’ camp: 100
Afghans perish daily as strained network collapses under flood of new arrivals”
(January 3, 2002), the Washington Post features success in
averting famine and averts its eyes from the Afghans in travail (“Massive Food
Delivery Averts Afghan Famine,” December 31, 2001).

Even when U.S.
bombs repeatedly hit marked Red Cross facilities in Kabul, and U.S. officials
admitted that this was intended, the U.S. media reported this with brevity and
without the slightest indignation, and it did not impel them to look at U.S.
bombing strategies more closely. Even the open admission of an intention to harm
civilians, as in British Admiral Sir Michael Boyce’s statement, “The squeeze
will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognize that this is
going to go on until they get the leadership changed” (NYT, October 28),
does not move the U.S. media. Investigative zeal on this subject is
non-existent. When the academic Mark Herold went to the trouble of carefully
studying news reports at home and abroad, and came up with a tally of over 3,700
civilians killed by U.S. bombs from October 7 to December 7 (“A Dossier on
Civilian Victims of United States Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan”), no major U.S.
news institution bothered to report this finding.

interesting has been the silence and/or apologetics on civilian casualties on
the part of the new humanitarians who were so deeply concerned with the
officially approved victims in the Balkans. Writing and reporting on the Afghan
war, Timothy Garton Ash, David Rieff, Michael Ignatieff, and Bernard Kouchner
have expressed not a word of concern over the civilian bombing casualties, or
the enhanced starvation threat resulting from the war, or possible “war crimes.”
Chistopher Hitchens has been positively enthused over the war, and knows by
intuition and faith in his leaders that there has been “no serious loss of human
life” from the bombing and that the Bush administration has followed “an almost
pedantic policy of avoiding ‘collateral damage’” (Nation, December 17,

colleague, Marc Cooper, was indignant at a citation to Mark Herold’s
study of civilian casualties, claiming that Herold’s body count is “totally
unverified and unscientific.” Cooper, who was never outraged over the much less
scientific claims of Kosovo Albanian deaths by William Cohen and other NATO
spokespersons, is no doubt waiting for the Bush administration to “verify” the
Herold body count. It is noteworthy that Cooper doesn’t express indignation that
neither the government nor media seem to have made an effort to study civilian
casualties as Herold has done, a failure that clearly facilitates the killing of
civilians—but his arguments are perhaps understandable given that the war
strikes him as a “just cause,” making the Afghan civilians correspondingly
unworthy. His, Hitchens’s, and the new humanitarians’ stance toward these
civilian killings makes them facilitators of de facto war crimes.


Timor, Turkey, and Israel

It goes almost without
saying that the U.S. mainstream media have not sought out refugees and pursued
body counts of East Timorese victims of Indonesia, Kurdish victims of Turkey, or
Palestinian victims of Israel. There is no way the U.S. public could know that
Turkey had been killing Kurds and producing refugees during the 1990s on a scale
that exceeded Serb operations in Kosovo by a large factor. Similarly, as regards
Israel and the Palestinians, the media have continued their long tradition of
making the Israelis the victims, the Palestinians the aggressors and terrorists,
the numerical body count on the ground the inverse of the impression of body
count conveyed in the media (see Herman, “Israel’s Approved Ethnic Cleansing,
Part 3, How the U.S. Media Protects It,” Z Magazine, June 2001).

It was a telling
fact that as Indonesian killing in East Timor reached a peak in 1977 and 1978,
New York Times coverage of that area fell to zero. This was possibly the
closest thing to genocide we have seen since World War II, but the word is not
applied to this case (in contrast with its lavish use for Kosovo), and veteran
New York Times reporter Henry Kamm even explicitly denied its
applicability to East Timor (February 15, 1981). That was what Times
reporters call a “complex” case, as a good genocidist (Suharto), long supported
by the United States, who brought “stability” to the area, was in charge.

In 1998 and 1999,
when Indonesia attempted to prevent and subvert the U.N.-sponsored independence
referendum in East Timor, the Indonesian army and paramilitary forces killed
over 5,000 defenseless civilians even before the August 30, 1999 vote, according
to Church estimates (John Taylor, East Timor: The Price of Freedom). This
was far more than died in Kosovo in the year before the bombing war, estimated
by UN human rights rapporteur Jiri Dienstbier at some 1,800, and more than the
number of bodies found in Kosovo even after the war. But the disinterest of the
U.S. mainstream media in refugees or body counts was close to complete, and when
on the rare occasion numbers killed have been offered, they are low. Seth Mydans
suggested that “as many as 1,000 people” died in the independence struggle, with
no citation to source, an estimate that fits well the paper’s durable coverup of
Indonesia’s abuse of these unworthy victims (“Bones Offer Testimony Of Killings
In East Timor,” September 30, 2001).

The new
humanitarians have followed the same pattern, attending with great indignation
to the “genocide” in Bosnia and Kosovo, and somehow never getting around to the
frequently far more numerous unworthy victims of their own state and its
clients. In a recent study that David Peterson and I did on “the New
Humanitarian Crusaders” for a forthcoming book on Human Rights: Challenging
the New Consensus
(edited by David Chandler), we found that in a sample of
101 recent mainstream media articles on human rights written by a dozen leading
new humanitarians (Rieff, Sontag, Kouchner, Havel, Hitchens, Ignatieff, Ash,
Kaldor, Aryeh Neier, Geoffrey Robertson, Tim Judah and Kenneth Roth), the
Yugoslav conflicts were discussed in detail in every article, but human rights
issues in East Timor, Turkey, and Israel were mentioned briefly in only three.

The new
humanitarians’ lack of interest or concern with victims deemed unworthy by their
state was well captured by Christopher Hitchens’s treatment of East Timor, where
he credits the new interventionism in Kosovo for having helped the East
Timorese. Although the intervention was belated, in the end “The Indonesian
occupiers sailed away” (“Genocide and the Body-Baggers,” Nation, November
29, 1999). He omits mentioning that the United States and its allies knew, and
watched without doing anything about it, while many more innocents were killed
than died in Kosovo before the bombing war; that in addition to the large
numbers killed, the destruction was immense and 85 percent of the population was
made refugees; that no food drops were implemented on behalf of the refugees;
that nothing was done to help the more than 100,000 refugees under Indonesian
control in West Timor; that no forensic teams were rushed to check out war
crimes and no war crimes trials are pressed by the West.

That was
Hitchens’s last word on this subject, as he sailed away to focus on the villainy
in Kosovo, and then the just war against fascism in Afghanistan.


Counts in Imperial Service

The beauty of this system
is that it works without coercion—the media and new humanitarians display great
energy in pursuing the mistreatment of the worthy victims of Pol Pot, Saddam
Hussein, or Milosevic, and their indignation seems entirely spontaneous; and
their disinterest and absence of indignation at the abuse of the unworthy
victims of Suharto, the Turkish generals, Ariel Sharon, or U.S. bombers in
Serbia, the Sudan, and Afghanistan seem equally natural. Both their benevolence
and indifference are channeled perfectly to serve the demands of the imperial
state as they quickly internalize the patriotic agenda. Thus they can pay little
or no attention to Saddam Hussein’s victims while he is in imperial service
(before August 2, 1990), but quickly begin the aggressive search for bodies
after he becomes another Hitler (from August 2). This is the way a model
propaganda system should work.                             Z

Edward Herman is an
economist and media analyst. His most recent book, co-edited with Philip
Hammond, is
Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto,