Since the invasion of Iraq has ended, a tone of vindication and bravado has seeped into the national mood. Television newscasters and the Department of Defense agree: America is delighted. Soldiers are giving high-fives. Those of us who opposed the president and his generals should be ashamed in the face of a brilliantly successful war.
There is one question, above others, that this prevailing self-satisfaction works to silence. Amidst the atmosphere of recrimination, few will risk asking, “What was the cost?”
On televisions overseas, the Marine blitz and Air Force bombs extracted a human price. While Donald Rumsfeld’s talking head became the singular icon of war in the United States, the rest of the world held up photos of Ali Ismaeel Abbas, the 12-year-old boy who lost his parents and eight other relatives, along with both of his arms, in the bombing of Baghdad.
No doubt some have exploited such images for propagandistic purposes. No doubt the pursuit of carnage at times became tasteless sensationalism. But what was the impact for Americans of seeing so few, if any, of those who died?
There are estimates available of the number of civilians killed in the war. A group of 19 volunteers in England, the creators of a Web site called “IraqBodyCount.net,” estimate that there were a “minimum” of 2,050 deaths. This total reflects the lowest numbers provided in news reports of deadly incidents. A more complete tally would have to add the hundreds, maybe thousands, whose deaths were never reported by any source — those buried quietly in the rubble, or those who were wounded and later died in one of Iraq’s overflowing, and ultimately looted, hospitals.
No country, “coalition” or otherwise, has undertaken this reckoning. “A Swiss government initiative launched in the middle of the war,” says John Sloboda of IraqBodyCount, “was abandoned under political pressure.”
The dilemma this presents is an old one, and a dangerous one, too: What is the weight of a life? How many before it matters? Few can offer good answers. Those who look only at the bloodiest moments of war discount other lives. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens died as a result of the decade-long sanctions, for which Saddam Hussein bears much culpability, but which the United States had the power to lift all along. Many more would have died if sanctions were prolonged. And we have no way to know how many will be killed in future invasions inspired by Iraq’s conquest, or in resultant acts of retribution.
Washington, of course, kept careful track of the 166 U.S. and British troops killed in action. It shunned, however, the idea of a civilian body count. Many journalists, particularly on television, took this official position as their marching orders.
Even in the most responsible of our newspapers, one idea became a mantra: “a precise number [of civilians who were killed] is not and probably never will be available,” said The New York Times. “The final toll may never be determined,” said The Washington Post. Again and again, reporters noted the difficulty of making an exact tally.
It was, on face, a statement of humility, an honest acknowledgement of the chaos inherent in military conflict. Yet, at some point, this tendency — this refusal to count, or to even try — grew into something else.
It became a form of political denial.
The rare dispatches that scratched through the surface of the government’s stance on civilian deaths revealed a human side of war — in which young soldiers feared for their lives and relied on quick, difficult decisions — but also, at the same time, a startling desensitization to human life. In one oft-cited report by The New York Times, a Sergeant Schrumpf recalled an incident in which Marines fired on an Iraqi soldier standing among several civilians. One woman was killed. “I’m sorry,” the sergeant said, “but the chick was in the way.”
Another Times reporter wrote of a situation in which Marines attacked a caravan of vehicles approaching them from the distance, not knowing if these might be filled with enemies or, as it actually turned out, with innocents:
“One by one, civilians were killed. Several hundred yards from the forward Marine positions, a blue minivan was fired on; three people were killed. An old man, walking with a cane on the side of the road, was shot and killed. It is unclear what he was doing there; perhaps he was confused and scared and just trying to get away from the city. Several other vehicles were fired on…. When the firing stopped, there were nearly a dozen corpses, all but two of which had no apparent military clothing or weapons. “Two journalists who were ahead of me, farther up the road, said that a company commander told his men to hold their fire until the snipers had taken a few shots, to try to disable the vehicles without killing the passengers. ‘Let the snipers deal with civilian vehicles,’ the commander had said. But as soon as the nearest sniper fired his first warning shots, other Marines apparently opened fire with M-16s or machine guns…. “[A] squad leader, after the shooting stopped, shouted: ‘My men showed no mercy. Outstanding.’”
The number of civilians killed in the actual fighting does matter, if only to remind us that invasion is not a video game. It matters, because it shows that however sophisticated its tools, war will always claim its “collateral damage,” its innocent bystanders.
A callous indifference toward such lives is not limited to the sergeants and squad leaders on the front lines. It is the position fostered by a government that does not count its victims, even as it lines up more conquests: next Syria, then on to Iran.
It is an attitude that survives outside of wartime, guiding our prejudices against those living in countries whose names we never learned to pronounce, countries that our shock-jocks call “turd world” nations.
In order to break the cycle of war and deprivation, hatred and terrorism, the United States some day must start counting not only the dead from this conflict, but all those whom we perpetually disregard. And it must start holding itself accountable to them. For as it does, we will learn that this is not a matter of two thousand, or even two hundred thousand.
The majority of this world will rise to be counted.
– Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached at