One year ago, I wrote a ZNet article originally titled “All About US: Missing Persons in the Great Iraq War Debate.” The thesis of this commentary was that last fall’s mainstream controversy over the White House’s apparent decision to invade Iraq – we know now that Bush signed up with the War Party as early as April 2002 – was stuck within shockingly narrow moral parameters. “As befits a nation whose ‘leaders’ murdered millions of Southeast Asians during the 1960s and 1970s but which still publicly obsesses only about what the Vietnam War did to our own national psyche,” I argued, “the debate is pretty much all about us. The officially permissible dispute is about how it will hurt our interests, how it will damage our image in and agenda for the world, how it might backfire against the new American Century.” Nobody inside the boundary lines of the officially responsible discussion, I argued, seemed to care about the strong likelihood that the planned strike and invasion would kill, maim, and sicken untold number – pre-”war” estimates ranged well into the tens of thousands – of Iraqi men, women, and children.
All About US, Again
Today, five months after Bush climbed out of a jet fighter to proclaim the “end of major combat operations,” it’s gratifying to learn the president’s approval ratings have tumbled largely because his Iraq policy is increasingly seen as a failure. It’s good to see that a rising share of the US population has turned against the invasion, to the point where 6 out of 10 Americans oppose Bush’s nationally televised request for $87 billion to pay for the aftermath. It’s useful and important that the war has come in for serious criticism within the US establishment, key parts of which never accepted the rationale for Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s radical and adventurist policy.
It is instructive, however, to examine the content of the growing chorus of mainstream criticism, certain to inform Democratic campaign rhetoric in 2004. What’s wrong with US policy in Iraq, according to this critique, is that it’s not working out as promised for the US and its people. This policy, the permissible protest runs, is damaging America’s image abroad and mobilizing world opinion against the US. It’s creating too many American casualties and increasing Americans’ vulnerability to terrorist attack. It’s overstretching US military forces, distracting them from attention to genuine threats – e.g., al Qaeda and nuclear North Korea. It’s costing too much, relevant critics note, for American taxpayers, diverting funds from urgent social needs at home. It’s disturbing the stability of world economic and geopolitical relations in way that does not serve (supposed) American interests. Because it was sold on transparently false premises – the great WMD hoax and related sham links between Saddam, 9/11 and al Qaeda – it’s deepening Americans’ endemic distrust of government and elected officials. A recurrent theme of the permissible mainstream criticism distinguishes between the supposed efficiency and neatness of the military operations that enforced regime change in March and the poorly planned chaos, and bloodiness of the occupation aftermath.
Worthy and Unworthy Victims
Utterly irrelevant, apparently, are the considerable number of Iraqis murdered and maimed during the in-fact bloody “major hostilities” phase of their supposed “liberation.” According to painstaking research undertaken and reported by Iraq Body County (IBC, see www.iraqbodycount.org), at least 20,000 Iraqi civilians were injured in the Iraq “war” on top of the 7798 civilian deaths. “Eight thousand of these injuries,” IBC notes, “were in Baghdad, suggesting that the full countryside picture has yet to emerge.” IBC’s database contains over 300 published press reports. It deals only with civilians, making no effort to count the untold number of Iraq conscripts, many of them teenagers, who “sure as Hell don’t know that hit them” (according to a US Marine colonel) when Uncle Sam’s killing machines – manned by personnel led to falsely believe they could avenge 9/11in Iraq — got the green light.
The rough number of Iraqis who died and suffered injuries during the American invasion is unknown to all but a tiny portion of the American citizenry. The Pentagon proclaims this statistic “irrelevant” – “we don’t count Iraqi casualties” – and the media complies. Also invisible are the names, faces, and life stories of the Iraqis who have been killed, maimed, and/or left to deal with the death or maiming of loved ones who got in the way of America’s benevolent weaponry.
A recent cover story and special report in Newsweek provides a detailed list, with short bios, of each of the 433 Americans who have died since 9/11 in the “War on Terror.” The list ranges from soldiers “killed on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq” to civilians who have died in Bali, Jerusalem, and the UN headquarters in Baghdad. The report includes photographs and expanded write-ups on selected victims and their families. There’s a special feature on wives and children who struggle with losses from the “war.”
It is disturbing that Newsweek so readily accepted the White House’s false conflation of the invasion of Iraq with the “war on terrorism,” buying into the administration’s Orwellian campaign to link 9/11, al Qaeda and Saddam in popular consciousness. Still, the Newsweek issue pays appropriate attention to people who have died under terrible circumstances hardly of their own making.
Dominant US media gives no such sensitive, personalized reporting or honor to the innocent Iraq victims of America’s war. No high-profile US magazine covers show recent Iraqi widows, clutching babies who will never know their fathers, thanks to America’s determination to rule the world on the basis of military force. We don’t get heart-breaking stories about any of the 1000 Iraq children who have been maimed by the belated explosions of cluster bomblets.
We don’t hear about the hopes and dreams of Dua Raheen, 6, who died on April 6th as a result of criminal US aggression in Karbala. We are not told about the grieving parents of Iyed Hamoodi, 10, killed by the same state perpetrators in Basra on April 5th. We don’t hear about the circumstances surrounding the death of Fateha Ghazzi, 8 years old, who died as a result of American actions in the Nahrawaan District, near the Diyala Bridge to Northeast Baghdad (see www.iraqbody count.net/editorial_may 2702_print.htm). An honest, broad appraisal of those circumstances would include the powerful propagandistic role of a “mainstream” (really corporate-state) America media that has long desensitized Americans to Arab tragedies and which uncritically transmitted Bush’s lies about the Iraq threat prior to the war.
As usual, innocent unfortunates on the other side of the great White Man’s imperial guns are incapable of being truly “worthy victims” as far as the dominant media is concerned. As I have showed elsewhere, that media actually provides more sensitive coverage to the emotional difficulties involved in killing Iraqis than it does to the troubles experienced by Iraqis when Americans kill them and their loved ones (see the section entitled “It Hurts to Kill Iraqis,” in “Rachel Corrie, Jessica Lynch, and the Unequal Worthiness of Victims,” ZNet Magazine[May 12, 2003], available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/ showarticle.cfm?SectionID= 15&ItemID=3607, including material from Stephen Lee Myers, “Haunting Thoughts After a Fierce Battle,” New York Times, March 29, 2003, p. 1). That’s how deep the national-racist narcissism of the media’s Vietnam Syndrome goes.
The Liberal Extreme
One would hardly expect to hear much if anything about Iraqi victims from the war criminals in the White House and the Pentagon. What, however, about those in the mainstream who dare to criticize Operation Iraqi Freedom? To really feel the icy moral limits of acceptable debate on that action, go the web sites of the leading Democratic Presidential contenders Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Wesley Clark. You will peruse these war critics’ press releases and speeches in vain for any serious and direct reference to Iraqi suffering caused by American actions.
Especially interesting are the comments to date of Dean, who has become the Democratic presidential front-runner largely because of his early and consistent opposition to Bush’s war. In a pivotal anti-war address Dean made to the Council on Foreign Relations last June, Iraqi victims were invisible, except, perhaps, insofar as their suffering harmed America’s moral authority in the world. Dean proclaims his desire to restore America to its proper and supposed historical role of global moral leader. He identifies that role with Harry Truman, who ordered the two most barbarian acts in human history (the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), grossly exaggerated the Soviet threat to solidify America’s conversion to a permanent war economy, and launched a related half-century campaign of hyper-militarization and global devastation called the Cold War.
A February Dean speech bearing the nationalistic title “Defending America’s Values, Protecting America’s Interests” made an interesting reference to Dean’s medical background in connection with his criticism of Bush’s then-imminent invasion. “As a doctor,” Dean noted, “I was trained to treat illnesses and to examine a variety of options before deciding what to prescribe. I was worried about the side effects and took the time to see what else might work before proceeding to high-risk measures.”
To date, we have not heard the healer-turned-antiwar-candidate say anything of substance about the 20,000 injured and 8,000 dead Iraqi civilians, tragic “side-effects” of a murderous White House “prescription.” Dean has yet to speak about the absence of any US program specifically designed to help injured Iraqi civilians or even to account for civilian Iraq damage. The “side effects” that concern Dean are all about us.
In his recent declaration of candidacy, Wesley Clark, the new supposedly liberal and anti-war hope, vowed to “hold the White House accountable” for the respect it has cost America around the world in conducting a war he thinks he might have opposed. Clark made no reference to holding the Bush gang accountable for the Iraqi civilians it has murdered and maimed in perpetrating the highest state crime on the post-Nuremberg international law books.
Beyond the Narcissistic Pale
There’s a different moral tone, it is worth noting, in the virtuous presidential campaign of Democratic contender Dennis Kucinich, who has consistently included unjust harm to Iraqis among his list of reasons for opposing Bush’s war. Too bad Kucinich is a distant “long-shot.” Nothing is impossible, perhaps. But as a sincere social-democratic opponent of empire abroad and inequality at home, Kucinich’s chances of successfully clearing the corporate and Big Money-dominated American candidate-selection process are practically nil. His concern for “unworthy victims” in the imperial war on terror places him beyond the pale of the narcissistic nationalism that sets a key boundary of acceptable discourse for those who want to be considered “electable” at the highest level of office.
Why They Hate Us
We know how the Bush administration and the Pentagon rationalize the “unavoidable” death of Iraqi civilians in the recent war and occupation. They claim that the “inevitable” Iraqi civilian casualties were minor compared to the misery Iraqis would suffer under Saddam. They insist those casualties (which they refuse to count) are “low” for a military operation of such a large scale, reflecting Pentagon humanitarianism and the precise life-saving targeting capabilities of modern US weaponry. But many reports collected by IBC tell grisly stories of Iraqi civilians killed and injured in no discernible proximity to military targets. It was impossible for the Pentagon to be certain how many Iraqis would be harmed. It is unlikely that even a certain likelihood of many more civilian casualties would have changed US war plans. It is worth noting, furthermore, that US policy – including an American-led sanctions campaign that killed a million Iraqis – deepened Saddam’s brutal hold over the Iraqi people before and after the Persian Gulf War.
By what moral standard, moreover, are the deaths of 8000 Iraqi civilians and the injury of 20,000 more a “low” level of “collateral [that is, human and innocent] damage?” By the same racist moral standard that makes a few hundred American victims (including military casualties) a fit subject for detailed reportage and somber reflection but turns tens of thousands of dead Iraqi men, women, and children (including only civilians) into faceless, forgotten road-kill on the masters’ march to world domination. By the same standard that led Madeline Albright to claim that the “price” of 500,000 dead Iraqi children – killed by the aforementioned sanctions (Albright did not contest the youthful body count) – was “worth paying” to advance the noble and humanitarian objectives of America, the “indispensable nation” that “stands taller and sees farther” (Albright) than all other states.
It’s the same vicious and racist standard that renders Palestinian victims of Israeli state terror invisible but elevates Israeli victims of non-state Arab terrorism to the status of full-blown martyrs in the dominant media. This standard makes Rachel Corrie, who died while trying to defend an Arab village from Israeli bulldozers, into a forgotten footnote (in the mainstream) but makes Jessica Lynch, injured while serving (on orders) in a war against Arabs, into a nationally celebrated heroine. It permits US and British policymakers to exempt Arab people from John Stuart Mill’s famous argument in On Liberty ) that people need to fight for their own rights to truly cherish them and that “freedom” imposed by foreigners inevitably reverts to slavery.
It’s all something to think about as Americans continue to ponder that great mysterious question in this new century of war and empire: “Why Do They Hate Us?”
Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher and writer in Chicago, Illinois. He will speak on “State-Run Media: Propaganda and the Manipulation of the Public Mind” at Columbia College’s Hokin Annex on Friday, September 26th