John Tirman interview

As Executive Director of the Center for International Studies at MIT, John Tirman commissioned what is popularly known as the 2006 Lancet Study, which found 655,000 Iraqis had died because of the 2003 US/UK invasion and subsequent occupation. In London in November 2011, Tirman spoke to Ian Sinclair from Peace News about his new book The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Ian Sinclair: What is the main argument of the book
John Tirman: I am interested in two things. One is what happens to civilians during wartime. How many are killed? How many are displaced? Why does it happen? What is US policy towards civilians in wartime? The second part is about the American public reaction to high civilian mortality, and civilian misery in general. 

IS: How many civilians have died in the three wars you focus on in the book – the Korean War (1950-3), the Indochina Wars (1964-75) and the Iraq war (1991-present)?
JT: One of the things I found was that in Korea and Vietnam the estimates of mortality, whether of military personnel or civilians, is guesswork. They ranged widely. The accepted number for Korea is three million with perhaps 50%-70% civilians. But like most of these things somebody makes an estimate and it gets repeated over and over again until it becomes conventional wisdom even though there is no empirical basis for the original number. Those numbers are based on taking things we do know about – the number of soldiers that have been killed, which we do know fairly well, some general morgue counts in major cities, and then military, civilian officials and academics extrapolate from these and arrive at a number. In Vietnam a little bit more work has been done retrospectively, with some analysts going back to do more analysis after the war was over. So we have a more accurate estimate. Still it ranges very broadly from two million to four million total dead, of which probably 80% were civilians. We have a much better idea of how many people died in Iraq but it’s still contested of course. If you take the numbers from the Lancet mortality survey in 2006, 655,000 dead, we don’t really know how many of those are civilians but it would likely be 70%-80%. 

IS: Why are the American public indifferent to the civilian casualties in the countries US forces fight in?
JT: I present a set of ideas – I don’t think it constitutes a theory – that combines three different things. One is racism, the most obvious cause of indifference. It has been shown clinically that people care less about people from another race than they do about themselves. That’s been shown in a number of different ways. And of course the three wars that I talk about all took place in Asia, so racism plays into it but I think it doesn’t come close to accounting for the vast indifference of the American public towards these populations. So I looked a little deeper and two other explanations suggested themselves.

One is about America’s place in the world – the frontier myth. This has been developed mainly by a cultural historian called Richard Slotkin, who has done a very extensive three volume text which is a major piece of cultural analysis of America. In other contexts it’s called ‘American Exceptionalism’ or ‘Manifest Destiny’. It’s the idea that America’s role is exceptional, that we confront and tame the wilderness, subdue the savage and reap the bounty of the wilderness. It started with the English Puritans and it became the standard way of white European settlers to look at the conquest of the North American continent. Slotkin shows in great detail how this keeps being reinforced as the national narrative of the United States. Then when the frontier closed, when all the land was more of less settled and all the indigenous tribes were subdued, people like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson basically extended it to the rest of the world, using the same imagery and the same ideology to go first to the Philippines, and then other places. They were mainly interested in China actually, although they never quite got there. You see this language being used all the time. The ‘Cowboys and Indians’ language. George Bush was called a cowboy. It is very deeply embedded in American culture. It is also taken up very avidly by the military – that ‘we’ are the Cowboys and ‘they’ are the Indians, and all kind of assumptions go with this, including dehumanisation, the ‘savages’ and so on. So that’s another important piece, but again it’s not totally satisfying. 

Third is a more speculative theory that I apply – the so-called Just World Theory, a set of theories that were developed in social psychology in the 1960s going forward. I think it’s a very compelling explanation for indifference, which can be illustrated by one example. You are walking down the street and you see someone begging and that person may or may not look like they need to beg. What’s your reaction? This has been tested many times in a lab. Most people will be completely indifferent and ignore the beggar. A small number of people will give the beggar something. A much larger number will actually have feelings of hostility towards the beggar. They have hostility because they believe in the world that we live in there shouldn’t be any beggars. They should be taken care of, they can work, they can get public assistance of some kind. There is no reason to be on the street begging. So they transfer the blame for what is happening to the beggar rather than blaming society at large. This is a very simply example but it can be taken to a much larger scale. I think this Just World Theory applies very, very neatly to war. How this applies to war is that at the outset of each war the American public, according to public opinion surveys, felt the mission was correct. This is part and parcel with American’s role in the world – it is orderly, it is rational, it was going to have a good outcome. Very quickly the wars went badly and at that point the American public began to not only oppose the war and say it was a mistake, but also to show no interest in the wars victims. The carnage, the violence, the bad outcome – all is too much for us to accept as part and parcel of what our world should be. It goes to the extent of actually blaming the victim. You see this in the public opinion responses but also in the news media and other public expressions. I would see people saying at the height of the violence in Iraq in 2006-2007, “we’ve given them every chance to succeed, we got rid of Saddam, we brought democracy, and look what they are doing?”That, to me, was a manifestation of blaming the victim. It came in other ways too, like in polling that showed Americans felt Iraqis were ungrateful for what we had done for them. It’s a little bit speculative to apply these Just World theories, which were developed for individual and small group responses, to a society and an entire war, but I checked in with a few people who work in this field and they said they thought it was applicable. In order to verify this hunch it would take a lot of survey work. We don’t have any surveys that ask the question about caring about the populations we go to war with. Nothing direct. A few questions here and there give indications, and most of the indications show indifference is the prevailing sentiment. 

IS: What is the role and importance of mainstream news media in this process?
JT: It’s complicated. On the one hand the news media is subject to the same psychological and cultural biases and tendencies that the general public is. So there is no reason the news media should be better about this than any other institution or the general public. There are a couple of interesting findings. There is an argument, particularly on the left, in which the American news media is too willing to accept the Government’s position on the war, not willing or having the resources to challenge the Government’s case, too enamoured of the spectacle of war itself. That was certainly true in the run up to the Iraq War. You have had some very brave journalists reporting from Iraq, Vietnam and Afghanistan, who do terrific reporting from the field, and it’s valuable reporting, but it’s not critical reporting. It’s not questioning the mission, it’s not asking why things are going the way they are, it’s just describing how things are going the way they are. But even if you have 20 great journalists in a place like Iraq you are not really covering much of what is going on. 

At the beginning of the Iraq War particularly, there was a willingness to believe in the mission and accept the Government’s position, and then when it was apparent there was no weapons of mass destruction the critical journalism was focussed on that story and that story alone. How was the intelligence manipulated or lead to conclusions about weapons that didn’t exist, and lead to war? Whereas there was something else going on at the same time which was a war in which a lot of people were dying and being displaced, losing their hospitals, losing their schools, losing clean water and sewage and so on. That story wasn’t being reported. Journalism and the news media generally – it’s not that they are acting perniciously – are making choices with limited resources. It was very hard to report from Iraq. It was very dangerous. At the same time the newspaper industry was declining rapidly. For example, my hometown newspaper the Boston Globe, which used to be at one time a very good newspaper with international coverage with bureaus all over the world and had reporters in Iraq, over time it almost went bankrupt and had to pull out all its international reporting. So there was a combination of things that led to simply a hole in the reporting. The hole was about what was happening to the civilian populations. That’s not to say there was never a story. There would be stories about what was happening to civilians a little bit but it was mostly about sectarian strife, the Sunni versus Shia conflict, it was about the lack of services being restored, and the oppressive heat and the electricity being off, livelihoods being disrupted because of Saddam’s state. But very rarely in the context of casualties of war in the most direct sense – violence meted out by Coalition forces and so on. Very, very few articles like that. And when things got really violent the American news media could never leave Baghdad. So we had no picture of the rest of the country. This is my principle methodological critique of Iraq Body Count. If you are reliant on press reports and the press are stuck in Baghdad you don’t know how many people are being killed. 

There is one little factoid that I think is interesting. In the many experiments that have been done on Just World Theory and similar related theories, one of them showed that more information can lead to more indifference. There is a view, mainly of the anti-war critics, that the press failed because they didn’t give enough information. One of the main things cited is that Bush wouldn’t allow the coffins of returning dead soldiers to be photographed at Dover Airforce base, as if this would have changed the minds of the American public. Maybe it would have. But the experiment about information seemed to indicate that more information does not necessarily lead to more caring. And can actually have the opposite effect. In the end you could say there was a lack of stories about civilians but that does not necessarily equate with the causes of indifference because you could have better reporting and still have indifference. 

IS: If, as you write, “the assertion… that the US military is constrained with regard to civilians because they would be chastised by American public opinion is simply not supported by the evidence” (p. 364) why does the US government and military spend so much money and time on wartime propaganda and public relations? For example, the 2004 Program on International Policy Attitudes poll you cite in the book found “those who estimate higher levels of Iraqi civilian casualties are more likely to say that the decision to go to war was wrong”.

JT: The problem with applying the Just World Theory to war is that the information and environment of a war is much, much more complex than simple experiments. In order to really understand this relationship between the amount and kind of information and attitudes you need a lot more experimentation. And we don’t have that. A war has multiple sources of information. Nowadays, as opposed to the Korean War where there were three networks and maybe five or six major newspapers, you have hundreds if not thousands of sources of information. So different people get information from different places. It’s a more complex environment. But there was another poll in the Vietnam period, the Detroit Area Survey done by the University of Michigan, which asked people if they opposed the war, and if they did oppose the war, asked them why they opposed the war. And I think about one percent of the opponents of the war cited Vietnamese casualties as a reason to oppose the war. Overall the tendency is for Americans not to show a great deal of sympathy for the populations at risk. But as I say it’s speculative. 

IS: What are the consequences for the US of what you call the “collective autism” of its population?         
JT: The reputational cost for the United States most obviously, although Americans don’t seem to care about reputational costs in the rest of the world. Anecdotally I’ve talked to a lot of Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Africans and so on, and they are very tuned in to the scale of destruction. The military should be more interested in civilian casualties because it tells them a lot about how the war is going. You need to be able to understand what is happening on the ground to conduct a successful war, no matter what the mission is. So there indifference is really perplexing, and they are indifferent as far as I can tell. But I think the main danger is a political one, which is that indifference toward civilian suffering gives a license to politicians to do it again. We are already beginning to see this in respect to Iraq. Most mainstream political figures, policy analysts, journalists consider the Iraq adventure to be basically a foreign policy disaster. There are degrees of how they feel but there is pretty much a consensus view in the centre and further to the left. But in the hardcore neo-con right they are trying to turn this into a victory by simply declaring it a victory. The argument goes like this: A few tens of thousands of civilians died, this was unfortunate, but it’s war. Saddam Hussein was vanquished and that was worth it and this is a victory. I think that is really dangerous thinking. And I do think, in terms of the public assessing a war’s rightness, advisability, the scale of mayhem matters. So if you ask the average person “Was it the right decision to go into Iraq if 50,000 people died?”, and then ask the same question with one million people dying, you would get some significant variation. 

IS: Your book is exclusively interested in the American understanding of civilian casualties. Could your analysis be applied to the UK?
JT: We are talking about a human reaction, not a national reaction but I think that it could. If I had more time I would have done at least a chapter on probably Britain and France. The French in Algeria is particularly interesting because it is similar to the wars I look at. I do think that there are slightly different attitudes about the use of violence. I think for the British and French, to some extent, violence is viewed instrumentally as a means to an end – colonial dominance etc. Picking up on Slotkin’s analysis, in America violence isn’t viewed instrumentally but as something that is morally regenerative. It is on the frontier where democratic values are forged and violence is inevitably a part of what happens on the frontier because you have to subdue the savage. So there is a moral essence to it that it is very important to how this is viewed. I think this has made it easier to engage in these wars at the outset. After 9/11 there was this language of needing to renew ourselves, make ourselves more manly – Susan Faludi did a brilliant job sorting this out in her book The Terror Dream. The language of post-9/11 which carried over into Iraq wasn’t just the language of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ but it was talking about how we had gone soft, how we had become too distracted by our luxuries, our popular culture and how we needed to reaffirm the essence of being American. A lot of it had implications about our need and willingness to commit violence abroad. I think America is more enamoured with violence than Britain or France. Partly because we haven’t had a war fought on our soil for so long. But the reaction to not want to be involved in the carnage that you as a nation are involved in is probably a very human reaction. In respect to the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti, Americans were very keen and willing to give money and attention – but we had nothing to do with these events. I think there is a divide between natural disasters and war. Less sympathy about war because war has agency, natural disasters, for the most part, do not. Since I finished the book there has been this Libyan adventure which was predicated on saving civilians. Now it wasn’t a particularly war in the United States, and it wasn’t anywhere near the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan but I thought it was interesting we could predicate a war on the whole notion of saving civilians. It’s something we hadn’t done before so explicitly. 

IS: What can concerned citizens and activists do to change this indifference?
JT: Like a lot of problems in society, the first step is to recognise there is a problem. That’s what my book sets out to do. We are really not paying attention to the problem. It’s completely absent from political discourse and media coverage. So I didn’t feel that it was incumbent of me to also give a solution but I guess there is a solution, with an academic approach, which is to find out more about the hypotheses that I’ve put on the table. From an activist standpoint, let me put it two different ways. As an activist doing anti-war activism you need to appeal to the public and where their attitudes are right now. It’s too much for relatively small movements to change attitudes about everything to do with war. That’s why, during the Vietnam War, the large anti-war movements in the United States focused on the number of Americans being killed in Vietnam as a way of turning the American public against the war. But I think it would be helpful, in general, to raise the issue of the human cost of war more forcefully. I say this knowing the American peace movement, or atleast the critics of the Iraq war, were rarely doing this over the last eight years. The money? Yes, they would talk about the cost – Joseph Stiglitz came out with his figure that it would cost three trillion dollars. And there has been a very careful count of how many American soldiers were dying, although interestingly not counting all Americans who died in Iraq because there were many Americans there who weren’t soldiers, such as contractors, state department bureaucrats, aid workers and so on. But even the critics of the war did not come to terms with the scale of destruction with of the war. 

I will wager that as the US military withdraws from Iraq we will not see any stories about the actual destruction of Iraq. There will be stories about the American soldiers coming home, and what happens to the bases, and post-traumatic stress syndrome, the financial cost and so on, but I bet you there is very little attention to what is the major consequence of the war, which is the total destruction of Iraq. It is a smoking ruin. We just don’t want to discuss it. And this is where I would really exhort the peace movement, this is where being a dissident really matters – raising questions that the mainstream news media and politicians and policy analysts won’t raise. The issues of moral concern should be the issues the peace movement are raising. Will it matter in the long-run about whether we have another war? I don’t know. But I do think, and I make this point in the introduction in the book, one of the reasons that makes it a topic nobody wants to discuss, in addition to indifference, is that people know it is a morally fraught topic. Even failure in war is more acceptable than going out and killing a lot of innocent people. That’s one reason why there was such a reaction to that second Lancet article from the pro-war crowd. I think it was because they knew it was a sensitive topic and they were afraid of the topic because what the Hopkins research basically said was more people have died in the Iraq war than Saddam Hussein ever killed himself, which was a morally unacceptable thing for the pro-war people. There is some political traction but you do have to overcome indifference. And I’m not sure how that is done tactically. Talking about it until it becomes an acceptable point of discussion becomes important. The only analogy I can make is the efforts in the former Communist states, Guatemala, Germany and so on to set up truth and reconciliation committees. People in these countries had to be forced to talk about these things but once they began to talk about it very interesting public conversations began to ensue. You have to force the stuff out on the table. It’s like a family that doesn’t want to talk about the uncle that is raping the niece. Nobody wants to talk about it for a sane psychological reason. But once it’s out in the open then maybe something can be done about it.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He can be found at!/IanJSinclair and at  

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