The Politics of Disregard (III)
Posted on October 28, 2012
Meanwhile, our wars abroad haven’t fared any better. Allow me to turn to something I wrote (but never published) over a year ago, my own feeble attempt at an accounting. Keep in mind, to date, the numbers in blood have only increased:
In Iraq, even the most conservative of the civilian death estimates have now surpassed 100,000. Iraq Body Count (IBC), the source for most of the newspapers’ sums, claims as such, with the caveat that the reality is probably twice as unhappy.+ The British NGO only includes civilians killed by violence who can be found in English-speaking media or morgue records. Seeing that English-language reporters can only cover a sliver of the landscape at any given hour, combined with the fact officials fail to label many deceased Iraqis as civilians, one can imagine the level of miscalculation. Furthermore, all of this only deals with deaths by way of violence. Nonviolent death, part and parcel of the breakdown of infrastructure, is also significant, and unaccounted for. The most reliable tallies derive from household surveys and other epidemiological methods, the thrust of which indicates civilian deaths above 200,000, and an all-around mortality rate higher than the averages preceding the March 2003 invasion. What our politicians, military leaders and media refer to as “collateral damage” exploits euphemism at its worst. Civilian casualties are not “collateral” but central to contemporary warfare, and the “damage” hardly suggests a tree branch smashing into a second-story windowpane.
Then there is the question of displacement. Almost five million Iraqis, a quarter of the non-Kurdish population in Iraq, were forced into either external or internal refugee status. A sizable portion fled their homes in haste, meaning most of their belongings were gifted to the vultures. The exodus into surrounding cities like Damascus, Amman, Cairo, Tehran, and even Europe, amounted to one of the largest refugee movements since World War Two. In the words of Tirman, “By the end of 2006, Baghdad had largely been ethnically cleansed.” Of those young women escaping Iraq, many turned to (or were forced into) prostitution and sex trafficking, with an estimated 50,000 Iraqi girls serving time as sex workers in Damascus and throughout Syria, and further thousands being herded like cattle to Dubai and then off to Europe and beyond. This says nothing of those raped by our own troops, a small number, and hardly at the levels seen during the Vietnam War, but a chilling reality nonetheless.
During the initial stages of the war, over 100,000 Iraqi men and boys were violently seized and cuffed in their homes, in the presence of their loved ones, and detained in prisons for indefinite days and months, without any evidence of insurgent or criminal involvement. As one two-star Army general put it during a 2006 Congressional hearing, “Probably 99 percent of those people were guilty of absolutely nothing, but the way we treated them, the way we abused them, turned them against the effort in Iraq forever.” Throughout 2003 and 2004, when IEDs were first beginning to rear their awful heads, rules of engagement in Iraq grew so lax, anyone with a cell phone or any other ostensible detonator could be assaulted, and when an explosion actually ensued, troops would unleash fury on whatever or whoever was within shooting distance. Iraqi vehicles and pedestrians were regularly run off roads by American convoys, and if traffic proved unrelenting, convoys themselves would off-road, clearing whatever populations and markets were in their path, sometimes leading to further injury. The most ghastly civilian casualties, however, took place at the checkpoints marking up the Iraqi countryside, the decisive result of the language barrier and other cultural misreads.
At Guernica, J. Malcolm Garcia covered the health consequences, to civilians and military, of hundreds of “burn pits” housed on bases across Iraq and Afghanistan, something I’m familiar with myself, having ensured a team of my Marines relocate their quarters after discovering they’d been sleeping next door to barrels of smoldering feces. Many returning service members and contractors have already been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, and I can only surmise the effects on Iraqis and Afghans who do not enjoy the luxury of returning home after six-month to fifteen-month tours.
There is also Sarah Stillman’s reporting in the 6 June issue of The New Yorker, which hones in on the plight of civilians from around the world who are being enmeshed in our wars of choice. The piece exposes a network of Department of Defense contractors, sub-contractors, and sub-sub-contractors, flowing downstream to a swampy estuary of “manpower agencies,” many of which are included in the U.S. State Department’s human-trafficking non-compliance list, many of which are dealing in indentured servitude, all of which are doing business on the American taxpayer’s dime. One of the hapless women profiled asks, “They call this Operation Iraqi Freedom, but where is our freedom?”
In Afghanistan, the darkest times may lie ahead, though the recent past isn’t worth celebrating. Despite involving fewer troops than the Iraq War, and despite abiding by more stringent, NATO-enforced rules of engagement, civilians still have suffered considerably. The numbers are foggier than in Iraq, since no mortality or casualty studies have taken place, but by employing the rudimentary tools at one’s disposal, namely reports from news media, NGOs, government, military, and occasional morgue filings, rough estimates are available, with war-related civilian deaths (violent and nonviolent) ranging from 15,000 to 35,000, of which 9,000 are suspected to have been killed from direct U.S. action.++
Whereas the violence visited on innocent Afghans has paled in comparison to the havoc unleashed in Iraq, the greatest tragedy in Operation Enduring Freedom lies in its former promise, particularly concerning the rights of women. As one journalist reported from Kabul, “While attacks on girls’ schools and targeted assassinations of Afghan women in public office are attributed to the widening influence of insurgents, there have also been setbacks in the protection and promotion of Afghan women’s rights within Afghanistan’s legal framework,” to include parliament-enabled measures reverting the Afghan household back to it’s most extreme form of patriarchy. As widely reported, corruption has also steadily increased in the Karzai government, putting the nation at the bottom of the heap in all global rankings concerning political transparency.+++ Corruption and proficiency is so piss-poor, in fact, residents are placing their faith in Taliban justice instead.
Another disturbing failure has been in the realm of indigenous security, something I can attest to, having observed in person the lack of purpose on the part of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The insurgent attack on the Intercontinental Hotel, in which the police reportedly fled the scene with the very civilians they were charged with protecting, strikes most spectators as ominous. As one Afghan man present at the scene exclaimed, “The security forces cannot even protect a few people inside the hotel. How can they protect the whole country?” Another Afghan was quoted as saying, “Now we are hearing about a security transition to Afghan forces. If they give security responsibility to the current government at 10:00 a.m., the government will collapse around 12 noon. They cannot live without foreigners.” America is charting its own odyssey down the strait of Messina, with the Scylla of endless war taunting her on one end and the Charybdis of a tragic retreat reeling her in on the other. Such is the flow of 21st-century empire. Or, as Tirman phrases it, “The extension of ‘freedom,’ then, is chimerical: it is not entirely wanted, it comes in often-coercive forms, it aids and abets corruption and inequality, and it is forced by a very long war. The frontier turns out to be a complex and resistant place.”
None of this has broached the more publicized crimes and misdemeanors resulting from our two wars, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to the “kill team” in Iraq to the “kill company” in Afghanistan, whose misdeeds have hurried about the international “main street” ether, rightly or wrongly, like the anti-Soviet Samizdat of yore.++++ And then, finally, there are our own. As of last counting, there have been 1752 American military men and women killed in Afghanistan, 991 coalition partners lost. As for Iraq, 4,474 American servicemen and women, 318 coalition partners, are dead. Thousands more are limbless, marred, both inside and out.
Of late, there are the US-sponsored sanctions on Iran, which amount to one of the few policies on which both liberals and conservatives openly unite. This, despite the great suffering incurred, and the bolstering of the regime that always follows. The discourse (or lack thereof) on the morality and advisability of our drone campaign displays a similar dynamic. In a rare instant of mainstream press sophistication, Joe Scarborough brought liberal pundit Joe Klein to task for his cavalier defense of war by distant “joystick.” The only thing more disconcerting than Klein’s comments are Mika Brzezinski’s facial expressions, which betray shock at her co-host’s impolitic moralism:
+I’m culling the majority of what follows from John Tirman’s The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. Tirman’s narrative of America’s “collective autism” effectively chips away at the pervasive notion that American violence, more often than not, vindicates itself, and serves as a stark warning for doomed wars ahead. Of course, one would hope the awful record of the past decade would be encouragement enough to guard against such future perils.
++This is coming straight from The Deaths of Others, which concerns figures “through the first half of 2010,” the obvious inference being more civilians have been killed since. According to Dexter Filkins in the 4 July 2011 issue of The New Yorker, violence in Afghanistan has increased 15 percent from summer 2010 levels. See the New York Times 29 July feature “States of Conflict: An Update” for a later death count.
+++The Iraq government isn’t doing much better on this front. On the Transparency International’s 2011 ranking of public-sector corruption, Iraq fell at 175 out of 183 countries and territories.
++++I would be remiss without adding (retroactively) the Sergeant Bales massacre to the list.