By Fred Branfman
This article was originally published by AlterNet.
In 1970 a Lao villager who had survived five years of U.S. bombing wrote: "In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer. And as for the others, do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war? Do they?"
Do we? And if we did know about the innocent men, women and children our leaders kill, would it matter? Does it matter that those who justified the Iraqi invasion in the name of the people of Iraq have largely ignored their unimaginable suffering under U.S. occupation, as more than 5 million civilians have been murdered, maimed, made homeless, unjustly imprisoned and tortured—and millions more impoverished? Would war supporters serve themselves and their nation if they wrote about both the humanity and suffering of, say, just 10 Iraqi victims—and sought to convey how each represents at least 500,000 more? Is the suffering our leaders inflict on innocent civilians relevant to deciding whether to support our present war-making in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Would it matter if the N.Y. Times had run daily profiles and photos of Iraqi civilian victims since 2003, as it did of U.S. victims after 9/11?
Such questions are raised by Christopher Hitchens’ recently published best-selling memoir, Hitch-22, in which he proudly claims to have helped cause the invasion of Iraq as the most prominent of a group of war hawks ("by which political Washington was eventually persuaded that Iraq should be helped into a post-Saddam era, if necessary by force”), but entirely ignores the human cost that followed. No one spoke more eloquently of the Iraqi people’s suffering before the invasion. Thus his indifference to it since has been striking.
The key issue is not what this reveals about Hitchens’ soul but about America’s. His memoir epitomizes one of the most chilling phenomena of our time: a growing “nonhumanity” in which our leaders and their supporters claim to wage war on behalf of a foreign people but are largely indifferent to their suffering. (Full disclosure: when Hitchens was writing his book about Henry Kissinger, he interviewed me about Kissinger’s mass murder of Laotian rice-farmers.)
Citizens take on no more solemn role than when they convert a personal opinion into the political act of publicly promoting violence by their nation’s leaders. Debating health care, gay marriage or Wall Street reform is one thing; promoting policies that wind up killing innocent human beings quite another. Whether they acknowledge it or not, those advocating war assume a moral responsibility for its innocent victims. Or, more plainly, they have their blood upon their hands.
This blood can be easily justified in a hypothetical case of "humanitarian intervention," e.g. imagining that Bill Clinton had successfully used military force to stop the Rwandan genocide. It is also easy to justify war when only hated political leaders or groups are discussed: “Saddam Hussein,” “Ahmadinejad,” “the Taliban” – and the civilian population, always the main victims in war, are treated as nonpeople. But an honest evaluation of war in a case like Iraq requires a far more serious moral calculus.
The Immensity of Iraqi Civilian Suffering
Taking seriously one’s responsibility for promoting war in Iraq requires more than simply listing the war’s human benefits, such as removing the genuinely evil Saddam, increased power for the long-suppressed Kurds and Shiites, limited movement toward free elections, a parliamentary democracy and free press. Such benefits must be weighed against the suffering of millions of innocent Iraqis, including:
—Nearly 5 million refugees: “Counting both internal and external refugees, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 5 million of Iraq’s population of 24 million have been uprooted during the conflict,” the N.Y. Review of Books reported on May 13, 2010. This is the equivalent of 60 million Americans by percentage of population. Five-hundred thousand are homeless squatters within Iraq, whose "settlements all lack basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity and are built in precarious places—under bridges, alongside railroad tracks and amongst garbage dumps" according to Refugees International in March 2010. The emigration of 2-3 million Iraqis to refugee camps in Syria and other Mideast countries decimated Iraq’s educated middle class, with some daughters forced to become prostitutes and sons menial laborers just to keep their families alive.
—Hundreds of thousands dead and wounded: Estimates of dead civilians range from 100,000 documented cases by Iraq Body Count, which acknowledged in October 2004 that “our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording” to over one million by a John Hopkins University group. A basic rule of thumb in war is that for every person killed, two have been wounded.
—Tens of thousands of innocents imprisoned, many tortured: In an article headlined "In Iraq, A Prison Full of Innocent Men," the Washington Post reported that "100,000 prisoners have passed through the American-run detention system in Iraq," that Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi says that "most of the people they detain are innocent,” but that prisoners are not permitted to prove their innocence. Conditions have been even worse in the secret torture chambers run for five years by General Stanley McChrystal, from which all outside observers including the Red Cross have been excluded. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald recently reported that "72% of Guantanamo detainees who finally were able to obtain just minimal due process—after years of being in a cage without charges—have been found by federal judges to be wrongfully detained." Countless innocent Iraqis have been regularly tortured.
—Millions more who lack jobs, electricity, water and health care: Reuters reported on June 6 that "according to government statistics cited by the ICRC (the Red Cross), one in four of Iraq’s people does not have access to safe drinking water." The unofficial unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 30 percent, security is shaky, the entire non-oil economy decimated. "As recently as the 1980s, Iraq was self-sufficient in producing wheat, rice, fruits, vegetables, and sheep and poultry products. Its industrial sector exported textiles and leather goods, including purses and shoes, as well as steel and cement. But wars, sanctions, poor management, international competition and disinvestment have left each industry a shadow of its former self," the N.Y. Times has reported. It also reported on June 20 that “(Basra’s) poorer neighborhoods, by far the majority, often have just one hour of electricity a day, a situation not uncommon in Baghdad and other regions. The temperature in Basra on Saturday was 113 degrees.”
War advocates are correct, of course, that much of the responsibility for this suffering rests with Iraqi and Al-Qaeda extremists who have no compunction about inflicting civilian casualties. But this in no way absolves them and the U.S. of their own responsibility for Iraqi civilian suffering, both directly from U.S. war-making and indirectly by the U.S. failing to meet its legal responsibilities as an occupying power to provide security for the civilian population.
Nonhumanity, Not Inhumanity
U.S. leaders killed large numbers of civilians during World War II, of course, in an earlier age of "inhumanity" marked by the depredations of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. But they did so relatively openly. They did not claim, for example, that only “enemy insurgents” were killed at Dresden, and Americans relatively soon learned what had happened at Hiroshima.
It was only as U.S. leaders constructed America’s first global empire after 1945— increasingly waging secret, massive, illegal and unconstitutional bombing campaigns in countries like Laos and Cambodia, refusing to even acknowledge the countless civilian deaths they caused throughout Indochina, failing to help rebuild it after the war, and supporting savage local dictators and policies destroying local economies around the world—that they created a new age of "nonhumanity." By now U.S. leaders’ Third World victims—whom they have neither acknowledged nor made amends for—number in the tens of millions.
We have entered a new Orwellian age in which continuous "fighting ... takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at," and its innocent victims are simply airbrushed out of history. Nothing symbolizes this nonhumanity more than U.S. leaders’ use of the term “collateral damage” to refer to millions of innocent human beings who have as much right to their lives as those who so mercilessly snuff them out. Generals Tommy Franks and Colin Powell say "we don’t do civilians" when asked how many civilians they kill, and their countrymen are so indifferent to civilian murder that no one even asks why not. Who is in a better position to discover how many innocent men, women and children U.S. leaders kill, and help them avoid further civilian murder? The only act more nonhuman than not caring is killing civilians in the first place.
U.S. indifference to civilian suffering is particularly noticeable in the case of "liberal war hawks" who justified the Iraq invasion on humanitarian grounds but then largely ignored its human costs as much as conservatives who do not even claim concern for the civilians they destroy. Slate, for example, asked an online panel of 10 such folks in March 2008—when civilian victims were in the millions—to explain how they had gotten the Iraqi war wrong.
While all but one (Christopher Hitchens: "How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? I Didn’t") acknowledged error, and a number expressed pain over civilian suffering, the reasons listed for their mistakes included misjudging "Bush’s sense of morality," "I wanted to strike back," "I believed the groupthink," “I didn’t realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be,” and the "the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite."
All failed to acknowledge their own moral blindness in failing to imagine what millions of their fellow Americans clearly saw: the havoc that the U.S. war-machine would inevitably wreak on innocent Iraqi civilians whatever its stated intentions or claimed benefits.
U.S. Responsibility For Civilian Suffering in Iraq
One of the panelists – the diplomat Phillip Carter—did, however, make a key point. After explaining how a former Iraqi law professor he worked with was presumably killed by Al-Qaeda, Carter wrote, "I felt guilty for not doing more to protect him. I felt guilty for not doing more … to make Iraq safe.” His words point to the considerable U.S. responsibility for post-invasion civilian suffering, whether caused by its own troops or others. An occupier assumes not only moral but legal responsibility for ensuring the safety of civilians in the zones it occupies. By both disbanding the Iraqi army and not using its own forces to maintain law and order U.S. leaders failed that responsibility, which was thus not merely a “mistake” but a war crime.
And America bears an even greater responsibility for the direct suffering it has caused. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian explored U.S.-inflicted civilian suffering by interviewing 50 American veterans who had fought in Iraq.
Their book Collateral Damage reports how U.S. soldiers, unprepared for urban warfare and understandably terrified, have regularly killed, wounded, arrested and humiliated countless Iraqi civilians—at checkpoints, by driving recklessly in convoys, in early morning searches, and by firing indiscriminately in response to IEDs and enemy fire. "The war in Iraq is now primarily about murder," Hedges writes. "Human beings are machine-gunned and bombed from the air, automatic grenade launchers pepper hovels and neighbors with high-powered explosive devices, and convoys race through Iraq like freight trains of death." U.S. soldiers also revealed how, though this behavior violated official rules of engagement, the rules were ignored and required reports either not filed or falsified.
Collateral Damage and the N.Y. Review of Books article cited above illustrate another key point: Americans can report on civilian suffering if they choose. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has written that "when you see my byline from Kandahar or Kabul or Basra, you should not think that I am out among ordinary people, asking questions of all sides. I am usually inside an American military bubble." But there is nothing stopping him and other war supporters from leaving their bubbles to report on the civilian suffering they helped produce, any more than the N.Y. Times is prevented from taking Iraq’s civilian dead as serious as American ones.
Christopher Hitchens’ Memoirs: A Textbook Case of Non-Humanity
Chris Hedges’ concern for post-invasion civilian suffering contrasts sharply with Hitchens’ memoirs. Ample time has passed for Hitchens to provide a moral reckoning of the human costs and benefits of the invasion, and to apologize to both Iraqi victims and the millions of antiwar Americans whose concerns about post-invasion civilian suffering have proven so much more accurate than his own—and whose personhood he so demeaned with epithets like "moral imbeciles," "noisy morons," "overbred and gutless," "naive" and "foolish."
Hitchens’ memoirs provide a textbook case of nonhumanity. For while proudly bragging of helping cause the invasion, he does not even mention let alone acknowledge responsibility for the civilian suffering to which it led.
He writes movingly, for example, of a fine young American, Mark Daily, who volunteered to fight in Iraq partly because of Hitchens’ pro-war writings and died heroically protecting his fellow-soldiers. But Hitchens does not mention even one of the countless Iraqis who did not volunteer to have their lives destroyed following the invasion he claimed would help them. He properly befriended Daily’s parents, but does not discuss a single Iraqi parent among hundreds of thousands whose loss is equally great.
And he does not even mention the overall scale of Iraqi civilian suffering under U.S. occupation: 5-10 million murdered, maimed, homeless, unjustly imprisoned, tortured and impoverished innocent civilians have all been consigned to the dustbin of his – and America’s —history.
Ignoring post-invasion civilian suffering, of course, also allows Hitchens to avoid his and America’s responsibility for it. He instead admits and then excuses himself for far smaller errors, e.g. writing that "it is here that I ought to make my most painful self-criticisms ... What I should have been asking Wolfowitz was `does the Army Corps of Engineers have a generator big enough to turn the lights of Baghdad back on? … But, not being a professional soldier or quartermaster …I rather tended to assume that things of this practical sort were being taken care of.”
The Iraqi people’s post-invasion agony is also trivialized by Hitchens’ ongoing attempts to blame the “left" for Saddam’s crimes because they failed to rally to his call to invade and occupy Iraq. By that logic any people who hate their leader but do not support being invaded and occupied indefinitely by U.S. troops are responsible for their own misery.
But, in any event, it is obvious that pre-invasion issues are entirely separate from his and America’s responsibility for the unspeakable civilian horror that has followed it. As Iraq Body Count has noted, “Amnesty International… estimated that violent deaths attributable to Saddam’s government numbered at most in the hundreds during the years immediately leading up to 2003. Those wishing to make the "more lives ultimately saved" argument will need to make their comparisons with the number of civilians likely to have been killed had Saddam Hussein’s reign continued into 2003-2004, not in comparison to the number of deaths for which he was responsible in the 1980s and early 1990s.”
We have words to describe the act of seeking moral acclaim for helping an individual whose life one harms – “hypocritical” or “shameless” come to mind. But we lack even the thought-category to describe claiming moral credit for aiding an entire people while ignoring one’s responsibility for the broken lives of millions of them.
Many Americans may find themselves called upon to invent such words in coming years, as the mentality that has treated millions of foreigners as nonpeople increasingly affects American lives at home.
Nonhumanity Abroad, Nonhumanity At Home
In today’s interconnected world, the West ignoring its civilian victims is increasing both terrorism and mass displacements of political and economic refugees. Increased terrorism and anti-illegal immigrant hysteria threaten American lives, political chaos and increasing police-state measures such as the wiretapping of U.S. citizens and Arizona’s recent immigration law. U.S. leaders’ nonhumanity abroad is increasingly affecting domestic security at home.
The most fundamental question for Americans is whether they too will be treated as nonpeople by U.S. elites should America now be entering a period of long economic decline and resulting political instability—as has already occurred for those homeowners tricked out of their life savings by Wall Street. Will America respond to hard times as it did in the 1930s by expanding the safety net, taxing the rich and spending to combat unemployment? Or will its elites move to secure their own wealth and respond to the protests this will inevitably create with harsh measures?
Any American who tries to look at U.S. leaders from the perspective of a Lao refugee, an innocent Iraqi prisoner, a Haitian slum-dweller or a Helmand housewife terrorized at the prospect of the next U.S. offensive, can only shudder at such questions.
U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. JoAnn S. Makinano
The remains of an overpass in Mosul, Iraq. This photo was taken roughly five years after the U.S. invasion.