– Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars? (Washington Post, Jan. 6, 2012):
As the United States officially ended the war in Iraq last month, President Obama spoke eloquently at Fort Bragg, N.C., lauding troops for “your patriotism, your commitment to fulfill your mission, your abiding commitment to one another,” and offering words of grief for the nearly 4,500 members of the U.S. armed forces who died in Iraq. He did not, however, mention the sacrifices of the Iraqi people.
This inattention to civilian deaths in America’s wars isn’t unique to Iraq. There’s little evidence that the American public gives much thought to the people who live in the nations where our military interventions take place. Think about the memorials on the Mall honoring American sacrifices in Korea and Vietnam. These are powerful, sacred spots, but neither mentions the people of those countries who perished in the conflicts.
The major wars the United States has fought since the surrender of Japan in 1945 — in Korea, Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan — have produced colossal carnage. For most of them, we do not have an accurate sense of how many people died, but a conservative estimate is at least 6 million civilians and soldiers.
Our lack of acknowledgment is less oversight than habit, a self-reflective reaction to the horrors of war and an American tradition that goes back decades. We consider ourselves a generous and compassionate nation, and often we are. From the Asian tsunami in 2004 toHurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Americans have been quick to open their pocketbooks and their hearts.
However, when it comes to our wars overseas, concern for the victims is limited to U.S. troops. When concern for the native populations is expressed, it tends to be more strategic than empathetic, as with Gen. David H. Petraeus’s acknowledgment in late 2006 that harsh U.S. tactics were alienating Iraqi civilians and undermining Operation Iraqi Freedom. The switch to counterinsurgency, which involves more restraint by the military, was billed as a change that would save the U.S. mission, not primarily as a strategy to reduce civilian deaths.
The wars in Korea and Indochina were extremely deadly. While estimates of Korean War deaths are mainly guesswork, the three-year conflict is widely believed to have taken 3 million lives, about half of them civilians. The sizable civilian toll was partly due to the fact that the country’s population is among the world’s densest and the war’s front lines were often moving.
The war in Vietnam and the spillover conflicts in Laos and Cambodia were even more lethal. These numbers are also hard to pin down, although by several scholarly estimates, Vietnamese military and civilian deaths ranged from 1.5 million to 3.8 million, with the U.S.-led campaign in Cambodia resulting in 600,000 to 800,000 deaths, and Laotian war mortality estimated at about 1 million.
Despite the fact that contemporary weapons are vastly more precise, Iraq war casualties, which are also hard to quantify, have reached several hundred thousand. In mid-2006, two household surveys — the most scientific means of calculating — found 400,000 to 650,000 deaths, and there has been a lot of killing since then. (The oft-cited Iraq Body Count Web site mainly uses news accounts, which miss much of the violence.)
The war in Afghanistan has been far less violent than the others, with civilian and military deaths estimated at about 100,000.
The numbers can be confusing because some estimates include only those people killed by direct violence; others include deaths from “structural” violence — such as those resulting from a destroyed health-care system. That we do not have an official way of accounting for the dead is one sign of the uncaring attitudes that have accompanied our wars.
It is difficult to obtain accurate mortality figures during wartime, but the best way might be to commission a consortium of public health schools — the most qualified institutions that study violence — to conduct household surveys every year.
The lack of concern about those who die in U.S. wars is also shown by these civilians’ absence, in large part, from our films, novels and documentaries. The entertainment industry portrays these wars rarely and almost always with a focus on Americans.
A few nonprofit organizations have sprung up to deal with the wars’ victims — notably the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a Washington-based group founded by Marla Ruzicka, an aid worker who was killed in Iraq in 2005. Such efforts rarely register with the American public, however.
Pollsters, meanwhile, have asked virtually no questions of the public about foreign casualties. But on the rare occasions when they do, the results have been striking. A 1968 Harris poll found 4 percent favored an end to the Vietnam war because of harm to civilians. A University of Michigan pollster concluded: “More and more Americans now think our intervention was a military mistake, and want to forget the whole thing.”
On Iraq, when an Associated Press survey asked Americans in early 2007how many Iraqis had died in the war, the average of all answers was 9,890, when the actual number was probably well into the hundreds of thousands. In several polls in 2007 and 2008, Americans were asked whether we should withdraw troops even if it put Iraqis at risk of more civil unrest; a clear majority said yes.
Today there is virtually no support for helping rebuild Iraq or Afghanistan — no campaigns by large charities, no open doors for Iraqi refugees. Even Iraqis who worked with the American military are having trouble getting political asylum in the United States and face a risk of retribution at home. The U.S. response to so many dead, 5 million displaced and a devastated country is woefully dismissive.
Even civilian atrocities tend to fade quickly from view, or else become rallying points for the accused troops. My Lai, where about 400 Vietnamese were murdered by a U.S. Army unit in 1968, at first shocked the nation, but Americans quickly came to support Lt. William L. Calley Jr. — who was later found guilty of killing 22villagers — and the others involved. More recently, eight Marines were charged in the 2005 Haditha massacre in Iraq, and none has been convicted. (The last defendant’s trial started this past week.) Indeed, each atrocity that fails to alter public opinion piles on to further prove American indifference.