An astonishing lack of awareness of the costs of the war in Iraq
COMMENTARY | June 11, 2009
Michael Massing thinks the American public needs to know a lot more about what the war meant to Iraqi civilians – and particularly how many Iraqis were killed or injured by our troops during the occupation. That's because Americans needs to better understand that when we do go to war, there is a great toll not only our own people but on the population that we're supposedly going to help. Ninth in a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11.
By Dan Froomkin
The dark secrets of the Bush era are not limited to detention, interrogation and surveillance. While the push to investigate the last administration is mostly focused on those areas, there are other topics, including the origins and conduct of the war in Iraq, that also need to be more fully explored.
Michael Massing, the New York Review of Books contributor and author of, among other books, Now They Tell Us: the American Press and Iraq, thinks the public needs and deserves to know a lot more about the conduct of the American military in Iraq – and particularly how many Iraqis were killed and injured by our troops during the occupation.
“The whole subject of the relation between the U.S. military and the Iraqi civilian population is a critical area that has been under-reported,” Massing says -- the biggest issue obviously “being civilian casualties, the number of dead and injured Iraqis at the hands of the U.S. military.”
The military “clearly have kept records on a number of subsets of this,” Massing says. “I would like to see what kinds of records they have.” For instance, Massing is curious about the frequency of checkpoint incidents, a notorious source of accidental deaths. “I would like to know how many people have been killed at checkpoints -- and how many were actual threats and how many were not.”
Then there’s the matter of convoy shootings: “These long processions of military vehicles racing through the streets of Baghdad and other cities have been another major source of grievance for the Iraqi people,” Massing says. Killings and incidents involving private security contractors deserve greater scrutiny as well.
The U.S. military pays compensation to Iraqis for wrongful death and destruction of property. “I’d like to know how much they have paid out and for what types of incidents,” Massing says. He says he’d also like to learn more about the number and types of judicial proceedings brought against U.S. military personnel.
There’s an astonishing lack of awareness of the results of the air war in Iraq, “which as part of the surge we very much stepped up in 2007 and 2008,” Massing says.
The Iraq Body Count Web site has documented somewhere between 92,000 and 100,000 civilian deaths from violence since the 2003 invasion. This is widely considered a gross underestimate, as the site relies heavily on news accounts and therefore does not include fatalities that go unreported. The majority of those listed on the site died at the hand of insurgents and militias in shootings and car bombings. But IBC also tracks deaths by U.S. airstrikes. And according to a recent analysis: “Airstrikes — the most frequent mode of US military attack involving civilian victims — have continued with regularity throughout the surge, killing 252 civilians in 2006 then — in the surge years — 943 in 2007 and 365 in 2008 (by end November).”
Why does Massing think getting this information into the public domain is important? “Because it gets at the whole nature of the cost of war,” he says. With the violence down so dramatically in Iraq, members of the public risk getting lulled into a false sense that the war wasn’t so bad. “Many Americans are not aware to this day of what this war has wrought over there, and what kind of a toll it has taken on the civilian population in Iraq,” Massing says. “People in this country continue to be blithely unaware of how destructive this war is.”
By contrast, he says, when he talks to Iraqis about the past six years, that is what is uppermost in their minds. “They’ve been through six years of hell and every family has either lost somebody or had some traumatic experience happen to them.”
Massing calls attention to a Washington Post opinion piece a few months ago by Philip Bennett, titled What We Don’t Know About Iraq.
“With U.S. forces set to withdraw from Iraq over the next 18 months, does it matter that we know so little about how Iraqis have understood and lived through the war?” Bennett asks. “The invisible connection between the overlapping experiences of Americans and Iraqis -- and the blame, estrangement and hatred that has choked the air between them -- impairs our ability to see what will happen next. It also means that as U.S. officials apply the lessons of the Iraq war to strategy in Afghanistan, they risk missing a central part of the story.”
Says Massing: “This is about documenting the nature of war, and making Americans aware that when we do go to war, there is a great toll not only our own people but on the population that we’re supposedly going to help.”