January 3, 2012
By JOHN TIRMAN
THE end of the Iraq war occasioned few reflections on the scale of destruction we have wrought there. As is our habit, the discussion focused on the costs to America in blood and treasure, the false premises of the war and the continuing challenges of instability in the region. What happened to Iraqis was largely ignored. And in Libya, the recent investigation of civilian casualties during NATO’s bombing campaign was the first such accounting of what many believed was a largely victimless war.
We rarely question that wars cause extensive damage, but our view of America’s wars has been blind to one specific aspect of destruction: the human toll of those who live in war zones.
We tune out the voices of the victims and belittle their complaints about the midnight raids, the house-to-house searches, the checkpoints, the drone attacks, the bombs that fall on weddings instead of Al Qaeda.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks famously said during the early days of the war in Afghanistan, “We don’t do body counts.” But someone should. What we learn from body counts tells us much about war and those who wage it.
More than 10 years after the war in Afghanistan began, we have only the sketchiest notion of how many people have died as a consequence of the conflict. The United Nations office in Kabul assembles some figures from morgues and other sources, but they are incomplete. The same has been true for Iraq, although a number of independent efforts have been made there to account for the dead.
But such numbers, which run into the hundreds of thousands, gain scant attention. American political and military leaders, like the public, show little interest in non-American casualties.
Denial, after all, is politically convenient. Failing to consider the mortality figures, the refugees, the impoverished, the demolished hospitals and clean water systems and schools is to deny, in effect, that the war ever happened.
The American military cannot afford to be so cavalier about the dynamics of war. The consequences of how we fight wars reveals a great deal about how and why others fight us.
In Iraq, for example, the causes of the Sunni resistance were often attributed to lost social status; the role of American violence against civilians early in the conflict was rarely discussed. Yet many of the captured Iraqis said they were defending their communities by resisting the occupying forces. Roughing up, detaining or killing suspected enemy fighters — as the coalition forces did in countless operations — prompted some Iraqis to take up the gun, the I.E.D. and the suicide bomb. The more violence from the occupiers, the more ferocious their reaction.
Gen. David H. Petraeus recognized this and sought to reform Army practice. In a field manual he co-authored in 2006, he explained that when “forces fail to provide security or threaten the security of civilians, the population is likely to seek security guarantees from insurgents, militias or other armed groups. This situation can feed support for an insurgency.”
In several opinion polls, Iraqis identified American forces as the primary cause of the violence besetting their country. And although the violence of war and occupation was a proximate cause of the Iraqi resistance, we have few metrics to understand its scope. WikiLeaks released military documents in October 2010 that included accounts of Iraqi fatalities, but such reports are incomplete and sometimes biased, and they reflect only what the troops actually witnessed. News media reports are similarly limited. And our political and military leaders barely consider these numbers anyway.
They dwell instead in a make-believe world of vastly less mayhem, oblivious to what actually besets the civilian population. In 2006, two separate household surveys, by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, found between 400,000 and 650,000 “excess deaths” in Iraq as a result of the war. At the time, however, the commanding general in Iraq put the number at 50,000 and President Bush had claimed in late 2005 that it was just 30,000.
If our leaders are unwilling to grasp the scale of death and social disruption, and the meaning of this chaos for the local population, then American war efforts are likely to end badly and relationships with allies will become strained, as has happened with President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
Mr. Karzai’s repeated complaints about NATO actions that cause civilian casualties are often dismissed in the West as political posturing, but his persistence on this issue indicates how deeply it resonates with Afghans. While we dismiss it, Muslims around the world take note.
Ignoring the extent of civilian casualties and the damage they cause is a moral failing as well as a strategic blunder. We need to adopt reliable ways to measure the destruction our wars cause — an “epistemology of war,” as another general, William Tecumseh Sherman, called it — to break through the collective amnesia that has gripped us.
If we do not demand a full accounting of the wages of war, future failures are all the more likely — and warranted.
John Tirman, the executive director of the Center for International Studies at M.I.T., is the author of “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.”