It’s one of the essential tenets of the new age of humanitarian war that war is not as bad as it used to be, or at least that it’s not so bad that the costs outweigh the gains. War, or western war at least, is no longer the grim rider on the pale horse, bringing chaos, death and random destruction. High-tech precision weapons, precision targeting enabled by lawyers, new ethical norms, population-centric counterinsurgency – all this has made it possible to vaporise the bad guys only, neatly severing the infrastructural linkages that hold rogue states and dictatorships together, so that the whole business is over before anyone even realises it.
Once this is accepted then it becomes natural for powerful countries equipped with this weaponry to think of war as a first choice rather than a last resort, and also to convince their populations that war will not only be cost-free for them, but that its effects on the countries on the receiving end of it will also be minimal and ultimately beneficial. This is what we have been told ever since the US invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War and throughout the last fourteen years of the ‘war on terror,’ whenever the US and its allies are considering who next to bomb.
Once of the ways in which these governments have attempted to ensure popular acceptance is by ignoring or downplaying any evidence that contradicts this new mythology of war. Last month a joint report Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror’ produced by the medical-political peace organization Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War concluded that 1.3 million people have died as a direct or indirect of wars fought in three main theatres of war in Iraq (1 million), Afghanistan (220,000) and Pakistan (80,000).
These figures do not include the death toll in other countries where western military operations have taken place in Yemen, Somalia and Libya. They are nevertheless way higher than any calculations made by the US or any of its allies, or the much lower figures from ‘passive’ reporting of casualties based solely on reported combat deaths in the media of the type that Iraq Body Count (IBC) has specialised in.
The report also claims that 1.3 million is a ‘conservative estimate’ and that the real figure globally may be as high as 2 million. These statistics not only include victims of violence perpetrated by the different state and non-state protagonists involved in these conflicts; they also consider those who have died as a result of the indirect consequences of these wars, such as hunger or malnutrition, lack of clean water, medicine and access to hospitals, a deterioration in living conditions, diseases caused or intensified by the destruction of infrastructure, and weaponry containing toxic materials.
I am not an epidemiologist or a statistician, so I am not in a position to pass a verdict on the quality of the methodology involved in this research, but if respected and internationally-recognized medical organizations and professionals reach conclusions like this, then I am certainly going to take them seriously unless I have a very good reason not to do so.
One might also expect, in democratic societies, that governments, political parties and journalists would also want to consider and evaluate these findings too, because if they are accurate then they call the whole notion of a ‘humanitarian’ war against ‘terror’ into question. They might also be a starting point for a wider debate about the justifications and rationalisations for the great swathe of global violence unleashed in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Yet the response to the Body Count report has been almost total silence. No US or British government official has commented on the report or referred to it. The mainstream media has not mentioned it either. The report has only been picked up by the usual suspects (RT, Telesur, Press tv), and various leftist or antiwar Internet sources. This silence is not entirely surprising. As the report notes:
‘A politically useful option for U.S. political elites has been to attribute the on-going violence to internecine conflicts of various types, including historical religious animosities, as if the resurgence and brutality of such conflicts is unrelated to the destabilization caused by decades of outside military intervention. As such, underreporting of the human toll attributable to ongoing Western interventions, whether deliberate, or through self-censorship, has been key to removing the “fingerprints” of responsibility.’
This is absolutely right. Because for our governments, there can be no such fingerprints. Our wars are good, clean wars, and any brutality, violence and death that occurs in them or as a result of them is always the responsibility of the alien Other. And when our governments are presented with evidence that contradicts these assumptions, they may attribute it to ‘bad apples’, or ‘collateral damage’ or they may try and undermine the organizations that produce such evidence, as the Bush and Blair administrations did with the Lancet Report.
And at other times, they will simply ignore such evidence completely, in the knowledge that if they do, the ‘fourth estate’ will dutifully do the same, and then the public will never know it ever existed.