Monday, July 10, 2006

Asymmetrical Warfare

By Richard Norman

An important article today in the Washington Post discusses the politics of death counts in Iraq. Often left out of the Iraq war debate is the salience of these mortality statistics. Strictly controlling the numbers, of both dead Americans and dead Iraqis, is in the interest of the American military. The official number of American deaths must appear low in order to keep public and military morale high, and the number of Iraqi deaths must be foggy and amorphous for the same reasons. That is why, for example, deaths suffered by American soldiers in non-hostile situations (for example, clearing mines) and deaths suffered en route to Germany after medical evacuation are often not counted on the official Pentagon tally, and why the number of Iraqi deaths—accidental or intentional—is not officially tallied at all.

The question of reparations paid by the military again highlights the asymmetry between American and Iraqi deaths. As Andrew Bacevich writes in the Washington Post:

It's not that we have no regard for Iraqi lives; it's just that we have much less regard for them. The current reparations policy -- the payment offered in those instances in which U.S. forces do own up to killing an Iraq civilian -- makes the point. The insurance payout to the beneficiaries of an American soldier who dies in the line of duty is $400,000, while in the eyes of the U.S. government, a dead Iraqi civilian is reportedly worth up to $2,500 in condolence payments -- about the price of a decent plasma-screen TV.

Such institutional short-shrifting of Iraqi deaths (in addition to, for example, the five separate open murder investigations against American soldiers in Iraq) have done a great deal to encourage the insurgency.

The Iraq War is not (yet) defined by its statistics, but ongoing death counts are vital indications of the war’s degeneration. These tallies should be transparently calculated and publicly disseminated in both the United States and Iraq. Where possible, individual media outlets should maintain their own statistics.

To listen to Mr. Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, interviewed by Lewis Lapham click here.