Evidence is mounting that America's war in Iraq has killed tens of thousands of civilian Iraqis, and perhaps well over 100 thousand. Yet this carnage is systematically ignored in the US, where the media and government portray a war in which there are no civilian deaths, because there are no Iraqi civilians, only insurgents.?
American behavior and self-perceptions reveal the ease with which a civilized country can engage in large-scale killing of civilians without public discussion. In late October, the British medical journal Lancet published a study of civilian deaths in Iraq since the US-led invasion began. The sample survey documented an extra 100,000 civilian deaths compared to the death rate in the preceding year, when former president Saddam Hussein was still in power -- and this estimate did not even count excess deaths in Falluja, which was deemed too dangerous to include.
The study also noted that the majority of deaths resulted from violence, and that a high proportion of the violent deaths were due to US aerial bombing. The epidemiologists acknowledged the uncertainties of these estimates, but presented enough data to warrant an urgent follow-up investigation and reconsideration by the Bush administration and the US military of aerial bombing of Iraq's urban areas.
America's public reaction has been as remarkable as the Lancet study, for the reaction has been no reaction. The vaunted New York Times ran a single story of 770 words on page 8 of the paper (Oct. 29). The Times reporter apparently did not interview a single Bush administration or US military official. No follow-up stories or editorials appeared, and no New York Times reporters assessed the story on the ground. Coverage in other US papers was similarly frivolous. The Washington Post (Oct. 29) carried a single 758-word story on page 16.
Recent reporting on the bombing of Falluja has also been an exercise in self-denial. The New York Times (Nov. 6) wrote that "warplanes pounded rebel positions" in Falluja, without noting that "rebel positions" are actually in civilian neighborhoods. Another New York Times story (Nov. 12), citing "military officials," dutifully reported that, "Since the assault began on Monday, about 600 rebels have been killed, along with 18 American and 5 Iraqi soldiers." The issue of civilian deaths was not even raised.
Violence is only one reason for the increase in civilian deaths in Iraq. Children in urban war zones die in vast numbers from diarrhea, respiratory infections, and other causes, owing to unsafe drinking water, lack of refrigerated foods, and acute shortages of blood and basic medicines at clinics and hospitals (that is, if civilians even dare to leave their houses for medical care). Yet the Red Crescent and other relief agencies have been unable to relieve Falluja's civilian population.
On Nov. 14, the front page of The New York Times led with the following description: "Army tanks and fighting vehicles blasted their way into the last main rebel stronghold in Falluja at sundown on Saturday after American warplanes and artillery prepared the way with a savage barrage on the district. Earlier in the afternoon, 10 separate plumes of smoke rose from Southern Falluja, as it etched against the desert sky, and probably exclaimed catastrophe for the insurgents."