Playing the Numbers Game with Death in Iraq

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[Note for Tomdispatch readers: In my recent post, George Bush’s War of the Words, while highlighting the virtues of the new Tomdispatch book Mission Unaccomplished, Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters, I wrote about what the Bush administration had done to our language. Now, in this first of a two-parter on our Iraq disaster, I consider how imagery became part of the President’s war to pacify the home front. Let me take this opportunity again to urge all readers who, in the winter evenings to come, would like a little splendid company and freewheeling conversation with eleven of our more provocative thinkers to pick up a copy of the new book and, if you’re in the mood to give this site a special vote of confidence, perhaps an extra copy or two as prospective presents for the holiday season. Tom]

Losing the Home Front (Part 1)
The Bush Administration’s War of the Images
By Tom Engelhardt

Recently, speaking of his war in Iraq, George Bush put the Vietnam analogy back in the public eye. He was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was on the mark in suggesting that what “we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet Offensive.”

The President’s reply: “Mm-hmm. He could be right. There’s certainly a stepped-up level of violence. And we’re heading into an election.”

The nationwide Tet Offensive has, of course, long been seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War, the moment when the American political establishment lost both the media and the American public in its Vietnam venture. That’s what the President is certainly alluding to, though the present chaos in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq hardly qualifies as a “Tet Offensive” and, as the polls indicate, the American public had already been lost to his war.

Nonetheless, for Bush, who (like the rest of his administration) had previously avoided Vietnam-analogy admissions like the plague, it was certainly a sign that he feared the loss of the war he had fought most fiercely since September 12, 2001 — the war to pacify the American public and the media. No administration in memory has devoted more time to thinking out and polishing its language, its signature phrases and images, in the pursuit of that war; so, for instance, the announcement that the President is now “cutting and running” from his own signature phrase “stay the course” — one-half of the linguistic duo (the other being, of course, “cut and run”) on which he and Karl Rove had clearly planned drive the Democrats into retreat in the midterm election period — is no small matter. (White House Press Spokesman Tony Snow: “[Stay the course] left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, well, here’s an administration that’s just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is, when, in fact, it’s just the opposite.”)

If this is, in any sense, a turning-point moment, then it’s important to take another look at aspects of the war on the home front that this administration has fought so relentlessly these last years and is now losing — the first being its image wars in regard to Iraq and the second, the numbers games it’s played when it came to deaths in that country.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

When it finally began to penetrate the Bush administration that things were going badly in Iraq, the imagery came fast and furious on the home front. First there were those “tipping points,” along with the “landmarks of progress,” like the official turning over of sovereignty to the Iraqis in June 2004 or the various elections, especially the purple-finger one of January 2005. The “landmarks” have by now crumbled. “Progress” is a word largely restricted to the hallucinatory world of Dick Cheney, and as for those “tipping points,” it’s not that they’re gone, it’s just that these days they’re all tipping the other way.

Former Bush State Department official Richard Haas, for instance, claimed only the other day that “we are reaching a tipping point both on the ground but also in the political debate in the United States… about Iraq. We are reaching the point… where simply more of essentially the same is going to be a policy that very few people are going to be able to support.” Similarly, Chris Wallace asked Senators John Warner and Joe Biden on Fox News Sunday, “[H]ave we now reached a tipping point in Iraq where President Bush’s open-ended commitment to creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq has to be reconsidered?” (Time Magazine caught the irony of an administration image switching teams this way in a headline: “A Tipping Point for Iraq — Here at Home.”) Gary Samore, Haas’s colleague on the Council on Foreign Relations, tipped the image even further: “We are now way past the tipping point on the ground in Iraq. But it is doubtful there will be any change of course until we see the results of the mid-term elections.”
Think of us, then, as at a blowback tipping point.

For a while, in 2004-2005, administration officials and U.S. military officers also spoke of “turning the corner” in Iraq — an image that edged, however unconsciously, right up to the dark entrance to the Vietnam era’s infamous “tunnel” at whose end, it was always hoped, you would see “the light.” All such imagery was invariably linked to mini-schedules of progress. It was usually said that the next three to six months or even a year, would be crucial in determining whether the tipping point had truly tipped or the corner had actually been turned. But when the allotted time passed — sometimes far earlier — and around each corner proved to be but another armed disaster, all these images wore out their welcome.

Then, in late 2005, the Bush administration suddenly began falling back to new, far more alarming, far less optimistic images (though with the same mini-schedules attached). As panic spread after the blowing up of the Golden Mosque in Samarra last February and an internecine struggle already long underway at a low level suddenly ratcheted up, they began to insist, defensively, that Iraq had not yet reached the point of civil war. And yet they found themselves at, or near, or heading for “the precipice” (or “the brink”) from which you could stare down into the ominous Iraqi “abyss” (or the “chasm”) of full-scale civil war. In those months, if we had indeed reached that precipice and glanced down, we were also reassured that we had “stepped back,” and that time — those same coming months — would only tell whether we had stepped back for good.

Of course, the months passed and it turned out that, if we had stepped back, the Iraqis hadn’t. So, in the spring of 2006, a new administration image arrived on the scene. With the installing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, we had, it was said, a “last chance” in Iraq, a brief window of opportunity — call it six months — to turn things around. Condoleezza Rice’s party, on visiting Baghdad last April to pressure the new prime minister, was caught by a New York Times reporter, making exactly this point. Now, six months later at the brink of our own “tipping point” midterm elections, with the Battle of Baghdad, the “key” to the President’s “victory strategy,” suddenly proclaimed a failure by a U.S. military spokesman in that capital, another fallback position in the endless war of images has been reached.

Journalist John Burns of the New York Times quoted some of those anonymous military men who seem to swarm the corridors of Washington and Green-Zone Baghdad this way: “Senior officers have spoken of the [Baghdad] campaign in ‘make or break’ terms, saying that there would be little hope of prevailing in the wider war if the bid to retake Baghdad’s streets failed.”

So we’re now at the make-or-break moment. Here’s Kenneth Pollack, former CIA official and a leading proponent of toppling Saddam: “My real fear is that we’ve already passed the make-or-break point and just don’t realize it. Historians in five or 10 years may look back and say 2006 was the year we lost Iraq. That’s my nightmare.” Another right-winger, John Hawkins, in urging conservatives not to desert the President on foreign policy, writes: “2007 will be the make or break year in Iraq.”

Given that we’ve been breaking things in Iraq for some years now, this isn’t the first time the image of breaking has arisen. Most famously, even before the 2003 invasion, there was Colin Powell’s warning to the President that came to be known as “the Pottery Barn rule”: “If you break it, you own it.” As it turned out, it wasn’t true — neither of the Pottery Barn, nor of Iraq.

The Bush administration has essentially succeeded in breaking Iraq and yet, as events of recent weeks have shown, to the eternal frustration of its top officials they don’t own any of it except Baghdad’s heavily fortified city-within-a-city, the Green Zone. The rest of Iraq seems to own them and, in the end, may destroy both Rovian dreams of a generation-long Republican lock on American politics and Bushian dreams of dominating the world for at least as long.

In frustration, some influential officials are giving serious thought to officially busting up Iraq. Like ancient Gaul, it is to be divided into three parts. As Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison put it recently, she is willing to “consider the wisdom of somehow breaking up Iraq.” No one, of course, finds it strange here that Hutchison or Senator Biden or any other American official should feel so free to suggest the dividing of Iraq into Kurdistan, Shiastan, and Sunnistan. No one asks whether it’s “ours” to divide. Whatever, as they say. In any case, rest assured that, if breaking Iraq was relatively easy, breaking it up will be, as the old song goes, hard to do.

There oughta be a law, of course. But as long as the Bush administration has no intention of setting a serious date for, or timetable for, departure from Iraq, the shadow war of images will only continue from fallback position to fallback position with no enemy in sight.

The latest administration shuck is to present not itself, but the less than functional Iraqi “government” with a timetable — in the form of a set of “benchmarks” for confronting the militias running rampart in Iraq and deeply embedded in the police. That will, theoretically, offer another few months of delay before the results — already foreordained — officially come in.

In the meantime, it just continues. This Monday, for instance, Michael R. Gordon, author of the bestselling Cobra II, had a front-page piece in the New York Times, “To Stand or Fall in Baghdad.” In it he quotes Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, senior commander of American forces in Baghdad, this way: “It is a decisive period. [The Maliki government] either seize[s] the opportunity or they don’t. If they don’t, then our government is going to have to readjust what we are going to do, and that is not my call.” According to “American commanders,” however, “the viability of the strategy [of focusing military efforts on pacifying Baghdad] could not be properly assessed before the year’s end.” Thus, thanks to yet another bogus mini-schedule, the final testing of administration hopes always stays just beyond reach in the future. And without a genuine change of course, it always will; while the breaking, the burning, the torturing, the looting, the killing go on.

Playing the Numbers Game with the Dead

From the first, the issue of the Iraqi dead has been part and parcel of the Bush administration’s image wars. For a long time (even after they started counting), administration and military officials, along with the President, remained on the page first bookmarked by Centcom Commander Tommy Franks during the early phases of the Afghan War. “We don’t do body counts,” the general said. We officially didn’t do them, any more than we did “body bags” or returned the American dead from Iraq in the light of day on camera. This was all part of the administration’s anti-Vietnam-War approach to Afghanistan and Iraq. We would not make those mistakes again. Instead, we would ensure success on the home front, where Vietnam-era officials were believed to have lost their war, by playing an opposites game.

On December 12, 2005, however, President Bush was faced with a reporter’s question: “Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I’d like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators.”

To the surprise of many, the President responded for the first time with an actual number: “How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.” When asked for the President’s sourcing, Press Spokesman Scott McClellan responded two days later with “media reports which have cited information that suggests that some 30,000 people, Iraqi citizens, may have been killed.”

As it happens, the White House has had something of a predilection for the pleasantly round number of 30,000. In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, in the President’s State of the Union Address, he used that very number for Saddam’s mythical stock of “munitions capable of delivering chemical agents”; and, post-invasion, for police put back on patrol in the streets of Iraq. In 2005, that number was cited both for “new businesses” started in Iraq and new teachers trained since the fall of Baghdad. In 2006, in the President’s “Strategy for Victory,” that was the number of square miles of their country that Iraqi forces were then primarily responsible for patrolling.

Last week, the President was challenged again at his news conference because of a recently published study in the respected British medical journal the Lancet that offered up a staggering set of figures on Iraqi deaths. Based on an actual (and dangerous) door-to-door survey of Iraqi households among a countrywide cohort of almost 13,000 people, the rigorous study estimated that perhaps 655,000 “excess deaths” had occurred in Iraq since the invasion, mainly due to violence. (Its lowest estimate of excess deaths came in just under 400,000; its highest above 900,000, a figure no one in the U.S. cared to deal with at all.)

When asked if, given the Lancet study, he stood by the number he had previously cited of 30,000 Iraqi deaths, the President responded, “You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life — 600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just — it’s not credible.” The reporter answered, “Thank you, Mr. President” and all and sundry turned to other matters.

And yet, such a statement is little short of the darkest of jokes. Start with the fact that, by last December, 30,000 was already a ludicrously low-ball figure for the Iraqi dead of the war, occupation, insurgency, and incipient civil war. Early on, to give but one example of a study completely ignored in the U.S. press, a group of Iraqi academics and political activists tried to research the question of civilian casualties, consulting with hospitals, gravediggers, and morgues, and came up with the figure of 37,000 deaths just between March 2003 and October 2003, when they stopped due to the dangers involved. The cautious website Iraq Body Count, which now offers death statistics ranging from a low of 44,661 to a high of 49,610, was at that time in the 27,000-30,000+ range, but that was only for “media-reported” civilian deaths, not all Iraqi deaths, which, as the U.S. military surely knew, were far higher. An October 2004 Lancet study had estimated over 100,000 excess deaths.

Then, consider that between December 12, 2005 and his news conference last week, even the President has admitted that Iraq has been going through an exceedingly violent period. We know, for instance, that in just July and August, according to a UN report based on counts from the Baghdad central morgue and various hospitals, 5,106 Iraqis died, almost totally by violent means, often torture of the most hideous sort followed by execution on the killing grounds of the 23 or more militias U.S. officials have counted in the capital. For the rest of Iraq add another 1,493 dead souls (while noting that the July count lacks a single death from al-Anbar province, the very heartland of the Sunni insurgency, where assumedly there simply were no officials willing to report them). All over the country, it’s evident that bodies go officially unreported. As the Washington Post’s Ellen Knickmeyer recently pointed out, for example, “Bodies are increasingly being dumped in and around Baghdad in fields staked out by individual Shiite militias and Sunni insurgent groups. Iraqi security forces often refuse to go to the dumping grounds, leaving the precise number of bodies in those sites unknown.”

So for the President to “stand by” his almost year-old figure in the casualty wars — especially after this particular almost-year — while claiming that the Lancet study’s figures weren’t “credible,” is, on the face of it, absurd. It’s hardly less absurd that nothing significant was made of this in the media, that George W. Bush was not called on the carpet for a figure that, even based on his own previous testimony, is close to criminally negligent.

The President said something else striking, while taking up the banner for 30,000 dead Iraqis. He certainly meant it to be the highest compliment he could bestow. “I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence,” he commented at his press conference. “I am amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.”

In fact, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Iraqis “tolerate” levels of violence that would horrify any society. For most Iraqis, life under such conditions is obviously hell on Earth. It’s our President who “tolerates” such levels of violence in the pursuit of his policies, so perhaps he should simply applaud himself.

The fact is that the Lancet figures have largely been avoided because most Americans, including most reporters, can’t entertain the possibility that our country might actually be responsible for a situation in which almost 400,000, or around 655,000, or possibly 900,000+ “excess” Iraqis have died. At the top end of that continuum, you would have to think of the recent wars and serial slaughters in the Congo or the Rwandan genocide. At 655,000, you’re talking about slightly more than the dead of the American Civil War. With the bottom figure, you’re already at well over one hundred times the dead of September 11, 2001, almost seven times the American dead of either the Korean or Vietnam Wars, and over three times the dead of atomized Hiroshima. And let’s keep in mind that any of these figures are purely provisional, since George Bush has over two years to go in office and has sworn not to pull American forces out of Iraq before he departs, even if, according to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, only his wife and dog still back him on the subject.

The Vietnam analogy, never far from American consciousness, has been back in the press recently, but here’s an apt Vietnam quote that seldom seems to rise to memory any more. General William Westmoreland, Commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, offered the following explanation for similarly staggering Vietnamese body counts (an estimated 3 million Vietnamese died in that country’s French and American wars): “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

It’s hard to avoid the thought that a similar attitude toward Iraqi lives and deaths is at work in our government and in the media. After all, the kinds of denatured discussions now taking place about Iraqi deaths would be inconceivable if American deaths were at stake. Just consider, for instance, that the recent discovery of scattered human remains (“some as large as arm or leg bones”) overlooked at Ground Zero in New York City has raised a furor and demands that all construction at the site be halted while it is thoroughly searched. Try to put that sort of concern for the dead back into the Iraqi situation or into perfunctory, daily, inside-the-newspaper passages like:

“In addition, about 50 bodies were collected Sunday around Baghdad, the capital, a figure considered high weeks ago but now routine. An Interior Ministry official said many of the victims had apparently been shot at close range and bore signs of torture.”

How, then, do you even begin to grasp such losses in a war of “liberation” launched by your own country? How do you even begin to imagine such levels of suffering, death, and destruction, or the increasingly chaotic and degraded conditions in which so many Iraqis now live and for which we are certainly responsible?

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.

[Part 2 of “Losing the Home Front,” “Truths of a Lost War” will appear on Thursday.]

Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2006