“On the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear, and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realizes for the first time in how many places a man can get hit.” The passage is from Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Paul Bäumer, the hero, also reflects about death: “We have almost grown accustomed to it; war is a cause of death like cancer and tuberculosis, like influenza and dysentery. The deaths are merely more frequent, more varied and terrible.”
In the United States, the dead and wounded of the Iraq war haven’t been so fortunate as to be grown accustomed to. They’ve been ignored. Chalked up to an abstraction indistinguishable from the kind of “dead” Americans see on their nightly television shows and in Shwartzenegger movies. “In any given period during prime time viewing hours,” the Boston Globe once reported, “there are at least 50 people killed, shot, maimed, or raped across the spectrum of broadcast and cable television channels.” The dead and wounded of the Iraq war are barely visible because they can’t compete with the numbers in prime time—neither in factual numbers nor in dramatic effect. Prime time’s dead are more interesting. They’re simple. They usually have no names, make no emotional demands, and they’re excellent props for plots that use them as means to obvious ends: within forty-eight minutes—if it’s an hour-long drama and the ads for vaginal lubricants and other orificial commodities are excluded—“justice” has been done, the dead have been avenged, usually by killing those who killed them, and wisecracks have been exchanged all around. The credits, as they roll, are as meaningless as the names on a war memorial. The 11 o’clock news, local as it is, won’t even mention the real dead in those real war zones far, far away.
When an American soldier dies his story is written up in his hometown paper, powerfully enough usually, but the story’s effect is limited to that newspaper’s readership zone. There is no totality in the reporting of war casualties, no sense that one soldier’s death, no matter where from, affects the whole nation. A town in Montana will ache for a lost son by itself, as if it alone is experiencing loss. What mourning and suffering does take place is solitary because inherently isolated. Existentialism at its bitterest, though don’t expect our information society ever to touch on the subject more than gingerly. It’s an aspect of that sickness of compulsive “localism” in American journalism: if it’s not local, it’s not relevant. If twelve Americans from other states are killed in a single day, your state, should it have been spared, will not care. Newsy attention will rather be focused on Nancy Grace and Larry King, who’ll be busy exploring the depths and breadth of the latest mystery disappearance of the white model with 38-C tits and a million-dollar estate. So news of the dead is forcibly diffused, its impact lessened to the point of irrelevance beyond that daily listing printed in a few newspapers.
The disconnect is a huge benefit to the government, to this government in particular, to whom hiding the dead is official policy, and to this president in particular, who has never showed up at a single soldier’s funeral, and who doesn’t know the difference between a casualty and a cliché: Brit Hume of the Fox-Bush Network once asked him this question: “When things go badly, as many people would feel they have been in Iraq with the continuing casualties and struggles and difficulties, do you ever doubt?” Bush’s reply: “I don't think they’re going badly. I mean, obviously I think they’re going badly for the soldiers who lost their lives, and I weep for that person and their family. But no, I think we’re making good progress. As I said I pray for calmness when the seas are storming, and I—you know, my faith is an integral part of being who I am, and I’m not going to change.” Obviously not: The exchange dates back to September 22, 2003. Notice that Iraqi civilian casualties didn’t register with the president’s concerns—not then, not now. Asked about the recent estimate placing Iraqi deaths at 650,000 since 2003, Bush’s reply was: “600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just—it’s not credible.”
It’s not as if men with the intellectual capacity to address the matter more intelligently do better. To the contrary. They flex the same kind of contemptuous brawn by other means: “Certainly while we were losing relatively small numbers of soldiers early on, I think that was a huge shock,” Max Boot, the columnist and Council on Foreign Relations grunt, tells Reuters this week. “But now that it’s kind of accumulated it doesn’t have as much of a shock value. This is reminiscent of Stalin’s phrase about how ‘one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.’ There’s some truth to that.” There’s truth to it only if the likes of Boot reinforce the likes of Stalin. And the likes of Boot have been stomping that “truth” into the American way of reporting since the beginning of the war, going as far as making such absurd comparisons between the “low” number of American casualties in this war and those in previous wars. They have the numbers on their side. So far in Iraq, 3,026 “allied” soldiers have been killed, 2,788 of them American. At Antietam on September 17, 1862, 6,500 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed in a single day. At Shiloh, 24,000 in two days. On D-Day in Normandy 1,465 Americans were killed and 3,184 wounded. In the Battle of the Somme, at least 21,000 men died in the first hour of the first day, and 60,000 by the end of that first day. Then there are the ghastly bombings of World War II— Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But the relativists usually prefer not to mention those because they’re almost entirely civilian casualties.
If even military deaths have essentially been cleansed of their meaning, dehumanized, purposefully and systematically, how are civilian deaths to matter at all? Yet the true devastation of the Iraq war has little to do with soldiers, if we’re into comparing numbers. It’s about the civilians. Right-wingers can’t downplay the number of military casualties in comparison with other wars and ignore the number of civilian casualties, regardless of how those numbers are interpreted—unless they consider an Iraqi civilian death less valuable than an American military death. The open secret here is that they do, and Boot-fetished right-wingers alone aren’t to blame for this. Just look at the way the media report on casualties in general. If American soldiers barely register as numbers, Iraqis don’t register at all. They don’t count. When they are counted, they’re scabrously discounted, as has been the case since that study was published, showing possibly 650,000 Iraqi deaths since 2003. The debate over the study shows up the disconnect of the American public and media over the devastation of the war better than anything to date. No matter how much you downgrade the number, even if it’s cut in half, it still amounts to more deaths in three years, as a result of the American intervention, than all the killings of the Saddam Hussein regime in a quarter century—and all the killings at Hiroshima, Hamburg, Tokyo and Dresden combined. It’s still more than all the American dead of World War I and II combined. It’s still more than all the American dead, northerner or southerner, of the Civil War, and by far more than all the American dead, soldier and civilian, in all wars involving Americans since World War II, combined. (See for yourself.)
But if we care so little about American casualties, we can’t very well be expected to care at all about Iraqi casualties. They’re means to an end, like those 50 prime-time deaths every night. As President Bush said on January 26, 2005, when he was told of a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 31 Americans that day: “Obviously, any time we lose lives it’s a sad moment …And listen, the story today is going to be very discouraging to the American people. I understand that. We value life. And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life. And—but it is the long-term objective that is vital, and that is to spread freedom.”
In other words, don’t Iraqis dare stand in the way. They’ve never mattered in this war—not in 2003, not in 2005, not today. They have only one admissible role. They’re décor to the American way of gore, fillers for the new mass graves.