Sunday, December 16, 2007

Civilian Casualties in Iraq: The Hidden War?

War is hell, right?

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.
How many Americans appreciate this, especially in the time of an all-volunteer Army, and amid the increasing deligitimization of warfare as a tool of statecraft among the antwar left?

These ruminations arise upon reading Michael Massing's,"
Iraq: The Hidden Human Costs," in the current New York Review of Books. Massing focuses on the dark side of our current conflict. He reviews new works on the war, written from what he sees as a richer, more personal perspective than what's been available in most newspapers and books:

As probing and aggressive as the reporting from Iraq has been, it is subject to many filters. There are, for example, "family viewing" standards that make it difficult for journalists to write frankly about such sensitive aspects of military life as the profane language soldiers often use. It's also hard for journalists to get an accurate sense of what soldiers really think. Through embedding, reporters have enjoyed remarkable physical access to the troops, but learning about their true feelings is far more difficult, all the more so since soldiers who speak out too freely can be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Finally, there are limitations imposed by the political climate in which the press works. Images that seem too graphic or unsettling can cause an uproar. When, for instance, The New York Times in January 2007 ran a photo of a US soldier lying mortally wounded on the ground, the paper was angrily accused of showing disrespect for the troops. More generally, the conduct of US soldiers in the field remains a highly sensitive subject. News organizations that show soldiers in a bad light run the risk of being labeled anti-American, unpatriotic, or—worst of all—"against the troops." In July, for instance, when The New Republic ran a column by a private that recounted several instances of bad behavior by US soldiers, he and the magazine were viciously attacked by conservative bloggers. Most Americans simply do not want to know too much about the acts being carried out in their name, and this serves as a powerful deterrent to editors and producers.

Books are less susceptible to such pressure and as a result can be far more pointed. The picture they present is not always bleak. They describe many affecting scenes in which soldiers try to do good, administering first aid, handing out food, arranging for garbage to be picked up. For the most part, the GIs come across as well-meaning Americans who have been set down in an alien environment with inappropriate training, minimal cultural preparation, and no language skills. Surrounded by people who for the most part wish them ill and living with the daily fear of being blown up, they frequently take out their frustrations on the local population. It's in these firsthand accounts that one can find the most searing descriptions of the toll the war has taken on both US troops and the Iraqi people.
Massing's main attention is on two books: One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick, and Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, by Evan Wright.

Here's another passage, focusing on civilian casualties in the war:

Taken together, Fick and Wright provide a chilling account of what it was like to be in Baghdad as the city descended into anarchy. A stream of terrified and desperate Iraqis shows up at a cigarette factory the Marines are occupying, begging them to put an end to the looting, but the soldiers feel powerless. At night, the gunfire in the streets becomes so fierce that they don't dare venture out. By this point, Fick has learned that the seemingly reckless way in which his men had been deployed was actually part of a bold Marine plan to attract the fire of Iraqis and distract them from the main invasion force thrusting into Iraq much farther to the west. The plan succeeded, but this seems of little consolation in light of the lawlessness sweeping Baghdad. Fick, Wright observes, "appears to have lost his belief in his mission here." The cause is not so much the disorder itself as his realization that the Americans have no real plan to remedy it.

As Wright's time with the platoon nears an end, he looks back on all that he has seen:
In the past six weeks, I have been on hand while this comparatively small unit of Marines has killed quite a few people. I personally saw three civilians shot, one of them fatally with a bullet in the eye. These were just the tip of the iceberg. The Marines killed dozens, if not hundreds, in combat through direct fire and through repeated, at times almost indiscriminate, artillery strikes. And no one will probably ever know how many died from the approximately 30,000 pounds of bombs First Recon ordered dropped from aircraft.
Wright leaves it at that. By this point in his book, the death of civilians has emerged as a major theme, and I was sorry he didn't discuss the matter further. To learn more, I contacted Marc Garlasco, the senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. (During the invasion, he worked at the Pentagon, recommending targets for air strikes.) Garlasco told me that, according to the most widely accepted estimates, 10,000 civilians at a minimum were killed during the invasion, the large majority victims of the coalition. Few Americans seem aware of this number.

Wright did elaborate on this in an interview he gave soon after his book appeared. "For the past decade," he said,

we've been steeped in the lore of The Greatest Generation, the title of Tom Brokaw's book about the men who fought World War II, and a lot of people have developed this romanticism about that war. They tend to remember it from the Life magazine images of the sailor coming home and kissing his fiancée. They've forgotten that war is about killing. I really think it's important as a society to be reminded of this, because you now have a generation of baby boomers, a lot of whom didn't serve in Viet Nam. Many of them protested it. But now they're grown up, and as they've gotten older I think many of them have grown tired of the ambiguities and the lack of moral clarity of Viet Nam, and they've started to cling to this myth of World War II, the good war.

I never read Tom Brokaw's book, but if you go back and look at the actual greatest generation writers, people like Kurt Vonnegut—who wrote Slaughterhouse Five—and Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and their contemporaries, who actually fought in World War II and wrote about it, there's no romance at all. In fact, a lot of their work is very anti-war.
His book, Wright added, "goes into how soldiers kill civilians, they wound civilians." In Iraq, the shooting of civilians

was justified in the sense that there were some civilian buses that had Fedayeen fighters in them.... But when you see a little girl in pretty clothes that someone dressed her in, and she's smushed on the road with her legs cut off, you don't think, well you know there were Fedayeen nearby and this is collateral damage.
Overall, Wright said, "the problem with American society is we don't really understand what war is." The view Americans get "is too sanitized."
Just how sanitized is the American view of the war? Notice Massing's theme, that the American public is shielded from Iraq's brutality.

Certainly the public cannot fathom the fog of war, the blood and guts, the true human toll, on all sides, and obviously, the real grunt's eye-view of combat isn't appropriate for family-hour television viewing.

I don't think, however, that the public is systematically deprived of coverage of the war's horrors. Indeed, one could argue the opposite, that the American media has been obssessed with civilian deaths in its war reporting, and on
the alleged atrocities committed by American service-personnel.

I'm reminded here
some recent scholarship on civilian casualties in Iraq by Colin Kahl, who writes:

Based on field research and an extensive review of primary and secondary materials, I contend that the U.S. military has done a better job of respecting noncombatant immunity in Iraq than is commonly thought. Moreover, compliance has improved over time as the military has adjusted its behavior in response to real and perceived violations of the norm. This behavior is best explained by the internalization of noncombatant immunity within the U.S. military’s organizational culture, especially since the Vietnam War. Contemporary U.S. military culture is characterized by what I call the “annihilationrestraint paradox”: a commitment to the use of overwhelming but lawful force. The restraint portion explains relatively high levels of U.S. compliance with noncombatant immunity in Iraq, while the tension between annihilation and restraint helps account for instances of noncompliance and the overall level of Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from U.S. operations—which, although low by historical standards, have still probably been higher than was militarily necessary, desirable, or inevitable.
Kahl's research is scrupulously non-partisan, and in personal communications with me he wrote this:
...although the number of casualties caused by the *direct* action of U.S. is relatively low by historical standards, we should not trivialize the fact that 8,000-15,000 Iraqis have still died at their hands, and the failure of the U.S. to plan, prepare, and execute a strategy to bring stability to Iraq in the aftermath of regime change contributed to the anarchy and chaos that has claimed perhaps as many as 100,000 additional lives.
I think this is probably a more productive way to look at the problem of civilian casualties.

There are costs in war and conflict, military and civilian. But it's important to put things in context. While it's true to some extent that, "Most Americans simply do not want to know too much about the acts being carried out in their name," it's also probably true that Americans don't like to watch sausage being made. People still eat sausage, of course. Just as there's balance in diet, there should be a balance in how we perceive the costs and benefits of this nation's wars.

Articles like Massing's - and the books he reviews - can help us appreciate the human toll in war. Still, the literary project covered in this article is interested in much more than fostering fuller appreciation of battle. Left-wing journalistic attention to the purported "hidden human costs of war" is part of the broader deligitmization campaign to demonize the use of American military power.